Retired Bloke in Rome

THE Current Mrs Feeney and I are back home in Swansea after five days in Italy with The Daughter Who Left.

We stayed in a small privately-owned hotel in Rome’s city centre, just around the corner from Roma Termini rail station. The Anxious Owner was a constant presence, always wearing the same suit, dusty moustache, and the look of somebody who knows his staff are doing something they oughtn’t to be but can’t work out what it is. We never saw him smile.

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On Tuesday we did all the tourist things in Rome: Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Victor Emmanuel II Monument, Colosseum; you know the drill. This involved a great deal of walking; slightly more than 20kilometres – I know because The Daughter, who was wearing her Fitbit bracelet thingy, informed me with something approaching awe in her voice.

Also, because TCMrsF complained of blisters.

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QUICK WORK: the high-speed train between Rome and Naples. All rail travel should be like this. It isn’t.

We went to see Pompeii the next day. We caught the 9.25am high-speed express from Termini to Napoli Centrale. It only cost 45Euros for all three tickets, and only took one hour to cover the 160-plus miles between the two cities. Our tickets guaranteed our seats. I was deeply impressed, and wondered why British trains weren’t like this.

Then we needed to catch a commuter train from Naples along the coast to Pompeii. We went to the ticket office to buy tickets.

“Pompeii? The archaeological site?” said the charming young woman behind the desk.

“Yes.”

“Different company. Downstairs.”

It was our first lesson in Italian bureaucracy. It wasn’t to be our last.

Our tickets reserved about a square foot of floor space, from which you could grasp an overhead rail in an attempt to stop yourself from falling into the person jammed next to you as the train juddered to a halt at every suburban station. This felt more like British rail travel.

FALLEN ICARUS: young women were keen to be photographed in front of him. I can’t imagine why.

Pompeii was far bigger than we had expected; impossible to do it justice in a few hours. I recall especially the Forum and the Basilica, with their fallen monumental statues, including one of Icarus (left). For some reason, young women seemed very keen to have their photos taken standing just below his waist. I can’t imagine why.

Back in Naples we went upstairs (different company) to buy tickets back to Rome on the 6pm express. “I have no tickets left,” said the charming man behind the desk. “I can get you on the 6.40.”

“Yes please. Three tickets please.”

“Forty-five Euros.”

“Yes, that’s what we paid this morning,” said TCMrsF, handing over a 50Euro note.

“Forty five Euros each.”

I know inflation in Italy is higher than in the UK. But, still.

STATION MUSIC: there’s a piano on the platform. People randomly play it. Other people start singing. Nobody thinks it eccentric.

Compensation of sorts while we are waiting for the train. There is a piano on the platform forecourt. A man sits down at the piano stool and begins playing. Other men, middle-aged, obviously locals, gather around and start singing what sound like popular drinking songs. I think how extraordinary that a piano has been provided, or at least tolerated, by the station authorities – and that it hasn’t been vandalised.

I turn around to see The Daughter sat on a bench with a small dog on her knees. The dog’s owner, a tiny man, stands next to her, grinning with delight.

At the end of a long day, back in our hotel room, TCMrsF and I agree that more Continental rail travel would be a good idea.

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LONG WAIT: they say the queues for St Peter’s are shorter in the afternoon. Don’t believe them.

On Friday, we queue for two hours in the morning to get into St Peter’s. A guide explains that there is always a long wait because entry to the church is free. He says the queues are shorter in the late afternoon, from around four o’clock. That’s the time we leave after several hours looking at the extraordinary religious and artistic treasures on display. The queue is even longer than in the morning; stretching out of the square and out of sight down the side streets.

We pay a last visit to the Trevi Fountain, which looks less impressive on this cloudy day, and buy ice creams. Another bureaucratic experience; we decide what size and flavours we want at the display counter, pay at the cash desk at the other end of the parlour (the bored cashier finishes her text message before agreeing to notice us), take our receipt back to the display counter, and give it to the assistant who joyfully accepts it and gives us our ice creams.

And this is still less protracted than buying a takeaway sandwich at another shop; there, we made our choice, received a ticket, took it to the cash desk, paid and received another ticket, took that ticket back to the man who had received our original order, who read the cash desk ticket carefully before giving us the sandwiches we’d asked him for five minutes earlier.

As fast food goes, it’s pretty slow. But the sandwiches and the ice creams were all delicious.

