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.

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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Pledge to an NHS Pay Rise: C.A Halpin takes art into the Surgery … and onto the Street with a Kickstarter Campaign

Londoners Support a Pay Rise for NHS Workers

“Over the past year, NHS staff have worked tirelessly to cope with the challenge of the Covid19 global pandemic,” says artist C.A Halpin. “We the public have marched, we have clapped, we’ve cried, we’ve mourned, we have all been humbled by the dedication of the workers who are the jewel in our nation’s crown. Of course, these gestures although heartfelt cannot begin to show our collective gratitude. It is time for us all to Support a Pay rise for NHS Workers. I have launched an art campaign to do just that.”

Clapping is not going to cut it. Public support of a pay rise for NHS workers must be seen – for it is not being heard. C.A Halpin is an artist with integrity; her work includes portraiture, illustration, painting and protest art; all have distinct purpose as well as beauty. Her art is sought after by private collectors; her exhibitions take place in settings that are accessible to all confirming her egalitarian approach.

Cate’s latest focus has landed squarely in the domain of public feeling, politics and the denial of our Government to acknowledge the dedication and toil of our healthcare workers. 2020-2021 saw NHS – and all those who sail in her – deliver care above and beyond all expectation. Having saved the life of our PM, it seems the gratitude he was eager to show by way of fitful clapping outside Downing Street does not translate into practical, financial and tangible thanks. There are over 350 roles that combine to deliver our NHS health system and every single one plays a part in the unremitting life-saving responsibility we have come to expect, if not take for granted. Aligning compensation to the importance of the work, seems to be beyond the remit of our leadership.

C.A Halpin in her studio. Photo by Grainne Quinlan

“Our intention with this project is as a tribute, to thank, to campaign for and to support a pay rise for NHS workers at a time when the service is under dire threat of collapse, through underfunding and outsourcing to private companies, when those dedicated workers are forced to accept pay cuts, all the time ensuring our good health,” she adds. “We wish to demonstrate that we the public, love and respect the NHS and the individuals who make up this ‘cradle to grave’ national treasure.

Support A Pay Rise for NHS Workers allows you to donate and pledge a poster to the healthcare setting or worker of your choice; to donate a fine art glitter print to an NHS Hospital and most of all to place the demand in windows everywhere.

The NHS impacts every man, woman and child; it delivers our babies, treats our infections, removes cancer and gallstones. When we are in hospital it feeds us, dresses our wounds.  Our GPs offer educated words of advice, they sooth our concerns, investigate our aches and pains. The NHS keeps us alive.

Now is the time to say thank you; please pledge to Cate’s Kickstarter Campaign: Pay Rise for NHS Workers protest poster campaign and make our collective message to Government visible everywhere. 

Pay Rise for NHS Workers combines actions with words; please help Cate achieve success and pledge a poster today.

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My mother makes me: a child’s letter to her working mother.

When we lost our home in the 1990 recession my plan to be a stay-at-home Mum was necessarily shelved; with a one-month old quite literally under my arm, I launched my first business, so that I could craft a career around my maternal intent.

This worked for a time, but the greater the onus to be the major breadwinner, the less I was able to achieve my maternal ambitions. Eventually I became a single mum. Here is Ali’s testimonial of that era; a child’s eye view of the dichotomy that working mothers battle with every day. I publish this to reassure the next generation of mothers that … well … its hard but not all bad!

Alessandra McAllister is an author, adventurer, Aromatherapy Practitioner and yes, my daughter. She gave me this letter on Mother’s Day. It was also published on the bog of Second Step, a leading mental health charity in Bristol, with which she works part-time.

“Mummy …”

“Yes, darling?”

“When I grow up, I want to be just 
like you. I’m going to have the same hair as you, the same clothes, the same smile. And I’m going to walk like you, and cook like you. I’m going to do everything like you…”

“Oh, darling that’s lovely…”

“Except I’m going to stay at home with my children.”

My memory of saying this is while sitting in the back seat of our black Citreön, talking in part to my mum’s eyes in the rear view mirror and in part, to the back of her dark, shoulder-length bob, which in those days she wore back in an Alice band. Asking her about it recently, Mum corrected the memory: we were in the kitchen, adding that she’d had to turn around so the two-year-old me couldn’t see the tears in her eyes.

