Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Roll For Life.... Part 1

This is the first of 3 posts, to be fired out in quick succession, tackling the barriers to skating, like, fo' ever brah.  This post deals with whether we exaggerate the impacts of getting older (or use it as an excuse); the next will deal with the arguably bigger issue of how the assholes in the civilian world see us - and how this reflects wider issues like class and wealth prejudice (fuck 'em); and the last post will cover attitudes within skating itself - some have changed, some stay the same.

* This picture crudely eludes to the practice of tattooing skate-relevant slogan's on one's forearm without much thought as to what they actually mean in practice: this post in no way advocates inking predictable statements in gothic text on one's arm.
A couple of days' back whilst on holiday in Boston Massachusetts, we heard the loud clattering of skateboarders behind us.  A group of 4-5 guys shot past, each ollieing a manhole cover with the snap, speed and confidence that shows straight away that they know what they're damn well doing.  As an afterthought, I noticed that a couple of the dudes had fully grey hair - probably in their 40s - and thought "rad, its not often you see guys that age skating street on a weekday back home." 

I'd wanted to tap out a positive post  on how more people could skate productively through their active lives -  not in a naff, self-parodying 'middle-aged shred' sense, or with the subterranean low expectations of  "I just like to cruise every now and again these days, man", but to properly skate and keep progressing.  Like runners, surfers, cyclists, skiers or rock climbers - or any other infinitely less rad activity that nonetheless becomes someone's lifetime identity.   A skate trip to Copenhagen and Malmo a month earlier and my own progress through the second half of my 30s had been gently prompting this. 

On return from the US, this piece of upper-class trolling from the Telegraph's Harry Wallop provided probable cause.  This was the second article from the Telegraph in the last few months snidely suggesting that a skateboarder over 29 was a pathetic try hard in the grip of a low-budget mid-life crisis.  The Telegraph aren't alone.  The New York Times published a cringe-inducing exposé  on this 'new' phenomena of the post-teen skateboarder a couple of years' back.  Then a torrent of unwanted opinion from the UK establishment was triggered by the opening of the House of Vans, the Long Live Southbank campaign, and the HTC One Skatepark at Selfridges.  Commentators on popular culture, from the Guardian to Marie Claire, have suggested that skateboarding is for teenaged boys alone: adult males, and women of any age, should stay the hell away.  At the same time, they suggest regular guys consider rocking a Palace t-shirt and Supreme 5-panel -  appropriating the fashion whilst scorning participation in the activity it draws from.

Muckmouth have just raged at this shit, arguing that older skateboarders have quite enough to deal with just age itself - and can do without judgment from those who don't themselves participate in a damn thing.  They're one of the internet's gems, so I don't want to step in their footprints and am anyway better equipped for more practical rambling of the what can/should change variety.  To do this, I'll address three big barriers to 'rolling 4 ever'/being a 'lifer' or whatever kids tattoo on their forearms without thinking about what that might end up meaning.

Wear, decay and maintenance

The most commonly given reason why someone becomes, or is forced to become, an 'ex-skater', is the idea - and eventual reality - that our bodies become less able to do the things we want after passing a given physical 'peak'.  But the science suggests that the body falls apart later and more slowly than we tend to assume, especially if we invest in general fitness (mitigating the downside of getting older, rather than complaining about it).

Sports scientists place the peak for most sports between the ages of 25 and 35 - the period usually defined by demographers as 'young adulthood'.  This is older than you'd expect if exposed to a couple of decades of skate journalism speculating that so-and-so is probably past it at 26 (although, along with injuries, professional skate 'careers' hinge on other factors, such as how long you can exist on sub-welfare incomes).  After this peak, deterioration is very gradual - unless you have a serious injury or illness: in normally healthy adults, the key indicators of oxygen intake and heart efficiency, muscle strength and flexibility decrease by small amounts each year.  Studies show that athletes perform at or close to their personal best from their late 30s to their early 40s - with gradual deterioration of around 2% per year after this, with changes only perceptible to the individual over the decade.  Have a look here for more detail.