A crowded evening Metro train back to Termini, where TCMrsF discovers her bag is open and her money purse has disappeared. We try to report the theft to two men in uniforms in the station. They are not policemen. We try two more men, in uniforms and impressive berets. But they’re not policemen either. Eventually we are directed to a police station hidden away at the furthermost corner of the station.

The Carabinieri officer (cautious eyes, long grey beard) who takes the details says: “You are safe in Rome. But your things are not.”

The Daughter wonders if we’d like to know how many kilometres we covered looking for a policeman. We decide that we don’t.

At the end of a long day, back in our hotel, TCMrsF and I agree that more Continental rail travel would not be a good idea.

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Waiting for our flight home on Saturday. A young man lays down his travel bags and sits at a baby grand piano standing in the concourse for departure Gate E. He begins to play. Some classical, some Adele. Italy; surprising and full of contrasts. Old and new. The luxury and the Naples slums. Maimed beggars on streets of beautiful young men and women.

What a fabulous week.

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We must do this more often

FINE VIEW: looking out from Southgate cliffs (National Trust picture)

THE Current Mrs Feeney and I did something on Tuesday morning that we hadn’t done for too long. We jumped in the car after breakfast and drove to Gower.

It was the first time we had done something spontaneous for ages. It made me wonder why retired life had become so bogged down in To Do tasks. I promised myself that, in future, I would take the time to ask myself if that thing I “have to do today” really does have to be done today (or ever).

We walked along the paths above the cliffs at Southgate. TCMrsF thought she could live there, or in near-by Pennard. We talked about the idea of moving out of the city. Beguiling on a day like this, with the yellow gorse bushes swaying in the breeze, and the sea shining out to the horizon; not so appealing (to me, at least) on a stormy winter’s night.

Put money in your purse

We stopped at a Gower pub for lunch after our walk. There was an exhibition of work by local artists in the function room, and we bought a framed watercolour for £30, and a smaller unframed piece for £5.

The desk did not take cards, so we had to scrabble in purse and wallet to scrape together the necessary cash. Almost embarrassing, but reassuring for a Retired Bloke to know there are still some places where you need real money in your pocket.

Include her out 

BREAKING THE CIRCLE: but The Daughter is still flying a flag for Europe

While we were out, the Prime Minister called a snap election. Which just goes to show you shouldn’t leave the house without being prepared for the unexpected.

Anyway, when I collected The Daughter from work that evening, I asked for her thoughts: “Why has she done it?” she said. “”It’s about Brexit,” I replied. “Fine. I’ll vote for whoever can stop it.”

That may prove tricky.

This isn’t looking good

I spent Friday morning trying to follow up possible lines of enquiry about my mysterious great grandfather, after the responses from Pembrokeshire and Suffolk record offices.

There was a suggestion that he may have given his birthplace as Ipswich when he joined the Army, simply to hide his true Irish origins (this supposes that 1: my great grandfather was the Army private who shared his name, age and town of residence in 1870; 2: he was indeed from Ireland).

Anyway, having discovered that, in the mid 19th Century, going on for half of British Army recruits were poor Irish Catholics, there is no obvious reason why my great grandfather would want to hide the fact of his birth in this way.

Searching records for people baptised William Feeney in the 1840s, I came across one who, in 1861, was residing at the St Mary Agricultural Colony and Reformatory in Leicestershire. My knowledge of such places is scant (ok, non existent), but given that there seems to be a very good chance that my great grandfather was up before the court bench both during and after his Army career, I could be forgiven for thinking that I see a trend developing.

Council of war

WOMEN’S WORK: and they weren’t about to go back into the kitchen when war was over

Sticking with the men at war theme, on Friday afternoon I went to see Their Finest in the cinema. Set in word war two, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable film about film-making, and the value of propaganda, and especially about the role of women in wartime, and the subsequent tensions when they were expected to meekly resume their domesticated lives when peace came.

Apart from all of that, much of it was filmed in Swansea, and I had a lot of fun spotting locations; including the council offices, which made a very convincing Ministry of War.

And on we go

Today, Sunday, is our 29th wedding anniversary. TCMrsF says she’s getting used to me now.

 

No breakthrough in Suffolk

THE search for information about my great grandfather’s early life continues to frustrate my best efforts (for any new readers: I started off thinking he was born in Ireland, then found an Army record that strongly suggested he was born in Ipswich and raised in the Suffolk village of Trimley).

