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Page last updated at 11:05 GMT, Tuesday, 2 September 2008 12:05 UK

Call that a summer?

A man and woman sunbathing

By Mario Cacciottolo
BBC News

The gloomiest August on record has given way to a wet September, leaving sun-loving Brits once again feeling cheated of that most elusive of natural resources.

At work and at home, at bus stops and in pubs, people talk about the weather.

The British in particular are fine purveyors of this art, which seems to increase whenever the summer skies remain clogged with thick clouds when they ought, at least in our eyes, to not be there at all. Which has certainly been the case this year. This August has been the dullest in the UK since records began - with just 105.5 hours of sunshine, against an average for the month of 165 hours.

Perhaps nowhere is the sun more coveted than the UK, where its appearances are often fleeting - or at least, that's the perception.

The people who are now telling us to cover up are the same people who told us to sunbathe. They have conveniently forgotten this and are now trying to let fashion take the blame
Robert Mighall, author and sun-lover

Britons' love of the sun means that a hot day results in every scrap of public space up and down the land being covered in pasty white bodies, accompanied by hysterical tabloid headlines of how Devon - for a whole 24 hours - is hotter than Majorca.

Self-confessed "sunaholic" Robert Mighall has written the book Sunshine: One Man's Search For Happiness in a quest to understand more about sunshine, what it means to humans - particularly the Brits - and how we behave because of it.

He says that while humans have always liked the sun, our thirst for a tan, far from being innate in our makeup, is actually a more recent phenomenon.

"Certainly 100 years ago, there were as many adverts and features in the press for skin lightening and sun-prevention such as parasols as there are today for fake tans," he explains.

Just as the prelude to summer these days revolves around trends in bathing costumes and sunglasses - dahling, you're nobody if you haven't got that retro masculine look - back in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the talk was all about how to hide from Helios.

Chanel myth

"Medicine, rather than fashion, created the desire for sunbathing, which is 50 years older than most people assume," Mr Mighall says. "There is a myth that Coco Chanel invented sunbathing, or made it fashionable after accidentally getting a tan.

"If there is an inventor it's John Harvey Kellogg, as part of his holistic health regime, which was run from the late 1870s, some 50 years before a tanned face ever appeared in Vogue."

Children bathing in Hyde Park on sunny days did so under supervision

Kellogg - whose name later became synonymous with cornflakes - patented an electronic light-bath machine in 1891, principally to promote circulation through infra-heat.

Later he developed ultra-violet ones, much like the equipment found in tanning booths today, and promoted sun clubs, to encourage people to get as much sunlight as possible.

While health gurus today caution against sunbathing, in favour of covering up and slapping on protective lotions, decades ago their counterparts were actively encouraging people to sunbathe, says Mr Mighall.

There were sunlight clinics for children, he explains, the earliest one being in north London, encouraged by the discovery in 1922 of vitamin D - which you get from sunlight - as a treatment for rickets.

Illegal undressing

This led to sunshine being widely prescribed by the public health authorities as a healthy treatment.

"Hyde Park Lido in London was built specifically in 1930 to give people somewhere to sunbathe legally, because it was illegal to take your clothes off to sunbathe at that time, unless it was on specially designated beaches," he says.

There was a famous incident in the summer of that year, labelled by the tabloids as "The Sun-Bathing Riots", when locals went for their regular stroll around Welsh Harp Reservoir in north-west London, only to be confronted by the sight of people in various states of undress, who were sunbathing.

A mini-riot ensued and the police had to be called. The incident, according to Mr Mighall, be seen as a watershed of bringing the issue of sunbathing and nudity out into the open.

But elsewhere the sun was seen as a healthy option, and prescribed in vast quantities for children as a boost to their well-being.

"Outdoor lessons were set up by the health authorities to allow children to get maximum amounts of sunshine - they were known as 'schools in the sun'.

Sun-hater

Even today, the sun's good press outweighs its bad - there are, for example more trademarks in the UK of the sun than the crown, the cross or the flag. Mr Mighall believes that, for Brits in particular, the sun is important "because we can never depend on it, so we have this obsessive need to make the most of it."

