Festival review: Borders Book Festival, Abbotsford House, Melrose

Highlights at this year’s Borders Book Festival included Alexander McCall Smith on sparkling form and Hilary Mantel speaking in a tent during a gale, writes David Robinson
Hilary Mantel. Photo: Els Zweerink.Hilary Mantel. Photo: Els Zweerink.
Hilary Mantel. Photo: Els Zweerink.

There’s a lot to be said for a good old-fashioned book festival – one of those where you actually have to turn up to see things – and this year’s Baillie Gifford Borders Book festival said it loud and clear.

It’s the difference between Murrayfield yesterday afternoon and those empty stadiums the Lions faced in South Africa in July on a tour which, as Gavin Hastings pointed out on Saturday, should never have gone ahead. Lions matches need crowds just as book festivals need live audiences.

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Even playing away from its Melrose home (though Abbotsford is hardly far) and even in November, there’s a buzz about live events that online chat can’t match, an edginess and unpredictability that is otherwise - literally - screened out.

Take some of Saturday’s other events. Alexander McCall Smith was on sparkling form, led by Sally Magnusson and audience questions in all kinds of unexpected directions, both whimsical (asterisks to warn readers of worrying passages) and real (his libretto based on an encounter with primatologists in the Okavanko Delta).

While Hilary Mantel was speaking inside the main tent (capacity reduced from 570 to 350 but still atmospheric) a gale was blowing outside, but it hardly mattered. She’s talked before about the structure of Wolf Hall (for which she won the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction 11 years ago, just as she won it again this year for The Mirror and the Light) but here she placed it, lucidly and without self-aggrandisement, in context. Historical fiction has changed, she said, opening up and becoming more ambitious.

She’s right: it has. Along with the Duke of Buccleuch, she then presented Young Walter Scott Prizes to Ide Crawford, Atlas Eden and Madeleine Friedlein. I’ve read their winning stories and trust me, the future of fiction about the past is in good hands.

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