Who are these strangers in the skies?

I RECENTLY discovered flightradar24 – a website that tracks and identifies planes in flight. Now, when I see a vapour trail in the sky over Swansea, I have to discover more.

I have watched jetliners above me, flying to London from New York, Boston or Montreal; cargo flights on their long journey from Chicago to Luxembourg; budget airliners heading from Faro to Manchester, and Liverpool to Lisbon; and – most intriguingly – a regular flight from Brussels to Washington, which I imagine is shuttling between the seats of EU and US government.

On Wednesday night I was in the hot tub, with a plastic beaker containing a little Southern Comfort (my favourite spirit) and a lot of ice. It was a clear night, and I lay there, sipping my drink and looking at the stars. I watched the lights of planes heading east, nearing the end of their journeys from American cities and beginning their long descent into Heathrow. The unblinking white dot of a satellite crossed the sky, heading north for Scotland and its orbit above the roof of the Earth.

Of all of these bodies in the sky, stars and aeroplanes and satellites, I am most curious about the people in the planes. Who are they, and why are they making their journeys through the night? I raised my beaker in a silent toast to these strangers, as they flew over Swansea at six hundred miles per hour.

LIFE IS STRANGE

I WAS back on the graveyard shift this week. Firstly to my parents’ and maternal grandparents’ graves at Zion chapel, then to the Feeney family’s and paternal grandmother’s graves that we recently discovered at St Barnabas church.

While I was doing what I could to tidy up the last of these, it struck me that, if my father’s mother had not died giving birth, I might never have existed.

If she had lived, my father would not have been raised by the two spinster aunts who lived a few doors away from the house where my mother lived. My parents would not have grown up as near neighbours; each might have met and married somebody else, and I would never have been born.

Strange, to look at your grandmother’s grave and think that, however indirectly, she died so that you could live.

RECIPE FOR A PERFECT MARRIAGE

THE Current Mrs Feeney and I were on our way to see The Girl On The Train at our local Odeon when we realised that it was school half-term holiday week, which meant there would be quite a lot of The Girls In The Cinema. So we went grocery shopping instead.

When we got home, TCMrsF asked me, apropos of nothing, if I thought we were compatible. It seemed a little late to be wondering about that now; but after some thought I came to the conclusion that we are exceptionally well-matched. She ignores almost everything I say to her, and I forget much of what she says to me.

NONSENSE ON CAMPUS

I WAS disturbed to read this week that my alma mater was one of the British universities that had “actively censored speech or expression” this year, according to a survey by the current affairs website Spiked.

It is all to do with the trend to create so-called “safe spaces” on campuses, where those expressing views considered to be threatening or controversial are no longer welcome.

I think the idea that young people need to be sheltered from views they might not already agree with is dangerous nonsense. If they want to bathe in the comforting warmth of consensus, and suppress alternative opinions, they should stick to their social media ghettoes.

 

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The Wine List #35: Grenache

imgp6694My retirement project to sample wine made from each of the main grape varieties listed in Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book.

The wine: Pasquiers Grenache Noir, Pays D’Oc 2014, France.

Alc Vol: 13.5%

HJ says: “Widespread pale potent grape now fashionable with terroiristes, who admire the way it expresses its site.”

Label says: “A full and fruit-rich red from the Midi. The intense, dark berry fruit carries a touch of sweet spice and is balanced with a good level of tannin, adding structure and scale to the wine.”

Food combination: Nothing suggested on the label. I (on this occasion The Current Mrs Feeney declined my offer to share) drank some of it with TCMrsF’s renowned lasagne, and finished it the next night with a meal of black pepper-, smoked salt-, and garlic-chicken, served with roasted potatoes and sweet chutney.

RetiredBloke Verdict: First things first; there are no outlandish claims on the label of flavours and smells that would do justice to a fruit stall at Swansea Market: good. I have previously drunk Grenache blended with Syrah and Carignan in French wines, and (as Garnacha) blended with Tempranillo in Rioja. This was the first time I had drunk it a single varietal wine. I was a little disappointed at first; it was not as darkly intense as the label had led me to expect. Having said that, I enjoyed it with the chicken, but wouldn’t go out of my way to have a bottle on my wine rack.

