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Radical Places - Skate Nottingham’s Skateboarding in the City Festival

Theo Fearon - frontside 5-0. Photo: Jarrad Thomas

Words: Chris Lawton - Photography: Tom Quigley and Jarrad Thomas

Before much of my life was spent trying to get spaces for skateboarding built as Skateboard GB’s Community Development Officer, I worked as a sort of rubbish government spook in urban and regional development agencies, then ended up in a university economics department. In that time, I became increasingly haunted by the sense that the things skaters do in our itinerant occupation of city landscapes was more valuable than the stuff I was being paid to do between 9 and 5.

Skateboarding has the potential to improve mental and physical health, especially amongst communities who feel excluded by mainstream sports or cultural institutions.

It can provide inspiration for further study at college or university, especially if you’re from a neighbourhood where few other young people do the same.

Adam Gaucher - frontside bluntslide. Photo: Jarrad Thomas

The late, great British cultural critic Mark Fisher, along with music journalist Simon Reynolds, saw successive musical movements, from post-punk, to indie, to rave, house, jungle and D&B, as forms of ‘working class self-education’, where young obsessives would follow a trail of unashamedly highbrow Easter Eggs sprinkled across album sleeves, reviews and interviews, which turned them on to the very things more privileged kids were taking for granted in their university reading lists. Reynolds and Fisher mourned the loss of this counter-cultural pedagogy, which ended during the grey, unambitious homogenisation of mainstream pop culture in the late 1990s and 2000s.

Skateboarding arguably still does this. In his recent Looking Sideways interview, Ben Powell reminisces that it was skate ephemera - mags, zines and vids - that connected a bookish kid from Northern England to a weirder, more curious future. Skateboarding can generate a space for collective togetherness, mutual aid and communal

consciousness raising, as we’ve seen with Hackney Bumps and Bournbrook DIY, things that are both rare and vital for the future of modern cities.

And deliberate attempts to channel skateboarding’s emancipatory potential - so-called ‘skate activism’ - are now tentatively accepted by previously sceptical industry tastemakers, following the worldwide explosion of such projects since the start of the Covid-19 crisis.

Skate Nottingham have been active for a hot minute, as one of the first generation of non-profit skate orgs inspired by the success of Long Live Southbank and the city-wide examples in Europe, notably Malmö, in Sweden, and Tampere, in Finland. Brothers and sisters in arms include Shred the North (in the North East), Skate Manchester and Skate Southampton.

We’re not ‘just’ getting skateparks built or getting kids in poorer areas on skateboards, although we are doing both those things. We’re trying to meet the challenges of inner-city disadvantage and post-industrial malaise. It’s hard to explain that schtick without a TED talk.

So, in addition to testing Stu from LLSB’s seemingly infinite patience over the years, I’d shrilly whined at Malmö’s Gustav Svanborg-Edén, who generously, and bluntly, advised staging a “fucking big event” to bring everything and everyone together.

Conor Andrews - backside flip. Photo: Tom Quigley

So, in 2019 the idea of Skateboarding in the City came about. A 9-day festival of legit, sometimes weird skate culture: photo exhibitions where local kids, mentored by experienced homies like Tom Quigley, Si Bernacki, Alice Ashley and Neil Turner, showcase their work alongside that of UK legends like Andy Horsley, Kingy and Matt Clarke - with parity of esteem between masters and apprentices; a bunch of talks and workshops where Professor Iain Borden could rub shoulders with some guy from the pub and a small crew from Tampere’s Kaarikoirat (The Ramp Dogs), who shared their knowledge and fucking killed every single spot… and probably broke the suspension on my Punto, being three times bigger than the average East Midlander; and a ‘day in the city’ style video comp, where the winners accompanied us to Malmö, to rep Big Notts at Skate Malmö Street 2019 whilst we dorks chaired a workshop with likeminded organizers from all over Dread Cthulhu’s unclean Earth, at the brilliant Pushing Boarders conference.

