News that the Naked Rambler, Stephen Gough, has yet again been convicted of nudity-related breach of the peace is merely the latest episode in an increasingly sad saga.
For those not already familiar with the story, the bare basics are as follows. Gough is an ex-Royal Marine from Hampshire who has become fixated with his right – as he sees it – to walk around in the scud. Actually, he habitually wears a hat, boots and quite often a rucksack, but the other bits are on full display. Undressed in this manner, he has twice walked from Land’s End to John o’Groats, in the summers of 2003 and 2005. There were, however, interruptions and incarcerations as he encountered legal problems.
In recent years, the proportion of time spent in jail has increased. After stripping off on a flight to Edinburgh in May 2006, en route to appeal against one of his nude-rambling convictions, Gough received a seven-month sentence and has rarely been a free man since.
He now appears to be in a ridiculous and self-fulfilling loop. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the original conviction (arguably based on little more than an excess of prudishness and a lack of humour on the part of a few members of the public, notably in northern Scotland), the penal system will not, and probably cannot, let Gough out of its grasp, given the extent to which he seems set on repeat-offending. He even appeared nude in court during his most recent hearing, which must have brightened the day’s work for the court clerks.
Gough’s sense of righteousness in the face of injustice appears stronger than ever. His identification with civil-rights activist Rosa Parks suggests that he needs to get a sense of perspective. Apart from a modicum of media coverage each time he goes to court, Gough now has very little profile or platform for his views. What was once an endearing comedy (notably portrayed in a 2005 BBC documentary) has become a sad drift towards futility.
Quite what can be done to break the cycle is unclear. The obvious solution – as suggested by Sheriff Lindsay Foulis at the recent hearing – would be for Gough to put on his breeks and start to rediscover normal life. He has made his point, and could serve as reality TV fodder for years to come, arguing the case for nudity on Channel 4 or wherever. But that would require him to get his kit on the next time he stands before a sheriff and also when he next walks out of the prison gates, and there is no sign of that happening.
He appears to have no exit strategy.
Another solution could be for the judicial system to take a lenient view and let Gough loose. But given how clearly he is in contempt, the courts are unlikely to turn a blind eye to such in-your-face behaviour.
One would hope Gough is receiving substantial psychological help during his sojourn in Saughton and elsewhere; he surely needs it. Is he mad? Quite possibly, at least to an extent. Is he bad or dangerous to know? Absolutely not. He is an eccentric, annoying self-publicist at worst, and no evidence has been produced to indicate any genuine menace to society. Yet public money continues to be spent on his imprisonment, when there is a shortage of cell-space in which to house genuine troublemakers.
What is needed is a piece of radical, lateral thinking. Gough could be day-released, for instance, with the stipulation that he take his oh-so-important nudity up Ben Nevis for a day – and do it properly this time, none of this wimpish wearing-boots business. Given the chilly state of the weather, this would surely knock some sense into him – either that or he would end his days being scraped off the hillside by Lochaber mountain rescue team.
Alternatively, he could be drafted back into the Marines. The “tough love” approach to his liberty is unlikely to happen, however. Much more likely is that the recurring headline “Naked Rambler locked up again” will be with us for quite some time to come.