Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

I was naked on a beach... should I be arrested?

Officers apprehend a naked man on the shoreline

I was lying on a beach in Spain last week when a friend texted me a picture of the anonymous Holywood skinny-dipper who'd incurred the wrath of the PSNI.

There he was, creeping sheepishly out of the sea with his hands cupped over his nether regions, while two hot and bothered officers stood ready to apprehend him on the shoreline.

I looked at the pathetic picture and then I took a good, long glance around me. There were bodies of all shapes, sizes and ages: some lithe and firm, some withered and pendulous, some crisped in the sun to the colour and texture of old leather.

And while many were clad in trunks or swimsuits, a fair proportion of people were letting it all hang out. Going completely nude. This being a Spanish beach, nobody batted an eyelid one way or another, and quite right they were too. After all, there's nothing inherently shocking or shameful about nudity.

Back in uptight Northern Ireland, where even the merest unsolicited glimpse of a man's flaccid how's-your-father is considered to be both traumatic and corrupting, the PSNI took a very dim view of bare dips in the sea.

Two men were reported for indecent exposure, and anyone else contemplating a similar venture was threatened with the possibility of prosecution and, extraordinarily, being placed on the sex offenders' register.

Come on. What kind of perverted – and I use the word advisedly – society equates simple nudity with the grotesque depravities of sexual assault and abuse?

Acting as though men's bits are somehow inherently evil is yet another relic of our sin-saturated past, kept alive in the present by the DUP Caleban, and enforced by over-zealous cops (though, in fairness, they don't all think that way. Remember those sweet pictures of a nude Sammy Wilson frolicking through the woods in France, skipping like a happy dryad? It's good to know there's at least one DUP member who's not a slave to their own inhibitions).

Full disclosure: I, too, have gone naked. Not only on Spanish beaches, but – whisper it – here in Ireland as well. There are many remote bays and coves along the west coast which are ideal for leaping unclothed into the sea.

At one particular spot in Donegal I used to post the children as sentinels in the sand dunes, keeping watch for runners or walkers as I indulged my illicit passion.

Even in our own rigorously policed and joy-averse corner of the island, there are beautiful places where you can cast your swimsuit to the wind. It feels great: cool and wild and free. I recommend it. In fact, I last did it less than a month ago. Does that mean I should be placed on the sex offenders register also? Should I hand myself in to the cops?

Alright, I can appreciate that not everyone wants to see the naked human body in all its glory when they go to the beach. So why not sort it out the civilised way, like they do on the continent, and have specially-designated parts of the shore where nude bathing is welcome?

Even the Republic, which used to be just as hung-up on these body-related issues as we are, maybe even more so, is finally relaxing.

The Dip in the Nip project – "proud bellies, mastectomy scars, cellulite, we're all there," as the organisers put it – has raised nearly €300,000 for cancer charities since 2009, by getting hundreds of people to charge naked into the North Atlantic.

And in September, Ireland will host the 34th International Naturist Congress, with the full endorsement of Fáilte Ireland, the Irish tourist board. You can buy a special T-shirt to support the event, though that does seem to undermine the purpose of the thing. I guess you can be naked underneath.

I don't go in for communal nudity: for me, it's a solitary and occasional pleasure. But, as ever, it seems that the rest of the world is moving on, growing up, learning to become more comfortable in its own skin, while we hang on grimly to the old, pinch-lipped, prudish ways.

'No topless bathing: Ulster has suffered enough', as the old graffiti at Carlisle Circus used to say. And definitely no bottomless either, if you don't want to be labelled as a seaside sex-pest.

Yet to my mind, there's something almost poignant about seeing the human body without the protection of clothing. Naked or covered up, we're all the same mortal flesh underneath.

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