Bonhomoux: summer fabulousness in France


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All the parties.

Mid-August arrived at last, delivering the welcome start of our summer holiday. We set out early and excited … remembering passports only as we climbed into a waiting taxi, an anxious moment that heralded a journey fraught with the mishap and extra charges that come hand-in-glove with low-cost airlines.

Thankfully the flight provided enough time and wine to recover and before long we found ourselves in gloriously sunny rural France. Aching to reach our destination, I whisked through customs ahead of BB to find our good friend Mr Host waiting patiently outside Arrivals, my embrace of him so joyful that BB walked straight past. He took us for a pair of re-united lovers.

Not half an hour later, we drew up to The Hosts’ vogueish village townhouse and a glorious Mrs Host – the Raven Haired Marilyn Monroe – ready with olives, cool local vin and a very warm welcome. We had arrived.

My first desire was for fennel tea, a new and delicious habit that prompted Marilyn to exclaim: Giovanna Forte has been taken over by aliens! Bring back the real Giovanna Forte! Fennel tea consumed, shower and change of attire complete, the four of us – five including resident elegant canine M. Clark – gathered on the terrace for Proper Drinks. From here we eyed the pool and lavender-rich garden, our idyllic home for the next ten days. And so, feeling blessed and lucky, the unwinding from hectic urban life began.

The Hosts were enjoying a celebratory summer and our time with them featured a series of dinners organised to high-five twenty years of marriage, and two birthdays, one of which featured an 0. A busy ten days beckoned, four of which were to be spent on our own while Hosts retreated to an arty hideaway further south. The perfect quid-pro-quo; we became canine caretakers, leaving them free to indulge in each other.

The following day involved a trip to the market and lazy coffee, watching the locals negotiate with animated stallholders. There followed preparations for that evening’s dinner, intended to take place au terrace, pool-side. Alas, it was not to be; light rain made an indoor setting compulsory. Bringing outside’s longer tables in, we draped them with white linen and candles and lo! a beautiful setting came to life for no less than ten guests.

A melee of marvelous people arrived on time; the party included local wine makers, a clever composer (with cheekbones to die for), his chic film-producing wife, a jolly summer expat couple we met last year and an artist – all life and souls of any party. This one fizzed until the early hours involving much hilarity, gourmet grub and sumptuous wine from the Hegarty estate.

The following morning was understandably slow; our holiday began in earnest, lazing by the pool, seeking succulent figs picked straight from the tree and inhaling the lush lavender that surrounded us. The days rolled by until Mr and Mrs Host departed for their southern sojourn leaving us to pretend that their dreamy dwell was our very own. BB and I sank into daze of luxury, doing nothing but eat, drink, chat, swim and find each other all over again. Even the garden and household duties we offered in return for our stay were a joy to carry out in this oasis of boutique, ambient calm.

The days passed; Mr and Mrs Host returned rejuvenated by culture and each other and with Hippy Son scooped up from the airport. This former boy whom I had not seen for many years has become a beautiful blue-eye handsome man with an exemplar head of hair, terrific taste in music and an excellent way with cocktails. God bless youth.

Friends of Hippy Son arrived the next day; two more cocktail-and-clearing-up friendly young bucks who catered for us without complaint and delivered excellent conversation to boot. More diverting dinners were enjoyed with equally entertaining guests, daily sun and slow swims, trips to the market … and of course, preparations for the London Crowd, scheduled to arrive a day prior to the Big Birthday Dinner.

Toasting dozily by the pool, I was stirred by the sounds of warm welcomes from within, closely followed by new poolside footsteps. Standing to apologise and confess rather obviously: Hello. Sorry, I’m a bit naked, I need not have worried; the lovely Pablo stood, hand extended in greeting, his partner R close behind. These gloriously urbane boys had come to celebrate their friends’ anniversaries in advance of their own nuptials taking place two weeks hence. Their glamorous presence heralded the later arrival of  Glossy Red Setter, a gorgeous and funny only-just-forty-girl-woman with long golden hair. Days of amusing anarchy were well and truly on the cards.

The Hollywoods dived straight in; pool first, sociability and gales of laughter to follow. Dear reader, I cannot do justice here to the hugely entertaining hours and days that followed; suffice to say they were rich with wit, intellect, gambit, pun, farce … and of course, terrible jokes. In short, it were a right old carry on.

Our penultimate eve in France was taken up with The Party … and What A Do it Was. Much pleasure was taken in the preparation; Marilyn demanded that I appear in LBD, pearls and pom-pom Choos, the height of which precluded my involvement in anything other than looking poised and vaguely decorative.

Around me, Mr Host cooked up a feast for eyes and appetite alike; still more fine wine was set out and guests arrived to a glittering candlelit setting, lively, seamless conversation and Boy-Team Cocktails. Music and dancing ensued well into the later-than-early hours and it was here, beneath a galaxy of fairy lights that The Hollywoods and Red Setter truly excelled, grooving to Spanish guitar and disco beats … we all joined in at one time or another but perhaps a veil of discretion should be drawn across this particular vignette of high jinks.

