”Britain hotter than Barbados and Mauritius” screeched today’s headlines. I decided to revisit a column I published in The Sunday Times (London), dissecting the peculiar creature that is the British sun worshipper.
I’M AFRAID it’s that time of year again when life becomes not a spectacle or a feast as much as a predicament.
The sun is shining.
Millions of office workers are lolling about in the parks displaying acres of soft white flesh.
Or they’re sprawled on the steps of St Paul’s, their midriffs like Michelin tyres in a microwave, slowly changing from tripe white to mottled pink.
There’s something embarrassing about it, obscene even. Like someone learning to play the violin in public.” Sun worshippers,” a cabbie tells me by way of explanation.
Sun worshippers in their hearts they may well be, but to the untrained eye, they resemble amateur nights at the local dance studio; rumba ambitions with gavotte bodies.
Why are the Brits hell-bent on sun-stroking when they clearly cannot tan?
Wilfully reducing your nose to shredded wheat when it’s not written into the constitution mystifies me.
I come from South Africa, a country where it is taken for granted that the sun is plugged into the sky like God’s own arc lamp every day.
At school, visitors from England were celebrities. Curiosities with flesh soft as a kitten’s underbelly which we nut-brown natives openly gawped at, even gingerly poked if given half a chance. Why, we marvelled, if they were any more Caucasian they’d be translucent.
When the sun hit these white people smartly in the face, transmogrifying their marshmallow pink-and-white complexions into agitated radishes, it was hard not to laugh in their faces. So we laughed in their faces.
Adolescence was variations of the Cartesian theme; I think, therefore I tan.
During the school breaks, the popular girls rolled down their ankle socks, hitched up their short skirts and compared the depth of their tans and the methods by which they had been achieved.
In 1970, as I recall, a mixture of grape vinegar and olive oil was much favoured. The sorry cases of melanin deficiency loitered palely in the shade, gazing on enviously at their sun-poisoned sisters.
At university, lectures tended to interfere with your tanning timetable, and the Rag Ball loomed.
I was planning on wearing a white dress but upon inspection of my, by now, sallow shoulders a small world crashed. Then a light bulb illuminated. I purchased two bottles of Coppertone.
I shall go to the ball, I hummed happily as I greased myself with the nasty smelling fake tan lotion.
I did go to the ball, albeit looking like a Neapolitan ice-cream. White dress, pink face and interestingly marbled brown arms and legs.
Oh. I forgot the orange palms.
But now there are signs that we’re about to evolve from the Bronze Age. The Royal College of Physicians warns about the medical dangers of sun-tanning.
There is interminable debating whether it is the UVB rays that do more damage than the UVA rays. Killjoys chunter on, ceaselessly cautioning about increased carcinogenic risk of the sun as we suffer the effects of a thinning ozone and the infra-red heat of the greenhouse effect.
There are social reasons, too. Time was when sporting a suntan was the equivalent of having monogrammed caviar. A suntan hallmarked its wearer as having enough time and money to spend on holidays in far-flung and fabulous places.
These days you just have to look at the numbers of wide-bodied jets bearing wide-bodied holidaymakers to Benidorm to realise that package holidays and airborne cattle trucks make fun in the sun accessible to everyone.
Fashion, too, has decreed a moratorium on the Bronze Age.
In the Green Age golden goddesses are being ruthlessly jettisoned. Even The Legend of Bardot has turned into the Tale of the Tortoise and the Hair. “Bardot’s face? Like a tortoise. Her hair? So dehydrated from the sun it’s a fire hazard,” they sneer at the superannuated high priestess of sun worshippers.
Instead, fashion is now fingering a band of porcelain-skinned Madonnas as the new prototype beauties cultivate luminosity, nurtured pallor. Call it what you will, a rose by any other name is back and blooming. Or so they say.
What it really means is that tanning leans towards science rather than sensuality. Before purchasing a suntan product you have to bone up frenziedly.
Do you require a lotion, an oil, a gel, a balm, a creme, an emulsion, a milk or a mousse? Do you want to be grease-free, anti-wrinkled, anti-aged, accelerated, replenished, remoisturised, maintained, shielded, self-tanned, soothed, bronzed, boosted or blocked? And should you get a sun tan lotion with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 34?
Not that I have anything against the sun qua sun, you understand. I just don’t want to have to go outside and enjoy it. If needs must, then I recommend your avourite flannel shirt. Even if it only has a SPF rating of 24.
This column was originally published by The Sunday Times (London) on 6 May 1990.