Arrivederci Virginia Gorna, e Grazie

A Eulogy to my mother, Virginia Gorna, given at her funeral on Thursday 18 February 2021

Virginia Gorna, 20 January 1942 – 3 February 2021

When my sons, Jovin & Arun, were babies I used to sing them a lullaby, and this was the refrain:

“You can be anybody you want to be,
You can love whomever you will
You can travel any country where your heart leads
And know I will love you still
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around,
You can choose one special one
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.”

That song sums up the messages that I got from my mother Virginia from my earliest days. I’m not suggesting that she sang this to me – I doubt if she ever sang a lullaby – but the message, that you can be whoever and whatever you want to be is one that my sons imbibed from her, not only from me. For Arun it has been (surprisingly) tough for him to stay in Bali throughout 2020 – but she warmly encouraged and supported him to find ways to flourish out there even if they both knew that it meant he would not get back to see her. That encouragement to follow your dreams – however far from the mainstream – is one that she shared in many different ways with the extraordinary range of people who passed through her life and were touched by her. Up to her very final days she kept on reassuring Jovin that he would find his own unique direction in his own time – often pointing out that she had been a “late starter” and seeing so many possibilities for his future. She relished spending so much time with him over the past year, concocting many errands to distract him from tiresome furlough and enjoying all of his kindness and care as he shuttled her around London.

Growing up as the only child of a single mother, I never doubted that women could do anything. Well, anything except marry. About the only thing she ever seemed to look down on was a boring or traditional lifestyle. I grew up thinking that marriage was a terrible thing. Only to realise that it wasn’t actually marriage that she thought was bad – just marriage to my father (and it is hard to imagine two less well-matched people…) 25 years ago she married Maurice sealing their relationship in an exuberant orange and purple flower-filled ceremony in Notting Hill. She had at last met her soulmate and through their four decades together they have enjoyed an extraordinary companionship, enjoying so many fine parties (think carnival), travels, meals and fun times.

My mother initially met Maurice in Leicester, which is also where she found real happiness in her work. Through a strange sequence of events – starting at Miss Wilkinson’s Secretarial College for Gentlewomen back in the early 60s – my mother fell into life as a Youth worker on the Highfields estate. Leicester in the mid-70s was the most multi-cultural part of the UK and Highfields was its epicentre, with rotten high rise flats bulging with Asian families fleeing Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda and people from multiple Caribbean nations – the Windrush generation. She taught me about the complexity of the various communities who were forced to together as she found her home working with inspirational colleagues, like the local Primary school headteacher Clifton (Robby) Robinson whom she designated as my Godfather years before he became Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality.

My mother was seriously ahead of her time. She made me join the local steel band, not because she thought I had any musical talent, but she decided that it would be good for me to learn about racism by being the only white kid in the group. And while I did not thank her at the time, when #BlackLivesMatters exploded in 2020 the concept of White Privilege was certainly not strange to me. She was delighted that my new job focuses on diversity and inclusion and saw it (as do I) as the culmination of her life’s work.

Her own commitment was very personal. Pam’s parents were not at all pleased that she was 17 and pregnant, so she spent most of those months at our house. My mother was extremely proud that the child was named Vanessa Virginia, and in recent days spent happy times scrolling through photos of all the subsequent daughters and nine grandchildren, chatting with Pam about the great lives they have and how much Highfields has changed.

When I got heavily involved in the early days of the AIDS crisis, it was partly because my childhood meant that I couldn’t understand the hatred against gay men. My teenage life was spent with her great friends who coalesced around the Haymarket Theatre, the local arts scene, and Yeats’ wine bar – many memories of drunken nights, wild dancing and parties with Nigel, Kevin, Sarah, Julie, Greg, Patsy and the rest. A decade later I never questioned that she would joyfully (sometimes too joyfully for my tastes) embrace my mates living with HIV, and encourage more wild parties in our home in Shirland Road. While all around us discrimination swirled. She was never shouty about her commitment to equality – although Gornas are extremely good at being shouty; she simply saw the intrinsic value in every person.

