Skateboarding is on the rise. Gliding along effortlessly on a plank of wood, gracefully slicing through council estates, perhaps even performing a few tricks up and down the half-pipe, is the epitome of youthful cool. But swag comes before the fall and few sights are more laughable than that of a skater kissing the asphalt. Kids look funny when they tumble off their decks, and being made of rubber, they just bounce off the ground. But if the klutz in question is middle-aged, the embarrassment is even more painful than that sprained knee. Suddenly, a session with a personal skateboard trainer seems a prudent investment.
It wasn’t the first fall, when I hit my shin so badly i that the dark, purple scar is still clearly visible nine months later. Nor even the second, in which I badly sprained my fingers and almost tore a knee ligament. I’d never felt pain like this before – it almost made me vomit. It was the third time that did it – when I fell again, less seriously this time, but uncannily hitting exactly the same, tender spot. I was either going to burn my newly acquired, expensive longboard on a madly raging pyre, or take professional tuition.
Three weeks later, Josh from Skates and Ladders meets me at Royal Oak tube station. He’s young, well-spoken and friendly – the fact that he has a posh double-barrelled name is, for a split-second, baffling, then reassuring (such is my deference for my social betters). Plus, he doesn’t skip a beat when he realises his trainee today is a forty-something balding man. I feel in safe hands.
The skatepark underneath the Westway is deserted at this hour – 11am in the morning. I picked this shame-free hour purposely – come after three thirty, when schools finish, and carefree pipsqueaks will skate circles around you, their baseball caps turned back to front, and giggle as you fall. You have been warned.
“The first thing we need to achieve is balance on the board”, explains Josh. “To feel comfortable, try skating along just on one leg.”
Why haven’t I thought of this before? In all these weeks and months, it never occurred to me to do this simple exercise. I can see the benefit immediately.
The next thing we practise is how to push off properly to gain speed. Josh looks at me in his gentle, judgment-free way and tells me my technique has been totally wrong all this time. Apparently, there’s a much better way, but it all goes back to having that balance. In forty-five minutes, Josh shows me how to do a kick-turn – that is, to change direction by balancing on the back of wheels of the board while turning in the desired direction with the front wheels lifted off the ground. Sound complicated? well, et me tell you it is. I fail miserably but at least I know what to practise now. Another thing Josh shows me: how to go up a bank, reach dead center and start rolling down again without falling on my face. He shows, me – he doesn’t teach me. I quickly find out that I can only master the skill through practice, practice, practice. Now Josh has to go and his friend “Spinny” takes over.
A kind of suicide attempt
Spinny is much more like the archetypical skater – in fact, he’s just a surfer boy who happens to ride the concrete wave. He, has – naturally – long hair. An eternally cheerful Aussie, he tells me to be proud of my wounds, to delight in my scars.
“Can you see my lucky egg?”
He points at a protuberance under the skin of his underarm, the shape of a large peanut M&M.
“I love my lucky egg, I always kiss it before I go and skate.”
And he does indeed kiss it, happy as a child.
Next it is time to take on the ramp. This is the, frankly, terrifying exercise of pushing downhill with nothing to hold on to. Lose your nerve and balance, and the consequences, at least in my mind, are unimaginable. But Spinny holds both my arms in a monkey grip as I descend for the first time. I feel like a child – I am a child – and Spinny is my good-natured big brother. We repeat the exercise, with Spinny only holding one arm, then my pinky, then nothing. It is now time to hurl myself down without any support.
I am fine, really, I am. With skateboarding, it’s all in the mind. The best thing is just to resign oneself to the fact that one is now going downhill one way or the other in that eternal split second when the board – and oneself on it – goes irretrievably over the edge. One may live, one may die – one must face this calmly, like the stoic philosopher Seneca, as one gathers pace and almost – almost – falls.
And suddenly you realise that you are racing downhill at what seems incredible speed; that you are making it, you have made it, downhill. Now you’re going at a mad pace, you fly across the ground towards the opposite bank. Bending down, you get ready to turn, you lean into the corner, carve up the bank, glide along it horizontally, at an oblique angle to the ground, and make it back onto the flat, where you let yourself run out. You feel like a hero.
“You made it, man!” Spinny cries excitedly. I can see pure happiness in his eyes, a genuine, big-hearted delight at my accomplishment.
We bump fists – another thing I’ve never done. It’s a day of firsts. I feel relived, I feel proud, I feel like a kid. And I marvel how something as simple as a wooden board on wheels can hurt so much, and then provide such joy.
To book a lesson with Josh and his crew, go to http://www.skatesandladders.com