When The National Lottery Community Fund kindly agreed to support a redux, of course we had to do it again. And then came Covid-19. So fast forward to autumn 2021, and the delayed construction of Nottingham’s new ‘skate friendly’ public space (which will be around the corner from the last resting place of the Broadmarsh Banks), we hastily put a programme together and pressed ‘go’. With the new spot still a building site, Skateboarding in the City 2021 had to be multi-venue. But this meant we could lean into the central objective of our whole endeavour: to join-up all the different strands of skateboarding in our city for a few days and demonstrate, to us and ‘them’, how our shared obsession is indeed, in Gustav’s words, an “octopus” that connects art, music, learning and pissing around in public.

The photos on these evanescent electronic pages give you an idea of what went down.

In the dying days of September, with dry weather still clinging on, the festival started with the City Circuit skate filming comp. Teams of skaters had a few days to film and edit short pieces to be screened later in the week in the fancy setting of Metronome, a large multi-media venue near Sneinton market plaza. Forty Two shop and Form Distribution kindly provided the prizes, and Forty Two mandem Neil Turner and Dan O’Neill did the hard work answering stupid questions and then editing the whole beautiful thing together, which you can watch here.

2021 was not only the year that Forty Two, the Left Ventricle of Nottingham skateboarding, turned ten years old. Sneinton Market, our scene's Aorta, also shared that decennial. So Tom Quigley, the hardest working, unsungest hero of Nottingham and wider Midlands skating, worked with local ripper and graff artist Scarce to adorn the hoardings that border Snenno plaza with their amazing 10 Years Strong outdoor photo exhibition, featuring everyone from Get Lesta alumni James Bush and Will Golding to market regulars Jack Allison, Myke Trowbridge and Millie Warren.

The week itself saw t-shirt screenprinting workshops with inky-wizards Dizzy Ink and a jam at a small, ‘legal’ DIY we built with Betongpark earlier in the summer. Our transformation of an unloved patch of tarmac tries to provide an amenity for a low-income estate lodged between the rapidly gentrifying suburb of Beeston and the gated community of the University of Nottingham’s Park Campus. The Betong boys kindly turned up in person to skate their creation, having also gifted a LOVE-style kicker from the No Comply exhibition at Somerset House.

Christopher 'Bambi' Price - backside noseblunt at the Beeston DIY. Photo: Jarrad Thomas

Later in the week we had the Radical Places panel discussions, which tried to re-capture something of the high watermark of collective, critical consciousness achieved at the Pushing Boarders conferences in 2018 and 2019.

Two panels, the first chaired by Bedir Bekar, the second co-chaired by locals Connor Law and Hannah Shrewsbury (with Hannah unfortunately needing to rest and recover from an op), explored whether we can ‘design in’ inclusivity when creating skate spots, or whether this is a job for policy, management and the constant review of our behaviours and norms as a skateboarding community. Bedir challenged himself (and failed) to avoid saying the words “capitalist hellscape”, whilst academics Professor Carrie Paechter, an expert on gender and girlhoods, and Dr Esther Sayers (Esther from the Bumps), made very sure the room never slipped into self-satisfied, premature declarations of victory against gatekeeping, othering and marginalizing women, the queer community and the differently abled. Alongside Bedir, who is just so fucking clever there’s an uncanny elementality when he gets into a flow, I was stoked to meet, listen to and hang out with Tom Critchley, doctoral researcher at Goldsmiths and Development Officer at the Concrete Jungle Foundation. Tom and Notts head (Dr) Dan O’Neill spoke candidly about the risk of ‘white saviour’ syndrome amongst international skate NGOs and how CJF were working to redress this in their work with skate communities in Angola, Peru and Jamaica. Their Planting Seeds programme makes sure local expertise, ownership and empowerment are developed as first principles - something we’d do well to apply in the UK when we spy DIY potential in spaces that may be ‘unloved’ by the middle classes, but perhaps not by the people that live nearby. The sight of largely white, largely male skaters whacking up ramps on the doorsteps of diverse and often low-income neighbourhoods, then moaning that the local kids smash up stuff that was never built for or with them, is not infrequent and we need to do better. We almost certainly sinned in this way during the aforementioned Beeston Fields DIY - which goes to show even when you’re conscious of your privilege, you can still let it run away with you when chasing the dream of fresh crete.