What changes more rapidly is actual levels of participation in physical activity.  Essentially, from the late-30s/early-40s the average Western adult becomes very significantly less active, and their metabolism slows - together leading to weight gain, further decreasing activity.  Our image of someone in their 30s may not be that different from a 20-something, but when you conjure up an image of an average guy in their 40s, you may picture the dude wandering around the super market after his wife and kids, beer belly, pigeon chest, stooped posture - prodding listlessly at his mobile phone.   Imagine that guy on a skateboard, arf arf.

Researchers suspect a chicken-and-egg situation, with lifestyle factors (family, work, etc.) and social attitudes (more on that in Part 2) leading to reduced physical activity, rather than an inherent human tendency to reduce activity in itself.  This in turn may cause metabolism to slow when it does, and accelerate deterioration in the other key indicators.  The above link to the Journal of Sport Science includes evidence showing that active people aged 60+ outperform inactive 20-somethings across most indicators.  So there's empirical evidence behind that Jay Adams quote.
So we start to deteriorate later than you may have expected, and at a more gradual rate - with the more depressing, rapid changes due to behavioural and societal factors, rather than additional years on the planet per se.  The modern adult world pressures us to pile out, bro. 

The easy conclusion would be to say 'just keep skating' - you'll be more active than the average civilian, pile out less and live longer.  But we also tend to argue that skating is way more destructive than  other activities, leading to an earlier end point.  But unless you're jumping down stair sets and big rails on the regular - is it really?  People run long distances competitively well past 60, and that's super high impact: I ran my first half marathon earlier this year and my legs felt way more shagged than from 3 days hard skating (and I've run moderate distances for as long as I've skated, so its not a case of muscles being worked in unfamiliar ways).  Perhaps more significant, is the idea of older people skating (more on that in Part 3) - picturing ol' chubby 'rad dad' in a Quicksilver t-shirt.  But without entering into some Gwyneth Paltrow-style life advice, none of us are going to be that guy if we keep skating.  Dudes from Ronnie Creager to Lance Mountain don't look ridiculous -  skating should enable us to be the wiry old bastards that look like they live in the woods and would survive nuclear war.

The key is maintenance.  For those of us who started skating in the 90s this is hard to accept.  Stretching still seems lame - and the solution to a tweaked ankle back then was JD, weed and refusal to go to the doctor.  The younger generation seem much keener to borrow from mainstream sport and fitness (in this month's Sidewalk nice-guy-Will Golding has followed Korahn Gayle and...  yeah, Gino...  in professing time spent in the gym for cardio fitness, leg strength and flexibility at the tender age of 22 - foresight and discipline that I lacked at that age).  In 1996 this would have gotten you labelled as a 'jock' and way too serious.  I remember housemates and I hating on Reese Forbes because we incorrectly had him down as a serious sports guy.  But then hardly anyone knew people older than 25 in our skate scene.  Borrowing the useful stuff from regular sports isn't a bad thing, even if you're Magenta as hell and reckon 95% of 'performance' orientated skating sucks (this interview with Soy Panday and Vivien Feil on the thinking behind Magenta is amazing, btw).

To keep up the 'childish' act of skating at a level that is satisfying, one has to embrace some elements of normal guy fitness. That can either be depressing or motivating.  In any given office environment, you'll hear civilians carping on about "having" to go to the gym as they've eaten x amount of cake and crisps today, purely for vanity's sakes.  That shit sleeve of quasi-tribal tats will look shitter if matey piles out: no roll up sleeve, deep-v shirts for you, bruv.  But as a skateboarder, the shere dumb love of going skating is the ultimate motivator for swimming, cycling, running, yoga - whatever you choose.  Freddy Gall pulls off being a full-time pile whilst being amazing at skating, but his is probably not a recommended life trajectory for anyone else.  I'd much rather be that tedious older guy that goes running before work/at lunch - and can skate all weekend - than the regular fella moving from couch to work to pub and back again.  Although there's nothing wrong with that.  Each to their own.

