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 five-minutes-away Victoria Park Pilates twice a week for much improved mobility and strength. I am now returning to My Lisa for a monthly one-to-one … 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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Au pair tales: the good, the bad and the …


How did you do it all, Mum? This question is posed more frequently now by my thirty-something progeny as one balances business with motherhood, the other a thriving Patisserie owner whose work entails long, long hours.

When I became a mother in my 20s, I expected to be a stay-at-home Mum, a home-maker, creator of noisy Italianeque round-the-table family meals and just be there for my children. Alas, the 1990’s recession combined with some unfortunate decision making on the part of the family Hunter-Gatherer put paid to such bucolic dreams. I set up in business when FirstBorn was about a month old; by the time YoungestOfAll came along, business was flourishing.

How to manage childcare then? Initially we employed a nanny, a cost that justified itself when balanced with the fees for two children at nursery. Eventually, with both Girls at school we were able to settle for an Au Pair. We provided full board and lodging, £50/week and help with learning English, in return for about three or four hours a day childcare

O was our first – and for the children and Husband one of the best. She was proactive, homely and adored the children and Husband. With our marriage by this time not in the best of shape, my working hours were judged by O to be unsuitable, a view that became all-too-apparent when returning home for a wedding anniversary dinner that I hoped would go some way towards ameliorating the deteriorating situation, Hunter-Gatherer announced there was No Dinner.

It was explained to me in hurtful tones that he was aware I had “enjoyed” a business lunch that day and suspected an affair was in progress. I sat at the balefully empty dining table astonished and baffled … but the best was yet to come. With impeccable timing, O approached with a decorated cake presented to Husband: this for anniversary, she said with a beaming smile, turned her back on me and left the room. She left the house soon after.

Turkish L arrived next; the agency having assured me of her excellent English had lied. She could barely speak a word. Building up to the grand finale of her first and only week she looked shabby and tired; she did little, and simply stared at The Girls as though they were aliens. I returned home necessarily early every day that week to find her sitting on the sofa in dejected fashion until asking when husband home? My reply would propel her to her bedroom, from whence she returned made up to the nines, with pendulous cleavage and barely-there skirt, thighs bursting forth with promise for anyone so compelled to take advantage of their certain solace.

E was our next Au Pair and this time we struck gold; interviewing her however, was no mean feat, for the family for whom she worked (employed would be too generous a term) locked her in her room when not on duty, forbade her from using the phone and withheld payment if they deemed her to have done anything outside of her remit. 

On the date of her first interview, Husband had taken the Girls to see his family in the North; I raced home to meet her, waited … and waited … and waited. Eventually the phone rang and I struggled to hear the whisper: they are out but I am locked  … please forgive, I must leave this place, please help me, please.

We agreed that she would come up with an escape plan and we would work together. A couple of days later beautiful E arrived on my doorstep with a small case and tears; a neighbour had been persuaded to watch the house and at an appropriate moment provide a ladder against the wall to her bedroom … and so E escaped to my house. I wanted to report this family to the police but she was too scared – Father was apparently a lawyer and she worried she would end up in a worse place. We chatted and I loved her immediately; she had an underlying strength, humour and warmth. E stayed with me through the break-up of my marriage, cared for The Girls as if they were her own; she was loyal, kind and now with children of her own remains to this day a friend with whom I keep in touch. Thank you, E for those warm and funny years.

The sitcom of Au Pairs that followed created much entertainment; The Girls being by now older and able to look after themselves to a greater degree, the Au Pair was needed mainly to ensure homework and piano practice was at least begun before Mama got home.

With chaotic H, roles were reversed and The Girls looked after her; she seemed to have no idea how to cook, what timekeeping meant or now to navigate the world … she returned home for a flying visit to Poland but lost her passport there. My 40th birthday weekend was disrupted by numerous phone calls from Polish customs to verify her identity and Au Pair status, she and her parents begging me to visit Poland to fetch her … suffice to say, her employment ended there and then. A debacle!

M was more entertaining. Keen to learn English she worked hard with the Girls at their homework and spent time conversing with neighbours … she had a few boyfriends and it was not unusual for me to return home of an evening to find the sitting room door shut and deep lowing sounds coming from within.

I was subsequently reliably informed that she was a great comfort to a man in our road whose wife was in hospital dying of cancer. The wife duly passed away and M spent increasing hours comforting my neighbour … I was given to understand this comfort received financial compensation although I don’t know the veracity of that intelligence… before too long she announced she could afford a flight home. Bye-bye, M!

