Skating the Rainbow

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Brian Anderson’s decision to come out has been met with support and affection across that slice of internet lacquered thick with skateboarding. In addition, joining Antihero, that most manly, broken-toothed, gun shootin’, hill bombin’, beer sluggin’, say-it-like-it-is and shut-up-and-skate of all teams, couldn’t be more perfect. Surely the homophobia that has lingered in skateboarding like a drug-resistant superbug can’t survive in this environment.

The idea that things were once worse and now, perhaps, are better has been explored in brilliant pieces for Jenkem and Huck (the latter written by Patrick Welch, who five years earlier highlighted the injustice suffered by 1990s Birdhouse am Tim Von Werne, whose career finished before it started after being told not to speak about his sexuality to Skateboarder magazine). But when Toy Machine’s Welcome to Hell was brand new and BA frontside bluntslid into stardom, this would likely have all met with significant amounts of homophobic dumbfuckery.

To spell it out to the few today who miss the point to the tune of “who cares?”, a skateboarder being gay shouldn’t matter but clearly does. If someone possessed of such enormous capital (Skater of the Year, World Cup winner, a big giant of a man respected by salty ol’ peers and board-purchasing kids) still had to go through years of anxiously guarded privacy, what messages has skateboarding been transmitting more widely?

When we asked Marie Dabaddie, a skater, photographer and founder of genderqueer skatezine Xem Skaters, Marie felt that, “skateboarding has never been welcoming for gay people in general.” With everything skateboarding purports to be – non-conformist, creative, better than narrow-minded squares in the ordinary world –  the idea that gay people are either dissuaded from skateboarding or that gay skaters feel less able to come out is deeply disappointing. For Marie, BA’s announcement means “people are going to talk about it, and it might help gay people feel more confident to come out in the skateboard community, or even to start skateboarding…I just think that being gay shouldn’t be such a big thing anymore but I guess it still is.”

A video posted by Joey Digital (@joey_digital) on

And of course everything is not now suddenly OK in our little world. As Patrick Welch puts it, skateboarding shouldn’t let itself ‘off the hook’ for decades of excusing prejudice (including violent prejudice). At a micro level, listening to the self-admonishment and motivational abuse that carries thickly and loudly across skateparks and street spots shows that homophobia and misogyny remain stubbornly sealed into our everyday ‘vernacular’. Ordinary skaters have little power over Californian skate moguls closing ranks to protect stars such as D Way or the late Jay Adams (RIP) from serious scrutiny into their roles in potentially homophobic, fatal assaults (Way was never charged for his alleged involvement in the death of a gay man for which his friend, Josh Swindell, served 19 years, whilst Adams served six months for felony assault after starting a fight with a gay couple, one of whom was beaten to death). We do, however, have power over the language we use.

This leads to several tricky questions. Are older skaters projecting how they once talked onto the young – to whom this no longer appliers, what with 20 years of progress n’ all? If ‘gay’, ‘fag’, ‘pussy’, etcetera are still habitually used to signify ‘weak’ or ‘bad’, do the small minority who think deeply, write and tweet about such things (and we are firmly within this group, ‘checking our privilege’ as we go) risk over-earnestly policing language that has been long separated from its original cruel intent?

Sources like the British Social Attitudes Survey indicate that the population as a whole has become much more tolerant of difference in sexual orientation. But there is a difference between stated and revealed prejudice: how we describe ourselves versus what we then say and do. Tour bus chatter made BA fear how peers would react if they knew he was gay. Presumably those individuals would never have viewed themselves as prejudiced. The use of such language may be thoughtless, but the consequence is to ‘other’ people who differ from the ‘heteronormative’, male-centric assumptions of skateboarding.

What the skate-o-sphere has got absolutely right is that this is bigger than skateboarding. Derogatory slang is used throughout our school and teenage years, generation after generation, its origins stretching from Chaucer to Orwell to Chris fucking Moyles. We may not be any worse than wider society, but we are surely no better. Paraphrasing Kyle Beachy, each chauvinistic cuss cumulatively results in an “act of violence” to anyone who is not a heterosexual male.

BA put the harm done by the habitual use of the word ‘faggot’ into historical context for Kevin Wilkins at The Good Problem: “It’s a really horrible word. I think a lot of older gay people really think nobody should ever say it…kids just don’t know how hurtful it really is. It’s a term these kids all use, but they didn’t grow up in the times of the 60s and 70s when being gay was illegal and when gay bars were being raided. They didn’t live through the 80s and the AIDS epidemic, where some people were losing a friend a week. Just think about what you’re really saying.”

