As I said earlier, there is something special in the air in England that holds it apart from anywhere else I have ever been. There is a razor’s edge to the air you breathe that makes me realise I am somewhere different. An atmosphere, a smell that pervades my skin, a light that makes gloomy special. For me it’s like stepping onto the set of a black and white art nouveau movie. Maybe it’s because England is so much older yet not ancient. Egypt and Africa are older, but they don’t radiate the buzz that I feel in England. It’s as if you are in the presence of a knowledgeable soul, mentor and guru. England doesn’t scream at you the way America does. And it doesn’t whisper a menacing hot g’day as Australia does.
Maybe this is the best way to explain the difference. In England, people shake hands politely, not a “you ess aaa” American rambunctious high five followed sometimes with a full-body bear hug or a three-foot jump in the air, meeting clumsily shoulder to shoulder. In England, people shake hands politely without trying to crush your knuckles in some homo erotic competition to be the alpha male like they do in Australia. An English handshake is a greeting, not a knuckle-cracking arm wrestle to the death. People in England shake hands politely. In Europe, you are gathered by the shoulders and your cheeks are assaulted by lips several times. People in England shake hands politely. In Japan, they try to head-butt their knee caps more times than you can. Taking it as a personal slight, should you manage one more bend than them?
It’s that quiet comfort in the total adequacy and supremacy of a quick one-handed handshake, accompanied by a look in the eyes and polite enquiry of “how are you”? Should you mistakenly believe that we really care how you really are and return any more words than “Fine, thank you” you will quickly find yourself talking to a retreating back. We no more care “how you are” than the average American server cares if you “have a good day”. That pretty much covers it. It’s not meant to be superior or superficial. It’s just meant to be enough. And that’s my England, not superior or superficial, it is just enough. You don’t need anything else. England is just ENOUGH.
When I left Penzance and started free-rolling across the country, it seemed that the country had aged in a few subtle ways. And just like every aged person, not all for the good. The thing that I absolutely detested the most was the swathes of wind turbines that blighted every single landscape they disgraced with their presence. Even in landscapes already filled with urban pollution, chimneys and ugly buildings, not once did I see a landscape that was bettered by their disgusting presence. Like the triffids from the John Wyndham sci-fi classic The Day of the Triffids, to me it always looked like they were marching unceremoniously ever onwards with whirring hungry blades, consuming everything in front of them. I imagined them coming to life at night and their ugly monstrous blades whirring their way through sacrificially sent virgins; just marching ever forward, leaving ugly blood-filled trenches in their wake. What saddens me more is that wind turbines in their ugly enormity are very fragile. They often break down and one in three always seemed to be stationary whatever the winds were doing. So what if they count towards carbon credits. Carbon credits are like letting a mass murderer go free because he paid his parking fine. My only comfort is that in 15 years all the wind turbines will hopefully fall into disrepair and eventually go the way of the steam trains that lurched up and down railway lines a century ago. Although I must though admit a passionate love for the black smoke belching from a noisy steam train.
I stopped at a motorway service station with a wind turbine lazily whirring right beside the motorway off-ramp. I took my much-anticipated can of Lilt soft drink and a Morrison’s pork and caramelised onion pie and headed outside to enjoy them. Firstly let me tell you about Lilt. Lilt is a pineapple and grapefruit soft drink that lives in so many happy childhood memories. It is a much-prized soft drink that I rarely tasted as a child but consequently meant as much to me as Bollinger would to an 18-year-old Chelsea socialite. I love Lilt, and probably the 10 spoons of sugar in each can help. If Lilt is my champagne, Morrison’s pork pies with caramelised onion are my caviar. But I couldn’t enjoy either with the triffids watching me. It was like pouring ashes down my throat. The slow whir of the blades gave off a sound almost a white noise but very menacing at the same time. Like a distant swarm of killer bees, not quite audible but loud enough to push that terror button that lives in your ear. The one that starts to flick with music from Jaws or the music pre-empting the shower scene from Psycho. The disturbance of the air messed with the breeze like a paedophile stalking an innocent child. It was too much for me and I retreated to my car and ate and drank as I drove, desperately looking for a very rare, unspoiled vista. I drove along the south coast towards Land’s End through the Cornish countryside, increasingly angry and saddened by the multitude of triffids littered along what were once the beautiful Cornish rolling hills, some that gave way to glimpses of the threatening turquoise blue-green Atlantic Ocean. But now, all that I could see were triffids in the foreground blotting the landscape, despoiling every view. Like a hated scruffy uncle sneaking into the background or the smudged finger print just visible in the bottom left corner of every single photograph from your wedding day. Unfortunately, there is no photo-editing software capable of removing the wind turbine triffids from my memory.
