Sandi Toksvig at University of Essex, 7 March 2013

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Sandi Toksvig drew a near capacity crowd to the University of Essex’s Ivor Crewe Lecture Hall for one of the biggest events in 2013’s Essex Book Festival. And the audience were not disappointed. A very relaxed Sandi Toksvig strolled onto the stage and with a witticism addressed to some one near the back of the theatre had the audience onside before she had even been introduced.

She sat down to be interviewed by Dee Evans, enormously respected in Colchester for her 14 glorious years as Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the Mercury Theatre. The evening conversation and questions centred around Sandi’s latest novel ‘Valentine Grey’ but gave plenty of opportunity to find out more about the phenomenally energetic, witty and talented Ms Toksvig.We found out she had originally intended to become a Human Rights lawyer but was talked into a theatrical gap year in Manchester by someone who saw her in a Cambridge Footlights production. She is currently 54 and ‘enjoying the longest gap year in history’. The intervening years, of course,have seen her become a leading figure in television and comedy whilst at the same time managing to write over twenty books, both non fiction and fiction and for children and adults. Throughout the evening she displayed the erudition and sparkling wit that has made her such a success on programmes such as radio’s ‘The News Quiz’ or TV’s QI.

But she also showed us the serious side. Comedians are often serious people at heart and she warned ‘never have dinner with a comedian expecting it to be a jolly evening’. And Valentine Grey is a novel that tackles some serious themes. The eponymous Valentine Grey, hating the constrictions of late Victorian Society masquerades as a man and joins the Army and is soon in S Africa with a bicycling regiment during the Boer War. Sandi Toksvig’s father was a war correspondent she took the background research for the novel very seriously. The issues of female emancipation and racial and homosexual prejudice are key elements in the novel. We found out that in effect concentration camps were really invented by Kitchener to imprison Boer women and children. Thousands of them died. Toksvig had hiked through S African fields searching out the sites of forgotten and overgrown burial grounds and uncovering the memorial stones. The names of the black victim were not even written down. But throughout the serious talk there was never long before one of her witty one liners would emerge – comparing the Boer war to more recent conflicts she said, ‘how different the world might have been if George Bush had read even one book on Afghanistan……………….. or even just read one book.’

She reports Sarah Palin as saying:

‘if God was a vegetarian he wouldn’t have made animals out of meat’.

On writing novels she says:

‘there’s a fine line between writing a novel and having a mental health problems’.

She had a theory that bicycles and typewriters were the two inventions that really triggered the liberation of women. Bicycles got them out of corsets and typewriters gave them employment, ‘having too many keys for men’.She gave us some insight into how News Quiz is put together. For each 28 minute programme about an hour and a quarter is recorded. The stuff which is edited out being mostly ‘a heady mix of filth and libel’.The audience left in good humour left and full of warmth and admiration for Sandi Toksvig, a multi talented entertainer and writer.

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