Our last but by no means least engaging Au Pair was L, diligent, lively, fun, energetic, always busy away from the house during her time off. L joined an expensive gym, was out every night, bought clothes in the height of fashion and seemed extremely happy. She was great with the Girls, cooked well and we had no complaints. Eventually she decided it was time to return home at which point I asked: I pay you the standard £50 a week … how do you afford your incredible lifestyle? 

L laughed …. Sex phone! she announced. I make Czech voice husky. I make much money. You should try  – your life difficult. It would help a lot. 

Reader, tempting though it has, from time to time, been I have survived without embarking on a sex-line career (is it ever too late?!) I confess however, that all my hats are raised to bright and entrepreneurial L and hope her financial status has continued to flourish in whatever way she deems appropriate and safe.

Enterprise should after all, be celebrated in whatever form it takes.

…….

What are My Girls doing now?

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Henry VIII … and the start of a Very Exciting Adventure


I begin this Blog with Happy News: BB having featured regularly in my tales over the last ten years has become HH: the Handsome Husband.

Our East London wedding celebrations in June saw us tie the knot at Hackney Town Hall where our celebrants Niala and Ayo dispelled any fears of being “just” one of the many weddings queued outside. We were by all accounts the only couple in the world splicing our lives that day. Legalities signed we, our siblings and children climbed aboard a prompt and pink No 55 bus to the wedding breakfast, where we shared ongoing celebrations with our closest friends. It was a special day indeed.

In these days of ghastly post-Brexit melee required to leave the UK, we opted to spend a Mini-Moon relaxing in the English countryside. The following Sunday HH and I climbed aboard Eric The Camper, his legendary and much-loved VW and chugged in exemplary style from gritty Hackney Wick to the glorious environs of Warwickshire and luxe comforts of Salford Hall, our destination of choice for a whole week of pampered bliss.

The journey was not quite as smooth as hoped however, for as we exited the A40 something seemed not quite right; one look outside revealed a blown tyre … although Eric is undoubtedly in need of some TLC, his performance is usually seamless. A somewhat inept AA mechanic eventually summoned a more adept contractor who waved us on our way within minutes … some three hours later.

Having appraised the unflappable Salford Hall Team of our substantial delay, and despite the kitchen closing a good hour prior to our arrival, a table awaited dressed with champagne …  and a most delicious dinner. The Great Hall of Henry VIII was ours alone, save the kind attention of those who stayed late to serve us. The King himself was undoubtedly at the table too … and rightfully proud.

Our bags already in situ upstairs, we arrived to survey our home for the week; a high-ceilinged room lined with ancient oak panels. A substantial and deep Chesterfield sofa, generous writing desk, super-king-size bed, luxury thread-count bed linen and super-modern ensuite. Glorious Tudor windows gave uninterrupted views of hill, vale and fading rays of sunset. This was bliss indeed.

A delicious breakfast heralded a slow morning after which HH set out to find local VW specialists who replaced the remaining tired tyres. In his absence what else could I do, but enjoy a massage conducted by the accomplished Emma, who also provided recommendations for local spots to visit and things to see, excellent advice that led us to relaxed excursions and interesting places.

The village of Broadway proved a huge success; we alighted at the Gordon Russell Design Museum, a delightful celebration of a brilliant furniture designer who, commissioned by post-war Government produced the clean lines of Utility furniture now regarded as the forerunner to British mid-century design excellence. Whilst his story is largely unsung, his talents were extraordinary and we saw the evolution of his own brand of interior design featuring now classic, highly collectable pieces. We watched an absorbing film about him and the factory he built there employing over 300 craftsmen; it included features about his family, not least his entrepreneurial father who bought a near-derelict building on the high street, now the celebrated Lygon Arms where a light lunch completed our visit.

Returning home to the warm embrace of Salford Hall, dinner awaited and we again took our place in the Great Hall, this time in the company of other guests, some resident at the hotel and others local coming for the sheer excellence of the food and wine for, dear reader, The Hall wine list is something to behold. HH whose love of the stuff is informed by a wine diploma, confirmed the quality and provenance of the bottles on offer, chose a delicious and rounded burgundy. We retired to our room replete and very happy.

Stratford-upon-Avon has thus far escaped us both in life, so we drove there one morning and booked ourselves onto the Countess of Evesham lunchtime cruise. Very good food was cooked on board and amusingly, we were by some considerable years the youngest guests afloat. Our own table for two sat by a large window from where we enjoyed the encountering of various locks, views of The Globe Theatre, myriad weirs and more. Our server was a young woman studying psychology, a subject that clearly gave her much insight into the science of her work; she was welcoming, professional and engaging all whilst being highly efficient. A catch indeed for the Countess of Evesham.

