‘It’s like Glastonbury, but with librarians’

The Hairy Bikers got stuck into some locally-produced Borders food ... ice creams from Overlangshaw Farm.
The Hairy Bikers got stuck into some locally-produced Borders food ... ice creams from Overlangshaw Farm.

The Borders Book Festival has once again beaten all previous records despite some unseasonal stormy weather, with ticket sales up 15.5% on the previous year.

Once again, festival director Alastair Moffat and his team managed to pull together a fantastic four days of literary brilliance.

But it was four days that were not without their share of trials. The strong winds left over from Hurricane Frank forced a temporary closure on Thursday morning, which meant the annual kids’ event had to be cancelled.

However, by the time cookery legends the Hairy Bikers and Bake Off judge Prue Leith rolled into town, the storm had calmed.

The bikers – Si King and Dave Myers – described the book festival, based in the ground of harmony House in Melrose, as “just like Glastonbury, but with librarians.”

It’s certainly not as big or wild as Glastonbury, but therein lies its true secret.

Mr Moffat said: “After every festival, I sit down with [fellow director] Paula Ogilvie and we say ‘Wow, how are we going to beat that?’

“It certainly is popular enough to make it bigger, with the likes of the Hairy Bikers, Gordon Brown, Ian Rankin, Rory Bremner, Robert Peston, Neil Oliver, Mark Beaumont and Chris Bonnington packing out the marquees until they are almost bursting at the seams.

“But we have decided to keep it to the four days ... it provides that particularly special buzz in the garden, and we don’t want to lose that side of it.

“And whatever it is we do, it seems to work. We sold 14,582 tickets in all, 15.5% more than 2017, which was itself a record-breaking year.

“And this year we had the undoubtedly the worst weather we have ever had, but with a total of 28,000 people coming through the gates, it shows the weather is not the deciding factor.

“We always aim to improve the quality, however.”

Mr Moffat said one of his personal highlights was impressionist Jan Ravens providing the safety message before her show with festival patron Rory Bremner, in the style of Prime Minister Theresa May: “Exit means exit!”.

Mr Moffat said that if the Book Festival was not a truly international event before, it certainly was now, following a decision made by the Post Office to mark author Benjamin Myers’ win in the Sir Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in all their postmarks in the coming week ... which will see 30million letters and parcels celebrating the festival.

Judges, including journalists James Naughtie, Kirsty Wark and Kate Figes, and writers Katharine Grant and Elizabeth Laird, decided Myers should receive the £25,000 award for his novel The Gallows Pole, based on the true story of the Cragg Vale Coiners – who forged gold coins in the 18th century in Yorkshire – a piece of work Mr Moffat described as a “roaring furnace of a novel”.

The presentation was made by last year’s winner Sebastian Barry on Saturday.

The authors of the other shortlisted books – Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach; Jane Harris’ Sugar Money; Paul Lynch’s Grace; Patrick McGrath’s The Wardrobe Mistress and Rachel Malik’s Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves – all received £1,000 each.

Winner Mr Myers said: “It’s been quite a surreal and exciting four days, living at Bowhill House as a guest of the duke.

“I didn’t even expect to make the longlist. I thought making the shortlist would be like winning, so to actually win it is immense.

“I’m a freelance journalist, so the prize money for me is around three years’ pay, so this will give me time to focus on my writing.”

Mr Myers revealed he had written a lot of The Gallows Pole in the Borders, while staying at a friend’s house in Longformacus.

Ventriloquist Nina Conti provided a riotous ending to the weekend, leaving a cow farmer, a landowner’s wife and a sheepish-looking estate agent wondering why they chose seats at the front.