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Episode 4: Are they putting a roof on Stonehenge?

Surviving cancer does something strange to you. I think the most surprising thing for me was the guilt. It’s not conscious guilt, but it sits there in the back of your mind taunting you with whispers. Almost every day there is a mention somewhere about someone who has died or is tragically dying from cancer. If you aren’t a cancer survivor you probably don’t notice them, or pass it off as sad, but not really something you can do anything about. Maybe they’re a TV star or an athlete or some poor child with an aggressive tumour stealing their lives. 

For a cancer survivor, it’s like when you buy a car and suddenly realise just how many midnight blue Ford Explorers there are around just like yours, yet two days previously you hadn’t seen any at all. Surviving cancer is like that. You are suddenly aware that you have been given something special. Like a golden ticket to Charlie’s cancer survivor factory. The guilt nibbles away at you because you aren’t just living your life for yourself, now you need to be doing something to make up for the life that was stolen away from little 11-year-old Jennifer. Famous people, good people and young people, all who didn’t survive what you did.

So, you do silly things. My silly thing came out of a germ of an idea gleaned from the mouth of the oncologist. Justin Case was a germ-borne cancer survival patch. There are so many times and places that I could claim were the start of the Justin Case Farewell World Tour. Maybe it was really just my feet stepping onto the plane, or debatably my footfall in Britain, or even the layover in Dubai. No doubt the real process started on July 15, 2016 with the oncologist advising me “Go and do your bucket list, just in case”.

From the germ of an idea to stepping onto the plane, the Justin Case Farewell World Tour took over two years in planning. It took me till August 4, 2018 to go to the airport. For me, two years of planning is a really long time. I married my wife four months to the day after first meeting her. The house we are living in now was viewed and bought in less than four hours, which included two hours of haggling. My wife and I met, married and migrated all within a year. 

Over 29 years, it hasn’t been plain sailing and Linda has more than once had to throw the anchor over the side to stop my crazier moments. My wife is no saint. A saint would have murdered me years ago and been out on bail the day after the fatal event. Also, she would have been granted costs plus a lifetime sufferance pension by an incredulous judge muttering under their breath “He did what”?

To me, the Justin Case Farewell World Tour started on the curb outside Heathrow Airport with that very first mouthful of English air. England has always been a mixing pot for people from around the world. Over the last millennia, the very best merchants from many nations came, saw and bartered their very own green patch of England. Refugees from colonies and wars have come to England’s shores from all corners of the world. 

From the millennia prior to that, they were mostly invading armies who stayed in England’s Green and Pleasant Land. The first real invader was Julius Caesar in 55 BC. Despite marching through and conquering much of Europe in a decade, it took the Romans nearly 100 years to tame England and Wales and then they still had to build a wall to keep the Scots out. Fierce tribalism meant the Romans were constantly being attacked from all sides as they marched north, and that meant several times retreating to a stronghold was the only path left open to them. 

That fierce tribalism still exists today. It’s called football hooliganism. After the Romans came the Vikings. And when the Vikings also became complacent, William the Conqueror, sometimes known as William the Bastard, invaded England from Normandy and took King Harold’s eye out with a stray arrow. It’s very fitting that the last person to successfully invade England was Billy the Bastard. In the millennia since Billy the Bastard circa 1066, our royal family has never been more than a few generations away from being French, German, a Saxe Coburg, Habsburg or all Four.

According to the tabloid newspapers, vast numbers of incoming refugees are currently invading Britain. Over the past 10 decades, Britain has invited people to come and make Britain greater by doing all the jobs the lazy, overpaid, under-interested didn’t want to do. In my early youth, it was the Caribbean’s unfortunate, then Ugandans, Pakistanis, Indians and many more, all of whom enriched the UK. Currently, England finds itself besieged by migrants from former colonies. This is not the bad thing that a Sun/Mirror/ News of the World banner headline may suggest. 

From my experience, most people showing the wherewithal to escape from conflict zones, however big or minuscule, are the right people for you to surround yourself with. Just because they dress in a dress, speak with a strange accent and have a much more desirable coffee cream skin tone than you, well, none of that should make you scared of them. I don’t want to make a broad-sweeping claim here, but for the sake of doing less research, I will. Most refugee folk running from conflict are lovers, not fighters. And most, just like I was doing on The Justin Case Farewell World Tour, would like to return to their place of origin. But in the meantime, they intend to make their new home richer for their presence and spread the joy that true freedom breeds in anyone who has escaped terror and tyranny.