This week, Suffolk Record Office sent me the results of their research. There is no record of a William Henry Feeney baptised in any of the 18 parishes of Ipswich around 1843.

There are 15 entries for Finney, with one William (but for the year 1875), and none for Henry. There are also three entries for Finny, but none is a William or Henry. So the Ipswich line of enquiry goes cold.

In the parishes of Trimley St Martin and Trimley St Mary, there are 30 entries for Finney between 1813 and 1875, and one of them is for a William Henry Finney, son of Caroline Finney, who was baptised in 1846. This sounds very promising – and then a note in the baptismal records, to say that William Henry was being baptised several years after he was born – in 1831. So he cannot have been my great-grandfather.

Ah well, it’s back to searching for a clue in Irish records.

Dangerous charm

SO LONG, KID: Alex Frith was able to charm the grumpiest editor

THE Current Mrs Feeney and I were at a funeral on Monday. Alex Frith walked into my life one morning shortly after I had taken over the Editor’s chair at the South Wales Evening Post in 2002.

She breezed into my office, introduced herself as my Children’s Editor (until that moment, I was unaware that we had one), and explained that she wrote a weekly column about elf-like marine creatures called The Bumbles of Mumbles. Apparently, every Christmas there was a Bumbles Special show at the Grand Theatre. All of Swansea’s dance schools took part. At the end of the show, every dance school principal received a bouquet on stage. It would be very kind of me if I would agree to do the honours this year.

Which I did. That year, and every year after that. Every year, I would tell myself that I wouldn’t get talked into it again. Alex would walk into my office, tell me that my ‘aura’ was “looking good, kid,” and leave with my enthusiastic agreement. Worked every time.

Which just proves, there is nothing more dangerous for a man than a charming woman.

Denying the undeniable

I WENT to a Silver Screening at our local Vue cinema this week. They are for those of us who have reached what is called, in polite society, “senior” status. TCMrsF was unable to join me, if you get my drift.

The film being shown was Denial, about the real-life (unsuccessful) libel action brought by Hitler historian David Irvine against an American Jewish female writer who accused him in her book of deliberately distorting historical facts about the Holocaust to suit his own political views.

Having visited Auschwitz Birkenau twice, I find it hard to comprehend why anybody would seek to reject the truth about the biggest crime in history.

I thought Timothy Spall was horribly watchable as Irvine, but the film struggled as a courtroom drama because of the defence team’s decision not to put either the defendant or any Auschwitz survivors in the witness box. So, no climactic showdown between Irvine and her or them.

Still, a reduced-price ‘superior’ seat, and free coffee and biscuits. I must go again. TCMrsF won’t be joining me.

Time and tide

POSTCARD SCENE: this is how I recall Langland Bay in the 1970s.

TO Langland Bay yesterday, with The Gamekeeper son, our daughter-in-law and our two grandsons, who had a lot of fun exploring rock pools and digging holes.

I was shocked by how little sand there was on the beach. I recall Langland in the 1970s as a golden cove; now it is strewn with black rocks. Either my memory is wrong, or time and the tides have wreaked havoc.

Reading plays aloud was torture

THIS week, for the first time in many years, I sat down and read a play. Gem Of The Ocean is the first (chronologically) in August Wilson’s ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle. My interest was sparked when The Current Mrs Feeney and I recently watched Denzel Washington’s cinema version (above) of the fifth play, Fences.

Studying for an English Literature degree meant that I had to read a lot of plays in university. Before that, there were school lessons that involved each boy in the class in turn reading aloud – and generally without any comprehension of what he was saying –  while the English teacher sat at his desk and quietly shuddered as Shakespeare was murdered.

Apart from lots of Shakespeare, I remember the class stumbling through The Playboy of the Western World, and (earlier) a play called The Iron Butterfly.

I wonder if playwrights are still being tortured in schoolrooms today.

It’s easy for me to stay calm

GLORY DAYS: Swans fans celebrate the club’s promotion to the Premier League in 2011

ALL the shower talk among the Retired Gentlemen’s Swimming Club regulars this week has been about Swansea City Football Club’s ever-growing relegation peril.

It seems increasingly likely that the Swans will fall out of the Premier League, after a six-year stay at the elite level. There is the predictable mixture of disappointment and fatalism at the prospect, but I detect also a degree of anticipation of more enjoyable afternoons at the Liberty Stadium should the club fall back into the Championship next season.

