Stephen McGinty: Sunny days are here again

We are now all aware of the damage that the sun can do to our skins, but ' with care ' the overall benefits are far greater. Picture: Christopher Furlong
We are now all aware of the damage that the sun can do to our skins, but ' with care ' the overall benefits are far greater. Picture: Christopher Furlong
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IF YOU were in the unfortunate position to view my naked torso, the first thing to strike you would be the inordinate amount of body hair, the second thing to strike you would be the question of whether or not I was wearing a pair of lady’s scarlet evening gloves.

The reason such a question might occur is that both my biceps are currently bisected by a distinct line: above is the pale milky white of the wintered Scot, while below is the pulsing red of the happy summer fool.

Others may describe such a condition as “a farmer’s tan”, if they are so fortunate as to go a golden caramel brown, as opposed to those of us whose natural reaction to the rays of the sun is to share the same hue of a boiled lobster.

The reason for my condition was to cast caution and Factor 25 to the wind and sit outside in the garden last Saturday. I dabbed a few spots of sunscreen on my nose, cheeks and forehead but didn’t bother about my arms, legs or feet on the grounds that clouds, like fluffy guardian angels, would surely come and intervene in order to protect the Scot from raising his hopes inordinately high about the prospect of an actual summer.

Instead, the sun remained high in the sky all afternoon and I sat out in my faded white deck chair and basked in its sumptuous warmth. It was only later that evening when the prickly sensation, so familiar to my childhood, began to ripple along my arms and legs that I realised the error of my ways.

My relationship with the sun has never been what one can describe as “healthy”. I remember one family holiday in Bournemouth when I burned the backs of my legs so badly that I had to lie on my stomach for two days, while no school summer holiday was ever complete without yards of skin being peeled off my back. Still, at least I am not alone. At the gym, earlier this week, I heard one chap say: “I don’t tan; I go red, then I go to the hospital.”

It is said that “hope springs eternal” and nowhere is that better illustrated than in a Scot’s relationship to the summer. According to the Met Office, summer begins officially today. As forecasters spend their days dealing with something as chaotic and unpredictable as global weather patterns, they do like to make things a little easier on themselves – understandably so – which they do by nailing the four seasons down into specific dates and, for the sake of neatness, they favour the first of the month.

So, summer begins on 1 June and we’ll step out of it and into autumn on 1 September. But what will the next three months, 12 weeks or 92 days bring us? Well, if we are to base our projections purely on recent experience, it will be dank, overcast days, sooty grey clouds and rain, rain, more rain and just when you think you can take no more H2O tumbling down on to your head, soaking your skin, ruining your plans and drumming like despair’s endless drum beat into your brain, a little more rain will fall. “Into each life some rain must fall” as Ella Fitzgerald crooned, but “too much, too much, too much is fallin’ in mine.” A Scot summering at home can usually adopt this hit as a personal anthem.

But despite the fact that we know, at the back of our minds, what this summer will be like, that doesn’t stop us from nurturing dreams of weeks containing something much better. Last Saturday, that skin-roasting afternoon under blue skies, was, to me, the culmination of the summer, not its harbinger.

By my own calculation, Glasgow had enjoyed both sunshine and temperatures warm enough to tug off that winter coat without fear of hypothermia for seven days in a row, and while I had not yet seen that “symbol of the Weegie summer” – a man striding bare-chested into Morrisons, with his shirt tucked into his trousers, “the summer swallow” – all the other ingredients were there.

On the previous Monday, it had been so hot that I felt compelled to leave the office – with all due typing assignments complete, I might add – 30 minutes early on the grounds that a hot sunny evening for an adult is the equivalent of heavy snowfall for a child and that some form of equivalent summer “snow day” has to be introduced by HR into Scotland’s corporate life.

I’m trying to imagine what life would be like in Scotland if, like other countries, we had the luxury of four distinct seasons and, specifically, a summer, an actual summer.

I’m not talking about what we currently accept as summer – which is a few good days – but weeks of blue skies, hot sun and little wind. It would be fantastic. We could stroll contentedly to work in our summer suits, (which would eventually become worn with overuse, instead of what currently happens, which is they can last for decades on account of only being worn the equivalent of one week a year). We could make plans for a picnic, or a barbecue but without getting in extra chairs to cater to guests when the inevitable thunderstorm drives everyone indoors. We would smile more, we would laugh more, levels of depression would drop, our mental attitude would become more positive.

We may now be aware of the damage the sun can do to our skin – “no sh*t, Sherlock” – but when you consider what its absence can do to our psyche, I’ll take my chances with sunburn.

So, why does the sun matter so much to us? It seems simple: it makes us feel warm, which loosens the muscles in our necks and allows our shoulders to slump down. It feels pleasant on our face. It opens up the wider world to us, allowing us to wander through nature without the need of a Gore-tex prophylactic. The coastline of the west of Scotland is one of the most beautiful places in the world, but I keep thinking of how much more magical it would be on a warm summer’s day.

I’m sure there are many people who have experienced such a harmonious union of weather and location, it’s just that I’m not one of them. There have been days during our dark, laborious, litany of sodden Scottish summers that I’ve even considered erecting a Wicker Man in the hope that the immolation of a virgin – once successfully located, of course – might be a sacrifice worth considering for the common good of our rain-soaked nation. Unfortunately, I do believe there are now certain health and safety regulations that severely restrict such a practice.

So, what is to be done? If we can’t actually indulge in human sacrifice in a bid to bring back the golden summer of 1976, what is a sun-starved chap to do? Well, we are all taking more holidays and that, in turn, generates different problems.

(Since when did Edinburgh Airport successfully hoodwink the powers-that-be and swipe all the best European destinations? Once a trip to Nice meant rising at a respectable hour, ordering a cab and, hey presto, 15 minutes later I was loitering around the check-in desk at Glasgow Airport.

Now it means getting up at 2:30am, driving more than half way across the country, sticking the car in a rip-off car park if you want to be able to walk to the terminal or a slightly less rip-off but not exactly cheap car park, which involves that nail-biting wait for a pick-up bus. The anxiety alone has got to be priced at £50 as you are left nervously thinking: “Where is the sodding bus? Am I going to ever make this flight?” I remember when Edinburgh Airport was the equivalent of a Portakabin, and I’d like Glasgow’s dominance and normal service resumed as soon as possible.)

Yet there remains something noble, impenetrable and resilient about the Scots’ hopes for summer. They are the numinous equivalent of the garden gnome – you may have seen the recent Ikea adverts in which they are being killed off but keep on coming in wave after wave. Well, that is our hopes, unbowed, unbeaten, despite wave after wave of summer storms and dark days of single digit temperatures.

I read yesterday that the Chelsea Flower Show allowed the return of the gnome for the first time in a century; I’m taking that as a sign and looking to the skies in hope of warm and summer sun. However, should I prove prophetic, lotion will, in future, be diligently applied.