A couple of weeks ago, almost in passing, I mentioned that I’d met ‘Pops’, a 70+ year old avatar who was operating an appropriately aged avatar.
While not there at the birth of the naturist movement, ‘Pops’ can certainly recall the (British) naturist movement as it was in the post-war years, a time of rationing and not having very much, despite the war being over.
‘My parents were naturists’, Pops tells me, ‘and I’m afraid that I never asked them what the attraction was, I’d love to have known what drew them to it. I suspect that it was because naturism, or nudism as it would have been universally called back then, was something that existed as part of what became known, later on, as the counter-culture. Back then, my parents probably were quite bohemian in outlook an nudism was just one element of that. The bohemians led a kind of slightly unconventional lifestyle. My father was certainly a voracious reader of all manner of books. He could move from a book on the English monarchy, to the Communist manifesto, to Hitler’s Mein Kampf in the space of a couple of weeks. We certainly had a copy of ‘Mein Kampf’ in our home, printed in English and published either just before the war or during the early war years. I recall that my father had inscribed it with the date ‘1940’. I never got any sense of my father being supportive of Nazism, although I know that many members of the British aristocracy flirted with it and were intrigued and, indeed, supportive of it in the 1930s. My sense of it was that my father would have bought and read that to try to understand what it was, and why we were, ultimately, choosing to fight against it, trying to draw his own conclusions about it rather than what the press were saying. As I say, some elements of the press were sympathetic to it in the 1930s.’
The Mitford sisters, well known English socialites, were amongst those who flirted with Nazism. Imagine modern day celebrities -someone like The Hilton Sisters or The Kardashians– coming out in support of President Assad of Syria, or in support of Islamic State, and you will have some indication of just how much of a scandal this was. There’s also a rather famous photograph of King Edward VIII (who abdicated the throne because of his relationships with American divorcee Wallis Simpson) meeting Adolf Hitler prior to the war.
Quite how much this was supportive of Hitler’s regime, or how much ‘diplomacy’ was involved -the British monarchy have a long record of meeting despots for diplomatic reasons rather than for personal enjoyment and sympathy- isn’t clear.
Our current Queen meets despotic Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, for ‘diplomatic’ purposes rather than mutual fondness.
With this background, then, Pops recalls an atmosphere of ‘white hot political discussion’ being part of his early recollections of ‘the nudist camp’.
‘My parents went by names ascribed to them by the club secretary’, he says, ‘in the style of Greek or Roman gods. You didn’t join as Mr & Smith. You became ‘Ajax‘, or ‘Hera‘, for example. This was to provide total anonymity as back then declaring oneself to be a nudist was probably the fastest route to career termination. It also gives a small clue as to the social make-up of nudism in the 1930s. It would have been a solidly upper middle-class and even upper class pursuit. The names clearly denote a classical education, so more likely the membership of nudist clubs were coming from a grammar school background, the university educated. It was not something that the lower classes, the working classes, would have been involved in then.’
After the war, as the strict divisions of social class in Britain were being dismantled (they’re effectively being restored under a policy of ‘austerity’ at the moment…too long a story, and irrelevant to SL and SL naturism to get into here) nudism did begin to be opened up to the ‘lower classes’.
‘I have absolutely no idea how people approach others with a view to join the secret services around the world, or how people approach others with a view to purchasing drugs’, laughs Pops, ‘but I imagine there must have been some routine regarding establishing the sympathies or tastes of others. Almost like background checks on a casual basis. For one thing, it was couples only. I can’t really imagine how a husband broaches the topic of nudism to his wife. I can’t imagine how one even considers, prior to car ownership being a basic thing, hopping on a train out to the coast and finding somewhere to swim nude with your wife. Would you suggest to your wife that maybe both of you strip naked to sunbathe in the garden, assuming you even had a garden? I’m afraid it’s all alien to me, so how the nudist movement found members is something I cannot comment upon’.
Pops’ experience was that he, the son of nudists, was simply a member of the club, and would remain so through his youth and early adult life. It was where he would meet his wife.
‘We’re getting into the late 50s and early 60s now. I was an adult, and still going to the club regularly with my parents. Just as many people meet their girlfriends and boyfriends through whatever social setting they’re in, a church, a tennis club, even through work, it was almost an inevitability that I should meet my wife through the nudist club. Even today, most people will meet someone, go on a date, kiss, and then end up getting naked together. My wife and I had seen each other fully nude on many occasions before we’d even spoken, kissed or anything else!’ Pops roars with laughter.
Then, clubs placed great emphasis on physical activity. ‘Badminton was a big thing in the club, and of course there was naturism’s very own sport, miniten. We weren’t quite at the point where we indulged in collective physical exercise, but I do recall my parents and others undertaking what were called ‘physical jerks’ when I was a child. Naturism was always ahead of the game. Now, people do aqua-aerobics, or go jogging, and it’s all about keeping fit and healthy. Nudism was like that in the 50s and 60s. It has always been a forward thinking lifestyle. It’s only now that the world is catching up with the health benefits the nudist lifestyle has always encouraged.’
