California conversation and happy travels.


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It was all going so well. My arrival at Heathrow in better than good time, the security experience easier than usual (I didn’t get stopped – a miracle) and time to drift through the stores in wonderment at the nonsense people feel compelled to buy at airports.

We boarded on time. I settled into my seat, stowed Private Eye and Guardian for later reading and awaited lift-off … only to find we were all waiting in vain. The intercom crackled into life: A strange occurrence has occurred, said our Chief Flight Attendent. A mouse has been  found on board. We cannot depart with a mouse on board.  British Airways regrets, that all passengers must disembark. We have been assigned a new aircraft and expect to have you and your bags transferred ….  Amusement tempered mild annoyance and within minutes I was back in the melee of Duty Free … As entranced by the Chanel lipstick counter as a child in a sweet shop. Nonsense indeed; each candy colour smudge on my hand, every gentle nod of acquiescence to the sales assistant declared me guilty as charged.

Three hours later and lipstick-rich, I embarked upon the flight to San Francisco; good films, good food and good wine helped the hours slip by. In SF, I made my way to Information, where I asked for a recommendation to reach Palo Alto. We cannot recommend, the Information Attendant informed me. We are here to answer questions. I tried a different tack and was soon two floors up, staring at the BART ticket machine, with bafflement.

I heard you ask about getting to Palo Alto, said a kindly voice. I am heading for the stop after you and don’t know where I’m going either. How about we join forces and get there in one piece … or get lost together? Keith and I duly joined forces; he to see his Grandson and a first visit to his own son’s home – I, destined for a meeting critical to my business.

We were both nervous and relieved to find a friendly travelling companion; Keith and I got along famously. Keith is a recently retired civil, structural and environmental engineer who was involved in converting traditional power stations to run on biomass. I explained my line of work and there ensued a deep and detailed conversation about engineering, technology, design, manufacture and their implicit yet often unsung roles in helping the world turn smoothly on its axis. As our conversation ventured here and there, we each caught the other observing the frozen nose-to-screen demeanour of our on-board compatriots and agreed: Hell! People just don’t see the world around them any more …

Palo Alto arrived all too soon. Keith and I shook hands; what an absolute pleasure to have met him and to understand that despite his experience of life over 60-something years, he was still nervous and excited about engaging with the boy who is now his adult son, and with the small and lesser known Grandson. A testament indeed to the fragile and tender human condition.

I stepped onto the platform at Palo Alto intending to clamber into a cab. Every station in the world plays host to a taxi rank – or so I thought. But this is twenty-first century; the suburban taxi-rank (and independent enterprise that goes with it) has been eroded and userped by UberWorld. Spying the station cafe, I dragged my excessively large case across the concourse and enquired of the Barrista: How do I get a cab around here?  His eyes narrowed to peer over my shoulder: If there ain’t one under that tree over there, there ain’t one. 

Adjacent to that tree over there was a Transit Centre – a bus station to you and me. I trundled into its midst and looked around. Of the few passengers-in-waiting, the most approachable was an evidently homeless gentleman who not only kindly disabused me of the time it might take to walk to my hotel (understanding distance on map-scale is not my forte, as it were), but told me which bus to take, what to say to the driver and when I might expect to arrive at the establishment in question. We had a brief chat about London – he had visited in happier times – before I left him with much gratitude and the wherewithal to buy an evening meal. The number 22 duly arrived when he said it would; I confirmed with the driver that she would drop me at the Creekside Inn, and found a seat.

Boarding with me were the disparate, now familiar faces from the wait: a stressed woman with three children, a rotund gentleman with woolly beanie hat, an elegant elderly lady with Zimmer frame and a rather cirucumspect Hispanic couple who stared in wonder at all around them.

You’re British? From England? The lady on the seat opposite addressed me directly, her worn clothes a contrast to the newer apparel of her three children. They were all  mesmerised by my accent. Dear reader, there followed a lively exchange that excited comment, question and opinion from almost every passenger, and which embraced the Queen, Scotland, bearskin hats, Beefeaters, London buses, whether Buckingham Palace is more House than Palace, British weather and more.

I’ll never get to London, said my new best friend. I only have one lung working – and these kids. It will never happen. I looked at the children looking at their mother, faces etched with resignation. You never know, I thought out loud to the window. You never know what’s round the corner. If you focus on the problems, you might miss the opportunity.  Anything can happen if you want it to. Even going to London. I never thought I’d come here either.