At that age, I spent the large part of my days in a children’s centre with my newly born sister, while Mummy and Daddy disappeared to a mysterious place called The Office. Often, they didn’t return from here until long after all the other children’s mummies had picked them up. ‘Mummies’ being the key word. The fact that other people’s Mummies came to collect them, on time, meant they didn’t go to The Office. This was enough for me to harbour the first inklings of resentment that, though my mummy was perfect, she wasn’t being a proper mummy.

It was the early nineties and the idea of the career mum hadn’t yet gained traction. Certainly not in the leafy Twickenham suburb where we lived then, and my mother, with her high heels, pencil skirts and dark suit-jackets didn’t fit the vista of floral skirts and loose, buxom blouses. Unbeknown to me, behind those enigmatic Office walls, she was pioneering the cause of the working mum, and would do so unremittingly for the next two decades. She was subject to suspicion and gossip from other women and demeaning comments from their husbands. Two weeks after giving birth to my sister, she took her in to her office.

What’s that?” A male client exclaimed, pointing at the baby on the sofa.

“Its a baby,” said my mum. “And she needs feeding in 45 minutes, so can we get on with the meeting please?”

“You can’t bring a baby in here.”

“Why ever not?”

On Mother’s Day 2019, I am 29, the same age as my mum was the day that, with the frank, misconstrued words of a child, I told her that she was perfect but was failing because she wasn’t there for me all the time. I think it’s time to redress that:

Mama, in the two generations that have taken place since that conversation, I have learnt that you are not perfect. You are alive with imperfections. Your work began as a necessity, and then became obsession. Stress took over your lifestyle, and eventually your good health. You have misjudged and been mistaken; you have styled your hair in ways I didn’t like and said things I don’t agree with. Nor am I just like you. I will never wear heels every day, or insist on changing round the furniture or moving house when I feel depressed; I don’t even have any children to entertain staying at home with.

Still, Mama, I want to be like you today. I want your zest for life and your dedication, motivation and perseverance in the face of adversity. I want your sharp tongue and your school-girl humour at 56. I want that gung-ho attitude, your unwavering belief in the good in humanity, and to give the same heart and soul you grant to the people in your life to the people in mine. It was this heart you willingly broke when you abandoned your dream of being a “stay-at-home-mum,” so that my sister and I could have the best life possible, and we do.

Mama, you are the real-deal, proper mummy, and I couldn’t be more thankful for you, nor more proud of what you’ve achieved, home or not.


Literary Agent or Publisher sought
“No Borders Bar: diaries of an Iraqi-British friendship”, is the culmination of six years of collaborative work with former refugee Gaith Shaalan and his family.

Alessandra says:“I met Gaith in Tbilisi, Georgia in spring of 2014 when as a young asylum-seeker he told me he had a story to tell the English-speaking world. When I invited him to dinner to explore the idea of recording his experiences in blog format, I had no idea that six years later, we would have written that story into a book. Next year is the centenary of the Iraqi-British Mandate. No Borders Bar acknowledges this shared, tumultuous history and its continued role in the lives of millions of individuals today.

Visit The Culture Trip for more of Alessandra’s writing.

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Costa del Wick: meadows, marshes and meanders.


River Lea at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

A hen party nailed it. Enforced listening to fifteen twenty-something women singing Bohemian Rhapsody at un-rhapsodic volume just fifty yards from our bedroom was not making us happy; the fifth rendition at 5am broke our will to live … there.

I can’t stand this, I wailed. Giving up on sleep, my laptop opened access to a new rental. All the promise invested in our Brick Lane home had given way to despair, for the house was surrounded by student digs and short-term lets. Airnnb, the nuisance neighbour was right next door, host to noisy gatherings and corporate bonding sessions. Our peaceful and neighbourly Bethnal Green life was shattered.

At 5:15am precisely the property search engine delivered a four-bedroom detached bungalow in Hackney Wick. But that’s very far away, said BB. Far away from what? I asked. We agreed to a visit and less than a month later, moved into our island of peace and privacy. Courtesy of the creative BB, our huge back garden is evolving into a mini Eden Project. Serenaded by swifts, parakeets and blackbirds, the beds burst with tiger nuts, cucamelon, herbs, peas galore and a whole lot more; inside, our belongings have settled in seamless fashion and the place is Very Much Home. Were it ours to buy, it would be refurbished into The Bunker, a glamorous example of 1960s domestic modernism.