Just when I was despairing and fully expecting the car park at Land’s End to be housing a couple of wind turbine triffids, they all disappeared. At long last, just green rolling hills and occasional glimpses and smells of the roaring Atlantic Ocean. And then there she was, all greenish blue, like my son’s eyes. Waves capped with white horses charging land ho to the English coast, as if they were bearing knights in full crusade mode, storming the Cornish beaches on both sides of the road. There is something almost heroic about the ocean south of England. First, it shrugs off the brown seas that seem to blight so many British seascapes. Then in its magnificence, it smashes defiantly at cliff faces and pebble-strewn beaches. It sings a song of operatic reverie and sometimes full-on Sex Pistol-like fury. But never the rhythmic rolling waves I was used to. No seven waves, each wave growing in strength, then some abeyance before the seven waves restart their roll, each again getting bigger. In England, no land masses far or near have interrupted the ocean’s flow. The Atlantic and its gulf stream has been whipped up by 1000 miles of inclement weather kissing and kicking the waves, turning them into a maelstrom. Some of that water that hits the Cornish coast last touched land in the Weddell Sea in Antarctica. It’s crossed all three major lines of latitude, Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer as well as the equator. Now here it is a gulf stream smashing into the coast of Cornwall and the aptly named Land’s End. Bubbling like a huge vat of pea soup and chalk white croutons over vigorous flames. It gives the coastline a rugged beauty that has stuck in my mind over the decades. Aurally there is a noise to the waves that’s better than any drum solo. It has a rhythm that hits you in the ears and the heart all at once. There is a smell to ocean spray that feels like the seasoning of life. Visually, the sea constantly changes as the weather bounces into it and over it. Yep, you can probably tell that I love it. I could live there.
I stopped on my final few miles to Land’s End to refill my dwindling pork pie and chocolate fudge bar supply. I was devastated to find that despite it being before lunch, the Cornish service station had already sold out of Cornish pasties! Cornish pasties are a legendary food. Pretty much a dry stew wrapped in a circle of pastry. Not many people realise the design of the pasty had a purpose. It was sculpted so that a miner down a Cornish pit could pick up the pie by its edges in the dark and eat all its contents and most of the pastry with only the finger-crimped edges getting dirty. Although the service station didn’t have any Cornish pasties, it did have a six-pack of Scrumpy. A word or two of advice for those of you fortunately uninitiated to the ills of Scrumpy; keep it that way. They describe scrumpy in the dictionary as “rough cider”. This description is like saying a crocodile is dangerous. The statement is true, but a crocodile is not just dangerous, it is an evil, vicious animal that will kill you. Scrumpy is not just dangerous, it is an evil, vicious drink and if you are lucky it might not kill you. Some pubs will not serve Scrumpy to people who haven’t got vivid purple veins on their faces and big scarlet bulbous lumps for noses. Dedicated Scrumpy drinkers start every sentence with “Oooo ahhhh” and end each sentence with “Loike I sez”. They also usually arrive at the pub either driving a combine harvester or in a cart pulled by a donkey.
Despite these prerequisites, one night I managed to get a few pints of Scrumpy.
Scrumpy tastes like you are drinking a very fluid apple sauce diluted with vodka. Sitting down while drinking Scrumpy is very dangerous. In a moment you don’t see coming, or more sadly see passing you by, your knees will suddenly turn around 180 degrees. After this moment, any attempt to stand will result in you walking like a drunken stork, then staggering crablike to your doom. As soon as you try to stand, you will begin a losing fight with gravity, resulting in a sudden meeting with the floor. My night on Scrumpy was very memorable; legendarily memorable, but unfortunately not by me. The following morning, I did not believe my friends’ tales, but the landlord and barmaid also told me remarkably similar stories. My doubts were well-founded as even today I do not know the words of the songs The House of the Rising Sun or Lola. But apparently under the influence of Scrumpy, and standing on a table with my Levi’s around my ankles, I was absolutely word perfect. Unfortunately, my newfound lyric memory skills were not matched with a newfound skill level in my singing. Tone Def was my punk rock name and never was a name more apt in the history of punk. Johnny wasn’t very rotten, Sid wasn’t very vicious, but I was very Tone Def. The barmaid told me a tale almost identical to my laughing friends. Also, a remarkably similar tale came from the barman, who used it as a reason to ban me from any further incursions into the Scrumpy world.
