John Sandilands


When the cure is sun, sea and mud

Date published: 12 Dec 1995
Publisher: Daily Telegraph

The psoriasis came on with no warning and, as the cracking of skin and itching intensified, John Sandilands realised he had a problem. His consultant suggested a trip to the seaside.

The trouble first appeared on the horizon like a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand. Or a man’s elbow, anyway. Mine. Perhaps a year ago, after a spell on a prescription drug, ,the skin on my elbows became cracked and flaky. It was annoying, a bit unsightly in a short-sleeved shirt, but nothing more. My GP said it was psoriasis, sometimes a side-effect of the drug, and he gave me some cortisone cream that kept it in check.

Psoriasis. I’d heard of it vaguely and never liked the sound of it. But I wasn’t worried. Like everything else in a reasonably healthy life, it would go away shortly, especially if I ignored it. But earlier this year, for no reason that I can identify, my scrap of psoriasis went suddenly frantic.

In no time, it was rampant, from scalp to the soles of my feet. The cracks and flaking were joined by big, red welts - plaques, I would learn to call them - in vaguely geographical shapes: Australia on my midriff, with my navel at Alice Springs; the Philippine archipelago stretching down to the hip-bone from the short ribs. On my back and legs, these features began to run together so that I looked as if I were wearing a football strip. Arsenal, unfortunately.

This whole display was accompanied by furious itching, especially at night, and the flaking was prodigious: a blizzard, leaf-fall in autumnal New England, a New York ticker-tape welcome. In the morning, on the dark sheet, you could trace my whole outline in flakes, like the ghostly impression of the Almighty on the Turin Shroud.

This was the private course of the outbreak. In public, with my two-tone face, Hammer-Horror hands and shifty looking attempts to hide both, I was deeply unhappy. I felt that everyone was as fascinated and repulsed by these developments as I was, though evidently they were not. “It’s psoriasis,” I’d say pre-emptively when I turned up somewhere looking as if I’d been microwaved. “Ah, yes, like the Singing Detective,” they’d say, as if that were helpful.

The ostrich attitude could only be carried so far. I grew a beard not only to avoid the agony of a razor blade on my suffering skin, but for concealment - although men with beards are only a little ahead of ponytails on my scale of misgivings. I now felt obliged to explain the whiskers. “Psoriasis,” I told the greengrocer. “Like that geezer on telly?” he said, without looking up from the vegetables.

The beard fostered flakes even more furiously than my scalp, and combined, they achieved an output of industrial proportions. One day, both myself and my lunch companion stared horrified at what I was about to consume. I might have passed the whole thing off as Parmesan, except that I was about to embark on a creme brulee. It was time to concede I had a problem. No amount of prescription creams had made any difference, and I looked inquiringly at the long menu on the window of my local Chinese health shop. With a complaint so much like a biblical plague, the notion of attacking it by some unconventional means seemed worth pursuing, and this brought me to the Alternative Centre in West London - a clinic specialising in psoriasis and associated conditions, and run by a restored sufferer.

Sandra Gibbons, apart from introducing me to a fresh horror - “as a psoriatic”, she began - was both encyclopaedic, with six books to her credit, and psychologically comforting. And she was the first to mention the Dead Sea treatment, a combination of sunlight and immersion in the sea itself.

I was impressed by her enthusiasm, but found this a bit too alternative for my taste, and so I did what more sensible people might have done sooner. I was hoping the Harley Street skin specialist would chuckle at someone paying his prices for such a trivial onset, but when I was stripped down to my Arsenal kit, he took one look and said: “I think we should have a little talk.” He said immediate treatment was imperative “You may have seen a television programme ... ” - and offered me a drug called methotrexate, a big one also used in cancer treatment, administered only under hospital supervision because of risk of liver damage. Or the Dead Sea.

