JoyFest: Eric drives North for a Very Exciting Adventure

HH (Handsome Husband) announced some time ago that we had been invited to the annual PartyFest hosted by dear friends whose company is rare given the distance between our homes; given our joint commitments we struggled to make a decision.

I confess however, to some reticence; sleeping in Eric, our darling but ancient VW Camper and dressing up in garb other than my normal wear isn’t really my thing … and this one presented a Gold theme. Hmm. And Hmmmm again.

Last week was (another) tough one and by Friday I was shouty, tearful, belligerent and utterly fed up, so when our Hostess called to check our attendance, I capitulated: It’s not Hackney … and I just have to get out of here! I cried and despite our last-minute acceptance of a kind invitation, we were welcomed with open arms into an event that was JoyFest pure and simple.

Eric chugged gently towards Coventry arriving at our deep-country destination early afternoon; we set ourselves down amongst fellow glampers and venturing to the house found a rich landscape that stretched as far as the eye could see taking in myriad fields, trees, sheep and a beautiful lake. Hosts and old friends of HH welcomed us into the fold, drinks were served and gentle music lapped around us as we relaxed into our new surroundings. After a delicious lunch I retreated into Eric for a deep two-hours sleep until murmurings of music beyond woke me and I prepared for the evening’s shenanigans.

Despite the last-minute decision to attend, HH had overnight attended to the dress code: T-Shirts bore large gold hearts and our sprayed trainers shone brightly … we were ready.

Those with more time to prepare had gone all-out; sparkling cloaks, crazy headgear and sequined skirts, slacks and frocks abounded together with lighted headgear and more; within these outré outfits were some of the most interesting, kind and friendly folk with whom I am now happily acquainted.

Our first conversation with a young newlywed couple was joyful; these two were clearly made for each other, sparkling with love and life. Conversation number two evolved with a gentleman who opened with a tale of his first visit to the Torture Garden where, having been advised to wear ‘uniform’ he dressed as a butler. A German lady announced that he might make a splendid slave and ordered him to find a leash and collar, which were duly attached to him.

Hmm, as I considered revised expectation … I didn’t know it was this kind of a party …. Gentle reader, it was not and my as new friend moved on to other more salubrious tales of here and there I found him to be engaging and funny.

Things rolled along beautifully; this set of HH’s friends I have met only a few times given they are spread across the country and it was good to get to know them better. Everyone was camping one way or another and whilst my past experiences of muddy fields and filthy loos turned me off the whole festival experience, this was a Whole Different Thing, civilised, organised and just fine by me.

The night progressed, we danced, we chatted; a Veterinary Surgeon and his Primatologist wife were bedecked in spangles, sequins and silk, she with an impressive gold feathered headdress. These two were super-fun and we spoke extensively over the course of the night, our conversations punctuated with the meeting of minds of others, all interesting to a fault. A key party player was affable and charming Dr D; in golden military jacket he cut a fine figure and seemed to be everywhere all at once.

Deciding that this time I would mind my intake, I added a full glass of water to a shot of whisky declaring to an interested party that over the course of a night water can be so effing dull … the upshot of this diluted cocktail imbibed throughout is … no hangover.

As I weaved my way back and forth to Eric to top up my whisky-water, I witnessed much and many goings on; the most compelling was the vision through opaque canvas of a lighted headdress moving up and down in an interestingly slow, measured way … so tempted was I to see who emerged it took a will of iron to move along and allow those inside their privacy. Thereon, I studied everyone with such headgear wondering … was it you? Who were you with?

Another amusing episode as I occupied the most hygienic Portaloo ever, was a ruckus coming from two doors down – it sounded busy in there and as I emerged from mine, five people tipped out of another tiny cubicle … I mean, crikey, five? They were in jolly good spirits, amused by something I wish I knew more about.

As the night wore on and a chill pierced the air, the gathering slowly ebbed and flowed into The Barn where DJs blasted great tunes across the dancefloor, a beautifully organised bar served cocktails to the increasingly lively and very happy guests. Outside a fire was lit, encircled by folk perched on tree stumps whilst murmured conversations filtered from one to another, a beautiful girl almost melted into the tree against which she leant, staring sleepily into the flames.

Mum and Dad PartyFest were present throughout; this being their home they have hosted the party for many years, now handing the baton to the next generation, hence our presence there. These two were equally bedecked in fabulous gear, she in sequined loon pants and he in a flowing golden gown they were the life and soul partying late into the night, celebrating 50 years of marriage.

It was also an event of more general celebration; to a Birthday Guest was presented an opulent and beautifully decorated cake commissioned from a Bake-Off contestant and the recent history of which I was told had to be kept from her, for it had fallen not once but twice. Perfectly reconstructed, set on a gently spinning platter and bedecked with sparklers, the confection seemed no worse for its adventures.

Sometime before the sun set, a party photo was organised with around 100 golden guests gleefully responding to the patient photographer. An interesting piece of social commentary would be to see this image taken again with everyone in their civvies and workwear for, given the sheer variety of professions, skills and careers of those present it would be another Whole Different Thing.

As we alternated between Barn and Fire, the sun set and a full Strawberry Moon rose into the night sky, a thing of great beauty. The fall of darkness meant HH could embark on a spot of fire-spinning, which preceded a fabulous firework display, both sparkly performances eliciting Ooohs and Ahhhs from those present. There followed a gracious delivery of thanks from Next Generation Host to her predecessors – very moving and absolutely right.