I was told that I sat down at a table and ate a meal during which I consumed five pints of Scrumpy. My memory goes blank after my medium-rare steak arrived. Apparently, I became very drunk shortly thereafter. I ate everything on my plate, including the aluminium foil that the baked potato came in. Twelve hours later I realised there was at least some truth in this statement, either that or I suddenly start shitting silver flake. Till this very day, I wonder if I ever passed it all, as I sometimes inexplicably set off the alarms at airport security.
That night, I licked my plate clean and then ate three desserts. Then I climbed up on the table and sang. I went on to wow my audience with just how remarkably clean my underpants were, sang some more, and then went home with the barmaid. As I say, I remember nothing after eating a medium-rare scotch fillet. The next thing I knew, I was living with a very well-done hangover that was trying its very best to dig a tunnel out of my head. Thirty-six years later, I occasionally wake with the same hangover, despite drinking nothing the night before. It seems Scrumpy has a quality akin to LSD flashbacks. The only difference is that it’s just a world-class hangover you get, not purple dragons and six-foot spiders morphing out of your bedroom wall.
Given the history, I don’t know why I walked out of the service station with a six-pack of Scrumpy. Fortunately, after 36 years, I have learnt my lesson and consumed them very slowly. So slowly, I think I may have left two bottles in the car’s boot when I returned it to the airport four weeks later. Eventually, me and a six-pack of chocolate fudge bars, two mini pork pies and at least five bottles of Scrumpy made it mostly safely to Land’s End. By the way, Scrumpy does not come in cans, because after two weeks it will eat its way through any metal casing.
Unfortunately, Lands’ End was even worse than Stonehenge. They have built car parks, shops, an information centre and a quasi-Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings mini theme park. I resisted the “Harry Potter saves Land’s End” 4D thrill ride. Apparently, the ride is just a train of 10-year-old golf carts that trundle along a track through a darkened warehouse that used to be the tourist authority office. The ride winds its way through various poorly replicated scenes from the Harry Potter movies. Then occasionally a 60-year-old man in a Dumbledore outfit jumps out, sprinkling you with wizard dust, (flour probably) whipping you with his magic wand and finally spraying you with his tears (water hopefully). I got the lowdown from a very unsatisfied customer who was arguing with the now defrocked Dumbledore trying to get his money back. Dumbledore was getting the best of it by pointing manfully at his Gold Tourism award from the Bodmin Shire Gazette for 2011.
Given the reviews for Harry Potter World, I was determined to bypass “Wallace and Gromit’s Under- water Aquarium. This too, I was informed, was spectacularly uninspiring – with dead fish floating in at least one tank. At the approach to another tank, a sign challenged to find “Oberon the Octopus”, warning that he had great camouflage and would be very hard to find. Then when you arrived at the end of the tank, you were greeted by a temporary sign announcing that Oberon was currently with the vet. I wound my way through and past the various retail traps and came out the other side to be greeted by the world-famous “Land’s End” signpost. It was just as I remembered it; pointing out to sea, New York 3147 miles and John O’Groats 874 miles. My trek across Britain was going to take me to John O’Groats and then I would start my US odyssey in New York. The good old sign seemed to me to be blessing my plans. I resisted the urge to get an official 10 Euros photo with the signpost, adding an arm to point out just how far I was from home. At that moment, Australia had never felt further away, but strangely, just where I stood at that exact moment, I felt like I was at home right there. That feeling rarely left me, wherever I was in the next three-and-a-half months. Home to me has always seemed to be a historic rather than geographic thing. Home has changed to where I felt most at home and that had changed frequently over the years. Over the next months it was to change almost daily and sometimes several times in one day.