The final point is the fallacy of applying the expiration date for 'peak' performance in professional competitive sports to normal skateboarders.  In mainstream competitive sports, even a 2% decrease in a given performance indicator loses you the edge on your competitors - career ending in light of the miniscule strength and speed differences between top athletes.  From their early to mid-30s, top footballers struggle to outrun their younger counterparts, pick up injuries faster and thus retire.  But you and I are not in a race, skateboarding does not require infinitesimal degrees of 'better' - and craft (judgement, aesthetics, trick and spot selection...  style) can increase with time, even if power fades a little.  My favourite bit of Cherry is the Brian Anderson line with the flat ground switch 360 flip, because I really like what he does with his shoulders... craft, son.

But professional, competitive athletics holds a powerful sway on how we talk about and evaluate skating, even if you subscribe to the 'its totally an art, dude' school of thought.  Just read any skate mag, and see how those valuations creep in, with skate 'careers' described in a similar trajectory to football or basketball, even if the dude in question is working an alternate job the whole way through.  This affects us as normal punters, consciously or otherwise feeling 'past it' when mainstream athletes our own age start retiring, even though they exist under a totally different set of circumstances.

But, I strongly believe nothing affects our feeling of when we can and can't skate than the perceptions of others...  the assholes: the subject of the next post.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Be more Swede

With the large indoor park in Nottingham closing its doors (as of 1st May) social media chatter has jumped between hopes that the current owners will find  new investors to bold dreams of brothers getting involved themselves and putting money down before the ramps are taken away.

But without careful reflection, simply jabbing the repeat button on the previous strategy will result in exactly the same outcome a few months down the line.

Running an indoor skate park in the UK, and anywhere in Northern Europe, is a worthy thing to do, and hugely important for the local scene  - given the prevailing weather conditions for two thirds of the year.  However, recent history is strewn with similar stories - and Flo's Facebook post citing "increasing competition from outdoor parks and also lack of support from our local community" suggests both a fundamental misunderstanding of the service-community relationship and a lack of imagination. 

This gap between how things are and how things could be looks even wider after viewing Phil Evans' incredible 'Coping Mechanism' documentary on the skate scene in Malmo - a small, post-industrial Swedish city, previously grotty but now the beneficiary of major regeneration, that has much in common with grand old Nottingham (something identified with actual science !!!?! in some research I produced for Nottingham City Councils' Growth Strategy in my day job). 

Coping Mechanism is a film that is hard to watch without thinking "we should do things differently."

Rather than raging against a 'lack of support' from the community, as if such support were a given right - the skaters and entrepreneurs of Malmo have thought creatively about what they want their scene to look like over the long term, what needs to be done to achieve that vision, and how viable businesses and public services can help achieve that.  Whilst the Malmo street and DIY scene, Pontus and Polar all provide inspiration for the rank and file skaters, of all ages, ability and gender, Skate Malmo and the Bryggeriat indoor park & high school provide ideas for those with grander designs within their local scene, including prospective entrepreneurs and skate park campaigners looking for a more fruitful dialogue with local government.

Demand for indoor skate parks is fundamentally seasonal; urban business floor space is expensive; and councils and government agencies are loathe to give money away to anyone who doesn't appear to know what they're doing (unless they're re-constructing Lady Bay skate park, unfortunately).  However, Bryggeriat has flourished - achieving significant public funding from the Swedish Government, genuine high school status, and bagging that recent Berrics coverage courtesy of Chris Mulhern - facing those same challenges.

Skateboarders will always favour the outdoors when the sun is shining: we should not be blamed for this behaviour.  However much time top pros now spend in southern Californian warehouses to maintain their bankability, the rest of us giddily race outdoors at the first sight of dry concrete.  This doesn't make us disloyal customers - we're simply behaving as skateboarders always have and will do: its predictable, and any business plan needs to account for this.

A well run indoor skate park has to do two things: plan for this seasonality and draw on income streams significantly in excess of just admission fees - in other words, be more than 'just' a skate park.  This is where the Bryggeriet example comes in, even though Conservative Britain is far from social democratic Sweden.  If we want a sustainable indoor park, within a healthy, productive and fucking rad scene, the following lessons are surely worth thinking on:

  1. Do not plan to make profit in the traditional sense (this also goes to those setting up board companies right now).  This sound obvious, but the objectives in a business plan tell your bank and other investors (e.g. venture capitalists) what you expect to achieve, and what's in it for them.  If you promise significant returns, and then go off and build a skate park, you will have disappointed investors who will want their money back.  If your objectives are social, qualitative rather than quantitative, a skate park (or portfolio of multiple skate parks) won't make you rich, but it may attract a different kind of investor.  In short, a skate park in the UK is much more likely to be sustainable if it looks more like a social enterprise or charity, rather than a traditional for-profit company. 

