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A Thoroughly Modern Intellect

IMGP7610If you know me at all, whether in this place or, poor soul, actually and really in the flesh, you know that walking is a non-negotiable element of my life.  No matter the weather, no matter the terrain, whether in town or country I walk daily and sometimes many times daily.  It’s exercise, though I do other things in the pursuit of a fit and variously wannabe or actually sufficiently trim bod. It’s meditation – never having managed to sit still and contemplate my omming solar plexus for more than a fleeting matter of moments, I find I can switch my whirring brain off and enter another plane of consciousness which occasionally even unlocks a coherent thought when I walk.  It’s relaxation – the time to allow oneself to just be and to saturate in whatever surrounds.  I love walking in woods, in hills and mountains, on beaches, in fields and meadows, by rivers.  I love to walk.  The Bean and I walked literally thousands of kilometres in France together and savoured the times when HB2 was with us.  When I was in the grip of my own bleakness, walking was my constant and in the end, I literally walked my way back to happiness.


At this moment, we are urged to get outside and walk as we self-isolate ourselves to flatten the virus curve in this deeply troubling and anxious reality we are all, together, living through.  I am fortunate because I need no encouragement.  Daily I am out with the dogs in tow or, more accurately towed by the dogs and now that HB2 is confined to barracks with me, he comes too.  Some days we split up and take a pair of dogs each, some days we are a motley sextet.  And the day I am about to share with you was a whole troupe day.



It was Saturday and at weekends our often habit is to drive to one of our neighbouring towns where there is an excellent field complete with skating pond which is, of course, merely pond at non-frozen times of year.  Skating on ponds is a feature of life here.  It is not one I will be joining in with at any point forward except to watch and admire.  Sliding sports and I don’t gel well.  I am somewhat Bambi-like of limb and I blame my 6′ frame and attendant high centre of gravity for my decided lack of balance and grace.  The fact that my neighbour is taller than me by  a margin and skis with perfect ease and elegance is something I try not to be bitter about.  That and her fabulous Titian curls.  Enough already.  We don’t harbour jealousy in this house.

Beyond the field is a large wooded hill.  In this area we are rich in conservation land.  This is one such place.  And it is a dog-walkers delight.  The first time we went, at the recommendation of one of The Brains’ colleagues I was absolutely astonished.  There were at least twenty dogs frenziedly frolicking on the field and as I approached the pond I found at least twenty more submerged but for their heads and rudder tails all conjoined by a collective bliss etched on their various furry faces.  We try and go once or twice a week for socialisation purposes.  The dogs, you understand.  Us, not so much though it can be pleasant to chat with familiar and unfamiliar folks about such contentious issues as what anti-tic treatment you favour, where to get the best and warmest canine coats to combat brutal New England winters, whether dogs really are smarter than humans and, generally confided in a whisper this one and received with a  unified torrent of relief, how to tackle poo(p) eating. Thus, we pass most early Saturday and Sunday mornings.  Of course, right now, we are observing our social distance and people are not standing in a friendly knot but rather spread out and using sign language and friendly smiles around the field.  When we look back at this moment, we will laugh.  We really will.


We turned off the road into the carpark at 8:30 prompt.  There was a rather badly parked car which caused The Brains to have to swing wider than usual and utter an attendant pithy remark about the basic inability of people to display good sense, good manners or any ability to drive a car.  I zoned the remark out and gave the most cursory of glances at the car and it’s driver sitting studying something in his lap.  We parked, passed the nice man who gives up so much of his free time as part of the town conservation group to tending the area surrounding the field, let the dogs run on the field a while, walked past the pond and respected our social distance passing three different ladies on their way home after walking their own dogs.  We took a turn round the woods – this takes about forty minutes.  We could do a longer three mile jaunt but our dogs are not yet to be trusted and the long loop passes quite close to a road and several people’s back-gardens.  Having lost them to an enticing barbecue early last summer we took a wise I feel, decision to wait a while before trying that circuit again off leash. And off leash is so much more fun for the rumbustious pooch-clan we nurture.  Back at the field the dogs ran into the pond and swiftly out again …. it’s March and I can attest to the fact that water is at its coldest at this time of year having stress tested the theory some years ago by falling out of my sculling boat first in early January and then in late March.  Neither was what could be described as a toasty experience but the later dunking took literally a whole day to get warm from afterwards.  Well exercised, dogs were then leashed and walked somewhat serenely back to the waiting car.