Cruise and lunch over, we wandered the touristy streets of Stratford-upon-Avon; we dipped in and out of various clumsily themed shops that nestled between the ubiquitous facades of M&S, McDonalds, Boots and more. Once upon a time I suspect independent locally-owned retail and restaurants flourished here, but landlord-world has created a high-street that all but masks its Shakespearean originality. Then it really, really rained.

A cat-nap and light Great Hall dinner gave way to clear skies; we drove up hill and down dale, through narrow country lanes until we found our sunset-friendly spot. From here, we watched the pale sky turn aflame, the delicate clouds shapeshifting into all manner of dragons and mythical creatures, the rosy light illuminating their skirts as the sun sank slowly into the hills.

The following day, HH made a final Eric TLC trip, while I returned to Emma for some expert reflexology, the most relaxing of high-pamper therapies. Leaving the spa studio, Emma showed me the Priest Hole where Catholic Fathers hid during the purging of the faith; this is just a small slice of Salford Hall magic, for every up-and-down of step, each twist-and-turn of corridor reveals history that is a joy to uncover and discover. Salford Hall is not just any old hotel, it holds within its Tudor walls fascinating intrigues of the past, whilst offering every luxury of the present. The retreat is a recent addition to its owner’s portfolio and discreet works in progress can be seen – if you look for them. A gym, spa and pool are being created and as yet infant kitchen gardens show fresh promise of even greater culinary excellence to come.

We decided that evening to dine at a promising pub we had passed a few times; the Fish and Anchor was what we wanted right then and a table by the window just the ticket. Our server listed the specials, my modest fried mushrooms being so utterly delicious that spying the chef, I made my way to ask how he did them: No-one makes fried mushrooms as good as mine, I declared, tell me! Chef seemed rather pleased and very graciously, he spilled the beans. After supper we stayed seated to nurse our wine, for this was Karaoke Night at the Fish and Anchor and although we couldn’t see the performers from our table, I can declare that what we heard was astonishingly good: Offenham Has Talent.

The next day was spent within The Hall; in the games room I was by no means covered in glory at either darts or billiards, although my increasingly grumpy efforts generated much hilarity for HH. Finding (for me) better luck in the library we returned to our spacious room for a lazy afternoon where we alternately read, slept, chatted and bathed.

This being our penultimate night, after another fine dinner and by now on chatting terms with other guests, we meandered into the bar to collect a couple of large brandies. These, we took into as yet unexplored gardens where games galore awaited. Alighting on the Boules I drew on my father’s expert talent of Italian Boccia, which, when combined with an unashamedly competitive streak took me to a 15 to 8 win. And another large brandy … chin chin!

Like all good things and all-too-soon, our Salford Hall week came to an end, with the Exemplary Team gathering to bid us farewell and a safe journey home.  If like us, you cannot endure the thought of the carnage and indignity involved in travelling abroad, look no further than Salford Hall in the Vale of Evesham on the Cotswold border, where you will find wonderful people to look after you, fabulous food and wine, discreet relaxed luxury and historical charms to enthral and delight.

The lesser discovered gem of Salford Hall marks an auspicious start to our Very Exciting Adventure in life … and oh yes, we’ll be back.

© Giovanna Forte 2022

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Pier to Peer: a tale of two weekends


Glorious Southend on Sea

In June this year our planned stay at Breedon Hall luxury B&B in Derbyshire fell victim to Covid; the host’s son had tested positive. Long-lost friends Charles and Charlotte were forced to cancel a full hotel – far worse for them than for us. For while they had no option but to isolate at home without guests, we were lucky enough to find a last-minute, albeit starkly contrasting option … Southend on Sea.

Being a Brighton Girl, a weekend at the seaside with pier, funfair, rolling waves and ice cream more than compensated for the disappointment; hotel options fell to an independent Boutique establishment or the Radisson Park Inn. Seduced by elegant images on the website of an assumedly more reliable Radisson, the latter won the day …. more on this later, but – in short – our choice was not a good one.

