Between the Stops: The View of My Life from the Top of the Number 12 Bus by Sandi Toksvig

Reviewed by Angela Marie

“I have in my time sailed around Britain, canoed across Africa and crossed both America and Europe not once but several times. Yet the 7.71-mile route of London’s Number 12 bus stands equal to all those journeys. I cannot think of a trip with greater diversity or a more wonderful sense of history. I had not realised until I really looked that there are hardly any women memorialised in this great city. Almost every street name and every statue stands as a tribute to a man, a white man, usually a rich one…. The travelling bus has unexpectedly given me new feminist purpose.”       (from the Postface)

Between the Stops may not be a book to read once only. This is a rich and multi-layered tapestry embroidered with poignant emotions, semi-random witticisms, cultural perspectives, and brilliant observations, historical and otherwise. Reading Between the Stops is like watching a master craftsperson layer a quilt stitch by stitch. Tacking memories, knowledge, wisdom and everyday life together into something wondrous yet utilitarian. Yet where to start? Hop on the bus.

Sandi Toksvig is a self-confessed lover, nay, a devotee, of the detail of history. And a lover of riding the Number 12 bus, an ideal spot for observing the flow of interactions, trends and habits. For observing life. And for giving a raw and intimate account of it and its anomalies. She has amassed and references a substantial personal library of books on the histories of London. That great city is where the Number 12 bus meanders on its course between Dulwich Library in SE London to BBC Broadcasting House in the centre. In the author’s musings one can almost hear the echo of footsteps over the centuries.

Between the Stops is, without doubt, one of the most interesting autobiographies this reviewer has read. There is a skilled parry and thrust between now and then, personal and public, political and pedestrian, humour and introspection. Whilst reading Between the Stops one has to hang on for the ride. There are serious reminders of the lack of acknowledgements for the feats of women, and a lament for the disintegration of old London amid the rise of posh apartments. There are lessons in kindness, courage and consideration simply told from the heart. And there is a reality check. ” I like to think we can all get on but I know that is far too simplistic a view. History matters. It leaves scars and indelible marks.” 

We encounter a veritable universe of players, past and present. William Blake, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Alexander Pope, Bjorn of ABBA fame, Freud, and so on and so on, for that is London, an historical and contemporary melting pot. Yet the author herself remains one of the most interesting characters in this memoir. A child from Denmark with a Danish journalist-and-more father and a British-born mother who was a studio manager for the BBC. A child transplanted to various African countries and then to American schools (from which she was asked to leave on three occasions). A further move to boarding school in England at fourteen, and finding that the loneliness of school life did not match the stories of Enid Blyton. But above all, this is a story of resilience and integrity, and love. And an ability to enjoy life and its challenges, and to put these into perspective and to sail on pass them.

The vehicle for this memoir is the bus journey where every stop tumbles forth present-day observations, quirky historical musings, tales of local characters and links to the author’s life experiences. So, the reader traverses through areas with names both familiar and unfamiliar, whilst marvelling at the conveyed minutiae and appreciating the wit and dry humour. Goodrich Road, Underhill Road, Westminster Station, Piccadilly Circus. The journey continues with this well-balanced blend of fact and observation, drawn with the level of detail that readily allows the mind to paint its pictures. On Byron, “He liked to play in the nearby Dulwich Woods and ‘chat to the vagabonds’ – which sounds jolly, if politically incorrect. When he went to study at Cambridge, he kept a tame bear and used to take it for walks like a dog. I expect he was annoying.”

Sandi Toksvig can be self-deprecating, calling herself with glee “the mad woman at the top of the bus”. She does not shower herself with the accolades she has earned. And there are many, including co-founding the Women’s Equality Party in 2015 and her pivotal role as emcee in the 2017 Women’s March on London, which brought the city to a halt. She wears many hats, comedian, author, playwright, radio and television presenter, having hosted The News Quiz, The Great British Bake Off and, more recently, QI. Regarding work opportunities, she acknowledges that sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time. Perhaps her wit and intellect have more to do with this. 

Paying homage to her more than forty years of stage, screen and radio in Britain, she was awarded an OBE for Services to Broadcasting in 2014. Celebrity aside, reading Between the Stops gives an impression that her proudest moments lie with her family, her three children and her spouse. She celebrates life as a mother, a daughter, a lover, a gay activist, a feminist, and, most certainly, a loyal friend. Read every word of this book. To the final page.

Between the Stops: The View of My Life from the Top of the Number 12 Bus

(2019)

by Sandi Toksvig

Hachette/ Virago

ISBN 978-0-349-00638-3

432pp; $32.99 (ppb)

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