As we drove towards the exit, HB2 exclaimed ‘that car’s still there’.  He also uttered a mild expletive but I will draw a discreet veil over it.  He then remarked that the brake lights were on, indicating that the car was running.  Which seemed odd.  I asked him to drive past it very slowly, a creeping and not at all welcome sensation beginning to manifest at the base of our collective spines.  We did and I looked hard at the driver.  His eyes half closed, mouth slightly open he looked as though he was examining a map.  Eerily he had not moved.  His complexion was what caught my full attention and the kilter of that semi-open mouth.  It reminded me of my father the day he died.  Into the road and I asked to turn back and look again.  We did – me with rubberneck fully extended from the passenger seat.  The disquiet crept ever more harshly into a consciousness that something really did not look, nor feel remotely as it should.  A turn round the carpark and we drew up behind the car.


What follows I have replayed over and over and over again til my brain has wrung out.  I know I will never forget it.  HB2 approached the car on foot and spoke through the open window.  And then he turned to me and mouthed ‘I think he’s dead’.  I was out of the car and across the fortuitously placed right next door Fire Station forecourt with the speed, if not grace of a pursued gazelle.  I rang the bell, the duty officer appeared and I gave him my best and most succinct account of the fact that there was a car with a man aboard who we believed to be dead.   Longer story short, the first responders were there in seconds (they are conveniently right next door, remember), the police followed.  The man was taken from his car.  Attempts were made to resuscitate him.  The two dogs sitting in the backseat remained still and were pathetically calm.  They knew.  Knew their master had passed.  The policewoman who took our details and briefest of statements was despatched to an address to speak to his wife.  We remained subdued and I suppose shocked for the rest of the day.


You see, here we all are rightly gripped by the frightening developments all around the world as COVID19 cuts an indiscriminate and lethal swathe through populations and we forget, or at least I know I had forgotten that death being a part of life is happening all around us in the exact same way as it always has.  The night before, Massachusetts, the state I live in, had reported it’s first death from COVID19.  A man of 87 years old with previous serious health issues.  A reporter stood outside his home, interviewed neighbours (he was lovely man, a Navy Veteran) and we all felt sad and our thoughts (and for some, prayers) went out to his family and loved ones.  This man, who I believe, but must wait until autopsy results are released to know, must have suffered an aneurysm, had a stroke or a heart attack as he pressed the brake pedal approaching the junction with the road.  He died the most unassuming of deaths.  And he sat in his car as people drove past and walked past and tut-tutted because he was stopped in an awkward place for at least an hour and I believe probably an hour and a half.  This was an older gentleman but not ancient, who probably thought it wise to take the dogs out early rather than risk meeting too many people at this time when we are told to keep contact to a minimum.  I thought of his wife, who presumably thought he would be back with their dogs soon.   Maybe she was making breakfast.  Maybe she was tut-tutting that he was taking his time and then …. then, a police officer carrying the worst of news to her doorstep.  And I thought of the policewoman and all the other officers the world over who have to break tragic news to people, to strangers.  To witness and contain and comfort the rawest moments of shock and grief.  I thought of the dogs.  Sitting patient, loyal. Sentinels guarding their master.  They knew.  Dogs do.  Their dignity would shame most of us.  Death is a part of life.  This man died the quietest of deaths.  There will be no news story, no reporter urging us to send our thoughts and prayers.  He was just an older gentleman who died.  As we all will.  My thoughts have been with his wife and his family whom I shall never meet.  Their grief is just the same as the family of the first man to succumb to COVID19 in Massachusetts.  The experience has left me a little altered.  I suppose finding a deceased body on a routine dog walk is bound to do that.  In writing this piece, I honour his life.  I will never forget him though I believe I only ever passed the time of day with him.  It was his car I recognised as familiar, not his face.  And his dogs.  Rest well, good sir.  Find the place to nestle in the hearts of those that loved you and ease their pain over time as they learn to recognise that you are ever there, residing in that safe place inside them.


