Sandi Toksvig: From the Norse’s Mouth

Sandi Toksvig

Edinburgh International Book Festival

On 11 August 2013

Review by David Chadderton

Writer, actor and broadcaster Sandi Toksvig did a short run of her one-woman show on the Fringe this year at the Pleasance, but also popped into Charlotte Square Gardens to speak to a packed audience of Radio 4 fans about her latest novel, Valentine Grey.

The novel is set during the Boer War in 1899. The eponymous hero dresses as a man and takes the identity of her brother Reggie in order to fight in his place, as it seems she is more temperamentally suited to the field of battle than her timid male sibling.

Toksvig spoke of her love of history and of how it comes in cycles, drawing close parallels between the Boer War, which was about gold and minerals, and modern warfare. She pondered over how things could have been different "if George Bush had read a book on Afghanistan", before amending this wish to just, "if George Bush had read a book".

She paid a lengthy tribute to her father, leading Danish broadcaster Claus Toskvig whom she described as the equivalent to Richard Dimbleby in Britain, and the great influence he had on her life. His job took the family all over the world, which gave her a perticular outlook on life, and his early death made her determined to achieve as much as possible while she is still able. Plus if anyone asks her if she remembers where she was when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon in 1969, she can say she was in the control room at Kennedy Space Centre holding the hand of Armstrong's secretary—try topping that.

She claims that books "quite literally saved my life" when she was at a British boarding school (the last time she was expelled she said was due to a misunderstanding—she didn't understand that she was expected to go every day). She discovered a second-hand bookshop in the town and avidly read Jane Austen and Dickens and many more, which helped her to survive the real world of a British public school.

There's no point in looking for Toksvig on Twitter; she doesn't understand the appeal of following what people have for breakfast—the usual line from someone who doesn't "get" Twitter. However she spoke with some passion about anonymity on the web, stating that if people want to abuse others online they should be forced to do so under their real names.

From a question from the audience about whether she fancied being prime minister, she said, quite seriously, that at some point she does have the "intention to do public service". She did not elaborate, but the implication was that it would involve seeking political office.

She ended the session with a joke that she told for a recent recording of The News Quiz that she didn't think would be broadcast involving nuns in an Edinburgh taxi, which was quite rude.