Mum stared and I thought she was going to shout at me – I could only imagine how difficult life is for her, after all. Maybe she sensed that I meant well though, for she considered, nodded and said: I hadn’t thought about it like that. Thank you. 

Glancing back to the window I caught the reflection of Beanie Man, whose face had spread into a broad sunshine smile; he looked for all the world like a jolly emoji. By now, chatter filled the bus and upon alighting at the Creekside Inn I was waved on my way, feeling peculiarly happy and sad.

The average price of a decent hotel in Palo Alto is steep. By comparison, the  Creekside Inn delivers an upscale motel at modest incline, with room service until 9pm. A Caesar Salad and glass of Pinot Noir duly arrived, the salad less Caesar more Assorted Field, but by now very welcome.

I showered and turned in, mind flitting here and there over my day, full and rich with experience and I counted my lucky stars. Drifting to sleep I realised that despite its highs and lows, in spite of the bumps and bruises it metes out to us, the world can still deliver kind and interesting people. With ten days of travel ahead,  I set myself a question to consider each night .. quite simply: who might I meet tomorrow?

Isn’t life grand?

© Giovanna Forte 2017

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Karma Kandara: a travelogue


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The pool at sunset

Last year was long and tough. One of the hardest aspects being how much I miss YoungestOfAll, The Exocet who now lives in Melbourne.

Last Spring then, flights were booked for a three-week Christmas holiday. Deeming it necessary to shed some of the year’s stresses before reaching DaughterBliss in Australia, we accounted for a four-day stopover in Bali.

On the 17th December 2016 we set out for Heathrow. Not half an hour before boarding the 9pm Garuda flight an announcement was made. There is a longer story here, but suffice to say that our journey was extended by 22 hours; we should have been grateful, for our bags took a further three days to join us.

Luckily we were heading for Karma Kandara, the King and Queen of resorts and the tortuous journey delivered us to a welcome even warmer than the weather. Checking-in formalities over, a buggy arrived to transport us to our villa … five-star luxury, perched atop Bali’s southernmost point.

Moments after we had settled in – easily achieved with no luggage – the doorbell rang; two young men attired in Karma White entered, bearing chilled Champagne and a huge plate of canapes. “You have had a difficult journey,” they said. “Management thought this may help.”

As it happened, management was correct. Sighing with pleasure, we took our booty outside, where we found rather more than we bargained for: a private garden, dining table and chairs, recliners and a canopied day-bed open to the magnificent view. The party piece was our very own shimmering infinity pool. Furthermore, we had complete privacy and could not be overlooked or disturbed by neighbours.

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Di Mare from Our Estate

Sipping Champagne, we strolled to the end of what we came to call Our Estate; this exceptional clifftop villa nestled lightly in the land. To our right, lush leaves and fantasy foliage; ahead, a glittering seascape that circled 180 degrees to an adjacent clifftop where we spied Di Mare, the resort restaurant, a-twinkle with welcome.

Replete and happy we retired inside to a king-size four poster bed, artfully draped with silken net to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Our limbs unwound, minds cleared and the sea below sang us to sleep.

A few short hours later I awoke, bright as a button. It was maybe 4am, BB sleeping so soundly I could not wake him; instead, I slid open the glazed garden doors, stepped onto the terrace and into the pool, the glow of dawn casting a mystical light across the sea.

Our first full day at Karma Kandara began with villa-service breakfast; exotic fresh fruit, fluffy omelettes, bacon and coffee; a fine, lazy holiday start. We swam, we read, we gazed at the view, a world away from London; 4pm brought an appointment with the Karma Spa.

The Karma Spa is no ordinary therapy spot. It is poised on a cliffside promontory overlooking the ocean; beneath, one can just about glimpse the resort’s private beach.

The therapists beckoned us onto parallel beds and so began the next stage of de-stress. We were rubbed with salts and oils, wrapped in hot muslin, washed, oiled again, pummeled and stroked to within an inch of our lives; tension relieving massage as never before. Treatment over, the pampering continued: we were given kimonos and led  to a compact and private terrace, featuring sauna and Jacuzzi. The cabin was glazed to the ocean view; this hot, surreal and sensuous experience was followed by a soak in the Jacuzzi, marveling at the sheer, decadent good luck of finding ourselves here, now.

