Books: Absolutely fabulous 10th anniversary treat at Melrose

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Let’s give Sir Walter Scott the benefit of the doubt: perhaps the best way to see Melrose is indeed by moonlight, alone and at midnight, and that there really isn’t as sad or fair a sight as the ruined abbey’s central tower “in the cold light’s uncertain shower”.

Second best? Try last Saturday afternoon. And instead of looking at the abbey’s ruins towering above the walls of Harmony House, watch the crowd pouring into the Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival to hear Scott’s lines from The Lay of the Last Minstrel. And I do mean crowd: the queue for the sold-out main tent event stretched back 200 yards, and all to hear four actors recite a (rather wonderful) 90-minute version of a 208-year-old poem.

It helped that one of them was Joanna Lumley (inset), “a secular goddess” as festival founder and director Alistair Moffat introduced her in her own event – for many the highlight of his tenth festival – later on. She didn’t disappoint. She was sharp, witty, bright and beautiful, a superlative mimic and teller of anecdotes – from swimming with Ava Gardner in Peebles Hydro, to telling John Frieda and Nicky Clarke to crop her hair right back into the short bob that everyone would soon call a Purdey, to taking on the government and winning for retired Gurkha soldiers the right to settle in Britain.

She was – is – magnificent. Whether making small talk with strangers before the event (visiting the smaller tents to which the event was streamed was a nice touch) or self-deprecatingly discussing her career, it was impossible not to warm to her. Despite that hushed, luxurious RP voice, it turns out that she is three-quarters Scottish, with one ancestor who wrote the music for The Flowers of the Forest and another who was a close relative of Sir Walter Scott. “I love you to shreds,” she said at the end of her event – an absolutely actressy thing to say – but if pressed, even a resolutely unthespian Borders audience would have had to admit, quietly and self-disbelievingly, that they loved her to shreds too.

Was that enough to make her the undisputed star of the tenth festival? In that case what about Phyllida Law in the preceding event? Once again, one has to reach for superlatives: Sally Magnusson’s interview with her with her was one of the best I’ve heard. The only possible disappointment is one common to most book festivals – that only the 500 people packed into the main tent heard it: if it had been on TV, Law would have woken up the next day to find she too had acquired national treasure status by universal acclaim, like Billy Connolly after that his first Parkinson show. Law’s book is about caring for her mother as she struggled with dementia: hardly a funny subject, as Magnusson knows, having had a similar experience herself. Yet she made it so, taking her entire audience with her as only a great actress can, on an exploration of how love can light up even the darkest edges of life.

Other star contenders? There’s almost too many. William Dalrymple talking about Britain’s first Afghan war with his customary panache. Hilary Mantel, finally making it to Melrose after having had to cancel twice due to illness, but giving the kind of interview that reveals precisely why many critics hail her as the greatest living writer of English prose. Tan Twan Eng, who beat Mantel to this year’s Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, joining Pat Barker and Anthony Quinn – both shortlisted for the prize – in a fascinating discussion of historical fiction.

Any of these writers could be the reason this year’s festival was such an indubitable success – as indeed of course, could its director, Alistair Moffat, who brought them there in the first place (and on his birthday too).

But for me, one writer deserves even more credit. I caught a glimpse of him alone at a signing, and I am kicking myself for not going over right there and then and asking him to sign a copy of the new edition of The Lay of the Last Minstrel for which he had written the introduction.

Because without him, Joanna Lumley wouldn’t have graced this festival. Without him and his wife, there would be no £25,000 Sir Walter Scott Prize, maybe not such starry historical novelists as Mantel, Barker and Eng (all of whom were his guests at Bowhill), and without him one wonders whether Abbotsford would be reopening on 4 July after its £11 million refurbishment.

These days, it is deeply unfashionable to praise dukes, but on behalf of his kinsman Sir Walter Scott, Richard Buccleuch is busy working 
miracles.

DAVID ROBINSON