Sunday, 16 August 2015

The Naked Rambler and raw Clare

'I thought - fxxx! That is what I am!' says Stephen Gough, aka the Naked Rambler.

We each have to deal with our discovery of what we are. Steve's method is to go around undressed: 'I wanted to express that purity of what I am in the most obvious way.' So far his obviousness, or obliviousness, has cost him and the taxpayer nine years in prison.

When Enid Blyton played tennis in the nude, no one complained to the police. Context is all. Steve has just been released from HMP Winchester wearing nothing but a watch and hiking boots. His minders have got him to a safe house where he is giving an interview for The Sunday Times.

'They say I'm a solipsist,' he says, stumbling over the word. 'Narcissistic.' He is animated after his latest spell in solitary. The criminal justice system is not at its most nimble when having to deal with people like Steve. Can't we just yawn and ignore them?

He has a dedicated team of friends even if the patience of a few is fraying. Some naturists are concerned that his doggedness is alienating what they rather touchingly call 'the textile world'.

Here's a naked man behind bars (below): Sound II, Antony Gormley's lead statue from a cast of his body, in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral. The figure is contemplating water, not himself.

Steve's prison-pale body is functional, hardy, bone and sinew, gently softening with time; he laments his giant frogspawn-y varicose veins. I wonder how his nose got broken.

My head aches: I banged it on a car door, pre-dawn groggy, at the start of a Keystone Kops aquaplaning trip up and down the M3 to find Steve. (We track him down in Sainsbury's car park, in the back seat of a car with blacked-out windows.)

He rambles on nakedly in a borrowed room, well furnished with good books and family photos. The house speaks of security and comfort, a tender love of grandchildren. Steve has been absent from the lives of his children and he anticipates re-arrest before long.

He reminds me of the Carry On actor Jim Dale; also of the vulnerable warrior in Descanso de Marte (Mars resting, 1640) by Velázquez. Steve used to be in the Marines, where he was a cold-weather expert, of course.

An old soldier was the model for the body of Voltaire nu, by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1776). Both figures are saved by drapery, which Steve refuses.

Talking of which, 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' in a chapter he wrote for a book called Naked Hiking.

Garment approaching from the right in Botticelli's 'Birth of Venus'...

...and in this exquisitely composed Daily Mirror photo
Above all, Steve makes me think of the nature (not naturist) poet John Clare, who was a stranger to his family but not to incarceration.

I like what's called 'raw Clare' - his poems without the fig leaf of tidied-up punctuation, spelling and vocabulary imposed by editors. But because of his chaotic writing methods, raw Clare is hard to determine. This version is from the raw-ish, heroically controversial Oxford edition, which is not above bearing down to impose garments, silently, but let's not go into that now:

'I AM'

I am - yet what I am, none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost: -
I am the self-consumer of my woes; -
They rise and vanish in oblivion's host,
Like shadows in love's frenzied stifled throes: -
And yet I am, and live - like vapours tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise, -
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my lifes esteems;
Even the dearest, that I love the best
Are strange - nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes, where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God;
And sleep as I in childhood, sweetly slept,
Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below - above the vaulted sky.

After Steve's interview with the writer Alev Scott we leave the house, making sure the neighbours won't see anything to cause offence. I apologise profusely to the owner.

'That's all right,' he says, kindly. 'You should see who we've got coming tomorrow.'

British sense of humour/proportion

And if you want the serious gen on all the above, start by googling Steve's barrister, Matthew Scott.