For HH and me, the night drew to a close and in the early hours we slipped away to Eric, donning layers and layers of protection from the very chill air, sinking into our soft feather pillows and under a big fluffy duvet drifted into peaceful slumber.

The morning arrived clear, sunny and very warm; a Burrito Breakfast* was the best I have had in years, enhanced by the company of The Sussex Two, whose own bash we attended last year.

Breakfast and goodbyes over, we embarked on our return journey with happy hearts and despite the lack of hangover by the time we arrived back I craved something more to pop me back into shape. Within half an hour Gigi’s Reboot Salad* was on our plates providing the energy and impetus for this blog, which I write to confess my original reticence and how very misplaced it really was.

To the lovely man who shared his menthol filters with me, thank you.
To Blue and co-DJs who spun the most excellent tunes, thank you.
To those who cooked, served and ameliorated everything, thank you.
To the fine and lovely folk who made me feel so welcome, thank you.
Most of all, to our Hosts of generations both, thank you.

© Giovanna Forte 2023

Below: This Is Not Hackney

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Fanfare: The Noble Rot Mayfair

The email was addressed to Noble Rot Friends and Family; it was a first-come-first-served invitation to the brand new Mayfair soft launch. Happily, at 7:23pm on a Friday, I was still slaving over a hot keyboard and replied in seconds.

Just days later, Handsome Husband (HH) and I strolled the lanes of Mayfair’s once infamous red-light district, arriving at No 5 Trebeck Street on time. Outside, the familiar branding and bold autumnal notes of Noble Rot décor greeted us. Within, the carefully planned interior maximises covers without crowding – a dark art rarely mastered by many restaurateurs. Once seated, the very faint perfume of fresh paint was the only clue to the shiny newness of this restaurant for everything, but everything was prepared to perfection; not a spinning plate in sight.

On arrival, the Familiar Face of Front of House beamed the warmest of welcomes and slipped a glass of champagne into our hands. As we surveyed our surroundings we saw Mr Rock Star looking relaxed and content; elsewhere, casually smart groups colonised tables, some guests roaming to chat with others. While many folk knew each other, our anonymity allowed discreet observation … and we liked it that way, watching fellow Guests’ lively cheer – all as delighted as us to be there that night.

Our peripheral table provided privacy and an excellent vantage point; adjacent to a servery we were also able to overhear Team members chatting and comparing notes. Unlike in so many apparently accomplished restaurants, these Splendid Servers are not just on top of their game but clearly thrilled to be doing what they do best. This rare professionalism imbues every aspect of Noble Rot here, as well as in the original Bloomsbury and more recently established Soho restaurants.

From the warm hug on arrival to seamless service, friendly Team Rot didn’t miss a beat; without fail, each knew the food, knew the wine, advised and nudged us in the right direction throughout. This thoughtful attention was the cherry on the cake of our extremely rare date-night-dinner: romantic, delicious, funny, loving and pampered … we simply couldn’t have been happier.

Upon leaving, HH nipped to the loo; within seconds, I was invited to join two jolly Gents whom we had observed enjoying a vast range of wines-by-the-glass with their food … and loving every moment. HH returned to find me in relaxed, default position of old: perched on bar stool, Barolo in hand.

The Gents introduced themselves, one speaking extensively with HH about wine, the other discussing with me the highs and lows of Life, The World and Everything. As we left, a card was proffered to HH, with a wish to keep in touch; wending our happy way homeward, HH read the card and gasped …  Its HIM! [famous wine writer] … I was speaking with HIM!  Dear reader even I knew of whom he spoke and yes, I am the woeful women for whom – until I met HH – wine was either Red or White.

My grasp of wine improved again when introduced many moons ago to Noble Rot Bloomsbury, by a good friend who now lives near Carcassonne in France. We will see him and his Missus next week; they have booked us into a restaurant recommended by the Noble Rot Soho Chef, with whom they chatted on their last visit to London. Rotter tentacles reach far and wide ….

All that remains to be said is that the Noble Rot quite simply cares enough to make you want to come back; the Team knows exactly what it’s doing, for whom … and how we like it. Those in the know know it is worth knowing … for here slow, sensuous, savoury food and wine prevail and if you have yet to visit, go soon before everyone else gets there.

Our food and wine

On arrival
M Gonet, Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs ‘3 Terroirs’; Champagne, France 2017

House baked Foccaccia, Black Treacle Soda Bread
Jambon Noir de Bigarre
Mushroom Fritters
With Koehler-Ruprecht, Riesling Kabinett Trocken; Pfalz, Germany 2021

Parisienne Gnocchi, Braised Lettuce, Ossau-Iraty & Hazelnut
Warm Smoked Eel, Baked Potato & Avruga Caviar to which I added Pancetta Filettata
With Noah, Rosso Coste della Sesia; Piedmonte, Italy 2019

The sweet tooth of HH was pampered with Hazelnut Ice Cream & Gariguette Strawberries with Dauphine-Rondillon, Loupiac ‘Cuvee d’Or’, Bordeaux, France 2009
My savoury pallet enjoyed the Cheese Board with Trediberri, Barolo ‘La Morra’; Piedmont, Italy 2018

Next stop: Part II of The Honeymoon combined with My Big Birthday celebration at Karma Chateau de Samary, French resort of hospitality world exemplar, Karma Group … stand by!

© Giovanna Forte 2023

Posted in Eating out, enterprise, Entertaining, Food and wine, holiday, Life and romance, London, restaurant, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Landlords, tenants and an uneven playing field.


