English make unlikely sun-worshipers Up goes the heat, off come the clothes


LONDON -- The sun is always an unexpected guest in England. It is received with the kind of glee reserved for the visitor everyone would like to see more of, like a rich uncle.

The weather here is usually what it's been like in Maryland for the last several days. But for the last week the sun has been out here and the enthusiasm for it has not dimmed. Not a bit.

When the sun arrives in England, the response is invariably the same: People take their clothes off, all kinds of men and women. There's probably a law against it. For some there ought to be.

The jackhammer man, for instance, working with the crew digging up Fetter Lane near Fleet Street. There was about 50 pounds too much of him, all of it around his middle. Shirtless he was, and jiggling and quivering so rapidly that people stopped and stared as if they expected him to fly apart like an exploding jelly doughnut.

Construction workers in London are always the first to take their shirts off at the first sign of the sun. But when it's really bright and warm, as it has been, a few men go out socially without shirts. It's odd to see them now and then on the Underground trains, clutching their cigarette packs and sunglasses (no pockets), looking apprehensive that when they come out maybe the clouds will have come back, and they will be embarrassed.

Generally speaking English people embarrass easily. But there are those who don't embarrass at all. The latter have a wonderful overtness about them. They do not know what the word "indecorous" means. It's not that they are out to shock anyone. They are simply determined to do what pleases them. And when the sun comes out it pleases them to feel it on their skin.

Much might be said of English skin. Since it is a skin that spends most of its life without experience of the sun, like mushrooms, it develops colorations similar to that vegetable -- or to white asparagus, or the white of the bleached bones of pachyderms long dead.

During these rare, bright days, if you look out over Green Park from the upper deck of the No. 9 bus, you might think that by some magic you've come near the fabled elephants' graveyard.

Many Englishmen, and more and more Englishwomen, regard their bodies as living canvases. They put pictures on them, frequently of animals. Birds are popular, and snakes. But dragons, an allusion to the Asian origins of the tattooer's art, are more commonly seen, especially in the gutsy east end of London.

The young women seen around London this spring appear to favor blue birds to ornament their shoulder blades, or tiny roses to decorate the upper swells of their breasts.

Through most of the months of the year this fanciful menagerie is kept out of public sight. But let the sun come out, and suddenly it is all there on view.

There is simply no telling how many thousands of square yards of English skin are decorated with blue, red, and yellow ink. And today they even have tattoo inks that glow in the dark. These, said Dennis Cockell, a Soho tattooer, are growing popular, especially among young women.

When you see the way the English behave when the sun comes out, how they get all lethargic and animated at the same time, and rush to the parks to display themselves on the green grass or across rocks like reptiles, acting as if the ozone layer were still intact, when you see what is clearly a mass yearning for the nude state, you must wonder why the worship of the sun was never widespread in prehistoric times here as it was in, say, South America.

It may have been because back then, human beings weren't sophisticated enough to pray to invisible deities as we do today. They needed something they could see and possibly touch. Maybe that's why the ancient Britons turned to the worship of trees, druidic oaks and all that. Trees were always there. You could see them. You could touch them. You could stand under them to keep out of the rain.

The joy with which the English react to the occasional visit from the sun raises suspicion about the notion that people on this island are indifferent to the rain, or are even fond of it. One hears the story of the Englishman who looks out the window at a sleety drizzle and says: "Fine day for a walk!"

Bosh. If he exists, he's probably in an institution and knows he wouldn't be allowed out anyway.

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