Married in 1964, the couple would have three children together before the end of the decade, and remain members of the nudist club throughout their married life, until Irene, Pops’ wife, died in 2007.
Of their children, two have remained on the fringes of naturism. ‘They were brought up in that environment, and they will use a naturist beach on holiday if one is available’, Pops explains, ‘but neither belong to my club, or any other club. It’s indicative of the manner in which naturism is declining in an organised sense. For my parents, and even for me for many years, foreign travel wasn’t an option. Nowadays people can hop on a plane and be in the sun a couple of hours later. Why would they choose to spend a weekend building some sort of facility at a club in England under heavy skies or in drizzle? I do understand why people don’t wish to be part of that any longer’.
Now long retired, Pops still spends afternoons at his club. ‘We’re an older crowd now, of course, so it’s a case of sitting around in the sun and enjoying conversation. I do see a slow and steady decline in both numbers using it and the degradation of the facilities. It’s hard to get people to give up time to even paint out the bar area, or do some weeding. In the 60s, we’d have gone there, the ladies were knitting and making teas, baking cakes and so on, while the gentlemen would have decided to paint this area, weed that area, do some maintenance, pool our collective skills.’
Does Pops feel nostalgic for nudism in Britain in the past?
‘Very much so, but the world changes. Why wouldn’t you choose to sit in the sun in Spain considering the costs? For the price of British club membership you can get a week in guaranteed sunshine. Of course that’s more appealing than the likelihood of English drizzle.’
‘Yes, I’m nostalgic for my nudist past, because they were great times. I’m enough of a realist to understand that we must progress. Naturism, as a movement, faces challenges to survive and thrive. We need more young people involved. We need to re-assess how the club culture of the most of the 20th century fits in today. We need to examine the laws of the land, wherever we live, and see if there’s any way we can fit a wider acceptance of the naked body into society without offending. Of course, our world is growing increasingly intolerant. My recollection over six decades is that, post-war, we emerged into a society that grew more tolerant and accepting. That has diminished since the 1990s, I think.’
Turning to ‘Pops: the avatar’, why choose to adopt an older avatar?
‘It’s me. I’m not trying to be something I’m not. Why shouldn’t we adopt older avatars?’
I agree. I always find it adds to the diversity in SL that everyone doesn’t choose to be young, beautiful, virile. It adds interest.
‘Of course. I do find that some people are rather admiring of an older avatar anyway, because it steps away from the Second Life norm. I never ran a younger avatar. When I registered, it was as ‘Pops’. It’s the name my grandchildren call me. I always wanted my avatar to reflect my age. I didn’t want to live a lie because…well, for one thing, do I really want to be teleporting into a club with modern dance music and getting into a whole false image about who I am? No. It was always my intention, from registration, to adopt an older avatar.’
Pops, utilising an older skin, and complete with walking stick, at Su Casa.
Which has proven to be the correct decision for him, as his older avatar attracted the attention of another older SL user, Gladys. When they met, Gladys was running a younger avatar but Pops’ appearance ‘persuaded her to adopt a persona to reflect her age. We’re near contemporaries in real life. We’re both widowed. SL is a social outlet. We can log in and sit in the sun and chat. We’ve never met in real life and are unlikely to meet, but we do have a Second Life friendship that I think we both value. When people criticise Second Life, they under-estimate certain elements of it. The view always appears to be that it’s a place of virtual sex for the lonely. There may be something to that, but I don’t see that as a bad thing necessarily. If you’re shy in SL, if you aren’t ‘good looking’, if you’re ill, if you’re lonely, what’s wrong with a bit of virtual love or sex? Aren’t we all entitled to that? So for those criticising, I think some re-examination of SL is necessary. I’m coming 75. I don’t really need to fulfil any sexual desires any more, hahaha. I still like to get into the garden and go for walks, but I’m often on my own in my own house. Rather than staring at four walls, I like the idea that I can find a social element in SL. Gladys is part of that. We like the same music, remember the same things, and we’ll often just park ourselves somewhere in SL and chat to one another most of the afternoon. Can anyone say that that isn’t a positive function that SL plays? I keep reading that loneliness in life is a challenge facing older people. I can honestly say that I don’t suffer. SL plays a role in that. I do have, even if it’s second hand, a social outlet.’
Pops is also keen to emphasise that it’s not just a case of people his age, utilising avatars that reflect his RL age, that he speaks with.
‘I love reading your blog’, he says, ‘because of the SL aspect of it, and the naturist element of it. You’re about half my age. When we speak, is there a generational gap? No. We converse about naturism, a shared love. There is no age-gap. SL closed it. It would be nice if commentators took the care to examine some of the social aspects of SL rather than dismiss it as a world of cybersex and nothing else. As the population ages, I think that worlds like SL will play a role. A computer literate generation who, through illness and frailty, cannot get out much. SL, or worlds like it, could easily play an enormous role in keeping people’s mental health healthy, or not seeing them growing insular and withdrawn as they get older.’