Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The dark side of the Sun

Although we’ve just suffered another southerly blast in this most disappointing of summers, it’s always wise to use protection.

Showing more sense than I did, this Phasmatodea shelters from the sun, on our pod chair.

Summer used to reignite a love affair for me every year. It was an all-consuming passion which usually led to abandoned clothing scattered about prostrate, perspiring bodies. There was often a distressing amount of publicly exposed flesh, and sometimes whole groups of people were involved. The object of this obsession was spectacularly unfaithful, bestowing favours to any old passer-by, but it was only when this relationship literally tore a strip off me that I realised that my love affair with the sun might finally be over.

It certainly wasn’t love at first sight – quite the opposite, in fact. My family arrived in the early 1970s, fleeing the jaws of a Scottish winter to land squinting in the fierce summer sunshine, on the shimmering, bubbling tarmac of a Marlborough airstrip. Like many of my country-folk I was what is now known as a ‘‘ginga’’, with a milky-white complexion which instantly burned under the Pacific sun. It’s fair to say that Blenheim edges out Glasgow in terms of sunshine hours, and so a whole new world of hurt awaited me if I didn’t take precautions.

Although this was an age when parents cheerfully lathered their kids in coconut oil and flung them outside to get ‘‘nice and brown’’, my childhood summers were spent sensibly covered up or inside, never feeling that I was missing anything beyond stinging, peeling skin.
With adolescence came summer holiday work – always outdoors in baking temperatures – and an awkward new sense of self-image. Try as I might, long-sleeved skivvies could no longer cut it as either a summer fashion statement or practical agricultural work wear, and I had no choice but to grimace and bare it.

It wasn’t easy, but towards the end of my first summer spent working and socialising outside I remember glancing down at my own forearm and noticing with shock that it was darkening from the usual pink to a kind of orangey- brown – and I liked it. I felt like a newly born denizen of summer, no longer scorched and rejected, but finally accepted and welcomed into a bright new world. My days of cringing from the sun like some pale invertebrate clinging to the underside of a rotten log were over, and the following summer saw me hitting the rays hard. Endowed with a physique that once had well-meaning student nurses use me as the model for a skeletal system quiz, I now found that brown skin quite literally covered a multitude of sins. I looked healthy and felt healthy – sunlight gives you vitamin D and that was good for you, right? The real clincher was falling asleep outside and then finding later that the sun appeared to have dried up my teenage acne almost overnight. There was surely no end of benefits which our all-generous life-giving star bestowed and I basked in the rays whenever possible.

Years later, while preparing for a period living overseas I became aware of a shift in attitude to the sun. There was talk of something called melanoma as we left New Zealand, but that seemed to be a condition only older people got – whatever it was.

Living among the pasty Celts of my birth country once again, I found that the peer pressure to be brown made my devotion to the sun look positively indifferent.
When summer arrived – usually for a couple of mid-week days each year – sun-starved Scots would practically drop where they stood, instantly surrendering to the elusive rays. Parks would be strewn with inert bodies, like the aftermath of a sudden massacre, rapidly reddening expressions suggesting an attempt to tan through sheer force of will.
This compulsion was most obvious after the holiday season, when chocolate-brown workmates would make proud returns to work amidst a chorus of tan-envy, after immolating themselves for two weeks on a Spanish beach. And if these startling changes in skin colour sometimes looked suspiciously streaky, and a little orange, nothing was ever said. The fear of striking disappointing weather on a package holiday haunted everyone, as did the sense of defeat in having to apply a bottled tan, once home.

Returning to New Zealand in the mid-90s , I saw that change was obviously in the air. Everyone spoke of the ‘‘hole in the ozone layer’’ with dread, and beaches were noticeably quieter during the heat of the day. Sun hats and full-body swim suits for kids were everywhere, as was marketing for sunscreen. The Coppertone girl had been replaced by a milky slime which, we were told, could save our lives.
It’s not that I chose to disregard these near-hysterical messages; it was just that old habits die hard. Now living in the countryside with a large property to maintain, I was probably spending more time out in the sun than ever, and still never believing that the sun’s rays, now harmfully affecting almost 67,000 New Zealanders every year, could ever hurt me.
My long-overdue, Icarus-like plummet from the sun’s fiery influence probably began in the same way as it did for many thousands of people – with my partner noticing an odd patch of skin on my back. Even then, the area being out of my sight and therefore mind, made me delay another year until eventual bleeding finally led me ashen-faced to my GP.

I was lucky – the area was diagnosed as basal cell carcinoma, the most common and least dangerous sun-induced form of skin cancer. Still it’s not to be taken lightly. An oval portion of skin and muscle 3.8 centimetres in length was promptly cut out of my back. 
The resulting scar is as pale as I was when I first arrived in New Zealand, and would probably burn very quickly in the sun, if I was foolish enough to give it the opportunity. I still love the sun, but clearly you can love something too much. Self-destructive relationships can leave scars, or worse. It’s better to learn and live.

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