Even a return to solitary won’t stop me wandering as nature intended
It is a fight that has cost him even his children, but fresh out of prison yet again, the Naked Rambler vows to continue his long battle for the right to be nude
Five minutes in the presence of Stephen Gough and you almost forget he’s naked. Sitting politely on a towel, gaunt and animated, he speaks passionately about freedom and truth, and then about more prosaic matters, such as how he misses having pockets.
Desperate to express himself to an audience — he has spent more than two years in solitary confinement because of his nudity — his eyes lock onto mine as he explains his belief in “the truth” of the naked body and his steadfast refusal to cover up.
“I am intrinsically good, I know that. A small fig leaf in front of my penis — that’s a big message, isn’t it?” He points dramatically to his groin. “It says: ‘This is bad!’ ”
Gough, 56, is popularly known as the Naked Rambler, and is Britain’s most high-profile nudist activist. A prisoner of conscience, he has just been released from Winchester prison, where he was kept in a high- security cell for breaching an Asbo that prohibits him from appearing naked in public. While public nudity is not technically a crime under English law, Gough’s Asbo has been tailor-made for him by prosecutors annoyed by his many convictions for breaching the peace. Every time he is released from prison, he automatically breaches his order by refusing the trousers offered to him by police and walking out of the gates, still naked, and ends up back in his cell.
A simple pair of boxer shorts could make Gough a free man for ever, but he is adamant he will not compromise his convictions. Surprisingly, he does not define himself as a nudist. “I’m not particularly keen on being naked,” he says. “There are disadvantages. You get cold.”
Gough insists his mission is about human freedom, and he has submitted to the consequences of his choice with remarkable stoicism. Snatches of freedom in recent years have lasted between three minutes and 30 seconds, but this time he has managed to get away with the help of a friend, who picked him up on prison property in a car with blacked-out passenger windows. I meet them en route and jump in before anyone can glimpse inside.
Initially disconcerted by Gough’s proximity — he is wearing only socks and hiking boots — I concentrate on his face, and notice that his trademark unkempt beard has gone. “Yeah, well. People get stuck on an image of you, don’t they? But I don’t want them to have that image of me. I’m me.”
The Naked Rambler trekked his way to fame in 2003, starting at Land’s End and finishing in John o’ Groats. Repeating the trek two years later, he was arrested and proceeded to spend most of the next nine years behind bars. Prison authorities — in common with police and judges — struggled to deal with his nakedness, even building a fence on wheels to shield his body from view as he crossed to the exercise yard.
Outside the “safe house” designated for our interview, we wait in the car while a mother pushing a pram crosses the street. It seems like a sensible move to me, but Gough is scornful of fears that his naked body could frighten children. “I’ve walked past schools. Kids come running after me, laughing — they aren’t bothered. It’s the parents teaching them it’s wrong.”
Years of isolation have meant Gough is unused to talking, and he apologises for his already hoarse voice. “If I speak for more than five minutes a day, that’s a good day.” Deprived of company, he devours philosophical tomes — “Thoreau, Emerson, Berkeley” — and listens to Radio 4, obsessively taking notes.
“I like the Moral Maze, hearing about freedom, truth. Even if I’m in bed in the dark, I’ve always got a torch and some paper ready to make notes.”
Solitary confinement has been defined by some as a form of torture; Gough says he copes by forcing himself to write down any negative thoughts.