SpencerFeeney @retiredblokes

 

 

Retired Lives: the pianist

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JOHN FRANCIS qualified as an electrical engineer. He worked for British Steel before returning to full-time education to do a Master’s Degree in micro processors. He went back into industry with a local firm making instruments to measure temperature and pressure. A project on marine engine simulation resulted in him specialising in that area, first for Welsh and then for American companies.

Why did you retire when you did?

I was in my 50s, travelling a lot to the States, spending two to three months at a time there. And I was gradually getting disillusioned with the situation. The company decided to close the UK office and make us all redundant. I finished almost ten years to the day from when I had joined the company.

How did you prepare for retirement?

I had been thinking about it for two years. The redundancy coming when it did was perfect timing.

Did you approach retirement with anticipation or trepidation?

Friends were retiring and having a great time, so I had no worries. I had had two years to prepare myself mentally. You do think, will it work out, financially? But the prospect of retiring was never in doubt. I had many interests, so I knew I would have no problem filling up my time.

What affect did retiring have on you?

When I retired, it was pretty much what I expected. There is a wonderful feeling of freedom. Waking up in the morning, knowing I can do whatever I want that day, is joyous.

What opportunities did retirement open for you?

At first, it was the opportunity to do more of the things I enjoyed; playing golf (I intended to play more often, but that has not happened), spending time on my vegetable patch and in the greenhouse, walking the dog on the Gower peninsula.

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One month before I retired, I took up the piano. I had played off and on throughout my life. I fell in love with classical music in my twenties, and started lessons when I was a university student – but I did not have my own piano, and the other people in my hall of residence complained about the noise of my practising! We bought a second-hand piano when our children were young: they were not interested in learning to play, but I took it up again, until I became too busy with work. I bought myself a decent keyboard when I retired, and have regular lessons now that I am able to make the commitment and put in the hours. We choose a piece I like, and work on it. It is purely for pleasure, not with a view to passing any grade exams.

I started French lessons a year ago. We were at a dinner party, and I got talking to a recently retired lady who was going to French conversation lessons. I had done French GCSE in school, but had to drop it to concentrate on science A Levels. I had regretted it ever since. Last Christmas, I was given a present of a course of French lessons with Swansea University’s department of adult education.

I go skiing twice a year. My wife and I went for the first time in 2013. She broke her leg but I caught the bug.

My wife retires next year, and we are looking forward to travelling in Europe with our dog.

How do you feel about retirement now?

I did not want retirement to be completely aimless, but neither did I set myself any specific objectives. It has been what I expected, and it is very pleasant.

The day I came face to face with the corrupting effect of power

IT has been an emotional week in Wales. The television channels have been broadcasting programmes about the Aberfan disaster, leading up to Friday’s 50th anniversary of the day when a colliery spoil tip slid onto the village school and neighbouring houses, killing 116 children and 28 adults.

The National Coal Board was to blame for allowing a spoil tip to be built on top of streams and springs. But some local politicians did not emerge with any credit either.

I was a 15-year-old schoolboy when Aberfan happened in 1966. A few years later, I was a young reporter sent by my news desk to cover another tip slide in a village in another valley.

Thankfully there were no deaths, but choking slurry crashed into several houses in a chilling echo of what had happened at Aberfan. I was in one of those houses, talking to the woman who lived there, when a local councillor came in.

He was a big, physically imposing man, who filled the small room in that damaged house. I introduced myself and asked for his thoughts on what had happened. Never taking his eyes from mine, he said to the woman: “Now Mrs Jones, you don’t want to be talking to people like this. Leave everything to us.” The embarrassed woman apologised, but said it was best if I left.

I can still picture that councillor. The representative of a political system that had given one party too much power for too long, and where the little people were expected to keep quiet and leave everything to the people who benefited from that monopoly of power.

Since that day I have believed that, while corruption can come in many guises, it most often comes wearing a political party rosette.

IGNORANCE: NOT BLISS

SEMI-POSH John (he was a scholarship pupil at boarding school), who is one of my fellow morning swimmers, asked me if I had read the story about a baby that was born without any blood in its veins, but survived and is apparently doing well. I hadn’t. The story sounded incredible, but I realised that my knowledge of biology is so deficient, I don’t even know how blood is created in an unborn child. It’s moments like this that confirm how well-rounded my general ignorance is.