PS:  As ever, a PS:  The title is from Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Good Husband’ ‘to expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect’.  It seems to me that none of us expected what has gripped the world we call ours and is running rampant and amuck amongst us wherever on the planet we live.  Perhaps we should learn from this that we are not as advanced nor evolved as we pertain to be.  And perhaps at the end of this, we might learn to be more compassionate, kinder, more decent and tolerant.  And thus evolved, we might grace ourselves as having modernised our intellect a tiny bit for the experience.  Stay safe, stay well, stay out of harms way and remember that eventually, for one reason or another, death will be part of our lives as surely as this virus will touch all our lives before it is done.


And for the sake of a little levity, here is Helen Shapiro ‘Walking Back to Happiness’ ….






New Weekly Feature: SENIOR SALON 2018 @TRH_Cook @SundayMeetGreet

New Weekly Feature: SENIOR SALON 2018 @TRH_Cook @SundayMeetGreet
— Read on

All of you who enjoyed Bernadette’s wonderful Senior Salon will be delighted to see that the beautiful Esmé has taken up the baton to carry it on. I will be participating and I hope you will too. I’m not sure what the definition of ‘Senior’ is except that it includes me so take your chance and join the fun – see you there!

In my mind I am free

I am currently in Bavaria in the company of some of the finest minds I will ever encounter all of whom work in the fields of Astronomy and Astrophysics. It seems ironically fitting as I repost this piece in meager tribute to Stephen Hawking who has passed away over night at the age of 76. In his mind he was free, now perhaps he is really free in whatever firmament he is flying and the world below might feel it is ever poorer for his loss – but to be poorer you must once have been richer and used wisely his legacy not simply of his work but of his continual dogged determination to keep going and to live the fullest of intellectual lives despite being trapped in a broken body, that is surely the glittering example that we can and should all carry forward throughout our own lives – to not be deterred but rather to rise above and continue to expand our minds and our hearts. RIP Professor Hawking – I will never forget you.

Half Baked In Paradise

I consider myself to be pretty fortunate.  It’s not that I have led a seamless life.  It’s not that they had a canteen of silver spoons at the ready to shove into my gaping, greedy mouth at birth, it’s certainly not that life has dealt me no challenges.  Not at all.  I’ve lived a life.  On occasions a seat of my pants-on-fire scorching my behind sort of life.  But the thing is this.  I embrace the challenges, I smile at the misfortunes because they make me the person I am now and they led me to where I am now and in the great scheme of things I am pretty damned prosperous …. which is not to say monetarily rich.  I do not measure wealth and success in pecuniary increments.  So although I may not do it immediately, I do always search for whatever the mechanism is that works to…

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Coup de Cœur – Part Six: Do you see what I see?

And so we drift elegantly to the conclusion of this retrospective of posts in the series so far. Tomorrow I will start afresh and, if you haven’t lost the will to live, I hope you will join me weekly as we devote Monday to Marcolès and our seemingly ceaseless crusade to rejuvenate our Maison Carrée …

Half Baked In Paradise

An occasional series chronicling the tale of the renovation of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France …..

The previous owner of the house was a photographer of some talent.  He could make the silkiest purse out of a lady pigs ear, of this I am certain.  When we looked at his wonderful images on the numerous websites that carried Maison Carrée to her adoring public eager to stay for a few days and sample the delights of his culinary skill as well as the comfortable and welcoming interior she offered, we never once worried about wall coverings.  Downstairs was pristine white and upstairs had some sort of nice neutrally wallpaper.  When we arrived to view what turned out to be the Wreck of the Hesperus, one of the stand-out moments was the realisation of what that nice neutrally  wallpaper actually was.  Not wallpaper in fact.  Not fabric.  Nothing…

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Coup de Cœur – Part Five: Perhaps he’d like to come inside

And now join me as we segue seemingly seamlessly from grim to grimmer in episode five of the quest for salvation of la Maison Catastrophe

Half Baked In Paradise

An occasional series chronicling the tale of the renovation of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France ….. 

