Old Man Paul
For some reason every spot I’ve ever considered myself a ‘local’ at has always had at least one kid that clearly never watches skate videos or picks up magazines, but is so addicted to the rush they get from stepping on their board that they’re out there every single day, completely absorbed by the sensations and endlessly learning new shit. And I’m not talking about flip back tails and crooked grinds; I mean proper wildcard ‘anything goes’ moves, done in ways that look completely different to how you’d picture them if they were described to you. But it’s not just the influences that are clearly unconventional, it’s the whole method; as in their progression is constant but every time you see them land something new you can’t help but wonder: ‘how did they even arrive at trying that?’ It’s like there’s some kind of bizarre correlation between how pure someone’s approach seems and how alien their output will be.
Anyway at Stockwell Skatepark, that kid is Paul. He’s 56, has never had the Internet, learnt 70 tricks last year (and can prove it), is as obsessed with patching synthesisers and circuit bending as he is about skating and… Yeah, as you can probably tell I find him fascinating. So, a few days after he hit me with ‘Arthur, I know most middle-aged white men are what’s ruining this planet and should be exterminated, but I think you should put me in your magazine’ I decided that he was absolutely right (I guess you can’t really argue with that), and sat with him after an icy January afternoon session to record this chat… We were at it for almost two hours, in the dark, fingers feeling like they were going to fall off every time I reached for my tinny, but I never wanted it to end.
– Arthur Derrien
‘I quit when they invented the ollie’
One of the many reasons Paul’s experience of our little four-wheeled world is so unusual is that although he skated loads in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, there was then a 30 or so year hiatus during which he didn’t go anywhere near a board. Now of course that in itself is already pretty
nuts, but it’s the timing of it that I find the most interesting. He distanced himself from his passion at arguably the most pivotal point in modern skateboarding’s history: when the ollie was invented. ‘Yeah I saw the first one in a Thrasher and then decided: that’s it… I’m quitting’ he often jokes. Keeping in mind that as I said earlier, THIS MAN HAS NEVER HAD THE INTERNET, so there was no checking the Crailtap site or YouTube every few weeks to see how things had been evolving you know? He went from being totally disconnected from it for over a quarter of a century, to skating non-stop five hours a day every time it’s dry in his 50s. Actually every now and then he’ll take a few minutes to eat a date or a little square of chocolate if he feels his blood sugar levels are getting low, but you get the idea: the passion is real. And if you ever ask him how he has the energy to constantly be going for it like that, the answer you’ll usually get is: ‘I’m making up for lost time.’
Why did he quit in the first place though? And what was he doing instead for all those years? The answer I got for that was almost comically cryptic: ‘music and women’.
So serious relationships were one big part of it, and then the friends he skated with in the Isle of Man all quitting when they moved to London together was another. ‘They were all dead self-conscious about seeming like sophisticated jazz heads when they moved down,’ he told me. ‘Back home we had a ramp of our own but suddenly they didn’t want to be seen at the skateparks here with people who were five years younger than us that they considered to be ‘’kids’’. So they stopped… and eventually I stopped too.’ Kind of ironic that other people’s age-related insecurities are what would eventually lead Paul to drift away from skating but there you go. I hope they walk past him going in at Stockwell one day.
With music being such an integral part of his story, especially around the time he quit, I feel like now is probably a good time to introduce that whole thread. Plus I’m convinced the all-consuming nature of his relationship with it, and the way he discusses the specifics of how he goes about creating it – or even creating the technology that creates it – is a window into how he thinks about skateboarding.
‘For me it was almost always either heavy metal or electronics,’ he explained. ‘My mates as kids were into heavy metal and I was into pop music and electronics, so we kind of mixed all that. They were into Black Sabbath and I was into punk… So we made electro metal, or electro theatre music with a metal back to it in some way. We did the music for a few plays but we were pretty awful. All kids want to be pop-stars or pro skaters or the best of whatever they’re into you know, but I realised many, many decades ago that I wasn’t a musician in the traditional sense of it. I was happy to just mess around with technology and I didn’t want to have to turn out dance music or whatever. I just wanted to play with the structures of things. I actually tried doing dance music for a year but it was not good… Like I do enjoy it but I just can’t make it! I’m much better at making stuff that sounds like the background of a creepy film, but with some sort of pulse to it. It’s hard to explain… Loads of my stuff from the past is stored on digital recording systems but my more recent music you can just play live: it doesn’t need you to interfere with it. It’s a way of patching synthesisers together so that when you press go you can sit back and it’ll move itself and improvise… They’re called Dream Machines. Like I have one that makes a really convincing guitar or cello sound, and it’s a synthesiser. It’s a type of oscillator that was invented in the 1960s… I think they’re common now but I remember being shocked that I’d never seen them or even heard of them being described! It’s an echo box for which you tune really short echoes and it sounds like a cello. You can almost hear the bow being dragged over the strings but there are obviously no bows involved! You can make banjos out of it, electric guitars… And it’s just a method of using an analogue delay line as an oscillator. It’s been around for decades but until recently you couldn’t buy an instrument with that type of machinery in it.’
