Tom Hodgkinson: 'I never learnt to 'ollie', but my son sure as hell will'


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It's often said that those who have failed in adult life look to their children to succeed. They become pushy parents and live vicariously through their children's achievements. This is now happening to me. But I'm not hoping that my children will become lawyers or doctors or hedge-fund managers. I'm hoping that they'll be good at skateboarding.

Yes, I am a skateboarding failure. As a teenager, I loved the culture around skateboarding: the punk bands, the physical feats, the creative community. While an undergraduate at Cambridge in the late 1980s, I wore hoodies and trainers and, with my friend James Parker, now a critic on The Atlantic, pushed a borrowed board along Jesus Lane on the way to lectures.

It wasn't the most natural pursuit for a public-school egghead. My contemporaries, such as Nick Clegg, were more sensibly looking to their political careers and speaking at debates, or studying for the law exams which would lead later to enormous fees as barristers, while we listened to the Beastie Boys and played in a hardcore punk band called Chopper.

One summer, when I was 19, my younger brother took me to a concrete skate park under the Westway, west London. I had a go, fell off, and broke the metatarsals in my foot. I was in plaster for three months.

At 21, I got a job in Slam City Skates, the London skate shop, then a part of Rough Trade, the independent record retailer. I met real skateboarders who would invite me to join them skating at the weekends. I had to fess up: I couldn't skate. Luckily, there was another young man who was into the skating scene but who was as bad as me when it came to the practicalities. He was the journalist Gavin Hills, who went on to be the star writer at The Face before his untimely death at 32.

We decided to revel in our uselessness and formed the Crap Crew for older, less talented skaters. We had safety in numbers and found liberation in admitting how bad we were. We chose unchallenging skate spots such as the wide boulevards of Regent's Park. The 15-year-olds who frequented the shop delighted in taking me under their wing.

This all came back to me when I visited Slam City Skates last weekend to buy a skateboard for my younger son's ninth birthday. I never learnt to "ollie" (jump in the air), but Henry sure as hell will. Previously I had encouraged my older son, but he didn't show much interest. I now realise that encouragement was the wrong tactic. Children seem to do the opposite of what you plan for them. When Arthur was small, we banned sweets and computers, with the result that he has become a sugar-addicted über-geek.

One problem is that we were living on the wilds of Exmoor. You can't skate in a field or on the beach. Skating is an urban phenomenon. That is one of its central attractions. This simple piece of wood and four wheels can take what Prince Charles used to call the "monstrous carbuncles" of Brutalist modern architecture and transform them into a playground brimming with creative possibilities. That is what happened at the South Bank. God only knows what the original architects were planning when they designed what is known as the undercroft, with its concrete banks, steps and railings. They surely did not produce architectural drawings showing little skaters doing noseslides on handrails. But over 40 years, skateboarders have taken this space and transformed it into a skate mecca.

The planners now want to do away with it, and a campaign to save the South Bank has been rumbling on. When I bought Henry's skateboard, the boy behind the counter gave me some window stickers advertising, the Long Live South Bank website. The planners have designed a new skate centre as an appeasement, to be built nearby. But the attraction of the original is precisely that it was not designed as a skate park. One of the joys of skateboarding is that it rethinks the urban landscape. When I worked at Slam, news of new skate spots would circulate: maybe a council had just drained a pool and you could get in by climbing a fence.

Designated skate areas take the fun out it, like a special wall set aside by do-gooders for graffiti. It's just not the same.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

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