My friend Kate points out that she never wore one pattern when three would suffice. She owned two bright yellow cars, and I was delighted to see that the death notice in Lerici remembered her as “La Signora della decappottabile gialla….” (the lady of the yellow convertible).  Her love of bright colour was one of the many inheritances that I tried (and failed) to resist. When my grandmother Muriel died many of the contents of her extensive wardrobes (wall to wall in at least 5 bedrooms) found their way to the local museum which displayed a big portion of the fabulous feathered and sequined cocktail dresses in many hues. My mother’s best reckoning was that she had 8 wardrobes full of clothes – not couture but wildly colourful.

Virginia revelled in Italian exuberance and love of colour, but her father’s sudden wealth was much less exciting to her. She would sneak out of the chauffeur driven car to walk around the corner to the school gates, pretending that big car had nothing to do with her. She was happier telling tales of going up and down in the dumb waiter at the Midland Hotel where her grandfather became head waiter in the fanciest restaurant.

Discomforted as she was, she certainly revelled in many of the benefits – earning her John Gorna’s repeated accusation that she was a Champagne Socialist. The family had a great love of cruises and sailed into New York, as well as all around Europe and to Beirut, one of my mother’s favourite destinations. Life on board, not the destinations, was the main appeal. Whilst John & Muriel relished dining at the Captain’s table, Virginia & her younger sister Gay were far more interested in meeting the engineering officers. They would dress for bed nice and early, say goodnight to their parents in the adjoining cabin – and then as soon as John & Muriel were asleep, they would jump out of bed, dress and whizz out to parties until 4 am.

The Gorna girls were known for their flamboyance, but John very much wanted a son. My mother, was his best option, and she enjoyed being “the responsible one”. Known as Ginger, as a child she was a tomboy and had an electric train set that Gay was not allowed to touch. Most of their fun revolved around horses – pottering around on her prize winning pony Flame, or leaping around the Oak Bank rhododendron bushes with Gay on their imaginary horses Prince and Timber. As she got older, John trusted her with many things and allowed her to drive his many glamorous and sporty cars. She often fancied herself as a rally driver like Pietro Gorna, their pioneer grandfather who had made the journey across Europe from Italy and won many trophies racing Rileys. That Alfa Romeo was chosen as much for its sporty engine as the glorious yellow.

Like her librarian mother she loved to read – she kept a bookcase, doubled up with books next to bedside. As a child she loved Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers and longed to go to boarding school. Yet she was the only daughter who refused to go away to school – rejecting the “girlie” style of convent life and preferring to stay home with her parents; she was far more anxious than she often let on.

Perhaps that is why she moved so swiftly from making tea for the rugby team to marrying my father – the best friend of Ian, husband to her much-loved elder sister Christina. Unravelling herself from that brief marriage spiralled her into a wild life lived very close to Chris. As I grew up alongside my cousins Caspar and Samantha, she tumbled into the new life that brought her so much joy – but she was not at all worthy, and she lived her new life with colourful exuberance

Eating and drinking were without doubt among my mother’s most beloved activities – you only have to look at the photos in the Zoom wake to see that we struggled to find any which did not involve a table full of friends and bottles. These delights were balanced only by her love of shopping & talking.

My cousin Samantha commented that she was “afraid that more shops may close in the wake of her sad, sad passing”. And it is indeed a dark day for retail; I fear especially for various jewellers: Fregni in Italy, and Kohatu & Petros in London. My mother adored her outings with Sam to “private view” style evenings in London (I was a bit of a disappointment on this account) and was delighted that they always led to lots of follow up as items were purchased, altered and returned. Sam observed that my mother had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the return policies as well as opening hours of most key shops in London. She was very serious about her Catholicism – and chose to worship every Sunday at a church quite some distance from her home, but exquisitely well placed for the farmers’ market and some excellent shops. After Mass she would pack up her beloved little yellow car with bags full of produce after lengthy catch ups with stall holders all over Marylebone High Street. Being a war baby was her excuse for the groaning cupboards and bright green fridges filled with food that she and Maurice could never get through. She loved food. One of her big complaints when she came to babysit for my young sons on our return to London was that I had left her “ingredients, not food”.

