He has become one of Britain’s most endearing and annoying sights. Ex-marine Stephen Gough has walked the length of the country nude and has been so consistently arrested that courts and prisons are now exasperated with him, and want to break the circle of lawbreaking and incarceration his behaviour has inspired.
Last time the Scots let him walk free from the court naked, but he was soon back after passing near a children’s playground. It is Gough’s contention that to be naked in public is a fundamental freedom and that nakedness is an aspect of his personal autonomy. He has spent a total of six years in Scottish prisons for his belief. However, though the law is not inflexible, and in the past court rulings have said there was insufficient evidence to show that his state of undress had caused alarm to members of the public, there is the matter of consideration to others – and Gough’s personal attitude has become inflexible.
I’ve worked in London’s Soho for most of my life, and when a couple of guys get drunk on a Friday night and decide to take their trousers off in the street, the police have a habit of turning an indulgent blind eye. A certain malleability of the laws of the land can be the mark of a sophisticated democracy. But degrees of compromise must come from both sides, and the authorities can’t be seen to be saying he can do whatever he wants.
I’m reminded of AP Herbert’s ‘Misleading Cases’, a book (and TV series the BBC managed to lose) I’ve mentioned here before. The British have a long history of testing the law, and in the cases, Albert Haddock is a tireless everyman who would test the patience of a saint; he makes out a cheque on a cow and leads it to the office of the Collector of Taxes. ‘Was the cow crossed?’ No, your Worship, it was an open cow.’
The question is, did he break the law? Haddock rows the wrong way up a flooded street, and is arrested. Haddock has his wineglass pinched by a waiter, and sues for damages. Haddock argues his way out of a charge of obstruction by referring to an obscure point in the Magna Carta. The cases were fictional, but were sometimes reported in the press as fact.
Along the way, big issues were aired and serious political points were scored. What is the meaning of education? What exactly are politicians? How much freedom do we really have? Herbert’s tone is light, but the questions give one pause to think. ‘Misleading Cases’ ran for three seasons in the 1960s, with Roy Dotrice as Haddock and the wonderful Alistair Sim as the judge. Sim is exasperated but clearly an admirer of the defendant’s knowledge of his rights. ‘People must not do things for fun,’ Herbert warns. ‘There is no reference to fun in any act of parliament.’
In testing the law so repeatedly, Gough has pushed his testing of the law from an indulgence into an obsession. He’s hardly likely to inspire everyone else to take their clothes off, but that is no longer the issue, since the removal of clothing per se is not automatically illegal. But perhaps he needs to understand that his own inflexibility needs to be reconsidered. Having been in the news now for so long, he is in danger of becoming the thing all Britons fear most – a bore.
AP Herbert features in the upcoming ‘Invisible Ink: The Mysterious Case Of The Disappearing Authors’, from Strange Attractor Press.