As the the pace slowed, guests peeled away into the night; Boy-Team began to clear, the elders retired to bed assuaged, inebriated and well, frankly rather done-in.

I awoke at 6am hungry; creeping into the kitchen I devoured tasty left-overs, someone’s abandoned brandy and returned to bed to sleep off my residual hangover. BB and I awoke mid-morning to a spotless kitchen, fresh coffee and only slightly muted company of the Hollywood Two, the Glossy Red Setter and one divine Host for Ms Monroe was still upstairs, luxuriating between the sheets. I ascended to her boudoir with coffee for two and climbed in, something reminiscent of boarding school days, hunkered under the duvet to chew the cud with a favourite wise and wonderful woman.

The last day slipped by; BB and I were driven to the airport by one of the Boy-Team and we returned home content, fulfilled and under the circumstances oddly rested.

To the gourmet Mr Host, to the Raven Haired Marilyn Monroe, to the Hollywood Two, the Glossy Red Setter, to the Music, Film and Wine-makers, to the New Friends All: from our nest in Bethnal Green I raise to you a toast:

Thank you for the Bonhomoux.

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Scotland: reunions, drama, art & a poet


 

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I didn’t make it up

One rainy July afternoon, BB and I arrived at a remote part of Scotland where we found forty people sheltering under a large pergola tent, sharing a generous picnic.

We had landed at the opening event of an Outlaw Family Reunion, organised to celebrate a much-loved ancestor now lying beneath a grand Memorial, set atop a nearby hill. Despite the inauspicious weather, this was a jolly affair where I met Outlaw relatives both familiar and new.

As ever for this family, the atmosphere was welcoming and warm; delicious food was passed around with mugs of steaming hot, proper coffee. Coffee when offered is generally an accurate bellwether for what is to come; this brew augured well.

Those gathered had been called from far and wide. The Ancestor’s children, the parents of some of those gathered, were also commemorated around his grave and here he reunited sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins, grandchildren, grand-parents, aunts and uncles gathered to celebrate, well … The Family.

Not one to miss a beat – or good reason to explore lesser-known territory – BB suggested that we extend our visit for a road-trip around Scotland. Given I have only enjoyed limited experience of Glasgow and Edinburgh and am fond of the Scots, I concurred. I was, once upon a star wed to a very jolly example of the race and our beautiful progeny carry a distinctive McSurname. Greater knowledge of and respect to their origins felt right.

Picnic over, the multi-generational group began its pilgrimage up the hill. MOL (Mother-Out-Law for newcomers to this blog) barely had to take a step; with a grandson at each arm, this doughty dame was flown up the incline several inches above the ground looking neither unhappy, nor remotely concerned.

Once gathered under myriad and makeshift cover, typed sheets were distributed and BB’s Eldest Brother orchestrated the singing of a goodly number of hymns. Never have I witnessed The Lord’s My Shepherd delivered with such familial and feisty gusto … under such damp circumstances. As Memorials go, this one was truly memorable.

Some time and a hot bath later, the Family regrouped for dinner in the appointed hotel, followed by the imbibing of splendid Scotch and a good old natter.

The morning featured relaxed walks, stone-skimming on the nearby Loch and a group photograph, after which we set off for Part II of The Reunion; lunch at a grand country house hotel, resplendent upon its own Isle. This once-upon-a-time home had been built by The Ancestor and in the mists of time lost to the ownership of others; this did not dull our enjoyment of the place … or of a truly gastronomic Michelin Star lunch.

Time came to part with Outlaws-all and for BB and I to set out on our own adventures. We arrived some short hours later at Oban and the discovery that a hotel described on its website as Boutique in this case meant simply “Tiny”. Friendly, clean and perfectly habitable, our room overlooked the Bay; in each others’ company we were simply happy. We ventured out, climbing to MacCaig’s Tower before a lazy descent to claim a table at Eeusk, where fabulously fresh fish, perfectly chilled wine and picturesque views awaited.

After a brief meander around town the following morning, we set out to Fort William hoping to hop aboard The Jacobite steam train made famous by Harry Potter; alas, spontaneity is not accommodated by those in charge of tourist attractions and without having booked our seats months earlier we drove to the train’s destination. We arrived in Mallaig just in time to settle at the window of our well-placed hotel room and watch the illustrious locomotive puff its way into the station.

Having arrived late-ish, we emerged just after 9pm to try the door of several restaurants, all closed. Our luck changed at the Chlachain Inn for on being turned away by bar staff, an affable and smiling Chef burst forth from the kitchen apologising for his town; I can give you fish and chips and that’s it! he declared. We accepted gratefully and watched as he whipped up a batter made of Tennents and not much else. Reader, this fish was a joy, light and delicious; the chef extended his hospitality by inviting BB to a game of pool … and losing with exceptionally good grace

The following morning we pored over our map wondering whether to take a trip to Skye just over the water; the sky above did not look too promising however and after some debate we decided to cut our losses and head over to Perth, where one of BB’s many Aunts was expecting us one day or another that week. Decision made, we plotted a scenic route through the highlands.

