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Naked Rambler Organisation Defensor Libertatis

Notes from a Cold Prison

by Naked Rambler Stephen Gough

This is Stephen Gough’s chapter (minus photographs) from Naked Hiking, a book by Richard Foley published in 2014. The book and its availability are described at http://www.naktiv.net/naked-hiking.

It’s Friday 22nd February 2013, about 1:30 in the afternoon. I’m writing these words on the floor of a police cell. My right arm protrudes reluctantly from the warmth of the blankets that cover me as I try and limit heat loss in my effort to generate some warmth into my body. I was arrested two hours ago, an hour into my naked walk from my home town of Eastleigh in England to the historic city of Winchester and back again; a round trip of 14 miles. It had been a cold day, the temperature hovering around 3°C, but with an 11mph north-east wind coming at me it felt near to freezing. No wonder there had still been ice in some of the puddles and the odd snow flurry in the air; though, in spite of all this, I was pleased with my fast progress. I was following the footpath that went along the banks of the river Itchen that joins the two conurbations through what’s left of the strip of green land in between. It was cold but it was bearable as long as I kept up my pace; and I had the comforting prospect of walking with the wind on the return journey, so I knew I could complete it if I was left alone by the police. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

My story leading up to this of how I got involved in naked activism is a long and complicated one. I was brought up in much the same way as most other children. By that I mean, my parents weren’t particularly unorthodox in any way. Their aim was to give their children as stable and loving an environment as they could, something their own upbringing had lacked. They did a good job considering they had seven children; and having had two of my own I know how sapping of time, energy and idealism it can be. I was in the middle: I had three older brothers, a younger sister and two younger brothers. My Mother looked after the children when they weren’t at school and did all the other endless chores necessary to keep a house functioning, whilst my Dad worked hard as a carpenter on building sites keeping us from material want.

Childhood memories are happy ones with much time spent playing in the dirt in the garden or, when I was older, playing more sophisticated games in the dirt around our neighbourhood with the other children. Such games included many games of football over the local green—a mere goal-kick away—that often extended into the fading light of dusk. One early memory sticks in my mind that only now possibly hints as to what was to come. Twice a day, at lunch time and at the end of the working day, the local railway works (the main employer of the town) would open its gates to allow workers to stream out. I have vague memories of grey-overalled spectres single-mindedly hurrying past me on their way home as I played on the pavement enthralled in my childhood fantasies. The germ of an idea began to take shape in my mind, though in truth a large part of it probably came from a misinterpretation of my older brothers’ misplaced feelings of superiority as apprentice carpenters under my Dad: this was that conformity for its own sake is not a good thing. Therefore what should have been the seamless march from childhood through adolescence towards adulthood, when one is usually expected to do what is expected, had gotten its first wrinkle in the fabric of my mind. That feeling of “I would find my own way” and not be just a cog in the mechanism of the state economic machine, is one that has developed and been refined as I have grown. Having said that, I believe there is nothing wrong with conformity in itself, but when it becomes the only standard to which one aspires or the only reason given for what is done or expected, then that which differentiates us from the rest of the animal kingdom — our capacity to reason and be creative — is pushed to one side, and we are less as a result.

My public naked stance is born out of an expansion of consciousness. An expansion that took me beyond the self-concept I had habitually identified with, to an awareness of self that had no boundaries in thought, yet conveyed feelings of purity, innocence and goodness. If it was right that what I was, in that ultimate sense, was pure, innocent and good, then there could be no room for shame. It then followed that my actions and behaviour had to change if I was to live free from contradiction.

It’s the early hours of next day. I have just returned from a police interview in the investigation and gathering of evidence concerning my arrest. One of the complainants, so they had testified, had shielded their child’s eyes from the sight of me as I passed them on my walk. The policeman had asked how I felt about that — because (I presume) in his eyes this was direct evidence of the fear and alarm I had caused. I replied that in my view the woman wasn’t acting reasonably; that the human body is not indecent, alarming or offensive; and that, therefore, her actions and complaint were not grounded in reason and should not have been acted upon by the police. I added that, contrariwise, her actions, not mine, would cause the child harm by teaching him that there was something fundamentally wrong or bad about human beings, of which he was one.

At 5pm, after being charged under section 5 of the *Pubic Order Act (POA) — a charge that accuses me of causing harassment, alarm or distress to others by my behaviour in a public place — I  was let out of the police station naked. I was offered a lift home — a distance of roughly five miles — which I refused. The charge is, by the way, in my opinion absurd. I understand that seeing a naked man wandering around will trigger the conditioned beliefs that people hold about what they think is decent, appropriate or acceptable, but such beliefs are merely their opinion and should carry no weight in law. After having delighted, and been accosted for photographs by, some astonished early morning revellers making their way home from the city’s nightclubs, I make it back to my Mother’s home without further incident and with the welcome warmth of clothes, hot drink and fire. It may be seen by some as a contradiction that I am not continuously naked. But my stance is a public not a private one. In private I am free to wear what I want without interference, and in such circumstances I freely choose to wear what I feel is appropriate to the physical conditions I find myself in, according to me not others. Freedom, then, and its expression — and by natural consequence the inspiration it engenders in others — It’s the core drive behind my actions. Freedom can only be expressed when I am free of the contradictions that would otherwise keep me imprisoned in myself. It is inner attitude — a state of conscious self-awareness — that I must continually renew for that outer expression of it to have any substance in truth. To put it another way, it isn’t down to what I do, but what I am in any given moment; though, of course, what I am will affect what and how I do things.

