The Scene: London – ‘Mise En Scene’
From Kingpin Issue 127 - July 2014
I’m talking about a vast sprawling metropolis sewn of pockets of scenes. Each scene with their own pockets and respective pocket fluff to messy up whatever canvas you might presume to sketch a rough outline of the larger image on. However the many limbs of each scene do sprout long, grasping and interlaced, converging yet separate and distinct. It’s an intricate tapestry and a bit of a complex affair to write up. This, then, is London in 2000 words with no omissions, no glibness and certainly no oversights.
Not really of course, and for these very reasons I find the title of ‘The Scene’ to be impossibly presumptuous. I’ve taken the liberty to instead go with the title ‘Mise en scene’ because it’s almost a pun and it shows this article to be more of what it can only be – the personal and subjective backdrop for a production of my own bumbling creation. What can be said with some precision is that there are places of concentrated activity that are worth talking about, but with no pretension towards a thorough representation of the whole.
I’d first like to point out that I’m a true Londoner by way of establishing some authority to write this piece. Authority is not everything though and I take it as axiomatic to say that what you’re closest to is often hardest to appreciate, hardest to turn over with the meticulous and perceptive eye of an observer. I’ll do my best to describe the inside of my own eye though.
I assert my native status also to raise the fact that this is less common than you’d expect. If you do a quick mental parade of the usual suspects that you might associate with London skateboarding, you’ll soon see how few grew up here. The largest part of the scene is built of imports; the full-time relocated, ex-pats, travellers, interlopers, the itinerant, indefinite visitors, regular visitors, tours, and the ghosts of those who couldn’t quite handle the move but you still run into sometimes.
People do become naturalised pretty quickly, though mainly thanks to their barber and stylist, and you soon forget who came from where. I think I could have covered all this with the term ‘melting-pot’. Despite all this though with such a swarm comes a richness of variety, a real richness that I think is hard to find in many other places but isn’t always visible through the homogenous Dickies parade that colours the immediate face of things.
Now when it comes to terrain and aesthetic London has something that the skateboarding world has always found captivating. What exactly is hard to pin down but there are certain observable facts that can go some way to an understanding. It’s an ancient city and, as such, developed searchingly. Subject to the whims of the land, the streets hurriedly evolved at the behest of marshland, green spaces and river tributaries. The sewer system was created in conjunction with what had become an underground network of culverts known as the ‘lost rivers’.
Myriad streets blindly followed these paths, now revealing only in hieroglyph to the discerning sleuth the largely forgotten subterranean rivers, least obscurely including Peckham’s river Peck and Fleet Street’s Fleet River. As well as sprawling outwards, in times of economic and imperial success, the city hastily thickened inwards and without much regard for internal planning. The constant proximity of affluence and poverty always constrained large-scale development to some degree, placing the grand and the modest side by side. Added to that, many a social experiment have lent their hands in producing architectural anomalies that add up to the general effect of incongruence and chaos that characterises the London streets.
What does this all add up to? A mess. As far as skateboarding is concerned this has always been a double-edged sword. We were never gifted in the same way as our continental counterparts with open spaces and smooth ground.
Outside of skateboarding this has a large social impact because the amount of public space that isn’t green space (we have a lot of that) is tiny; the narrow pavements and roads that count towards 90% of the space are reserved for travelling from A to B, not loitering. As such there isn’t so much of a culture of just being on the street – it’s a dead-space and a no-man’s land – to just exist there becomes an act and a constant, passive assertion of your right to be there. Main proponents of hanging out on streets therefore include drunks, scallies, rude boys and skateboarders. You can then well imagine how visibly doing anything quickly becomes theatre to the wayfaring hoards or those carting by on the flow of double-decker buses.
An aesthetic heavily associated with london skateboarding is brick
What we do have is unique spots surrounded by a panoramic halo of interesting visuals. Nothing is particularly consistent though; our paved floors would be smooth but for the jolting gaps that separate the tiles every few inches.
Unsurprisingly the floor-surface compliments the pervading tenseness of the place, the need to be perpetually on edge, a quality that shows through clearly in the skateboarding. Think of the characteristic quick-footedness of Paul Shier, Nick Jensen, Chewy Cannon and Tom Knox. If you compare a Londoner’s push to, say, a skater from Bordeaux, the difference is undeniable – there’s no time to relax and indulge the slow arc of your leg when pushing down a London street unless your keen to end up on your forehead.
Anyway, let’s talk about south London a bit. I know south London well. I live in south London, I made a video that features south London very heavily and I mainly skate in south London – it informs a large part of my understanding of London skateboarding. An aesthetic heavily associated with London skateboarding is brick – brick banks and brick walls. These brick banks reside mainly in housing estates and a lot of these estates happen to be in south London, I’m not sure why exactly. I can tell you though that the soil here was way less workable than that north of the river, which resulted in fewer than 10% of the Tube stations being established south of the river. Fast-forward some years and the concomitant decrease in the property value worsened what were historically already densely populated poor areas. The solution for these and similar problems up and down the country, conceived as a stab at social utopia, was the housing estate.
