Oh what a tangled web

NOBODY told me things would get this confusing.

If you’ve been paying attention (and who could blame you if your mind had wandered, in these exciting times, from the task in hand) you would recall that I set out on this family history project with the intention of discovering exactly from where in Ireland my particular branch of the Feeneys originated.

Accepted family knowledge was that it was my great grandfather, William Henry Feeney, who emigrated from the emerald isle to Wales. Once I started searching old census returns, however, it quickly became obvious that narrowing down the search would be trickier than I’d anticipated.

Old William Henry had, at various times, recorded his birthplace as Belfast, Dublin, and Trimley. Initial searches had failed to turn up any evidence that he had been born in any of these places; and there was no such place as Trimley in the island of Ireland in any case.

I sought help by joining a family history forum run by the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? team. My first post produced some interesting results.

Firstly, an Army Regimental Board meeting at Pembroke Dock on January 14, 1870, agreed to discharge No 829 Private Henry Feeney of the 36th Regiment of Foot, because he was no longer fit for active service (the poor bloke had suffered and then aggravated a hernia while on Army duties). Private Feeney, 27, told the Board that he intended to work as a labourer and reside in the Pembrokeshire town of Tenby after leaving the Army.

Secondly, William Henry Feeney (my great-grandfather) married Elizabeth Protheroe at Pembroke Register Office on May 10, 1870. The 27-year-old bridegroom was a labourer residing in St George’s Street, Tenby.

Thirdly (and scandalously), the Tenby Observer newspaper of October 13, 1870, reported that Henry Feeney, a labourer, was a defendant in Police Court, charged by Thomas Protheroe Junior with assault.

Are the soldier, the bridegroom, and the defendant one and the same person; viz my great-grandfather? The circumstantial evidence – the ages, the town of residence, the Protheroe connection – seemed compelling.

How then, to explain this: Private Henry Feeney’s discharge papers state his place of birth as the Parish of St Helen’s, near Ipswich. Is it possible that my Irish ancestor was actually a son of Suffolk? But if that’s the case, why did he say on successive census returns that he was born in Ireland?

Oh, and one more thing. You know I said that there was no such place as Trimley in Ireland? Well, there is one in England. It’s called Trimley St Martin, to reveal its full splendour. And guess where in England it is?

That’s right; Suffolk. About midway between Lowestoft and Ipswich, to be precise.

Oh William Henry, what a tangled web you appear to have woven. Where did you come from really? Who were you really?

Worth getting up in the morning for

AFTERNOON Cinema happened in the morning this week. I wanted to see Fences, Denzel Washington’s film of the August Wilson play. I prefer to see a film on Fridays, which allows me to talk about it on my regular Monday appearance on our local TV station. That way, anybody interested has time to see the film themselves before the cinema changes its programme at the end of the week.

Clear so far? On Friday, neither of the cinemas in town was showing Fences in the afternoon. It was a choice of an evening screening, or one at 11.20 in the morning. The Current Mrs Feeney and I chose the morning show.

“Is this one of those special screening for seniors?” TCMrsF asked. “No. So we don’t get free coffee and biscuits,” I said.

There is something odd about walking into a cinema in the middle of a sunny morning. I suppose real film critics get used to it. And they get free sandwiches.

The noticeable absence of free refreshments didn’t spoil our enjoyment of the film. Washington’s direction deliberately retains the structure and feel of a play. It does not attempt to distract from Wilson’s dense, poetic dialogue with cinematic flourishes.

MARRIED LIFE: Washington and Davis are brilliant as Troy and Rose Maxson
MARRIED LIFE: Washington and Davis are brilliant as Troy and Rose Maxson

There are towering performances from Washington and Viola Davis, both reprising their roles as Troy and Rose Maxson from the acclaimed 2010 Broadway revival.

This was the second film in a week (the first was Hidden Figures) we’d seen that examines the prejudices limiting black Americans. There’s a third (Loving) currently on release here that looks at the same theme. Surely not a coincidence?