Approaching our third year here, we have thus far woefully failed to explore our locale. For scooting into WC1 daily five days a week, weekends are devoted to rest and domesticity, all of which I welcome: rest for obvious reasons, cooking for pure pleasure and ironing for its meditative qualities. Two weeks into lockdown however, the neglected bicycle adorning the hall penetrated my thinking … maybe now is the time to press it into service?

The adventures began. Starting with historic and beautiful Victoria Park, I discovered its ponds and fountains, cafes and playgrounds, acres of green grass and vibrant colourful flora.  Peddling happily around these Viccy byways, I noticed signs for the Olympic Park … and computed that this vast sporty playground – closer still to The Bunker- called for attention.

Waking early the following day and with clear skies above I mounted the trusty steed, left the house and turned right onto Eastway; from there, over the Lea Navigation bridge (or one of them) and right again cruising onto the towpath. Empty of all but the occasional fellow cyclist and sprinter, I made my way in no great rush taking time to enjoy the houseboats and barges that line these waterways. The craft are mostly much loved and cared for with brightly painted hulls, carefully decorated names and lively roof gardens. Illustrative and pretty they inspire the imagination, sparking stories about who lives within, what they do there and where they are going next.

Rounding a generous bend, I turn left up a gravel slope and onto Copper Box Arena lane, which leads directly into the Queen Elizabeth Park. Through the gate, on both sides a carpet of green rolls ahead interrupted only by miniature meadows bursting with flowers and grasses that dance to the gentle breeze. On I ride, over one side or other of the Knights Bridge where I pause to look up and down the River Lea, which meanders round gentle curves of lush greenery; above the water a plethora of playful ducks and herons, whilst below swim fish of myriad shapes and sizes.

This route leads past the now deserted Timber Lodge café towards the Velodrome, a graceful arena with raised circumference around which I circle two, three even four times, my eyes drawn to the views; here the skyline of a distant but distinct Canary Wharf, there an almost hidden B&Q and tiny cars on the faintly growling A12 … elsewhere just greenery, trees, waterways and colourful flags marking the next bridge that leads to the fields of Hackney Marshes.

Velo-laps complete I freewheel downwards past the tall, bright Olympic circles, over another bridge and into the fields, host to a multitude of goalposts which, outside of lockdown are almost permanently colonized by children, teenage and adult teams practicing moves and manoeuvers, watched by friends, family and total strangers simply interested in local life.

Curving to the left of the fields I swoop past East Marsh to cross the River Lea again; instead of forging ahead into Hackney Marshes proper I swing the other way, with the Lea to my right and woodland to the left. It is here that birdsong overwhelms the air; tiny feathered friends dart all around. Punctuating the route on either side are wooden bars and blocks, exercising spots for those wanting a more rigorous workout. Dense paths to the right lead down to the waterway and on an afternoon outing I can spy families picnicking peacefully on the riverside, almost invisible to prying eyes. Just now a powerful scent of elderflower permeates the path; magpies flash across my line of vision, their cracked cries warning victims of prey of their approach.

Arriving at a tiny junction, another bridge to the right could take me towards the wetlands and bird sanctuary but I veer left, smooth fields calling me to stop, lie, look at the sky and breath into slow stretches whilst inhaling the impossibly clean air and sweet scent of grass beneath my hands, thanking nature for putting me here, now. Yesterday morning at this very spot I was completely alone, save for a handful of distant, sociable crows greeting each other with enthusiasm.

Back on the bike, I arrive again at the Lea Navigation canal.  The first barge I see belongs to talented family friend The Blues Musician; the second smaller vessel is The Veg Boat – in a more sociable hour one can stop and buy the freshest fruit and vegetables displayed on deck. Too early for these boat-dwellers to be up and about, my route follows the decorative moored barges with fancy names that call to their past but perhaps bear little relation to the present. Barge-life is by all accounts a happy one for the aura along the tow-path is a gentle one, with owners aboard that look up and smile hello.

I struggle my way up the steep slope to the road, over the bridge and turn immediately left into our low-rise pedestrianised estate, navigating the maze of walkways to The Bunker, just seconds away.

And so ends my ride through our beautiful environs of bridges, towpaths and watery byways, the hot weather and holiday aura giving a handsome new moniker:

Hello, Costa del Wick.