Southend itself is nothing short of a joy; an honest seaside town presenting all that one expects with aplomb and great cheer. Having asked via Italian Ice Cream in the UK Facebook page if any Families were serving in Southend, recommendations were duly made. On Friday evening our walk from station to hotel took us directly to Tomassi’s, where traditional Italian-Seaside fare is served in a swish interior. Here I virtually inhaled my first Chicken Kiev and Chips in about 30 years; BB enjoyed their house lasagne… all washed down with Chianti, of course. Too full to focus, we neglected to pick up a small bag and calling in the next day to retrieve it, met owners Antony and Giovanna Tomassi, whose warm welcome involved a portion of their contrastingly frozen signature ice cream. We were in heaven.

Saturday took us to Southend Pier, at 1.33miles (2.14km) it is the longest in the world; buffeted by British breezes we made our way to the end and celebrated with chips and mayonnaise. Making friends with Arthur, an elderly gentleman we heard about his colourful career in engineering and how his late wife loved their retirement home by the sea; now alone, he walks to the end of the pier and back every day the weather allows, to think of her as well as to keep himself fit and well. Arthur suggested a walk along the prom to Westcliff and having booked lunch there, we concured it was time to set of and returned to shore by way of the rather dinky pier train. Bathed in sun, sea-shore sounds and scents, the two-mile walk to lunch took no time at all.

The Oyster Creek Kitchen came recommended by Mr Tomassi, for it is owned by his sister and her daughter. Overlooking the sea, the fresh, chic interior and friendly welcome augured well. Moules for me and Wild Sea Bass for BB were both juicy, flavourful and well worth the walk … we were very very happy. It was good enough to book for Sunday lunch … but alas, they were of course, fully booked.

Meandering back to the Radisson we took a late afternoon catnap, for we had been walking for almost eight hours and despite the respite of lunch, were in need of a horizontal pause. The evening’s culinary treat would anyway require a brand new burst of energy.

At 7:30pm, refreshed and dressed for dinner we visited the hotel bar for a swifty before setting out; my need for a vodka martini was unfulfilled. It transpired that the bar manager had not appeared for work; cocktails did not feature in the untrained repertoire of an apologetic stand-in, so vodka tonic it was.

Duly sated, we stepped out for San Fairie Ann, a pretty and bohemian restaurant highly recommended by those locals to whom we mentioned it, but booked because BB’s favourite Beef Wellington was on the menu. It did not disappoint. Chatting with our cheeful server we learned that during the week she works in our neighbouring Shoreditch, and with two restaurant shifts every weekend she is saving for her own home. The smart and sassy owner, delighted to hear how happy we were with her restaurant and its glorious food, told us it was her first venture … and a very full one that night too.

Almost at our hotel, the jolly sounds of an Abba tribute band drew us to the bar across the road; sadly we were denied entry due to C19 restrictions so we plumped for Very Second Best in the Radisson bar where a surly DJ played a CD of 70s classics, with said bands performing on a screen in front of his deck. His audience demurred from dancing preferring instead to engage with their phones. For us one was enough and we retired upstairs.

Just an hour from East London, a Southend Day Trip is on the cards; for despite our Radisson Blues, the town’s own warm hospitality will certainly tempt us back for some seaside lunches.

Cambridge.
During our earlier lives, one of the many Almost-Meetings between BB and me was set in Cambridge, for in the year I was learning how to be an Executive Assistant at a smart college on Bateman Street he was across the road, working through his last sixth-form year at The Leys. He at 17 a sweet-faced schoolboy and I, a pixie-haired newly liberated 19-year-old were not destined to get together just then.

Many moons later in this year’s September, I took his arm for his school reunion and a glance at my old secretarial college, one that I used to tell Cambridge University Boys was a new all-girls’ college, for none of them would otherwise engage with a Secretary.

Arriving by train, we walked through a much modernised station approach, past the Botanic Gardens and the former Marlborough Secretarial School – now a Sixth Form College – to the Hotel du Vin, chosen for the short walk to The Reunion and also reliably luxe and charming. The hotel, like all other Vins, is decorated and appointed with care and consideration for every guest comfort; the staff are without exception professional, friendly and kind. High five to you, Team Vin.

The Reunion was set against a live and professional jazz soundtrack. Taking place in a rather smart new cricket pavillion we met Old Boys ranging in age from around 25 to 85 taking in just one of BB’s peers. Wine and conversation flowed easily; we chatted with a farmer, a teacher, a manufacturer of equipment (shame on me, I can’t remember what sort), an engineer and a publisher, all interesting folk with tales to tell of school and beyond.

Over dinner at The Vin Bistro, we planned the next day, a task easily and amusingly achieved when encouraged by a really good bottle of Chateau Musar, for one of the pleasures of The Vin is that the wine cellars genuinely do justice to an accurate moniker.

