Borscht and Fame
That was the moment when I first received a text message from R. - a friend of mine, a writer and a member of the Savile Club in Mayfair, London, saying: "Have you seen the article in The Telegraph? Was that about you?".
I knew that R. was in the process of moving his house busily packing the belongings, so he won't just drop the boxes to draw my attention to something insufficiently important. But an article about me? There was certainly nothing that I've planned to get into the papers, my life was in a quiet low mode as I was trying to beat the anxiety caused by our own house move earlier that year and to restore my normal sleep. His message was out of the blue and left me puzzled.
I've replied: "About me or the club?".
But R. sounded certain: "I'm sure it's about you. Can't think of anyone else. But let me get to the other house and forward it to you."
Living in a remote rural village with no shop or post office, I couldn't just pop down the road and grab a copy of The Telegraph. All I had was the internet which showed me no recent articles mentioning my name or anything I was involved with. So I gave it no further thought and tried to focus on finding the blasted gloves. That beetroot had to be cooked or it would go off in a couple of days!
Next message came from another friend online who actually did forward me a link to The Telegraph's article claiming that "sex-swap Savile member" was still "part of the club".
Here I must explain why R. and the others associated it with me.
You see, I am what is described these days 'a transgender woman'. Personally, I don't care much about the labels or definitions. In my infancy I told my parents I was a girl and it was a mistake to call me a boy. They've told me to shut up and march on. Two marriages later and still struggling to find inner peace, I've been diagnosed with a gender dysphoria and prescribed the relevant medication which did change my face and body to a degree and made me finally recognise myself in the mirror.
Nevertheless, I've struggled trying to keep it a secret and to pose as a male in professional and social life. In my days, it was shameful and peculiar to be a transsexual, a transgender, a transwhatever - except in the logistics.
I had a fairly successful male life and was gladly accepted in the male circles, joining golf clubs, gentlemen-only private members' clubs, etc. Even though I've always perceived men as the opposite sex. But I have rarely flirted with them.
However, there came a day when to the world at large I started to appear more of a woman, so I have happily accepted that role too and continued my transition. Because it was me and because throughout my life I have always had both male and female experiences - but they are the subject of my next book! And not in the least, because, like I said, I don't care much about the labels.
At the Savile Club, which I have joined some years ago in an attempt to immerse myself in the world of male interests and pursuits in a hope of finding anything which would appeal to me and bring out whatever male is in me, I was gradually getting questioning looks. Rarely disapproving, more curious. Members were talking behind my back discussing whether I am a 'he' or a 'she'. One of the elderly members, fuelled by the wine after lunch, tried jokingly to flirt with me pretending he didn't recognise me, which made me laugh. Another old standing member, having woken up from a snooze in the famous elaborately decorated members' bar, routinely enquired in a loud voice across the room: "So, have you changed your sex or not?!".
Things were heating up. My cover was blown by my appearance, I could no longer fool them. But Savile was the first club where I have really struck great friendships, got to know so many of its wonderful members, enjoyed the club events, contributed to the club newsletter. I have always loved the food and the rooms and the company. It was and remains to me my London 'home away from home'.
The Club Committee was raising eyebrows about me too. For one of the last 'gentlemen-only' clubs in London it was a rather sensitive matter - allowing me to continue my membership despite my female appearance. The battle for the female membership of the traditional gentlemen's clubs in London has been going on for decades. When Carlton Club started accepting women as its members - a few dozens of its long standing members resigned and moved on to the remaining 'gentlemen-only' clubs - the Travellers, Savile, Whites (where they have joined a looooong queue), Brooks's, Boodle's, Turf, Bucks. Even such great celebrities like Joanna Lumley, not only a talented actress but an influential public figure, weren't able to make some of these establishments to bend their rules. There were heated campaigns for and against, numerous debates and votes and letters of support, and yet.... The Clubland is reluctant to change. So, what chance did I have?...