And so it came to pass that we had an almost cleaned out interior.  One little thing kept bugging me, though.  As hard as I tried, the floorboards in the  grenier just refused to be clean.  I swept them, mopped them, swept them some more and mopped them again and again but everytime I thought I had banished their dusty film so it came back.  The thing is this.  Sometimes even I can be a teeny bit unobservant.  The me, who prides herself on having the most point perfect eye for detail can fail to see what is slapping me in the face with a leather glove and blinding me with with an eye-achingly bright light like a Gestapo Officer up close and far too personal.   On the other hand it…

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Coup de Cœur- Part Four: Whistle While You Work

And so we boldly continued, confident that a little bit of work was all it would take to spruce the goose and be ready for the Mayor to cut the ribbon on our shining, reborn triumph ….

Half Baked In Paradise

An occasional series chronicling the tale of the renovation of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France …..  Part One is here, Part Two is here and Part Three is here   The events in this episode took place a little under three years ago.  How time flies when you’re having fun, n’est-ce pas?

As often happens once you have overcome the initial excitement of something or other and reality cloaks you in its slightly constricting mantle like a heavy woollen duffle coat a couple of sizes too small, or a pair of pinchy stiff leather shoes, you need to knock on the door of fortitude and ask for her help.

This was the moment to be gracious to Lady Tenacity.  We were SO thrilled with the news that the house was empty and once back in France hightailed it pell-mell down the road to Marcolès from our present…

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Coup de Cœur – Part Three: I beg your pardon …

An occasional series chronicling the tale of the renovation of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France …. what do you call a beastly illusionist? If there is a word. That ….

Half Baked In Paradise

I’m no magician and smoke and mirrors are not part of any repetoire I possess however much I might sometimes wish they were.   In arrant contrast, it was abundantly clear that the incumbent owner of the house was a maestro of the art.  What greeted us was a filthy mess though there were still a number of rather lovely pieces in the house.  But we had this feeling, this sense that it can be, will be, beautiful again.  We signed the Acte that made us the legal owners exactly a year after we first viewed it.  A year that will remain forever tatooed on my little brain and a year that provides the reference for my novel in process.

Three months after signing the Acte the process of cajoling the previous owner (who mostly spends his time in Marseilles and seems mostly to be unable to leave his bed…

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Coup de Cœur – Part Two: Therefore is wing’d cupid painted blind!

An occasional series chronicling the tale of the renovation of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France ….. a modern romance begins or a tale as old as timeyou decide

Half Baked In Paradise

We fell in love on the internet.  It’s the modern way.  The one touts their promise, the other falls under their spell and happily ever after they both live.  House and owner.  You didn’t think I was talking about Two Brains and I, did you?  You got  that I am talking about our fragile hearts being ensnared by our Maison Carrée?

The house was advertised all over the place – every single immobilier in France seemed to have it on their books.  Clock forward two and a half years and hindsight and a bit of experience has taught me that this means nothing.  Often an agent will have grabbed the content from an unprotected site and will be advertising it as his own.  But we knew where it was and we knew it was the former Tour Seignoural for the perfect little city it sits plumb central in.  And…

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Coup de Cœur – Part One: Let’s start at the very beginning

An occasional series chronicling the tale of the renovation of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France ….. here begins the six-day retrospective of the first six installments which will land us gracefully next Monday whence we will pick up the story joyously as a start-of-the-week-day series – the excitement I am generating, is positively crackling, non?