Saturday was a walking day; we strolled along Trumpington Street heading for Cafe Foy, chosen for its independence, promise of locally sourced food and river setting. I can recommend The Foy for it delivered everthing promised, with charm and deliciousness; judging a place as I do by its coffee, The Foy has a firm stamp of approval.

From here we walked across the river to The Fellows House, an exemplar Hilton that houses art and sculpture by BB’s childhood friend Diarmuid Byron O’Connor, a marvellously eccentric talent whose work is found in settings as varied as Great Ormond Street (Peter Pan), the interior of Annabel’s and numerous private collections. Here in Cambridge we admired all six of his works in situ, each a curious, clever and compelling commentary on themes ranging from Cambridge bicycles to Alan Turing, CS Lewis, John Herschel and more. My personal visit glittered even more when I encountered the innovation of fellow entrepreneur and friend Martha Silcott; her genius, environmentally conscious and highly sustainable Fab Little Bag dispensers were resplendent in the Ladies Loo and prompted a swift congratulatory call. BB and I toasted our clever friends … and their contrasting talents.

A quick visit to the eclectic Kettle’s Yard took us past the familiar walls of Magdelene, scene of a climbing escapade or two and of course, the Pickerel Inn, home of many a rowdy evening. Then, a charity shop tour to satisfy a habit of mutual enjoyment, particularly fruitful in wealthier areas where top threads and more can be snapped up for not-a-lot; here, a warm triumphant glow arose by way of some very fine champagne flutes now in a cupboard at home poised for a fitting celebration.

Our substantial and late breakfast providing fuel enough for a return walk through town, we got as far as the FitzWilliam Museum before agreeing to take a cab to the station for our journey home, for we were sated with a full night and day in Cambridge. To the station we returned, tired, happy and content with our lot.

Thank you Cambridge for a dignified and arty stay.

___________

The Full Review: Radisson Park Inn, Southend
Reader, do not be deceived: nothing in this hotel resembles images online. Reception was worse than tired. Unlike many other places, lockdown was not exploited for purposes of refurbishment or even a general tidying up. Worn packing tape applied to floors served to direct guests to the shabby front desk. An ante-area – gleaming on the hotel’s home page – featured stained sofa and scratched, faded furniture. Having paid extra for a sea view, our room looked onto a metal fence adorned with red danger sign. The sea was invisible from either within or without, the balcony being inaccessible as the door was fitted with a security lock.

Inside, a torn grey sheer nylon cover did not quite fit the bucket chair from which it was attempting to escape. A short rail was provided in place of a wardrobe, despite there being space for one. The bath plug was too small to fill the waste and so on. We showed Reception pictures of our room compared with those on the website; they concurred that the promise did not meet actuality and moved us the following night to a room from which we could enjoy both balcony and sea view. Here, the same worn decor applied, a universal standard that extended throughout the hotel.

At breakfast, lovely staff did what they could with components that shouldn’t feature in any hotel. Coffee machines produced a weak brown liquid, less than fresh bread circulated through an ancient toaster, undercooked bacon and eggs were returned for complete cooking. Here, as in our bar encounter above, a short-staff situation was to blame; the catering manager and chef had both failed to materialise and those who had arrived for work were filling the gaps as best they could.

Whilst the fabric of this hotel left far too much to be desired, the team that kept the cogs turning couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. I offered to write to Radisson management; Please write, they said. We have told them that things are bad here but they don’t care. No matter how hard we work to improve the situation, we can’t make miracles on our own. Management must hate us.

It is not easy to track down e-mails for Radisson management in the UK, so I messaged the group via Twitter and was told in cursory fashion to contact Customer Services; surely, if “service” held any resonance to these people, given our grievances they would have contacted me? The best I could do was write via LinkedIn to Mr Federico J Gonzales, allegedly CEO of Radisson Hotel Group; with over 500 connections he clearly uses the platform but chiming with our experience, his silence is no surprise.

Two guests I spoke with had been in the Southend Radisson Park Inn for a few days and couldn’t wait to leave; It’s been hell on earth, one said. We usually go to Spain. We thought if this was nice it might be easier to do it again next year. Never again.

With more of us forced to “holiday” in the UK this summer, British hotels had a golden opportunity to persuade us that the UK can offer as good an experience as a foreign holiday. During our two trips described here, the Radisson cost over £50/night more than the Hotel du Vin. They cannot seriously expect guests to accept shabby accomodation at high prices; nor should they treat staff without dignity and respect. That this hotel does both is testament to Management’s pitiful attitude to the business of hospitality. Were this hotel in the USA it would be closed down.

