Sunshine: One Man's Search for Happiness

June 19, 2008

I hate smiley faces, and anyone who uses them. It doesn't follow that I hate the sun, but I do hate the fact that endless sunshine makes work impossible. I also hate the fact that sunshine brings on my hay fever. My guess is that Robert Mighall has never had a summer allergy because is a self-confessed heliophile. He has visited Ibiza, Greece, the south of France and (when all else fails) tanning machines. This book is a sort of love letter by someone trying to trace the myriad connections between sunshine and his emotional and psychological constitution. It claims also to explain Englishness in terms of England's weather.

Its subtitle, "One man's search for happiness", is a misnomer, because the book isn't about any such thing; it's there in order to justify the personal, almost anecdotal manner in which so much of it is written. It takes the form of a first-person narrative, mixing reminiscence ("my first visit to the seaside", "my first love affair") with scientific and pseudo-scientific research. Alongside authoritative books on the subject of the weather, Mighall has undertaken occasional investigations: interviewing commuters, visiting expatriate Brits in Ibiza, surveying back issues of Health and Efficiency, googling song titles, e-mailing scientists whose research he doesn't grasp.

Such an eclectic approach betrays some uncertainty about what kind of book this is supposed to be. It starts as a cultural history of sunshine, but veers off into other directions - sun worship in literature, TV weatherpersons, health implications and so forth. As a reader, it's difficult not to be a unnerved by the manner in which Mighall thrashes around for yet another angle on his "obsession".

Combined with this, the volume suffers from a certain parochialism: it's written from the point of view of a middle-class Englishman who grew up in London. That aspect of it doesn't work. Books that depend on the personality of their author demand greater consistency of voice, such as those of Bill Bryson, to whom Mighall refers several times. Mighall also lacks Bryson's sharpness of eye and tone, as for instance when he reports on one of his investigations: "When I asked my neighbour's little girl Mabli, aged three, why the sun she had drawn for me had a happy face, she told me: 'It made it sunnier.' Bless her."

Such weaknesses led me to wonder whether Mighall was as fascinated in his subject as he claimed. Because he doesn't sound that interested. So much of the book depends on opportunistic bits of research, much of it drawn from the web, that it is hard not to feel that the entire thing was slapped together for the occasion rather than as part of a long-term study. And most of the "personal insights", such as the fact that intense emotional experience may be associated with sunlight, aren't original.

All the same, I enjoyed hearing that the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten gave his name to a brand of underwear, that up to 85 per cent of purchasing decisions are weather-related, and that there are more people from Britain in France than there are people from any other European country. And I liked the illustrations - Dustin Hoffman sunning himself in The Graduate, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider, Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon in Beach Party. If anything, these images are surprisingly under-exploited. But Mighall has insights on other matters, such as English soap operas - which, he suggests, "turn the national pastime of moaning into a spectator sport. Their cathartic function is to demonstrate that life could actually be worse. No one should want to live in one."

Sunshine: One Man's Search for Happiness

By Robert Mighall
John Murray
ISBN 9780719595103

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