So, do I qualify as useful?

I WAS driving The Daughter to work yesterday; it’s something I do occasionally when she is working an awkward shift (there is limited car parking at her offices).

As usual, she was looking at her mobile phone. Suddenly she said: “You retired four years ago today.” The anniversary must have shown up on her phone; don’t ask me to explain.

On my way home after dropping her at work, I bought my usual daily newspaper. Leafing through the news pages over breakfast (yoghurt, granola and prunes – very New Age, I’m sure you’ll agree) I came across a report on why – and how – people in their fifties should already be ‘training’ for retirement.

According to a European Union study, the fifty-somethings should be thinking about how they can be useful to society in the future.

According to the article by The Times science correspondent Oliver Moody, the EU study “raises the prospect of state-sponsored virtual ‘academies’ for workers over the age of 50 leading to online ‘warehouses of opportunity’ where they can pick up new skills.”

It would have been difficult for the EU to make the prospect sound less attractive or more bureaucratic.

Fortunately, the organiser of a pilot study involving 50 to 70-year-olds put it in more human terms. Victor Pinta, vice-head of the Permanent University scheme at the University of Alicante in eastern Spain, encourages over-50s to look at work such as teaching or volunteering, or hobbies like computing, learning languages or studying the history of art.

“The idea is to provide material for people to remain active,” Moody reports him as saying. “People retire and can live in quite good condition for 25 years. We want to make sure these people enjoy that period.”

I’m not sure if “quite good condition” is the summit of us retired blokes’ ambition, but thanks for the sentiment, Señor Pinta.

Anyway, it got me thinking. I can’t say I spent much time in my fifties thinking about retiring, let along ‘training’ for it. So, four years into it, how is retirement going for me?

Apart from (belatedly) starting this blog, where I interview other blokes about their retired lives, I’ve taken council-run lifelong learning courses in photography and drawing-and-painting, I’ve helped the local business club set up a couple of projects, I’ve launched my own crime fiction and wine tasting projects, I’ve joined the University of the Third Age (U3A) and I’ve started researching my family history.

I’ve also been able to use whatever journalism skills I still retain to help U3A and Citizens Advice publicise their work.

I’ve even got my own Twitter and Facebook accounts (“Fine, just don’t Friend me,” said The Daughter) in the somewhat fuzzy ambition that they will help spread the fame of this distinguished retirement blog.

I’m not sure whether any of this is “useful to society.” But it’s (mainly) been enjoyable. So far so good.


Setting out on a long journey

Tim the tree surgeon gets started on the task of removing all the foliage from the family grave.
Tim the tree surgeon gets started on the task of removing all the foliage from the family grave.

THE tree surgeon has removed all of the foliage on the Feeney family grave. He was unable to remove the stumps of the bushes and shrubs that have taken root on the grave over the decades that have past since anybody last visited it.

We discussed the possibility of burning them out. On reflection, we thought it probably for the best if we left well alone. Perhaps a slowly smouldering fire on top of a grave isn’t what a visitor to a churchyard expects to encounter.

We retrieved the urn, which was lodged between the tangled knots of the stumps. It was surprisingly heavy, and took some effort to prise free.

The funeral urn turned out to be a grave ornament hosting nothing more than a frog
The funeral urn turned out to be a grave ornament hosting nothing more than a frog

I was hoping that it would contain the ashes of my “missing” grandfather, Edward Feeney. But it turned out simply to be a substantial grave ornament, probably made of alabaster, and home to nothing more than a surprised frog.

The vicar of St Barnabas, who happened to arrive just as we were clearing away the leaves, twigs and assorted detritus, said he was quietly relieved that it wasn’t Edward’s funeral urn. I understood his point of view, but would have liked to have made more progress in my search for his last resting place.

Still, the inscriptions on the plinth have given me definitive dates for the deaths of my great-grandfather and his wife, as well as three of their children. The Celtic cross above the plinth that carried their names looks splendid.