In the passing years since I had left England in 1986, I noticed as I was flying in that they had filled a lot of what were previously green spaces with little red-roofed boxes. It made me feel England had shrunk, yet somehow become much bigger, and definitely, because of the melting pots of ethnicity, the England that found was a bigger and better place. Except for customer service which I am sure is why it took a century for the Romans to get to Preston.

I landed in Britain at Heathrow, tired and wiped out like 95 per cent of all the other travellers. Despite sleeping in the airport in Dubai, there is something about flying for eight hours that makes you more tired than working very hard for eight hours. Yet I walked out of the terminal, and the British atmosphere hit me. That wonderful first lungful of English air, even if it was English tinged with AVGAS. There is something in the air in Britain that makes it so different, at least for me. 

As a young boy, I wanted to live in New York. When I eventually got to New York, it wasn’t what I expected and the disappointment crushed me. Yet when I got home this time, I realised Britain is and always will feel spiritually like home to me. There is something in the air that makes Britain feel to me to be full of animalistic vitality. I think it is what makes artists like Billy Connolly and Ricky Gervais, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Shakespeare to Byron, Charles Dickens to J. K. Rowling. It is what has allowed Britain as a nation, a little bejeweled isle, to sit all by itself since 1066. The atmosphere was there in 1986 when I left and it was still there, maybe even more so, in 2018. The British Empire was now gone, but it was once the greatest and biggest empire that the world ever saw and all from this little island that would fit into Texas three times. Yes, I loved being home instantly.

England isn’t perfect. England is still in the middle ages for customer service. My car hire firm proved that to me within hours of being in England. It was off the airport, and the email they sent me contained directions to an old abandoned office. So there I was, just an hour into my trip, standing outside an abandoned office in London with an Australian cell phone wondering if hiring a car via the internet had been such a good idea. I flagged down six taxis before I found a driver who both spoke English and thankfully knew where the new office for my car hire firm was. By the time I arrived at the office, my love of the British atmosphere was wearing as thin as my patience. To stretch this even further, the office was up a steep staircase. I needed a Sherpa to reach the top, and when I walked in, I quickly realised that it was not air-conditioned. 

2018 was panning out to be the hottest and longest summer in Britain since 1976. By the time I got my suitcase and backpack up the stairs, I was sweating. The queue of people waiting for cars was nearly out the door and I spent the next two hours listening to two very bad salespeople behind two of the five sales desks trying, tenaciously, to up-sell every single customer with lots of different insurances. Given that several customers had language problems, each vehicle transaction took ages. When I eventually got to the desk, even before they could start on their sales spiel, I explained they had sent me to the wrong office and that I had spent ten pounds on a taxi and wanted that back straight away. The counter staff quickly worked out that I would not be buying any extra insurance.

Then just when I thought it was all good, the very smart counter person tried the whole spiel “Oh, your car is not ready yet; would you like an upgrade for just another 10 pounds a day”. If a salesperson says something like that to you, the secret is to say absolutely nothing in response until they make direct eye contact with you. I stayed stubbornly silent. The salesperson eventually looked up at me when my silence became too much for them. 

If a salesperson tries to pull a fast one on you, they will avoid eye contact; the very rare people who can lie to you while looking into your eyes are all CEOs or politicians. I met the salesperson’s eyes with a glare that screamed “IF YOU DON’T GET ME A FUCKING CAR, RIGHT NOW, SOMEONE IS GOING TO BE PULLING YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR ARSE; TEN, NINE, EIGHT, SEVEN, SIX…”. Wisely, a car was miraculously found with about a second and a half left before an emergency arseadectomy was needed for both salespeople. This still meant that despite me being in England for over five hours, I could still see Heathrow’s Terminal 4. I was still being deafened by planes coming and going overhead, and the air was still rich with the smell of AVGAS.

Five and a half hours after landing at Heathrow, I finally drove away from the rental company. I turned westward, heading towards Stonehenge just as midnight struck. I stopped at the first service station and found a few things had changed. For a start, petrol was more expensive than deep-fried unicorn eggs. Every petrol station on the main road seemed to sell more things than the supermarkets I had left behind in 1986. I paid begrudgingly for my petrol, bought my first of many six-packs of mini pork pies, my first of many four-packs of chocolate-covered fudge bars and, most surprisingly of all to me, a six-pack of cold beer! The last time I had eaten or drank anything I was probably three time zones east somewhere over Turkey. As soon as I got back on the road, I inhaled two pork pies, a couple of fudge bars and at least two of the beers.

