It is a sad but inevitable fact that in a nation of immigrants, there will be some of us who are simply not genetically-predisposed to thrive in this wide brown land. When the head gardener sets me the task of arranging pot plants by their tolerance of heat and light, I always leave a space between dappled sunlight and full shade. I know my place.
Each summer in the 1950s, as my playmates progressed through the various shades of tanning that were assumed to signify glowing good health, I alternated between cooked crab cerise and peeled prawn pink. It is amazing how quickly a child can learn to ignore the question “Why are you so white?” Sometimes a helpful friend would offer the explanation. “He can’t help it. His father came from Scotland”.
In fact he was wrong on two grounds. Dad was born in Northern Ireland, although the distinction is probably moot in this context. More significant is that my father displayed the phenotype combination known as black Irish (often incorrectly attributed to the impact of the Spanish Armada). His hair and beard were jet, eyes dark, and the usual description of his complexion was swarthy.
My Belfast-born father had no trouble passing as a man of Mediterranean or even Middle Eastern heritage. It clearly ran in the family, because his Uncle Bill was much in demand when came time for first footing.
So I cannot blame my Celtic forebears. Which leaves the Germans to bear the responsibility for my integumentary mismatch. A photograph of my mother in her mid-teens with a thick blonde plait wound around her head above piercing blue eyes could have been the archetypal image of young Aryan womanhood. It seems that I have inherited many of the ancient north European adaptations to low light conditions for which I have no need. Thanks Mum.
I feel no shame in this ancestor-blaming, because of the certainty that in generations to come I will be subject to exactly the same. Fortunately, none of my children have been irredeemably freckled. The toddler much admired for delicate copper ringlets falling across a forehead like the finest semi-translucent alabaster now sports a tangled mass of red curls flowing down to a spectacular full beard without any apparent psychological damage. But lurking in their genome is that 4% contribution from our Neanderthal forebears, ready to be passed on. I know that all of my descendants will need to be well acquainted with the notion of SPF.
Despite all this, I do have a special place in the Australian landscape. I love the experience of standing in a gully deep within a tropical rainforest. Let the Blue Quandong and the Turpentine Tree soar upwards and jostle for the sunlight if they must, the ferns and I are perfectly happy down here where it is cool and moist and Shady!