At this point in the conversation (possibly because I was beginning to have a hard time following) I felt the urge to check for the third time that he’d really never had the Internet. Imagine getting super deep into something like patching synthesisers without having access to YouTube tutorials? But it’s not just that, he generally just seems super knowledgeable no matter the topic. So again, I had to ask… And if he truly has never had the Internet… Why?
‘No, I’ve never had it.’ he confirmed. ‘I listen to the radio a lot and go to the library a lot. If I really, really need to find out a very specific piece of information I’ll go to my ex-wife’s house and ask, but yeah I don’t have it and it’s better that way. I’m a data hound, I love information and I want to know everything, therefore it would probably be a bad idea for me to have the Internet… I also have a very big problem with it being FREE and how dependent on it humans have become. Plus I reckon I’d be inundated with death threats. I have quite strong and violent opinions about politics and I can be a complete gobshite; I don’t know if I’d trust myself not to end up in trouble with certain right wing politicians. Or worse the assholes that believe them and their lies’
The Second Wind
Definitely not the best title for this section as it comes without any indication of just how powerful that gust of wind was, but whatever. Just keep in mind that all the tricks you’ll see him doing now he did not take with him. He simply came back some 30 odd years later ‘to prove that you can still be pretty fucking entertaining at this game without knowing how to ollie’. His words not mine, but if you ever see him aggressively cab into a pivot and then 270 all the way back out to fakie, tornado style, with his long arms spinning all over the place and slapping the coping on the way down, you’ll realise he was only half kidding… So anyway, the first big question here was of course: how did he get into it again?
‘My son Felix got to that age,’ he explained. ‘I would only get to see him every other Saturday but skating became a part of that for a little bit. I kind of knew he wouldn’t really get into it, but with children I think it’s important to give them lots of low-level options to choose from, then leave them alone and let them decide what they want to enjoy. Like little books about maths that are made to make you laugh… And now Felix is trying to get into University for a maths degree! And to study the mathematics of curved surfaces! The kind of stuff you’d read about in Science Fiction books!’
Okay, so he started going to Stockwell with his son, as it’s something from his youth he wanted to share… Makes sense. But then also, I can’t help but desperately want to understand how he became so unconditionally engrossed in it… And almost instantly! Eight years ago he would have been 48; it’s not exactly common for what we do to completely take over someone’s life at that age is it? What is it about him that was so compatible with skateboarding?
Well obviously there’s not really one answer to that question but I think the way his brain analyses and dissects what he enjoys is probably a big part of it. For instance, in the midst of our chat about his comeback he used the word ‘game’ to describe skateboarding, but almost instantly retracted it, explaining that it wasn’t a game but a martial art. ‘Think about the asymmetrical stance you have on your board,’ he started. ‘You’re having a fight, you’re throwing the javelin, a discus… It’s a military sport, like boxing, with military poses… I like to think of it as a Tai Chi derivative of military sports.’ Now like most people this is not really something I’d considered, but the comparison with Tai Chi definitely made sense as there’s a clear dancing element to what we do. ‘Yeah, it’s like urban ballet’ he continued as I pointed this out. ‘Plus you just have way more balance sideways… There are so many parallels with skating and martial arts…’ The conversation then carried on like this for a little bit until we somehow landed on the topic of a much more concrete example of his methodical dissecting of our beloved pastime: THE BOOK.
This one’s great… It came up when Paul was explaining that for a while he was convinced he’d peak at 55 (probably the first time anyone’s ever said that about skateboarding), only to instead learn and fluke about 70 new tricks last year! And that’s when he casually dropped it: ‘when you come around I’ll show you the book.’ It turns out THE BOOK is actually a dated record of every single new move that gets landed by him (on purpose or by accident), with a brief description of what it is, a little x with the number of times it’s been landed and the location. It has over 450 entries with I think only five or six that were carried over from when he skated back in the day. And the best part about it? When ‘the rubber comes out’, because that means he’s done a trick enough times to consider he’s now got it dialled, so the little x with that number can be erased. It’s like the physical embodiment of the individualistic nature of what we do. Yes it’s something that we all enjoy together and obviously it’s not the same without your friends, but when you go home after a session and dream about skateboarding, it’s what tricks you’re going to do next time, not what tricks someone else is going to do.
