Political realities out-shine fiction at Borders Book Festival

This time it's Europe, last year it was the SNP wiping out Labour, the year before it was the independence referendum.
A.A. Gills Pour Me was filled with bravado and rage. Picture: Mike WilkinsonA.A. Gills Pour Me was filled with bravado and rage. Picture: Mike Wilkinson
A.A. Gills Pour Me was filled with bravado and rage. Picture: Mike Wilkinson

Every time I drive down to the Borders Book Festival, some political cataclysm has either happened or is about to, and every year there’s some political big beast or other to prod with a question about it in the marquee tent in Melrose’s Harmony Garden.

On Saturday, it was going to be Gordon Brown. First, he was due to talk history with Alistair Moffat, the festival’s director and a longstanding friend. A couple of hours later, he’d discuss his own book on Europe, and what could be more timely than that?

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And then Jo Cox was murdered, and because she was another friend, just as her husband Brendan is, he understandably cancelled both events.

The first event was easier to change: it just meant Moffat talking about his impressive one-volume history of Scotland with his customary eloquence but without questions from Brown.

But the second – which was dedicated to Cox – was always going to be harder. Rory Bremner chaired, along with Kirsty Wark, and while he obviously knew that it couldn’t be completely mournful, it couldn’t be a gag-fest either.

Because the Borders Book Festival is already tuned into issues as well as books, it already had two former Scottish secretaries on its bill – new festival chairman Michael Moore and Douglas Alexander, another son of the manse with an 18-year career as an MP that also ended last May, when Moore “came third in a two-horse race” and Alexander lost to Mhairi Black.

There’s something about politicians who have lost power that makes us warm to them. There’s no party line to pump, they can finally admit the things they got wrong, but – more importantly – can look back and tell us the kind of things we may be missing too about what it’s like to be them, about the idealism that drives them, the cynicism they face, and how we all need to learn to disagree without being disagreeable.

So Douglas Alexander is suddenly no longer just a bright apparatchik, but someone who clearly misses his old job. “I adored being an MP” he says, blazing sincerity. And he tells how he always wanted to meet more people at his surgeries, so he moved his into the Morrison’s at Johnstone. One day last year, he met a woman there who said she’d never vote for him again because there’d clearly been some deal: the wrong side had won the referendum, because everyone she knew had voted Yes. Wasn’t she worried about the collapse in the oil price? He asked. No: that was some sort of deal too. Where did she get all her facts from? Oh, the woman said, every night she was on Facebook. She was, she revealed, a senior social worker.

From there the conversation flew to social media, to how we’ve all stopped believing in experts, even Nigel Farage, back on the fags because he doesn’t believe in doctors. And then they were talking about what it must have been like in the good old days of – say David Steel, out there in the audience – when sending out a Fax a week was all an MP needed to do to communicate with the media, when there was no 24-hour rolling news, no social media trolling, no mobile phones, no e-mail. When someone like Alan Clark, back in the Seventies, could have caught his train back to Portsmouth and travelled on it without any electronic demands on his time.

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“Well, to be fair,” said Bremner, “if he was around today, Alan Clark would be on Tinder”.

There were a record 100 events at the Borders Book Festival by the time Phill Jupitus had finished his Porky the Pig performance poet gig last night, and it’s invidious to pick out just one. I was glad to see Simon Mawer win the Walter Scott History Prize six years after missing out to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, intrigued by the weirdly nerdy Essex insouciance of Sara Pasco, impressed by the bravado, honesty and rage AA Gill revealed in a wonderfully loose and lucid chat nominally about Pour Me, his memoir of a year lost (and boy, do I mean lost) to alcoholism, and won’t easily forget some of the harrowing facts Jonathan Dimbleby revealed in his history of the Battle of the Atlantic.

But – and it’s the last thing I would have ever predicted – it’s that easy, intelligent chat between former rivals Alexander and Moore about the realities of the politician’s life that will stay with me the longest, along with something Alexander quoted Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien as saying. “One of the reasons referendums are so visceral,” he said, with reference to the one he held in 1995 on Quebec, “is that they break the hearts of your neighbours.” We’ll find out more about that on Thursday.