The Celtic cross revealed in all its splendour (above). A detail from the carving on the front of the cross (right)
The Celtic cross revealed in all its splendour (above). A detail from the carving on the front of the cross (right)

imgp6669Which raises another interesting question. In the UK census of 1911, completed shortly before he died, my great-grandfather was listed as a night watchman at a coal mine. His children were labourers or domestic servants.

So clearly the Feeneys were not a family of means. And yet the family grave is quite substantial, more ornate than most of its neighbours, and in a prestigious place at the entrance to the churchyard.

So how could my great-grandparents afford such a monument? Could it be something to do with the fate of their son, Thomas Henry, who is buried alongside them?

My great-uncle Thomas Henry was killed in a mining accident. Could his fate help to explain how the family of a poor Irish immigrant could afford an apparently expensive grave?
My great-uncle Thomas Henry was killed in a mining accident. Could his fate help to explain how the family of a poor Irish immigrant could afford an apparently expensive grave?

He was a coal miner who was killed in an underground accident in 1914. Is it possible that the colliery owner paid for the cross and plinth? I must admit that it seems unlikely. I was not aware that mine owners were notorious for caring about the lives, let alone the deaths, of their workers.

Changing the subject (bear with me), I have started reading ‘Sweet Caress’ by William Boyd. The female narrator, Amory Clay, says in the opening chapter: “who wouldn’t want to travel back in time and encounter their parents before they become their parents?”

This strikes me as questionable. But, perhaps that urge is what subconsciously lies behind the current interest in researching our family histories?

If so, then Amory shortly afterwards has a salutary warning: “All family histories, personal histories, are as sketchy and unreliable as histories of the Phoenicians.” (As an aside, this reminds me of one of the themes from the last novel I read – Where My Heart Used To Beat by Sebastian Faulks – the selectivity and therefore unreliability of our memories of our own lives.)

Anyway, I have no idea if the history of the Phoenicians is unreliable. If there is a historian in the house, please advise. I asked The Current Mrs Feeney to Google them, and apparently they were a Semitic people living along the coast of what is modern Lebanon.

Which is a long way from a Welsh churchyard, but just goes to show how you can end up in unexpected places when you set out on this family ancestry business.

A clue in the burial records

img_1103JACQUI and I were back in St Barnabas churchyard in Waunarlwydd yesterday. We had arranged to meet a tree surgeon and talk about starting work on restoring the Feeney family grave we discovered the previous week (see “Where is Edward?” below).

We agreed a fee to cut down and remove all of the bushes that have totally obscured the grave. They include hawthorn, holly and rhododendron, and must have been growing for decades.

We were joined at the grave by the St Barnabas churchwarden – who turns out to be a cousin of mine through my paternal grandmother’s family line. He came with the church’s complete baptism and burial records.

These confirmed that the grave contains my great-grandparents, William Henry and Elizabeth Feeney, and their children Thomas Henry, Mary Jane and Margaret Ann. But he brought with him another intriguing clue in the search for my grandfather’s resting place.

The church has a burial date for my father’s father, Edward Feeney, but no record of a plot number. This indicates that he was not buried with his parents and siblings in the family grave, or with his wife, Beatrice Ellen, in her grave elsewhere in the churchyard.

But while I was pulling aside branches to show my cousin the ornately decorated front of the Celtic cross on the Feeney grave, Jacqui spotted something. On top of the middle of the grave, right at the heart of the tangled knots of branch and foliage, there was a ceramic urn.

Could this contain Edward’s ashes? We shall, hopefully, be able to answer that question when the tree surgeon has opened up the graveside for closer inspection next week.



World Crime Atlas: Brazil

The Body Snatcher, by Patricia Malo.

Plot: “A tale of drug-dealing gone wrong, police corruption, and a macabre blackmail.” It starts with the (unnamed) narrator witnessing a small plane crashing into the Paraguay River. In the cockpit, together with the dead pilot, he finds a kilo of cocaine, which he pockets along with the pilot’s backpack and expensive watch. “Thus begins the protagonist’s long slide into corruption” with a Bolivian drug gang, the wealthy family of the pilot, the narrator’s morgue-attendant girlfriend, and a kidnapped cadaver involved along the way.