Not so sweet when you rent…

“Remember, tenants should be aware that at any time, in the periodical phase of their tenancy, they can be evicted by landlords – tenants should bear this in mind when standing up for their rights.” 

This telling phrase appears in the Private Renting section of Hackney Council’s website. To be fair, Hackney is on tenants’ side by highlighting this proviso, and supports the removal of Section 21 of the rental housing act.

Fairness is uncommon in Private Landlord and Tenant law. If you are not a mortgagee – or in plainer terms, the customer of a bank or building society that owns your home – standing up for your rights puts that home in jeopardy. Mortgagees are in effect, tenants of benign “lending landlords”, who are happy for properties to be improved because ultimately everyone wins. Lender makes money, tenant becomes home owner.

The deal with Private Rental is that whilst you do not “own” an asset that may gain in value, you do not have to account for sometimes costly maintenance bills. Yet whilst you are obliged to treat the property with respect and effectively pay to be on-site manager, the issues you raise won’t necessarily be attended to.

The problem is that currently the law falls in favour of Private Landlords; simply, they can delay making repairs for all manner of reasons and if you complain, you get kicked out. This, despite certain repair delays leading to damage to the fabric of their asset.

My first rented home of over six years, was owned by a Landlord who fulfilled every aspect of his obligations, appreciating a tenant who cared for his asset. At the end of his fixed rate mortgage, he offered to share the saving, reducing my monthly rent by £100.

The second rental was not so edifying an experience, involving a Landlord who, in response to our complaints over a flooded basement refused compensation and asked what do you expect if you want to live in a nice old house?

Our last privately rented home suffered a number of issues. When we moved in, the house had not been cleaned as promised; we had to scrub floors and fittings before unpacking and found a rodent skeleton behind the (mouldy) fridge. Our landlord denied knowing what “deep clean” meant, even though this was promised after we had viewed the house. The most serious ongoing issue was a leaky gutter directly above the front door; our Landlord took over eighteen months to fail to fix it. We warned him that the brickwork holding the hinges of the external security door would suffer causing one or both of the hinges to come away from the wall. This situation came to pass, compromising the security of his house – our home. Not only this, but this steady stream of water soaked us, our post and any visitors to the house when it rained, creating a dangerous doorstep hazard. All this for over £2,000 per month.

Managing Agents do not come out of this well, either. The agent eventually appointed to that Tower Hamlets’ property also failed to act on any repairs. When, despite assurances to the contrary, we discovered that the Landlord had not met his legal requirement to protect our deposit, the Agent wrongly advised him and us that the long-standing law to compensate the tenant for up to 3x the deposit in this failure, was no longer in force, advising us to leave and let live. The Agent also appointed himself legal counsel to the Landlord and offered us the same service, something not only rife with Conflict of Interest but given his lack of legal qualifications, somewhat misplaced. With Shelter’s legal expertise, we sued and won.

Appallingly, tenants cannot legally withhold rent in situations where their home has health and safety issues and a Landlord fails to fulfil his or her obligations – and there is no way of guaranteeing they will, without risking eviction. We love our current privately rented home; happily, the Managing Agents are responsive and our landlord appreciates the care with which we treat his property, raising the rent a little for the first time in four years, with this year’s tenancy renewal.

If you want to live somewhere half decent in  London, you can end up paying more than a million-pound mortgage repayment. If personal circumstances (such as ploughing every saved penny into your business) mean you do not have the deposit required to secure a mortgage, private rental it is and regardless of a ten-year track record paying that equivalent million-pound mortgage, you will never qualify for a mortgage-for-real – another much needed change to property finance and law right there.

With private housing rental on the rise, something has to change; high deposits, low salaries and a reduction in the cascading of wealth to the next generation mean that mortgage criteria exclude the vast majority of young people – and entrepreneurs of any age.

Landlords notwithstanding, our rented properties have been left in a far better condition than when we moved in, something already evident in our Hackney home. Why? Because quite simply, we want to live somewhere lovely, and if it isn’t when we move in, we’ll make it so. A case, surely for a system that certifies proven Value Added Tenants like us?

Private Landlords need to be held to account, Managing Agents need to be more closely regulated and Private Tenants need to be treated with a lot more respect. The removal of Section 21 is a start. Ultimately a rental home needs to be long term provision, not a temporary stop-gap that benefits Landlord over Tenant.

After all, everyone needs somewhere to call home.

© Giovanna Forte 2023

Posted in Business, Consumer rights, Design and architecture, Family, Home, Landlords, Life and romance, London, property, Property agents, Property rental, Tenant rights, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Independent retail: the personal touch and a bit of a natter

Many moons ago, my then partner invited me to accompany him to a corporate Racing Day. I had a hunch there was something going on between him and his client so decided my look had to pack a punch.

A day or two before the event I stepped from store to store in the West End, searching for The Dress. Eventually, I entered a tiny independent boutique just off Carnaby Street where I found an elegant, simple matt satin shift dress in dove grey; it fitted like a glove …. but didn’t quite do the job I needed. The owner approached: it looks fabulous but I can see from your face, it’s not quite right. What isn’t it doing for you?

I explained about The Races and the Suspected Affair. With a smile and not a little triumph this lovely woman declared we do that one in red! This, dear reader, is where the independent sector and its personal touch wins out – and it’s not just in the dress department either.