Ten days later, after numerous s5 POA arrests — an offence that is non-custodial — the local authorities apply for and are granted an Interim Antisocial Behaviour Order (ASBO) against me, ordering me not to be naked in public anywhere in England. After the order is handed to me at Southampton Magistrates, I walk out of the court buildings without clothes on, and I am once again arrested; this time for allegedly breaching the conditions of the ASBO. A day later, after spending the night in the police cells, I am remanded at court and taken to Winchester prison to await a hearing at Southampton Crown Court. In applying the Interim ASBO against me, the judge, who wouldn’t allow me into court naked — always a bad sign as to how seriously they take the principles of a fair trial — said “... it [the ASBO] doesn’t make public nakedness imprisonable, only the breaking of a court order.” It is true, as the judge said, the court order enforcing the ASBO does not outlaw public nakedness in general terms, but neither does s5 POA! The judge granting the ASBO came to the conclusion that my being naked in public was antisocial in the same way as other judges had come to the conclusion that it was criminal: that is by failing to ask “do the complaints on which the whole case is based make sense?” As for being thought antisocial, it’s my opinion that I am being pro-social in the sense that, if we want a free society — which any thinking, sane person wants — we must challenge prejudice and narrow-mindedness. Get rid of those ways of thought, and not only does it free the individual, but it frees also those he comes into contact with from them.

Ask most people what they want out of life and they’ll say they want to be happy and fulfilled — to have a good life. Obviously, to achieve such a state both as individuals and collectively, we have to get our priorities right to meet those needs that are top of the list of things we value most . Many times, however, our surface desires and consequent actions will undermine those high values — we, in other words, will be desiring and acting contrary to our deepest wishes. The only thing that can keep us on track is to repeatedly consult ourselves honestly; to ask “is this in line with my truth — what I know to be true?” It is this fundamental reality check that is built into our legal system and the rule of law, when it demands that those given the responsibility to make decisions that affect those that they apply the law to must be independent, impartial and objective. Without those positions being adopted the justice system runs according to the line of least resistance; that is, appeasing the self-serving motives of our lower desires and prejudices at the expense of truth. Stated differently, truth becomes subordinate to expedience and the politics of the day; and without truth at its centre there can be no justice or, for that matter, a good life.

My first experience of a naturist beach was in 1996 on the south coast of England, where, out of a long-held curiosity, I ventured one sunny day with my then partner and our first child of several months. It didn’t take long for the relaxed and indifferent attitude to the naked body amongst the people there — people of various ages, sexes, sizes and shapes — to take effect. This contrasted sharply with my own upbringing on the beaches that we used to frequent as a family, where getting changed into and out of a bathing costume, while wrapped in a towel, punctuated both ends of the day and comically broadcast the unspoken demarcation line between the bits of body that were allowed to be exposed and those parts that weren’t. This created, or contributed towards, an atmosphere of forbiddenness and, therefore, tension. Of course, all tension starts and ends in the mind and thoughts of each individual; but to hide and prohibit parts of our body from being seen is to imply that there is something wrong or impure about that which is concealed, and if we are not alert to these untruths we unwittingly collude with them. Not long after that I began to experiment with being naked on non-naturist beaches and was astounded not by the reaction of the general public, which was on the whole accepting — I, at least, wasn’t aware of any reaction — but by the subtle ostracism from those I had a close relationship with; because, I presume, they had most to lose (or gain, depending on your perspective). It was then I realised I had to choose: either to live a life that felt genuine to me, or to turn against myself for the sake of the approval of others.

Life without self-respect is a life of suffering. I had to follow my own path simply because the alternative didn’t offer me anything that could sustain me inside — and without that inner confidence and trust in what I essentially am, it would be only a matter of time before my life would degenerate at best into something of no use to anyone, at worst into something more destructive. Being naked without shame later came to symbolise for me an expression of that one life which we all share and is beyond what we think we are on the surface. And from that perspective it makes nonsense that the human body can be anything other than an expression of the purity, beauty and innocence of that life, and it’s only the unquestioning mind that distorts that reality. After my experience on the “clothed” beach I was made aware through the media of “The Freedom To Be Yourself” group led by Vincent Bethell. He and another man —  Russelll Higgs — had been incarcerated for being naked in public, but they had won trials at Magistrates’ courts and at Southwark Crown Court in London. I tried to meet up with their group prior to a planned emigration to Canada with my then enlarged family of two children and partner, but somehow I missed them at a gathering in London’s Hyde Park, and so we left without another opportunity presenting itself.

