Staying aboard the runaway train

IT'S going to be the biggest Borders Book Festival ever with 5,000 people expected in Melrose over the weekend.

Conversely, fewer author events are attracting even more people – and, for those of us who have yet to buy a ticket, amazingly, there are still some available!

Director Alistair Moffat spoke to TheSouthern earlier this week as marquees were being set up in the festival's new home, the gardens of Harmony House.

"I'm wandering around thinking there must be a crisis somewhere, if only I can discover it!" he joked.

"It's terrific. Harmony is such a beautiful, beautiful place: we are so set up. We are very pleased the National Trust have given us such terrific rein here."

Festival-goers will find a 430- seater marquee in the gardens, along with other smaller tents, including an activities one for children. In between events, there will be music from folk/classical quartet Waxwing, led by Kelso's Laura Grime.

By Monday, more than 4,700 tickets had been sold, with 100 going that morning alone. At 27, there are five fewer festival events this year than last – but even more people keen to be part of the celebrations.

Alistair said: "You would think if there were still tickets left there was something wrong. Not at all: it's because we can seat 430 – and we've sold 350 for most events.

"It's such a straightforward thing: bring world-class names and people will flock to see them.

"The truth is: this festival is a runaway train and all we are doing is staying aboard!"

The publicity-shy Bernard Cornwell is flying into Scotland from the States just for the festival.

Alistair said: "He was leaving Cape Cod on Monday and will be back by next Monday. He's only coming to Melrose. The Scotsman did a phone interview with him on Saturday and asked him: 'You've sold 20 million copies of your books, you've written 40 novels in 25 years and you don't like publicity ... Why Melrose?' He said: 'Because I know the man who runs it'... I haven't seen Bernard for 10 years – it will be fantastic."

But the stellar quality of writers attracted is not only through Alistair, his friends and contacts and his own highly successful career as a writer, producer, STV director and former director of Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Some of it is now down to the success of the young festival itself (which, is, well, another of Alistair's projects!)

Alistair said: "I'm really pleased about us being second in popularity to the Edinburgh Book Festival in only three years. I read 'Helen of Troy', a wonderful history by Bettany Hughes, so I phoned her up and asked her to come to the festival – and she said 'OK'. I've never met her before. It's wonderful."

Tomorrow is the schools gala day at the festival when Melrose – and, the director believes, the rest of the Borders – will echo to the sound of happy children!

Alistair said: "There are 1,600 primary school kids coming – the racket will be unbelievable!"

This year's festival opens tonight and celebrates established writers, welcomes new ones with Sunday's New Novelists' Event, encourages more new ones with the 'You Can Write!' workshop – also on Sunday – and hopefully encourages new generations of readers and writers, with events such as tomorrow's gala day and the children's festival itself which runs alongside the main events.

Alistair said: "This festival is not an exclusive club, you can get in. Harmony is the place to be this weekend. It's all happening out here. If you find yourself staying in your house on Friday night watching the telly, you are in the wrong place!"

Ticket hotline 0870 608 0404 and more information at www.bordersbookfestival.org