As well as projecting hostility to gay men, this language sends a very similar message to women and girls. BA may be the first openly gay male top tier pro, but many gay female professionals have been out from the start. In this case, skate culture has much in common with the wider world of sport, where sponsors and pundits evaluate male athletes against masculine clichés of strength and power and female athletes according to the sexualised male gaze. Female participation in skateboarding has grown considerably, but a strange consequence of the particularly hyper-masculine nature of skating is that, for women who skate, being gay isn’t actually a big deal: quite the opposite, it’s sometimes assumed by other skaters. Any woman or girl skater is already ‘other’, exactly because she is doing something than projects itself as exclusively male. Skate comps backed by major ‘action sports’ sponsors remind us of this skewed hierarchy by accompanying male prize winners with scantily clad hostesses whilst often failing to include female competitors.

On this counter-intuitive jumble of attitudes towards gender and sexual orientation, Marie observes that: “Female skaters have always been suspected of being gay somehow. If you’re a skater and a girl, you might as well be gay because you’re skating and ‘skating is for men’ so ‘you’re playing the man’. It’s a stupid cliché that probably made it easier for women who are homosexual to live in skateboarding. Not that it’s easy at all, it’s just not such ‘A Thing’ anymore.”

With reference to the mainstream sports stars who came out some time ago, articles on BA have posited that skateboarding lags behind even the retrograde world of ‘proper sports’. But these are exceptional cases: even in mass participation sports, there are far fewer out gay athletes than the proportion of LGBTQ people in wider society would lead one to expect. The UK’s ‘national sport’ of football presents one of the saddest stories. Justin Fashanu came out in 1990 in a tabloid interview after lengthy press speculation and abuse from fans. No club would subsequently offer him a full-time contract. He took his own life in 1998, following an allegation of sexual assault in the US State of Maryland (where homosexual acts were at that time illegal). His suicide note expressed his doubts that he’d receive a fair trial because of his sexuality. He remains the only English premiere league player to have come out whilst still playing professional football.

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Systemic prejudice harms men and women of all sexual orientations and gender identities, which Marie describes as part of a damaging and “ceaseless genderisation”. The journalist Owen Jones relates the mental health crisis facing young people to these deeply entrenched forces: “A rigid and unreconstructed form of masculinity is enforced, sometimes brutally, in the playground. Boys deemed to be insufficiently manly face being abused as ‘girls’ or ‘gays’. Speaking about mental distress is certainly not seen as ‘manly’ – it is ‘weak’.” This is linked to the terrible fact that suicide is the main killer of men under 45 in the UK. For women, equally rigid assumptions of femininity play out particularly in pressures to conform to unobtainable body images and expectations of total male agency over sexual gratification – shockingly revealed amongst a supposedly more enlightened younger generation in the current spike in sexual assault and harassment on university campuses in both the UK and US.

Skateboarding can make small differences to this bigger picture. In case you haven’t noticed, it is so hot right now. Palace’s inventive mashing of cockney and Jamaican rudeboy patois with nostalgic stoner wit, expressed through their web-catalogue and Insta account, is enthusiastically adopted by upper-middle class teenagers who’ve never even stepped on a skateboard. In a large British university, you’ll do yourself a neck mischief looking round every time you hear a Lev-ism. Ubiquitous street slang, strained through the colander of skate culture, contains plenty of ‘gay-meaning-weak’ for every ‘trill’ or ‘’pon the…’. The least we can do is to delete those terms whilst our little sub-culture is currently niche leader rather than mass follower.

The danger is that we are lecturing those who are as yet unprogressed through the informal education skateboarding brings. Rather than letting essentially good kids grow out of prejudiced language, we might provoke a digging of foxholes. The depressing popularity of anti-feminist and, in particular, transphobic memes suggests that expressions of identity politics can make some young men, lacking social and historical context, feel they are being unjustly criticised. With the organised misogynists wallowing beneath the internet’s grotty bridges (and labouring to help install one of their own as POTUS), there is plenty of energy to recruit those who feel that liberal activists have ‘over-played their hands’ (which Alt-Right Troll King Milo Yiannopoulos cites as justification for his behaviour).

Skateboarding’s secret weapon is that it is genuinely inter-generational. It is unique in creating a non-creepy space where 40 year olds treat 18 year olds as human beings, and vice versa. This enables older and/or wiser skaters to exercise the weird privilege of ‘unofficial life mentor’ as one inevitably takes on the role of group skate mum/dad simply through not quitting skateboarding. You don’t have to scold bros in your crew for frequent utterance of ‘gay-meaning-weak’, simply don’t use that language yourself – micro-actions are increasingly proving to be world changing, for good and ill. We’re already seeing the benefits of skateboarding becoming more diverse. Parameters of critical appreciation expand at an exponential rate, encompassing a late 40s Gonz, super cool female skaters like Sarah Meurle, and Frenchmen who can perform body varials when popping waist high tricks – all successfully counterbalancing the jockish claptrap spouted by the likes of Nyjah.