The journey was spectacular – drizzle notwithstanding – and we took in panoramas a-plenty, remote railway stations where trains stop only upon request, Ben Nevis and a meandering drive through breathtaking vistas to stop at Achnambeithach. Here, a tiny road alternately smooth and rough diverted us deep into Glen Etive, where we witnessed extraordinary landscapes, rivers and remote farm houses one of which BB remembered was home to another Aunt, whom he visited as a child; in those days, reaching this house – one of only two in the valley – involved crossing a bridge-free river in a box hanging from an overhead cable. Progress has made its mark, for this neck of the water now happily, boasts a bridge. For him, this was less of a casual tour, more an instinctive trip down memory lane; his happy face brought unexpected joy to the drama of our surroundings.

We drove through grand Perth and on to another cousin’s home, where Aunt awaited with dogs and a warm welcome. We spent two lazy days and nights here, pottering, reading, relaxing, eating and drinking and getting to know Moneypenny, for Aunt was less retired older relative and more entertaining and glamorous than I had expected. An air of quiet confidence belied the impression of homeliness; M had lived in exotic places and knew more about the world than us both. She seemed quietly to organise, plan and know exactly what was what, giving the distinct impression of one around whom things happened exactly as they should.

The time for our departure arrived; M had a grandson to prepare for safari and things to do. With fond goodbyes we set off for the final leg of our adventure.

In Edinburgh the spacious apartment of a wickedly talented and Professorial friend awaited. We had spent our first night in Scotland with The Prof, who entertained us with glorious food, wine and witty repartee. She left for the USA before our return but kindly entrusted us with keys to her lovely home; from these tall windows we gazed over perfectly formed chimney pots, to all intents an army marching in splendid synchronicity down the hill towards Fettes: the seat of Tony Blair’s arrogance, Prof had quipped.

Our first evening was spent cooking and enjoying dinner a deux, after which we set out to see The Kelpies. These astounding sculptures by Andy Scott celebrate the history of working horses around the canals; as we gazed, darkness fell and lights within the structures slowly rose. We walked around, through, below, marveling at the sheer scale and exquisite detail of these fine equines, at the extraordinary feat and ingenuity of engineering. Eventually tired and inspired, we headed home.

The next day brought a visit to Edinburgh’s Museum of Modern Art, where we saw paintings by Ben Nicholson and his contemporaries, their content chiming unexpectedly with a book I am reading. About the Bohemians by Virginia Nicholson, is an absorbing tale of the lives of the very artists exhibited here and a natural narrative unfolded as I moved from one painting to the next. We then took in Matisse, Picasso, Miro, Magritte, a whole room of captivating Bridget Riley and finally the super-real Tourists by Duane Hanson.

We left happy, driving across town to visit Clever Mr and Mrs Nephew, who founded and run the Edinburgh Casting Studio. Here they celebrate hands, faces, bodies, baby feet and even pet’s paws for people who want to remember themselves and their loved ones exactly as they are now; Mr & Mrs N shape this unusual work with kindness, compassion, verve and talent. They also provided us with exceptional quantities of humous, wine, conversation and laughter; I am a Very Proud Aunt.

Parting company with my brother’s son and his wife, we made our way to the Leith Dockers Club to meet Old London Friend whom I have not seen for a few years, but who happened to be in town attending a jolly memorial for punk performance poet Jock Scot. Whilst we had never met Jock, OLF knew him well from days gone by. In this room of friendly people, Jock’s arresting, moving poems were read and his life handsomely celebrated, not least by our small group where far too much scotch was cheerfully imbibed within this surreal and cherished night. The poet himself predicted that his 1993 book would be republished once I snuff it; OLF has done just that. Where is my Heroine? is a tome of grit and beauty; I have and recommend it.

In the morning my sore head regretfully dimmed our last day in this beautiful place, albeit not enough to prevent us attending the first birthday party of a smaller Family member we met at the start of our holiday: a poetic and circular finale to the week. This gentle celebration took place on Seacliff Beach, a remote and secret spot about an hour outside town; after mingling with cousins and their offspring, we wandered and roamed on the rocks and sand, the playful wind etching this beautiful bay into our skin for ever.

Scotland: thank you for your sights and scenes, unrivaled in London. We will return.

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A Wanstead afternoon and other social shenanigans


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The Wanstead Porkpie

It began on the first Friday of April. I had invited very old friends from Cambridge days of yore, people with whom I had mingled during the year of my secretarial training. The early ‘80s involved partner in crime, the ebullient blonde C, a crazy house and crazy escapades.

We lived at Number One Arthur Street, a cute corner cottage with deep sash windows. Weekends somehow combusted with spontaneous parties; no-one bothered to use the front door. They, including tonight’s dinner guests, gained access to the fun by simply stepping over the threshold of the low sash frames. I decided a little reunion was in order.

