World Crime Atlas: #Belgium

The retirement project to read a crime novel set in every country featured in The Times atlas of the world.

The country: Belgium.

The book: The Square of Revenge, by Pieter Aspe, translated by Brian Doyle. Published by Open Road, New York.

The plot: A police night patrol discovers an apparent burglary in an exclusive jeweller’s shop. It quickly emerges that this is more than a simple robbery. A tale of family betrayals, dark secrets and esoteric societies, stretching back for decades, is slowly uncovered. There are a few red herrings before the plot is neatly tied-up with a couple of satisfying twists right at the end.

Where and when: The Belgian city of Bruges, around the turn of the millennium.

The Detectives: The main police protagonist is Assistant Commissioner Pieter Van In, a man “burdened with alimony payments and a mortgage beyond his means.” This evidently poor track record in the romance stakes does not stop him developing a more-than professional relationship with Deputy Public Prosecutor Hannelore Martens as the story unfolds.

Sense of Place: A mixed bag. The story is peppered with references to specific streets and buildings in Bruges; a visitor could use the book as a tourist guide for the city. He or she would not be alone, however; it is made clear that the city is frequently brought to a standstill in the summer by the sheer number of tourists. The author is good at describing the interior of buildings, including a 12th century monastery and the gloomy townhouse inhabited by the patriarch of the jewellery dynasty. But for such an historic and atmospheric setting, there is a curious absence of any genuine feel for the city. Perhaps I chose badly; reviewer Marina Sophia, writing on the CrimeFictionLover website, has praised Aspe’s later novel, The Midas Murders, for revealing the darkness behind the city’s pretty facades, so that may be a better selection. But one thing I did learn; Duvels is a very popular Belgian beer; Van In appears to be making a heroic effort to keep the brewery in business by his own consumption alone.

So, where next? We’re taking a sea journey to the Faroe Islands with Chris Ould’s The Blood Strand.  Crime fiction reviewer Marcel Berlins, writing about the book recently in The Times, praised its “convincing atmosphere of the isolated isles.”


Fancy a Pint? #28: something dark and strong

The retirement project to try beers and ciders from every county in the United Kingdom.

IMGP6039County: Cumbria (Cumberland).

What’s it called? Sneck Lifter.

Who made it? Jennings Castle Brewery. Established in 1828 in Lorton, a village between Buttermere and Cockermouth in what was then the county of Cumberland, in the heart of the Lake District. The business was purchased in 2005 by Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries, which was renamed Marston’s in 2007.

What is it? A dark bitter.

Alc Vol: 5.1%

What it says on the label: “Relax, unwind and appreciate the wonderful complex flavours of this award winning, lip smacking, strong and satisfying dark beer.” I get the impression that they are quite proud of it.

Food combination: Nothing on the bottle. I drank it with a bowl of dry, roasted peanuts, but it would have gone just as well with a steak.

Fancy another? In the right circumstances (e.g. a cold winter’s afternoon). The beer was dark, rich, smoky and ‘liquouricey’. Lovely!

It’s not about the beer (well, in this instance, sort of): I was attracted by the name as much as anything. I had no idea what a sneck lifter was. It turns out a sneck is a door latch, and a sneck lifter was a man’s last sixpence with which he would lift the latch of the pub door and buy himself a pint, hoping to meet friends there who might treat him to one or two more. I bet he was popular (Younger drinkers who read this may wonder what a sixpence was, being one of the coins that disappeared when Britain switched to decimal currency in the early 1970s).

Fancy a Pint? #27: a beer fit for a Pope

The retirement project to try beers and ciders from every county in the United Kingdom.

IMGP5945County: Oxfordshire.

What’s it called? Oxford Gold

Who made it? The Brakspear Brewing Company. Originally brewed at the Brakspear Brewery in Henley; when this closed in 2002, production moved to the redeveloped Wychwood Brewery, Eagle Maltings, The Crofts, Witney. Website:

What is it? A golden ale, made with Pale and Crystal malts infused with Golding, Styrian Golding, Fugle and Admiral hops.

Alc Vol: 4.6%

What it says on the label: “Craft brewed with a zesty aroma and a fruity flavour.”

Food combination: None suggested on the bottle. I drank it with the leftovers of The Current Mrs Feeney’s excellent shepherd’s pie (which itself was made from the leftovers of TCMrsF’s excellent roast lamb dinner.)