For those with that peculiarly Anglo-Saxon aversion to ‘political correctness’ (i.e. basic human kindness and tolerance) dampening skateboarding’s outlaw spirit – it may be that greater diversity holds the key to resisting homogenising commercialisation. As Marie also said to us, opening more “paths for individual identity building within skateboarding” will not only make it more “welcoming to everyone and anyone” but will lead to more genuine expression of identity and a lot less “copy-paste from the magazines and massive brands.”

Words by Chris Lawton
Thanks to Claire Alleaume and Marie Dabaddie
Blunt illustration thanks to George Yarnton
Rainbow on a rig artwork courtesy of Marc Johns
No thanks to Darryl Cashman

If you would like to write for Crossfire then get in touch now, we are always looking for fresh views.

Fashion and the Cringification of Skateboarding

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Unless you’ve been living in a cave with terrible wi-fi, you’ll be aware that a few weeks’ back ‘the bible’ of mainstream fashion, Vogue Magazine, celebrated skateboarding’s ‘coming of age’ through their ‘Skate Week’. Quartersnacks already took the time to summarise the content, but there’s something addictive in checking out stuff you already know you’ll find offensive. If you’ve not yet delighted in the self-torture, like a Cenobite who can kickflip, the topics and the manner in which they are covered are cringe-inducing.

There are ‘flip kicks’, celebrations of longboarding as the “more stylish” option (yo, how can a magazine in love with all things French not know that Monsieurs Gillet and Puig are more stylish than anyone, and they don’t fucking longboard?), discussions of which skaters have the greatest hair, and this picture of Brit ex-pat Ben Nordberg that makes you want to vomit on yourself, eat it, then vomit again in a necessarily extreme ritual exorcism. This awful coal seam has been mined with succinct humour by others, from Jenkem to Complex, our contribution is to investigate just why we care so much about such ham-fisted appropriation.

Ph: Getty Images

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In the absence of specific postgraduate reading lists, an informed guess would distil things down to the almost physical discomfort one feels when their sense of identity gets messed with, alongside an asymmetric power relationship between skateboarding and the mainstream.

Identity is important. We invest time in constructing it, feel a huge amount of ownership over it, yet it’s a place of constant conflict. It’s necessary for the functioning of politics and society: it motivates us to vote (“I am a civically responsible person”), who we vote for (“I’m not a fucking Tory”), what we buy (“these sneakers will make me feel like early career Lucas”), and who we hang out with (“these people are like me, and by hanging out with them, I become more like the person I want to be”). But individuals have only partial control over it. Our identity is formed by the interaction of internal and external factors: how we see ourselves (our subjective identity); how others see us (objective identity); and how we think others see us (social identity).

For young people especially, heroes and role models play a big part. When I was 21, in rare moments of self-confidence, I believed that dressing like Josh Kalis made me look a bit like Josh Kalis. This delicate illusion quickly dissolved when others objectively informed me that I looked like a fucking dork. Vogue Skate Week hurt a little because it provides a window into how others see us, how they make sense of our sub-culture, and where they locate it within the context of the things they find familiar (for example, why a fashion magazine needs to talk about skateboarders’ ‘great hair’). All together, the outcome isn’t pretty when parked up against our image of ourselves.

Ph: Glen Luchford for Gucci

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The cast-iron motherfucker is that platforms like Vogue, with none of the knowledge, have more of the power. By ballsing up their representation of skateboarding on a massively public stage, they risk actually changing how skateboarders perceive skateboarding. How many of you had “mosher” or “greb” shouted at you as a kid, even if you exclusively rocked gleaming white sneakers, a Yankees fit and a t-shirt covered in rappers’ faces? Incrementally, a view of a subculture loudly expressed by a majority who know nothing about it mutates the self-identity of those within it. When I was a teenager, MTV and Fred Durst had more power in dictating how others perceived me than any imaginary covenant signed in private with the Church of Robert ‘Wu’ Welsh, and I found myself constantly apologising for, or playing along with, the cringified image held by my non-skate friends.