Aside from that we have that gem- best skatepark in the world – Stockwell. Dubbed ‘Brixton Beach’, if you go down on a rare sunny day you won’t have to look too hard to see why. Stomping ground of the BMT (Big Man Ting) crew and regular hangout of such notables as Mekka, that older dude who always wears a massive leather jacket and countless vagrant type guys.
Similarly to many skateparks it functions as a community and quite a kaleidoscope of one at that. It’s also amazing to skate; an amorphous transitioned blob squat between houses and estates with a small patch of grass to one side that’s good for barbeques and dogs shitting.
Now, no London article is anything without talking about the stronghold and spiritual home of UK skateboarding: Southbank. Arguably one of the first ever street-spots and continually a nursery for the country’s ‘talent’ throughout its four-decade history. As I’m sure readers will be aware, the Undercroft has been under threat for almost as long as its been around. Thanks to the efforts of the Long Live South Bank campaign over the past year, that I hope everybody has supported, it may be saved on a quite permanent basis. The importance of a hub like this to a city’s scene cannot be exaggerated. Whilst it may be no longer the easiest place to actually skate anymore, it acts as the main site of convergence for each nucleus dotted about the city. Every major skateboard city has one – Lyon’s Hotel De Ville, New, Paris’ Republique, Barcelona’s Macba, San Francisco’s 3rd and Army, Berlin’s Warschauer benches, the list goes on.
In a city in which space is so valuable and public space effectively becomes a point of collision for the countless tribes of people in the city, to have a zone quite exempt from all this, sat right on the river bank, where people can just be, drink beers, smoke weed, talk shit and skate is a rare and precious thing. From your typical wasteman, oddball, rich kid, skate-dad and after-work shredder to the most conventional of middle class skateboarder; the milieu is a veritable menagerie of characters that find the stony womb of the Undercroft a comfortable place to withdraw into. This can only be a good thing no? Be careful though if you want to get out into the city, the number of people stopping through means it’s a bit of a vortex…
Everything in London is expensive. Public transport is particularly expensive – one reason why the scenes and crews exist so pocketed as they are is that it just costs so much to get across the city regularly. I’ve recently taken to skating from place to place as much as I can but you’ll mostly find yourself on the top deck of a bus, which happens to be one of the best ways to see the city. From the vantage point of a thinly cushioned plastic seat 10ft above traffic, you’re privileged to, but exempt from, the passing chaos and whatever skate-spots you can find. The classic spots that you’d be most familiar with from old Blueprint and Landscape videos exist largely within a privately owned square mile of land known as The City of London. This area is dominated by St. Pauls Cathedral and on a Sunday plays host to a simultaneously alarming and reassuring number of skateboarders of all ages. It’s actually illegal to skate here under an old bylaw concerned with wheels on pavements and the police hand out pink slips that can supposedly add up to a fine if you collect too many under your actual name. For some reason the police have decided to be pretty relaxed in the past few years about this though so it’s hardly an issue – though no doubt they’re sitting dormant for some all out crackdown.
A list of spots and parks that seem to me culturally important to London skateboarding has to include Cantelowes skatepark, Mile End skatepark, Dalston’s Jazz Square, Peckham Library, Victoria Park, Bay 66 skatepark, Borough playground, Harrow skatepark and Croydon’s Fairfields. Each of these places fosters their own horde of locals and visitors that collectively add up to the full effect of London. I’m talking mainly about more central London here and of course there’s a lot going on in the legion of suburbs that I couldn’t even begin to cover but must acknowledge.
It goes almost without saying that the internationally known Slam City Skates is the longstanding skate shop and central lurking spot, itself a nucleus around which a large part of the scene has always orbited. In its privileged plot in the shopping district of Covent Garden, its main shop is roughly a 15-minute skate from Southbank and plenty of city spots. Parlour skate shop in Mile End also needs a mention. Although it hasn’t been around for 28 years like Slam has Parlour is skater owned and they support a lot of independent brands. In this volatile retail environment it’s true that shops come and go, but hopefully these two will continue to shine on for the years to come.
I also made the edit that tenuously accompanies this article. Far from being an apologist for what might seem to be a fairly incomprehensive edit of the ‘scene’, I embrace this as a demonstration of what I’ve been saying – that the scene is too large to represent, that it’s constituents are an ephemeral mix of residents and visitors and that people and places will always be under-represented or missed out entirely. Pre-emptive of minor grumbling that will no doubt result from the video and this desultory article, I will close by saying that London is a really big animal and that really you just need to experience things like these for yourself.