Emma Felber | TheSinner.net
Among the usual crop of spectacular promises offered by societies this September, the Debates Convenor Alan Patterson came up with one even more unrealistic than usual. Just as no-one could quite believe that we would attract genuine Westminster MP’s to St Andrews (with the exception, naturally, of Menzies Campbell, who cannot seem to stay away), there were many who doubted that the Debating Society could really, truly produce a speaker willing to stand up in front of 250 students in his birthday suit.
We may have been proved right thus far in our skepticism about the first promise, but to give Mr Patterson credit where it is due, this year’s Rag week Debate delivered on its promise. Heavily documented in the national press, Vincent Bethell, an artist from Coventry, accepted the invitation to pass on his message of personal liberty to whoever would come to Lower Parliament Hall on Wednesday the 13th. Mr Bethell is chair and founder of the Freedom to Be Yourself Society, and seems to be so happy wandering about naked that it is a wonder he ever puts on clothes at all. During a five-day trial after which he was cleared of being a public nuisance, Bethell neglected to observe traditionally formal courtroom clothing, opting instead to appear before the judge in his preferred attire, that is to say, nothing. He has also been spotted at many London landmarks such a the High Court and New Scotland Yard unclothed, so often that tourists are beginning to assume that he is one of the city’s attractions.
Upon arrival at Lower Parliament Hall the first thing that struck this author was the number of people – and very few of them regular attendees at debates – hanging around the doors before they had even opened. Secondly, in order to ward off paparazzi, only students were admitted into the chamber, upon production of a matriculation card. Rather like the Union, except that the security in this case consisted of a pair of first-year Classicists, with somewhat better taste in ties than Option One.
Upon walking into the hall, one could not fail to notice that, somewhat ominously, black binbags had been taped up on the lower parts of all LPH’s leaded windows. Obviously someone had been thinking of the great offence that could be caused to a St Andrews grannie innocently walking her Chihuahua along South Street, only, to be confronted unpleasantly with the sight of a naked man addressing the ancient Debating Society. Even as we sat down two policemen had wandered around to the back of the Hall and were peering through the window. Since the debate had not started yet, it was unlikely that they, not being allowed into the chamber, were stealing a peek at Mr Bethell; five minutes later those windows, too, were being taped over. Two particularly prudish members of the Society who happened to have chosen seats behind the speakers asked at this point for a small piece of spare binbag, and studiously taped up the gaps in the back of the speaker’s chairs. Bethell’s main advantage in the debate was that time-honoured trick practised by public speakers; he made his audience wait. His train, it seems, was late and two willing members of the Board of Ten were forced to drive him up from Edinburgh, and he was in fact so late (45 minutes) that every possible stalling tactic by the Chair had run out, and the House was seated. The impact, then, upon his arrival was heightened. From my position next to the speaker’s chairs, I noted the little ripple of gasps that ran along the length of the standing House as Mr Bethell walked up to the table.
I would like at this point to register my own relief. Mr Bethell was, thankfully, not as ugly as had been feared. In fact, he was strikingly attractive, and the rumours I had heard about the embarrassing size of his endowment were quite, quite untrue.
No matter how much it has been vaunted; no matter how many posters you’ve seen with discreetly placed lines of text; no matter how much you have been told about this naked speaker, there is nothing that can quite describe the impact nudity has. In a room full of formally dressed, middle-class students, there’s not much more of an anomaly than a tall young man, carrying a large placard, absolutely stark bollock naked. I had to hand it to him; if you’ll excuse the pun, Vincent Bethell had balls.
What he lacked, however, was a gift for public speaking. To be kind, Mr Bethell was not a professionally trained speaker. He talked softly and without dramatic punctuation and once he had finished what he had to say, he repeated it. His argument for nudity – that we hold in common our own human skin, and our fear and self-hatred causes us to persecute others who remind us of our common humanity – was somewhat appealing, but I found his argument that not allowing nudity was racist a little too much to take. Thankfully he was followed by Peter Murray; if not the most pleasant of individuals, certainly a talented speaker. His bellowed, staunch-Catholic rhetoric came into its own, accusing Mr Bethell of believing himself to be the Messiah. I am sure I would remember his speech better were it not for the distraction; Ewan MacCowan proved to be the first convert of the evening, standing up and upstaging Murray by gleefully removing all his clothes. His example was followed shortly after by two other young men standing behind the proposition speakers. And indeed, after his speech, Tom Plant, our own VPR, decided to put his opponent, Dr Philip Parry, off in the most blatant way by unbuttoning his shirt and then his trousers. Soon Tom was down to his Pierre Cardins, while Dr Parry proceeded with an excellent speech drawing from Gulliver’s Travels. Standing up to make a point of information, Tom succumbed to the cries of ‘Gown!’ and put his on, while making the point. At the close of his point of information, he slapped his now-removed jockeys on the table for emphasis and was rewarded with a massive cheer.
Murray decided to grab the audience’s attention in a less revealing manner. ‘Consider the following situation’ he asked the audience, ‘Under Mr Plant’s laws, a pimply teenage boy is standing in McDonald’s completely naked. Suddenly, an attractive girl catches his eye and he has an involuntary erection, spearing a small child in the ear with his cock’. It was the kind of point of information only Peter Murray could – or would- give.
I am afraid I cannot credit all who stripped off by name, but two more men in the vicinity of the speakers, and at least one at the back joined the ranks of the naked. In the brief pause between floor speeches, Anu Nuevonen and Liz McKinnell showed that it wasn’t only the boys who could play, and removed their dresses, to the great pleasure of all heterosexual men in the room. By the end of the debate, which ran for another half an hour or so, I found myself, inspired by Tom Plant’s speech, doing that which Peter Murray had been doing since the first girl walked into LPH; picturing the entire audience naked.
In my imagination, a great pile of blazers, Louis Vuitton handbags, chinos, party dresses and Barbour jackets grew in the corridor outside. Looking around, I could see how liberating the removal of clothing could be. A yah without a pink shirt could, after all, transform into a likeable human being. And so I’d like to encourage you all again to do that which the House eventually voted against doing; Undress. Forget your stereotyping. Burn your pashminas. And only then can you really be a person independent of what others think you should be.
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