    This fundamental difference in business objectives, and the kind of organisation delivering them, affects how much and what kind of money you can access....  which brings us to the need to:
  2. Secure public funding.  Very few long-running UK skate parks survive through private revenue alone.  Entry fees and revenue from events may suffice through the autumn/winter - but they are unlikely to be sufficient to cover the spring-summer slump, year after year, unless you try to compensate by marking up the entry price: in which case you push costs beyond the means of punters in their teens and early twenties (i.e. your majority demograph), or you need to draw in hundreds of casual, short-term users on scooters (mainly small children) - driving out the people you built the place for in the first place. 

    Even in these austere times, there's a lot of public and third-sector funding out there - if you can make a sincere case and are then willing to deliver the promised outcomes.  The guys who set up the House in Sheffield credited the importance of a Prince's Trust grant in an interview in Sidewalk, whilst the original establishment of Skegness' X-Site plaza and indoor park was supported by major regeneration funding secured through Lincolnshire Enterprise and the now-defunct Regional Development Agency.

    And the timing is ripe for this.  The next round of European 'structural' funding starts imminently (the European Regional Development Fund, ERDF, and the European Social Fund, ESF, for 2014-2020), funding bids for which will be considered by the Local Enterprise Partnership - with literally millions of Euros available to those organisations who can meet the criteria.  The likes of Sport England and the Arts Council, although heavily affected by cuts, have policy objectives around 'raising participation' for children and adults in sports and active lifestyles (a clear rationale for funding a skate park) and in the arts (more of this later).

    Accessing this sort of investment may make a skate park viable in the long-term, but cannot be pursued lightly.  If you are aiming to cynically hoover up every bit of public or charitable funding possible, you are not only the worst type of person - you'll also never make it through the long meetings, application and monitoring forms, and evaluation required (quite rightly - this is public money that could otherwise be spent on health centres, care for vulnerable children, etc. - impact needs to be provable). 

    It has to be approached with a heartfelt aim of using skateboarding to meet the social objectives of the funding applied for - which of course it can: we all know dudes who'd be lost to drugs and alcohol if not for skateboarding. 

    There are also a load of creative ways a skate park can meet such social inclusion and regeneration objectives....
  3. Diversification.  Indoor skate parks need large premises / Skateboarders are polymaths with an appreciation of diverse but related interests - fine arts, graphic design and web-based multi-media, photography, music, journalism, architecture, healthy lifestyle practices such as yoga, vegan cooking, etc. (as well as unbelievably unhealthy living - but lets leave that to one side), to name a few (and I can name some brothers with an interest and annoying skill level in all of these). 

    In Mulhern's Bryggeriet documentary, former London locatee (and one time Unabomber am) Gustav Eden talks about how young skaters absorb knowledge across a broad spectrum without necessarily recognising it, giving them an educational 'head start' on other young adults - as long as they are able to recognise the connections between skate board life and the wider world, which is where facilities and mentoring can play a really important role.  Eden talks about using what teenagers love to motivate them to engage in the skills they need for the rest of their lives.

    A well-thought out business plan could tap into these opportunities to generate diverse ways of productively using all that unused space.  A dark-room, that local photographers share and pay a small rent on?   Gallery space, perhaps in the café area, with a rotating cycle of stuff from photographers and artists?  Can the café area double as space for evening and weekend art lessons?  First aid courses? Film premieres and lectures?  Funders like interconnectivity - so time spent leafing through Nottingham's Growth Strategy, the Creative Quarter, etc. will pay dividends.

    Combining all of the things skaters are interested in, and good at, under one roof, can help you:
  4. Achieve social rather than commercial objectives.  In order to access that all-important public funding in a legitimate way, and achieve the kind of things that may stop us all burning in hell for the ignorant-ass hip hop and metal we listen to, linking the use of space with meaningful objectives is paramount. 

