The First Time I Went… | Skateboarding

How a 1970's relic discovered in the corner of a West Yorkshire coal house, and the gift of some battered old magazines, set the course for Ben Powell's life in skateboarding

Ben Powell, former editor of Sidewalk, looks back on how it all began.

It’s fairly difficult to accurately date the memory of my first time riding a skateboard. It was an object that was always there, a relic of the original 1970’s craze that predated my birth, gathering dust in a corner of our coal house.

I’m not even sure who that first board actually belonged to if I’m honest, as it’s definitely hard to imagine my parents having been enthralled by the Californian based craze of ‘Sidewalk Surfing’ in the grim context of 1970’s West Yorkshire but, it was there, and myself and my brother found it.

“The skateboard, like the space it lived in, was something of an anomaly”

Looked at from today’s perspective, it was an inauspicious introduction to the thing that would go on to direct my life for the next three decades but everything has to start somewhere. We stumbled across this plastic banana board one summer holiday after growing tired of cricket bats, footballs and the other detritus that filled the space once reserved for deliveries of coal.

The skateboard, like the space it lived in, was something of an anomaly.

As far I remember it was unbranded. Simply a molded plastic skateboard, complete with a rudimentary kicktail, screwed on (no truck bolts yet!) roller-skate trucks, wobbly plastic wheels, and, perhaps most anomalously of all, emblazoned with the US flag and the word ‘Skate’.

We pulled it from its post-craze tomb and looked at it quizzically, as neither I, nor my brother, had any concept of what skateboarding was at that point.

This was the early 1980’s when skateboarding was completely dead.

Long before ‘Back to Future’ or ‘Police Academy 4’ reignited a global interest in rolling around on a kid’s toy, and at a point in time where, (at least as far as we knew) nobody else had one.

“This was the early 1980’s when skateboarding was completely dead”

The first roll down the drive set the tone: a mixture of sheer childish joy and a complete and total lack of skill – ending as quickly as it began with an abrupt crash into the garden fence.

“Again! Again” was the refrain from both of us as we repeatedly began our descent of what felt like the longest downhill run in the world.

I can still see my mother’s disapproving face peering out of the kitchen window at us with an expression that simultaneously expressed regret at us finding ‘that thing’, along with the creeping realisation that we were definitely going to hurt ourselves.

As that summer progressed, all other toys took a back seat, and the plastic skateboard was taken on further adventures up and down the hills that surrounded our house. Rapidly, the allure of careering dangerously into parked cars spread around the cul de sac that we lived on became irresistible, and the ranks of our burgeoning skateboard gang swelled to include every kid old enough to ask for a go on it.

All day, everyday, was spent in a valiant attempt to control our rickety steed without any knowledge of the correct way to do this. Trial and error was all we had but at that age, what else do you need?

Eventually our antics drew attention from nearby neighbours and, along with the customary, “what the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?” questions, rumours spread of an older kid who lived at the bottom of the street who had a ‘proper skateboard’ and had skated before.

“We’re trying to learn but we don’t know what we’re doing”

Tremulously we approached said older kid, a bunch of terrified nippers with bloody knees cautiously approaching a person who, based on nothing other than the knowledge that he was old enough to have been a skateboarder in the late 70’s, represented the entrance to another world as far as we were concerned.

“Oh it’s you lot,” was his first response to the apparition of this bloodied group of kids appearing at the end of his drive. “I’ve seen you flying around on that thing – you need to be careful.”   As the designated elder of our crew, the responsibility fell to me to attempt to establish a link with this long haired potential ally, who was leaning over a motorbike covered in oil.

“Mr. Jones said that you had a skateboard and that we should ask you about it. We’re trying to learn but we don’t know what we’re doing…”

His response was to eye me warily, then to burst out laughing.

“Yeah I can see that, look at the state of you all. Your mum must be gutted that you found that thing.”

Turning back to his motorbike he continued, “ I don’t skateboard any more. I had a fall on my motorbike so my ankle doesn’t work properly but if you give me a minute I’ve got some magazines and a book somewhere that you can have.”

“Look at the state of you all. Your mum must be gutted that you found that thing”

And off he went, with the key to unlock a magical world of skateboarding with a capital ‘S’ that up until that point we had no consciousness of existing.

When he returned, his oily hands held bounty beyond our wildest dreams.

The Hamlyn Book of Skateboarding, and two tattered looking issues of Skateboarder magazine. He deposited this hoard into my eager hands and waved us back up the street with a cautionary, “There’s some stuff in there about how to do it. It’s probably a bit out of date mind but you’ll be able to learn something. Now bugger off, I’ve got more work to do on my bike…”

Unbeknownst to me, that brief interaction and the gift of a few raggedy skateboard magazines and the Hamlyn Book of Skateboarding would set in motion a series of events that would end up shaping my life.

We immersed ourselves in another world: of skateparks, of professional skateboarders and of tricks. People did ‘tricks’! Who knew? And they had crazy sounding names like ‘Berts’ and ‘laybacks’.

“The gift of a few raggedy skateboard magazines… would set in motion a series of events that would end up shaping my life”

As he’d said, the Hamlyn How-Tos were pretty out of date but we pored over every word and every sequence and before long were slaloming up and down the road, in and out of half bricks and coke cans like we were at Venice beach, (it was only decades later that I realised that Venice beach was actually in California, rather than Italy). It had happened – without even realizing it we’d made the transition from kids who’d found an old forgotten toy, to fully-fledged skateboarders. It was who we were and it defined everything from that point onwards.

Now, I’ve waxed on a little too much about that genesis moment but it’s only through revisiting it that I’ve realised just how influential it was so, forgive me please. The innumerable ‘first times’ that followed that primordial wander into the great skateboarding unknown came thick and fast and with each one, myself and my brother waded deeper into a culture so completely at odds with our surroundings that we felt like characters in Mr. Benn, ready to walk through a door into an alternative dimension.

Whilst school friends obsessed about Spectrum computer games and the cheat codes for ‘Manic Miner’ hidden in Gaming mags, we were off into unchartered territory searching out anything skateable within bus distance. Highlights of those early years included somehow finding a half demolished roller disco rink with a warped floor in Doncaster that we’d read about in Skateboard! Magazine with no information whatsoever, other than that it was in Doncaster, somewhere.

Back then our skate antennae were set to high alert and it felt as though we could find anything skateable, purely because we wanted to find it so much.

“I’m ashamed to say that we never gave it the Viking burial it deserved”

Inevitably the plastic banana board that had set us adrift on this never-ending quest disintegrated: the kicktail wore through and fell off, the wheels exploded and trucks stopped turning. I’m ashamed to say that we never gave it the Viking burial it deserved and instead, it was disrespectfully flung back into the coal house from whence it came as we moved on to better set ups bought from the nearest thing our city had to a skateboard shop – namely a tiny concession in the back of a wet suit shop containing the weirdest selection of products imaginable.

Nonetheless, baseball caps must be doffed in respect, at least retrospectively, and homage paid to the anomalous 70’s relic that started it all.

Thank you plastic… well, apart from the pollution of course.

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