ANNOUNCING the category winners of the (deep breath) Scottish Arts Council/Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust book awards at the Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival programme launch on Wednesday, prize judge Pat Kane didn't have to open the customary golden envelope. Instead, he'd got all of the winning authors' names on his iPhone.

The usefulness of these devices is now obvious even to Luddites like Bookworm. As Borders Book Festival director Alistair Moffat pointed out, they even get a mention in Rory Bremner's new one-man show about the general election. Before he begins, Bremner asks his audience: "Can you please switch off your mobile phones? And if you've got an iPhone, can you stop going on about it?"


Hide Ad

WHAT with these awards (worth 30,000 to the winner, who will be announced at the festival on 19 June) and the 25,000 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction (announced the next day), Moffat is in the enviable position of staging two of the six main literary prizes in Britain. Even Hay – which announced its programme this week – has never managed that.

Yet his claim that historical fiction, rather than non-fiction, is where we should look to find a real sense of what the past was like, divides historians.

As Tom Devine points out, it's Scottish history not Scottish historical fiction that is currently going through a golden age.

But Moffat's point that today's historians have a tendency to produce over-specialised research which is then written up without narrative flair is cautiously accepted by Professor Christopher Whatley, Vice-Principal at Dundee University and author of the award-winning The Scots and The Union.

"Although a lot of historical research is of high quality," he says, "it's very analytical, and a lot of it is not particularly accessible to the general reader. Often, description is actually frowned upon.

"Much of what is marketed as popular history is difficult to read for the non-specialist who is not familiar with the concepts and the jargon and who is more interested in human beings, in life, love and opinion and all of that."


Hide Ad

OF COURSE, fact can be just as fascinating as fiction, and as if to prove the point this week sees the publication (sadly only so far in America) of Norris Church Mailer's memoir A Ticket to the Circus.

Here's the story in a nutshell. Beautiful woman grows up poor in Arkansas, becomes model and painter, becomes sixth and final wife of world-famous writer. Which means seeing the Ali-Frazier Manila thriller, cooking for Hunter S Thomson, chatting to Jackie O, flirting with Ted K. But before any of that, back in Arkansas, there was a certain congressional candidate called Bill Clinton, who would call her at 2am and ask if he could swing by. "I would have so liked to be able to talk to him about world affairs and politics," she writes. "But we frankly never talked much."