Savile Club's motto is "Sodalitas Convivium" which can be roughly translated as "a feast of friends". 'Sodalitas' stands for 'comradeship/solidarity' and 'convivium' - 'entertainment/feast'. Basically, it means 'a group of friends united by their interests and sympathies engaged in the entertaining feasts (a lot of which are liquid!)'. And the entertainment is usually provided by the very members themselves. Such a description of the club ethos makes the element of the members' friendship, their ability to get along with each other and enjoy each other's company - of the paramount importance. And, I guess, that was what saved me.
I didn't want to leave the club I loved. Its members didn't want to see me going. Despite many of them being ultra-traditional in their views - they have realised that people like me can exist in their own world and can be an enjoyable company. They have widened their criteria of acceptance. They have welcomed me in all my entirety.
As long as I comply with the dress code! Because the dress code is almost as important as the Bible and is the core of the most clubs' rules!
Well, I had no problem with that. A suit? A jacket at least? Presentable appearance? No problem! A liberation of the female dress in the 20th century allows us now to dress in female or gender neutral suits and thus comply with the club dress code while looking fabulous. I must admit I still have one or two male suits as well and even wear them occasionally, not too often, but when I feel like it. Because girls like wearing male clothes too!..
...But let me get back to my media rise to obscure anonymous fame!...
The article in the Telegraph was describing an allegedly recent, revolutionary, decision, allegedly made by the Club Committee, while I was merely a subject to a private and unrecorded members' decision at one of the Committee meetings two or three years ago. The 'sex-swap dad' at the centre of the story was in his 30s, married, with two kids. I was well over 30 and the number of kids wasn't correct either, which made me doubt (with some temporary sense of relief) that the story was about me. I went online to double check with the other club members who are always 'in the know' about everything. "Oh, it's about you alright, we don't have others like that" - was their verdict.
Blimey! Now there was no doubt about it. Here was I, a struggling writer, who once aspired to become a barrister (and, eventually, a judge!), with years of professional experience and creative achievements in various fields, destined to become a part of the history of the club which proudly displays the Oscars and the Noble prizes won by its members in the glass cabinets, but what was I to be remembered for? - Becoming its first transgender female member... Not even a female member, like would have been Joanna Lumley, but a 'transgender female' - immediately dismissed by the radical feminists for being just another product of the patriarchy designed to deny the 'real women' their rights.
"Never mind! It's just one article! I lay low and it will be easily forgotten tomorrow!" - I was trying to calm myself. The anxiety from moving the house was not only back but spinning like a fairground ride - all in blinding lights giving me a headache untameable by ibuprofen.
"Stiff upper lip! Remember?" - advised me another online friend - "Be above the journos, they are nothing but the nuisance!". I tried to imagine myself with a stiff upper lip - but for no good reason I kept on seeing an image of Terry Thomas. With his trademark moustache. I like the moustache - just not on me...
At that point another friend has sent me a link to a cruder rougher article in the Mail on Sunday, and suggested I install PressReader app to monitor whatever may follow. I did. He was right. The was another article in the Express... and then another one - in the Evening Standard.
"Oh, well! They are nearly done now!" - thought I to myself. "The Times would clearly ignore such a subject - especially since there's no name mentioned. The Sun won't do it without any saucy pictures.".
I went through the photo folders on my computer trying to find one.
My partner, aware of all that media fuss, passed me by: "Trying to find a selfie suitable for a glossy mag cover?"
I nodded and showed her one of my 'innocent looking' ones.
"I'd go for some of you wearing sunglasses. Keep the mystery!" - she said with a smile.
"But then they won't see my beautiful eyes! They are my best feature" - I tried to protest.
Instead of my beautiful eyes, the articles were illustrated with some photos of the young male models awkwardly posing in the Savile interiors, looking uncomfortably stiff, Stephen Fry, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and John Le Carre.
"Why them? Why do they get all the media exposure when the article is about me?" - I complained to my partner.
"Aren't you just back from the church? Pray for the deliverance from your vanity!" - she replied - "I would doubt they are happy illustrating these articles either. But they have no choice, they are in the public domain! So enjoy your anonymity for now!".
At least there were beautiful glorious photographs of the Savile club interiors. I thought it was good to show them once again to the readers - as a member, I felt rather proud of my club, but I doubted that the club was proud of me generating all that publicity. But - hang on! I didn't! I made no effort in that direction whatsoever - it must have been one of the other members enjoying claret with some young members of the Press Association or similar bunch of people who were on the look out for a scandalous story from the secret world of clubs...
