1/11/21 (Reasons I’m probably not going to the Borders Book Festival)

The Borders Book Festival returns in-person this week, re-located from its usual difficult to park at spot in Melrose, to Abbotsford house, which actually might not have much parking space either, but it’s within very sensible walking distance from where I live, and to Tweedbank train station so who’s complaining? It’s kind of pleasing to see the festival get a little further away from one of the most expensive towns around here, even if it still feels like it’s at a symbolic distance, being across the Tweed from us here in Galashiels. Their website still thinks it’s close enough to only mention the Melrose bit.

I thought I’d take a look at the programme, with me being a book lover and living so close to this year’s venue. It’s been a while since this sort of festival could go ahead in-person too, so it’s exciting to see. I’ve been to the festival before – we went to see Jay Rayner talk about a book that we didn’t buy a few of years ago. He was funny, the atmosphere was busy, the weather was hot, we bumped into some friends, we bought some expensive marshmallows and decided it was a bit too pricey to hang around for the next speaker.

Here’s my dream-world plan for things I thought were interesting and that I’d go see this week, if I were to have an unlimited ticket budget (much more on that later) and plenty of time to spare.

Tuesday (that’s tomorrow)
14:30 – Victoria Crowe & Christine De Luca (curious about the collaboration between painter and poet to make a book)
18:30 – Dr Irving Finkel (who doesn’t love ghosts?)
20:00 – Ed Balls (cause why not, could be interesting!)

12:00 – Borders Writers Forum (always nice to hear new, local voices… maybe I should consider joining?)
14:30 – Carterhaugh Ba (local history)
6:30 – Denise Mina (I’ve not read any of her work, but her hair looks excellent, so I’m in)
20:00 – Ian Rankin (once, a few years ago during the festival in Melrose, someone mistook my dad for Ian Rankin. Maybe if you spin around three times and stand on your head you’ll see the resemblance?)

12:30 – Wild Kilted Yoga (not sure if the kilt is compulsory, but we had a good giggle at the photos when a copy of this guy’s first book came into the library I once worked in).
14:30 – Mara Menzies (Who appears to be the only person of colour speaking on the programme. Blood and Gold’s synopsis sounds fascinating, as well as her storytelling work. I’ll be adding it to my reading list regardless of wether I get to the festival).
18:00 – Ed Milliband (another why not? I’m sure he’s an interesting speaker?)
20:00 – Michael Palin (these are sold out, but I read his book Erebus, and enjoyed learning about the expeditions and the stories of Erebus and Terror, so if there were tickets, and I was going, I’d go.)

12:00 – Paul Murton (I’d rather it was Paul Merton, but I’m a fan of Just a Minute…)
14:30 – Allan Massie (has written a book about Walter Scott)
16:30 – Tom Heap (I’ve been listening to the radio 4 series on this)
18:00 – James Naughtie (did I mention I listen to radio 4?)
18:30 – Ambrose Parry (curious about the married couple’s collaborative writing process)
20:30 – Jo Marchant (history and stars, sounds good to me)

16:00 – Hilary Mantel (okay so I didn’t finish Wolf Hall but there’s still time)
18:00 – Robert Peston (has written his first novel apparently)
20:00 – Val McDermid (women in journalism and criminal underbellies? yes please)

12:00 – Gordon Brown (yes that’s another why not? ticket booking – Curious at how he proposes to save the world)
16:00 – Great Tapestry of Scotland (this has recently opened in its new building in Galashiels, I’d like to lean more)
18:00 – Peter Sawkins (cause who doesn’t like cake?)

Sounds like a fun-packed, busy and informative six days, right? I’d be looking forward to it, if it were affordable.

Because that’s the first problem. Actually no, it’s the second. The first is shocking lack of racial diversity. Out of the 70 speakers I’ve found in the programme (I’m working on mobile here so forgive me if I missed someone), the inclusion of a single person of colour means 98.5% of speakers at the festival are white. Is this tokenism? Is it ignorance? is it idiocy? I’m struggling to find the words to explain how exactly this is a problem, because it’s so ridiculous in 2021 that such a well-renowned, well publicised and well funded festival can do so poorly in their programme.

Back to the second problem – all of those tickets… add up to £286. That’s for one person. Bring along your bestie, and it’s up to Five Hundred and Seventy Two Pounds. Now hey, I know there are plenty folk out there who can afford to pay that kind of money to attend an important cultural event, but if you earn the minimum ‘living’ wage, that’s £8.91/hour (I’m ignoring tax here, so it’s actually worse than this if you earn enough to pay it) then you would have to work for 32 hours to go see a full programme at the festival by yourself – that’s almost an entire week’s work. In a month, that’s almost a quarter of someone’s income.

Of course, the festival offers concessions – available to some specific groups of people, so long as they have proof. (students, registered disabled (plus one carer), registered unemployed, under 16s, and Young Scot card holders (from memory that’s under 25s who are still holding onto the card they got at high school).

Not that I want to start doing free work for them, but the organisers really, really, really need to look into sliding scale pricing. And stop asking for proof! Many people who technically qualify for the concessions are willing and able to pay full price; many people, like freelancers and part timers (don’t forget that’s mostly women – 73% of part time workers in the UK in 2018), who aren’t eligible are pretty unlikely to be able to budget for even one full day of attending the festival (£45 if you went to my Saturday, £90 with a plus one).
A sliding scale, giving festival goers simple price choices won’t stop anyone paying £15 for a ticket; it’ll just make more people able to join in with the festival, more young people, more women, more low-paid people and more writers with a slightly unpredictable income (hello!).

Problem number three: it’s embarrassing to have to point it out, although I’m glad I’m not alone in pointing it out on social media, but only 21 percent of the speakers and panellists at the festival (not counting events for children) are women. There doesn’t seem to be anyone on the bill who is non-binary or trans. Out of 70 people speaking, fifteen are women, and 55 are white men.

A recent post on the Borders Book Festival Instagram account. I’m not sure what the colours signify, unless they’re trying to make up for something…

The festival clearly prides itself on attracting big names – and yeah, I’m interested in seeing those big names, Palin, McDermid, Mantel, even Balls and Milliband, sure, and I know other potential visitors are too. Surely an event this big, with such big names, needs to at least offer some amount of divergence from the cisgender, heterosexual white men that are already taking up plenty space in the literary world, and the world at large. Representation matters, and lineups like this are frankly damaging to anyone who aspires to read or write that cannot see people like themselves in the picture. It also worries me, that a festival funded by Creative Scotland, Scottish Borders Council and Event Scotland (amongst an impressive array of sponsors, partners and supporters) can look so incredibly white and so incredibly male.

I want to end this post on some clever quip on the “Where words come alive” slogan, but I’m not going to wait for inspiration on that – the festival starts tomorrow, and… I’m probably not going.

You can see the Borders Book Festival website here
(I’ve based all my counting on their website, but please do let me know if you spot that I’ve mis-counted anyone, it was a bit of admin task and I had had a large coffee immediately before I started so I was a bit wired. Small edit: I’ve just gone back in and caught a few people I’d mislaid before (mostly panel members) – it’s moved us from 20% women to 21% but has dropped people of colour from 2% to 1.4%… Please note that this is based on appearances as speakers / panellists, so some people are counted more than once, because they speak more than once.)
Watch an excellent video about Mara Menzies and her work here
See Borders Book Festival’s 2019 financial statements here
and their 2020 financial statements here
here is some ONS data on employment up to 2018.

If you enjoyed this blog and would like to help me pay for my wordpress account, and one day maybe be able to afford to attend the Borders Book Festival, please do consider buying me a coffee, links at the top and bottom of the page. 🙂