The really interesting argument is that skateboarding brings this upon itself. In cosying up to something powerful, we can hardly complain when Big Fashion makes us look like bigger pricks. New York’s excellent Stoops magazine, which combines the high standard of photography we’ve come to expect from independent mags with superb writing, goes deep on this tricky question. Stoops’ Ted Barrow and Eby Ghafarian point out that, rather than originating what we look like, we’ve instead co-opted and repurposed aspects of our identity from elsewhere. Skateboarders are essentially stylists rather than designers – picking and arranging looks that already exist. In the 1980s, skaters may have repurposed looks from punk and hardcore counter-culture, but in the 90s, it was straight from the mainstream: Polo, Nautica, Guess, pre-SB Nike and Adidas. What made skaters look cool was:

1) Good taste and an attention to detail.
2) The act of skateboarding itself.

Gino is a well-dressed Italian American in his early forties, but when he steps on his skateboard – even when just pushing, of course – he becomes something much cooler. The mainstream dig skateboarding because we reflect a well curated interpretation of their own language straight back at them. If you doubt this, think about the corer-than-core brands like Dime (whose logo shadows Dior) and Palace (who, amongst other high fashion call-backs, had a popular run of t-shirts repurposing the Chanel logo). This can also be seen in Vogue’s interview with Koston this week to mark the release of some depressingly limited high-end collaboration. Koston gushed to Vogue that skaters have always cared about fashion – a skateboarder pretending not to care was evidence of “him caring about how he looks.”

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And the pay-off is seductive. In the mid-to-late 90s, the only people who’d look at a skateboarder for sexy times were particularly broad minded indie kids. In the early 2000s, it became the Nu Metal kids congregating in provincial town centres. Now skateboarders are attractive to everyone from preppy college students to hot models. No longer are we pariahs in the eyes of the popular and beautiful. The price is that we stop being a counter-culture, and when that happens, we start playing by the same rules as everyone else.

The French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault explained how popular culture engenders social control, building on an idea developed by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th Century. Bentham imagined an ideal prison, ‘the Panopticon’, where every inmate could theoretically be observed at any time. Even though the prisoner had no way of knowing if he or she was actually being watched, they would behave as if they were. Foucault theorised that contemporary society has evolved as if it were one huge Panopticon – not just through the technology that enables constant universal surveillance, but through a populace that constantly self-polices conformity. When an individual or group deviates from cultural norms, an army of media commentators, cultural figures and ordinary people ridicule or ostracise. And knowing this, we modify our behaviour and appearance accordingly. In women’s magazines in particular, and in fashion more widely, this gentle but constant enforcement is explicit.

Vogue, Grazia, Marie Claire and their ilk are full of condescension dressed up as friendly advice. Articles include “20 things no one over 30 should wear”; “how to be the perfect lover”/ “housewife”/ “employee” / “parent.” All of this reinforces highly conservative gender and age-based norms, gently and subtly steering us towards the economically ‘useful’ roles of worker and consumer. This is the genius of modern capitalism, as predicted by Aldous Huxley in ‘Brave New World.’ Through the promise of eternal youth, a ready supply of casual sex, abundant leisure time and easy, shallow happiness, we don’t need to be coerced to sacrifice our identity, we do it willingly. JG Ballard, in ‘High Rise’, described the sort of citizen who falls into this easily as someone who “was content to do nothing but sit in his over-priced apartment, watch television with the sound turned down, and wait for his neighbours to make a mistake.” The Vogue articles delight as much in pointing out those who have made a mistake as celebrating the Nordbergs who’ve successfully played the game. The rest of us fall in line more unhappily, like Brave New World’s John the Savage, alternately attracted then repulsed.

Image: Foucault by Rinaldo Hopf

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As skateboarding is subsumed within the mainstream, as Vogue’s unwanted certification surely indicates, our lives become easier on a surface level. It is now normal to be a skateboarder at school or college. Regular folk rarely shout abuse or try and assault you. But the cost is that you’ve walked willingly into the Panopticon, accepting its norms. Skateboarding is a sport. It is done exclusively by young men. Skateboarders are athletes. Their look is just so hot right now. But just as easily: skateboarding is last season, do something else. You’re too old. You’re not good enough. It’s not for women and girls. These are the real reasons why skateboarding’s journey from counter-culture to mainstream represents a loss – in a world where few people actually ‘do’ anything for any sustained length of time, they ‘like’ rather than ‘love’, being a fan is much easier than being a fanatic.

But one of the wonderful things about human identity is its capacity for reinvention. We might bemoan the current trend for nostalgia in skateboarding, but it celebrates a simpler time when skateboarding was both tiny and outside the mainstream. By keeping this alive, the Mad Max style lawlessness of EMB and Love, Fairfields, the Shell Centre and the Gasworks, their fashions and attitudes become newly relevant to new generations. By re-telling our own story, rather than borrowing from the mainstream, we keep a little bit of power and protect the soul of this thing.