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FENCED IN: houses in 1950s Pittsburg

But there’s a lot more to Fences than that. It’s also about the complicated rhythms of a long marriage, and the competition between generations. Above all, it’s about the way people are shaped and warped by their experiences.

I was surprised by the strongly religious sub-theme, with repeated references to God and the Devil, heaven and hell, life and death. Sin and Innocence also have their place in Troy’s Pittsburg back yard.

We enjoyed the experience, but it is undeniably more theatrical than cinematic. That’s why I’m giving it a slightly lower mark than such powerful individual performances would normally merit.

Retired Bloke Rating: **** Good way to spend an afternoon (or morning).

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The Film Buff Stuff:

Fences. Oscar nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Director: Denzel Washington.

Cast:

  • Denzel Washington (Troy Maxson). Nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. Washington won Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Glory (1989), and Best Actor Oscar for Training Day (2001). Has played a series of real-life figures, including Malcolm X, Steve Biko, and Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter.
  • Viola Davis (Rose Maxson). Davis won Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Doubt (2008), and was nominated for Best Actress Oscar for The Help (2011). Her current Best Supporting Actress nomination for Fences makes her the first black woman to be nominated for three Oscars.
  • Mykelti Williamson (Gabe Maxson, Troy’s brother)
  • Russell Hornsby (Lyons Maxson, Troy’s elder son)
  • Saniyya Sidney (Raynell Maxson, Troy’s daughter)
  • Stephen Henderson (Jim Bono, Troy’s best friend)
  • Jovan Adepo (Cory Maxson, Troy’s younger son)

 

Space, race and America

THE Current Mrs Feeney was delighted with our choice of film for this week’s afternoon trip to the cinema. Hidden Figures has Kevin Costner in it. TCMrsF has been very fond of Mr Costner since she saw him dancing with wolves back in the 1990s. The passing of two decades has done nothing to diminish her feelings.

So along we went on Friday. We were a little earlier than usual – not even the adverts had started. For a moment, I thought we’d hit the jackpot, and had the entire auditorium (if that’s not too grand a word, now that the average multiscreen room is not much bigger than a millionaire’s bathroom) to ourselves.

I maintained this happy (if admittedly antisocial) delusion until I spotted the chap in the third row from the front, slumped so low in his standard seat (no point paying extra for premium seats when you can sit anywhere you like in these afternoon screenings) that he was practically lying down, with his legs folded up so that his knees were resting on his chest. I reckon his back will pay for that when he’s older.

Anyway, about another dozen people arrived by the time the trailers were finished and the film began. So, pretty much par for the course.

TAKEOFF: Mercury-Redstone rocket Freedom 7 launches the first US astronaut into space in 1961.
TAKEOFF: Mercury-Redstone rocket Freedom 7 launches the first US astronaut into space in 1961.

We enjoyed the film very much. It has two big themes – the 1960s space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the civil rights movement led by the likes of the Reverend Martin Luther King.

And then it throws in a third theme; the struggle by feminists to achieve equality of opportunity and reward for working women.

The director weaves them all together by telling the true (well, true-ish; ‘based on real events’ as they say) stories of three brilliant black female mathematicians working for NASA.

HATRED: A Freedom Rider bus goes up in flames in 1961 after a fire bomb was thrown through the window.
HATRED: A Freedom Rider bus goes up in flames in 1961 after a fire bomb was thrown through the window.

While they are employed by the US Government on its space programme, they are confined to a segregated, coloureds-only wing of the agency’s HQ in Virginia. The daily racism that Katherine, Dorothy and Mary encounter is not brutal or violent (unlike the fate of the Freedom Riders that we see on a TV news programme watched by Mary’s civil rights activist husband); nobody gets beaten, shot or lynched.

It is, however, both pervasive and pernicious. It severely limits their lives through the white population’s institutionalised acceptance that coloured people are simply inferior. Hence, they cannot work in the same room as white people, even when they are doing the same job; or eat in the same canteen, or drink out of the same coffee pot, or even pee in the same toilet bowl.

WOMEN'S RIGHTS: protestors campaigning for equality in the workplace for female workers.
WOMEN’S RIGHTS: protestors campaigning for equality in the workplace for female workers.