I have given this last pronouncement a sentence to itself because I was very surprised that a distinguished consultant would suggest a bit of sunbathing and swimming as a fifty-fifty runner alongside a full-scale hospital job of Singing Detective gravity. I felt like saying “What about a week at Pontin’s, mate?” in a Tony Hancock voice, but I found methotrexate, as names go, even more objectionable than psoriasis.

This notion that the Dead Sea treatment could equally well be conducted at Bognor has been rather annoyingly referred to by a number of people since my return. “Take your bucket and spade, did you?” the greengrocer asked.

In fact, the sea - actually the River Jordan where it evaporates in the huge heat of the Negev Desert and peters out as a long, thin puddle packed with minerals and salts - has been known for its curative properties since biblical times.

The lowest place on earth, well below sea level, its atmosphere so filters the sun’s rays that it is possible, uniquely, to lie outside without harm for up to eight hours a day. Even the air has the soothing properties of a tranquilliser. To take advantage of the sea’s properties, a little colony of hotels and clinics exists like an oasis at an otherwise barren and rocky spot called Ein Bokkek on the Israeli shore.

Baldly, and I can speak with authority, having had both my hair and beard shorn to facilitate the daily application of Dead Sea-derived potions at my chosen clinic, the treatment was an all-day alternation between the absurdly buoyant warm washing-up liquid that is the Dead Sea, and sunbathing stark naked in a solarium for as long as you could bear it.

The. solarium was no more than a screened-off section of the foreshore - males and females, mercifully, in separate enclosures - in which the afflicted lay in various stricken poses, like the denizens of the Inferno in the drawings of Gustave Dore. But if prisons are the universities of crime, this was the finishing school of psoriasis.

Here, in the endless and astonishingly fatiguing hours under the relentless sun, everyone related their history. While I, a new boy, listened spellbound, psoriatics of all nations spoke of whole lifetimes in its shadow; of genetic inheritance, onset after accidents or mental trauma and, most often, onset for no reason at all. The place was littered with tales of broken marriages and marred relationships and lost work opportunities.

Here were people who had tried everything from methotrexate to exorcism (and in one case, the sacrifice of a chicken), and there were several who, tiring of feeling like livid lepers, had tried to end it all. The consensus of these experts was unanimous and even alliterative: sunlight was sovereign for psoriasis.

And yes, miraculously as the days passed, the continents shrank, the archipelagos receded and the blizzards ceased.

At the end of three weeks, I was ordinary again, just a man with a tan on the plane home to London.

At my psoriasis clinic, it was claimed that up to 90 per cent of cases in which there were no extra complications responded almost totally to treatment.

Aftercare was recommended, which is why I now have a routine of creams and bath oils and mud-packs probably slightly more elaborate than that of Claudia Schiffer.

A lot of people have told me that I look well- “Didn’t you have a beard?” - and because wine and whisky both made me itch, I have been off both for months.

But the specialists at the solarium always had a caveat. Psoriasis, unfailingly enigmatic, can return as briskly as it goes. “Don’t worry,” said one of the brotherhood. “I’ve heard of a place in Turkey where you bathe in a pool of piranha and they nibble you clean.”

We chuckled, but we all wrote down his address.

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List of John Sandilands articles

John Sandilands

John Sandilands Articles

  1. Obituary, March 2004 >>
  2. Introduction to Articles >>
  3. Article2 >>
  4. When the cure is sun, sea and mud >>
  5. Interview with Ava Gardner >>
  6. Interview with Dustin Hoffman, Los Angeles Times, 1968 >>
  7. Fiji >>
  8. Patrick Moore >>
  9. Mr Pastry >>
  10. Interview with Jane Fonda >>
  11. letters to and from John to editors >>
  12. Ballooning >>
  13. The Toad Cross Code >>
  14. Peter Sellers; that is the problem >>
  15. In bed with John Sandilands plus Jilly Cooper, Zandra Rhodes and Peter Cook >>
  16. Know the Type >>
  17. Animal poems >>
  18. The Toad Cross Code >>
  19. Albert and the Jaguars >>
  20. Herogram >>