© Giovanna Forte 2020

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In praise of A Certain Age

0e25295f898e48b1f8e23fda2a29fcf4“Not too bad for an Old Bird?” my question to BB was rhetorical: I felt fabulous.

Older, better? Not quite better, but different – fabulous is allowed. The necessary mindshift for women of a certain age has to be in accepting difference; things change. Calories find new places to settle and new weight harder to shift; skin becomes host to freckle and blemish in varying shades of beige and are here to stay. Limbs and face adopt a less defined outline. This is nature; it is not wrong but it is also not kind.

After a 50th birthday, one becomes less eager to approach the magnifying mirror; are those my eyebrows? Is that my upper lip? Facial and bodily deforestation become a work in progress; no more sweet, fluffy light hairs on smooth contours of the face, but a single, long, coarse whisker that appears overnight.  One cannot spot the origins of this monstrous thing; one minute it is not there … and the very next, voilà!

An early unwelcome revelation took place shortly before my half century. I was waiting to meet a dear friend whose job with THE leading fashion glossy involved curating photographs of the most beautiful women in the world. Lovely M arrived, kissed me on the cheek and remarked cheerily, Hold on, there’s something on your face, let me take it away. [pause]  …. Oh, it’s attached. With one firm tug, impassive expression and award-winning tact M settled wordlessly next to me and gossipy cocktail-o’clock commenced.

The consummate professional, M bats not an eyelid at such apparent female defects, for his World of Women has given him to understand that nothing is perfect. He once whispered of The Supermodel who demands that her early morning arrival at studio is met with a bowl of iced water dressed with fresh lemon, into which she rests her face. The process banishes evidence of late nights and all they entail. Rest assured, it works with mortals, too.

In younger days, exercise occurred without a second thought; now, the flesh is weak and a struggle precedes each episode, but happen it must for otherwise the effect of the years will show earlier than they need to. In addition to cycling and pilates, the Joseph Corvo ten-minute routine staves off that tempting nip and tuck.

Introduced recently to a woman who owns a cosmetic surgery business, I asked how much one might pay for a simple neck and chin lift. Are you thinking of having one done? She asked. My reply to the affirmative prompted her to peer closer and opine with enthusiasm, Oh! But you need so much more – an eye lift there and Botox here, here and here. My card – get in touch and we’ll book you in.

Lady, I SO don’t think so.

Mrs Robinson, the Older Woman of Choice for our generation was only around 40 and for those of us who grew up in the ’70s when looks equaled currency she had what it took. But ten years later? Like it or not the mid-life challenge can be vexatious.

But with primping and preening, plucking and painting, we persevere; progress is slower than it otherwise might be and on becoming accustomed to the aging process we understand that giving oneself permission to go along with it all is just not that hard. Good looks belong not exclusively to youth and do not disappear; they adopt a different demeanour, evolving with us all the way.

Meanwhile, the nip and tuck will have to wait for whilst life is rich my pocket is not; more importantly there is too much fun to be had to take that pause right now. And as ever, BB has the last word.

Not too bad for an Old Bird?

No darling.
Not too old for a Bad Bird, either.

© Giovanna Forte, 2020.

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Mind the Vulture! Cautionary fundraising tales.

J Vultures Col

Illustration by C A Halpin

Writing about business on Fortewinks is unusual … but SMEs are the lifeblood of British economy.  As Forte Medical relaunches its Series A scale-up funding round, my experience of rogue investors may provide useful intelligence for others in the same position as us.

Whilst Forte Medical has something others want, oddly we are not minded to give it away; this is where danger can lie ahead for the uninitiated or trusting entrepreneur.

Forte Medical was set up specifically to realise the innovation of a diligent and caring NHS GP who saw the fundamental flaw in urine collection and analysis. My brother Dr Vincent Forte invented a HealthTech device to solve what transpired to be an overlooked but huge problem for patient health, GP waiting lists, laboratory overload and NHS finances. 

Like many businesses with a healthcare bent, it has taken many years to prove our technology, its value to the industry it serves and to the patients that will benefit from our hard work. 

Thus far over £4.5m of investment has been generated through personal crowdfunding and a trusted industry partner; family, friends and friends of friends make up our stable of shareholders, all of whom believe in our mission and have shown patience and support over the 16 years it has taken to reach where we are today.