We returned to the villa in time to change for dinner. Well, our clothes washed and dry from the sun were in surprisingly good shape. Fortunately, I had just-in-cased some elegant silver sandals in my hand-luggage; these brought my look to something more appropriate to our setting, while poor BB stepped out in long wool trousers … and boots.

We wandered through paths lined with scented flowers and low dry-stone walls,  past an elegant sign asking guests not to feed the monkeys – they are fat and lazy enough! – around a guest pool with waterfall, up some steps and into Di Mare, the shimmering destination of our villa view.

Whisky and G&T in hand(s), we settled into these new surroundings. Then we ate; every dish was sublime, created and served with the lightest touch, the wine, fragrant and dry. We stayed awhile, replete and happy, this long lazy dinner having taken the day to dusk and into darkness. It was under a canopy of stars that we wove our way home to find – oh joy – that the diligent Concierge had somehow teleported our luggage into the villa.

Not wishing to break the spell of this magical night, we retired to the day-bed and lay watching sea and sky. BB dozed while I took a dip in the pool, pausing to watch starlight dance upon the tiny waves below. Before long, subtle eddies washed against my body and I turned to see BB floating towards me; his arm then around my shoulder, he pointed out starry constellations, with a reminder of how to identify my own sign, Taurus.

And so to our final day. Holiday wardrobes now at our disposal, we made our way to the seaside. A frisson of excitement accompanied us to the Funicular that transports guests from resort to private beach.

The carriage landed at a leafy waiting area, through which was the lively beachside restaurant and cocktail bar, complete with DJ. We were welcomed by name (how do they do that?) and led to less seaside, more elegant stretch of finest Karma reef decorated with sand, canopied daybeds, a healthy sprinkling of recliners and friendly staff that almost outnumbered the guests.

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Karma Kandara Private Beach

BB loved diving into the waves, I paddled; olives and a local super-fruity and dry white Pinot cooled us. Reclining, we watched men, women, boys and girls frolicking and it occurred to me that there is a beach-body factory somewhere, popping out perfect people with sunny silhouettes from a life-size cookie cutter, although I confess that by now, we too felt sun kissed, relaxed and happy.

Back in the villa our backs turned to the kitchen, one fat and lazy monkey crept in to claim a pack of peanuts. On hearing the war cry from BB, he grabbed a pack of coffee, fled to the terrace and settled down to his snacks all the while keeping a wary eye on us, the interlopers.

Our stay at Bali’s southern-most point came inevitably to an end. Karma Kandara sent us on our way feeling lucky, rested and fresh for much anticipated Christmas and New Year DaughterBliss.

Since our visit, I have thought long and hard about Kandara and what it does for its guests. I give you that it is a rare destination, awash with perfection; it appears that even when every-day folk arrive at Kandara, they too become effortlessly relaxed and desirable, floating artlessly here and there with an enviable edge of glamour.

For this is what Kandara does. Rumour has it that every Karma Resort casts the same spell. Dear reader, I will investigate and promise faithfully to report on my findings.

© Giovanna Forte 2017

Footnote: our luggage arrived thanks to daily efforts of the Karma Kandara Concierge staff, who called the airline and airport again and again … until they got the answer they sought on our behalf. The staff at Karma Resorts have, for us, set a whole new standard in hospitality. 

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Bonhomoux: summer fabulousness in France


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All the parties.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for the Bonhomoux.

© Giovanna Forte 2016.

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Scotland: reunions, drama, art & a poet


 

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I didn’t make it up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Wanstead afternoon and other social shenanigans


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The Wanstead Porkpie

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

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

The Barrister I have seen now and again over the years but The Banker I had not; he tracked me down for his 50th two years ago, wanting his midlife celebration to unite people from far and wide, friends with whom he’d enjoyed good times over the years. Thank you Mr Banker for including me, for we would otherwise not be in touch now.

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

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

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

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

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

We drifted off soon after the race, heading home for an early night, for Sunday brought more sociability; we live close to the Columbia Road flower market. The irrepressible and witty Ms C swung by for a late lunch and bringing flowers, news, gossip and gifts. A roast chicken was devoured (lemon and tarragon since you ask) with potatoes cooked in chilli oil and a herb salad. Bliss.

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

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

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

© Giovanna Forte 2016.

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Charles Knevitt: a tribute


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

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Charles in Wales on 13th February 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Knevitt
10th August 1952 – 15 March 2016

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A London antidote: the joys and jewels of Northern Ireland


dairycow

Farmworld Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Giovanna Forte

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