Two years ago, a local bakery/grocery store opened in an empty warehouse near our home in Hackney Wick. D’oh Life was a haven for fresh organic fruit and vegetables from Home County farms; the people who worked there were marvellous A variety of pastries and bread were baked on-site including Fougasse a truly delicious affair. The friendly owners served coffee, to be enjoyed in-house or out – but usually in because people met there and even if you didn’t know the other customers the spark of conversation was abundant and friendly. Doh Life’s Fougasse was so good, we commissioned many too many for our wedding last year … could we do that now? No, dear reader we could not, for across the side of Doh’s former home are painted the words when I grow up I want to be an apartment block. Indeed, our favourite local bakery was ejected in favour of another generic development offering two-bedroom apartments for the thick end of £1m.

Happily, one of D’oh’s enterprising bakers has opened her own Social Enterprise nearby; Hearth may not have the space that is predecessor enjoyed but offers the warmest of welcomes as well as delicous loaves and pastries; here you will also find apprenticeship schemes, locally published magazines and much more for the community. Thank heavens for Hearth, its fiery spirit and bountiful bakes. As well as serving their own customers, Hearth supplies fellow local independents; Refill Therapy is a remarkable retailer … simply refill whatever you need and don’t pay for the packaging: cereal, soap, olive oil, ice cream – you name it, its here … and if you don’t have your own container, they can sell you a sturdy empty one to refill next time.

Another gem was our local Premier owned by a Turkish family who guaranteed a genial welcome; shelves boasted a fantastic array of stock rivalling any supermarket at the same prices – I was in there almost every day. The Family Sisters ran the place, knew all their customers and genuinely cared.

You don’t look like your usual happy self, babe? They said one Friday afternoon.  I’ve had a difficult week, I explained. Raising a finger indicating that I should wait, one walked to the wine section and returned with a bottle of my favourite Primitivo. Here you are, this will make you feel better. On the House. Cheer up!

Sadly, the Family sold and the incumbent owners are busy conversing on the phone while barcodes are zapped; no hello or how are you? No eye contact or acknowledgement that you have shopped there many times before, just a gesture to the figure on the till when it is time to pay. Months later I have, for the odd essential, reluctantly moved my loyalty to Sainsbury’s Local, boycotted when The Sisters were still in store. At least here, the automatic tills wish you a good day. For a more extensive food shop, a short ride to Village Organic at the Victoria Park Roundabout does the trick.

Here, independent shops prevail; Jen at JCD Dry Cleaners is as adept at mending and re-lining as entertaining conversation. As I stood at the counter of the Community Pharmacy the other day, a man rushed in demanding Gaviscon. It’s there, I pointed to the undercounter shelf. Ah! Cried My Pharmacist, What a good customer you are – you know where everything is! Even if I walk past without going in, a cheery wave will greet me through the shop window.

I could elaborate further for our corner of East London is independent-rich; from Gina’s Closet on the Roman Road to the fishmonger at Victoria Park and the expert cobbler on the Bethnal Green Road, these people care about their customers and make the effort to ensure you return, which is why we do.

A heady mix of Covid and rent rises has damaged so many wonderful independent stores and their neighbourly ways of doing business. I’d rather walk to the shops and spend a few pence more with a local enterprise than travel to the supermarket where purchase overload is far more likely. Everything now is an experience – for me, the independent retailer provides the best, most personal experience to be had.

Long live the independents.

© Giovanna Forte 2023

Posted in Buildings, Business, Consumer rights, Design and architecture, Economy, enterprise, Female Founders, Food and wine, Home, Life and romance, London, property, Shopping, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Does my bum look big in this?

Preparing for a party many moons ago, My Girls then aged 4 and 6 sat on on the bed to watch me dress and make-up. 

The final glittering touches complete, I twisted and turned in front of the mirror, wondering if my new, high-fashion body-con creation was really doing it’s thing and asked the children “does my bottom look big in this?” The unedifying reply: “No Mummy. But your tummy looks enormous.”

Over the years, criticisms received about my own body include: thighs like a toddler, big nose, fat arms, short legs, flat chest. Imagine if it were all true … I’d look like Geoff Capes with dwarfism.  As it happens, the combination of my less than perfect attributes creates a figure that, as I approach a Jolly Big Birthday, even I think ain’t half bad.

Were any of us – Angelina Jolie included – to magnify any single body detail in isolation perhaps we can all find fault. Better to zoom out and see the whole picture; let what others see form your judgement because on this, the detail can be Devilish indeed.

To explore what fuels these obsessions, let’s visit the gossipmongers. Heat and its peer publications often feature celebrity pictures with the tiniest, most human flaws encircled and scorned. Untoned arms, cellulite, smile lines (wrinkles, apparently); all are fair game to the hacks that demand perfection from those in the spotlight. These people are presumably practically perfect in every way? I hope their glasshouses are triple glazed.

In truth, I quite like my celebrities to be flawed; I’m reassured by a red-carpet dress that’s artfully draped over a well-Spanxed thigh. I like seeing a less than perfect upper arm on an actress or singer my age, because it’s real and makes them no less starry.

In sixth form, a close friend developed anorexia after the father she worshipped joked that her bottom had become more generous than he had hitherto noticed. This teasing yet casual remark made no doubt with paternal affection, led ultimately to her death. Watching my friend quite literally disappear before my eyes was terrifying; her beautiful hourglass figure became the enemy and the smallest hint of excess flesh a sin to be fasted away. Her spirit died long before her body; the flame of this formerly lively young woman was extinguished by starvation.

