A pair of blue tits is noisily dashing about in the tree outside my window. At this time of year the only things on their minds are mating and building nests. As Tennyson put it in his (rightly forgotten) “Locksley Hall”: “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”
Sue Townsend’s celebrated wordsmith Adrian Mole, whose Collected Poems are published for the first time this month, understood this better than most as he pined for Pandora Braithwaite (“Let me join our beating hearts / Let me forge our private parts”). Sadly, Pandora preferred New Labour politics to the abandon of nudity.
A man called Rayner Otter wrote to me the other day, introducing himself as “possibly the most prolific naturist writer in the UK today”. He enclosed a piece he had written for H&E naturist, the rebranded Health and Efficiency magazine that played an important role in the lives of prepubescent boys in the 1960s. It was the place to feast your eyes on women of all shapes and sizes playing with beachballs while wearing not a stitch of clothing.
Even at 11 the pictures did nothing for me. But that was their point. Health and Efficiency set out to prove that, apart from frying sausages, almost any task was more pleasurable if tackled without clothes. It is not nudity itself that is erotic, but what it might promise. Goya’s “La maja desnuda” or Modigliani’s “Reclining Nude” may be sexy (they’re intended to be), but most of us know that when naked we are more likely to carry the sensual charge of Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”. In my corner of Oxfordshire, the late head of one Oxford college was famed for enjoying a spot of naked vacuum cleaning at his country cottage. Doubtless, members of the Supreme Court, eminent mandarins, cabinet ministers and directors of FTSE companies share the taste. Ever since someone invented the story of the Tree of Knowledge, with God asking Adam “who told thee that thou wast naked?”, clothing has been integral to western civilisation. In damp and draughty northern Europe, clothes were also a survival device. In the age of central heating, are they still necessary? The problem with naturism as a practice, though, is that it has a whiff of crankiness about it. Naturist camps reek of Kenneth Williams, Sid James and Barbara Windsor.
Naked vacuum cleaning clearly has nothing to do with the distressing episodes in which men are carted off to hospital after attempting to pleasure themselves with portable cleaning devices. Professor Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, is an assiduous chronicler of odd obsessions. The earliest references he could find were three unconnected stories of men reported in the British Medical Journal in 1960, but similar cases were described early in the 21st century. Apart from being comical, these episodes seem only to prove the male’s inability to multitask. The brand of vacuum cleaner mentioned is usually a Hoover dustette, along with some implausible story about the how the machine “suddenly switched itself on”. Unfortunately, some models had a sharp-bladed internal fan only a few inches from the mouthpiece. Few victims elicited the sympathy to which they probably felt entitled. My correspondent Mr Otter had been struck by remarks I made about how very few citizens join political parties. He rightly pointed out that this doesn’t prevent millions from voting, and he wondered whether something similar had happened with naturism. You don’t need to belong to participate. The British Naturism organisation claims there are nearly 4m naturists in the UK.
The figure seems very high until you ask friends if they have ever been skinny-dipping or sunbathed naked. Everyone has. And if they haven’t, they want to. On its homepage, BN offers the tagline that: “The thought of nudity is scarier than nudity itself”. Perhaps their work is done. But naturism in the UK has yet to display the deep roots developed elsewhere in northern Europe, where the late 19th-century cult of Freikörperkultur remains strong. I cannot unsee the memory of waking up from a nap on a (previously) deserted Greek beach to find myself staring up some man’s sphincter. He was German, of course. For the boring truth is that the propaganda is true. Public nudity has nothing to do with sex. Just think of the Naked Bike Rides in so many cities. However much we all imagine each other without a stitch, sensible people know it would mean the disclosure of all sorts of moles, hairs, rashes, operation scars and unexpected knobbly bits. Better to leave it to the forgiving blindness of passion.