Valentine Grey by Sandi Toksvig. This review is by John Cook



Valentine GreyValentine Grey
By Sandi Toksvig

I might try to jog your memory by pointing out that Sandi Toksvig has been on your TV screen if you have been a viewer of Antique Masters, Call My Bluff, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Mock the Week, QI or Have I Got News for You – at the least. Given the company she keeps, it might be a dangerous and lessening comparison to describe her as a female (and feminist) Stephen Fry. Certainly she has a longstanding (and more orthodox (?) lesbian partner to whom she is married with children after a scary period of public calumny.
Her polymath credentials are impeccable with added credits in a range of performing arts and public esteem. ‘She studied law, archaeology and anthropology at Girton College, Cambridge, graduating with a first-class degree and receiving two prizes for outstanding achievement’. Her honours include

2010 – Honorary Doctor of Letters University of Portsmouth
2012 – Honorary Doctor of Letters York St John University
2012 – Honorary Doctor of Letters University of Surrey
2012 – Honorary Fellowship Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge

She is currently Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth

All considered not bad for a Danish born small and dumpy (pardon) feminist lesbian who was difficult to educate. (’She was sent to an English boarding school at 14 after being thrown out of a number of US schools (“the last one, they had a ridiculous rule about being there every day!”)’). Today she presents as a highly literate, worldly, wryly witty comedian and TV and radio personality and is touring with a presentation based on Valentine.

This book has a wildly unlikely premise with a boyish girl educated in the wilds of British Assam returning to the highly restrictive world of turn of the century London where she swaps roles with her gay cousin Reggie who views staying with his elegant stage-bound boyfriend Frank as being much more desirable than journeying off to the adventure (?) of the Boer war as part of a volunteer bicycle force (I’m not kidding).

I spent time initially rolling along with the unfolding tale seeing it as a piece of mildly interesting feminism though troubled by the mounting improbabilities. All this fell away once the unlikely force set off for the Boer war and was gradually engulfed (literally) by this totally new form of warfare that spawned the concept of guerrilla warfare and the concentration camp. This was extremely well done and quite engrossing highlighting the beginning of the process of the ‘public’ war where first-hand feedback began to find its way back to the largely manipulated people at home. Anyone following the wars from Vietnam onwards has got to be aware of the pitch to which this has been elevated in modern times. Even the bicycle force looks less ridiculous when placed against reminders of the role it had as an engine of social change for men and women and all classes.

All told an interesting and engaging read from a woman of great intellectual depth and breadth who is also skilled at engaging public interest. She has recently published the euphonious ‘Heroines & Harridans – A Fanfare of Fabulous Females’ and ‘Peas & Queues: The Minefield of Modern Manners’. As a student of social anthropology particularly applied to aspects of ‘manners’ and etiquette, I hope to read this latter this year and will try to report on it.


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