Every year, the frugal British summer brings acres of eager pale flesh out in the parks. But it remains a somewhat sad thing that, while a man can walk down a public thoroughfare wearing nothing on his top half but a leathery bit of man-jewellery, any woman doing the same would be arrested for causing a disturbance. Alas, this isn't likely to change - although in theory women would be happier (equality, all-over tan, a perfect solution on laundry day) and so would men (well, duh), society's inbuilt restrictions are such that women would feel horribly self-conscious and men would degenerate into a brawling mass in the streets, causing all manner of car accidents and crushings of small children. In short, it's just not worth it.
But the fact remains that despite or perhaps because of society's thoroughly ambivalent and blushing and actually really quite weird set of values about it, people generally enjoy being naked. They don't have to worry about polyester itchings or strap chafings or elastic nippings. None of the vagaries of clothes-wearing, which we grapple with every day but barely notice as a source of stress, apply. Without any fashion anxiety or size worry, you can be what you is. A nude. A naked. You. Relaxed, happy and with nothing to do but pad into the lounge with your mug of tea and watch a bit of 'The West Wing', while the corduroy cushions slowly inscribe their signature on your arse. Most people quite like the sense of freedom of ambling here and there in their own home - it makes it their own, in some little way - but most would balk so violently at the thought of doing the same thing in public, their pubes would turn instantly white. There are many good and sound reasons for this, and a lot of silly and sad ones also.
Thus it is in the name of investigative journalism and simple curiosity that we find ourselves in the downstairs bar of Starkers, London's only naked nightclub. It is a club for the fabric-impaired that may include, but is clearly not restricted to, the volleyball-players who persist in legend as the archetypal nudists. And once the kit is off, the players really are all the same, it seems. Still, however blasť we'd like to imagine we are, there is still something extraordinarily odd about shrugging off the clothes that keep you safe and snug and *clothed* all day long, and leaving them in your bag, forlorn, with nary a scrap of swimwear nor sauna-towel to replace them. Shown into a rather makeshift cloakroom by an enthusiastic chap who started the club, has been co-running it for the last three years and says 'people find they've never had an experience like it - ooh, listen to me, I sound like a salesman', we're left to it. We disrobe. We look around at our companions and snigger - not at, but with - and they snigger too. We plod downstairs, sniggering, to get a drink. (Our cash is in some very nifty Starkers-branded wrist-wallets, their Velcro-tightness like some comforting tangible shred of remaining dignity.) We are wearing only our shoes - no one here is allowed to go barefoot. Fascists.
We drink bottled lager in some haste and gaze warily about us as the club fills up. It does get quite full. Full with men. Naked, drinking, sauntering, lounging men. There are three bars in total here and the larger one especially, as is reported to us, is 'wall-to-wall cock'. It's mildly disconcerting, and not a little Swedish. Generic, inoffensive housey music plays at an undeafening volume. The men chat to each other with ease, or sit brooding singly on the many beautifully-designed (and as unpervy as possible under the circumstances) black leather sofas. Most of them walk about, lean on bars, pass through doors and traverse stairs in exactly the same way they would if clothed. There is very little actual difference between this brave nude world and the clothed one, somehow. It's like the elephant in the room, if the elephant was a cute little baby pygmy elephant. The thing that's the issue is suddenly not an issue.
Galvanised by this realisation, we strike up a conversation with a tax lawyer and part-time philosopher, and then one with a television engineer. The demographic isn't that broad - the youngest men are in their early 30s and most of them are in their 40s - and it's difficult to tell without the helpful signifiers of garb what the gay-straight ratio is. Our engineer friend is straight and has been coming here since the start, and has only had the odd run-in about which he seems entirely unperturbed and accepting. He's had his arse grabbed, twice in succession, by a man who asked what he was doing there if the gay thing wasn't, as the grabbee had just assured him, 'his thing'. Another gay man had leaned over and said, 'If that had been me I'd have decked him'. Personal space is precious here, and those who violate it are dealt with severely. The sight of a door-height, door-wide bouncer (who isn't naked but would probably be even more intimidating if he were) is doubtless reassuring to all, although our friend is at pains to emphasise that there's rarely any transgression of that kind. He's upset by the homophobia of many of his friends who don't know he comes here, and for a man who's had his cock sucked at a crowded bar by a stranger, that's not something to be sniffed at. Most people here wouldn't even have to consider the difference between a gay man and a nasty, offensive wanker who happens to be gay. We do wonder what it would take to get thrown out - and if so, what the bouncer would hold onto in the act of throwing.
It's hard not to look when you're surrounded by naked bodies, but it's amazing how quickly the eye becomes accustomed to the new, fleshy surroundings. Knowing this, you know that people aren't looking at you any more than they're looking at others, just as is the case when you have clothes on. (Unless you're dressed like Ken Dodd.) Eye contact during a conversation doesn't have to be forced but seems to happen as usual. The air-conditioning is pleasant on our bare skin, and there is an eerie sense of nothing much being different from normal. Certainly people are more friendly and approachable than in a normal nightclub. There's something very pacific about nudity. It's not really conducive to tension or violence, unless you think of the whole Lawrentian fireplace-wrestling deal. We do notice, though, that while most individuals stroll to and fro unabashed and easy, some pose like Narcissi in ornamental fountains. A man with a vast pendulous gut leans a delicate hand on a corner, above his head, resting the other hand on his hip (which we had to applaud him for locating). He looks impressive. Lucien Freud would love it here. These are all average-looking people, as is usual in any gathering, with the odd remarkable individual. The women present, who could be counted on the fingers of a man who lost his pinky in an unfortunate gardening accident, represent most of the remarkable ones simply by being non-male. Also, they do have forms that seem to be exaggerated in a way we somehow never noticed. It's almost extravagant, compared to the simple, utilitarian, Ikea-design-principles format of the male body.
Being in such a private state in such a public place is a lot less terrifying than perhaps it should be. Somehow overcoming that inhibition leaves you more unfettered than you would be without that small internal struggle, more able to be yourself. It just doesn't seem like such a big deal, frankly, although there are certain obstacles to a state of total relaxation. Peeling ourselves gingerly from a sofa, we make for the loo, which seems several kilometres away through a daunting carcass-copse. We steel ourselves to negotiate the nakeds. We apologise slightly more often than we usually might as we squeeze by, fighting the urge to squinch our eyes tight shut as skin brushes unsolicited skin. Having washed our hands we go to the hand-dryer, which greets us with indifferent silence.
It's the first and only time we really miss our trousers.
Off! Off! Off!