Leslie Forbes,a force of nature

 Leslie Forbes
18 June 1953 - 1 July 2016
How often down the path of life life do you get the chance to meet someone quite extraordinary, quite unique and totally inspirational. So generous, so interesting, so funny, so talented, sometimes acerbic,and last but not least, a creative cook.
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.

 I am currently enjoying re-reading my way through all her works and even more so the rekindling of the memories from where many of the references she made came from and of times shared travelling with her in Tuscany especially when the flame was kindled in San Gimignano for her first venture into the written word,Table in Tuscany.
 There was another lighter side to Forbes that must not be forgotten, she was a comic if not an actress. I remember the day she was late for work and feigned an excuse that she had been knocked off  her bicycle by a taxi driver inadvertently opening the door of his cab.The facial make up and plasters made the story completely convincing.On another occasion she arrived at work ( on time) but in a tearful state having been evicted by her landlord and landlady who unbenounced to her were drug dealers.She had only in a fit of rage answering an incessant intercom then slammed the door in the face of members of the rock band ELO who were in search of drugs at 3 am in the morning.Having a spare room in my flat I offered her a roof over her head.This was to be the start of a strong bond of friendship.Her opening gambit of "I can only cook three things and they are 3 types of muck, red muck,brown muck and white muck"was extraordinary coming from the mouth of someone who went on to be such a brilliant cook and write so eloquently on the subject.I will never forget going into her room and and like Alan Bennett´s cream cracker under the settee finding a half eaten boiled egg and a mug of tea with skin on it under her bed.I found it rather reassuring, after all we are all only human aren´t we?
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.


  1. Dear dear Rupert,

    Thank you so much for this heartfelt act of remembering. You capture magically the essence of Leslie's quicksilver character. Such a work of curious, mischievous, generous, inspired,  caring (and we could all go on and on, couldn't we) joie de vivre.

    More than merely witnessing, your heartfelt memories remind me of the great privilege that life provides to be able to walk a ways alongside another we may fortunately call a friend. You make me regret even more deeply the gaps in time and life between those intense late 70's days and weekends spent partying,  dining, cavorting at Heath picnics, and life loved modestly yet largely; and my too brief glimpses of Leslie over the past 30 years when we were fortunate enough to visit London for a few moments in her and Andrew's glowing presence.

    So we are indeed fortunate to have Leslie's books to revisit and relish. And your lyrically loving act of remembering inspires me to dive back into her novels and into the recipes and spices she revelled at.

    Thank you for this dear Ru! We shared the gift of Leslie's friendship in my early London days, and the glowing fire of her kinship in the years in between. Now you make me want to bridge the space between Montréal and Castro Marim with more time to rekindle our own friendship and the joie de vivre we share.

    Cheers Leslie!
    À suivre dear friend!

    With fondness and love,

  2. So sad to just read this about Leslie Forbes. I only knew her two illustrated travel books and was just having a re-look. My copies were left back in NYC before moving to paris. I just re-bought her tuscany book. She was such a mystery to me..i could never connect her other titles to those travel books. This explains all. Thank you. But what a loss. Such a shinning star.

  3. Thank you for your comment.I have passed your lovely message on to Andrew her partner.As you say such a loss.She is missed by many.by the way what a lovely portfolio you have.


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