The Barrister I have seen now and again over the years but The Banker, I had not. For reasons (almost) lost in the mists of time, he was known back then as The Bird That Never Learned to Fly. Mr Bird tracked me down for his 50th two years ago, wanting his midlife celebration to unite people from far and wide, friends with whom he’d enjoyed good times over the years. Thank you Mr Bird for including me, for we would otherwise not be in touch now.

Mr Bird brought Mrs Bird, whom I knew more slightly from those days but we had not had a chance to speak at the 50th and rediscovering her company was a rare treat. C arrived to rumbustious welcome; she had seen nothing of these boys in the intervening thirty or so years.

These are not my drinking friends, I had reassured Beautiful Boyfriend before their arrival. They won’t stay late. My usually accurate antennae were flawed on this occasion for whilst Mr Barrister is teetotal and everyone really quite modest in their enjoyment of exceptionally good wine, there was so much merriment, so many memories around the table that the last of them departed at 3.30am. The dinner that I had approached with more than a little trepidation – how have they changed over the years? will we have enough to talk about? dissolved within seconds of their arrival. People, this little event was a joy, to be repeated again in much, much less than thirty years.

The following day we were expected at the Wanstead Afternoon hosted by avuncular, funny polymath Mr P. Mr P and I have not seen much of each other of late; some time ago we had a silly disagreement, which led to frozen relations. Happily for us both, his hand of friendship was extended with an invitation to his birthday party, a lunchtime gathering of friends, neighbours, family, children … and us. We arrived to a wonderful melee of music, a marvellous menu and the Grand National.

When I met Mr P in the ‘90s, he was a smooth DJ famed for kick-starting the Mother Bar in Shoreditch; his skills have not deserted him and the party swayed along to mellow soul, rare sounds and great grooves each of which captured the oh-so-memorable moments. We chatted to the gorgeous, glamorous Mrs P and their beautiful children, met her parents, saw old friends and made new ones. All of this in the home that Mr P single handedly, custom built for exactly this sort of off-beat, friendly, funny occasion.

Things got livelier when a distinctive, cardigan clad Artist upturned his hat for a Grand National lucky dip. Noisy debate ensued about the runners, the names of which were carefully cut out and dropped into the upturned Porkpie. Everyone jostled to pick their chosen horse; some did, some didn’t but to much collective congratulation, someone did win the £40 collected within the black brim.

We drifted off soon after the race, heading home for an early night. As it happens, friends cruising the Columbia Road flower market on a Sunday often visit; on this occasion it was the irrepressible and witty Ms T who swung by for a late lunch bringing flowers, news, gossip and gifts. A roast chicken was devoured (lemon and tarragon since you ask) with potatoes cooked in chilli oil and a herb salad. Bliss.

Things haven’t really stopped since; the Silver Fox celebrated his birthday the following Friday. After toasting him barside at our regular haunt, we retired to his home for music and dancing until the early hours. Mindful of self-preservation we left most of them to it at about 2am so as to be fresh for the next evening’s entertainment.

For on Saturday, we had been invited by our lovely neighbours of a few doors down to a Salon in their front room. This unusual event introduced us to a crowd of artists, filmmakers, teachers and more; a clever, compelling bunch with whom conversation was easy, interesting and fun. We gathered there to hear comedian and raconteur Nick Revell who kept us rapt with mirth and marvel for well over an hour. What a privilege to see and hear all this just a few short steps from our own home to which we returned replete and happy.

Our diary for this weekend and next are empty for the moment. We have eyed the clear pages with suspicion, for living here on this corner of the earth that is East London, who knows what will transpire and conspire to draw us into another amicable adventure?

© Giovanna Forte 2016.

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Charles Knevitt: a tribute


The day I heard that Charles had passed away, The Architects’ Journal asked if I would write his tribute; surprised and honoured, I agreed. That evening I settled at our dining room table and stared at my laptop, gazed heavenward and asked: “Charlie, why me? How on earth am I going to do this?” I saw him then, twinkling with laughter and his booming, jovial voice filled the room: “Ha!” My fingers began to tap tap tap … this tribute was published the next day, 24th March 2016.

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Charles in Wales on 13th February 2016

Charles was not a big or tall man, but was otherwise substantial in every way.

I was introduced to Charles by Lee Mallett; I needed help with fundraising for an architecture charity. He listened carefully as he always did. Looked me straight in the eye and declared: “It will never work. Forget it. Are you a member of the Chelsea Arts Club? Well you should be!

The Chelsea Arts Club was Charles’ spiritual home; it was here he would meet, laugh, work, play, confide and scheme. On the most crowded nights his laughter could be heard above the melee and you knew he was in fine fettle. Charles was always in fine fettle. Come rain or shine, ups or downs he prevailed with pragmatism and level headed logic. He was a great storyteller, a vivid raconteur and his narratives would soar, taking you on a delicious journey through anecdotes and flights of fancy captivating his audience, whether one person or five hundred.