    Creative thinking can link what is necessary for public funding with what you would want to achieve for a productive, inclusive skate scene - diversity in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background; harnessing the efforts of volunteers who'll give you their time just for the dumb fucking love of it; and connecting to and supporting other ventures across the scene (local shops and companies - in and connected to skateboarding).

    Despite the excitement generated by the Bryggeriet school documentary, I would be very surprised if Britain were ever to host something similarly progressive-minded   - given the leap of faith required to let kids learn by doing what they love (remembering that Bryggeriet is so much more than just allowing kids to skate in sports curricula, which is occurring in the UK).  Michael Gove, for all his talk on freeing up creativity in schools, is no progressive. 

    But, if we want - and I certainly do - skateboarding to embrace and benefit a wider demograph than upper-middle class 18-25 year old white males in Supreme 5-panels/ Teutonic side-partings (they'll be fine, indoor park or no, there's still Instagram) - the loss of an indoor park provides opportunity to think of the kind of stuff that should happen to secure our scene in the long-term.  Skate lessons for young kids - boys AND girls, working with local schools  and (most importantly) Academies in more deprived areas; getting parents participating rather than just standing there worriedly...  'rad dad'/mum' shouldn't be a derogatory term (Telegraph columnists can go sit in a puddle);  Working with Broadway and the Contemporary to build on those film and art links....  some of the output brothers casually shit out and bung on youtube stands up pretty good.
None of this makes money, but it justifies funding.  The two things are different - one might make a couple of individuals some cash in the short term; the other supports the scene, and the local industry, to be something we will all benefit from in the long term - and will create more sustainable employment.  Social enterprises might not make huge profits, but they can pay living wages - for a broader range of motivated people than the (sadly all too common) fare of a couple of bored looking blokes sat by the entrance who desperately wants to shut up for the day, and love skateboarding far less for working within it.

I'm sure brothers in progressively minded parks like X-Site and the House are already nailing much of this.  But I live in Nottingham - and a lack of an indoor park will hurt come October.   

Thursday, 3 April 2014

The Stainless Steel Rat

"We must be as stealthy as rats in the wainscoting of their society. It was easier in the old days, of course, and society had more rats when the rules were looser, just as old wooden buildings have more rats than concrete buildings. But there are rats in the building now as well. Now that society is all ferrocrete and stainless steel there are fewer gaps in the joints. It takes a very smart rat indeed to find these openings. Only a stainless steel rat can be at home in this environment."
(Harry Harrison, 'The Stainless Steel Rat', 1957)

This morning I had seriously wanted to write some kind of acerbic response to Lee Coan's article in the Telegraph Online (normally for newspaper's web presences, putting 'online' after their title is passé and pointless, but for the Telegraph all this modern shit is still pretty novel, confusing and frightening).  But then I decided that a far more positive response -  that would simultaneously refute and devalue everything that article, and its writer, stands for - would be to post some stuff about my friend Ian Rees - skateboarder, adventurer, mystic and weirdo.  Dave Bukowski Bevan has already written a great qualitative piece on this dude in Sidewalk a couple of months' back - but, to my knowledge, he's never had a full interview/'haunts'/'shine on' thing in Sidewalk or Kingpin, despite racking up photos in both over the decades.
Its timely to shine a light on Ol' Dutty Donno, not just because he's still shredding hard on all terrains, but because his successful existence sticks a finger up at (and just up) everything that snide article in the Telegraph said about skateboarding 'after a certain age'.   Interestingly, I think if the columnist responsible were to meet Rees - he'd probably come away snorting that he seemed like a "pretty interesting chap."  This is testament to someone who hasn't compromised in living the normal life (avoiding mortgage plus job that you hate), and has maintained conviction in doing this on his own terms - travelling, skating to a ridiculous standard, reading widely, and manufacturing some of the most surreal, perverted actually-did-happen stories known to man.  Myself on the other hand - house, job I hate etc. - if I were to meet Lee Coan, he'd walk away thinking I was some hateful loser, who'd failed at life, even though, in career terms, I've done OK.  But I wouldn't go into this hypothetical meeting with 100% conviction that my path had been a good one - I'd be full on compromise and uncertainty.  And the occasional 1990s rap reference.  Rees has the capacity to charm even the most close-minded of people - to the extent that they'd fail to bat a hypothetical eyelid as he inevitably shared a graphic story about getting one's genitals stuck somewhere terrible.
First scan is from a copy of an August 1995 Sidewalk curated by Scotty at 42, Rees' 'First Offence' (pre First Light rename....  didn't RAD magazine used to call their equivalent 'Fresh Meat'?).  This flat bar is behind Showcase cinema in Nottingham, which Jon Weatherall had a contents page crooking - a 50-50 on this is rock hard though, as its so close to the corrugated wall. Try it... think its still there.  Me and a buddy went with the express objective of crooking it a few years ago as a mid-winter Weatherall homage mission.  I succeeded, he failed...  it rarely works that way round. 
This is from the August 1997 Sidewalk, back when they did a regular feature called 'twisted' with dudes succeeding at weird, tricky, scary stuff - which Rees excels at.

