Unless you renounced your television sometime in the early 2000s, Sue Perkins is a presenter and comedian who needs little introduction. One half of Mel & Sue, and former presenter of The Great British Bake Off, over the last decade Perkins has become a staple of British entertainment television.
In October 2018, we gave people the chance to see her beyond the illuminated rectangle in the corner of their living room as she joined us on stage at Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival to celebrate the publication of her new travel memoir East of Croydon. The book details perkins extraordinary adventures across southern Asia from the Himalayas to Hong Kong, via the tranquil Mekong River and the less tranquil streets of Varanasi.
Ahead of her appearance we caught up with Sue to find out about her book, and when to take heed of a laughing translator.
Hi Sue, what can people expect from your appearance at Southbank Centre?
They can expect me, but without the team of make-up artists, stylists, lighting cameramen and special effects experts who make me appear presentable on the telly. I can seem a little shocking at first, in my unvarnished state, but you’ll get used to it over the course of the evening.
You’re joining us to celebrate the launch of your new book East of Croydon, what is it about?
This is a follow up to my autobiography, Spectacles, and charts my life from 2014 onwards, during which I’ve trotted round a fair chunk of the globe.
Had you done much travelling before 2014?
Prior to 2014 I’d day-tripped to Brighton, showed off for a month every year at the Edinburgh Festival and spent a memorable fortnight in a tower block in Torremolinos in the Costa del Sol. That was about it. The Perkins family are, traditionally, built more for comfort than adventure
You undoubtedly met a great number of people on your travels for this book, are there any in particular that made a notable impact on you?
I was very taken with a woman called Seebagh from the Kreung tribe in Ratanakiri in Northern Cambodia. I immediately connected with her. I listened, with fascination, to her stories. She, in turn, laughed at me. When I returned to camp, I realised I had an enormous pig turd splattered all over my back, which may have accounted for the reason she found me so hilarious.
Secondly, not a person, but an elephant. Onion, the elephant, to be precise. I was lucky enough to spend time at the Elephant Valley Project in Monolokiri, looking after the animals rescued from a life of pain and suffering in the tourism and logging industry. Onion was still grieving over the death of her boyfriend, Bob, and she would walk to their favourite spot every morning and wait for him. It was a privilege to care for her, and spend time in her world for a little while. You can volunteer there, and I thoroughly recommend it.
Were there any places in particular that surprised you, or made a lasting impression?
Luang Prabang in Laos is very special. Everyone had told me how ‘mellow’ and ‘chill’ it was, which was enough to put me off. However, once I’d arrived, a sense of total peace enveloped me. Within moments, I was one pair of tie-dye trousers away from the full hippy. Go there.
If anyone reading this is thinking of trekking the Mekong, what would be your top packing tips?
When I went on my first big trip, I took everything with me; waders, hazmat suits, oxygen tanks, satellite phones, you name it. The more I travelled, the lighter my bag became. You don’t need much; a good pair of shoes, some ear plugs and your anti-malarials (if you’re heading off the beaten track) It may sound hokey, but it’s true - your attitude is way more important than the contents of your suitcase.
Over the course of your trip you found yourself eating some strange things. Any particular highlights, or indeed lowlights?
We would often stay with host families, and in those situations, it’s extremely impolite to refuse their hospitality. I do remember sitting down to a meal of what looked liked barbequed rat and thinking that I’d have to drink heavily in order to cope. Oh, and deep-fried frog is something of an acquired taste.
Are there any key lessons you learned from your travels?
If the translator starts laughing as you put something in your mouth, spit it out immediately. Similarly, if your choice of dinner is making a local giggle, then you can bet it’s not a good choice.
Southbank Centre is the home of literature and spoken word events in the UK, and the venue for London Literature Festival and Poetry International. Throughout the year we host talks, discussions, readings and more featuring bestselling authors, award-winning poets and inspirational writers.
Sue Perkins; travel inspired memoir East of Croydon is published by Michael Joseph and is available now.