In an interview with Transworld, Dear Skateboarding’s Chris Lipomi enthused, “what’s exciting to me about it is that for the first time in the longest time, skateboarding is referencing itself. And that’s really awesome. I think for so long, skateboarding has sort of looked to something outside, and then brought that into its own world. Which can be interesting but then can also lead to this idea that what we’re doing sort of isn’t good enough.” And more fundamentally, the soul of the thing is maintained by the constant doing of it. Skateboarding can never be truly mainstream in a risk-averse, passive culture because it will always really hurt.

Words: Chris Lawton
Lead Illustration: Steve Larder

If you’d like to write some stuff on Crossfire, contact us.

Tom Asta Signature Colourway éS

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Tom Asta’s new Accel Slim on éS is about to hit your local skate shop. This signature colourway, influenced by the colors of the American flag with red and blue accents, come with a tongue ventilation system to keep your feet cool and a 400 NBS outsole providing flex and grip for the perfect flick.

Search them out, vote with your feet and support skater owned.

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Science Skateboards – ‘The Important Nothing’ video

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To get to the point, ‘The Important Nothing’ is really darn good and you should watch it. If unavailable in your bricks n’ mortar skate shop (R.I.P. SS20, support your local), you can get a copy from the Palomino.

Within a relatively small scene such as the UK, reviewing home grown videos is a delicate task, because they’re invariably a labour of love, by someone with admirable intentions who is likely to at least know someone you know. This small degree of separation means that each such review in our now extinct domestic print media has tended to be super positive. Who would say they didn’t love a work that someone has slaved over, with little commercial return, especially if you could conceivably session a spot with individuals involved in the near future? But you also want to be credible. A review can be a recommendation.

With internet clips vying for attention, why should you, the reader, part with both money and time to watch a full length vid, if you’ve been told that each and every UK video is brilliant? I wrote that the Isle video was excellent, because it was, I’m now going to tell you the Science video is more than worthy of your 25 minutes and £10, because it assuredly is. Unfortunately there are a number of videos that came out between these two offerings that are less than great. Because we’re all friends here, those sub-par offerings are left unmentioned rather than subjected to some narcissistic display of mean-spirited wit.

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Science are an interesting outfit, and are part of the movement of small firms that are increasingly important to our culture and lifestyle. To distill an argument advanced in some detail here, the act of ‘just doing’ something, like setting up a small skate firm, stamping your tastes onto a corner of the market, keeping yourself motivated in the face of the pressures of adult life, connecting to other scenes and firms, and hooking up a community of like-minded skateboarders not only keeps skateboarding diverse and unique in the face of increasing commercialisation, but it helps us pursue our essential reason for being – the urge to create (our “species essence” in Marx’s view) – that is so often lost in the alienating experience of the 9 to 5. And when motivations are this pure, the outcome is more often than not cool as fuck.

Starting in 2006, owner Chris Morgan has been responsible for the lion’s share of the brand’s look and feel, and is behind the editing, design and large part of the filming of ‘The Important Nothing’. His interview with Crossfire is a good read, and provides detailed insight into one man’s personal vision of skateboarding balanced with a keenness to frequently collaborate (including with big names like Sergej Vutuc and Jon Burgerman and team rider Sam Taylor). Aesthetically, Science could be placed within the tradition of post-Blueprint 1.0 UK companies that combine unashamed artiness with an appreciation of gritty UK street scenes, 90s callbacks and golden era hip hop, soul and lo-fi indie, alongside Landscape, the National Co and Isle to name the most obvious. Where the National have looked to the hot shit that comes out of Sweden in their team line up and video aesthetic, Science make connections with the equally hot Japanese and SF scenes – and ‘The Important Nothing’ has strong similarities with recent Japanese independents like the Lenz videos.

Ph: Dan Tomlinson ollie noseblunt transfer by Chris Morgan

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The filming style is unobtrusive, and avoids the closer-than-close fisheye steez currently en vogue and beloved of the Magenta bros and some of the aforementioned Japanese films. There’s a nice nostalgia, with a lot of black and white and deliberate graininess (and the jazz intro keeps things far more classic Stereo Super 8 than Palace VHS), with callbacks to a 90s hip hop appreciation of kung fu movies and frequent flashes of primary colours complementing the lovely DVD packaging and Science’s graphic output and logo. The soundtrack fizzes with a nigh on optimum balance of hip hop, soul, stoner rock and indie that made me think of some of the classic UK and East Coast vids – with Dan Magee, Josh Stewart or Chris Mulhern likely to be pretty stoked on the choices. Rounding off the ‘just right’ mix of characteristics is the 25 minute running time – if my knee wasn’t jacked, I’d have picked my board up and raced into the grotty streets of Long Eaton as soon as the credits rolled (in stark contrast to the soporific effect of the 1 hour plus running time of certain very big budget hammer fests).

