A strange email arrives: could I send my address so that a proper invitation to the Women of the Year Lunch can be sent by post. How exciting! It was at least better-spelt spam than the usual dodgy offers.
Slightly dubiously, I gave them my address, and then waited. I wondered who might have sent in my name, and accused a few friends whom I thought might have been likely to bother sending off a note about my amazing achievements. My family denied responsibility, seeing as I had done nothing worthy. One friend, Gill – who had nominated our project for a Green Corner award a couple of years ago for being accessible to wheelchair users – said, “It’s obviously a scam,” with a kind of ‘who’d invite you’ subtext.
A posh engraved invitation arrived in the post. This looked very promising!
The administrator rang me with a query about doing some press, and I took the opportunity to quiz her – what had I done, who had nominated me for the prize, was it my mum? “It’s for your work saving the Chiswick House Kitchen Garden,” said the administrator, “Firstly, you are not nominated for a prize, you are all Women of the Year. And – it was the President of the organisation who put your name forward.” Appreciation from someone I didn’t know personally, now this was seriously exciting!
I signed up for the @womanoftheyear twitterfeed, and began to be forwarded various tweets. Soon other ‘nominees’ began to fret in their tweets about what to wear. I put it to the back of my mind.
But a few days before the event I realised that though I had a wide selection of gardening clothes, generously mud-bespattered, I needed something nice to wear to this posh luncheon. I did have a few decent rags, and a friend brought round a selection of designer tops from her extensive wardrobe so I was sorted. Although obviously we Women of the Year are all well above such considerations.
I pitched up at the Intercontinental Hotel in Park Lane on a brisk day in October. On the way in I met another invitee, in cycle kit, desperately looking for a back entrance so she could change into her glad rags. She peeled off and cut through the tradesman’s back door. At the proper entrance, a crowd of photographers were flashing at Kathy Lette, asking her to pose, walk in, walk in again. Another lady and I stood aside and waited for a clear run. Then we sprinted through, though we needn’t have bothered, the paparazzi were interested in the showbiz girls – Kathy, Juliet Stevenson, Esther Rantzen, Lulu, Ruby Wax…
Inside the foyer was a terrifying melee of women; I hadn’t seen so many in one place since school assembly, and we never dared to talk so loudly. Lots of Mwah! Mwah! airkissing on powdered cheeks was going on. I went and hid in the loo and looked at my programme. Any chance I would know anyone?
The programme was thrilling. There were people like Julia “Gruffalo” Donaldson, Dame Margaret “posh anorak” Barbour, Gail “please publish my book” Rebuck… but I wouldn’t recognise them face to face. Then there were the recognisable ones I would likewise never dare greet: Theresa May, Shami Chakrabarti the terrifying Camila Batmanghelidj, Bianca Jagger…
The vast majority were unknown to me, and the programme gave each of us a brief description. I was ‘Writer and Gardener’. I emerged from the loo, adjusted my lipstick and finally plucked up courage to join the fray. Everyone was milling around trying to look discreetly at the other women’s bosoms where the name badges gave clues to our identities, and then making stilted conversation. The male waiters, looking scared and out-numbered, were threading their way nervously through the crowds with drinks. The general flow was towards the flag of our respective table numbers, where a hostess – a formidable member of the organization – was awaiting.
In charge of our table was Diana Makgill, terrifyingly described in the programme as ‘Protocol Consultant and Past President, Women of the Year.’ She was clearly one of the great and good, who have kept the Empire flying throughout the centuries; she turned out to have a brilliant sense of humour and be great fun, and soon put us at our ease. Around her were clustered our table of women – two members of the Archers cast (Peggy, aged 92 and Pat), a bagpipe player, a reverend, a gardener and a farmer. Later we were joined by Eve Pollard, one of the first female editors of a national newspaper, and a confident longtimer at these lunches. She would tell a funny anecdote to illustrate how all sorts of women achievers met at these lunches; grovelling under the table for her glasses a few years ago she had felt something cold and wet touch her cheek. Terrified it was a rat, she had almost upended the table in her terror, only to discover it was the nose of the collie belonging to a prize-winning shepherdess. In normal life, when does one ever get the chance to sit at a table with the likes of a bagpipe player, a shepherdess, a newspaper editor, a reverend or a bemedalled soldier?
We made our way to our table. I looked at the little place names telling us where to sit: a rev on one side, an hon on the other – I would have to behave. Suddenly I saw a woman I recognised, a mum from my son’s school – we had stood on many a muddy towpath cheering our sons rowing over the years. At last I too could do “Mwah! Mwah!” I sat down much cheered.
Then Sandi Toksvig began her MC spiel and, between the laughs, I began to understand the point of the event. This lunch was “to celebrate women’s achievements and provide an environment in which women might meet.” Sandi picked out a few notable women around the room – Hetty Bower, 106 and still campaigning for peace; Helen Alexander, ex-head of the CBI and Economist; Naveeda Ikram, first female Muslim Lord Mayor; Lucy Shuker, first women’s rep on the Rugby Football Union council – and encouraged us all to talk to one another and hear one another’s stories.
Between each course there was dry wit from Sandi Toksvig, a couple of rude sketches from Maureen Lipman, and stories about amazing women. We ended up laughing and crying. I had gone there in a rather sceptical frame of mind – what’s so great about sisterhood, give me a hunky man any time, and do we really need an event like this any more? – but I was completely won over. Around the packed tables women in twinsets and pearls, women in military uniform, women in hijabs, women in botox – we all shared the same risqué jokes and the same mutual respect at our achievements.
And as the good food was devoured, the particular awards were given out. We were all Women of the Year, but some were even more special. Jackie Millerchip had been voted for by viewers of Lorraine’s ITV programme for providing an amazing daycare facility in her home for children with learning difficulties and their families. Katie Piper, a model whose face had been horribly scarred by an acid attack, and who had set up a charity to bring medical improvements to other scarred people, won a Sainsbury’s “You Can” award and gave such a mature and moving speech we all wiped back a few tears of respect. Dr Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian novelist and activist, gave a rousing speech of old-style anti-imperialism and feminist enthusiasm, shaking her white plaits and beaming with the biggest smile around. A very graphic but moving film showed young soldiers in Afghanistan being blown to pieces, before two young men stepped up to give an award to the team of surgeons, nurses, physios and therapists who had helped stick them back together (Debby Edwards, Victoria Mulleady, Sgt Lauren Odell , Kate Sherman, Surgeon Commander Sarah Stapley and Sarah Winters). And finally Lulu, who had apparently fallen literally into a pool of shit in Vietnam on her last charitable trip was awarded a Sacla Lifetime Achievement Award.
We were all happy to be pipped by Lulu who looked so thrilled with her award. We swallowed down our little champagne ice cream cornets before they melted into our laps and prepared to grab our goodie bags (mascara, a cook book by Laurence Dallaglio, a novel, a nail varnish, a tea bag and a note pad – all very girly and much appreciated) and wend our way home.
I know I was feeling humbled by what some of these women had gone through, and what they had achieved, and how they had come out the other end to achieve such things. I resolved to try and achieve something so I could be invited back again.
And as we rose to go, Sandi Toksvig called after us. “And don’t waste time cleaning your houses. No-one ever achieved anything because of having a clean house. No-one ever loved you for your clean house!” And I thought, hmmm, that’s good advice!