Charles’ career is well documented; award-winning author and editor of more than a dozen books, curator, journalist, writer for the most prestigious architectural titles, columnist, architectural correspondent for The Times and Telegraph, consultant to Thames Television, Granada and Channel 4. He was for a time architectural advisor to HRH the Prince of Wales on whom he produced a cartoon biography entitled One’s Life, probably the only British subject with the chutzpah to countenance and complete such a thing. His talents and influence were diverse; his fundraising for Liverpool University and the RIBA Trust unrivaled in their success and breadth of engagement.

A phrase he coined of which he was especially proud was that of Community Architecture on which he co-wrote a book with Nick Wates. This tome arguably set the agenda for this genre of building design, which would perhaps otherwise have gone without any moniker at all. His legacy across every facet of his work endures and will influence long into the future.

I attended his hugely entertaining 60th birthday party in Gozo, Malta (blogs passim); he had recently completed a theatrical portrait of his architectural hero. Le Corbusier’s Women was a one-man show written and performed by Charles Knevitt. When he announced this ambitious plan, I don’t think anyone thought he was serious. But Charles never joked about his work. He didn’t just pull this one off, he wrote with verve and performed with aplomb keeping his audience, the cream of British architecture, gripped for some two hours. His play was a rich seam of fact, conjecture, vivacity and colour, reflecting it seemed the very essence of Charles, a clever, kind and astonishingly astute man, himself the embodiment of Le Corbusier’s ethos: a machine for living. For Charles loved life and lived it well.

Since I heard yesterday about Charles’ passing I have spoken to some who knew him. Respect and admiration for this most irrepressible of men is tangible. His influence on architecture and how it is perceived captured in a few words by Paul Monaghan: “A lovely guy, a great supporter and translator of bringing good architecture to the masses.”

Seizing the mantle, the wise people at the Chelsea Arts Club have created a fitting legacy for this man of people’s architecture: The Charles Knevitt Award for Study and Research in Architecture.

Socially, Charles was the life and soul be it a party, an intimate gathering or dinner for two. I shared many of the latter with him: hugely entertaining, rollicking evenings where he could be at once serious and a moment later bring tears of laughter to the table.

Charles was a solid friend, a rock in turbulent times, a wonderful accomplice in the challenging of authority and a gentleman through and through. An avid sender of articulate and charming notes, time spent with Charles was always acknowledged by a letter bearing his inimitable hand, inky words dancing across fine paper, an assurance that your time with him was cherished, woven forever into his personal story.

Like a conductor leading a fine orchestra, Charles ensured that his social life was one of variety, intellect, entertainment … and nieces. His companionship was widely appreciated by women whose company he thoroughly enjoyed and the younger of which he anointed as “nieces”; this meant no-one was quite certain of the nature of the relationship which suited him very well. Understandably, Charles was never short of female admirers and he liked it like that.

Charles was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2015. He accepted the inevitable prognosis with characteristic pragmatism. I saw him in Wales a month ago; he was his usual self and talked openly and calmly of his impending passing. He hinted that he had written his own obituary; rumour has it that he has also written a more subversive work about the undercurrents of his professional life over the years. If either is true, time will tell.

Charles attended a large family reunion in Northern Ireland; he thoroughly enjoyed himself and retired to bed happy. The following morning his sister woke him. He opened his eyes, smiled, and died.

How very Charles Knevitt; he knows that when you smile, the world smiles with you. All that remains then for his family, friends and colleagues is to think of Charles and smile.

Charles Knevitt
10th August 1952 – 15 March 2016

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A London antidote: the joys and jewels of Northern Ireland


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Farmworld Magic

Mystical light, ruby skies and shades of green that dazzle the eye; rambling roads, rocky ups and rolling downs … This is Northern Ireland, a striking, beautiful place that flies in the face of expectation to reveal visual joy, drama and delight.

To my generation certainly, the northern part of this Emerald isle seemed once to offer only stories of a people torn in two, of Troubles that could not define the dignity of its landscape nor convey its grace or majesty. A number of extended visits over the last year or few have revealed the unexpected delights of Northern Ireland; coming to the end of my New Year visit now and facing with not little regret a return to the Big Smoke, it is time to share some of them.

Let’s begin with the winding road that I anticipate with alternate dread and delight and which takes us from the home of Mother-Out-Law to Second Sister-Out-Law; from one rambling restored Georgian rectory at the foot of The Sperrins to another in Fermanagh. This road engenders butterflies always, as it flings the car across a fairground ride of tips and turns, slowing only to give us panoramic views across swathes of vivid jade, olive, fern and (of course), shamrock green. On one such trip we stopped at County Tyrone’s beautiful Beaghmore, a magical circle of ancient rocks that carry in their midst stories and myths as fascinating as the stones themselves.