Highlights from the skating includes London-resident, Leicester ex-pat and prolific scribbler Sam Taylor and his quick feet, loose style and mastery of wallrides and no-complies. Pete Buckley, whose time in Sapporo, cements the Japanese connection, rocks a classic Girl/Choc (circa Mouse/Paco) steez and boss man Chris Morgan can do stylish new-old (no-complies) as well as old-new tricks (refuting the assumption that 30+ skaters can’t do good flips). I dig any Luka Pinto stuff since his Eleventh Hour section, and really like how he and Glenn Fox have established this unique style that Channel Islands (get it?) Quim Cardona looseness with Magenta quick-feet.Ben Cruickshank reps the lanky-tech (more golden era Girl/Choc – gangly natural street styles of Shamil Randle) and the dope Saafir track.

Dan Beall has been another favourite since his standout Baghead Flats section. Dan reps a different fine vintage of street skateboarding, strongly British in style – the nimble precision honed on rough terrain that other slight-of-frame bros like Welsh Tommy and Jin Shizmizu also rep.

The premiere went off.

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There’s a rad SF friends section that includes relatively well known locals like Tony Manfre and John Lindsay and the combination of spots doesn’t overkill the hill bombs (and includes Fort Miley, some DIY spots and street that isn’t sloping at 45 degrees). Dan Tomlinson is sick, with powerful pop and clean trick selection, that contrasts with Josh Cox’s unusual trick bag and manny mastery. Holdtight London alumnus Joe Sivell holds down the last section, with Roots Manuva setting the scene for tech and fashion that throws a contemporary British-take on early 2000s Puzzle glory days. Remember Stephane Giret? I’ve been betting a pirate’s hoard of gold doubloons on a come-back for both the tricks and the wardrobe of that brother, and Joe’s leading the charge to make sure I’m soon a wealthy man (and laughing at the rest of you as the pound sterling continues to fall through the floor).

I don’t want to do this video a disservice by listing too many historic references (that many of you won’t have been around for… but I’d bet more doubloons, and maybe a bronze cudgel and a horned helm, that Chris Morgan knows exactly what I’m talking about). Suffice to say, a bit like Pontus’ amazing Polar video, you can enjoy it equally as a fresh feeling contemporary offering, if you have the gift of youth, or as a life affirming, knee cartilage re-growing re-up of a certain era that burns very brightly in our sub-cultural memory.

Chris Lawton

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Brexit Through The Gift Shop

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With an eye on clinching that (whimsically imaginary) Pulitzer Prize for skate journalism, we set about writing on the EU Referendum with impartial balance. We hit up friends in the industry, hoping for both pro and anti-Europe positions, but probably shouldn’t have been surprised when, being both skateboarders (tending towards internationalism) and businessmen (concerned with buying stuff and selling stuff), they overwhelmingly came down on the side of ‘stay in the EU for the love of God’.

This created a quandary. Should we, hungry for all the prawn-cocktail and cocaine dinners our journalistic prowess would surely bring, find a Brexiter at random to contrast with our friends at Keen Dist, or should we make a clear argument for voting one way or another? Pissing away future work for News International and a soul-sick early grave, we opted for an honest attempt to influence wavering voters. Because, quite frankly, being stuck on an island under the sole direction of gazillionaire Old Etonian xenophobes is too awful to imagine.

Thinking about something as small as skateboarding or, even worse, writing about it, can feel like the ultimate exercise in spoilt disengagement: sweating the small stuff whilst the wider world goes to hell. But knowing a lot about something little, and caring about it deeply – even something as ridiculous as grown men making four wheeled planks balance on two wheels – provides a microcosm within which we understand the consequences of those big, nebulous issues. I know shit all about the minutiae of European treaties, but do know something of the skate brands and individuals they affect, having spent twenty years soaking up otherwise pointless information from magazines and, latterly, social media feeds. That’s why skateboarding matters every bit as much as the stuff proper adults care about. If TV pundits claim to know all the ramifications of Brexit, they’re bluffing.