I had originally planned in my diary to be going west at about 8pm. The last time I visited home, I had stopped overnight in Amersham at the Kings Arms pub and I had fell in love with the place. Before my insurance-selling car hire firm stole four hours, I had envisaged arriving at the Kings Arms in Amersham for a pint of draught beer. 

Lovingly poured from a real ale pump and eating a pork pie smothered in Branston Pickle with a chunk of vintage cheddar and some tangy pickled onions before 10.30pm. Instead, here I was in the dark, after midnight, drinking rapidly warming lager and eating the last of my pork pies. All the while trying to find my AIRBNB accommodation with just an old email to go by. After trying the wrong back gate twice and waking up every poodle in Salisbury, I finally found the correct gate. I stumbled down the path, and along the way dragged my suitcase into and through a smallish ornamental goldfish pond. Finally, I found my way into my accommodation, which was in the annex at the back of the charming 400-year-old thatched cottage. I flopped down exhausted on the bed. The mattress felt like they had stuffed it with six million duck feathers. A soft mattress on a loosely sprung frame, it sagged under my weight, and I am sure the only thing keeping my bum off the ground was an ornamental chamber pot under the bed. Three hours later, not being able to find the bathroom, the consumed cans of Carling Black Label decided that the ornamental chamber pot wasn’t ornamental anymore.

In the morning, I was awoken by a six-year-old child in the back garden chasing her cat while armed with a stick almost as big as she was. The stick’s size didn’t seem to daunt her, and she wielded it with a skill that would not have looked out of place in the arms of an Olympic javelin thrower. The poor cat was an old fat ginger tom that looked unlikely to escape the wrath of his tormenter for much longer. I had climbed out of the bed scaling the sides like I was getting out of a swimming pool while covered in Sun tan cream. I was watching the action from the ensuite bathroom window, while trying desperately to get air freshener and deodorant to hide the damage I had done to the actually ornamental chamber pot. Turns out what had looked like a wardrobe door at 1am was the ensuite door and I didn’t have to sully the decorative chamber pot. As I was about to go out and rescue the poor old ginger cat, the little girl’s mother thankfully came to his rescue:

“Catherine Louise Smythe-Brown, Please leave Winston alone,” said her mother semi-sternly.

A world-wise word traveller, Catherine showed she had been around the traps a bit and had picked up a few choice morsels of local Anglo-Saxon lingo:

“Look what that bastard of a mangy old fucking cat has done to my goldfish pond. The net is completely fucking pulled off the pond,” said Catherine, not at all demurely. Then she followed up with,

“And that arsehole of a fucking crane was eating my goldfish and the tadpoles when I got out here. I swear I am going to shoot that bastard,” said Catherine, even less demurely.

I realised a couple of things. First, junior schools in England were teaching some pretty harsh Anglo-Saxon language these days. Second, that dragging my suitcase through the goldfish pond I had probably condemned poor old Winston to death, at least if Catherine got her way or if I didn’t man up and tell her the truth. I grabbed my case and hastily left before Catherine worked out that Winston didn’t have pond weed or frog spawn on his paws. Instead, there was a trail of telltale pond weed and frog spawn leading right to the annex door, where I had spent the night. 

I was pretty sure that in Britain six-year-olds could not have guns, but I already had learnt that a lot had changed in 30 years. No point in taking any chances with a potentially heavily armed precocious six-year-old. Day One in England and I already knew that the female Britannia spirit that birthed the world’s first warrior queen in Boadicea Queen of the Britons, lived on through Elizabeth first, the virgin queen right through Queen Victoria and till recently five foot three of Lizzy the second and to iron Lady Maggie Thatcher. Well, it was alive and bitter in Catherine Louise Smythe-Brown.

I knew that customer service in England was still crap but I quickly realized here in Salisbury England was still beautiful. The green grass was so green it almost burnt my eyes. I live in the red dirt country of Queensland; I never see grass that green. It makes you realise just how true the Tom Jones lyric “The green, green grass of home” honestly it is very green. I think that you have to be away in foreign climes to appreciate just how green Britain is. Seems silly, but I didn’t realise how much I missed that. If I have to choose between green grass and blue sky, I am always going to take blue sky, but I do miss that deep, dark, resonant green grass of home

I love the smell of rain on a hot summers afternoon in Queensland but freshly mowed wet grass is a close second. As we flew across the channel and I saw the white cliffs of Dover, as we flew over London and the brown ribbon that is the Thames, it didn’t feel like I was home. Seeing Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle from the air, it didn’t feel like I was home. None of that shouted “home”. But the green, green grass got me.

