Stars help book fest make a splash

Sir David Frost arrives at the Borders Book Festival 2012 in advance of his talk hosted by Rory Bremner. Taken 15th June 2012''Harmony House in Melrose, The Scottish Borders''pictures by Lloyd Smith/Writer Pictures
Sir David Frost arrives at the Borders Book Festival 2012 in advance of his talk hosted by Rory Bremner. Taken 15th June 2012''Harmony House in Melrose, The Scottish Borders''pictures by Lloyd Smith/Writer Pictures

BOOK lovers and celebrity watchers squelched their way across lawns that had become quagmires to flit between venues in the gardens of Harmony House, Melrose, over the weekend.

But while the casual ambience of the ninth annual Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival was inevitably impaired by, if not entirely sacrificed to, the elements, the enjoyment of audiences appeared undiminished.

“This is Scotland, after all,” reflected festival director and founder Alistair Moffat after the actor and comedian John Sessions had hilariously brought the curtain down on the four-day extravaganza on a cloud-laden Sunday evening.

The weather had been similarly unpromising on Thursday as the festival kicked off with a series of eclectic sessions – from Scotland’s Makar Liz Lochhead and foodie Prue Leith to BGH radioligist John Reid and war reporter Charles Glass whose scepticism about western involvement in the Middle East, and strife-torn Syria in particular, was patent.

Between times, the rain-lashed site played host to a star-studded bill, including, among others, Sir David Frost (urbane and relaxed), Jeremy Vine (side-splittingly funny), Kathy Lette (acerbic and twinkly-eyed) and Andy McNab (scary).

Another of the A-listers, the actor Art Malik, whose Sunday session with co-star Susan Wooldridge about the television series The Jewel in the Crown was a sell-out, told us: “I’ve honestly never been to anything like this before and it’s been truly wonderful. It’s all so warm and friendly and the setting is just stunning.”

That was welcome, if familiar, music to the ears of Mr Moffat and his team.

“Yes, our guests do enjoy coming here and I think that’s because audiences are so clued up. None of our stars ever think of the Borders as a backwater, which it is emphatically not.”

Enduring features were the carefully judged interviews conducted by festival patrons Rory Bremner and James Naughtie, with the latter’s solo show, The New Elizabethans, a timely and brilliantly constructed highlight.

And set to become a standing dish at the festival is Melrose Mastermind, hosted by Sally Magnusson, which tested the knowledge of Bremner, Sessions, Lette and broadcaster/journalist Kirsty Wark on Saturday.

The towering intellect of Sessions reigned supreme with Wark left rueing her belief that it was the heart of John of Gaunt, rather than Robert the Bruce, which was buried at nearby Melrose Abbey. “I’ll never live this down,” she wryly observed.

Elsewhere, audiences turned out in droves for appearances by William Boyd, Ian Rankin and Iain Banks, the last named being forced to reschedule his show from Thursday to Sunday due to illness.

Other hot tickets included former Chancellor Alistair Darling, with a candid assessment of the Eurozone crisis and Tam Dalyell with a droll take on his 43 years as an MP.

A notable absentee, however, was Hilary Mantel who had been due to present the Walter Scott Prize for Historic Fiction, which she won two years ago, on Saturday afternoon and to host her own session in the evening.

“Hilary was extremely sorry to miss out because she is unwell,” said Mr Moffat who said that those who had bought tickets for her show would be offered a refund or membership of the Friends of the BBF, worth £30.

In the event, the Duke of Buccleuch, who sponsors the fifth most lucrative literary prize in the UK, did the honours, awarding the £25,000 cheque to Irish author Sebastian Barry for his epic and intimate novel On Canaan’s Side.

Choosing from what they described as “the strongest and closest shortlist so far”, the judges acknowledged “wonderful writing, which, as Walter Scott did in his time, shifts perception on a period in history”.

“I’m uncharacteristically speechless,” said Barry. “I really was not expecting to win – just look at the other authors on the shortlist.

“My first encounter with Scott was unlocking a trunk in my grandfather’s attic which contained the Waverley novels. I felt as if I was excavating a tomb. I think that is an appropriate way to encounter a writer, as if you were literally retrieving him from the damp and history of your grandfather’s life.”

Mr Moffat said special events relating to Scott would take place at next year’s festival to mark the completion of the £15million revamp of the writer’s home at Abbotsford.

“I’ve just checked with the box office and we managed to sell 13,115 tickets for the 60 events over the weekend which is up 600 on last year,” he told us.

“It’s a fantastic achievement and a huge tribute not only to our guest writers and sponsors, but also to everyone behind the scenes who works so tirelessly.”