Some arguments for voting ‘leave’ on June 23rd are good, logical and are not incompatible with compassion and internationalism. Putting aside the Brexit campaign’s ugly stereotyping and opportunistic manipulation of communities decimated by the forces of global capital (blaming EU migrants for low pay and the loss of good jobs is like blaming oil-covered sea birds for the Gulf of Mexico disaster), the EU and its decision-making apparatus, the European Parliament, Commission and Central Bank, are deeply flawed and have acted as brutal agents of neo-liberalism. This is particularly the case with Greece, whose popularly elected left-wing Government (ordained on a pro-EU but anti-austerity mandate) have been forced into a succession of impossible situations. The EU have demanded brutal cuts, which prevent Greece recovering from recession, which in turn prevent it from paying its debts, requiring yet more cuts, and so on.

There is also the libertarian argument, with which many skaters sympathise. If national governments are bad enough, taxing our hard won wealth and demanding we live as service-dependent weaklings, pan-national government is even worse. But there are also good responses to these arguments. The EU may be flawed, but it’s easier to change, and to support our friends in Greece (and Spain), by staying in. Secondly, leaving may rid us of one layer of unwanted government, but we’re still stuck – and even more exposed to the whims of – the UK Government we currently have (quite apart from the fact that the libertarians tend to believe they are strong enough to independently protect themselves and their families – one bad slam and we’re suddenly very weak and very thankful for the health service our taxes pay for and the workers’ rights our EU membership protects, such as paid sickness absence and protection from arbitrary redundancy).

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This leads us to one of the most offensive claims made by the Brexit campaign: that the UK sends £350 million a week to the EU that could instead be spent on the NHS. Quite apart from the fact that this figure has been proven false (it’s not only a significant over-estimate, but it also excludes the funding the UK gets back), think for one moment who is leading the ‘Leave’ campaign. Press moguls, right-wing Tories and UKIP, all of whom have advocated accelerated privatisation of the health service and the end of free healthcare at the point of use. The likes of Nigel Farage support an American-style insurance systems that actual Americans have fought hard to reform (only partially achieved with Obama Care). NHS spokespeople have argued that Brexit would cause a terminal staffing crisis. This is because real terms pay cuts and reduced funding for trainee nurses alongside Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s war with junior doctors have caused an unprecedented exodus of UK-trained health professionals. Without being able to recruit from across the EU, the NHS could not currently function. In the last few years, almost every skateboarder I know, myself included, has been put back together by the NHS.

Trade is both the biggest, most frequently cited argument for the UK to remain in the Union, and the argument that makes us most likely to switch off in drooling boredom. We shouldn’t: the EU is the UK’s most important trading partner by some way. Of course it is – taken together, the EU is the world’s biggest economy (it exceeded the size of the USA in 2003). The independent Office for National Statistics estimate that more than 40% of UK exports of goods and services go to the EU and for more than 50% of imports come from the EU.

No wonder the Americans are so keen for Britain to stay in. Owner of Keen, Mike Halls (who distributes the likes of Quasi, Polar, Welcome and Hopps amongst others) told us: “We’re seen as a gateway into Europe for a lot of US brands, whether that’s direct selling to stores or simply working with EU distributors. If we leave the EU who knows if we’ll work out a new trade agreement, and if so what time frame? If we don’t, I know ourselves as a business will have a dramatic change on the export side definitely and one or two of the brands we work with will almost certainly skip us out of that ‘gateway’.”

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Brexiters have tried to underplay the impact on trade or argue that, because the UK runs a ‘trade deficit’ (the value of EU imports exceeds the value of exports), leaving the Union would “hurt them more than it hurts us” – as if noses cut off to spite faces is something worth celebrating. In a free trade area, which is what the EU fundamentally is, we get those skateboard decks and fresh Magenta t-shirts cheaper than we would from elsewhere (where distributors have to pay trade tariffs – either increasing the mark-up they have to pass to shops and then to customers, or reducing the profit margins that keep them in business).

It has been argued that, in the short term, a £ sterling weakened by a ‘Leave’ vote would be good for British products, because it will make the stuff we sell to our continental friends cheaper for them to buy. On the other hand it will make imports more expensive. As A Third Foot are Britain’s only skateboard manufacturer, in skateboarding we import an awful lot more than we export (most of our decks and other hardware, a large share of soft goods, and all skate shoes). Even if the £ recovers strongly and quickly, it creates a lot of uncertainty, which isn’t helpful for our industry – which of course needs to think long term (how much of next season’s range to buy in, etc.).