Unwitting father or bitchy magazine, its often others’ perception of us that creates body obsession. Out of context magnification can make a monstrosity of the most normal form.

Context is not the point, however, of the genital zoo that makes up the Embarrassing Bodies gallery. Here we find bizarre breasts, funny fannies and strange scrota. The cleverly maverick aspect of this collection though, is how the sheer variety of dimension and droop is designed to reassure us that other completely normal people have far odder completely normal bodies than us. View the most apparently freakish anatomy in relation to the whole, and rest assured, normality is restored.

Whatever any one of us thinks about ourselves, whatever unique peculiarities we identify, nature has already solved our personal puzzle by designing each component to fit with poetic and seamless synchronicity, no matter what our shape or size.

My own mild obsession is now irrevocably linked to the ageing process and a propensity to put on weight easily. An irregular gym routine, more regular pilates, facial exercises and diet plans punctuate my days. But like it or not, the most powerful incentive to lose a few lbs is still a stinging personal jibe. Asking a male friend for his opinion on my performance in a filmed interview, I mentioned that the camera angle wasn’t particularly flattering to my chin.

“Which one?” he quipped.

© Giovanna Forte

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A Secretary’s Tale: stories to entertain, enlighten, inspire

You’re not very bright. Perhaps don’t worry about a career. You should either get married or ask your Uncle for a job in one of his hotels, said my Careers Advisor at school, circa 1978.

When handed an UCCA Form to complete, I stared blankly. More study was not for me; I had spent too many maths lessons at the back of the classroom, tiny transistor radio earplugs pumping chart hits into my fluffy head.

Having run amok in the hockey pavilion one night after climbing out of a window with my friend H, I spent double French asleep. I was not a natural student; I didn’t see the point; I wanted to DO things, not study them. I see now that I could have achieved so much more at school and later in life had I bothered; I didn’t realise how lucky I was to enjoy an education funded by my father’s sweat and graft.

The UCCA form was duly left blank and on expressing a wish to read a practical and useful Business Studies course my father, citing my woeful educational record, vetoed the plan and sent me to the Cambridge Marlborough Secretarial College. And thank heavens for that, for the incredible women who ran and taught at this establishment became the making of me.

You are not here to learn how to be ‘sekertries’, said Miss McCafferty, PA of 20 years to the Chairman of Fisons plc. You are here to learn how to be the sorts of women without whom businesses fold. Have I made myself clear?

A year later I left the Marlborough with top marks at absolutely everything – including Secretarial Duties, during which we learned how to design an office, respect and protect our Boss’s work, private lives and secrets and even how to sit on a desk to take shorthand without showing too much leg in order not to encourage him. I thought then – and think now – how stupid must male bosses be to think an appendage between their legs gives them the authority to be encouraged by the glimpse of a woman’s body and for women to actively have to discourage them, … all of which reminds me of the old joke:

Boy (pointing at his groin): I’ve got one of these, which makes me powerful.
Girl (pointing at her groin): Yes, but with one of these, I can have as many of those as I like.

The role of Secretary, PA or Executive Assistant is often maligned in the world of work and for those who dismiss the PA as a junior, unimportant team member must re-appraise their view.  A resourceful PA absorbs the work they undertake on behalf of the Boss and can in many cases do it for them with one hand tied behind their back. They know where the skeletons are kept, see through lies, keep secrets from those who would profit from their exposure or manoever against the Boss; they help advance the Boss’s career often moving with them. The PA is also gatekeeper to many and varied company affairs (of all kinds) and winning their respect is wise. A good PA grasps the tools of the trade or profession and is ultimately perfectly placed to run their own businesses, as I have done.

British National Insurance: PA to Director of Finance and Director of PR
The Director of Finance at British National interviewed me with his feet on the desk. Not appreciating that the Dutch have a relaxed attitude to most things I was unimpressed. When offered the job by the agency, I turned it down on the basis he had not shown me adequate respect. They were horrified.

But this is your first job out of college! That may have been so, but my parents had instilled in me the right to be respected. The outcome of this exchange was a second interview, an apology and appointment. The episode did indeed engender respct on both sides; we got along like a house on fire.

It was here in 1982 that I encountered the first Exxon Intelligent Typewriter which, when conjoined to an Accoustic Coupler and telephone delivered the very first Electronic Mail. When logged in, one typed a password and on arrival of a message, A4 paper was fed into the typewriter whilst the dancing keys created a brand new missive from afar, entirely unaided. This first email was magical.

Thames Television
I was soon bored with commuting from Hove to Haywards Heath and moved to London to temp in the world of Advertising firstly for the the affable and funny Rick Sheldon, Media Buying Director at KMP. Short shifts at Burston Marsteller, Saatchi & Saatchi and others followed. The trick to temping was to bring a carrier bag to work; any sheet onto which a mistake was made was secreted within and taken home to avoid the client seeing the wastepaper bin overflow with many and myriad mistakes …

Happily, later that year I was lucky enough to land a job as Secretary to Muir Sutherland, Director of Programmes at Thames Television, working under his more experienced and senior Personal Assistant.

The work was light but interesting; I undertook most of the shorthand and typing, welcomed and made tea and coffee for guests arriving for meetings. These included other Heads of ITV including Michael Grade, John Birt and Jeremy Isaacs as well as celebrities. Des O’Connor always remembered who took milk or sugar in their tea and coffee and amused us by making and serving it with hilarious running commentary. Michael Bentine made us laugh, Janet Street Porter swore heartily if made to wait. Alistair Burnett was usually the worse for wear; rumour had it that a bottle of whisky was ever present under his live broadcast news desk.

