UK's most prolific streaker avoids court order

By Andy McSmith

LONDON - Ever since the kindly Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets to help the people of Coventry, the British have had a soft spot for streakers.

Instead of being outraged when a sports event is interrupted by a flash of naked flesh, we treat it as part of the fun.

Even the good magistrates of Liverpool do not believed it is necessarily a threat to public order if a man bares his bum to amuse a crowd.

Hence their decision this week to deny a police request for an Asbo to be slapped on notorious Liverpudlian, Mark Roberts, the nation's most dedicated streaker.

Mr Roberts has been streaking for years, on two continents.

Indeed, there is a barely a sport (excuse the pun) that has not been disrupted by a naked Mr Roberts.

He has been seen cantering along the course during Ladies Day at Ascot, prancing through the Crucible Theatre during the 2004 World Snooker Final, dashing down the fair way during the Men's Open Golf Championship, with "19th hole" emblazoned on his back, and vaulting the net during a women's doubles match in Wimbledon, wearing nothing but a message saying "Only balls should bounce."

He claims to have notched up 380 streaks, but at the age of 42 is thinking about retirement.

Some like to date the start of the British streaking habit back to the occasion, 900 years ago, when Lady Godiva, wife of the Earl of Mercia, rode naked through Coventry to shame her husband into reducing taxes.

The history books say that while Lady Godiva really existed, the story of her bareback ride is a myth.

Anyway, it does not count as a 'streak' because she was not making an exhibition of herself to amuse the crowd.

Indeed, all the people of Coventry are said to have closed their shutters to spare her modesty.

The only person who peeped was named Tom.

Hence 'Peeping Tom'.

The last thing the modern streaker expects is for people to look away.

A few do it for a motive, most for fun - but whatever the reason, they all set out to make an exhibition of themselves.

In Britain, the start of this national pastime can be pinpointed almost precisely to the spring of 1974.

The first streakers found inspiration from the open air rock concerts where some fans seemed to think that music sounded better when listened to stark naked.

Surrounded by other rock fans, they did not risk causing offence or being arrested.

But on 17 March 1974, a young woman named Sally Cooper decided to take a run across Richmond Bridge minus her clothes, and was very soon stopped by an officer of the law.

She was also caught by a photographer, and next day her image was blazoned across every tabloid newspaper.

Ms Cooper's exploit was capped by a 25 year old Australian named Michael O'Brien, the first known streaker at a major sporting event, who invaded the pitch during an England-France match in Twickenham displaying a different sort of tackle from that normally associated with rugby.

The photograph of Mr O'Brien being taken into custody, his groin concealed by a policeman's helmet, became one of the iconic images of the year.

The "streak" was quickly elevated into British folklore.

A pop song by Ray Stevens, which shot into the charts in June 1974, catalogued the misadventures of a hapless witness of a series of streaks, who repeatedly tried to warn his wife, Ethel, not to look - but always too late.

In the final verse he went running after her, crying: "Ethel! You git your clothes on!"

In reality, streaking can be risky, because to be naked is to be vulnerable.

One drunken man who attempted a streak during an ice hockey match in Canada wearing two socks - one on a foot, and one further up - slipped, fell, stuck to the ice, and had to be gingerly scraped off and rushed to hospital, half dead from the cold.

Apart from the risk of injury, there is the prospect of being charged with indecent exposure, or outraging public decency.

Anyone who goes streaking through a shopping centre, or anywhere near to children or to people who might feel personally threatened, is liable to be hauled up in court.

Ironically, the fact that people like Mr Roberts have performed in very public places, in front of such huge crowds, has protected them from punishment.

But the police have begun to find Mr Robert's humour wearying.

They say that they cannot be expected to deal effectively with hooliganism or terrorist threats while their officers are having to run about covering up the private bits of streakers.

"People do not pay to see this man streak," Jim Clarke, representing Merseyside Police in the case against Mr Roberts, told the magistrates.

But the verdict of district judge Nich Saunnders was that "What Mr Roberts does may be annoying but, in my opinion, it does not amount to anti-social behaviour." For now, at least, streakers can streak in peace.

- INDEPENDENT

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