To concur with the guest above, never again.

© Giovanna Forte 2021

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Soho: an Ab Fab Memoire


#Soho #PR #goodolddays / Illustration by C A Halpin
We’ll be near Soho said a business colleague. Where can we meet for coffee?  Reader, there is only one place for coffee in the streets of Soho: Bar Bruno. 
Meeting over, I wandered my former stamping ground and behind the facade of Private Equity backed shops, saw little evidence of times gone by, when the streets and buildings were colonised by all manner of businesses and goings-on, with neighbourly folk who saw each other’s backs, stopped for a chat in the street. This quasi family of almost-strangers made life lovely.
In the early noughties, my design and architecture PR business lived on the first floor of 52 Wardour Street a corner that overlooked Anne Summers and the Duke of Wellington from one aspect and from the other Gerry’s Off License and the Soho Newsagent. Below was Camisa & Son, one of London’s finest Italian Delis. On a Friday evening Westminster Council saw fit to install temporary loos around the streets, to cope with the influx of merry makers over the weekend. One was planted directly below my office window. If hosting an end-of-week gathering, guests so inclined could observe the steady flow of performers; much amusement was had, not least when an artiste realized he had an audience.
My office, being so beautifully located was a hive of activity, people dropping in unannounced, usually towards the end of the working day. Thanks to a fortuitous vodka client the door was always open, propped so by cases of bottles intended for delivery to journalists. A sizeable number reached their destinations. Some did not.
In those heady PR days my assistant Stella and I would visit various openings, events and exhibitions, which all too often took place on the same day. Starting from our Soho home we would retain our champagne filled flutes, taking them to the next venue and the next, adept at spilling not a drop as we clambered in and out of the black cabs that flew us across London.
Soho days started well as I navigated my moped through the opening credits of my very own film: Chelsea, Sloane Square, Knightsbridge, Hyde Park Corner, Mayfair, Piccadilly Circus and Shaftesbury Avenue. On Wardour Street, I turned left into Peter Street to park. I paused to buy today’s fruit from Gary and Les on the end stall, Berwick Street; my daily chat with Gary was invariably rounded off by Les: you look lovely darlin' … stockings or tights?
Claudio was the Gaggia Maestro at Bar Bruno; having spotted me turn the corner he made sure my Special Americano was ready by the time I walked in. Ermino and Pasquale fulfilled food orders and Franco emerged now and again from backstage to make sure things were running as they should. 
The Bruno Boys were wonderful; they even welcomed My Girls,  hosting them for the occasional morning when I had childcare challenges. Conversely they hated my boyfriend: He’s bad, they would say. Not good to you. Fair points well made.
One week my overly frequent visits to the newsagent gave rise to more, candid observation: Boyfriend misbehaving again? he enquired. How do you know? I asked. That’s your third packet of fags, he said, and it's only Tuesday. He provided a bar of chocolate and kind advice about the pitfalls of misplaced love; both made me feel better.
Gerry’s was also part of our fabric; having been invited to pitch for the UK launch of Luksusowa Vodka, Stella proposed a film about the brand and its competitors. We hired the friendly Mad Dog, who arrived with portable camera and a sound engineer. Gerry's experts compared the brand with two other Polish vodkas, describing the customers who would buy each, and why – a PR dream. Second stop was Blacks private members club, run at that time by the indefatigable Alan Linn. He sampled all three vodkas providing articulate analyses on taste, nose, brand and bottle. Nice work; we got the job and the office door propped open too.
Alan’s tenure at Blacks was a memorable part of Soho days. Blacks was a place to meet interesting people, eat well, drink good wine and generally have a splendid time. There were rules: phones were not allowed - but with the space running over four floors one would imagine it to be not too difficult to break that one (isn’t that what rules are for?). Concealed behind a sofa or curtain or perhaps under a table at least three floors away from Alan, my discretion mattered not for within seconds the Powerful Scottish Tones of Linn would swell through the building: Giovanna Forte! STOP using your phone! Whilst an impressive range of bad behaviour was tolerated or ignored, a mobile phone drew Alan's ire like nothing else. Alan now welcomes better behaved New Yorkers to his very own glittering private members club, Norwood.
The French House was the other default destination; it was a favourite too, of the journalists and design mafia with whom I collaborated and many meetings were set here. Kind, Irish Micheal (with legendary moustache) looked after diners upstairs, quite often helping them back down again later. The house Steak and Chips was the best in town and many a lunch ended with dinner too, simply because we hadn't left yet.
After 5pm, Soho Society retreated from the incoming tide of revellers that flooded the place each night. Many lived within these colourful streets; others as good as lived there, for they rarely left any one of the famed licensed sanctuaries that have been written about through the ages. The Colony Room was one such; finding oneself atop this particular flight of stairs was a sure sign that the best of the night was still to come.
My recent visit to Bar Bruno reminded me of these happy times not least because on arrival a familiar face greeted me at the door. Claudio? I asked. His face creased into a glorious smile. You! How lovely to see you! How long has it been?  And so it was that I was again welcomed with open arms and damn good coffee. That single response embodied the Soho I knew and loved, a warm community and a sense of belonging. 
The post-meeting wander around my former haunt was a telling one; the much-loved unique independent shops and bars are gone, replaced with homogenous private-equity backed brands that have diluted the rakish, exciting air of the streets, now imbued with the bland whiff of banal. Victims of the pandemic, many are closed for good. But here and there lies a café, outside of which sits the Soho flaneur and flaneuse of old, with grey lights in their hair, clues of compelling lives etched into lined faces. But not many. The honesty of this alluring bohemian enclave has been sabotaged, and it made me sad.
The demise of the dull could be a silver lining; perhaps the pandemic has opened opportunity for the creative, entrepreneurial and brave people to return, those that gave Soho its spirit, its many layers of intrigue and entertainment, those who hosted its myriad, wilful, insubordinate havens of hospitality. This will of course be up to the landlords and I hope they look kindly on the brave souls who might imbue Soho once again with the wayward authenticity of old. Let’s hope so.

