18 June 1953 - 1 July 2016
When I recall my friend Leslie Forbes the idiom "Force of nature" immediately springs to mind.She had such a strong personality, she was a real character.She was like a hurricane or a tsunami.Full of energy, unstoppable, unchallengeable, unforgettable. In short, an individual to be reckoned with.
After dropping out of England's Royal College of Art without the Masters in Film and Design she had dropped out of studying physics and politics in Vancouver to get, Leslie won the Vogue talent contest, securing her a place as a designer working in the Vogue art department, which is where I first met her. Aside from day to day layout of the magazine, Leslie was commissioned to produce illustrations for the shopping columns.She reached a point where she couldn´t stand the fashion industry any more. I remember her returning from a lunchtime shopping spree in New Bond street to regale us with an encounter she had just had with the late Lady Rendlesham ,the feisty manageress of the St.Laurent boutique Chloé. As Leslie casually browsed the rails of designer frocks Rendlesham appoached her with the greatest put down ever "Madam I am afraid the sale finished last week."Not something that Forbes would have taken lightly.
She moved on to become a designer for BBC-TV (once constructing a life-size working robot out of pasta for the Nationwide programme ) and in 1982 she produced beautiful storyboard illustrations for a documentary about the raising of Henry VIII's flagship The Mary Rose.
Her unique style of illustration made her the author of four self-illustrated award-winning food/travel books including Table in Tuscany /Table in Provence.The first two books were in her own handwriting from which the publisher designed a typeface for the layout and printing of the books.
She wrote a regular cookery column for the ''Sunday Correspondent.’' Not only that, from 1990 she had become a regular presenter/writer of BBC radio documentaries on everything from the Indian spice trails to phantom limbs and lost false teeth.
After the Indian Spice Trail series on Radio 4 her radio career continued with ‘Table Talk’ on Radio 3 (the first ‘food’ series on Radio 3 - Sunday lunchtimes) in which she discussed many aspects of food with scientists, artists, writers, poets etc etc and went on to run for 5 or 6 series.For Radio 4’s Crimescapes’ she explored cities with their crime writers; in her series ‘Paper Gardens’ she examined how landscape had influenced artists. Why did Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey fill a church with a vertical lawn, Forbes asked, and war photographer Don McCullin take pictures of dahlias as well as battles? Such transgressions of boundaries were her speciality.
In 1995, she wrote her first novel,the internationally acclaimed thriller Bombay Ice, which wove Chaos Theory into a murderous producer’s Bollywood version of Shakespeare´s The Tempest.Chaos theorist John Elgin helped her with this and her earlier brief studies of physics in Canada played a contributing part too.She dedicated the book to among others her partner Andrew Thomas who ”as always navigated her through all kinds of weather.”
Winning a Wellcome Trust Sci-Art award with physicist Pete Barham, led her to write her second most mysterious and intriguing book ‘Fish, Blood & Bone’ (long-listed for the Orange Prize).This was probably my favourite of Leslie´s books.Completely different to "Bombay Ice", but perhaps even more exotic. It was CID investigation meets gothic horror meets historical fiction meets adventure.She takes the reader from the East End of London on a dangerous backpacking trip in India, to lost waterfalls in Tibet in search of a mythical green Himalayan poppy with alleged curative powers.She gives us murder, and fertilizer, and a decades old love story. The way the story is structured is rather unusual, but as you turn the pages, how she weaves travel, botany and photography into an unnerving tale mesmerises you. One of my favorite books of all time and I'm still not quite sure what happened…Does that make sense?
This, along with her third novel Waking Raphael, engage the ways science and art converse.
Waking Raphael, a mystery concerning a mute Italian, was the result of Forbes’s work with speech pathologists and Italian lawyers. In 2003 Booker Prize chairman John Carey called Waking Raphael "pretty well perfect”. She was as involved with political and free-speech issues as she was with the relationship between art and science, and her writing was deeply inspired by her work as a volunteer "mentor" with refugee writers at the Medical Foundation for Victims of Torture.
Since 2003 she helped torture survivors write about their sense of alienation. Ironic, perhaps, that in 2005 she developed a form of epilepsy that occasionally rendered her mute, and unable to write. This led to ‘ABS NCES’, a book with Oona Grimes, and underlies Forbes’s many stories for other artists about the play between image and word.
It was on the evening of July 28th 1981 at a picnic in Hyde Park to celebrate the eve of Lady Diana´s wedding that she met the love of her life Andrew Thomas, another forcefully talented graphic designer and partner of the design group Trickett and Webb.They were so born to be soulmates from day one.
Her final project in collaboration with Andrew was to be an illustrated novel in four parts (unfortunately parts 2-4 aren’t completed!) entitled ‘Embroidered MInds.’ Working in collaboration with artists, academics and historians its all about the effect epilepsy may have had on the family of William Morris. For 17 years Morris lived in Queen Square next door to the National Hospital (where Leslie was treated for epilepsy) at a time when it was the birthplace of neurology and research into epilepsy in the 1860s. His daughter had epilepsy and yet there is no record of his having had contact with the doctors there - so Leslie decided to write a fictional account of what might have happened, which also investigates the stigma of epilepsy then and now and proposes that William Morris also suffered from it - but it was covered up.
Our personally signed copy of Bombay Ice
Leslie was a guiding force in our decision to make a major life change and move to Portugal."Look what has happened to me" she said, "you could be knocked down by a bus tomorrow,you never know what fate has around the corner for you.These wise words cemented any doubts or lack of confidence we might have had about leaving the UK.We were always there for each other and I will continue to be there for her,wherever she is.