Half Baked In Paradise

Actually, Julie Andrews, let’s not.  Start at the very beginning that is.  The fact is that this particular serial .. Oh! I feel the need to digress – I LOVE a serial!  All those wonderful adaptations that the British do so well – from The Forsytes, through The Pallisers, much Jane Austen, many Thomas Hardy’s and no doubt a glut of Dickens whose great works were written as episodes for a variety of journals, only later being published in book form.  This explains two things – firstly, why he serialises SO successfully on television and secondly the minute detail in his descriptives which can be the finish of many a secondary school student’s tolerance of his work …. his narrative can feel achingly slow to the modern reader  but gathers pace and impact on the screen.  Not so for everyone but I have carefully explained to four teenaged…

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Smile, boys, that’s the style

What is it that elevates a place from somewhere you lay your weary bones and nourish yourself to being allowed to be  home?  I have yet to work out the why and the what and, in truth, though it is a notion that captivates me, I probably never will find a finite answer. For four years until this September, my home was a village in the North West of le Cantal.  This was hugely significant for me since, for reasons honestly too dull to share, I had moved house eleven times in the previous fifteen years. Suffice to ingest that only one of these moves was by choice.  2016 saw me seldom in this really real home as I was allowed by the Government of the mighty United States of America to reside in  Massachusetts with my two-brained husband and, believe me, I mean truly believe me, I was and remain grateful.   This year we spent the first half in Grenoble together languishing in a vast apartment complete with corinthian columns courtesy of the institute for whom he was doing a tranche of work.  DSCF0375

During all this time, I stoically avoided the entirely socially graceless elephant in the room.  This elephant was the  elephant of good sense which clumsily, due to it’s enormous size and laudibly serious regard for it’s purpose, reminded me constantly that I needed to give up the place in Cantal that I clung to as home with it’s lino floors and terrible light-fittings BUT beautiful high ceilings, exquisite front door, lovely park and outlook beyond and the, to me, deliciously enchanting sound of tiny children taking their first steps on the long road of compulsary education in the classrooms and playground below – the house, you see was built in the 1870s as the village school and still functions on the lower floor as the école maternelle (nursery school).  Eventually I crumpled and admitted defeat just before we closed up our grandiose Grenoble apartment and my husband flitted back to his day job in Cambridge MA and said in a Winnie the Pooh’s stoic friend Piglet-like decidedly small voice ‘we need to let go of the flat and I will stay on in Grenoble’.  And thus and instantly it was decided.  I moved into the flat in which I now live in the heart of ‘The Capital of the Alps’ …. of that more soon, which I did promise you two months ago – I honestly do keep my promises though deadlines can be a fluid concept chez moi.

So you see, the thing is this, as modest as my original French place was, it was home – the flat and the local people  wrapped themselves round me like a gentle hug, let me be the odd English bird even though most of them had no real idea nor particularly care where England even is and never demurred nor murmured to my knowledge behind my back (humour me here, if you will) and to move from it was very very very hard.  It left me feeling deeply sad and it is only now that I feel the bleak and hollow-making mist lifting and life beckoning it’s enticing finger again.  The day we left, our friend Mathilde, the village pâtissière, she of the most swoon worthy madeleines ever to grace le goûter and whom we thought two years ago we were going to lose to cancer, tried every way she could to persuade us that we really CAN stay, that we will find our home in the commune.  It broke my heart. Because we can’t.  For now we can’t.  It is a foolish notion and doesn’t make economic sense and even a half-baked mind like mine, occasionally has to bow to the elephant that trumpets good sense.

