My father was fair-haired, one of my sisters is blonde and we’re all descended from Vikings – or that is what Oxford Professor Bryan Sykes’ laboratory discovered when they analysed the mitochondrial DNA in my blood. So I blame Eric Bloodaxe the Skullsplitter, or a similar friendly Dane for my reddish blonde colouring. And red-blonde skin (sometimes called auburn) is what burns the worst, or so I’ve been told. Having said that, I’ve known from when I was a small child that I burn in the sun. True, ultimately I will tan, but that process requires me first to go bright red and then to peel . After that I do start to tan. And of course my hair rapidly goes white blonde after a few weeks of summer sunshine. And yes, I suppose I did look slightly more attractive to the opposite sex when I was fit, young, tanned and blonde, but even so I was never a Robert Redford, nor a Steve McQueen. In retrospect I shouldn’t have bothered, but then the minds of young men in their teens and twenties, on those rare occasions when they are not rendered completely useless by the over-secretion of testosterone, don’t have time to think such sensible thoughts. Or at least mine didn’t.
Then when I became a full-time field archaeologist I wore cut-down jean shorts, boots and not much else. And that was every year, from April/May to the end of October. Meanwhile, of course my skin was being attacked by the increasingly strong rays of the sun, which, I gather, are even more harmful now that the ozone layer has been depleted. I rarely wore a hat, as it made my very long hair go all sweaty. And sunscreen didn’t become available until the 1990s, but when it did it was so scented you ended up smelling like a whore’s boudoir.
I started to be conscious that I’d damaged my skin quite badly in the late 1990s, when people in general became more aware of sun-damage. But by then it was too late. I’ve already had a malignant melanoma removed from my left shoulder. Mercifully it was quite small (6mm across) and shallow (less than 1mm), but it had to be removed under anaesthetic and it gave me one hell of a scare. The next ordeal I’ve had to face (quite literally) is a 28-day course of a viciously strong ointment called Efudix 5% fluorouracil cream, which I apply to my face every morning, after my first daily session of writing Alan Cadbury’s second adventure for Unbound. Then I have to stop doing anything for a bit, while the cream digs into my skin and set about killing all the pre-cancerous and sun-damaged cells on my face. I won’t say it’s painful, just very, very unpleasant. And it makes my face look like something at Madame Tussaud’s waxwork horror gallery.
So I’m writing this to warn younger archaeologists, farmers and gardeners, especially those of you who are blessed with fair skin, to wear good, strong sunscreen (at least S.P.F. 30) on your faces. You’ll still tan, but more slowly. I’d also strongly recommend a wide brimmed hat, although I’m well aware that swinging a mattock is difficult in a hat. So put one on when you pause to gather breath. The thing is, when people think of sunburn, they imagine their backs and shoulders. But in actual fact it’s your face that’s most at risk.
And I really DO mean it. No matter what your age, but most especially if you’re young, PLEASE heed my warning. You must act now and with luck you won’t have to face the many unexpected horrors of long-term skin-damage, of which the worse, of course is the dreaded C word: cancer. So if you’re young and fair, PLEASE, PLEASE COVER-UP!!! The sun isn’t something to mess with. So out with the hat, and on with the sunscreen: I promise, you’ll never regret it. I’d hate to think that in a few decades’ time you’ll have to put powerful creams on your face that will make you look like this (isn’t it sad, this is only my second selfie; the first featured two china eggs – and is actually a lot more sexy!):