Fancy another? Yes, definitely. The pint had a wonderful colour and a foamy head. There were loads of citrussy aromas, and the beer was fruity but with a dry finish.

It’s not about the beer: The brewery founder was related to Adrian IV, Britain’s first (and so far only) Pope. Nicholas Breakspear was Pope from 1154-59. Robert Brakspear founded W.H.Brakspear and Sons in Henley in 1779.

My world is full of white middle-class women

I WAS back to being the sole male in today’s drawing class. This is something I’ve commented on before. There have been very few men in any of the activities I’ve sampled for this blog.

The photography and drawing classes, like the film studies and social history groups I’ve joined, are dominated by retired women. And gender is not the only imbalance.

All have a massive bias in favour of white, middle-class people. It even extends to geography. Almost everybody I’ve met in these classes and groups lives on the west side of the city.

There is a historic reason behind this east-west divide. And it can be found in many post-industrial towns and cities in Britain.

Swansea’s industrial wealth was built on the metal works that were sited along the river that runs through the city. The wealthy owners, and their managers, built their spacious homes to the west of these factories, where they could benefit from the prevailing sea breezes blowing in from Swansea Bay.

Those same breezes, however, would carry the noxious fumes and smoke from the factories eastward, over the rows of terraced houses where the men and women who worked in the factories lived.

That historic divide is still in effect in Swansea today. Swansea West is regarded as ‘posh’ and middle-class. Eastside, on the other side of the river, as down-to-earth and working-class.

The film studies and social history groups are part of the University of the Third Age (U3A), which provides learning opportunities for people who have left full-time employment (which, in practice, means retired people.)

I know that the U3A committee in Swansea is aware that its membership is skewed, and is working on ways to attract more people from the under-represented parts of the city.

Incidentally, U3A Swansea celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and I have been asked to interview some of its members about how it has helped to make their retirement a richer experience. Two of the interviewees are former chairmen, so it will be interesting to get their thoughts on what can be done about this imbalance.

Meanwhile, back to today’s drawing class. Our hastily-arranged visit to Poland meant I missed the last class; so I didn’t know what we would be tackling today. In an effort to cover all eventualities, I turned up with sketching pencils and pad, charcoal sticks and chalks and sugar paper, soft pastels, and acrylic paints and paper.

What I didn’t turn up with was a photograph of a family member. Which is what Tim The Tutor had asked everyone to bring, to be turned into a portrait.

In the absence of a photo of The Current Mrs Feeney or The Daughter, Tim provided me with a photo of a salty sea dog (the sort of bloke who 100 years ago would have set sail from Swansea’s Eastside to journey around Cape Horn and bring copper ore from Chile back to the voracious furnaces along the banks of the River Tawe).

The task this week was to create a ‘tonal portrait’, simply (!) concentrating on the light and shade in the composition. Next week we will add the colours.

For what it’s worth, here’s my effort. Now, what do you think are the chances of somebody like him joining a retirement class?


Does it taste of poached ripe plums? Search me.

THE WINE LIST: the retirement project to sample a wine made from each of the main grape varieties featured in Hugh Johnson’s pocket wine book.

DSC00137Grape: Pinot Noir

Wine: Paul Cluver Elgin Ferricrete 2014, South Africa.

Alc Vol: 13.5%

HJ says:The glory of Burgundy’s Cote d’Or with scent, flavour and texture that are unmatched anywhere.” This is probably not what you want to read when you are about to open a bottle made from the same grape grown on the other side of the world. On the other hand, HJ does promise “splendid results in South Africa’s Walker Bay.” Ok, so my bottle was from the  Elgin Valley, but that is next to the Atlantic Ocean, and at least it’s a lot closer to Walker Bay than Burgundy is. Fingers crossed.

What it says on the label:Beautiful aromas of red fruits intermingle with roasted spices followed by a delicious, elegant silky palate of poached ripe plums resulting in a medium bodied wine with soft edges.” I will be honest with you; I don’t recall ever eating poached ripe plums (will prunes-and-custard do?) so I’ll have to take the label writer’s word on that.

Food combinations:Serve it with rosemary and mustard infused lamb, Asian style fish dishes or vegetarian lentil burgers.” Oh, come on! I’m doing my best here – I mean, we drank the second half of the bottle with roast lamb; give me a break on the rosemary and mustard infusion, will you? As for a lentil burger; that’s just wrong.

