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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 7 August, 2001, 12:11 GMT 13:11 UK
Daring to bare all
Vincent Bethell gets naked
Vincent Bethell, a cleaner from Coventry, protests naked for the right to be nude in public, and plans to strip again on 1 July as part of a national day of action. He explains what's behind it all in our weekly Real Time series.

I first took my clothes off in public in 1998, although I'd started my campaign a year earlier as a letter-writing campaign.

Nudity on trial
Arrested last August
Charged with being a public nuisance
Went to the dock naked last January
The jury - told to avert their eyes - acquitted him
I'd written to the police and to MPs, asking whether being naked in public was a crime.

The closest I got to a coherent response was from my local MP, Terry Lewis, who said he doubted that many people would share my point of view, "and rightly so".

So I felt I had to take direct action.

I was a bit apprehensive at first. Just like everybody else, I grew up in a culture that taught me to be insecure about my body.

Shedding the labels

I think we should relax and be at ease with our bodies. If you get a group of naked people together, they don't seem that different.

Vincent Bethell
Vincent urges supporters to strip on Sunday
Our differences are emphasised by covering up our bodies with clothes. Once you strip, you can see the commonalities much more clearly.

My parents used to walk around naked in the house, and so did my sister and I as kids. But on the whole, it was a very normal family - I'm a bit of a black sheep.

I wouldn't say my parents are supportive of my stance, but they've come to accept it.

One day, my father might even take part in a protest, but I doubt my mother will ever be more than tolerant.

Few rally to the cause

I've always been interested in human behaviour, and how we perceive people.

Vincent's artwork
A part-time painter, Vincent dubs this work "Pain"
Yet the more I looked into it, the more I noticed that people had a very peculiar response to the human body.

That prompted me to investigate whether it was against the law to be naked in public; and why people might say that the body is offensive.

It's not just body insecurity I'm fighting - I'm also trying to overcome the perception of others that nakedness is somehow disgusting.

It's a real circular Catch 22 thing.

Glastonbury 1999
Taking a stand
Actually in the novel Catch 22, the protagonist Yossarian takes his clothes off to protest against the barbarity of war.

Snowden gets shot up, and Yossarian tries to help him by staunching the flow of blood.

When he gets back, he takes his clothes off to protest against the inhumanity of war, and to get back in touch with what it means to be a human being.

Nation of nudists

Although the British seem to have a fondness for streaking and nude charity calendars, I think it's exploitative.

Streaker at the cricket
Bethell regards streakers as publicity seekers
People pose for calendars for the money; and streakers are just trying to boost their own egos and get publicity.

Naturists on the whole don't support what I'm doing.

But they have a vested interest in segregated nakedness. Running naturist holidays, for instance, can be very lucrative.

But if non-sexual public nudity becomes widely accepted, there will no longer be any need for naturist holidays and they'll lose money.

Behind bars

The police arrested me last August when I was protesting in Exhibition Rd in Kensington, and I spent five months in Brixton Prison awaiting trial.

Near Buckingham Palace 1999
Protesting outside the palace
Because I refused to wear prison clothes, they kept me segregated. They said it was for my own safety, and for the good order and discipline of the prison population.

The severity of the conditions came as a shock. The guy in the cell next to mine hanged himself with his bedsheet and another guy tried to commit suicide by biting his wrist out.

Occasionally, I'd get shouts of encouragement from the other prisoners, such as 'Oy, naked guy' and 'Keep it real'. I'm not sure what that means, but I think it's bit of gang slang.

When the jury acquitted me, it felt very strange to put clothes on for the first time in five months.

Vincent's artwork
Vincent's artwork: "I painted this one in prison"

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06 Aug 00 | SOL
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