There is a plotline about NASA’s segregated bathrooms running (literally) through the film, as Katherine has to make a half-mile dash twice a day to relieve herself in the toilet in the coloureds-only wing. There are one or two too many of these moments, even if it culminates in Katherine making a fine speech about her co-workers’ blindness to the racism around them.

Her denunciation of their prejudice is immediately followed by her white boss (Costner) taking a sledge hammer to the ‘coloureds only’ sign over the toilet door, and declaring that in NASA everybody pees the same colour.

The three main parts are really well acted, and the actresses playing them gel into an ensemble that is even greater than the individual parts.

Despite the weighty subject matter, the film has a delicate touch that ensures that it entertains. There are moments of Hollywood schmaltz that may play well in America, but could have more cynical British audiences reaching for the sick bucket.

But no matter. TCMrsF and I came away entertained, and feeling that we had learned something (despite the historical inaccuracies) about a story that neither of us had known previously. Hidden figures of recent history, indeed.

Retired Bloke Rating: **** Good way to spend an afternoon.

images-3Here’s the film buff stuff

Hidden Figures: Oscar nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture, and Best Supporting Actress.

Director: Theodore Melfi (Debut film St Vincent in 2014)

Cast:

  • Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Johnson). She was Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actress for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008.
  • Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan). Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA Best Supporting Actress winner in 2011 for The Help; she is Oscar nominated again for Hidden Figures.
  • Janelle Monáe (Mary Jackson). She is also in Moonlight on current cinema release in the UK.
  • Kevin Costner (Al Harrison). Won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for Dances With Wolves in 1990.
  • Kirsten Dunst (Vivian Mitchell). Played Mary Jane Watson in three Spiderman movies. On our tv screens more recently as the neurotic hairdresser Peggy Blomquist in the second series of Fargo.
  • Jim Parsons (Paul Stafford). Best known as Sheldon in the very successful Big Bang Theory on tv.

World Crime Atlas: Hong Kong

EAST MEETS WEST: "Hong Kong always changes, murder stays the same."
EAST MEETS WEST: “Hong Kong always changes, murder stays the same.”

The Borrowed, by Chan Ho-Kei, translated by Jeremy Tiang.

Plot: Hong Kong’s greatest detective is dying. His partner comes to his deathbed to seek help from his mentor with one final case. Then we move backwards through six different but interlocking cases.

When: 1967 to 2013.

The detectives: Inspector Kwan Chun-dok and Detective Sonny Lok.

Sense of Place: The novel (really a series of linked but separate novellas) covers 50 years of great social change. The question was whether we would get a sense of place for all five decades.

The answer is mixed. As the author explains in his Afterword, he set out to write a classic crime story, relying on mysteries and plots, but changed direction towards a novel about the state of society, focussing on character and situation.

That’s a difficult mix to get right, and a lot of intricate (and for this reader, sometimes literally incredible) plotting remains. At times, his inspired deduction makes Inspector Kwan resemble an Asian Sherlock Holmes on steroids, or a Chinese Hercule Poirot, pulling together overlooked evidence to solve baffling crimes like a magician pulling rabbits from his hat.

Each novella is based in a critical year or decade in Hong Kong’s recent history. Each story has a wealth of detail about where exactly the action occurs. Slowly a web of interconnected locations emerges, though not always with much physical description of what it actually looks like.

DAZZLING: but behind the bright lights of Mong Kok lurks organised crime
DAZZLING: but behind the bright lights of Mong Kok lurks organised crime

One exception is the Mong Kok market, in the second story which is set in 2003: “Mong Kok was dazzling as always. The multicoloured neon lights, glittering shop windows, throngs of pedestrians – as if the city knew no night. This bustling scene was a microcosm of Hong Kong, a city that relied on finance and consumption.” It’s a superficially attractive scene, but “Mong Kok was like an engine that could not stop running, fuelled by cash day and night, and when the legal sources of this fuel ran dry, dirty money came in to fill the tank.” This is a place of Triad organised crime gangs, and lots of drugs.