Where: The small town of Corumba, on the Brazilian lowlands bordering Bolivia.

The detectives: This isn’t really a police procedural, so the cops are on the periphery until the final twists in the plot.

Sense of Place: “The sun reigned over everything without pity.” That early sentence sums up an untamed and heat-blasted landscape; “the sky blue, the ground steaming, and people trying to flee the furnace.”

With such extreme heat, decay (especially in the police morgue) is never far away: “Everything in this city rots more quickly.”

We are allowed one glimpse of a potential Eden: “We’ve got everything,” one character says: “we’ve got forests, we’ve got pastures, we’ve got clear fields, we’ve got the most beautiful birds you can imagine.”

But heat and decay are drawn together in one vivid image late in the book: “The beggar was sleeping on a steaming tombstone, the sun hitting him in the face…We walked down the fetid passageways of the cemetery.”

Perhaps there is hope, however, in this last reference to the climate: “The sun was setting and a pleasant breeze was blowing in our direction.”

Worth reading? Yes. Once the plot is under way, it is Hitchcock-like in its remorseless inevitability, with sharp dialogue and taut writing.

World Crime Atlas is my retirement project to read a crime novel set in every country in The Times Atlas of the World.

Retired Lives: the beekeeper

imgp6611DAVID O’CARROLL worked at the heart of British government for 34 years. He was in the Privy Council office with Michael Foot in the 1970s, as an Assistant Private Secretary to the Government minister in charge of devolution. In 1993 he moved to Leeds with the Department of Health, where his responsibilities included taking through Parliament a Bill dealing with doctors whose capabilities were in question. He retired in 2008 and now lives on the Gower peninsula near Swansea. We met at his 18th Century cottage in the village of Landimore.

Why did you retire when you did?

Things in the Department were constantly changing. It was the third time I had been asked to apply for my own job. I was still enjoying working, but the regular commuting to London, the late nights in Parliament, the adrenaline rush of having to quickly provide your Minister with a response to unexpected developments, well, that’s all fabulous when you’re young but, as you get older, it gets more difficult. It was a good time to retire. So I asked for early retirement.

Were you prepared for retirement?

After I put in my request, I went wobbly for a while. I could not think logically, and felt tearful. Typical stress symptoms. I gave myself a kick in the pants, but if the process had gone on longer, I don’t know if I would have been able to have done that. I had seen colleagues have mental breakdowns; I did not want to go there. Then, when my request was accepted, I only had weeks to prepare before I left.

Did you spend those weeks in anticipation, or trepidation?

I had a few bits of work to finish, then took leave owing to me. The cut-off point is when you have to hand in your pass to the place where you have worked for years. But during that holiday, I started thinking and acting like a retired person.

And how did being retired affect you?

TARGET: David was a longbow archer in Yorkshire. He has now joined the Bowmen Of Gower.
TARGET: David was a longbow archer in Yorkshire. He has now joined the Bowmen Of Gower.

Liz (David’s wife) was still working. I took her to work some days. She worked in the same building where I used to work. Was that a bridge for me between work and retirement? Perhaps. Certain things stayed the same, of course. I was a member of an archery club, so I was seeing the same people. And then we decided to move to Wales.

Moving away from friends when you retire is a big step. Why did you decide to do it?

Liz is from Morriston (near Swansea), and we had regularly come back to see her family. We met when I was studying Politics in Swansea University, and when we married, we had always intended to stay in Wales. There was always an underlying thought that we would come back. We had always fancied living on Gower, and quickly decided that, if we were going to go back to Wales, we should do it straight away.

How did you adjust to retired life?

My fear was that I could become very lazy and do absolutely nothing. I have to make sure that I have things to do. I formed a plan: I said I would start keeping bees, do voluntary work, and learn Welsh.

How did these new experiences work out?

BEEKEEPER: an aunt who kept bees first got David interested. He set up his first hives after a training course.
BEEKEEPER: an aunt who kept bees first got David interested. He set up his first hives after a training course.