Two amusing episodes have stayed with me; the first when I arrived at work wearing a vintage beaver lamb coat, heavy with rain that had drenched me betwixt Warren Street and the office. I hung the wet fur in Muir’s wardrobe. By the end of the day the sun shone and I forgot all about it … until several months later a scream emanated from Muir who on opening the wardrobe found a stinking, mouldy, half rotten animal hanging there. I did my best to look as astonished and quizzical as everyone else … and Security was called to remove it.

The advent of lacy tights heralded a blushing afternoon after I wore a newly purchased pair bought in lunch break; hearing what I thought was my colleague in his office, I threw one full leg around the door, swung it up and down a la Folies Bergère and asked in husky tones So what do you think of this, then? Pause. Very nice Giovanna, cried Muir. My guests will be here soon, can you put the kettle on?

Not fifteen minutes later, the above stellar cast of ITV Directors were assembled around Muir’s coffee table. What do you think of Giovanna’s new tights? asked Muir. She was keen for my opinion earlier. Blushing, I sped from the room, locked myself in a loo and cried.

Happily, more cerebral highlights included typing the Pilot script for The Bill and Reilly, Ace of Spies, meeting writers and editors, learning how new programmes were commissioned and funded.

Two more years at Thames were spent as PA to the Reporters of TV Eye, current affairs news programme. On my first day, each of the five reporters to whom I was secretary gave me a briefing on what they expected. Three encouraged my opinion on scripts, welcomed suggestions as I typed them up; did I want to learn how the editing process happened and what was my specific interest in being there, would I like to see what happened in the cutting room – you bet I did. The remaining two were at pains for me to understand which of the women who might telephone for them were Mistress or Wife and provided clues to avoid any mix-up, hence the Secret part of Secretary foreshadowed by the Marlborough arose without much dignity.

After 18 months or so I was appointed Secretary to the kind, late Terry Kellegher, Editor of local news magazine programme Reporting London. Terry was a fantastic boss and encouraged me to think ahead: You are too clever to stay a secretary, he said. My efforts to move on led to a Blonde Glass Ceiling as my application to become Trainee Researcher in the Children’s Department was denied on the basis that I was just a secretary and therefore not qualified for the opportunity. This rejection was delivered by a woman whom it transpired had been Terry’s secretary three years earlier.

The world of exhibitions
From here I joined a trade events business led by a man widely acknowledged to be the Godfather of the Exhibition Industry. Richard Copley-Smith was a supremely clever, impressive, vibrant man. His routine was to read mail, dictate replies, deliver instructions, ask questions, demand explanations … educate. Within a week I was briefed on the science, purpose and tone of voice attached to a successful Direct Mail campaign.  I was given to understand the logic behind an exhibition floorplan, organization and promotion and told in emphatic terms what Exhibitors were paying for and how Visitors should be seduced into attending.

Richard was the first to encourage my writing, asking me to draft Editorial for the regular Exhibitor Updates. My work wasn’t quite up to the mark, but he didn’t criticize, he pointed out how it could be improved and employed a fully-fledged journalist to complete the task and explain to me the science behind her craft.

Richard also made sure that I got freelance jobs when FirstBorn arrived and I set up my Exhibition Support Services business. Highlights came by way of being asked to chat with famous guests; my clients often thought their celebrities would prefer to chat with someone young, attractive and articulate over one of the hairy male sales-folk.

The most surreal experience was when helping Richard launch the first Exhibition Industry Awards at the Cafe Royale; once Barry Cryer had finished handing out the gongs I sat with him, consuming between us three bottles of red wine. Laughter? I cried with it, but for the life of me cannot remember a thing we discussed.

Being appointed to a similar role with Antonio Carluccio I learned his secret addition to the Tiramisu recipe I already followed in his book. He asked about my children; to my enquiry if he had any of his own, in his deep, signature Italian accent he replied… Not to my knowledge … My then husband didn’t believe I had really met the chef we admired so much; two weeks later as we approached the Neal Street Restaurant, Antonio emered from the door, flung wide his arms … Giovanna! You have come to see me! Proud? I was completely thrilled!

Enough anecdotes; it is time to come full circle to the purpose of this blog. A talented PA is indeed the sort of person without whom businesses fold. If anyone reading this is at a crossroads, or at a loss as to how to train or even retrain, take my advice: the world of the secretarial PA can be a rich tapestry of experience, real-world business studies, a whole lot of fun and the foundation for a solid future.

I have run my own businesses since the age of 26 but could not have done so without the knowledge, expertise, business methodology and chutzpah shared by and instilled into me by the generous professionals who helped drive my Secretarial Journey.

© Giovanna Forte 2023

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New year old me: sixty is the New Forte

“I can tell you that if there’s nothing wrong with you except fat, it is easy to get thin. You eat and drink the same as always, except half.

If you are handed a plate of food, leave half. If you have to help yourself, take half.”

Muriel Spark: A Far Cry From Kensington

After years of low-this and low-that diets this is exactly where I am, because upon reading Muriel’s wisdom last year I recalled that this is how I stayed slim in my 20s, 30s and 40s. Turning 50 led to my body gaining unbidden menopausal upholstery probably because my capacity for exercise dropped against a commensurate increase of appetite – especially wine.

