Before the second quarter of the 20th century sunbathing did not exist, even as a concept. People wore wide-brimmed hats and covered their arms with long sleeves and their legs with long skirts or trousers, winter and summer. Except for the very poorest, this was even true of children. The little boys wore shorts, but these were knickerbockers that came below the knee, and were met by long socks; little girls were similarly clad in calf length dresses with cotton stockings. The only skin on view was on the hands and face. This was true when on seaside holidays on the beach. Even bathing suits covered most of the body. It was seen as unseemly to expose your skin to the sun. People who worked outdoors, and as a result got a ruddy facial tan, were to be pitied rather than admired. There was an element of prudery in covering up the all this skin, but mostly it was intended to keep the fair-skinned Europeans out the sun as far as possible. It was only in the nineteen twenties and thirties that the young, adventurous middle classes adopted the habit of sunbathing.

I have never liked sunbathing. While many of my contemporaries happily stripped off and sat in the burning sun, rapidly turning an uncomfortable looking pink, I stayed covered up. For me sunbathing was also a dreadful waste of time; most people just lay there soaking up the sun, although some tried reading. This was far better done in the shade, where the white pages did not dazzle one’s eyes. The idea of exposing my pale skin to the unforgiving rays of our closest star was extremely alarming to me; and with good reason too, as the increasing prevalence of skin cancer among my baby-boomer confrères proves. We knew little about the risks of melanoma then; it was just that I didn’t like getting hot, uncomfortable and sore.

Even today, when the dangers of the sun are well known, a fortnight sitting on the beach in the south of Spain seems to be many people’s idea of bliss. It is not mine. That is why you will never find me holidaying in Tunisia. It has nothing to do the risk of being shot by suicidal terrorists – it is just too hot. Even with a sunshade to keep the worst of the sunlight off your body it still leaves your mind singularly unoccupied. There is not much to see in acres of sand, and the sea disappearing into the horizon. There is lots to see in most holiday resorts, but not on the beach. Even British beaches do not provide you with much to see, although the cliffs or dunes give you some relief from the miles of surf. The best thing about Britain is our unreliable weather which will often drive the holiday maker off the beach to see something really interesting inland.

You may think I am being rather snobbish about sunbathing, but this is not so. Back in the 1960s virtually all young people were sun worshippers, not just those who were learning the delights of package holidays. Most of my schoolmates would strip off at the first opportunity in the summer term, and most of them were from a higher social class than pale old me.

The other thing that went with the sun were sunglasses. Oddly enough, these were not on the whole worn by sunbathers; they mostly just lay back with their eyes closed or perhaps a towel across their face. Sunglasses came out as soon as the summer peeped round the corner, but their use had far more to with presenting a cool look to the passer-by than with reducing the glare of the sun; I have always found the automatic reduction in the size of the pupils is quite adequate to reduce the intensity of the light. Sunglasses which adjust the tint of the lenses to the intensity of the light appealed to my optician father, but I have never found them of any benefit. Perhaps if I had ever gone skiing I would have needed sunglasses, but that is another pastime I have never had any wish to try. Snowboarding has even less appeal.




One response

  1. Yes I remember your father being very cross ( short ) with me on Guernsey when I burnt myself and had to sit on the piano stool – I couldn’t lean on anything.

    Even old Jamaica didn’t reduce the pain.

    Volpone – very enjoyable last night at the RSC


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