I made my way to Stonehenge. When travelling east towards Stonehenge, you drive along the A303. Shortly after you drive around a roundabout and there it is, Stonehenge; just sitting there, 100 yards off the main road. Just there for all intents and purposes in the middle of a field; there IT is, Stonehenge. It is one of the most well-known vistas in the entire world, the mysterious standing stones of Stonehenge just standing there! On the road, I think that there should be some countdown markers. Like the warning signs that you get for potential landslides. Beware 200 yards, potential falling rocks. Beware 200 yards, Stonehenge. It’s important, because just like when there has been a traffic accident, many people suddenly slow down for a look at Stonehenge. If, like me, you are eating your last two chocolate fudge bars and drinking your last warm Carling Black Label, the very last thing you want when you look up is a car standing stiller than Stonehenge, just 50 feet in front of you. You go from wondering why warm Carling Black Label tastes so many times worse than cold Carling Black Label even when it’s sharing your taste buds with chocolate fudge bars. To wondering why you didn’t have a sit on that chamber pot. There really should be some warning signs:

“Stonehenge ahead; Be careful not to shit yourself.”

Maybe there are, and I missed them while unwrapping fudge bars and opening a beer. For me coming upon Stonehenge was like when I stayed at a friend’s flat in Catherine Place in London. The flat was truly a dark, dingy, extremely small one-roomed studio. Sneeze vigorously in bed and your head would knock the microwave off the kitchen shelf. Although your feet were in the bedroom, your head was in the kitchenette. I swear his bedhead was under the kitchenette counter and you could easily jump from the kitchenette counter across the room and out the door without standing on the floor. 

The thing is that this hovel was less than 100 yards from Buckingham Palace. The first time I walked to the end of the street and saw Buckingham Palace across the road, it filled me with the same shock and awe I felt seeing Stonehenge just sitting there across the road from me. Some of the Stonehenge awe I felt may have been because I just managed to keep all of my shit on my inside, while not dropping my last fudge bar on the car floor or spilling any of my last beer. My car was now on a grass verge and would have been wedged right up the bum of a Range Rover if I hadn’t steered off the road. “All’s well that ends well” is a saying right up there in the running with “Non-illegitimus et carborundum” for inclusion as the motto on the Justin Case Coat Of Arms.

Lots of things in England have changed. The last time I went to Stonehenge, it was a loosely guarded bunch of stones that you could drive right up to and wander around fairly freely. As long as you didn’t get out a spray can or try to climb one of them, then you were free to wander about taking pictures and looking for druids and witches until your heart was content. Now, as I was about to find out, rampant commercialisation had taken hold. The National Trust has gated the entry road and you can’t drive up and wander around freely anymore. 

These days, as I was later to find out, there are remarkably few free things to do around anything historic or scenic in England. Now, it costs 16 pounds to get up to the circle of stones. Having paid your entry fee, you must get onto a bus with another 30 passengers and off you go to the world’s most well-known standing stones. The buses seemed very popular and totter up and down the road frequently. I might be missing something here, but what happens to that money? I realise that you have to buy coaches and pay the drivers, but why? Just leave the gate open and we will drive ourselves, just like every visitor since Julius Caesar has. It’s not like Stonehenge is being rebuilt. As far as I can tell, no one is sticking a roof on it and the Stonehenge I saw when I was a six-year-old schoolboy and the Stonehenge I saw in my 20s is the same Stonehenge I saw that day. 

So why is the National Trust stealing from tourists 500 pounds every time a full bus goes down the road? Five pounds fair cop, but 16 pounds each? Piss off, or at least give me a pork pie and a can of Carling for the bus trip. I got on the bus. Don’t tell anyone, but the bus driver didn’t ask to see my ticket, which was fortunate because I didn’t pay for one.

Comment (1)

  1. Tracy TooBee
    February 24, 2023

    Thanks Mark 👍🏻. I like the saying a germ of an idea , something I haven’t heard of before.
    I agree Stonehenge should be free , 👍🏻, I’m sure it was when I was there , and we just wandered on through .
    I feel this should’ve been 2 installments , I read half and then came back for the second half 👍🏻.
    In the first half you were missing an “I” , but now I can’t find where 🤷🏼‍♀️🤣??
    Thanks for sharing 💙

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