© Giovanna Forte 2021

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In memory of lost friends: funny, clever, kind … and usually badly behaved.


The last 12 months have been melancholy with the loss of a dear friend, one whom I celebrate here. In so doing, it is timely to remember others who passed away in years gone by, but of whom I have been thinking a great deal lately. I would like to share with you the lives of three or four who brought kindness, laughter and (often) behaviour that could have been better …

Join me then then, at the drink-drive rehab centre on the Askew Road in West London for this is where I found myself early one evening in summer 2003, waiting for the session to start, feeling shame. For heaven’s sake Forte; you’re a Mother, you have Children, how did you get yourself into this mess and on a 50cc scooter too? I’m afraid the reasons will take a whole other blog not yet ready for writing, but as my thoughts perambulated through the shame (the shame!) a phone behind me rang, answered swiftly by a robust and gravelly voice agreeing to meet the caller in an hour or so. I don’t know who you are, I thought, but I like the sound of you …

Rehab commenced with the group sitting in a circle confessing the volume of alcohol consumed when stopped and breathalysed. Me: probably about a bottle of red wine. And last of all: …. Eighteen Pisco Sours!

The group stared aghast at this round jolly fellow who beamed at us all unfazed, wondering – I later learned – what on earth we lightweights were all doing there.

The following evening I arranged to meet a friend at the Chelsea Arts Club and as I entered the Billiard Room, sitting at the bar was Mr Pisco Sour himself. Our eyes met, instantly he grinned broadly, arm outstretched to point at me and in booming tones I KNEW I’D KNOW YOU! COME HERE AND DRINK WITH ME! That, dear reader, was that.

Bad Rod and I had rocking times together, partly because he lived on a barge and partly because most of the time we were laughing, for Rod was never truly bad; he was a great companion, a splendid raconteur and clearly, a lively drinker. He was a trusty friend, a patient listener and source of advice both sound and very unsound.

While most of us were back on our vehicles after nine months (the rehab reduced the ban by three), Rod had to wait much longer and, nervous about the blood test required to re-establish him behind the wheel, had a blood transfusion before the test. Sadly, he failed … but in typically sanguine fashion, found the situation amusing – and carried on drinking.

Our friendship endured through times good and less good; we understood each other and when in the company of others could communicate feeling, opinion and usually shockingly un-pc views by way of a mere look, reducing us to gales of laughter, baffling those around us. Terribly rude I know, but it couldn’t be helped.

Astonishingly, Rod’s health lasted almost twenty years from our first meeting until he developed myriad problems associated with prolonged smoking and drinking habits. He remained cheerful to the end. After receiving a message that he was in hospital in South Kensington last year I went looking for him, but he’d gone home. He died before I could get to the assisted flat he now occupied. I hear his gales of laughter often, his encouragement and approval of bad behaviour … and miss him very much.

