Festival review: The Baillie Gifford Borders Book Festival, Melrose

Gary Armstrong and Dodie Weir at the Baillie Gifford Borders Book Festival 2018 PIC: Alex Hewitt
Gary Armstrong and Dodie Weir at the Baillie Gifford Borders Book Festival 2018 PIC: Alex Hewitt
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Ah, the Noughties; I remember them well. Back then, if you read the newspapers, you’d have a fair sense of what was going to happen, who was going to be the next PM, and when and how. The future seemed comparatively predictable. It was, as William Hague told Rory Bremner in a sparkling double-bill at the Baillie Gifford Borders Book Festival over the weekend, a golden age of consensus, though nobody realised it at the time.

As Conservative leader, Hague said, he modelled his debating style on John Smith’s: the Scot’s forensic questioning sometimes made Tory backbenchers laugh surreptitiously at Cabinet conundrums, and Hague tried the same tricks in reverse from the Opposition benches. Hours of careful plotting went into trying to tie up Blair in knots with “poisoned pincer questions” at PMQs: hardly important in the grand scheme of things, but with the Tories a full 40 points behind Labour in the polls, almost all he could do.

Bremner is an excellent interviewer, but Hague matched him for wit as well as mixing a neat line in anecdotes with altogether less frivolous material. One example of the latter: referring to Xi Jinping’s three and a half hour speech to the China’s Communist Party Congress last October, in which he outlined the country’s plans for to be the dominant military and technological power between 2035 and 2050, he said: “Who is in the lead in technology in the 2040s will be just as important as who was in the lead on atom bomb research in the 1940s.” Damn: something else to worry about.

But it was the poisonous politics and unguessability of the present, not future fears, that echoed loudest over the weekend. Both were elegantly discussed at an event in which former Times editor Simon Jenkins tried to augur what kind of Brexit will ultimately mean Brexit (Jenkins opts for the Norway solution). Both men admitted that they had never known less about what was going to happen the next week. Theresa May, said Jenkins, really ought to lose her fear of confronting the 15-20 hard Brexiteers who could round up the 45 votes needed to trigger a Tory leadership election. And as for the Cabinet, maybe they should be put in a dark room without food and water until some sort of agreement emerges.

In these febrile political times, said Gordon Brown, we should try all the harder to look at what unites us, though occasionally this sounded like a checklist of what the Remain side should have said to assuage Leavers’ fears over immigration or the supremacy of the European Court.

Politicians should always, he said, allow room for hope, citing the postcard of a symbolist painting called “Hope” by George Frederick Watts which Nelson Mandela had in his Robben Island cell. That painting is, it should be said, more ambiguous than its title implies:Hope is depicted as a blind woman playing a harp whose string have all been broken apart from one. You could easily argue that it looks more like a painting of despair.

So let me end with some far less ambiguous vignettes of hope culled from the weekend. Borderers may not be temperamentally given to standing ovations, but even halfway through Friday’s event with Doddie Weir, Gary Armstrong and Finlay Calder, you knew that was exactly how it was going to end.

The main reason is of course that Weir, whom many of us remember in the blue jersey of Scotland and the red jersey of the Lions and “on the charge like a mad giraffe”, in Bill McLaren’s phrase, is now stricken with motor neurone disease, which compels sympathy. The fact that he is campaigning so hard to do something for other sufferers – he handed over a cheque for £400,000 for research into potential cure only the other week – compels admiration.

The friendship and easy banter between the three former players were heartwarming and almost as golden-tinged as the memories they have gifted us. And while we’re talking about bravery, that shown by Debi Gliori – one of Scotland’s most-loved illustrators – in depicting the depression that has stalked her for decades in her book Night Shift also deserves an honourable mention.

More hope? It’s there in the moments when one’s falls in love with a subject – as Neil Oliver eloquently showed while talking about his love of archaeology. It’s there too in those moments when recognition finally arrives, as it did for Benjamin Myers, winner of this year’s £25,000 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction for his novel The Gallows Pole. “This is the best thing that has ever happened to me,” he said with dazed simplicity on receiving there cheque from the Duke of Buccleuch. The novel was published by tiny Hebden Bridge publisher Bluemoose Books, which essentially consists of a couple who – showing all the hope in the world – remortgaged their terrace house to publish it.