Final two photos for this post are two Icon ads - the now defunct Rollersnakes-owned brand of the late-90s-to-mid-2000s, pre-taking on the Unabomber brand.  Icon never quite found their image, but they had a diverse team of mainly midlands-based rippers - including, at various times, Scotty, Smedley, Rees, Culshaw, Derby's own (Franken-)Fletcher, Mark Vasey, Dan Leech, Brad Garner, and a few others.  The first, from May 2005 is at the old Sainsbury's hip in Beeston.  Stacey Lowery tres-flipped this on some tour or other, Joel Curtis back 5.0'd it, and Mark Baines did a tricky front-side noseslide to revert thing.  Rees' front crook is proper amazing - and at the time when the building behind was due to be demolished (sadly along with the banks, hip and bar) - so the run-up and out was even worse than it looks.  Me and my buddies lived around the corner and used to skate here almost every night - and hardly ever touched the pipe/bar.  Second photo is from Livi - in 2006, in a Nottingham bros trip to Scotland, that remains one of the best skate trips of my life - Rees on a mini bus driving, non-stop shredding, weird story telling, transcendental time-keeping tip the whole way

Friday, 3 January 2014

Smudger: The Scotty Underdown Pro Shoe

In order to say both "happy New Year" and "happy birthday Scotty", here's a picture saved by Non Stop - clipped from a very early copy of Sidewalk  - that didn't readily fit into any of the loose themes of previous posts.
I'd date it at around 1995-96 - and its an ad for the 1990s home-grown skate company STM, based within Rollersnakes, which produced boards, clothes and, more importantly, a zine ('The System') and a VHS video magazine ('VideoLog) in the mid 1990s.  I say "importantly" with reference to the contributions both the zine and video mag made to UK skate history, as 'The System' provided early jumping points for Sidewalk dons Andy Horsley (as photographer/editor/writer) and Ben Powell (who I clearly remember being pictured in one issue, ollieing over one of the benches in Broadmarsh bus station).
Anyway, all of the Rollersnakes/STM output of the time was in keeping with the now well-established tradition of royally ripping the piss out of beloved co-conspirators, American skateboard heroes, and cross-over attempting corporate giants alike. 
This STM ad combines all three elements.  Dope photo of bonafide street urchin with a long-expired nickname (does anyone still call Scotty 'smudge'?); a piss-take of American pro-shoe ads (with features including "toe venting system, infused with the power of the dark one....  authentic dog shit smell"); and a photo of wrecked pair of Reebok's abortive attempt to copy Airwalks with 'Scotty' written on them in tippex. 
Scott rips on a skateboard, and has far smarter trainers these days.
My first ever skateboard was a Rollersnakes complete with an STM deck (maroon, with a simple Dark Side of the Moon-style pyramid line drawn motif), purchased in the summer of 1996 during a weekend visit to Nottingham, after watching Rob Johnson fly over a full-sized road cone in Market Square.  I decided it was the dopest thing I'd ever seen, and I had to at least give it a try.
On the subject of dope things, check this photo of Gaz Jenkins from Sidewalk in the early 2000s conquering the National Watersports Centre steps.  Happy New Year.