"A bushman out in the Australian outback will tell you there's too much sunshine in his life. But in the West, and in this country, it certainly does make us happy. Look around you."

Sun
It's a shame about ray - what we missed this year

Perhaps, it all goes back to childhood. That's the theory of Dr Lance Workman, head of psychology at Bath Spa University, who has studied the effects of weather on society's mood.

"We associate sunshine with childhood, and our memories of summer always seem much longer and sunnier than perhaps they were. Also there's a physiological reason, because when an amount of sunshine enters the retina it will result in the production of serotonin, which is also produced when you take Prozac.

"So you could say sunshine is nature's Prozac."

But there might be an even more animalistic explanation why a cloudless sky buoys us up: "When it's good weather there's much more flesh on show, which cheers most people up," says Dr Workman.

Which brings us back to the aesthetic benefits of a gentle toasting at nature's expense. For British women, at least, a tan is all about "psychological uplift", says Anna-Marie Solowij, a contributing editor at Vogue.

"They think a tan covers a multitude of sins, that it makes them look slimmer and that it hides cellulite," she says. "People think you're wealthy if you have a tan, it implies that you've just got off a plane from somewhere exotic.

"Some parts of the fashion world try to promote pale skin as being 'interesting' and 'intellectual', designers like Balenciaga, whereas sexier designers like Dolce & Gabbana and Versace prefer their models to be tanned."

As she, ahem, warms to the subject, Ms Solowij, explains how her dog, barking in the background, is occupying the only tiny patch of sunlight it can find in her house.

"It's an animal instinct," she suggests, "to find the sun."


Below is a selection of your comments.

It's been a lovely August. Plenty of cloud, cool temperatures, no sunburn! I've been on holiday in the UK, in the rain, on the beach with the children, barbequing at every opportunity, and it's all good. Bright sunshine = sweaty bodies, red skin and the stink of sun cream, how is that attractive?
Richard, Ashford

I'd like to publicly take the blame for the lack of sun this summer, it has coincided with me taking up fly fishing and whenever I even mention the "F" word, the clouds appear out of nowhere and it rains. Sorry!
RubbishFisherman, UK

My daughter was born last April and I don't think she really knows what sunshine looks like
Nicky, Salisbury, UK

I remember the Summer of 1976. I was 12 years old and it was deemed to be the hottest summer. As we broke up for the school summer holidays it seemed to be a magical time. By the end of it my twin brother and I were brown as berries. The fun we had outside was all due to the weather, very little rain just wall to wall sunshine. I like my seasons all four of them and to me it seems to be that ok we have not had a great summer, but as least we could sleep through it! Who wants to sit abroad in 40 degree heat? Not me! Roll on the winter! There's always next year!
Jane, Coventry Warwickshire

I've noticed it starting to getter darker in the evenings already and the depression that winter brings setting in. I have no desire for a tan and, being fair-skinned, keep well covered, but worship the warmth and light of the sun which I have missed out on this summer.
Jenny, London

Am I the only person in the country who dislikes sunshine? Give me rain - I love it!
Patrick Nairne, Epsom

I think this year the issue of the sun has been exacerbated by last year's particularly poor summer. My daughter was born last April and I don't think she really knows what sunshine looks like as I can't recall us seeing it more than a couple of times since she was born. The people I work with seem more tired and depressed than at the end of previous summers. We don't feel as if summer has actually happened. I'm glad I'm going on holiday abroad soon. I'm not a sun worshipper, but I think I may have to make an exception this year!
Nicky, Salisbury, Uk

People are happier when the sun shines. Strangers chat. People laugh and smile more. A clear sunny day with fluffy white clouds feels like the "tupperware lid" has been taken off life in this otherwise grim, grey and dismal country and we finally have some space to breathe. Of course we feel cheated when we don't get a real summer. Plans go to waste and we feel we have to endure a lifetime of endless cold and wet weather before the next "possibility" of sunshine and warmth.
Martin, Bristol, UK


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