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.
Although my mother and her sisters were not encouraged to progress beyond secondary education, and his son was the only one to go to university, the pride and joy he expressed when I got into Oxford, and the solid advice he gave me as I made my first steps into working life, have always stayed with me.
I adored and admired him for how he embodied the faith that hard work and talent could achieve anything you set out to do. Also, I have always tried to emulate his example in being kind first and foremost.
The principles that I witnessed in a family environment were even more evident in his role as a hotelier. He knew every staff member by name, it seemed. He knew their family circumstances. If I had a pound for every time someone told me a story about how he encouraged, helped and supported them, I too would be a multi-millionaire by now.
He never forgot his roots. He never forgot how being poor and friendless handicaps you. We were very spoilt, but at the same time constantly reminded that we were no better than anyone else. There was always a far-flung relation, or a “kissing cousin”, at our family meals. I heard discussions every Sunday of my life about where he might place one, advance another, on their career ladders. He thought nothing of inviting a rural cousin from up in the hills to lunch with the prime minister of the time or some grandee, and he was quite right to do so, as they often enjoyed the piquant glimpse into each other’s lives.
After his death, when I returned to Monforte – the village that was renamed in honour of its most successful scion – everyone had a story to tell of his generosity. Nonno used to say that the inhabitants were accustomed to a knock on the door bringing bad news; but he sent fruit, chocolates, funds for anyone in need, a Christmas hamper every year for every inhabitant – he brought hope to his community.
Many people have noticed how often I mention him in conversation. That is because I believe that he taught me the Christian imperative of always behaving towards another as you would wish to be treated yourself. Not only towards those who are closest to you, but to every person who crosses your path. To remember that every person you meet is an individual with hopes and fears that are as important as your own.
At every stage of my life, I have tried to live up to my grandfather’s example, all too aware of failing miserably quite a lot of the time. I hope, however, that at the end of my life, people who have worked with or for me will be able to say, as they did about him, that I was kind, that I was fair, that I respected their efforts and honoured their lives.
Alex Polizzi is a television presenter and writer
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