Posted: Aug 28, 2009
"Try everything once," said Sir Thomas Beecham, "except incest and folk-dancing."
It's a fine bon mot for a thrice-married conductor, but I bet Sir Thomas never went into work one morning in London and found himself, four hours later, strolling along a nudist beach in Brighton wondering whether he had the courage to throw caution to the bitterly cold wind, swap his M&S suit for his birthday one and join in the naturist fun.
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There are a number of uncomfortable questions racing through my mind as I contemplate joining Brighton's most liberated. What is the etiquette for this sort of thing: does one whip one's clothes off in one fluid movement or should one progress in slow, measured stages? More worryingly, still, can anyone see me? Which boxer shorts did I put on this morning? And why is it so very, very chilly all of a sudden?
So let's start with an easier one to answer: why am I here?
On Thursday, this paper reported that Southwold, the Suffolk seaside town nicknamed Chelsea-on-Sea, is being considered as an alternative nudist venue to Corton, 16 miles to the north. Corton, one of Britain's official oldest nudest venues, will be forced to close soon owing to coastal erosion, and the residents of Southwold don't appear too enamoured by the prospect of an invasion of naked flesh. "They would go ballistic," said Joe Annis, a lifeguard. Gordon Brown, who strolled awkwardly along Southwold beach in a blazer on holiday last year, has unfortunately not yet expressed an opinion.
But is Southwold not missing out in its reluctance to embrace naturists with open arms? And is this not the answer to the Prime Minister's annual dress-down sartorial dilemma?
In Britain, we have always tended to snigger at nakedness. While our southerly European neighbours celebrate the nude body ? painting it, sculpting it, going topless on a beach at the drop of a sunhat ? we seem to prefer the buttoned-up approach. Taking all your clothes off might be just about acceptable before showering alone, but on a public beach? No, thank you very much; we'll leave that to the Swedish. And if I want to keep my stripy socks on while making love, that's my God-given prerogative as an Englishman.
Yet according to British Naturism, these attitudes are changing, slowly but steadily. In addition to an online shop which is entirely empty (what do nudists buy?), the organisation's website boasts 16,000 individual members, 130 sun clubs and 46 beaches designated for nude bathing. Inquiries apparently soared during the hot spell at the beginning of the summer, leading to claims that there are actually up to 1.2m closet naturists in Britain, many of whom choose to cover up their hobby.
Others are less gauche. In November, Alton Towers is holding its fourth "naturists only" weekend. Skinbook, a global social-networking site for nudists, has almost 8,000 members. Jade Jagger and Helen Mirren ? both of whom look pretty good in clothes ? have confessed to being fans of nudist beaches.
As naturism becomes more mainstream, its proponents are eager to dispel any lingering stereotypes of oddballs, perverts and sexual licentiousness. Nudists want to be viewed as just like everyone else ? old, young, attractive, ugly, married, single, straight, gay, toned, wobbly ? only with fewer clothes. "Few can resist the call of naturism once they have experienced it," claims British Naturism.
I tested this bold assertion on Brighton East Beach, which is one of Britain's most accessible nudist beaches, within easy walking distance of the centre of town. You pass worryingly close to "Peter Pan's Playground", along a stony beach and arrive at a man-made bank of pebbles, which provides some privacy from the rest of the beach but absolutely none from the road above. A large green sign announces: "Boundary of naturist beach."
On sunny days, hundreds squeeze into this tight spot, most, but not all, of them as naked as the day they were born. Some, I am told, are free-spirited day-trippers who've forgotten their bathing costumes. Others are annoying perverts. Most are regular residents, many of whom have been coming here since the beach opened in the face of fierce opposition in 1980. One of their favourite stories is about a young man who visited the beach for the first time with his girlfriend, caught sight of all the tempting male flesh on display and suddenly realised he was gay, promptly going off with another naturist man.
I don't have such a Damascene conversion on the rather unappetising day of my visit. It is cold and overcast, and there are only three people here, including a young, attractive couple who are sitting, fully clothed, huddled against the wind.
"Hello, do you come to nudist beaches often?" I ask, in what sounds alarmingly like a pick-up line.
They look surprised. "Is this a nudist beach? We just came down from London for the day."
Fortunately, the other occupant of the beach is a real, live nudist, sheltering, rather cowardly, behind a windbreak. Although he is not willing to give his name ? "I'm a local businessman, you know" ? which implies he belongs to the closet naturist statistics, this 47-year-old chats happily about his hobby while I look him resolutely in the eye.
"It's really not a big deal," he says. "I wouldn't want to walk around town naked, or go on a specific nudist holiday, but on this beach it just feels right. I mean, would you sit in the bath with your clothes on? To people who live with naturism, it's normal. You don't come on this beach and get naked straight away. You don't even have to get naked if you don't want to. You just do what feels right."
I sense a challenge. And even though it feels wrong (and not in a good way), even though it's about 12C, even though I'm wearing my laundry-day boxer shorts, I take myself off to a discreet neutral distance between the windbreak and the clothed couple and start to disrobe rapidly. No shilly-shallying for me. No wait and seeing. This is going to be like ripping off a plaster. Painful but necessary. Jacket. Tie. Shirt. Shoes. Trousers. Both socks. Pants. The Full Monty. And for a moment it feels good. It feels great. I stand there in glorious liberation, unconstrained by the tyranny of clothes, the straitjacket of cotton. I take a little liberated walk, the stones under my feet, the wind in my hair. I am at one with nature, I am a naked ape, I am Adam in the Garden of Eden, before he started talking to serpents. I am a naturist on a naturist beach doing something very natural.
But then suddenly there is the sound of voices round the corner. I jump up to have a look and land painfully on the stones. The voices belong to a rugby team, fast approaching, sniggering among themselves. "Let's see if there's any naked totty, mate," says one who looks like the tighthead prop.
And I am suddenly very afraid, because I am naked, and so I hide myself with the fig leaf of the Telegraph's business section and silently resolve to try folk dancing next time round. I might have briefly answered the call of naturism but I think I will be able to resist it in the future.
In any case, I don't think I was what the rugby team wanted to see ? any more than I really wanted to be seen myself ? or the good people of Southwold want to see a naked Prime Minister, or anyone else for that matter.
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