In 1951 on a visit to the south of France with a school friend, a bus which we took eastward along the coast dropped us at the town of Le Lavandou.
As we paused there, we heard about a nudist colony called Heliopolis on the Île du Levant, which lay a few miles offshore out in the Mediterranean. It seemed to us that this might provide another intriguing diversion. The island was in part taken up by the naturist enclave, while the rest was given over to some government agency for experimental purposes to do with the military.
The Île du Levant was accessible by regular ferry service, but it was too late to catch a boat that day. Rather than spend our dwindling resources on a hotel we decided to sleep out on the beach. The night was long and the air became chilled. We could hardly wait to see the sun rise and feel its warmth.
The first ferry next morning carried us to the island, where the inhabitants of the small port town earned a living by catering for the needs of the many visitors who came to the island from far and wide in search of nature and the natural in every sense. Even the shop assistants served the customers naked, except for a fig leaf to cover their private parts. At first I and my friend found it a bizarre experience to go into a bakery and see a woman dangling her breasts among the freshly baked loaves she was handling. Did the bread taste better as a result, we wondered.
As the initial weirdness of the experience began to wear off, we made our way to the top of a mountain where there was a youth hostel and encampment. Here various formalities had to be gone through including the need to register ourselves as youth members of the cult of naturalism. Then we were each allocated a place in one of the tents and requested to go about naked like everyone else.
Nervously we removed our clothing and braced ourselves to face the ordeal of making a grand entrance at the main compound where the community gathered. It was only to be expected that we would briefly become the focus of attention. For one thing, a new merchandise always attracts until the novelty wears off; for another, our bodies were white in contrast to the glowing browns of those whose skin had been exposed to the sun’s rays for a long period. There was also no escaping the curiosity humans always feel for seeing those parts of other people’s bodies that are normally concealed. As soon as the assembled company had had their fill, I and my friend blended into the landscape.
The youth club which we had joined consisted of dedicated followers of the French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. I was very familiar with his work and considered myself a faithful disciple. Existentialism had an exciting appeal for young people in those days with its emphasis on man’s needing to define his place in the world in which he found himself by drawing on his own mental resources and his own human experience, God (or the idea of God) having departed the scene. Among Sartre’s writings I had read the novels La Nausée and the trilogy Les Chemins de la Liberté, as well as some of the plays – notably Les Mouches and La Putain Respectueuse. I therefore felt completely at home in the intellectual ethos of the youth camp, while other aspects of the collective experience needed a degree of adjustment.
There were no showers or running water. The only toilet facilities were communal and consisted of a large hole in the ground in the woods. It was the ultimate exercise in social levelling. You would be squatting to relieve yourself over the hole when somebody else came and squatted next to you to do the same. Their presence had an inhibiting effect on the uninitiated through embarrassment. The anal sphincter would tighten and the natural function seize.
The main diet in camp was bread and cheese washed down with quantities of cheap wine. We also brought fruit, vegetables and tinned sardines at the shop. We could not afford sun-tan lotion so to protect our skin we used olive oil, which had some rather unfortunate results.
There were times in the evenings, after everyone had eaten and before merriment took over, when the general talk turned into animated discussions and heated arguments of existentialism; what it stood for and its various interpretations. At such moments the atmosphere began to sizzle with intellectual fervour.
The shedding of inhibitions and exposing of the body in nakedness became all of a piece with the bearing of the soul. It was an invigorating experience that I recognised as a unique coming together of circumstances, time and place. I drank in every part of it eagerly; I would never encounter anything like it again.
As the arguments petered out, the desire for entertainment took over. Musical talents came to the fore and there was a lot of dancing before the day’s activities were rounded off with game sessions. One notable contest involved two people sitting opposite each other astride a wobbly bench, their feet not touching the ground. While each of them used one hand to ward off blows to their own head, with the other they dealt blows about the other’s head with enough force to make them topple off. Whoever remained on their perch at the end of the contest was declared the winner. Late at night the mistral started to blow down the Rhône Valley and the tents in which the revellers slept began to sway as if keeping time with the wind. The camp beds inside the tents were arranged almost touching because of the limitations on space and there was no segregation of the sexes.
The whole business of nakedness had made us apprehensive about how our own bodies would respond to seeing naked women all around us. Could we resist getting erections? If we failed to repress the urge, would we find ourselves the embarrassed subjects of mocking hilarity among our comrades? The odd thing was that with so much flesh on show in such a natural, matter-of-fact way, the erotic mystery seemed to vanish. During the day we spent our time on the beach where the whole colony gathered in the burning sun. There we saw all sizes and shapes of naked bodies – some were young, some old, some very old. We witnessed the beauty of the human form alongside the ugly and grotesque. The widely diverse sunbathers presented a living frieze that included the gorgeous and the repellent. Some private parts in either sex could be threatening or disturbing to look at; others were more benign.
In the final analysis allure and revulsion walked hand in hand, beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. We could hardly have had a better demonstration of the fact, as we took the lesson on board. It was forbidden to photograph any of the naked women but that did not prevent us trying it on surreptitiously. The only occasion on which cameras were openly allowed was the evening of the Nude Miss Île du Levant contest, when the gorgeous winner could be photographed naked.
The week we spent on the Île du Levant was an adventure we could not have forgone. Nakedness does not in itself allow sexual desire; there are times when it discourages it. The libido is stimulated by mysterious impulses that spring from a longing to unravel something tantalisingly hidden. Some of the women we had seen were stunningly attractive yet we had felt no physical response. It only went to prove that it was concealment that strengthened desire through the power of imagination.
The point was illustrated after we had arrived in Hyères and were making our way along a rather windy quayside. A gust of breeze caught the skirt of a curvaceous young woman who happened to be walking on the seafront. The glimpse we had of her knickers was enough to make my blood and that of my friend tingle with excitement.
We were back in the real world.