Book festival hailed as ‘best yet’

Robert Harris won the �25,000 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction for his novel about the Dreyfus affair, An Officer and a Spy. Picture by: Alex Hewitt/Writer Pictures
Robert Harris won the �25,000 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction for his novel about the Dreyfus affair, An Officer and a Spy. Picture by: Alex Hewitt/Writer Pictures
Share this article

Melrose’s Harmony Garden welcomed almost 17,000 visitors to this year’s 2014 Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival, say delighted organisers.

Famous personalities like Absolutely Fabulous creator, Jennifer Saunders, former prime minister Gordon Brown, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason and veteran news journalist, Jon Snow, mingled with some of the country’s top authors over the four days of the eleventh such event, which ran from last Thursday until Sunday night.

As well as the main festival, there was a two-day family book festival and a massively popular special schools day on Friday.

The festival’s Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, which comes with a £25,000 cheque, was this year won by novelist, Robert Harris, for An Officer and a Spy.

Festival director Alistair Moffat described the festival as the event’s best incarnation yet.

“This was simply the best, the best festival ever. Not only did 17,000 come through the gates at Harmony, the variety of events was startling and the audience responded hugely,” said Mr Moffat.

“We started with Nick Mason of Pink Floyd and Jennifer Saunders, then Jon Snow talked of the world of news, followed by a rousing speech from a world statesmen in the shape of Gordon Brown, Walter Scott’s Waverley was wonderfully celebrated and at the end Nina Conti was utterly brilliant, the laughter ringing round the Borders.

“And these were only some of the marvels at Harmony last weekend. Can’t wait for next year.”

Harris came top from a six-strong shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize after having been pipped four years ago by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

Receiving his award in a packed marquee on Friday night from The Duke of Buccleuch, who sponsors the award together with his wife, Mr Harris said he was overwhelmed.

“It’s absolutely wonderful to come here and win such a prize.

“I’m triply honoured - honoured to receive such a generous prize from the duke and duchess; honoured to be on a shortlist with such astonishingly talented authors and particularly honoured to win a prize named after Sir Walter Scott, who has been a hero of mine for 17 years after I found, in a second-hand book shop, a copy of Scott’s journals, a wonderful book about writing.”

An Officer and a Spy is the author’s ninth novel and is a compelling recreation of a scandal that became one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice, in which a young Jewish officer was convicted of treason in Paris in 1895.

The judges said the book was a masterwork written by a story-teller at the pinnacle of his powers.

“In making compelling literary drama out of the Dreyfus affair, an episode familiar to many, Robert Harris has done something Walter Scott would have been proud of,” they said.

“Exactly 200 years ago, Scott pulled off the same transformation with Waverley and another familiar episode, the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion.

“From a shortlist of extraordinary quality a clear winner emerged and the judges were unanimous in their choice.”

Extracts from each book were read by actor John Sessions – master of the historical role.

Four of the shortlisted authors were present to hear the announcement, including Ann Weisgarber who had travelled from Texas to attend.

Announcing the winner, the Duke of Buccleuch said it was impossible to be in Melrose without having a powerful sense of Sir Walter Scott, especially since next month sees the 200th anniversary of the publication of Waverley.

He told the audience: “Above all I want to thank, those who have come to help us celebrate, our four wonderful authors; I thank all six [on the shortlist], but four have joined us for this wonderful evening.

“You have, I think, honoured the extraordinary work of Sir Walter Scott with your words and your presence.”

Comedian Rory Bremner, an honorary patron, as well as one of the event’s regular star turns, said the book festival together with Border Union Show were two of best reasons to be in the Borders.

“You never know who you are going to bump into and the audience is so welcoming,” he added.

“It’s here on the doorstep and it’s such a lovely event. Having this festival in the heart of the Borders is just the best thing.”