Littlest Viking Sandi Toksvig heads east

Sandi Toksvig's coming to Suffolk for a reunion with long-time pal John McCarthy.

Steven Russell

Sandi Toksvig's coming to Suffolk for a reunion with long-time pal John McCarthy. Just don't go suggesting they recreate their round-Britain voyage. 'I would never do it again', she tells Steven Russell

SANDI Toksvig - “I have the Protestant work ethic without actually being Protestant” - is a very busy bee indeed. Yesterday she worked herself into near-zombiedom by writing her monthly piece for Good Housekeeping, polishing off her weekly column for a Sunday newspaper and spending half a day on her new book. She's also recently waved one of her two daughters (she's also got a teenage son) off on a gap year expedition to Thailand, “and I don't know who sobbed more at the airport: her or me. She's gone to save turtles; but I think, with the price I paid, it must be individually”. Today, she's at the BBC, about to “write some hilarity” for an episode of Radio 4's satirical show The News Quiz being recorded that evening. All in all, little wonder she can't remember exactly what she's meant to be talking to ealife about. How about a killer plan to solve the world's economic problems, we jest . . . foolishly. “Ah! Well, the answer to that is women's micro-financing. Honest to God, I could talk for hours on that one!”

Er . . . right . . . perhaps we'll return to it later. Let's kick off, instead, by focusing on The Aldeburgh Literary Festival, where she'll entertain and inform on the evening of March 5. Ostensibly, she'll be speaking to the sell-out audience about her book The Chain of Curiosity - a collection of those whimsical Sunday newspaper magazine columns that weave history with gentle humour and factual intrigue.

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“I adore going to Aldeburgh,” she purrs. “I've been a few times (to literary events) and also because my lovely friend John McCarthy lives up in that neck of the woods and I've been up, as it were, privately.” Happily, March 5 will see her “in conversation” with the man who endured 1,943 days of captivity after being seized in Beirut by Lebanese extremists in 1986.

Sandi also knows Francis Wheen - the author, humorist and deputy editor of Private Eye who lives near Chelmsford and appears on The News Quiz. He and partner Julia Jones have a boat at Woodbridge. “So I know the area a little bit in terms of thinking it's a fab place.

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“To be honest, there is now a festival in every town, in every week - which is lovely - but in the end you have to be a little bit selective: and Aldeburgh would always be on the list. I just lurve the seaside.”

Speaking of water, it's hard to believe it's more or less 15 years since she and John McCarthy sailed around Britain - making a BBC TV series called Island Race. There was a spin-off book, too.

“We were old friends before we went,” explains Sandi. “He just texted me this morning, in fact, saying he was in London and did I want to see him and his daughter. I said 'Well, I'd like to see your daughter; I'm not that interested in you!' We do tease each other a lot.

“He's a great chap, though if there's one thing I regret doing in my career it's that trip around Britain: awfully long and awfully hard. It was three months and very tough. I damaged my hands on the boat because the work was much too hard for me, and to this day I have pain in my hands.

“I loved the time with John, but if you sail round Britain in the summer and think you're going to see the coast, good luck with that! It's grey water, grey clouds . . . that's all I remember: three months of grey.

“I did all the cooking. It was me and six boys; if you leave the cooking to the boys, you get three months of bacon sandwiches. They'd be totally happy. I did quite a lot of stew, strapped to a galley. It was not fun. I would never do it again.”

John, who moved to Woodbridge, “is the most calm, delightful person. He's like a brother to me. He seems as unaffected by his (hostage) experience as it's possible to be. He's a gentleman; such a wonderful sense of humour. I think I'd be a dribbling wreck.

“It was his dream to see his country from the prow of an old sailing ship. He was wrong; I've told him next time he gets captured, he must dream of the Bahamas . . .”

Born in Copenhagen in 1958, the daughter of a Danish foreign correspondent, Sandi Toksvig gained a first-class honours degree in archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge. But the stage beckoned - “showing off”, she calls it - and she appeared in Cambridge Footlights shows, as well as directing, writing and performing in the first all-female Cambridge Revue.

Afterwards came theatre, radio and plenty of TV: programmes such as the children's weekend romp No 73, Have I Got News for You, and Call My Bluff. She has many books to her name, too: from for-adults novels like Melted into Air to children's stories such as The Littlest Viking and The Troublesome Tooth Fairy, and non-fiction. The Gladys Society: A Personal American Journey, for instance, is an account of a trip back to the United States of her childhood. (She spent six years at a high school in New York.)

There is, she readily admits, still that nagging feeling she should be doing something more sensible with her life.