An earlier excursion took us on a coastal tour to the Giant’s Causeway, a spectacular rocky formation of cooled, tightly packed hexagonal molten lava columns. A human body will just about fit here and there between the solid structures, as we discovered rambling up and about these casts of remarkable beauty, which conjoin into a legendary pathway created by the great Celtic warrior Finn MacCool, designed to take him to Scotland and battle with rival giant Benandonner.

Landscapes and magical geology are not the only of Northern Ireland’s jewels; the architect Sir Charles Lanyon designed among his twenty or more buildings and bridges a handful of Italianate Palazzi.

Ballyscullion Park is the hardworking home of an equally hardworking First Sister-Out-Law and husband. The proportions of this house, its straight lines and tall windows are a tummy-tingling joy to anyone with a love of symmetry and balance.

A regular stopover for BB and me, Ballyscullion has in recent years become a wedding location of stature with walled garden, sweeping lawns and a strawberry grotto for the sweetest ceremonies. The views from this dreamy and dignified house show Northern Ireland in a nutshell; landscapes that roll to a languorous Lough Beg which, with low or no tide invites one to stroll to Church Island. Here, the “spire without a church” sits atop sparse but glorious ruins that hint at a monastic past, St Patrick and his ambitions of an early Christian settlement. I recommend that you lie beneath its crumbling walls or between the broken teeth of its tombstones and close your eyes, for rare dreams can be had here and rumour has it, rare orchids grow too.

Another of Sir Charles’ creations sits upon Northern Ireland’s east coast. Despite being some five years younger, this huge house is the Daddy of Ballyscullion. The palatial Ballywalter Park is working home to a branch of the same family; during our festive visit, BB and I found ourselves party to much fun with clever and interesting people … and enjoyed a thrilling tour around the Estate’s substantial dairy farm.

The joys of practical, fruitful Farmworld Magic escaped the many strands of my otherwise varied upbringing and this was my first encounter with real farming. As I entered an enchanting traditional courtyard of low, white buildings I could not resist the temptation to take a snap or two, for this charming scene was identical to the wooden toy farm that my brother and I played with as children.

Beyond the courtyard we were introduced to the pedigree Holstein dairy herd, happily housed for winter. We caught some in the milk parlour whilst others munched on silage of sweet-smelling grass, maize, nuts and molasses.

I texted the courtyard image to my brother who replied: “How extraordinary! I don’t see a large plastic cow though – black and white if memory serves me?” A picture of our prettily monochrome Holsteins elicited tender, nostalgic delight; Farmworld Magic at work.

Whilst all of this beauty and charm contributes handsomely to my newfound love of Northern Ireland, the single thing after which I hanker is the calm, for my guaranteed doing of very little is down to the insistence of BB’s family that I rest. Whilst Mother-Out-Law welcomes her prodigal third son with open arms, his relaxation is expressed by fixing, chopping, mowing and more. BB loves this work and as he extracts as much pleasure as possible from his tasks, so it is with mine: I relax.

Occasionally I don waterproofs and Wellingtons to stroll across the garden at stately pace, inhaling the crystal country air. Otherwise I read, write and from time to time stake my place in the kitchen to knock up a garlic mayonnaise accompaniment to the wondrous and fluffy potatoes that appear with every generous and frequent meal.

Indeed, I will never forget my first sitting a few years ago, when I asked The MoL where her lamb had come from?  Her reply, the field over there accompanied by a slight nod of the head pointed to an enviable, economical supply chain. Our gatherings around the table are filled with chat and banter, a-brim with succulent garden-grown produce, fruit and heavenly home-bakery.

Indeed, I am rather more generously upholstered than on arrival one week ago; but London beckons with Forte Medical, keeping fit, keeping home … and letting off steam Barside. Happily my hard work and urban vices can be indulged without fear for their antidote lies here, within these Emerald shores where I may temper the good, the bad and the ugly of London life.

For your joys and jewels Northern Ireland, I thank you.

© Giovanna Forte

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The poet, new friends and fifty strangers: a Christmas story.


ChristmasDinnerSacks.jpgSunday. How I love Sunday. We wake just before ten to catch Radio 4’s finest, and with breakfast in bed relax to the familiar theme tunes that herald our favourite listening. All this before rising to buy flowers on Columbia Road.

This particular Sunday in mid-October seemed no different, until Kirsty Young announced her Desert Island guest Lemn Sissay, writer, playwright and poet. Lemn grew up in care; his graduation from which led to a life that unfolded in a most remarkable way.

The following 45 minutes introduced me to unfamiliar words: care and care leaver. They plucked insistently at a part of my brain hitherto untroubled by the woes of children who in simple terms, have been brought up with the State in-loco parentis. Lemn’s mother was ultimately Margaret Thatcher.

These freshly disrupted brain cells creaked into action. What were the implications of being in care, of having no loved ones, of leaving the institution you call home to fend for yourself? How would one advance into real and functional adulthood without the love, the support networks of relatives and friends that so many of us take for granted? These matters had never caused so much as a ripple on the surface of my thinking until now and I imagined my own children in the same situation. Ouch.

