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Life’s a beach – and then you burn!

Now that the media hysteria over the E.L. James book and film has died down, I have an idea for a slightly less racy follow up – 50 Shades of Brown, an essential guide to people watching on the beach.

Mrs Lumsden and I spend quite a bit of time each year in Spain, in different seasons and in different places, but there is one thing which I can guarantee each time we visit – there will be people of all ages, on every beach, displaying the complete range of skin colours from milk bottle white to Ronseal fence stain.

Depending on their position on the 50 Shades of Brown colour chart, I can make an educated guess at where they are from, how old they are, whether they are starting or finishing their holiday, what they do for a living and whether or not they are going to wake up sore the next morning.

When I was a teenager over 40 years ago, there was no real awareness of the danger the sun posed us. Every chance we got we would have our shirts off, and if we used sun protection at all it was usually some weird tanning oil which I’m sure was a derivative of the stuff we used to fry our chips in.

Nowadays, the message is coming through loud and clear about skin protection – but although the message may be out there, the evidence on the beaches is that most people are paying only lip service.

I had the idea for 50 Shades of Brown last week while I was lying on a Costa Blanca beach, wondering why – after a two week holiday- I had burned my shins red on the very last day.

Remembering the days of my youth when my tight skin would turn a very dark and uniform shade of fence stain after a two week caravan holiday in St Andrews, I was puzzled as to how – as I approach 60 – I now seem to have a different colour on each limb, with head, face and chest extending my personal rainbow.

The answer, of course, is that as we get older our skin loses its natural elasticity and it also becomes thinner.  So as we lie on the beach watching 20 year olds on one side of us picking up a smooth, even tan at the “builder’s tea” end of the colour chart, we might also see on our other side, a pair of 70 year old British pensioners as mottled as a prime pair of Jersey cows.

And that is also the answer to my burned shins. Despite being sensible about the use of sunscreen during my two weeks away, on the last day I didn’t think it would matter if I left my legs out. But the thin shin skin of the older man was my undoing and I walked off the beach like I was wearing Liverpool football socks.

The other phenomenon that we older people succumb to is the “tiger effect”. Lying on a sun bed flicking through the electronic pages of our Kindles, we fool ourselves that we are tanning evenly.

But when we stand in front of the bathroom mirror later (well, those of us with a little spare skin around the waist, stomach and man boob areas) we discover bands of white curling round like tiger stripes where the sun never reached.

The next day, our torsos look like scoops of raspberry ripple as we lie on our beds sticking them out to let the sun reach the white bits…not a good look really.

People watching on a foreign beach also offers some fascinating cultural insights in the habits of other nationalities, young and old.

Forgive me for some sweeping generalisations here, but based on my own observations, the Russian, Polish or Latvian beach visitors tend to rock up wearing 1970s style swimming trunks, with a cigarette dangling from one corner of their mouth. They throw a towel on the sand, flip open a bottle of clear oil, spread it all over themselves and then head off to the beach bar for three hours.

The Spanish arrive en famille, up to four generations, maybe a dozen people, and they immediately erect a gazebo, break out the picnic table and chairs and proceed to sit in the shade all afternoon eating a very long lunch and talking very loudly.

The French preen on the beach, every position posed and practised. They always look cool and never burnt.

The Brits, I’m afraid, look like fish out of water. The women arrive on the beach first wearing big floppy hats and baggy sundresses looking for the closest available spot to the water. Their husbands trail after them, staggering under the weight of a folded up beach bed in each hand, an umbrella slung over their shoulder and a cool box wedged under one arm, desperately hoping their car keys don’t fall out of the pocket in their long baggy swim shorts.

And at the end of a long hot day on the beach, you can be sure that between them all, they will cover the 50 Shades of Brown.