THE MOON’S FOOTPRINT IS GETTING MORE DISTANT

THIS week I read ‘The Outrun’, which won this year’s Wainwright Prize for nature writing books. It is as much a memoir of the author’s descent into and recovery from alcoholism as it is about life on her parents’ farm in the Orkneys. I enjoyed it so much that it has made me want to read more nature writing; a genre that I have had no difficulty resisting before.

Thanks to Amy Liptrot (the author), I discover that the moon is getting further away from the Earth at about 3.78 centimetres per year. I calculate that, during my lifetime, the moon has retreated 245.7 centimetres. This sounds a worryingly high figure, until I work out that it is about the equivalent of a UK size 5 shoe.  One small step for a  man….

PERISH THE THOUGHT

I DID another interview for the Retired Lives section of this blog this week. The interviewee tells me that waking up in the morning, and realising he is free to do whatever he wants that day, is “joyous.” It is only the following day that the  naughty thought creeps into my head that his joyous freedom may have something to do with the fact that his wife still goes off to work each morning. I mentally apologise to all wives, immediately.

EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY

I VISIT an art gallery to see an exhibition of work by various artists. There are two oil paintings I like, each on sale for a four-figure sum. I decide not to buy either. I like to think it is because neither quite hit the critical mark for me. I suspect the real reason is because I’m too tight-fisted to part with that sort of money for art.

Afterwards, The Current Mrs Feeney and I go for lunch in a Spanish-themed restaurant. We used to go there regularly when we were still getting to know each other. I recall how, one evening in animated conversation, she spilled a large glass of red wine all over the front of my shirt. She calmly ordered a large glass of white wine, and threw that over me too. “That will stop it staining,” she explained. That was the moment when I thought that I really should marry this woman.

 

The future does not begin in this room

I WENT to my first meeting of U3A Swansea’s politics and citizenship group this week. Despite suggestions to the contrary, it turned out to be as dominated by women as the other U3A groups I’ve joined. When it comes to socialising, retired blokes seem to be very retiring. The guest speaker was a councillor talking about the council’s ambitious redevelopment plans for the city. His presentation was enlivened by a range of slogans to describe the vision(s) behind these plans: a city of innovation and invention, a beach city, a city on an internet coast. When he finished, he invited comments: these included demands not to move the public library, not to redevelop the castle square, not to redevelop the civic centre site, and not to build anything along the entire seafront for at least the next ten years. Perhaps, when seeking ideas for the future, it’s best not to ask a room filled with old people.

LET IT RAIN

YOU will be relieved to discover that the hot tub has been repaired. I’ve been in it four nights this week. Each time, it began to rain shortly after I immersed myself. From this, I draw the conclusion that having a hot tub in the garden is an even better guarantee of wet weather than having a dining set on the patio.

WHOSE STYLE, EXACTLY?

FROM time to time, a retired bloke is required to accompany The Current Mrs Feeney on shopping trips (I do not include going to the supermarket, which I regard as one of life’s necessities because it allows me to stock up on bars of dark chocolate). Monday this week was one of those times. As is invariably the case, TCMrsF visited several shops that, she informs me, are best described as ‘interior lifestyle’ establishments. All of these shops appear to have exactly the same stock on offer. Is there an infinite supply of people who find their lives are incomplete without a silver stag’s head, a white vase, or a scented candle?

BRAINWORK

I HAVE been working on my two poems (not poetry). I have spent several hours trying to devise various rhythm schemes (I’m not yet ready even to dare to think about rhymes.) If nothing else, I’m sure the exercise is good for the brain, and strikes me as a lot less pointless than sudoku puzzles.

WE ARE HOUSE-TRAINED

NEXT Door’s Cat is spending increasing time in our house. He arrives at our back door as soon as he sees a light in the kitchen. After a light breakfast, he sleeps on the kitchen armchair for the rest of the morning. He returns in the evening, when the process is repeated until I put him out around ten o’clock. I pretend that we have unofficially adopted him; I am aware that, in fact, the process is the other way round.

World Crime Atlas: Cambodia

Death in the Rainy Season, by Anna Jaquiery.

Plot: A Frenchman, Hugo Quercy, is found brutally murdered in a hotel room. He was the head of a humanitarian organisation helping to look after street children. Why had he booked into the hotel under an assumed name? What is the significance of his recent investigations of compulsory land grabs? And who broke into his house on the night of the murder?

Where: The story is very largely set in the capital city of Phnom Penh.

