Over a picnic of roasted potatoes and mixed nuts on top of Winchester’s St Catherine’s Hill, the man dubbed the ‘Naked Rambler’ shares his thoughts on the burkini ban and the ‘mixed up’ nature of the law, and explains why he chose to spend years in jail to defend his right to go about in the buff.
I meet Stephen Gough at the top of a hill overlooking Winchester prison, one of the jails in which he was incarcerated due to his desire not to wear clothes in public.
Gough has cycled to the meeting point, which he selected. He is clothed in black lycra cycling shorts and an orange T-shirt — the latter of which quickly comes off due to the heat.
After spending more than 10 years in prison because of his wish not to wear clothes, the 57-year-old former Marine has taken to dressing in order to be able to be a fulltime carer for his mother, who suffers from dementia.
As debate rages about whether Muslim women should be permitted to cover their entire bodies when on the beach – a right which our hero ardently supports — Gough has found himself in trouble with the law for wearing too little.
Having left the marines, started a family and lived for while on a commune in Canada, he began going about naked, he explains, after he ‘started to question things’.
‘If your mind is a bit curious you start questioning things. Why do people shake hands — what do we do that for? Why do we use phrases like “raining cats and dogs” or “what are you up to”? When you start to take a more objective look at life, you start questioning things’.
Out of curiosity he went to a nudist beach. ‘All the people with different shaped bodies – they didn’t seem particularly self-conscious. I thought this is great – why aren’t we like this all the time?’
Pushing the boundaries, he went nude on a beach that was not for naturists. ‘No one seemed to say anything, but when I went into the water, a guy came up to me and growled “pervert” under his breath.’
But, he stresses, there is nothing perverted, or even sexual, in his wish to wear only his birthday suit.
‘It’s a deep thing. It’s not really about nakedness. It’s about the innocence that we are. It’s a celebration of what I am and what we are.
‘It’s not really about the body. It’s an expression of what I am as a human being – it’s innocent and good. If what I am in a deep sense is good then what I am externally is good too’.
People in general, he suggests are confused about the portrayal of the human body. A healthy relationship with your body, he suggests, is ‘indifference’.
‘People who strut their bodies about have a twisted mentality – they’re identifying their body as being who they are. A long time ago a girl said to me “I like you cos of your body”. I was insulted by that – that’s not who I am. She missed who I was. I’m not about my body.’
Those who suggest that wearing clothes has something to do with preserving modesty or decency, he says, have missed the point and misunderstand the meaning of the terms.
‘The context in which people use the term immodesty has got mixed up. It’s not related to what I’m doing, but the attitude in which they are doing it. I wasn’t trying to express how great I was — the “I” meaning Steve Gough — but how great I am, we all are as part of the greater expression of nature.’
Wearing clothes, he says, is just ‘conditioning’. ‘When someone does things differently, it challenges opinions — often ones we have never really thought about.
‘When I walk naked from A to B in this country, I’m breaking culture, because you don’t see people doing it. It’s like if I started shaking hands with people with my left hand instead of my right hand.’
He doesn’t find it embarrassing being naked in an environment where others are clothed. ‘You get used to it,’ he says.
His choice to be naked cost him the relationship with a former partner. ‘She couldn’t give me a good reason why I shouldn’t be naked, because there is no good reason. It’s just convention’.
On his right to dress or rather not to dress, as he sees fit, Gough insists: ‘It’s not a right I need to really fight for; it’s a right you’ve got. Nothing says you can’t be naked, so you can be naked. There’s no law that bans you from being naked; it is not a crime’.
As a ‘celebration of being human’ in 2003 Gough walked naked from Land’s End to John O’Groats.
He was arrested several times for causing harassment, distress or alarm, under Section 5 of the Public Order Act. Then the police upped the ante and slapped him with an anti-social behaviour order, or ASBO, which banned him from appearing in public without his genitals being covered. For breaching that, which he repeatedly did, he found himself jailed – sometimes being re-arrested as he left prison naked.
Gough has spent almost 10 years in jail – naked – and much of which has been in solitary confinement, and in Scotland, which he says, was pretty chilly. ‘I had to do exercises to keep warm – step ups on the bed’.
To imagine what it’s like, he says is ‘quite simple – just lock yourself in a room for a day.’
His time in prison, he reflects, had no real impact on him mentally, though he finds the length of time he has been jailed – longer than some rapists – ‘very bizarre’.
He sees himself, as others described him — a ‘prisoner of conscience’.
‘I’ve been jailed for doing nothing and really for doing a good thing – just expressing myself as a human being. That’s what I’ve been imprisoned for in a supposedly free country – something as innocent as that – it’s like, wow, it (society) can’t be that free then, can it?’
The law, reckons Gough, is ‘pretty flexible’. ‘I heard something once – a judge said what I do is make the right decision and fit the law around it.’
And he agrees with that approach. ‘A good judge will do the right thing and then say a lot of things to make it sound right.’
He has come across a range of responses from the benches he has appeared before. ‘Some judges said it was a contempt of court when I was in court naked and sent me out. Three or four judges in Scotland let me cross examine witnesses naked’.
The law and legal practice, he concludes, is ‘all over the place.’ ‘The police have let me go and cheered me on, when they can do it without getting into trouble,’ he notes.
His most recent conviction was in October 2014, when he was not allowed to appear unclothed in the court. He subsequently appealed the conviction and 30-month sentence and made legal history in 2015 appearing naked, albeit via video-link, at the Court of Appeal, which dismissed his appeals.
The previous year, the European Court of Human Rights dismissed his case alleging that his repeated arrest, prosecution, conviction and imprisonment for being in the buff in public, infringed his rights to private and family life and freedom of expression.
Gough has lodged a second challenge to the Strasbourg Court on the basis that the indefinite ASBO is an unjustified and disproportionate infringement of his right to freedom of expression.
Despite the length of time he has been imprisoned and missing out on much of the childhoods of his two children, Gough insists he has no regrets. He is not angry at the way he has been treated; more baffled.
His barrister, Matthew Scott, too has written copiously about the lunacy and cost of imprisoning his client.
Times columnist Danny Finkelstein wrote a piece last December suggesting that in his wish to be naked, Gough is perhaps ahead of the curve, but he insists that he must act within the law to change the law.
The Fink penned: ‘Mr Gough is not being jailed to squash his liberty and personal freedom, he is being jailed because we are committed to liberty and personal freedom and believe that only the rule of law can secure it’.
Gough’s response: ‘The rule of law – what does that mean? I’ve read books on it and some judges don’t understand it’.
His definition of the rule of law is simple: ‘The rule of law is your truth. So I am following the rule of law – that truth in all of us. It’s that deep thing of how I know what’s right – a gut instinct.
‘I reckon you could take anyone from any culture, if they can get in touch with their innocence and rule of law gut instinct, we’d all be the same. All humans have got it. What gets in the way is when we get attached to ideas and beliefs — that’s called being closed-minded.’.
Will you carry on with his naked crusade?
‘I really don’t know. I’m not into planning things. At the moment I am complying with the ABSO, so that I don’t get arrested because I want to look after my mum’.
He continues: ‘I often think about it. Why am I sitting here in the heat with these sweaty bottoms on? But, I know if I acted sensibly and stripped off now and got myself a bit aired, someone might come across and call the police and I wouldn’t be able to look after my mum’.
‘Right now, what is important in life is to be alive,’ he says, adding that his goal in life is ‘to achieve freedom’. But then he corrects himself: ‘Actually, what I just said is rubbish. You can’t achieve freedom, you can only be it.’