Despite common knowledge that it takes an average 17 years for innovation to penetrate the NHS, speedy growth is what most investors look for. “You’ve taken too long,” is one familiar criticism; “You have too many shareholders,” another and “You Giovanna, will have to go, and if the business isn’t making money in 12 months we’ll sell patents, assets and know-how and close it down.” HealthTech is not a fast-buck world, as explained by Professor James Barlow in his book Managing Innovation in Healthcare, within which the work of Forte Medical is a case study.

Since Forte Medical received its first LDA Early Growth funding in 2006 my tenure as CEO has focused on completing R&D, complex product design and redesign, completing real-world trials of each improved version of Peezy Midstream and building sales now accelerating in the UK and USA. For more on this, visit our website because this article is not about what we do, but how we have struggled to find investors with integrity.

My first near-company-death experience was in 2012 when the owner of a Healthcare Locum business declared Forte Medical to have a great future. He pledged to meet the entire round at that time; knowing we were running short of funds he deposited a loan of £30,000 into our account, to be converted after a three-month due diligence period when the balance would be forthcoming. Friendly Mr Locum took at least double this time to conduct his investigative work whilst I worried … Then one fine summer’s day, all became clear.

“I don’t want to deal with all your shareholders,” he announced. “I have spoken with a friendly Administrator and arranged a Pre-Pack. All you have to do is attend a meeting, put the business into Administration, I’ll buy it and give you and your brother some shares.”

My shareholders’ interests are priority and despite the precarious position we were in, I declined this kind offer. Within two days a winding up order landed on my desk together with notices of inspection from VAT and HMRC who had coincidentally received a tip that Forte Medical was not being run properly. Prompt visits from these Government agencies resulted in a clean bill of health. Thanks to loyal and supportive shareholders, Mr Locum was repaid within days, and the required funds secured from other sources.

Another offer of investment two years later morphed into an IP-secured loan at the last minute; giving away our Crown Jewels wasn’t in my plan and this, too, was declined. This pattern was to be repeated a few years later when an investment switched into a last-minute loan; this one required shares to be issued to the value of the loan, with the loan also repayable in full at high interest once our ongoing investment round was complete. Free shares gift-wrapped in foreclosure risk didn’t put much of a spring in my step although I have been assured by other capital investment people that this arrangement is “quite normal”.

The matter of transparency has been another problem. Upon showing early sales in the USA, a young investment business there declared our ethos to touch the growing diagnostic zeitgeist for right-first-time medicine. With agreements in place and guarantees given, upon the investment deadline an e-mail was received containing apologies; it had become apparent three to four weeks earlier that his funds were needed elsewhere.

If a company seeks investment, it is to assist growth and success with the promise of financial reward when that happens. Exploiting an SME when it is vulnerable is to no-one’s benefit except the Vulture concerned who would sell all hard-earned company assets: IP on existing and new medical devices, tooling, equipment, manufacturing know-how and more. There is no integrity in screwing the SME; doing so undermines trust, reputation and the future economy, not least when as with Forte Medical manufacturing is UK based.

These and other as yet untold episodes involved much time and effort; dancing to the tune of disingenuous investors is a serious and potentially dangerous distraction for a promising SME with limited resources. What Vultures overlook is the opportunity to make money whilst saving lives. This latter point has been fundamental to my reasons for persevering through thick and thin, for so long.

With over 750 million urine tests conducted each year in the US and EU (not to mention other export territories), even at 1% of the market Forte Medical stands to be very successful whilst contributing to global public health. Our unique MedTech will soon add digital Peezy@home for personalised diagnostic care to the portfolio, meeting the need for remote point of care technology. A percentage of profit can be reinvested in new HealthTech and clinical research, creating a circle of integrity for everyone concerned not to mention benefits to the economy.

With £2.5m Series A investment needed now for scale-up, we seek healthcare-savvy investors who can assist with the identification and implementation of global licensing plans. We are also ready to develop and commercialise our pipeline of five new and unique diagnostic devices.

Forte Medical is in an excellent place; the hard work is done, evidence is irrefutable and growing sales in the UK and USA point to a beautiful future upwards curve. Now we need real investment from honest, experienced people who understand our markets and our intent. If you are that investor, if you are fair and have integrity, I would like to meet you.

(c) Giovanna Forte / Illustration C A Halpin

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