As I said earlier, on reflection, I didn’t have a great childhood. But as with every child on Earth, I did not realise that at the time. Children in war zones and in dire situations much worse than mine seem to find joy in their own circumstances. We were close to the poorest family in a poor neighbourhood. I had some friends, but they never seemed to stay around for long. I spent a lot of time in infants, junior and high school on the periphery of groups of kids, but never quite fitting in. This did not bother me as much as you think it would. I walked our dog for miles along the Grand Union Canal. This is where I first met fishermen and developed an interest in fishing that is with me to this day. One day, on a very long walk, I found a fishing rod and a basket of equipment hidden up the embankment by the side of the canal. I later found out that it had been concealed by a fisherman while he took a bus into the nearest town to get bait and have a drink at the pub. I picked up the fishing equipment and took it all home, and the very next day I began my love of fishing. Fishing allows you to escape the real world. It is like meditating, because it cuts out the background noise and you concentrate on the mechanics of catching a fish. If you watch and learn from others, you pick up techniques and skills that mean you catch more fish and bigger fish. Catching fish got me respect and some acceptance from my peers. But more importantly, fishing was just my core escapism from the reality of my real life.
The other way we escaped life was the annual holiday. Yes, we didn’t have money for any kind of holiday, but my grandparents owned a caravan at Brean Downs near Burnham on Sea. Each summer we escaped our reality and reinvented ourselves for two weeks. And a re-invention without the burden of personal history or socio-economic realities. We became someone completely new and different for two wonderful weeks. In a typical caravan park in those days, across summer, each caravan housed at least 3three kids, and many of the Irish Catholic families ran to as many as a dozen kids. Across 100 caravans, you’re talking well over 600 kids in a space 200 yards by 200 yards square. Each morning, after a breakfast of cornflakes and toast, all the kids would all spill out of their various caravans. With only the very briefest and soon-ignored instructions from our various parents and guardians, we ran amok. Our parents and guardians would spend the ensuing hours playing bingo, drinking, lying on the beach, or sneaking off for afternoon sex, often with someone else’s partner. I have seen some monumental fights at caravan parks between the cheaters and cheated of both sexes. Some caravan parks actually had a caravan given over for a temporary 24/7 police station. Getting a suntan in those days meant seeing women soaked in vegetable oil lying on the beach with silver foil canopies strung around their necks, to get a deeper, darker tan. On our holidays, sunny days seemed to be a constant and I only remember a couple of rainy days. We spent those days locked away with Snakes and Ladders, Monopoly and Cluedo. On the sunny days, parents did not bother us kids between breakfast and at least dinnertime, and most times not until dark. Most nights, there was usually a search party out for various missing children. In the first week, I twice snuck off to be with my first ever girlfriend, Hazel, from Small Heath. Only for us to be rounded up each night and separated like a Brummie version of Romeo and Juliet.
Caravan parks circulated guests each week. So every Saturday morning half the site’s guests left and in the afternoon a new raft of families invaded the caravan site. If you were there for two weeks, then on the Saturday half of your new friends left and a whole new bunch of prospective friends and potential Hazels moved in. Over the first few days of our first week, we all wandered around guardedly trying to make friends. Usually trying to find the kids that lived closest to you – even then we were fiercely tribal. The first question in any conversation was “Where are you from?” Finding someone geographically close, we would ask which team they supported and then grudgingly invite anyone to join our gang. Most of us boys spent day one eyeing which girl was most likely to let you kiss her and which boys would let you join their football game. By day three, allegiances had been struck and by day five, you were quickly turning into gangs that would fight and chase each other. The Lord of the Flies came to life every week in our caravan parks. Girlfriends and boyfriends were experimenting with and practising love bites and how far you could get with your wandering hands. Then, as sudden as their arrival, about half of your newly made friends would head off home. As friendships broke down and romances were cut short, there were tears and smiles, and promises of undying love and of pen pal letters that would never be sent or received.
Only to be replaced that same day by a raft of new kids, all at the caravan park for their first week and you for your last week. There was a feeling of superiority if you were there for your second week. The new kids gave you guarded respect and were justifiably wary of you and your gang. It felt like we were really turning into the kids from the Lord of the Flies. Given a few more weeks in camp and no parental interference, it’s quite possible we would have eventually started sacrificing one another. The guarded respect from newcomers surprised me. No one had ever shown me any respect, yet here I was, well up in the pecking order. My bravado lasted right until I stupidly told a very large Jamaican boy that Courtney was a girl’s name. I followed up this stupid gambit with the fact that he was the ugliest gorilla of a girl I had ever seen. Courtney, being not just bigger than me, but also much smarter, said; “I’m glad that you think I’m a girl because I am about to fuck you”. That was the day I learnt to run fast and to play a world-class game of hide-and-seek. After a couple of days, Courtney was the leader of our gang. He and I became friends, without there ever there being any hint of sexual contact.