When we arrived in Canada we took a short holiday and, having a bit of time for introspection — something that had been missing in the frantic activity to work and save as much as we could leading up to departure — I spent a lot of time walking alone. It was then, in response to a deepening self-awareness, that I started to walk naked in places other than beaches. A little time later, my partner’s homesickness brought about a joint decision to return to the UK. My increasing unorthodox behaviour resulted, however, in a split in our ten-year relationship, and as a result we returned separately. On my return I decided to walk the length of Britain naked. This was originally planned with two others, although in the end, after they dropped out, I found myself facing it alone. I did two Land’s End to John O’Groats walks in the years 2003-2004 and 2005-2006: the first alone, the second with my new girlfriend. Both times the Scottish leg proved to be the most difficult in terms of police interference and time spent in jail. For myself, that was seven months on the first walk and five months on the second. On a consequent flight back up across the border to appeal earlier decisions taken against me, I stripped off in the toilets of the aeroplane in preparation to be at the High Court naked. I never made it off the plane naked, being arrested upon arrival. That began my 6½ years of continual stay in Scottish jails. I was mostly rearrested as I exited various prisons naked by waiting police, though twice it was from court after rare acquittals.

To bring my story up to date, I was released from Saughton prison in Edinburgh naked on 5th October 2012, and continued to walk naked across the Scottish-English border without police interference — a four-day journey. I continued south, heading for my Mother’s house in my home town of Eastleigh. The journey back through England wasn’t as smooth as it had been on my previous walks, however, as I accumulated ten charges under s5 POA and one of “outraging public decency”. The latter charge was later dropped, though it accounted for the extension of my journey time by two months—time spent in a jail near Oxford.

I finally arrived at my destination, and a warm and spontaneous hug from my Mother on 12th February 2013. She said she’d been half expecting me, and had been leaving the conservatory door open during the night, though the sudden appearance of a flesh-coloured figure through the obscuring glass of the front door surrounded by Press and a documentary film team (which had been with me since Scotland) wasn’t quite how she had envisaged my arrival. So it was all over. I’d walked the length of the country naked two-and-a-half times, been imprisoned for long periods, and arrived back home to the place I’d been raised. I’d proven my point, hadn’t I? Well, no, I hadn’t. The point, or rather the ignorance I’d set out to highlight and dispel, was still very much in evidence. Some parents were still concerned about their children seeing a naked human being; I was still being hauled before the courts and being imprisoned for being naked in public. It didn’t seem that anything had changed. In fact, you could argue that it had got worse. I had taken some cases to the European Court of Human Rights as test cases which appeared to be taken seriously thus far, but they could all at any time be thrown out for this or that minor technicality that I, as the initial sole instigator of the legal proceedings, had failed to follow. But even if all these external measures of success failed to change or bring about change, one thing had changed: I had. I had become clearer and thus more committed to the truth of what I was trying to communicate. And if the truth was stronger and consequently more visibly expressed in me after all the time I’d had to rigorously scrutinise and weigh it up within myself, then apart from its success in me — success in lessening my ignorance — then surely, as one committed to freedom, I had done as much as was in my power to do or wish to do, short of interfering with other people’s freedom—the freedom to make up their own minds. All I can do is to stick by what I believe to be true and in so doing let that be a challenge and invitation for others to examine, perhaps for the first time, their own beliefs. We are, after all, supposed to be a leading democracy that espouses and identifies with the values of broadmindedness and tolerance. While they remain just words that we speak and lecture others on they remain impotent, and lack the power to bring about the freedom that the vision they create promises. While they remain mere words we remain imprisoned. The key is to make them a part of our lives so that the words no longer need to be spoken but are instead seen manifested in everything we do. In the short-term it appears that the early signs are not good: I am still in Winchester prison writing this. My hope is that, by persisting in my challenge, the contradictions that shout loudly from my being incarcerated for simply being what I am will gradually dawn on people’s consciousness and begin to dissolve the ignorance that has kept us blind to ourselves for so long. And that by a gradual acceptance of what I represent, which is the reality that we all are, we will have taken a significant step towards accepting ourselves — which is freedom itself.

* Footnote: In the line, as published in the Naked Hiking book; At 5pm, after being charged under section 5 of the Pubic Order Act (POA)*”,  it was pointed out in a blog by Isobel Williams;  “a seasoned copy editor slows down when certain words appear. Or should appear. 'Public' is one. And sure enough, a sloppy editor has allowed Steve to refer to being charged 'under section 5 of the Pubic Order Act'. Most of you won't have spotted what happened there. It's in a chapter he wrote for a book called Naked Hiking.”

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