Stephen Gough, the Naked Rambler, spends 10 years in prison. A 14-year-old schoolboy’s future is blighted for at least a decade because of a naked selfie. What’s “indecent” here – a person wearing no clothes, or a hypocritical society? Surely there’s nothing more seemly than the human body. “Nature has but little clay, like that of which she moulded you,” as Virginia Woolf, who went skinny-dipping with Rupert Brooke, wrote.
The nude is a historical celebration of our intrinsic beauty, the epitome of fine art, from classical statuary and Michelangelo to Spencer Tunick’s contemporary installations and Marc Quinn’s Trafalgar Square plinth statue of the naked Alison Lapper. There is barely a public building unadorned with a naked sculpture, yet we criminalise the real thing. Punishing people for being as God intended (or whomsoever you think made you) is itself a perversion – and actually sexualises the naked body in an extraordinarily unhealthy way.
Gough has made his body an instrument of protest, outraging someone’s morality by walking skyclad from one end of the country to the other. His solicitor, noting his client’s appeal against his latest sentence, wonders why we have spent £330,000 prosecuting “this harmless eccentric”. Yet the Rambler’s nakedness has a noble lineage – from the ancient Britons who confronted invading Romans wearing only woad and Godiva’s horseback demonstration, to William Blake and his wife Catherine, who were discovered by a visitor in their Lambeth garden reciting Paradise Lost and uninhibited by “those troublesome disguises”. “Come in,” the artist-poet cried to his caller, “it’s only Adam and Eve, you know!”
In 19th-century New England, the radical vegan transcendentalists of Fruitlands, an extreme and short-lived utopia, experimented with nakedness as the ultimate communion with nature and rejection of capitalism. Clothes represented repression – not least because cotton was the product of slave labour, and silk and wool of animal slavery. The US, for all its puritanism, maintained that proud tradition. In 1936, the Vana Vana society, a group of nudist colonists, set sail for the Virgin Islands to establish a “nudist-socialistic utopia”, but had to return to Tampa when their captain wouldn’t take his clothes off.
Down in Cape Cod, where I spend time, nakedness was a natural state for the likes of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams. Indeed, my 84-year-old friend there disdains the National Park Service edict that forbids sunbathing nude in the dunes. When one ranger tried to give her a ticket, she scoffed: “I’ve been doing this for 70 years. Do you think that’s going to make any difference?”
Meanwhile, up in somewhat chillier Canada, the pacifist, vegetarian sect of Doukhobors (“spirit warriors of Christ”), refugees fleeing their Russian homeland, where they had been championed by Leo Tolstoy, who financed their flight to America – protested against the materialism of the 20th century with mass naked events. The Canadian government responded by making public nudity a criminal act. Up to 300 Doukhobors were arrested and given three-year prison sentences. Their continuing protests in the 1960s inspired Pete Seeger to sing their praises. They found further activist expression when John Lennon and Yoko Ono went naked on the cover of their Two Virgins album (1968).The hippies’ disavowal of clothes at Woodstock and other festivals drew a direct, naked line back to the 19th-century utopians and beyond. It was the ultimate expression against an age whose hardware was geared up towards apocalypse. What better way to diffuse that corruption of power than by stripping it away, physically and spiritually, to the only thing we really own: our bodies.
As someone who conducts a daily act of indecency by skinny-dipping (I did it this morning, as usual, albeit in the dark), I find the whole idea of getting dressed to get wet utterly ludicrous – all that stupid tugging of towels to prevent anyone being shocked by the sight of flesh. We might blame the prudish Victorians, but contrary to received opinion, naked open-air swimming was par for the course in Britain until the 20th century. When a ban on bathing nude in the Thames was introduced in the early 1900s, one protester entered the river with his trunks on his head: “They said we had to wear them, but they didn’t say where!”
I never saw my mother naked – not, at least, in conscious memory – until the last year of her life. Impossible demands on our body images – what we are expected to look like without clothes – lie at the root of much pain and trauma precisely because, generally speaking, no one ever sees us naked. Perhaps we need to return to our Edenic ways – before we took a bite of that apple. The law remains ambiguous on getting your kit off in public. But isn’t it time we all grew up, and remembered what we were? As the Doukhobors asked their prosecutors: “How were you dressed when you were born?”