Philip Carr-Gomm is the author of nine books, many of them on the subject of druidry, though his interests also run to naturism, Jainism and Wicca. Perhaps it was the interest in naturism that suggested the subject for his most recent book, a handsomely illustrated history of nakedness.
The English language, Carr-Gomm points out in his introduction, contains two words for the unclad condition. One, ‘naked’, has Anglo-Saxon origins. The other, ‘nude’, has Latin roots. But the two are not synonymous. ‘Having two words to describe our unclothed state gives English a sophistication denied to many other langues,’ Carr-Gomm writes. And he quotes John Berger’s definition of the difference: ‘To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen by others and yet not recognised for oneself. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.’
Having taken the trouble to establish the subtle but crucial distinction between the two terms, it seems perverse then to ignore the nuance, but this is what Carr-Gomm does. It is, he says, a ‘matter of choice’ whether or not to differentiate between the words, and he proposes to use them interchangeably as he pursues the subject of nakedness through religion, politics, popular culture and the peculiar legal contradictions that allow men publicly to manipulate their genitalia in the name of entertainment quite unmolested by the law, while Stephen Gough, the so-called Naked Rambler, has his collar (so to speak) repeatedly felt for refusing to wear clothes as he roams the British highways.
Carr-Gomm begins his survey of the bare forked animal throughout the ages by considering nakedness and spirituality, beginning with an account of a witches’ coven that assembled to leap starkers over a bonfire in the New Forest in 1940, in the patriotic hope of frustrating Hitler’s invasion plans. Thence to druidry, Wicca, Kabbalah, the Pompeian House of the Mysteries and the quaint practices of country folk concerning fertility of crops and stock, divination of the identity of future husbands, and so on.
He is well informed on the curious kinship that arose in the early 20th century between naturism and pagan beliefs, promoted by such eccentric figures as Cecil Williamson, an MI6 officer, his colleague, Gerald Gardner, a retired customs officer, his high priestess Doreen, and their associate, the magician Aleister Crowley, of whom there appears an arrestingly horrible naked photograph, spindle-shanked, raddled and paunchy, seated upon a leopard skin, demonstrating yogic breathing.
Moving to nakedness in organised religion, Carr-Gomm discusses the unclad hermit St Onuphrius, who wore only a little skirt of leaves and had the Host delivered each Sunday by an obliging angel; and Solomon Eccles, whose appearance in Westminster Hall on July 29 1667 was recorded by Samuel Pepys: ‘A Quaker came naked through the hall, only very civilly tied about the privities to avoid scandal, and with a chafing dish of fire and brimstone upon his head did pass through the Hall crying ”Repent! Repent!’’’ Eccles’s demonstration was an early example of the political use of nakedness of which Lady Godiva is perhaps the most notorious exponent.
Carr-Gomm’s chapter on naked rebellion considers the ways in which the removal of clothes can be used as an instrument both of oppression (as when American troops forced prisoners at Abu Ghraib to strip) and of protest – as in the astute publicity campaigns of the animal rights organisation, PETA, in which pretty girls without clothes and furry animals are juxtaposed to alluring effect.
From there it is a short step to John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the Calendar Girls and the fascination with taboo-flouting ‘artistic’ nakedness of which the Sixties musicals Hair and Oh! Calcutta! were the counter-culture bellwethers.
Until this point, Carr-Gomm’s book has been an anecdotal, idiosyncratic but vigorously argued and rather persuasive account of the cultural history of nakedness, but in the final chapters, on nakedness in popular culture after the sexual revolution of the Sixties, something goes wrong.
It is as though Carr-Gomm is overwhelmed by the sheer variety of nakedness on offer, to the point at which his ability to analyse it vanishes and the text dwindles to a fuddled list with some startling omissions. The naked dons at Parsons Pleasure are mentioned, but not Rupert Brooke and the neo-pagans. The treatment of nakedness in art is perfunctory – Anthony Gormley gets a name-check, but not, say, Robert Mapplethorpe, Alan Jones or Ron Mueck. Fashion is represented by Gok Wan (no mention of Hussein Chalayan, only a passing reference to St Laurent). The rich field of burlesque and striptease remains almost unexplored.
And one’s faith in Carr-Gomm as a cultural commentator is shaken by his misquotation and misattribution of Robert Helpmann’s mot about nude dancing (‘Not everything stops when the music stops’). It’s a shame, for Carr-Gomm’s lively relish for his subject and the intelligent use of illustration in this attractively produced book otherwise make it an engaging addition to the literature of the naked human form.