Pia was a schoolfriend who, for reasons I cannot fathom I have been thinking of a great deal lately. Pia kept her drinking hidden; we all knew she was partial to excess but her eating disorder was the more prominent problem and one that we all tried to ameliorate with little success. We were on the wrong track because it was the drink that killed her. A troubled young woman, she hid her unhappiness with acerbic wit and a sharp tongue.

My abiding memory of Pia is of an earlier time however, when we stayed with her parents in their London flat one weekend during the A-level years. Bored, we told Mr & Mrs B that we were going to the house of a schoolfriend for dinner. Dressed up we shimmied out of the apartment calling our goodbyes so they wouldn’t see our nightclub-ready clothes; we jumped onto a bus and alighted at Leicester Square. Navigating the Soho streets we avoided the corn-on-the-cob vendors holding their wares aloft asking if we wanted one … and made our way into a club that looked pretty lively: the Whisky-A-Go-Go – later to become the infamous WAG.

Here, we bought cocktails and danced, thrilled with our debut to the West End and our schoolgirl derring-do. Before too long, three boys approached … boys we had met the week before at a sixth-form dance organised between our school and the nearby college. We exchanged glances … what were the chances, really?

Unable to put them off, we minced our way into the Ladies where we found an open window. Exchanging silent glances we scaled the wall, slipped through the window and escaped into the night laughing until we cried. Finding the little money we had all spent, we begged change from passers by and called Mr B who came to fetch us, furious with our lies and the danger into which we had placed our young selves. We were returned to school early the following day under a storm of parental disapproval but oh yes, we agreed, it had been worth it. Thank you Pia, thank you for the fun and my first London club night.

To an older friend then, a Gentleman who worked in the same industry as I, who despite his diminutive stature genuinely believed himself to be six feet tall. He may as well have been for his confidence was unassailable. We met through a reference he had provided for someone who turned out to be sackable (and duly sacked). Writing to the author of this dodgy reference, I received a call offering profuse apologies. May he share a drink with me and apologise in person? Knowing his influence in the world of health to be considerable I thought why not?

Mr Gentleman and I got along famously; a mutual love of Portuguese Red enhanced by his portfolio of very funny jokes and older charm, for Gentleman was in his late 70s. We became great friends, he regaling me with tales of his affairs and other stories and I soaking up details of his roguish life – well, the ones he was happy to share with me.

We found ourselves often at the same Conferences and at one such away from home, he invited me to a dinner gathering, suggesting I meet him in the foyer of his hotel, a short walk from mine. It transpired of course, that everyone else seems to have gone on ahead; in other words, the gathering was entirely fictitious. Never mind, I thought, he’s good company. We walked through the streets, found the river and strolled along the Boulevards until we found a charming corner Brasserie; our table for two was next to a panoramic window – perfect.

The food was wonderful, the company amusing and over pudding he looked me squarely in the eye and said: we are going to have sex tonight aren’t we? A blink was the briefest beat to precede my reply: No, we are not. Coffee and brandy might be nice though. Shall we?

Entirely untroubled by rejection, Mr Gentleman continued to be amusing and charming as though nothing untoward had been said and we walked to the steps of my hotel where he pecked my cheek and walked the block or two to his. Retreating to my room amused at what had taken place, I tapped thanks into my phone: Hello …. As my finger hovered over send I spotted in the nick of time what autocorrect had edited: my message now began Hello Tiger …

With bated breath I checked the phone only to realise that had Tiger been received, my bedroom door would have been punctured by the unmistakable shape of an enthusiastic, if diminutive elderly Gentleman. With a sigh of relief, I settled into bed and slept. Alone.

Mr Gentleman passed away three years ago aged around 84. I think of him often and smile for he taught me an important lesson: believe in yourself … for there is nothing you cannot attempt. As if to prove this from beyond the grave at his Wake I was approached by a Grande Dame quite close to my age. We chatted and eventually she asked Did you ever sleep with him? Well. Er, no, I replied, I didn’t. She smiled and with rather misty eyes confided: You should have. He was a wonderful lover … to the last. Good for you, Mr Gentleman!

Last but not least there is the incomparable Charlie, about whom I have written before. Charlie was a much loved Respectable Rogue … If you have time, read Charles Knevitt, A Tribute. He is a man worth knowing even in death.

I have many more and wonderful tales to tell of dearly departed friends, but the last 12 months have been melancholy enough. Best to cherish the memories and even better, to raise a glass of something robust to them all.

Carpe Diem.

© Giovanna Forte 2021

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