My grandfather, Charles Forte, came with his parents to Scotland from Italy as a child at a time when that was more unusual. He hailed from a tiny village in the rural vastness that surrounded Rome, and his family raised horses in the mountains. He was short – probably 5ft 4ins in his socks – moustachioed, and rather more extravagantly dressed than was common in the London society he entered in his 20s. And yet he managed to conquer his new environment. He is credited with transforming the hospitality industry in this country after World War II, and at the height of his success had more than 800 hotels and catering establishments in his eponymous company.
I don’t really know what level of belief he had as a Catholic. Certainly he never came to Mass with us. He left that to my grandmother, insisting that we attend Mass as a family, even though when we went he almost always either played golf or watched it on television.
However, he was proud to have had an audience with Pope John Paul II. He gave generously to the Church, and was a prominent member of England’s Catholic community.
He was not narrow-minded. He always said to me that I could talk to him about anything, and if I couldn’t talk to him then I should go to my grandmother. And I always did. Neither of them was ever critical of my life choices. Much to my mother’s astonishment, neither of my grandparents seemed shocked by my ever-changing boyfriends or my frank, openly expressed liberal views.
Nonno (Italian for grandfather) was a wonderful man who to contemporary eyes probably appeared old-fashioned. He was a traditional Italian paterfamilias, who liked nothing better than surrounding himself with his family, even if we younger ones were often reminded to be seen and not heard. He uncomplainingly took us grandchildren on holidays year after year. He liked to have us around, but he made the rules and we knew to obey them.
He did his best to fill the great void left by my father’s death. My school reports were sent to him by my mother and he would discuss them with me very seriously. I never forget him telling me once that charm alone would never take me far, and that I had to be really good at anything I tried to do … “Charming” was the default compliment for the second rate.
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