I listened to Lemn Sissay’s Desert Island Discs three times over the following days, something I have never done. I wasn’t just moved by his story, but impressed at his forbearance, his determination, his logic, his talent and most of all, his warmth.

Out came my laptop and I drilled into his website, watched broadcasts and successes, read his poetry and found his projects, of which  The Christmas Dinners hit home. These events take place in Manchester, Leeds and Hackney with single intent: no care leaver should be alone at Christmas. Many are transferred from care homes to hostels and B&Bs; some end up on the street. Lemn determines to bring them into a warm and loving environment for Christmas and let them know that the world is not as lonely a place as they might think, that they are as special, as individual, as valid as the next person.

Hackney. A bell sounded in my head. I sat up and found the Hackney Christmas Dinner Group on Facebook, joined and asked what I should do next. I was invited to a meeting in Clapton about two weeks later.

On the evening, FirstBorn happened to be staying with me. Would you like to come to a Christmas Dinner meeting? I asked without further elucidation. She did. We met at the place and introduced ourselves. FirstBorn looked puzzled but without question sat with me on chairs facing a space where someone stood and outlined the various tasks required to create the Hackney Christmas Dinner for Care Leavers.

FirstBorn threw me another puzzled look. Decoration! I whispered. Obligingly she put up her hand and offered to assist with decorations. I volunteered for gifts and donations.

Lemn was chatty, friendly and excited by the tangible goodwill and determination in the room; he is a dynamo of contagious energy, a whirlwind of ideas, of encouragement. He is insistent about his aims; he is very loud and great fun. Our counterparts in the room came from all walks of life; some had grown up in care, others had nothing to do with it but wanted to make a contribution, to be part of this extraordinary event.

The group was divided into responsibilities: volunteer coordination and screening, transport, food, venue organisation, decoration, gifts and so forth. People split into groups to agree on specific responsibilities, on an overall strategy designed to fit with the other strategies so that like well-woven rope, the thing would come together as a single endeavour on the day.

I should add here that my invitation to FirstBorn for that first meeting was understood to have been for a slap up pre-Christmas Christmas Dinner; once her puzzlement evaporated she took the whole thing somewhat heroically in her stride.

The next two months were a blur of activity; everyone worked flat-0ut to bring the Day to seamless fruition. In fulfilling the tasks allocated to me within the gift team, Barside evenings became infrequent (Note Bene: The Christmas Dinner is good for your health).

Together, we secured a huge range of Christmas presents from a wide variety of shops and businesses plus donations from accountants, lawyers and estate agents all of whom warmed to the cause, wanting to provide something of value for a part of society who as for me, had been until now unacknowledged in their thinking.

On Christmas Eve we wrapped presents, for which I was allocated a team of accomplished and friendly elves; financial donations covered the cost of a Tablet for each adult to facilitate their hunt for work, somewhere to live and crucially, to keep in touch with friends and in some cases re-discovered family and new networks.

Courtesy of local businesses they received knitwear for the women, shirts for the men, super-hero T-shirts, fashion accessories, art posters, tableware, restaurant vouchers, cinema tickets, beauty accessories, books, DVDs, festive sweets and chocolate. Some will receive life-coaching sessions, others CV and career advice all donated by specialists.

We sorted the gifts into male and female, wrapped and dropped them into 50 hessian sacks, each tied with a pink or blue ribbon (not very pc but helpful) and adorned with an over-sized name tag.

Food was planned, sourced and produced by a talented local French Chef and event organiser; volunteers transformed the generously donated Hackney restaurant into a shimmering starlit Christmas grotto. There was so much more, achieved by so many people I didn’t get to know because we were busy working towards an immovable deadline. I wish there had been more time.

BB joined in with his inflatable Santa Suit, a Juggling Masterclass for interested parties (many were) and a fire dancing show; others entertained, talked, cajoled and calmed. Our guests were astonished at this Christmas Day like no other and I talked to many – probably not enough. My confidence, which has no problem addressing a radio audience or a room of 300 business people floundered when faced with a group of individuals whose experiences were so alien to me; it was a challenge to sit down and engage with people whose lives had been so much harder to navigate than mine.

One shy young man admitted that he was reluctant to come but pointed to another lone guest that he recognised from college. They were introduced and by the end of the day were inseparable and happy in each others’ company. A girl who arrived alone made friends with three others. I nearly didn’t come she confessed. I was frightened because I didn’t know anyone. I do now. I have new friends. I feel special. I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy.

People, that did it for me.

Lemn Sissay’s Christmas Dinners are worth their weight in gold. Midnight moments of regret – what have I got myself into? – melted away and I watched our guests bloom, observed them turn from timid strangers into ebullient friends, happy for this extraordinary connection.

Please watch Lemn’s film of the day to see and hear some of the guests from Hackney, Manchester and Leeds. The Wall of Thanks at our venue was peppered with scribbled post-it notes, one of which declared: thank you for this waterfall of joy.

