"Life is funny."
"Funny things happen."
-- Sandi Toksvig
Once again, the Writers Festival teaches me not to judge people by their book covers. Or maybe even by their books! How many times, as we descended the stairs, the ASB Theatre being packed to the brim for this event, and through to the end of the Festival, did I hear people saying that they had not read Sandi Toksvig's books, and had not even now added them to their must-read lists, while at the same time expressing some variation on what session chair Sean Plunket quoted Festival Director Anne O'Brien as having said about Sandi Toksvig after having heard her at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, "She should rule the world!"
Well! There was a lot more. She grew up in New York where her dad was The Foreign Correspondent for Danish TV -- not having the budget to plant correspondents around the world, the intelligent Danes decided to plant just one, at the United Nations. During the course of this growing up, she got thrown out of three schools and "I was bored". But then, sent to boarding school in England, isolated by her differences, she found a bookstore and began reading. Hardy, Dickens, Austen.
And writing? "I'd always scribbled. My whole family writes. I just went into the family business. If my dad had been a butcher, I'd be selling you chops."
When she started her new show on BBC TV, the next day the comment from the organisers was "Good news. No complaints". She points out, "A 56-year-old man -- no one would have had any problems. A 56-year-old woman, they can't believe I'm still breathing".
Which brought her to one of my favourite lines of the evening, probably because I am a woman of a certain age myself. "What I like about women of a certain age is that they can't be bothered to dress things up anymore".
Why the Boer War as a setting for her novel Valentine Grey?
"The Boer war was interesting because 1) it was the first war Britain fought where the average soldier was literate, and 2) it was the end of the British Empire -- people were asking why their boys were dying, for what?"
Also, a lot was happening in terms of women's liberation at the time of the Boer War. Bicycles, for one thing. Women were working, as telephone operators, as typists. They needed to ride bicycles to work, and "you couldn't wear corsets and flounces on bicycles". The protagonist of Valentine Grey is an adventurous woman who changes places with a gay soldier and goes to fight in the war in a bicycling regiment.
Toksvig came out as a lesbian in 1984, the first lesbian in public life to come out, she says. She got death threats, and she and her then-partner having three children, had to get protection, go into hiding. I choked up when she described her public event wedding (actually a renewal of civil partnership vows, for bureaucratic reasons), on the day same-sex marriage became legal in England and Wales. "I wanted it to be free, not by invitation. Two thousand people came, and when I came in on my daughter's arm they all stood up and cheered."
"What makes you outraged?" Sean Plunket asked.
"Girls in Nigeria. Casual racism. Casual homophobia. Fundamentalism, because it doesn't allow for the diversity of human thought."
"What does the future hold?" (slight editing by me who just doesn't like the term 'bucket list')
"Lose two more stone. Travel more. There's always things I'd like to learn. The most exciting is the thing you didn't expect."
The most exciting event I went to at the Auckland Writers Festival was "An evening with Sandi Toksvig".