Gordon Brown is telling jokes. There’s the one about Einstein’s chauffeur making a speech on his behalf. The one about the Scottish-English quiz team match. The one about what Denis Law said to Frank Haffney. The one about…
You had to be there, in the big tent at Borders Book Festival last Saturday. No, you did. Because strolling confidently across the stage, speaking passionately and eloquently, was an altogether different Gordon Brown from the one you’d remember from his years in power. The weight of the world off his shoulders, he was a man transformed. If he could have been like that in office, he’d have been weighing up strategy for his third term and 18 September would be just another day.
Ah yes, that. That’s what he was there for, in that packed tent at the Borders Book Festival, trying to reboot the No campaign, trying to show that interdependence had more going for it than independence ever would, that the four home nations have created something that no other group of nations has ever done, and we should at least think about that before we vote to scrap it.
The old basis of Britishness – wars and religion – was dead. It had bound us together, but it wasn’t what mattered. For that, Brown said, you had to turn to the unique pooling of risks and resources that the four home nations had put together over the last century. This newer union has strong Scottish roots, from the Fife miners in the 1920s who pushed for the UK to pay an unemployment allowance rather than relying on the 300-year-old Scottish poor law, to Tom Johnson leading the way in pushing for a UK-wide free health service rather than relying on local charity-funded hospitals.
Brown was at Melrose to launch his new book My Scotland, Our Britain. It’s a thoughtful, considered work, and its chapters on social justice could well win back a number of Labour waverers flirting with independence. Precisely because it allows so much room for change, it is undoubtedly the strongest defence yet of the No position.
Brown’s event epitomised why book festivals still work in a digital age. In an age of prepared soundbites and polished studio presentation, they give us something more primal, that doesn’t work when digitised or recorded but has everything to do with immediacy and the one-off, unpredictable contact between a writer and an audience.
Often, as with Brown, the writer turns out be the opposite of what you were expecting. At Melrose Paddy Ashdown was actually a brilliant, self-deprecating storyteller, Jennifer Saunders far droller than I had imagined and Robert Harris, winner of this year’s Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, turned out to be both genuinely humbled by winning and a Scott buff in his own right.
All those events made this year’s festival memorable. But two in particular made the point about the deep roots of our need for story far better than I ever could.
The Ethiopian folk tales collected by Elizabeth Laird have roots almost as deep as human civilisation. Some – like the one about the tortoise and the hare competing to see whose erection lasted the longest – might well have been around in Aesop’s day. Others, like a creation myth from the mountains in the middle of the Ethiopia, may have fed directly into the Old Testament: certainly, a tribal tale of a story of how man fooled God into thinking he was a buffalo sounded remarkably like the story of how Esau tried to diddle Jacob out of his inheritance.
My final example concerns something that happened almost exactly 700 years ago to this very day. Back then, an English army was marching north on the old Roman road from York to Edinburgh that runs just a mile east of Melrose. You could have heard them coming from miles away, the tramp of their boots, the singing of their songs all a lot more audible in a non-motorised age. They were going to win and they knew it. Hugh de Spencer, who had been promised the earldom of Moray, had even brought along his furniture. The army and its baggage train making its way up through the Borders from its muster at Wark would have taken hours to pass Melrose. It was probably 20 miles long.
As festival director Alistair Moffat pointed out, something happened at Bannockburn – the subject of his latest book – to upset their plans. That’s another story. But with scene-setting and story-telling as compellingly memorable as this, for stories old and new, a book festival like the one he runs at Melrose is just the place to find them.