Sandi Toksvig interview: The history woman

SANDI Toksvig hopes her new book will encourage girls to believe in themselves, and their ability to change the world

BROADCASTER and writer, Sandi ToksviG, is used to causing fits of the giggles, but for the last week she has been the one doing the laughing. Why? Because she received an invitation to take part in the TV series Celebrity Wife Swap, and the very idea of it is both hilarious and horrendous to her. Mostly, one suspects, she can't quite believe anyone would think she might actually entertain the notion.

Not that Toksvig could possibly afford the time for another project. When we meet, in a Newcastle hotel, she flops into her chair, looking tired and claiming to feel every one of her 50 years. It's little wonder she's exhausted: the woman never stops. Her already jam-packed day (she wrote her newspaper column on the morning train up to Newcastle) will culminate after the interview and several other engagements with an evening lecture to youngsters about her new book, Girls Are Best.

This retro-looking volume is a sort of fun, kids' encyclopaedia of the great women who have been written out of history. Toksvig has long credited Who Cooked the Last Supper? – The Women's History of the World, by Rosalind Miles, as being a book which changed her life but denies it was a direct inspiration for her latest publication. Without pausing to check notes or scanning a press release, the fast-talking comedienne explains how she came up with the idea of a book for children about important women whom the world has forgotten.

"I do quite a lot of work for a charity called Womankind which, among other things, provides seed money for women in the Third World to start their own businesses. I was deeply shocked by some of the latest statistics that I found out from them, things like: of all the assets in the world, women own just 1 per cent while men own 99 per cent. I find that shocking. Eighty per cent of the world's food is grown by women; 75 per cent of the world's work is done by women; 10 per cent of the income is derived by women.

"What I think is: if the world is in some difficulty – about climate change, about economics – then we had better make sure that 100 per cent of every brain available on the planet is working at full pelt to try to sort these things out. It won't do that if 87 per cent of girls in Afghanistan can't read, for example. So I thought: perhaps the best idea is to encourage young girls and say 'Do you know what? You can be anything. You can do anything. Do not be restricted in any way in your choices, whether you want to be a scientist or a great explorer or a great athlete or a great writer'."

By celebrating great female achievers, Toksvig felt she could inspire girls to think more ambitiously, but when she began her research, it was as if she had opened the floodgates. "I could have written a book a hundred times as long – there are so many fabulous women who deserve to be written about," she says. "Really, when you ask people about famous women, they usually say 'Joan of Arc, Bodicea, Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria' then you run out. Florence Nightingale. How dull was she? This is a woman who spent 30 years lying on a couch. Apart from the Crimean War, she came home, lay on a couch and never got up again."

A key moment for Toksvig came during a visit to the British Museum, a favourite haunt for her and her children. "There's a marvellous marble relief there called the Halicarnassus, which shows two female gladiators. I remember stopping and thinking: 'Female gladiators? But I saw the Russell Crowe movie and I don't remember any gladiatrices.' I come from Viking stock, so I read up on female vikings and how brave they were. But the other main thing that triggered me off was a picture I saw of Colonel Gaddafi getting off a plane and he only has female bodyguards because he says they're more alert."

Clearly, then, Toksvig is passionate about the idea that Girls Are Best. So what does her 14-year-old son, Teddy, make of this? Eyes lighting up at the mention of one of her three children, she chortles: "Well, he describes himself as a feminist and he understands what I am trying to do. My original suggestion to the publishers was for there to be two books – a Girls Are Best and a Boys Are Best, and the boys' one was to be written by a gentleman who shall remain nameless. He never delivered his, so, in a funny way, I feel I've won already! I am the girl who did her homework. I hope that once everyone gets beyond the title, they'll realise that the book's not bashing boys in any way. But I think the title 'Girls Are Different And Worth Noting' is probably not as interesting."

It might not be as interesting a title, but "girls are different" is certainly a view to which Toksvig, as parent of both sexes, would subscribe. "Is raising boys different from raising girls? Oh my goodness, yes! It's a different species, and I love them for that. I think we do both sexes a disservice if we try to make them more equal. They're not equal; they're different, and we should celebrate the differences.