The men who moved us were truly, beautifully,  wonderful.  They had moved all our things to Grenoble and then back again (my present home is rented furnished) and made raucous jokes at my expense about women not being able to make up their minds and men being forced to lock step even though they have logic on their side – politically entirely beyond the pail of correctness and exactly and precisely what I needed that rather wan day.  They appeared, outrageously early on parade, that moving morning and it was frankly fortunate that I was not still languishing sanguine in bed and drinking in one last moment of that room that had been my chamber and my comfort when my husband was far away, my delight when I could steer him upstairs when he crossed the Atlantic for a stolen moment or two with me and the sniggering snorting first thing in the morning snuggling place when a daughter stayed with me for a while.  They were tasked with taking our things to Marcolès where eventually, when we have finished the house, they will be unpacked.  Their good humour took me through the day, their understanding that moving is not always easy however much you might love the place you are going, a lesson to all.  We rather felt we had got to know them over the course of the three moves they executed for us. The household name honestly eponymous international firm who originally moved me from England to France should take note.  The attitude, the efficiency, the spirit of understanding that they showed (and that included a young lad of less than 16 years old) should certainly shame the British firm who ended up paying me quite a lot of compensation for losing precious things and duping me with a shared lorry that was supposed to be a single dedicated van for my things. The fact that the pantechnicon that arrived precisely at the time we had told them not to on account of the school managed to decapitate multiple branches on the avenue of plain trees that lined the drive and that the oafish driver came from the school of shout loudly aand slowly and then more loudly and more slowly to make yourself understood to Johnny Foreigner did not attract compensation but it took me months to recover from what felt like a particularly brutal form of removals abuse. You can read the name and address of the French firm on the pictures of their lorry and I would not hesitate to recommend them – they work France-wide and internationally.  We are not done with our moves, we will use them again.

Marcolès was eerily foggy when we arrived and the lady opposite, widowed last Christmas spent a happy 40 minutes watching them unload my life, gleefully and rather beadily eyeing the contents of the see-through boxes full of soft furnishings and the lovely Georgian table named ‘Gerry’s Aunt’ for it’s provenance, my sleigh bed and the washing machine which is not white but black and consequently befuddled her, before the bone-intrusive damp cold got too much for her and she hastened into her parlour from whence she twitched her lace curtains for a further many several minutes.  She was convinced they could not, should not, would not get their lorry between the hairdresser and the post office … looking at the picture, it is unsurprising but they managed it by the skin of the skinniest of teeth and when the postman arrived to empty the letter box, he too entered into the spirit of the occasion leaving his van running and hooting humerous insults at the men from the next department over.  Not many move into our village, too many are moving out – it was a day for celebration and I know I am fortunate.


Now all my life lies in boxes on the ground floor.  It is time for me to take up the story which I dropped when I moved to the US last year and I will now promise you a Marcolès Monday every week for the next several to bring you up to speed with the work that we have done in the last two years and particularly the work we did in the 6 months that my husband was living on the same continent as me for once, earlier this year.  We have much still to do and we have now put the house in semi-mothballs …. I will go once every couple of months and carry on, but on a dust and air budget progress is very slow.  But the real thing is that we are doing it – no ritzy contractors, no contractors at all just sweat, occasional blood and epic tears.  One day they will be tears of joy when we finally manage to say ‘our work here is done’ … that will be a day for champagne and dancing.  And I, the optimist, look forward to it.


And there you have it. The why I have been a little absent. My heart felt the leaden wieght of sorrow because my safe-place, my home, my warm hug, my protective cloak, call it what you will has gone.  But the future is ahead – it always is, we have no choice in that and it is for me to take up the drum and beat out the rhythm of life again, live it to the full appreciating all that I have and not (as I caution others but on this occasion have fallen foul of myself) getting stuck in the pesky rear view mirror.  The mantra I brought my children up with is planted to seed and bloom in my own heart once more … everything changes, nothing stays the same.


PS:  The title comes from World War One Marching song ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ written  the brothers George and Felix Powell. If you have a mind you might read about the ultimately tragic story of the song here.  Whilst I would in no way compare my recent mood to the ill-fated Felix, the melancholy of his story somehow seemed to fit the mood of this piece.

Your bonus:  ‘Oh What A Lovely War!’ which never ceases to remind me that I have absolutely no right to any blues whatsoever:

Pack up your troubles
in your old kit bag
and smile, smile, smile
while you’ve a lucifer
to light your fag
smile, boys, that’s the style

What’s the use of worrying
it never was worthwhile
so, pack up your troubles
in your old kit bag
and smile, smile, smile

Pack up Your Troubles

Felix Powell