As anyone who ever tried to get off a phone call with her will know, my mother loved to talk. Her great friend Jill runs the Tabacchi in Lerici. It’s the heart of the place, where all the residents and visitors pop in at least once a week to chat and shop. Yet Jill relied on my mother’s infrequent visits to Italy to keep her updated on what was really going on in that little town.

Throughout December – beyond frustrated by the isolation demanded by hospitalisation in the days of COVID – my mother’s prime entertainment seemed to be probing her doctors for details about their personal lives, and then relaying them to me. Chris – the doctor who supported her through the latest cancer –generously spoke of her remarkable ability to get people to talk about themselves – leaving me to feel rather awkward that I knew so much about his domestic circumstances and Christmas plans. Whenever she went to see her beloved Dani – the remarkable consultant who diagnosed her lung cancer back in 2007 and gave her more than an extra decade of life through smart prescribing and excellent care – my mother returned with far more information about Dani’s daughters, their educational achievements and holiday plans than (to my utter frustration) any insight into her medical situation. She frequently forgot to mention to Dani her latest health challenge and irritably told me to stop nagging when I probed to find out if she had any advice on how to manage whatever had been bothering her. Rather she would tell me all about Dani’s latest secretary and how hard it was to get a message to her, but thankfully she could text Dani – and she did, at all hours of the night.

Her love of talking was not just focused on her shopping habit or medical needs; my mother maintained close connections with a remarkable range of friends from all times in her life, and gloried in their varied eccentricities. It was very touching that the first Facebook posting after her death showed off one of her great home manicures (yes Kate, I know quite a lot about what you’ve been up to!), and she also adored chatting with Jackie – so much so that she had to be restrained from breaking lockdown to shuttle across town for her regular weekly blowdry; happily Jackie jumped on the phone with near daily calls filled with Northern wickedness and gossip to keep her mind off the pain of the isolated hospital room.

When we moved to London in 1990 it was for her to take up a job in Brent, where her co-worker Paul (now Lord) Boateng remembers her as “a joyful generous soul who always left one feeling the better for having seen her”. A decade after her Brent days she studied for a (part-time) Masters in Social Policy at SAUS in Bristol; she may have got a gown and a bit of paper, but far more importantly she acquired a fabulous new friendship group who will (I hope) tell many tales later of escapades all over the world. One constant was her enthusiasm for their company – as well as the corkscrew and bottle of white wine that she kept in her handbag just in case.  From my youngest days she was always well prepared; I grew up believing it was normal to pitch up at a wedding (for a different faith) with a teapot filled with booze.

She was not intentionally irreverent, but she did relish finding the joy, fun and goodness in all situations.  And that meant creating friendships wherever she went – whether as a governor at Berrymede school (something that she was so proud of, and did for two decades), as an ardent shopper, making tea for the Bowden rugby team or in her first job as secretary to Professor Cannon at Manchester University – a job she took because the duties included pouring out sherry to the students.

My mother entered higher education when I was nine and she trained to become a community development worker. The topics studied included “Personal Relationships,” but it is hard to believe that she needed that module; having fun and connecting to people was hardwired into her. And so I find myself back with that same lullaby, and the verse that says

“…seek out spirits true
If you give your friends the best part of yourself
They will give the same back to you.”

She was ahead of her time; she was forthright and committed to making change – and she did so with joy, fun and flair. Life was for living, equality a non-negotiable – and she relished diversity in the truest sense of the word. She taught me much – and she gave all of us so much opportunity.

 Arrivederci Virginia e Grazie, Go Well, Hamba Kahle 

Robin Virginia Gorna

18 February 2021