The detectives: This is the second book to feature Commander Serge Morel, a Paris-based detective with an unusual enthusiasm for origami. He is assisted this time by a one-legged Cambodian policeman, Chey Sarit.

Sense of Place: The story is set in the monsoon season, the intense rainfall blurring the world, the shifting light and perpetual mugginess making it difficult to keep track of time.

The French-Malaysian author (who left Cambodia as a child not long before the Khmer Rouge plunged the country into barbarism in 1975) describes Phnom Penh as “a vibrant city, full of charm and grace.” But much of this seems to be at risk in the fast-growing modern capital.

“All you have to do is look at this city to see how much has changed,” says one character. “Do you know what I remember of the old Phnom Penh? It was the most beautiful place you could imagine. There was hardly any poverty and we were content. Family was what mattered. From the family, everything flowed. . .Phnom Penh was truly a Cambodian city, a city with its own special Khmer flavour.”

But we are still given a snapshot of unchanging Phnom Penh street life: “Vendors cooking and selling their wares, mechanics and electricians tinkering on engines and television sets outside their repair shops, the parts scattered on the footpath. A young woman emptied a bucket of dirty water on the street, scaring a scabby, pregnant mutt. Another crossed the street, holding aloft a tray of fried spiders.”

The Khmer Rouge revolution, and the horrors of the Killing Fields, are always in the background; every Cambodian in the story is living with the consequences.

Worth reading? Yes. As well as the interesting setting, the story is well-plotted with clearly-visualised characters. I look forward to reading more Morel mysteries.

Our next destination will be Canada. Our book will be The Beautiful Mystery, by Louise Penny.

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

I’m looking forward to my Christmas dip

A WEEK of bright October sunshine and fresh autumn breezes. Perfect for tackling the outdoors To Do list (which never seems to get any shorter).

The first job was to drain the hot tub, which had stopped working – again. We had it installed when we moved to Swansea in 2002. My environmentally-inclined friends disapproved, but the children (and their school friends and cousins) thought it was one of our better ideas.

It broke down weeks ago. We had to wait for the spa service company to get a replacement for the printed circuit board, which had burned out. It duly arrived and was fitted. Then it broke down again. The repairman came back on Tuesday. The new board had also burned out. He seemed confident that he knew why, and that he could fix it.

The tub has been refilled with fresh water, ready for his visit tomorrow. I’m holding on to the hope that we’ll be able to use it this side of Christmas.

I BLAME CLIVE

I AM reading Clive James’s poetry collection Sentenced To Life. It’s his eighth published collection, and it’s very possibly his last because he is terminally ill. The poems are understandably shot through with James’s knowledge of his own mortality, but they are also humane and, at times, bitterly funny.

Reading them has made me want to try writing something. I used to write poems (which isn’t the same as creating poetry, no matter how hard you try) in my late teens and early twenties, but gave it up after university.

I didn’t think the newsrooms I worked in through the 1970s and 80s were exactly nurturing environments for a poetry scribbler.

So far, I’ve got two poems down on paper in draft form, but they’re not fit for anybody else’s eyes yet.

I HAVE AN IDEA

TO the first University of the Third Age (U3A) Swansea Film Studies Group meeting of the new season. As usual, men are in a very small minority. I take my regular place –  in the back row.

The talk is on films of two E M Forster novels – A Room With A View and A Passage To India. I discover that Forster was a World War One conscientious objector who drove an ambulance in the Egyptian campaign.

I speculate what Forster – a public school educated homosexual upper middle class Englishman – talked about when he was off-duty with his fellow ambulance drivers.

Then I recall that another, but very different, writer – Ernest Hemingway – also drove an ambulance in that war, on the Italian front. Imagine the two of them meeting and discussing their war experiences and their literary work.

Perhaps there’s a poem in it?

WHAT DO I KNOW?

THE Current Mrs Feeney and I went to Swansea Museum to see a painting that had been restored after being ‘discovered’ in the museum storeroom as part of a BBC television series on lost masterpieces.

It is now valued at around £3million but I didn’t like it. I’m sure this says more about my artistic taste (lack of) than it does about the price of art.

IT’S NOT TOO EARLY

I ASKED Mrs F if she wanted a peach (tinned variety) with her Sunday breakfast yoghurt. “No but keep the syrup and I’ll have a Bellini,” she said. One of us has got this Life Well Lived business sorted.