My mother-in-law came from the deep south, her family having come long ago from France and gone into New Orleans and then on to Galveston, Texas.

She used to shake her head over the many peculiar habits of her three daughters, all born in the north. She was mildly offended by their slang way back there in the 1930s of words like OK and lousy. She simply tolerated their accents, which she thought harsh. They say "mother", she would complain. Of course they didn’t say "mother" but they didn’t say "mother" either.

Most of all, though, she used to go on to me about the insane new fashion which came in in the 1920s and has remained, of lying prostrate on the beach or in the parks in order to pick up a suntan. Now it’s true that, in her youth around the turn of the century, a lily-white pallor was the preferred complexion among young southern ladies, but my mother-in-law, though she was elegant and fetching was much too earthy to be a prey to fashion. Her prejudice was acquired in childhood.

In the south, where the sun burns pitilessly from April to November, there are verandas on ordinary houses and often whole streets of offices and shops shaded from the noonday sun by overhangs supported by a row of slender columns. In short, the sun was something you stayed out of. In the old lady’s time a suntan would have been not merely unbecoming but bizarre, like a punk hairdo. Well, it takes time for every ingrained social habit to be dropped.

The cigar-ite, so- called, came in in the 1870s, just after the Civil War and now seems to be slowly on its way out and – the news that would have cheered my mother-in-law, is that the government, the environmentalists and the skin doctors agree with her – the suntan may have had its day.

I called a little time ago on an old friend, a retired surgeon, who used to say, “Any time you want a chat come in late on Friday afternoon. Nothing much happens then except a few skin cancers." So I’d sit in his waiting room until he was through with what he called “the steady customers” – old sailors, farmers and golfers, but by the 1950s he was beginning to get also middle-aged ladies who by then had been tanning through 30 summers or so.

He’s relieved to be out of practice today because the skin doctors' offices are packed these days with nervous youngsters and panicky oldsters who’ve been looking the mirror and seeing small moles and blotches of various shapes and colours. They have been reading the papers and watching the tube and hearing the dread word "melanoma".

Now this new anxiety has come about because, finally, governments and industrialists have had to listen to the environmentalists who have shown that among the horrendous effects of all the pollutants that arise into the air, in particular the general use of aerosol sprays, the ozone layer is becoming contaminated. In a word, that means we are more and more becoming exposed to the most damaging of the sun’s rays so that skin cancer is dramatically on the rise.

The old wives’ tale was right – the sun is a good thing to stay out of, and New Yorkers now have another threat to worry about. The government’s Environmental Protection Agency sets national standards for what we now know as air quality. The standard sets levels of carbon monoxide and ozone in the atmosphere that are considered safe for humans.

Well, last week the agency announced that New York City is way above the acceptable national standards and the agency’s director in this part of the country has blandly announced that the safe standards are not going to be met for some time. Carbon monoxide, he thinks, might be controlled in the next five to ten years. Realistically, he adds we can’t expect the ozone to cease to be toxic until the year 2000.

All this reminds me of a scare that happened some time in the 1930s when a Dr Shastid, an eye doctor of Duluth, Minnesota, announced that the time was coming when man – today he would have to say persons – would have only one eye which would be situated in the centre of the face at I quote “the spot where the bridge of the nose now appears”.

Robert Benchley was, I believe, the first journalist to face this threat to our ideas of a normal human face. He was relieved, as weren’t we all, by Dr Shastid’s assurance that this radical change might take, as he put it, “countless ages” but Benchley was not entirely reassured. “My eyes”, he wrote, “are so close together as they are that I bet I win; I bet I’m the first one-eyed man in the world.”

Americans are, I suppose, more subject to, or alert to, threats to health than any other people because they are, unlike the Latin nations, not stoical about the inevitability of death. They may say that nothing is more certain than death and taxes but Mr Reagan has already declared and proved that taxes are a bad thing and the Americans were the first to make a specialty of gerontology, the study of ageing, and then to go into furious research to see if it can’t be delayed.

The notion that one day everybody may live to be 100 is one that exhilarates more Americans, I think, than it frightens. It could never have been an American poet who wrote, “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be”.