On Monday The Times has followed the story... being more aware of the dangers of misgendering these days, they've politely referred to me as her and described me in 'her thirties' unlike a few other papers before them. Online they've illustrated it with a portrait of Stephen Fry which has prompted heated debates among the readers whether he was my husband.
And, finally, I saw a few lines in The Sun (they were still probably waiting for my saucy pictures!).
Things were getting serious. I have found my story on the news syndicating websites among the 'news trendsetters' and the 'really important' news. In the world full of wars, hunger, slavery, terrorism and economic decline I was making the headlines just by daring to wear a mascara in the boys' club. Is that not odd? A private life story, a private decision of the members of a private club - was of the utmost importance to the complete strangers worldwide.
The new articles kept on coming out: ten, seventeen, 39, 96 and counting.... PressReader was telling me that in South Africa I was referred to as a 'female member with a twist', in Italy - no less than 'prima donna', in France it sounded like a romantic movie - 'a woman in the club of men', and in Australia, with their typical sense of humour, the headline claimed that 'you don't need a member to stay in this men's club'. The majority of publications struggled working out my age and the age of the Savile Club, so the reports differed even though they all must have had initially the same source of information. Reuters, AFP, RIA Novosti... Within less than 48 hours my story was reported in Ireland, South Africa, USA, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Hungary, France, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, Greece, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Israel, Morocco, Lebanon, Kuwait, India, Malaysia, Cambodia, Japan, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Uruguay, etc.
As usual, things were getting easily lost in translation - from just being allegedly 'in my thirties' I quickly became '30 years of age' and the Savile Club in the Russian media became 'the oldest London gentlemen-only club' which you could 'only join being no less than 30 years of age and having no less than two children'! Not such a bad suggestion, by the way! Maybe my friends from the Savile Club Committee should take heed! All them under-30 youngsters cause too much noise and havoc at the club on Fridays!
"OMG! You are a celebrity!" - wrote to me another online friend - "You are famous!!!"
"Anonymously famous!" - I had to correct her - "If there is such a thing! Like 'an international super-spy'".
"Don't joke about spies! The world is soooo paranoid about these things!" - she warned me.
About a hundred printed publications worldwide were complemented by an even larger coverage in online media. I've been praised on twitter for 'having balls to transition in such a club', thanked for 'bravely starting a clubland revolution and paving a way for other women to follow', cursed for ruining traditional British values and exclusively male environments - the last retreats for men away from women (why?!), listed along with the 'inspiring transgender stories', blamed for being 'a wrong kind of a transgender' person - because who in their right mind would want to belong to a male only club and crucified by the radical feminists for becoming a 'yet another hero of the patriarchy' upholding the male supremacy in this world! How about that... how did I achieve so much over a relatively quiet weekend? Just trying to find the gloves to peel the beetroot in...
Titles of some of the online followers bewildered even my imagination - for example, I have never heard before that about the LGBT Catholic Union of Japan!
But, to be honest, I was getting worried - if my story mattered so much in so many different ways to so many people worldwide - would they stop at just reporting and discussing it? Or will they try to find out who I am? I have been stalked in my life before and I won't want to experience that again. Will I wake up with paparazzi against my windows and TV crews on my front lawn ? (Because the BBC also called this weekend assuring me of the best and honest TV coverage of my story!).
"Relax! By Friday all these news will be wrapping up fish and chips!" - wrote another friend.
That night I didn't sleep well, again. Instead I was partying at Studio 54 in the Big Apple with Andy Warhol.
"I think my fame lasted longer than the fifteen minutes you have promised" - I said, sipping a cocktail.
"Well, yes, but your fame has no name!" - replied he smiling through his shades.
...By Wednesday I was yesterday's news, back into the obscurity...
Unaware of all the kerfuffle, R. has soon sent me the article from which it all started...
I have finally found the gloves, peeled the beetroot and made a wonderful pot of Borscht.
Then I thought I should write this.
My partner smiled at my vanity yet again: "Want to re-live your fame? Buy fish and chips on Friday!".