At a time when the skate industry is in flux, in both a good way, with the rise of the indie brands (many of them European), and a bad way, in the consolidation of the footwear under the sportswear giants, increasing the cost of trade with our biggest trading partner could be extremely damaging for home-grown distributors and skate shops. On this, Mike adds: “Look at UK stores which are currently buying some rad brands direct from Europe. Would they still order in knowing they have to be paying duties and taxes from our friends in France and Germany? Same again for European brands, us as distributors wouldn’t be able to soak up the margin and pricing would definitely have to be evaluated.”

jbgilletOf course it isn’t just goods and services that EU membership guarantees free movement, it’s the other ‘factors of production’ – particularly labour. This gets us to the most controversial part of the debate: immigration. The ‘right to free movement’ means any citizen of an EU member state can work, study or retire in any other EU state. This has costs and benefits – but is only a problem when we have vast inequality across Europe. You don’t leave Spain for Britain for the weather, you leave because Spanish youth unemployment is over twice the rate of Britain. That’s why we have experienced high levels of in-migration from other countries in the EU: British employers need more people to work for them than Spanish, Czech or Polish employers. Reduce the inequality, and you reduce the movement of people. Britain leaving the EU will not help those southern and central European countries recover from recession – and if they don’t recover, people will still arrive at Dover, Heathrow and Gatwick. The refugee crisis shows that desperate people will try to risk everything for a better future regardless of whether or not they have a legal way into that country. If we work together to ensure that there are fewer desperate people in the UK, in Europe, and in Africa and the Middle East, immigration will fall off the newspaper headlines.

As it is, skateboarding has benefited massively from free movement. How many amazing European skaters have you got to hang out with? In Nottingham over the last few years, we’ve had welcome additions to our scene from Poland, Italy, Spain, France and Germany. What would the Long Live Southbank desk have looked like without European free movement? Anyone who’s tried to spend time living and working in the US, or Australia, will know what a horrible nightmare a restricted visa-based immigration system can be. Skate lore is full of legendary characters like JB Gillet separated from their sponsors for stupid-ass visa reasons.

This leads us back to the cultural argument. Skateboarding is inherently internationalist. It celebrates travel and interaction with new scenes alongside localism. It enriches our lives through ‘worldwide connections’ in the words of our French bros at Magenta. This is not dissimilar to the original dream of European cooperation, seeded from the horror of the Second World War by idealistic British as well as continental politicians. The dream was to strengthen links and common interests to make future apocalyptic conflict impossible. Turning away from that dream requires a very cold heart, even if the current reality of the EU falls so far short. The people who reject this dream aren’t just the suit wearing, smooth-talking politicians, but scary looking white dudes who march through Athens, Stockholm, Cologne and Paris waving Swastikas.

Photo: David Lagerlöf

Photograph: David Lagerlöf

Finally, it’s worth thinking what the UK’s public realm would look like outside the EU. British politicians of all parties have been unwilling to invest public money in cities and towns outside London and the South East since the 1970s. Instead, the ‘regeneration boom’ that started in the late 1990s, gifting skateboarders across the North, Midlands, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with skateable spaces, was largely due to European funding – known as the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and European Social Fund (ESF) to their mums. Britain may pay in to the EU each year, but it gets millions of Euros back through these two funds and, rather than being spent exclusively in London (where private investment is overwhelming concentrated), the funds’ rules mean it has to be spent in areas of need. The skatepark revolution in Scotland is largely funded by Europe (the Scots claim that, if we leave the EU, they’ll try again to leave the UK in order to re-join Europe).

Take my usual day’s skateboarding. I get a tram into Nottingham city centre (funded by EU money). I meet my friends to skate the blocks in the vast, open area of the regenerated Sneinton market plaza (funded by EU money). At the end of the day, we may eat good, affordable food and watch the sun go down outside Broadway arts cinema bar, which puts you face to face with the 12 stars of Europe on a plaque acknowledging the funding that paid for the place. In total, more than £100 million of EU funding has gone into the regeneration of Nottingham alone since the millennium – and like Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool or Manchester – this Northern town, hammered by the de-industrialisation of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, now looks like an optimistic place to live, work or study, rather than the barren, dilapidated ‘Shottingham’ it was in 1996 when I first moved here.

Of course, you should make your own mind up – but you should think about it carefully. It’s not hyperbole to describe the EU Referendum as likely to be the most important thing you ever vote for. And for pity’s sake, please get out and vote on Thursday the 23rd. Current polling suggests only half of people under 35 expect to vote. If this is true, it’s your future, your right to travel, work, trade and study anywhere in Europe that people at the end of their working lives will be deciding on.

Written by Chris Lawton
Illustrations tweaked by Scott Madill.

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