I read a couple of books on bee keeping, and took a training course run by the Swansea and District Bee Keeping Society. I set up a couple of hives. I was then involved in setting up a co-operative to sell Gower honey to health food shops. I was able to use my expertise from working in Government to look at the regulations involved, and to secure a Welsh Government grant for rural development. We now have twelve members in the co-operative, which has been going for four years.

Learning Welsh wasn’t as successful! There were about ten of us, mostly retired, in our group. It was very friendly, but I didn’t learn a lot. The biggest mistake I made was to agree to sit an exam. I really struggled, and when I failed the exam, I felt very down about it. I had a year’s break and tried again. I could understand what was being said, but I did not have the vocabulary to join in. I thought that I had given it a good chance, and nobody could say I didn’t try.

I had known a retired mineworker back in Yorkshire who was a volunteer at his local Citizens Advice. I thought that I could do that, and use my Civil Service skills to help people fill out forms and handle legal issues. Being a volunteer with CA gives me a tremendous amount in keeping the brain ticking over. It is challenging work, but very rewarding when you know you have made a positive difference to somebody’s life.

FROM THE CO-OP: David is among a group of local beekeepers who produce and market Gower Honey.
FROM THE CO-OP: David is among a group of local beekeepers who produce and market Gower Honey.

How do you feel about retirement now?

I would make exactly the same decisions again. I did not want to be called ‘retired’, but there’s not another word for it. I am just as active as when I worked; the only thing that has changed is I have not got a day job.


The Wine List #34: Gruner Veltliner

IMGP6598My retirement project to sample wine made from each of the main grape varieties listed in Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book.

The Wine: Danaris 2014, Austria (Laithwaites)

Alc Vol: 12%

HJ says: “Austria’s fashionable flagship white grape. Remarkably diverse; from simple peppery everyday wines to others of great complexity and ageing potential.”

Label says: “a pale gold with zesty lime and crunchy green apple fruit, a crisp structure and a long, refreshing white-pepper finish.”

Food combinations: The label says the wine can be enjoyed with white meats, grilled fish, cheese boards, and that it pairs particularly well with Asian cuisine. That’s pretty comprehensive. I’ve never been convinced about wine and Asian food, but we are nothing if not open-minded in the Retired Blokes house, so we ordered a Thai chicken green curry and a Japanese chicken teriyaki for home delivery; 90 minutes later we were still waiting for delivery, the roasted peanuts were all gone, and the level of expectation had dropped from Acute to Sod It. When the food eventually arrived (“sorry, very busy”) it proved not to have been worth the wait. So our first tasting of this wine was in less than ideal circumstances. We finished the bottle the following day, with one of TCMrsF’s excellent roast pork dinners. The wine was clean and pleasantly acidic, and we both enjoyed it with the meal.

Verdict: Not only can they detect apple, they can tell they are green and crunchy? Wow, they are good, these people! Personally, ‘fruity’ is about as precise as I can be in these situations. But The Current Mrs Feeney and I agree about the zesty and crisp. This was the first time either of us had drunk wine made from this grape. Would we buy more? Probably not, because there was no wow factor to make it stand out in a crowded field of pleasant light whites.

Where is Edward?

A glimpse of a decorative rail led to an exciting discovery
A glimpse of a decorative rail led to an exciting discovery

“HEY, Jaq” I called out to my wife, “I think there’s a grave underneath this tree.”

The Current Mrs Feeney and I were standing in a quiet Welsh churchyard. We were looking for my grandfather, Edward Feeney.

My decision to start researching the Irish side of my family history had been made in unusual circumstances. The British public had just voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. The Daughter Who Left (but returned) was unimpressed by the prospect of losing her right to freedom of movement in the EU. There was the possibility, however, that her Irish ancestry would enable her to get an Irish passport, which would allow her to remain an EU citizen.

All I had to do was establish our Irish roots. It was something my father had never talked about. He, like his father Edward, had been born in Wales. It was Edward’s father who had emigrated from Ireland.