"With my daughters, it didn't matter how much it was not my thing, we went through two truly horrible pink phases. I bought an awful lot of Barbie rubbish, and it was a great day when I was allowed to send Barbie's house to the skip. That was one of the best days of my life. As far as my son's concerned... I am a pacifist, I do not believe in war-mongering of any kind. I didn't buy him guns – he turned empty loo rolls into machine guns. What can I tell you? From the time he could point and indicate what he wanted, if a visitor came to see him, he would point and point until I took him outside, lifted the bonnet of their car, and showed him the engine. Where does that come from? He's just a boy, and I think it's fantastic, I celebrate it."

It certainly sticks two fingers up at anyone who might argue that an all-female environment might not be best for nurturing a young boy. Toksvig's children, you see, were – as everyone knew back in 1994 when she beat the tabloids to the then-potentially career-shattering revelation that she was gay – conceived by her now ex-partner, using sperm donated by a pal, and 10p syringes from Boots. "You know what?" she says, "I think kids are in your temporary care and that they probably arrive with pretty much the personalities they're going to have. I grew up in a perfectly traditional family and turned out how I did. I'm not sure there's much that the family can do except lots of love and lots of care and lots of chances for them to develop the best they can."

For Toksvig's son, that means being home-schooled so he can fit in full-time tennis training. "I was determined that he wouldn't give that up," she explains. "He loves it and I would hate it if he grew up and turned to me and said: 'You didn't let me follow my dream.'"

That didn't happen to her, did it? Cue huge guffaws. "No, no! My parents let me do whatever I liked!"

Toksvig had an utterly unique childhood. Her father, Claus Toksvig, was a famous broadcaster ("he was the Richard Dimbleby of Denmark") who, during her formative years, was the American news correspondent for Danish television. This was the 1960s, a tumultuous era in US history, and Toksvig had first-hand experience of key events because of her dad.

"I've been watching the American elections with tremendous interest because my father used to take us out of school to follow them back in the 1960s. In 1968, for example, we followed all the candidates around all the campaign trails. We went to the Republican convention, the Democratic convention in Chicago, the year there were big riots. I met all the candidates – Nelson Rockefeller, George McGovern etc. So I have a tremendous passion for that stuff. My father used to believe that that kind of education was more important than school, and I'm sorry that that's not quite available these days. There's no question that I learned a tremendous amount from my dad in that regard, and he didn't quite have the respect for book learning that perhaps other people do. He said there were other ways of learning things."

Toksvig was lucky that her father felt that way: it made him all the more sympathetic when she was expelled from school – not once, but twice. "I think, above all, he thought you should never be bored or passionless – those were his two important watchwords. It wasn't great being thrown out of school but I don't ever remember him being cross about it."

And it certainly didn't do Toksvig any harm. Clearly warming to her theme of great historical moments she has witnessed at close quarters (and responding to the fact that her interviewer's jaw is dropping almost to the ground), she recalls another key event in her childhood and in world history. "We were there when the first Apollo, Apollo 11, went to the moon. There were no security issues in those days. I wandered around mission control in a big cowboy hat, smiling at everybody. I was 11 years old. What a fabulous education. I remember my father sitting down with all the technical drawings and explaining to me how the Saturn 5 rocket worked.

"When it took off, we were a mile away from the rocket which was as close as any human being was allowed to be. When Neil Armstrong stepped on to the moon, I was holding his secretary's hand in mission control."

She may not be able to give them access to space missions or potential presidents, but Toksvig has clearly expended huge amounts of energy and imagination in making her own children's education as fun and varied as possible. She rattles off fondly remembered tales of annual, organised sleepovers in the Egyptian Hall of the British Museum – "we did things like wrapping each other up as mummies, with toilet roll" – and Whose Line is it Anyway-worthy games she has devised in order to entertain and educate.

Now that the children are 20, 18 and 14 years old, does the onset of empty nest syndrome worry her? "No, I don't think so – because I think it's phases of life. It's the next stage. I'm very excited to see what they decide to do with themselves. Empty nest syndrome rather suggests your own life is over and I have a million things that I would like to do when childcare doesn't impact on my life any more, when I feel they're on their way. My own mother, after my dad died, did three degrees in a row. Now, she's 78 and she does art, she does Italian and every morning she does ballet."

Clearly, if genetics are anything to go by, Toksvig won't be looking at anything other than a jam-packed schedule for, oh, at least another three decades. sm

• Girls Are Best is published by Doubleday, priced 7.99.