From Land’s End, I travelled up the west coast to Brean Downs to see if the caravan park was still there and to relive some ancient memories. The caravan park wasn’t there; it was now a dairy farm with just a few semi-derelict caravans providing shelter and places to store hay. In fact, almost nothing was the same. I recognised the headland. The sea was still the same uninviting “hot chocolate-coloured brown” and the beach was still a mud flat. I am sure though that I recognised a couple of donkeys on the beach, also the same haggard old gypsy who read tarot cards and tea leaves. But for someone who had spent years reading the future, she looked ironically younger. Where once there were miles and miles of dairy farms and tens of thousands of Friesian cows with shitty arses and filth-laden tails, there was now just an endless Esplanade. In England, single-storey houses are called bungalows. My grandad said they came about when a builder ran out of funds half way through a job and told the site manager to: “Bung a low roof on it and sell it quick”. Yes, my grandad was casual with the truth but he always said these things with a serious look on his face. One day when I was playing up, he sent me to the local hardware store to get a long weight. After an hour, the manager sent me back to grandad to tell him they only had long waits in blue. Three years it took me to get that joke…
Identical bungalows were now all along the esplanade, standing shoulder to shoulder so adjacently that not even a single sliver of the sea vista was visible from the road. There they were, perfect little seaside bungalows, so close together that opening a window on the side would smash a window on the neighbouring side. Looking back from the seaside on the beach/mud flat, each bungalow looked like the top half of a clown’s head buried nose deep in the sand dunes. Each clown wearing a hat with a little peaked corduroy crown that was really a corrugated steel roof. Every hat was sporting a crow’s feather standing straight up to one side of a roof that was, in reality, a little chimney. Lots of the clowns had sported a button on their hats which were really satellite dishes. Each clown was wearing a pair of large bi-focal glasses, which were really French windows that took up 90 per cent of the frontage of each clown’s face. Then, where the bridge of the nose should be, there was a door from which a well-walked, snot-like trail wound down to the dunes. I walked down the mud flats to the sea’s edge and when I looked back, the sight of the hundreds of bungalows along the esplanade stole my breath away. The miles of bi-focal glasses were reflecting back to me from the early afternoon sun behind me. It was like a vast green valley side with a thousand sparkling faceted diamonds sitting in an unbroken line separating the emerald green fields from the golden sand dunes. For a moment, I looked and wanted to be living in one of the clown bungalows. Just when my next abode was set in my mind, I turned around and looked out at the distant brown expanse of water, which is really the River Severn spilling out into the Bristol Channel. It looked like the chocolate river from Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory. All at once knew I would always prefer looking back at the clowns from the mud flats than a vast vista of distant brown sea and brown mud flats. I couldn’t imagine ever falling in love with living inside one of the bungalows, sitting on a faux period leather chesterfield lounge, drinking cheap dry sherry, eating cheddar cheese and Branston pickle on wafer-thin crackers. Although I thought that I could live there, it was just for a split second. I am sure that the lifestyle differs greatly from my poisoned view, but it helped me move on.
I drove away from Brean Downs, a cheerful man. It was as if I had eaten my fill of the past for an entrée, and the main and dessert was the current version of Brean Downs. It had all changed, and much for the better on reflection. I knew I could no more live in 21st century Brean Downs than I could recapture the fun of the 1970s caravan park. I drove the pretty way out of Brean Downs, trying to hug the coast as I moved north. As I drove out through the beautiful old country lanes, a man coming in the other direction pulled over his car to let me pass. He leant forward and waved as I went past, and I returned the wave. Just for a split second, I looked directly into his face, and I was very sure, in fact almost certain, that it was a 58-year-old version of my old West Indian adversary and friend Courtney. By the time I found a turning space, my maybe Courtney was long gone down the myriad of beachside lanes behind me. I smiled and realised how different we would both now be. If it was Courtney; I think I prefer the thought of him thinking to himself, “Where the hell do I know that bloke from? He looked just like that cheeky little Brummie git that I should have punched 40 years ago”.