Festival review: Baillie Gifford Borders Book Festival

David Coulthard PIC: Thananuwat Srirasant/Getty Images
David Coulthard PIC: Thananuwat Srirasant/Getty Images
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David Coulthard was worried. His ten-year-old son Dayton had never even seen a kart race track, never mind raced on one. But tomorrow, that was just what he was going to do at Larkhall, where he himself started out, on a track that likes to boast that it is “Where Champions Are Born”. That’s one of the things about book festivals. You can eavesdrop on lives that couldn’t be further from your own.

So at the Baillie Gifford Borders Book Festival on Friday evening, you could have found yourself listening to the former Formula One star confessing that he had “daymares” about whether he wasn’t doing the right thing in taking Dayton to his first race. The audience might have had their doubts too, not least because they had just been shown a montage of clips of some of Coulthard’s high-speed scrapes and been reminded that his first Formula One drive was in the Williams car in which Ayrton Senna had died just three weeks earlier.

Michaela Strachan PIC: Pete Dadds

Michaela Strachan PIC: Pete Dadds

Coulthard’s own life in motorsport began in almost the same way, when his father sat him down at 14 and drew up a blueprint for his career which turned out (thanks to his work ethic, he insisted, rather than talent) to be astonishingly accurate. For some of the festival’s other authors, the turning point came even earlier: for textile artist Clare Hunter, author of the excellent Threads of Life, it was the day her Glasgow mother taught her to embroider (“maybe it was just to get me to sit still and be quiet, but I loved it”). For Alan Titchmarsh the decisive moment came a lot later, when the Queen awarded him his MBE. “As I shook her hand, she said ‘Well, you give a lot of ladies a lot of pleasure.’” The quote, he said, is going on his tombstone.

I’m not sure about the key turning point in impressionist Jan Ravens’s life, but I suspect that it might have involved winning the Perrier comedy award in 1981 for the Cambridge Footlights show in which she directed Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery, and Emma Thompson (“It was bad enough Thompson winning Oscars for acting and writing,” she said, “but now I’ve got dame-envy too.)” No need: if you’ve heard Radio 4’s Dead Ringers, you already will have realised the pinpoint accuracy of Ravens’s satirical dissections of Theresa May, Diane Abbot or the eyebrow-raising exaggeration of her Fiona Bruce (“Just think of me as a Chippendale desk. Great legs, fine finish, but you have to open my drawers to find out if I’m genuine”). Better still: her show-stopping tribute to Victoria Wood was right up there in the “Let’s Do It!” league.

Not everything in the tents in Harmony Garden was about books. Michaela Strachan, for example didn’t have a book to plug, but gave an enjoyable behind-the-scenes talk about Springwatch and its fascinating animal and human stars. Similarly, Dominic Grieve hasn’t yet written his memoirs, even though his dissection of his party’s failure to stop itself going into freefall over Brexit was as detailed and informed as one would expect from a former attorney-general who is also chair of the Commons intelligence and security committee. On Friday, Jim Naughtie’s talk about Brexit essentially argued that it was an unintended consequence of winning the Second World War and even reminded his audience that there’s nothing fixed about liberal democracy itself. Grieve seemed rather more optimistic, agreeing that because the political course the Brexiters are set on is full of such massive illogicality, he doesn’t believe we will crash out of the EU on 31 October. His Tory colleagues, he insists, are on a learning curve.

Whatever about that, this is the tenth anniversary of the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, which was set up by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch. This year it had its first Scottish winner – Robin Robertson’s The Long Take, a noirish story mainly told in verse of a D-Day veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress who is wandering through urban America. Accepting the award, Robertson pointed out that Scott started as a poet before becoming a novelist. Similarly, in The Long Take “I seem to have followed in his footsteps and become one almost by mistake.”

Alexander McCall Smith PIC: Kirsty Anderson

Alexander McCall Smith PIC: Kirsty Anderson

The prize was awarded by Alexander McCall Smith and followed the well-received world premiere of his operetta Dandie Dinmont, based on Scott’s 1815 novel Guy Mannering. Considering the complexity of Scott’s narrative, the libretto was a story-telling triumph and was perfectly matched by the lyricism and warmth of composer Tom Cunningham’s music. The piece was written to celebrate the anniversary of the prize. And when a book festival has its own opera, you have to admit, it really does have everything. - David Robinson