Stratford is a part of London I'm not very familiar with, so it was with interest I headed there on Friday 22 February to see the author, presenter and comedian Sandi Toksvig in conversation about her latest book, 'Valentine Grey', at Stratford East Picturehouse.
Of Stratford itself I can say very little, other than that the station I arrived at links to a huge, modern looking shopping complex. It took me a while to establish which exit I needed to take to get to the venue. There were apparently two picturehouses, according to a London Underground employee who got a little bit frustrated with me when I asked for directions. I told him I needed to be on the Great Eastern Road. "Ah!" he said "In that case you need to cross the bridge above us, go over it, and down the stairs at the other side. Brings you right out on the Great Eastern Road". "Great" I replied "And how do I get up to the bridge?" (I couldn't see a lift or stairs). "You go up!" he said. "I know that, directly above us you said - but how do I get there?". In slightly more agitated tone: "You take the stairs. Or the lift." (At last, I thought, we were finally getting somewhere). "And where are they then?" At this he sighs and rolls his eyes, then simply points a finger directly out in front of him. I turned to face the direction he was pointing in, only to see a throng of people heading in and out of the station. "So I walk straight ahead? Or straight ahead and turn left perhaps? Or right?" Or maybe he simply wanted me to stand directly below the bridge and jump, bionic man style, up to the walkway itself? With a look of exasperation he began to walk me towards the spot he was apparently pointing to. I stopped him however and said "It's fine, I think I can take it from here thanks" and shook his hand to thank him for all his help. The lifts and stairwell were in fact hidden around a corner directly ahead. I was relieved to find them, as by now I was running quite tight for time. But once over the bridge it was very easy to find the venue and I made it there with around 10 minutes to spare.
The talk was arranged as part of the 35th anniversary celebrations of Newham Bookshop, an independent, not-for-profit community bookseller, based in East London. Newhams' owner, Vivian Archer, introduced Sandi, along with Virago publisher Lennie Goodings, who would be the interviewer for the evening. The conversation took place in screen 2, a large but very dimly lit auditorium. In fact, it was so dim that there were cries of 'we can't see!' and also 'we can't hear!', so both lights and audio were tweaked to address the problems.
Sandi read out an extract from Valentine Grey and entertained the audience with many anecdotes. One of my favourites was about her application to audition for her first television role, in a children's programme which I believe was called 'No.73'. The ad for the job asked for candidates to send in a photograph. Sandi, being new then to the whole process, assumed a photo-booth style picture would suffice and subsequently went along to one to have some pictures taken. Due to her petite stature, she was unable to set the stool in the booth to the required height to ensure her whole face was in the photograph. Hence, the end result showed an image of Sandi's face cut off just under the nose area! When the programme makers received the application and photo they were highly amused, thinking it was a deliberate attempt at humour, and so Sandi was invited along to audition! The producers were suitably impressed and she subsequently got the job, presenting the show from 1982 to 1986.
Sandi's CV is very diverse. In a comment from The Guardian on the back of one of her books that I bought at the event this evening, 'Heroines and Harridans: A Fanfare of Fabulous Females', it said 'she makes Stephen Fry look like a layabout'. Which is a fair comment. She has written more than 20 books (for both children and adults), a musical, a TV series, performed in many comedy shows and a number of stage plays, and is currently presenter of The News Quiz on BBC Radio 4, to name just some of her achievements.
After a question and answer session with the audience to close the talk, she reappeared outside in the bar area to sign copies of her latest books. I was amongst the first in the queue and, along with my signed copy, managed to get Sandi's civil partner Debbie (a photographer as luck would have it!) to take a picture of us together.
She was very nice to talk to and happily chatted away with everyone she was signing for. After getting my book signed I headed straight over to the bar, where I noticed they served Meantime beers (one of my favourite brewers) and enjoyed a couple of bottles of their wonderful pale ale, before finally deciding to head home.