The day after Radical Places (and the after party) we thick-headedly reconvened at Skate Notts HQ, at the artist-led Backlit Gallery, also a stone’s throw from Snenno. There, with the support of Skateboard GB, local education charity Ignite Futures and a UK Science Festivals Network grant, we gathered together skate activists from across the country, including Shred the North, Skate Suffolk, Portsmouth’s Undercover Skatepark Project, the South Coast Skate Club and Skate Folkestone. This is the first time a bunch of UK-focused non-profits have gathered around the same table, and it was amazing to share their rad work and start plotting what we can do together.

Skateboarding in the City started to wrap up with the screening of the City Circuit films. A whopping 18 teams registered, each with around 5 skaters, with around 200 people lining Metronome’s cinema seating to watch the hammers, bails and hijinks. After dishing the prizes out, we emptied out into the evening air and set up Betong’s kicker for a Philly-style trashcan session – with tricks-for-tinnies culminating in Ethan ‘Bubba’ Cornell banging out a text-book switch flip that you should see pictured somewhere here.

Ethan Cornell - switch flip. Photo: Jarrad Thomas

The endgames of that second weekend then reverted to the classic British skate comp, with the Nottingham Open at Flo Indoor Skatepark. Under-16s and then all-ages sections saw incredible skateboarding, with the likes of lil’ Gabe Martins Mendes casually nosesliding the big hubba, local Miriam Nelson being able to skate literally anything, and Kris Vile, Jesse Thomas and Dean Greensmith (1st, 2nd and 3rd respectively in the all-ages comp) demonstrating the huge spectrum of style and approach that make up the top-tier of British skateboarding at the moment. Thanks to Keen Distribution for the generous prizes and Forty Two for digging deep, enabling a cash for tricks jam in the bowl, where nice guy Nick Hanson flew out to tail- and smith-stall the platform of the adjacent quarterpipe. This was also the first event at Flo following its £75,000 summer refurbishment with social enterprise Volunter-it-Yourself (ViY), so it was awesome seeing skaters of that calibre tear up the new layout.

After all the prizes had been won, all the ‘back home safely’ messages received from travelling visitors, and the exhibitions packed away in big boxes, we collapsed for more than a month of hibernation and reflection.

This sort of stuff happens across UK skateboarding all the time, and only a fraction of it is sufficiently celebrated. If you think that starting a social skate project sounds like a route to mad props, free stuff and a fancy lifestyle, you’d be laughably wrong. Much of mainstream skateboarding will label you a kook, until you get your first win… Then everyone will want a piece of you and lose their shit if they don’t get a sufficiently meaty slab. You will never, ever get any free stuff. But once you’ve seen all the possibilities to make your hometown a better place, you can’t unsee them - like the twinkly little lights revealed to Professor X when he puts on Cerebro.

It might be tough at the moment, and almost all of us are doing this stuff in our evenings and weekends in a state of undead, semi-functioning post-burnout. Massive love and solidarity to all the others fighting the fight across the UK right now. One day we’ll toast each other’s victories with the skulls of our enemies. Until that day, support your local skateshop, skatepark, skate artist and skater-owned-brands, but also support your local skate org. You probably have one nearby, and if you don’t, the world isn’t going to change on its own, is it?

Thanks to:

In addition to Tom (Quigley) and Kev Harris, without whose insane work ethic none of this would have happened, thanks and props go out to Connor Law, Andrew Holt and Nay Symes for running the comp at Flo impeccably; all the volunteers who joined us at different points during the week; all the panel speakers (particularly chair-people Bedir and Connor); Bambi for never not being up for driving and shredding like a trooper; Stu, Dom and Daryl from Betong and Tom Critchley for coming up to Notts for a few days to help out and hang out; James and Neil from Skateboard GB for joining us to work with the other UK social skate orgs; and Megan Shore from Ignite Futures for helping to design and deliver the whole thing and pushing us to stay ambitious and keep shouting no pasaran at the energy and morale thieves who inevitably surface during anything of this scale. Thanks hugely to the National Lottery Community Fund, the UK Science Festivals Network and Habito Mortgages for taking a chance and supporting something like Skateboarding in the City. Alongside Tom’s own photos, you’ll see the amazing work of Notts photog Jarrad Thomas as well as the filming and editing of Jade Vowles and Rolande Hall from The Media Group and hear the beautiful racket written and performed by Notts musician and longtime friend-of-skateboarding Matthew K Grundy.

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