If you want to contribute to next year’s Christmas Dinner, if you want to make a donation that will help Lemn Sissay launch a Christmas Dinner in every town and city across the UK, drop a line to the Facebook page. I am a small cog in one of the most impressive machines I have encountered in 30 years of business, a machine that works seamlessly thanks to an army of talented, impressive, kind people.

You too could make a difference.

Think about it.

© Giovanna Forte.

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Diaries: soulmates, dates and derring-do.


Diaries“I need the dates of all the countries I have visited since 2005,” said The Exocet from Australia. “Could you please try and remember when and where we went on holidays and trips away?” Of course my darling; I have my old diaries and will look for you. 

On a recent inclement Saturday then, I extracted a pile of worn Moleskin journals from the depths of a cupboard and with odd trepidation, turned the wafer thin pages. No-one else would make head or tale of the decade, for these fine leaves are laden with words, initials, exclamation marks and an occasional short observation marked here and there.

Exocet having been roundly independent for the last two years, I focused on 2005 to 2013, finding a number of excursions she had made to Sweden, Canada and France. I also found some baffling entries, moving notes and the reprisal of memories I had carefully airbrushed away. And this, dear reader, compelled me into a closer look at these packed, printed pages.

I found events, dinners, lunches and meetings with people I no longer see and I found questions.  Whatever happened to Angus, Mark, Patrick, Neil, Edward and Matthew? Why do I no longer go out for Girls Drinks with Natasha, Claudia, Sarah, Sophie, or Stephanie? Who in the name of God is nose-blob woman whose true moniker I did not see fit to record? Why was the elevator pitch to 100 Investor Angels so cursorily mentioned, when it resulted in funding the business I still share with my brother? Why are there so many prompts to call Buzz – why did Buzz never seem to call me?

My diaries’ slender pages revived memories of amusing encounters, not least three online-dating episodes each months apart. The first was with A, our match not one of romance but friendship; clever, funny, engaging A has since married his childhood sweetheart and we remain in touch, occasionally meeting for gossipy cocktails at Claridges.

First time lucky then, for the next two encounters were less fortuitous.

B was heir to the fortunes of a culturally famous family; the initial thrill of such a prestigious date gave way to disbelief at his puerile, persistent and presumptuous ways. He was soon dispatched to Soulmate Scrapheap – but not before I had delivered some candid observations about his misplaced sense of entitlement.

C, a handsome Barrister arranged to meet me at Blacks in Soho; we found a spot by the fire to break open a rather good bottle of wine. I have a handful of Barristorial friends and we quickly found one in common, soon after which he leaned close and intoned: we are going to have sex after this aren’t we? Amused and polite my response nevertheless propelled him straight back into his coat and wordlessly through the door. I was left astonished and alone with a near-full bottle of red, the fire … and the bill. C e-mailed the following day to apologise and ask that I would not recount his charmless behaviour to our mutual friend. Alas, it was too late.

I found also upon these slender pages, carefully inscribed notes from The Exocet, gems of encouragement inserted into random days that perhaps she saw were difficult:

Mum is going to have a BRILLIANT day today!

I love you Mum! You are beautiful.

Today may not be great, but I love you LOADS.

This latter somewhat prescient note featured in April 2008 and coincided with the grand finale of a too-long relationship with The Bastard, with whom I had been senselessly mesmerised for some years.  I had already seen a brief note that marked the moving in to his place in 2005 and my thoughts now turned to how events unfolded.

I recalled that although our arrival was a thing of excitement for all, longer term the novelty of living his particular brand of urban life did not suit us or him. Simply our presence curtailed his antics. While The Bastard caroused at night, My Girls and I would sit together and discuss how to leave; we did not belong in this bachelor show home, but having launched a new business, my finances and our options were commensurately constrained.

The months unfolded uncomfortably: by day we muddled along but nights were grim as I would be woken at 5am by his staggering footsteps, abusive and drunken diatribes; once in bed, the acrid scent of his escapades curled from his body. On that final morning my sexually incontinent boyfriend went too far and my patience exploded. Affronted, he put six-months rent into my bank account and gave us five days to gather our belongings and leave. Hallelujah!

These journals have happily also nudged far lovelier memories and vignettes of events that took place in the pretty two-up-two-down we shared before My Girls flew the nest – and I met BB. Indeed, many are described in earlier entries to this blog and there will doubtless be more as I continue my stroll down memory lane.

Exocet now has the information required for her Australian residency forms and I realise that this history,  whether funny, sad, good or bad is worth keeping. For without exception, old experiences help to form and inform new ones.

I realise too that however scant the entries, they give shape to a life well lived and give rise to tales worth telling. Sadly, the last 18 months have seen me slip away from an analogue agenda into the ubiquitous computer calendar. As the years pass, I want always to be able to leaf through the pages of my own history.

Life may move fast, but iCal, your work here is done.

© Giovanna Forte

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