Rollerblading into the future

Who wants to be a machine? The skaters in our parks are like Robocop or Batman - smooth, hi-tech and sexless
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The Independent Online
The centaur was a mythical beast - half man, half horse. The Cartesian Centaur - invented, I think, by Samuel Beckett - was a not-so-mythical beast. He was a man on a bicycle - half-man, half-machine - the Industrial Age's answer to the dream of homo sapiens liberated from the burden of his drearily incompetent body.

On his bike, the Cartesian Centaur sped smoothly past the bobbing, bouncing imbecile on his mere legs. With this simple, mechanical addition of chains, wheels and tubes, he became a new species, a technological rebuke to the drably organic amalgam of muscles and bone. Reason and industry triumphed over evolutionary destiny.

Then, down the strange spirals of history, we come to the rollerblade. Wheels, you see, are smoother and faster than legs. The bike first reveals this, and then the rollerskate refines it by attaching the wheels directly to the foot. Then comes the skateboard, an athletic, street-invading affirmation of new-age mobility. Refine this further, tie the wheels back to the foot, put them in line to form, as it were, the spinning, warm- weather equivalent of the ice-skate, a precarious, infinitely manoeuvrable addition to the sadly lumbering human foot. And, get this, rollerbladers have a governing body, the In-Line Skating Association.

It came, of course, from the United States, probably California. The blade answered the ambiguous needs of the new good life. On the one hand it did not pollute, like the car, and on the other it did not merely whiz you, idle and coronary-prone, from place to place like the tube or bus. The rollerblade, like certain shampoos and washing-up liquids, was good for you and for the planet. Dolphins would not suffer from your commute and, to advertise the fact, your legs would blossom like Sly's or Arnie's.

Plus - and this, I think, is the key - you could dress for it. The rollerblader locks hi-tech boots to the end of his legs and wears daunting knee and elbow pads lest he fall. On his head he wears a groovily unflattering helmet and round his loins cling black, skin-tight shorts. Hurtling past you on the street, the new Cartesian Centaur is seriously at one with the Zeitgeist. There are you with your briefcase, your suit and your feet, for God's sake. And there is he with his wheels and stuff, bound upon some fabulously urgent mission, pressing business at Emporio Armani or a life-saving dash to thaw a frozen screen somewhere on the Internet. His head-down, swerving dash tells you all you need to know: you are history.

Then, out of the blue, someone dies. Innocently riding his bike on the Hyde Park cycle path, Mark Welch, 26, is hit by a rollerblader and subsequently dies at the Royal London Hospital. Suddenly we have a reason to get angry with the CCs. A bike is one thing, a charming relic of all our childhoods. But the rollerblade is the modern world, a lethally efficient form of propulsion and collision. Cyclists are steam engines, narrow boats or Max Miller; blades are gigabytes, surfboards or Bill Gates. A bike can hit you and, sentimentally, you would blame yourself; a blader hits you and the times are out of joint.

The rollerblade is big, bigger among that critical and frightening age group of 10- to 15-year-olds than the bike, even the hi-cred mountain bike. The blade is a perfect youth fad, an aggressive celebration of anti-parental competence with an overtone of appalling danger. On blades you can get there faster and smoother - without the uncool fag of walking or the lizardly, lounge-like comforts of the car. As on a Harley-Davidson, you feel the air rushing past your face but you do not puncture the ozone layer. And, as on a Harley, you wear armour, protective cladding that signals tough contemporary realism, a cool acceptance of the violent landscape of urban life.

The image of the blader embodies a contradiction. He is environmentally sound, but he is not anti-progressive, he wants to go with the technological flow. In truth, the environmental soundness hardly matters at all because the blader, deep down, wants to be a machine.

He is not alone. The human being, semi-transmuted into a machine, is one of the most pervasive contemporary icons. The armoured, pumped-up contestants on Gladiators are aspirations to the ideal of machinehood. Robocop is admirable precisely to the extent that he has left behind the organic shackles, those sweaty bonds that run to fat, exude bad breath and die at the impact of a mere bullet. Batman is Woody Allen with body armour, Prozac and morals. Children want to be Power Rangers, helmeted and strong; adults want to be Pete Sampras, neat, fast and unencumbered by the anxieties of culture and personality.

These are icons of a desired future, a future of cleanliness and efficiency. We look desperately to that future because, somewhere down the line, we feel sure the machines will make it better, less messy, less smelly, less us.

But this death makes the point: the future is unfriendly to the past. Parks, pavements and walking are what we do and have always done. They provide free time and space, empty realms of idling and fantasy. These are places where we do not get run over, it is not allowed. These are places where armoured, wheeled cyborgs should not be. The death of Mark Welch is more horrible because he was doing something nice - cycling; because he was run over by this rolling alien; because he was in a park, and because the steely, smart-ass future tramples and bruises the soft, organic past.

But can we stop wanting to be machines? Probably not. The contemporary obsession with the body - dieting, exercise, sex, drugs and rock'n'roll - is a prelude to rejection. We fiddle with and watch the body because it is not good enough. It demands fat or idleness when it should want carbs and the gym. It merely walks when it could roll at 30mph on in-line wheels. We are waiting for the carbon-fibre replacement; we do not want to be the husband of the Stepford wife, we want to be the wife.

The image and style of the rollerblader is that of Robocop or Batman, a being made better than organic by technology. The whole outfit - including, these days, sinister, winged sunglasses - is about smooth, hi-tech, sexless impersonality, the perfect integration of the individual into the stylised anonymity of the Zeitgeist. If you want to look like that then, frankly, you are an idiot, a body-hater, a cosmic malcontent, someone who probably cannot wait for Bill Gates to "ship" Windows 95 because it's cool.

If you do not want to look like that, join the good guys. Ban rollerbladers from parks, pavements and all the great good places. Let them roll around their Manhattan-style lofts or crash into each other on special circuits built near nuclear power stations. Be honest: you hate them, and so do I.