CHANGING OF THE GUARD: the Hong Kong Garrison of the People's Liberation Army applaud at a farewell ceremony during the 1997 handover of sovereignty.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD: the Hong Kong Garrison of the People’s Liberation Army applaud at a farewell ceremony during the 1997 handover of sovereignty.

The stories spool back in time, through 1997 -the transfer of sovereignty from Britain to China – to the 1980s and 70s, decades of change and growing prosperity as Hong Kong  reinvented itself as the financial powerhouse of Asia.

WESTERN INFLUENCES: contestants line up in the 1977 Miss Hong Kong Pageant
WESTERN INFLUENCES: contestants line up in the 1977 Miss Hong Kong Pageant

The author has an acute eye for the way political and cultural change fashioned the lives of the British and Chinese residents; “the colonials slowly turning local, while the colonised picked up the lifestyles and cultures of the incomers.”

TROUBLE ON THE STREETS: Hong Kong Police ready to confront protestors during the 1967 Leftist Riots
TROUBLE ON THE STREETS: Hong Kong Police ready to confront protestors during the 1967 Leftist Riots

The final novella – Borrowed Time – takes us all the way back to the Leftist Riots of 1967. A time of political turmoil as agitators, bankrolled by the communist Chinese state on the other side of the border, sought to ferment revolution and force the British out.

Retired Bloke Verdict: While this isn’t the perfect choice of book for this project, it still offers an overview of a part of the world that underwent enormous political and cultural change in the second half of the 20th Century.

Keep it quiet; Renton’s back in town

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BACK ON THE TRAIN: Edinburgh’s less than finest are reunited on a railway platform.

TRAINSPOTTING had a big impact when it hit the British cinema screen in 1996. The Current Mrs Feeney and I didn’t see it; we must have been busy doing something else that year.

But we do remember how much fuss there was about director Danny Boyle’s film about three Edinburgh heroin addicts and their psychopathic mate.

When you put it like that, perhaps we just didn’t think it was our sort of film. When we finally caught up with it on television, we realised we were wrong. So we were very keen this week to go along and watch Boyle’s sequel, T2 Trainspotting. Twenty years between first film and sequel; now that’s impressively failing to rush into something.

So along we went on Friday afternoon as usual. And as usual, the cinema was almost empty – which is one of the pleasures of having the free time to go to the pictures in the day when other people are in work.

Almost empty; while the adverts were running, a man and woman – I’d put them in their 50s – came in and sat across the aisle from us. And started talking. And talking. All the way through (and over) the adverts. Anybody who has been aurally assaulted by a cinema advert knows that being able to drown it out with your conversation is a considerable achievement.

And talking. All the way through (and over) the “trailers for forthcoming features.” So that was the favourite bit for some people spoilt.

This couple were loud. How loud? Loud enough for the man sat two rows directly behind them to get up and cower in the back row.

They did stop talking when the film started. But then they laughed Very Loudly Indeed at every vaguely amusing moment for the first 15 minutes. That included the moment when Ewan McGregor’s character Renton fell off a gym running machine – because he’d just suffered some kind of heart seizure.

I was beginning to wonder the most diplomatic way for a Retired Bloke to politely request somebody to “SHUT UP!” when they quietened down. Perhaps the film was proving less amusing than they anticipated; or maybe they just decided it wasn’t worth the effort to impress on the rest of the audience (all six of us) just what Massively Big Trainspotting Fans they were.

Anyway, about the film. TCMrsF and I both enjoyed it, but not as much as the first film. As well as the same characters (Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie the psycho) T2 has all the same ingredients as Trainspotting. Drugs? Tick. Sex and nudity? Tick. Violence? Tick. Black humour? Tick. Appallingly foul language? Tick.

WHAT LARKS: Arty types promote the annual Edinburgh Festival. Renton and his mates aren't big fans.
WHAT LARKS: Arty types promote the annual Edinburgh Festival. Renton and his mates aren’t big fans.

In fact, it shares so much with the first film (including original Trainspotting footage to illustrate when one of the characters is remembering the bad old days) that it eventually comes across as a bit self-referential. As Sick Boy says when he and Renton return to the bleak Scottish moor they last visited 20 years ago, it’s dangerously easy and comforting to become nostalgic tourists in your own youth.