Ten years ago, my mother passed away and to ameliorate my grief and langour I landed on the doorstep of Moss Pilates where Lisa Stredwick pushed and pulled me through my paces. Over a few short weeks, my painful knees mended, my back straightened, my walk walked taller, my abs were abbier. Alas, my office moved and being fundamentally lazy, I didn’t make the effort to cross a quarter of London to continue classes. More fool me.

I did attend the gym however, but as business became busier, this too fell by the wayside, a situation compounded by the diagnosis and removal of bowel cancer and inability to exercise for some weeks.

As mid-fifties brought Porky Forte into being, my wardrobe crept into the universe of elasticated skirts and yes dear reader, I became unhappy with myself. Attending to hair, nails and other superficial aspects of My Look didn’t solve anything; an additional painful root cause of inactivity came from issues with scar tissue around my old bowel surgery, rendering me unable to either move or leave the house on many a day.

The last five years have seen attempts at low fat, low carb, low alcohol, high protein, high fibre … and indeed anything to reduce bowel pain and weight; a few pounds were shed, but nothing of note. Many subscriptions were made to various plans and apps, all of which compounded guilt and frenzy to ensure data was input and daily food diaries completed. None of it really helped.

Last year, I tracked down the indefatigable Lisa, who welcomed me with open arms and collaborated on improving my sorry body with her unique brand of Pilates. Meantime, a good friend offered to assist with the cost of a private colonoscopy, during which a golf-ball sized blockage was removed from my bowel, relieving excrutiating daily pain and regular house-boundness (very ouch).

Recovering from the procedure, I re-read Muriel whose Protagonist’s Mantra Of Half became a glittering light at the end of the tunnel; as well as adopting her practice, I maintain a lively metabolism with cardiovascular exercise at the gym and attend the excellent, only-five-minutes-away Victoria Park Pilates twice a week for much improved mobility and strength; a variety of Mat and Tower pilates keeps me on my toes (and everything else). I have also returned to Lisa for an occasional one-to-one on the Reformer … When it comes to ageing, I am not going down without a fight.

It has come to pass dear reader, that this Half-with-Exercise regime has shed three inches from my waist, representing the Cherry on a slimmed down Bodily Cake. A Cake that once again wears dresses unworn for at least five years, proving that the New Year has revived the Old Me.

Happily, I can confirm …  Sixty is the New Forte.

© Giovanna Forte 2023

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Being Nonna: reviving old memories, making new ones

Mum … what would you say if I was pregnant?  Two years ago, this is how FirstBorn introduced me to her new situation. Grandson N is now 16 months old … and the light of my life.

Of course, outwardly delighted about a young addition to the family, there was an undercurrent of fear around becoming Nonna, the moniker I chose after friends – with some amusement – began to call me Granny or Grandma. But dear reader, life’s stages are not always within our control and just as I became a young mother, I am now a young Nonna.

As N’s babyhood evolves, so memories of my own childhood have risen to the surface. My very first and cherished, is of being bathed in the green bathroom basin of the home in which I grew up, my mother’s face smiling above her plastic bathroom apron, embellished with a blue-purple brick pattern synonymous with early 60s graphic design. In the adjacent bath, my older brother and sister played in the shallow water. I was conscious that one day I may be big enough to do that too. The taps, I recall, were enormous.

When giving N a bath for the very first time another bathing memory arose, of being immersed into scalding water by an Italian au pair, my screams ending only with the arrival of my Mother whose distress and fury ejected said au pair back to Italy within days. She later recalled that my whole body was salmon pink, my brother yet to be introduced to the water stood next to the bath, crying.

Watching N explore his environment in the garden prompted other memories; protests about eating my food led to accusations of ingratitude and tales of starving children. My response was to forage outside because after all, if soil was edible there would be no starvation. I soon changed my mind; it tasted disgusting.

When Mother talked of holes in the Ozone Layer I somehow thought this meant that air was escaping and would lead to a shortage for the world; in my innocence, I consciously began to take very shallow breaths, hoping I suppose to ameliorate this imagined situation. To this very day I struggle to breathe deeply, something I am told regularly by fitness instructors, needs to change.

And now to new memories of long walks with N, old enough to push his buggy, run around and use the playground; Victoria Park swings are designed to take a toddler on one side and a bigger person on the other – his laughter when I join him for a to-and-fro is a joy, as we swing ever higher to even greater hilarity, mine as much as his.

As we walk home he stops to observe people seated on benches; they talk to him and he is often unwilling to move on. Recently he stopped to engage with two boys in their late teens who we passed near the canal by our house; they chatted to him admiring to me his chutzpah, smile and steady gaze. We tried repeatedly to continue home but he returned to them again and again wanting quite clearly, to join in with the Big Boys.

N and I spend every Monday afternoon together; if it is raining we stay inside to play with bricks and hoops, we dance and tinker on the electric keyboard placed onto the coffee table. I chase him around the house on all fours growling like a bear … and so it goes. Our time together is as much fun for me as for him, perhaps even more. His gales of laughter are addictive. His first few tantrums with me were dealt with by lying next to him, matching his fit of pique; the look of astonishment on his face ending the episode.

Our tupperware cupboard can involve at least a half hour of emptying and rearranging; remote controls and other portable things with buttons need to be kept out of reach. Our TV remote came out of the washing machine last week, having accompanied the family’s smalls through a wash. It survived.

