DO you think you could stop telling me what great sessions Norman Davies, Willie Dalrymple and Allan Massie have done?” I was amazed. Walking down Melrose High Street in June 2004 to do the last session of the first Borders Book Festival, Melvyn Bragg was nervous.
“What sort of an audience do you get in Melrose?” he asked. Pink, mostly, I replied. Most of the ladies d’un certain age in the front row of the tiny Wynd Theatre seemed to be wearing fuschia pink. Melvyn gave me a very Cumbrian look – and did a virtuoso session.
That was how it all started. Ten years ago I invited four authors to come to Melrose. They packed the theatre but the 220 who attended had mushroomed to more than 13,000 by 2012. We have moved to Harmony Garden with the help and sponsorship of the excellent National Trust for Scotland and now put up marquees for 70 author events.
At the first festival Paula Ogilvie was unimpressed, in a Dundonian sort of a way. She looked at the stage and said it needed pot plants. Sculptural pot plants, apparently. And so she went across the High Street to Ormiston and Renwick and borrowed a few. Not buy, borrow. And they had to be returned undamaged the following morning, before 9am. That was the real start of things. While I have spent ten lovely years swanning around (linen suits were purchased, mud notwithstanding) being allegedly creative, coming up with daft ideas and twisting every famous arm I could, Paula has made order out of potential chaos, bashing the whole jing-bang into a purring, beautifully run festival.
We decided to do it again in 2005, it was such a lot of fun, and I persuaded Michael Palin to come. My letter made him laugh out loud, especially the bit about the £150 fee. That meant we needed a big space and since we knew the Melrose Festival put up a marquee for their annual ball, we asked if we could use it the night before. Tom Conti had published a novel and made the marquee rock with his tales from a long career. To a hushed audience, Ian Rankin read out the opening of the new Rebus and Sheila Hancock talked about her book about life with John Thaw. Dressed in a beautiful long grey frock with a split up one side, she put the audience and herself at ease by sitting down onstage and asking the blokes in the front row if they could see her knickers. It was a spellbinding session, one where I learned a golden rule. Sheila talked so movingly you could have heard a pin drop. It was as though the interview was taking place in a gossamer bubble. And then like a fool, I burst it by asking for audience questions.
By 2006 we were growing – but too fast. And when it looked like we might go bust, our wonderful chairman, Francis Hamilton, stepped in to help. Phew. But it was that year I saw the most memorable image of all. Outside Marmion’s Bistro, one of the hubs of the festival, there were musicians playing. On the other side of the street a crocodile of wee primary schoolkids were walking along, and when the fiddler struck up, they began to dance along the pavement. Wonderful.
I met Rory Bremner way back in 1981 when he was a nervous young actor with a London University theatre group at the Festival Fringe in Edinburgh. I knew he had married a Hawick woman, sensible man, and through her family got in touch. Ever since 2006, he has been a stalwart, delighting his audiences with gags about Melrose and the Borders.
But more than that, he has opened his contacts to us and persuaded Victoria Wood, Michael Parkinson and David Frost to come. The marquees at Harmony have rocked with laughter and wonder. Jim and Ellie Naughtie also came in 2006 and again have been endlessly patient with my wheedling after well-known names. And like Rory, both have graced the boards with their own events. Jim’s annual report was scintillating in 2010 as he recounted how the players before, during and after the 2010 election came in and out of the Today studio.
The winter of 2009/10 was hard in the Borders and we had snowdrifts piling up on our track. But between Christmas and New Year, I had a vital meeting at Bowhill with the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch. I had written with another allegedly creative idea. How about a literary prize for historical fiction to be named after Walter Scott? They were interested. But then the snow came. I got my bronchitic old Range Rover started but the low temperatures were doing odd things with the electronics. I slid up the drive to Bowhill and parked. And as Richard and Bizza Buccleuch came out to meet me – the bloody car locked itself. And stuck. I couldn’t get out. We waved at each other. They wondered what this grinning lunatic was doing. And I crawled over the back seats and opened the tailgate. Like it was something that occasionally happened with old cars like these. Possibly. To my astonishment, the Buccleuchs agreed to sponsor the prize and it has added great lustre not only to the Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival but also to literature in Britain. And the involvement of Bowhill in the festival adds much sparkle.
Kirsty Wark, Sally Magnusson, John Sessions and Viv French have joined Rory, Jim and Ellie as our annual guests and great helpers. They contact people for us, do interviews and are generally wonderful. I owe them all a personal debt. I used to do between 12 and 14 interviews each festival and was generally knackered by the end. Now, I have the best in Britain, and can risk a glass of something on the lawn at Harmony. Great.
Glasses are usually raised at the legendary Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival wrap party on the Sunday night. Accompanied by Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, Bill Paterson, Jim Naughtie and I sang Hamish Henderson anthems one year (I can’t sing and so Aly played really close to me). Barbara Dickson sang ballads from the north-east one year. All unforgettable.
For me there is nowhere like Harmony Garden in the middle weekend in June. I love the atmosphere, the fellowship and all the fun. It is a truckload of work for everyone, but I knew it would work almost from the beginning. After Michael Palin’s event in 2005, I began to stack the chairs as the crowd was leaving. Some of them turned around, hailed the people outside, and they all came back to help me. That’s the Borders and that’s why we do it. Roll on next weekend.
• The Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival, 13-16 June, www.bordersbookfestival.org