“I envisioned myself as the sort of Perry Mason of Britain,” she says of her earlier ambitions. “The person I admire most is barrister Helena Kennedy. (An expert in human rights law, civil liberties and constitutional issues.) I was blessed with a good brain; I think I could have been a good lawyer, I think I could have helped people, and there is a huge bit of me that regrets not doing that. However . . . because of what I've done, and because I've been around such a long time” - she draws out the words for comic effect - “I can get access to people, and can put people together, and I try where I can to do behind-the-scenes work, saying 'The best person to speak to is so and so, and I'll arrange it.' So in that sense I suppose, in the end, one has done some good.”

Indeed, she's essentially a national treasure, albeit an adopted one.

“I have a Danish passport and I keep talking about taking British citizenship, to which I am entitled, because my mother is British. I've also lived here an awfully long time. But in a way I don't really like nationality of any kind. I think so much of the world's trouble has been caused by nationalism and jingoism, and people thinking their nation is rather better than somebody else's. On the whole, I think we're all pretty fabulous and everybody's got something to offer.”

She wouldn't make a sweeping assumption that societies are becoming less tolerant, but recognises some people and groups display hardened attitudes.

“There's a sort of notion . . . Iran, for example. 'Everybody in Iran must be the Devil's own work.' That can't possibly be true!”

So a blithe phrase like “axis of evil” obviously isn't helpful, then, is it?

“Well, when Americans were asked who they thought were the countries on the axis of evil, France came fifth!”

Republican politician Sarah Palin, tipped as a future U.S, presidential candidate, has been lampooned on The News Quiz for her ignorance of aspects of world affairs. “But we must not underestimate the woman. She has tremendous connections and she could end up, as terrifying as it may seem, as president. Ronald Reagan, whose most successful film was with a chimpanzee, he became president. So you have to be a little cautious.”

Do such potential scenarios keep her awake at night, as a closer-than-average follower of current affairs?

“There's so much you could worry about, isn't there? I'm bemused, mostly. The thing I'm most delighted about is I'm never going to be in a position of power . . . because I think it must be hideous.”

There was a whisper not so long back - swiftly denied - that she could one day contest Cambridge in a General Election, for the Liberal Democrats.

“Sweet of people to place this rumour. What an honour to represent people; it would be a fantastic thing. But would I be the best person in the world to deal with Mrs McGinty's rent problems? Probably not. I do what I can in terms of being patron of lots of charities and make many speeches encouraging people to behave a bit better. But I'm not sure that the daily grind of being a back-bencher would be quite the thing for me. I think it's hugely hard work.

“I feel very sorry for them at the minute. I think the expenses scandal has possibly done damage to the democracy, because all parliamentarians are now viewed as crooks - and it is far from the case.

“People are saying 'Ooh, no; MPs shouldn't travel first class.' Well, that probably means they'd have to stand in second; and they have so much work to do. If we can't give them a table and a place to sit down when they're travelling between London and their constituency then really we're making a mistake.”

That said, Sandi's never saying never - “I don't rule anything out. Who knows what's going to happen?” - and it would be fun to see her as the East Anglian Esther Rantzen. (The former That's Life presenter is standing in Luton South.) “There, you see - immediately you've put me off the whole thing!”

Let's play a game. You're Prime Minister for a day; what's the one thing you'd change?

“The issue at the forefront of my mind at the moment is the detention of children in asylum centres. I don't know if you heard the story, but a five-year-old broke her arm and it was 20 hours before she got proper medical attention. This is not a refugee camp in Darfur; this is a civilised country with easy access to excellent medical facilities, and we shouldn't treat anybody like that.

“The separation of these children from their parents is shocking and disgraceful, and there seems to be a view that asylum seekers are all wrong-uns and here to blag something out of the system. Well, many of them are suffering deeply.

“If you or I was asked 'Would you leave your country and go somewhere where you don't fully understand the culture and you don't fully understand the language', it would have to be quite a thing for us to do that. We need to treat these people with more respect.

“If you want to find people who are on the blag and conning the world, have a quick look at the bankers and hedge-fund managers; don't be looking at poor people who've turned up with absolutely nothing.

“So, there you are; I can get all high-horsey . . .”

Another sense of injustice will be aired in her next novel. (About 40,000 words written so far.) Set during the Boer War, it's about a woman who disguises herself as a volunteer soldier.

“The thing I want to focus on is the concentration camps, which are a British invention - bless them - and in particular the 40,000 blacks who died in the camps and for whom there is still no memorial.”

Now, though, the demands of The News Quiz are pressing. Before she goes, run that micro-financing theory past us again . . .

“The whole economic situation needs to be sorted out, and one of the ways to do that is the model they're using in developing countries where they give individual women small amounts of seed money to start their own businesses. These are called micro-banks, and they never fail, and the women always make a fair and honest return on the money.”

Do they not give money to men, too?

“No. Because they don't trust them. That,” she chuckles, “would be another conversation we could have . . .”

The Chain of Curiosity is published in paperback by Sphere at �9.99

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