I understand why; it would be nice to once again go to a game with a sense of excitement and anticipation, in place of the trepidation and foreboding that has been our constant companions this season.

I am not convinced, however, that the two Americans who paid £100million to buy a major shareholding in the club last summer would view relegation with my degree of equanimity.

Thanks for the memories; now get lost

On our way to the most recent Swans game at the Liberty – a savage 3-1 defeat after we were leading 1-0 with only two minutes left of normal time – I bump into the editor of a fanzine, who asks me to write something for the next edition.

I have done a defence of the club chairman and his former board colleagues, who have all been branded “greedy bastards” for selling their shares to the new owners.

The criticism has grown harsher as the team’s struggles have intensified, but the board delivered a decade of extraordinary success before it was all undermined by poor decisions in recruiting new players and managers.

The harsh truth is that sports fans have short memories. Players, managers and directors are only as good as their last game.

Sticking to dry land

TO the preview of a new exhibition of paintings by three landscape artists at the Attic Gallery on Friday night. I bought this piece by Michael Howard; not the former Conservative leader who was in the news this week for apparently comparing Spain’s interest in Gibraltarian tax arrangements with Argentina’s military invasion of the Falkland Islands; this one is a retired head of art at Rugby School.

I asked him if he had any plans to paint on Gower; “too watery,” he said.

Overpowered

THE sight of the sun has prompted furious activity in our back garden – including powerwashing the decking and patio. A wet and dirty job. “We really need to do this every month,” said TCMrsF. Really? Couldn’t we just move house instead?

Conduct Unbecoming; or maybe not.

ON the day the United Kingdom sent a letter to Brussels, starting the process of leaving the European Union, I sent a letter (cheque enclosed) to the Ipswich office of Suffolk Archive Service. It seemed appropriate.

It was Brexit that started me on my quest to uncover my great-grandfather William Henry Feeney’s early life. The Daughter Who Left held out hopes that it would qualify her for an Irish passport, and continued EU citizenship when the UK finally severs its ties to the EU.

Sadly for her, it now appears that old William Henry may have been born, not in Ireland, but in Ipswich, starting out at a young age on a career in the British Army which ended with a posting to west Wales, and eventual marriage to my great-grandmother.

The notes from the 1870 Regimental Board meeting that discharged him reads: “His name appears five times entered in the Regimental Defaulters book, including one court-martial and one civil conviction (tried and imprisoned for assault). His conduct has been good.”

Which begs the question: what did you have to do, in the British Army in the 19th Century, before your conduct was judged bad?

Facing up to reality

THE Daughter joined The Current Mrs Feeney and I to watch a live cinema screening of a performance of Madama Butterfly on Thursday. It was her first experience of opera.

She did not enjoy it much. She couldn’t understand what they were singing (in Italian), and was distracted by the English subtitles running along the bottom of the screen.

GEISHA LOOK: it’s not what I saw on the cinema screen.

I was struck by something else, however; the cinematic close-up shots made it obvious that Butterfly was being sung by a non-Asian soprano.

I knew that before the performance began, of course, and it is hardly unusual. Did it even matter? Her voice was beautiful, and she portrayed the character’s journey from teenage geisha to tragic mother with huge skill.

From the stalls, it would not have even been noticeable. It’s just that, on a cinema screen, everything is enlarged and emphasised.

Behind the mask

AS it happened, TCMrsF and I were back in the same cinema on Friday – and back in the Far East, to see Ghost in the Shell, the first big Hollywood live-action adaptation of a Japanese animé film.

The lead character is a first-of-its-kind creation; a cyber-enhanced robotic body (Shell) inhabited by a human brain (Ghost). It (she?) is played by Scarlett Johansson, and we both thought that she was very good at portraying the machine/person’s growing crisis as the human intrudes on the manufactured.

WEST OR EAST: Scarlett Johannson has been caught up in a “whitewashing” row

But Johansson’s casting in the role, which was clearly Asian in the animé (and preceding Manga comic) version, sparked a furious debate about Hollywood “whitewashing” non-white characters.

I understand why people were angry; but it made me wonder if Japanese opera lovers were similarly unhappy about a Western Butterfly – or does the Geisha make-up mean the issue of is irrelevant?