So it’s understandable that no threat to mortality that has come along in years has so alarmed this country as what is being called the plague of AIDS. For a year or two the whole epidemic was so repulsive, touching as it did on the most intimate clinical details of sex, that the federal government looked the other way. First, it shared a common view that AIDS was restricted to homosexuals and mainline drug addicts, what are now called the high-risk groups.

For a time there were people who wanted to believe it was a divine judgement on San Francisco for its raunchy ways, and then cases were reported, puzzlingly, from Haiti. Then we heard about an alarming spread of the disease, and among heterosexuals, in Africa. Then it began to be reported among heterosexuals here. Now the President is alarmed. “AIDS” he said the other day “is surreptitiously spreading throughout our population” and he’s talking about testing not only the armed services, federal employees, but all immigrants.

That last precaution is fair enough. The immigration service from the earliest days tested immigrants for contagious diseases and there are sad photographs, taken during the tidal wave of European immigration between 1900 and 1914 of men and women being deported from Ellis Island with marks, a T, painted on their backs signifying tuberculosis. But now, after a period of listless indifference, the administration has gone into a sort of hysteria about the black death running like wildfire throughout the country.

The mayor of New York actually proposed testing all incoming visitors. He said no more about it since the Chamber of Commerce went into delirium at the thought of no more tourists.

The facts about the present spread of the virus have been stated simply, clearly and without hysteria by a man who has kept expert track of the disease longer than anybody. He is Harold Jaffe, who’s in charge of AIDS research at the federal centre for disease control. He says, “We really have not seen much evidence for the spread of the virus outside high-risk groups. For most people the risk of AIDS is essentially zero. Why it isn’t getting out beyond the immediate sexual partners of the risk group members? I don’t know. Is the disease going to sweep into the heterosexual population, like Africa? I don’t see it.”

Well on this, I’m told, special occasion is there no good news? There is. There’s another trend, another fashion, that’s on its way out and a great many more Americans than you’re likely to hear about are happy that it’s on the wane. It’s nothing less than the disappearance of the American flag from television commercials.

Maybe that’s a little too cryptic, a little too literal. What I’m talking about is the steady decline over the past year of commercials that turn everything good, everything tasty, chewable, desirable, buyable, into something exclusively American.

A beer is not advertised as a product of fine brewers, but a beer made the American way. A bread advertised as “a little slice of America” – it’s foam rubber, by the way. A motor car advertised as “American as apple pie”. Banks – of all suspect characters – that promise not prudence, but the special virtue of “American prudence”.

This trend really began, I think, as an echo of President Reagan’s insistence in his first term on America standing tall and it really got under way with the Olympics of 1984. It began to wane in the late fall of last year and I don’t doubt that the Iran-Contra revelations had something to do with it. Anyway, it was not an accident.

The main advertising agencies noted a waning response to the red, white and blue and, without apology, have dropped it. We even now have an automobile ad that makes outrageous claims for the car. You can buy it for three dollars. They throw in a suburban house and the cheerful brazen narrator is contradicted with sub-titles that repeat “He’s lying”. I think this is a good thing. It will soften, or muffle, for the rest of the world the old American reputation for foolish boasting.

I have to mention what many of you already know – that this is the 2,000th edition of a series of talks that were meant, when they started in the spring of 1946, to go on for 13 weeks, 26 weeks at the most, since President Truman’s abrupt suspension of Lend-Lease aid in the wake of the Japanese surrender plunged Britons into a harder year than they’d endured during the war. There was trouble converting sterling into dollars but somehow the treasury heroically squeezed out my modest fee and here I am.

I was urged on this occasion to deliver some missionary message, but missions are for bishops. I’m a reporter and I can’t say where American is going. I am a hopeless prophet. One book I will never write is “Whither America?”.

As it is, the most memorable line, bit of philosophy, from an American this week came from a 99-year-old man in Gilroy, California. He and his wife were celebrating their 78th wedding anniversary and were congratulated by the governor. The man was asked his recipe for a happy marriage. He said “Frequent separations and growing loss of hearing”.


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