But when? And from where exactly? Those were the questions I set out to answer. I signed up to the Ancestry subscription website, and made progress.

I found out that William Henry Feeney, my great-grandfather, had married Elizabeth Protheroe in Pembrokeshire in 1870. By the time of the 1881 UK census, they had moved to a house in Fleet Street, Swansea. The census returns for 1891, 1901 and 1911 show a growing family living at various addresses in the village of Waunarlwydd, which is where I was brought up.

But those same census returns only confused the issue of William Henry’s own early life. They recorded his birth variously as 1843 in Dublin, 1841 in Belfast, or 1840 in Trimley (or possibly Frimley).

Online searches of all of these variations produced nothing. There was no record of a William Henry Feeney being born in either Dublin or Belfast in any of these years. As for Trimley/Frimley, it appeared that neither of these places even existed in Ireland.

In the meantime, however, I had established that my grandfather had five siblings, including a brother called Thomas Henry – the same Christian names as my own father. When I discovered that the elder Thomas Henry was a coal miner who was killed in an underground accident just months before my father was born, it seemed reasonable to conclude that my father had been named in memory of his recently-departed uncle.

Unable to make any further progress in my search for my great-grandfather, I decided to come back a generation and find out more about my grandparents.

I knew that my grandmother had died in childbirth, and subsequently my father had been raised by two maiden aunts. I thought it was very probable that Edward and his wife were buried in St Barnabas churchyard in Waunarlwydd.

And that is where Jacqui and I were on Friday. It is not a very large churchyard, and we decided the simplest thing would be to split up and walk up and down on either side, checking the inscriptions on the gravestones.

Jacqui set off, but something made me turn back towards a large bush that was growing in front of the first row of graves. Just visible beneath the thick foliage was what looked like a rail, and a decorative piece of metalwork.

I called over to Jacqui, and went to have a closer look. On the other side of the bush was a slender Celtic cross, sticking out from the branches that totally obscured the grave below.

A Celtic cross was poking out of the foliage
A Celtic cross was poking out of the foliage

I scraped the leaves away from the plinth at the foot of the cross. I read the words “Thomas Henry.” I twisted a branch back to see more: the name “Mary Jane Feeney” appeared. That was the name of one of the aunts who had raised my motherless father.

“Jacqui, this is it! It’s the family grave!”

My great uncle Thomas Henry Feeney was killed in a colliery accident. My father was given the same Christian names.
My great uncle Thomas Henry Feeney was killed in a colliery accident. My father was given the same Christian names.

I plunged further into the bush, twisting to see if there was anything written on the rest of the plinth. One side said “Elizabeth” – William Henry’s wife’s name. The other side said “Margaret Anne” – the second aunt.

Elizabeth was William Henry's wife. They married in Pembrokeshire in 1870.
Elizabeth was William Henry’s wife. They married in Pembrokeshire in 1870.

With some effort, I managed to get far enough into the foliage to scrape away the branches covering the front of the plinth. It said William Henry Feeney. I may be no closer to knowing where my great-grandfather came from, but I had found his final resting place, together with his wife and three of his children.

The grave of my grandmother, Edward's tragic wife Beatrice Ellen,
The grave of my grandmother, Edward’s tragic wife Beatrice Ellen

There was more to discover. Further into the churchyard we found the grave of Edward’s tragic wife, Beatrice Ellen. The inscription on the stone revealed that she died on December 26, 1914, twelve days after giving birth to my father, at the age of 24.

Imagine Edward’s anguish that Christmas Day; his first-born son in his arms, his wife slipping towards death before his eyes.

Beatrice Ellen died on Boxing Day 1914 - twelve days after giving birth to my father
Beatrice Ellen died on Boxing Day 1914 – twelve days after giving birth to my father

But here was a strange thing; there was nothing to suggest that Edward’s remains were also laid to rest here. And there was no mention of him on the family grave we had found.

So where is he? It is too late to ask my father (who never became close to his own father after the dislocation of his childhood.)

We will have the family grave restored. Perhaps there are clues hidden there, waiting to be uncovered.