Cooking for N is a joyful experience; like her mother FirstBorn makes his meals with fresh ingredients every day, the onus on savoury rather than sugary confections. It is fascinating to explore his increasingly sophisticated tastes; before leaving for Christmas he eagerly ate three huge spoons of fresh basil pesto, looking for all the world as though he could down the whole bowl. We experiment with different ingredients, fresh herbs, cheeses, grilled and fresh vegetables, barley, rice and more.

When FirstBorn was starting solids I would have a Saturday Cookathon, blending and portioning her food into little colour-coded boxes – blue for fish, red for meat and green for vegetable … no shop bought baby food came her way and so it is for N. I am very proud of FirstBorn and her grounded approach to motherhood.

At the heady age of 58 I became not only a Nonna but a Fiancee too, marrying in June this year. In the world of Fortewinks, the sixth decade promises to be one of the very best and I am wondering how to celebrate my 60th in April.

Anyone fancy a party?

© Giovanna Forte 2022

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A new experience: Durga Puja the celebration of women

The Durga Puja Tableau

Forget lunch in Shepherds Bush, said my new Lady Architect friend. Come with me to Romford where you’ll see something different. Although I have lived in East London for over 20 years, I have never been to Romford and so: Yes, I thought, I’ll see something different.

With domestic challenges delaying her journey from Acton, LA was half an hour late so I waited in the large reception area of the venue to witness and absorb the profound meaning given by see something different.

The hall was accordingly decorated – and possessed of beautiful women wearing saris of every myriad shade and every colour of every jewel. The sight was dazzling and graceful.

LA arrived resplendent in darker sari adorned with sparkling jewellery and glitterling brooch. She explained that this day was part of the Bengali celebration of Durga Puja a festival of and for women and one of which I was ignorant; the men cooked and served. I was the only secular woman in the room, several kindly men asked gently and politely if I was alright, did I need more food? Did I want anything at all?

The great room was bedecked for Durga Puja, which marks the victory of Goddess Durga over the mythological demon Mahishasura and is observed according to the Hindu solar calendar, between the 1st and 5th October, this week.

Here in Romford I saw a glittering tableau representing Durga, her daughters and sons including Ganesh, the only icon I recognised with his distinctive elephant head. LA explained that this tableau depicts good over evil; Durga wields weapons in each of her ten arms having triumphed over the Buffalo demon. A daughter by each side is in turn flanked by a brother. The four children represent love, learning, the overcoming of obstacles and wealth.

So now I understood the reason I had been brought here … for of love I have more than my fair share and to learn is something to which I aspire each day. My world of work however, has for many years presented more obstacles than I can begin to list … and wealth in its financial form continues to elude me. Perhaps I shouldn’t aspire to possess great wealth for as I remind myself often, when eventually I leave this mortal coil I can’t take it with me. But fewer obstacles and a little money right now would be nice.

Whilst these acknowlegements – and I suppose prayers – absorbed the mind my eyes feasted on the melee of beauty threading and lacing around the room, men’s drumbeats seeming to power their movement. The energy in that room was graceful, resolute, slow and strong: a remarkable and tangible femininity.

LA explained that at this particular festival, each icon is brought out every year. In West Bengal they are made afresh from clay annually and when the festival ends transported to the river for immersion. Not so practical here in Romford, so the community celebrates this ancient and coveted tradition in its own way; it means no less. Would that women were so extoled in other realms and aspects of life.

Reader, today I came to something unexpected and new, and loved every second of seeing and being, in ways never before encountered in my limited, white, collapsed Catholic life.

Thank you, LA for not telling me more about your gentle invitation; my routine-led and narrow sightlines, obsessed as they are with the daily grind may have discouraged the adventure.  As it is, I end this Tuesday with a new experience, a broader view and a happier heart.

Isn’t life grand?

© Giovanna Forte 2022

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Ghosts on a Wire: a play about light and power

By Linda Wilkinson at the Union Theatre, Southwark, 21 Sep – 8 Oct 2022

Ghosts on a Wire charts the activity and acceptance of a bright new force: electricity. This power is founded on a site that requires the devastation of an established community South of the Thames, at Bankside.

Disbelief and cynicism are rife amongst the people of Bankside, doubting the value of this new power: I imagine Sir, that apart from enabling us to unwittingly run around like rabbits, you are going to tell us that this electricity will power mills and factories.

Ghosts on a Wire bring the past to the present through savvy storytelling. Mary Shelly’s prophetic Frankenstein introduces the concept of electricity whilst William Blake haunts Octavia Hill, the much-lauded founding mother of social housing, whom he advises, cajoles and warns of injustice to come. Meanwhile, Michael Faraday and his cohorts drive their plans for power through objections, doubt and concerns for social justice with little care for the community that will be forcibly dispersed when the bulldozers move in … does this sound familiar?

Linda Wilkinson has cleverly articulated how the rise of our first power station Bankside displaced an established community and while electricity brought power in many ways to many people and to many facets of life, sacrifices were made by those unable to fight corrupt, richer forces. The dialogue is appropriately bright and often brilliant, the characterisations sassy and smart, the flow of the play seamless.

This is social commentary in story form; it is about how power, whether leadership or energy works in the world. It is a sharp, witty, compelling and utterly contemporary tale of who wins, and who loses.

The set designers deserve applause here too; simplicity is all and poetic, creative use of light delivers all the visual power needed for the Ghosts to play their part.

This is not a play about yesterday … it is a play about today. Go and see it.

Ghosts on a Wire

© Giovanna Forte 2022

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