But you’ve got to forgive it that for the energy (and cracking soundtrack) that it also has in common with Trainspotting. The scene where Renton and Sick Boy (both Scottish Catholics) are invited up on stage to sing a song – in a sectarian Loyalist pub – will live with me. The lyrics, invented on the spot by a terrified Renton, has the recurring refrain “There were no Catholics left” – to the delight of the bigoted Protestant regulars.

And it’s always a pleasure to see a film made in and about Britain, amid the sea of Hollywood movies on American topics.

TCMrsF and I agreed it was a good way to spend an afternoon.

The Factual Stuff:

Film: T2 Trainspotting.

Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: Ewan McGregor (Mark Renton), Ewen Bremner (Spud Murphy), Jonny Lee Miller (Simon ‘Sick Boy’ Williamson), Robert Carlyle (Francis Begbie).

Plot: Twenty years after he betrayed his junkie friends and made off with their money from a drug deal, Renton returns to Edinburgh. His old friends are waiting for him; and so are the memories, regrets and demons he thought he had left behind him.

Retired Bloke Rating: ****

Bloodied tale of the pacifist as war hero

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GRACE UNDER FIRE: Andrew Garfield is very good as true-life pacifist war hero Desmond Doss

Film: Hacksaw Ridge

Director: Mel Gibson

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn.

Plot: Based on the true story of Desmond Doss, a devout Seventh Day Adventist who enlists for the US Army in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. He is determined to serve his country – but has taken a vow never to handle a weapon. Ostracised and bullied by his colleagues, he is eventually allowed to go to war as an unarmed medic. In the battle for the Japanese island of Okinawa, Doss performs extraordinary acts of courage to rescue wounded men under heavy enemy fire.

What I thought of it: Andrew Garfield gives a very good performance as Doss, a man who describes himself as a “conscientious co-operator.” All the Best Actor Oscar talk is of Ryan Gosling (La La Land) and Casey Affleck (Manchester By The Sea), but I wonder if Garfield could be the dark horse in this category for this performance.

This is the first film that Gibson has directed in ten years; since Apocalypto (2006) and The Passion of The Christ (2004). Hacksaw Ridge completes a trilogy of films that explore religious belief in extreme circumstances.

ROMANTIC INTERLUDE: Teresa Palmer is good as Doss's future wife Dorothy Schutte.
ROMANTIC INTERLUDE: Teresa Palmer is good as Doss’s future wife Dorothy Schutte.

After the controversial nature of the first two of those films, Gibson’s direction in the first half feels very conventional. Doss’s tribulations in basic training, led by Vaughn’s tough-guy platoon sergeant, are offset by subplots that tell us something about Doss’s  relationships with his future wife (Palmer), and his parents (Griffiths as his long-suffering mother Bertha, and Weaving as his war-damaged father Tom.)

The second half of the film consists entirely of the bloody efforts by the American forces to clear the Japanese from the honeycombs of caves and tunnels on the ridge that gives the film its title.

HELL ON EARTH: US Marines battle to take another ridge on Okinawa
HELL ON EARTH: US Marines battle to take another ridge on Okinawa

The battle scenes spatter the screen with blood and guts, reminiscent of the opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Men (on both sides) are reduced to brutal basic instincts in the fight to survive and overcome the enemy.

Doss plunges into the middle of this carnage and horror to carry out his incredible rescue mission.

Gibson’s direction only occasionally veers toward the sentimental, and his religiosity is kept in check (bar one scene which portrays Doss as a Christ-like figure.)

The film does not attempt to explore the Japanese side of the conflict in the way that Clint Eastwood did in his 2006 twinned movies Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima.

The end credits are preceded with brief monologues by the real Doss. This is becoming a fashion in ‘true-life’ films. I’m not sure it’s a good idea; it tends to make you want to hear more from the actual participants, and can detract from the film you’ve just watched.

Retired Bloke Rating: **** A good way to spend an afternoon.