Did we like it? Yes, not massively, but it was a very nice light-bodied wine. The ‘red fruits’ were quite tart on the tongue, but it went well enough with the lamb. The first half bottle coped with the pepper and garlic chicken too (see, we can do fancy food when we want to.)

One for the wine rack? Decision deferred until I’ve tried the Burgundy that HJ likes so much.

It’s not just about the wine: The Elgin Valley produces 60% of South Africa’s national apple crop.

PS: sorry about the rubbish photo again. Camera lens has now been fixed.

St Helen’s


Artist: Frank Austin

Medium: Oil

Frank Austin’s studio in The Uplands district of Swansea is just a couple of streets from my house. Frank is an interesting character. I have interviewed him previously for the Retired Lives category in this blog.

The painting depicts a Swansea v The Barbarians rugby match at the St Helen’s rugby and cricket ground on Mumbles Road in Swansea. I liked it because it reminded me of the time when I was a rugby reporter for the South Wales Evening Post.

The Barbarians toured South Wales every Easter. They were an invitation team. The players wore Barbarians shirts (black and white hoops) and shorts, but each player retained his individual club’s socks. Hence the Baa-Baas (as they were known) in the painting are sporting a colourful variety of hosiery.

Swansea as a first-class rugby club and St Helen’s as a premier sporting venue were both consigned to history with the emergence of full-time professionalism in the sport, and the transition to regional teams in Wales.

Swansea is now represented in the Pro 12 league by the Ospreys regional side, based at the Liberty Stadium which is shared with Swansea City Football Club.

Swansea continue as a semi-pro side at St Helen’s, which is also used by Glamorgan County Cricket Club for an annual week-long Swansea Festival. Glamorgan no longer play regularly at the ground, which has decidedly seen better days.

One of which is remembered in Frank’s evocative painting of the day the Baa-Baas would come to town.

Frank lists Edward Hopper, Norman Rockwell and Howard Hodgkin among his influences. “Formaldehyde, unmade beds, video art, flashing lights and most installation art hold no interest” for him.

You can discover more about Frank’s work on his website

Dad’s Army: No need to panic

TOMORROW is the 75th anniversary of the first day of the Three Night Blitz of Swansea, when German bombers devastated the town with high explosive and incendiary bombs.

So perhaps it was timely that The Current Mrs Feeney and I spent this afternoon watching the recently released Dad’s Army cinema version of the much-loved tv series about a Home Guard platoon in a quiet South Coast town.

Coincidentally, my 101-year-old father this week was recalling his experience of the Three Night Blitz. In 1941 he had not yet been called up to the armed forces. As a tinplate worker, he was in a reserved occupation, carrying out work that was classed as vital to the country’s war effort.

On the night the blitz of Swansea started, he was on Air Raid Patrol (ARP) warden duties in Waunarlwydd, a village a few miles outside the town, where he and my mother were living with her parents.

“The air suddenly was full of hissing,” dad told me. Dozens of small incendiary devices started falling all around him and his ARP colleague. They dived behind a garden wall for cover. Luckily for the village, most of the bombs fell on the roadside, where they burned without causing any real damage or danger to life.

But one crashed through the roof and into the attic of a house opposite where dad was sheltering.

“I grabbed my stirrup pump and dashed into the house, up the stairs and into the attic. It had lodged against the wooden rafters,” dad said. He was able to put it out before the fire could get a hold.

When he went home later, he found my mother and her parents taking cover in the Anderson air raid shelter dad had constructed in the garden. It was where the family would spend many more nights before the air raid danger eventually eased.

The following night, dad was on patrol when a high explosive bomb landed on farmland on the edge of the village. Luckily for dad (and by extension for me, because I wasn’t born until nine years after these events) the bomb plunged into the soft ground and failed to detonate.

In the morning, dad went into Swansea to see the devastation. “High Street, Castle Street, Oxford Street – a huge square  where everything had been flattened. The smell of burning everywhere.”

So, back to the film. The critics had been decidedly luke-warm about it; they hadn’t seen what the point had been in making it. I thought it did no harm to the tv series’s legacy, but confirmed that the subject matter was much better suited to the small rather than the big screen.

When it attempts a suitably cinematic finale, it loses the absurdity and innocence that gave the tv episodes their special charm. The moment Captain Mainwaring, Sergeant Wilson and the rest of the platoon start exchanging gunfire with German soldiers, the magic is lost.

Still, Swansea’s very own Catherine Zeta Jones looks wonderful as a writer for The Lady magazine.

Retired Bloke Rating: OK **/5