And when you look at the book closely you can really see his learning patterns… Like how he’ll often go from something that was a happy accident, only occurring because he was scared to jump off his board, to some mental combo that somehow organically mutated from him trying to recreate this accident; which I can’t help but loop back to his music. When he’s circuit bending and patching together all these crazy synths, it all starts from a loose idea. Sometimes even from a sound he created by accident whilst making something else… But then the final result itself is of course also always a derivative of what he’d initially envisaged! And he can go on infinitely creating like that, just like how he’s infinitely learning new tricks. He’s just relentlessly breaking down the structures of things, analysing the little intricacies that make them what they are and putting them back together again differently. And it’s almost always done for his own selfish enjoyment. Sure he’s played a few gigs, he even built a synth for Aphex Twin! Plus he’s sharing some of his skating with us right now… But what he truly cherishes above all is the process.
When I asked Paul to talk about pads I assumed we’d get into all the politics around wearing/not wearing them, but it’s the psychology behind why he chooses to use them that came up first: ‘I couldn’t have learned a lot of the tricks I do without the pads,’ he told me. ‘It just wouldn’t be possible. Your reptile brain stem is the oldest part of the human brain structure, it is beneath consciousness and that’s what doesn’t want you to get hurt. It’s what stops you from staying on when you’re scared and essentially what prevents you from learning new tricks. I’m fighting my basic survival instincts every single day. My reptile brain stem is constantly screaming at the top of its voice: ‘‘you are insane, I don’t want you to do this, you’re an old man and you are in danger!’’ And if I can tell it to fuck off, it’s only because I’m wearing loads of pads. I’m constantly willingly and wilfully fighting my survival mechanisms… You don’t think about running away from a dangerous wild animal, you just do it right? Well that’s what I’m trying to overcome every single day. And every other skater is too, but I’m having an easier time and more fun with it because of the pads. The pads are there to protect me but more importantly as a way to change how my mind works in relation to fear and danger.’
What’s funny is that hearing him say this actually explained a lot. On countless occasions I’ve seen him hang up in the deep end of the bowl, fly straight to the bottom, slamming his hip into the concrete. When this happens the people around that don’t know him tend to go all silent… But he’ll often just get up laughing! It’s a cheeky ‘hehe, they don’t know I’m wearing a hip pad’ but also a little fuck you to this bizarre tradition of discouraging everyone, including beginners, from wearing pads. He later brought up this memory he had of an older skater who once showed up at the park wasted and shouted at a local kid: ‘What are those kneepads for? Sucking cock?’ to which Paul immediately shouted back across the bowl, ‘MINE ARE!’… Of course this guy instantly felt stupid and gave Paul an apology, ‘Uh sorry, I didn’t mean it for you’, but it was the first time he really realised the depth of some of the skateboard community’s animosity towards pads.
Now if you’ve made it this far I’m sure this is probably going to sound a bit obvious but one of the most valuable things about having someone like Paul on the session – beyond the fact that he’s our mate – is that his outlook on skating hasn’t been shaped by any of the same things as the rest of us; other than the real life human beings we hang out with at Stockwell. Add to that the fact that he gives zero fucks about what’s ‘cool’ or doesn’t take himself seriously in the slightest and you’ve got the ideal person to offer you some perspective when yours gets drowned by the sea of Instagram, who skates for who, NBD bullshit you subject it to.
‘There’s a depth of conformism and peer pressure that’s inherent in modern skating.’ he told me. ‘I’ve heard a few times that the way I’d do something is cheating, like if I grab the tail on a disaster… And I actually remember telling one person: ‘‘Have you ever seen anybody else do it? Well there you go, it’s my cheat. Myyyyyy cheat,’’ as I walked away laughing. Or sometimes I’ve been trying tricks with people and said, ‘’why don’t you put your hand down?’’ Because that’s what I do on a lot of tricks, and it keeps you rolling, but I’ve been told, ‘’no I’m not going to do it the crap way.’’ What do you mean ‘’the crap way’’? Staying on feels better than anything! That’s what matters. There are lots of different ways to do every trick but everyone wants to do them the same… There are exceptions obviously… And everyone’s got their own specialities within that. I don’t like this level of: ‘‘this is the definition of what this x trick is and when it isn’t done like that it’s wrong’’. And every time it’s always only small ways in which you’re not allowed to rock the boat, but altogether it amounts to skateboarding being a certain way. And that bothers me because we were punks, not just skateboarders… And you don’t have to be a dickhead about not conforming either. Like you don’t need to be all militant about it, but just be aware… It’s almost inescapable though because it’s like everything in life: there are standards by which you will be judged. But it does make a wild activity slightly less wild.’
At the same time he’s at no point claiming that his skateboarding is impermeable to influences, it’s just that they are all very much rooted in the real world. And when it comes to soaking up what he witnesses first-hand at Stockwell: the man does not discriminate! He’s just a straight up sponge, it’s hilarious: ‘Jake Snelling once said to me, ‘’Paul, you don’t have the internet do ya?” I replied that I didn’t so he followed up with, ‘’where do you get all your tricks from then?’’ with a big smile on his face. And I pointed at a BMXer. That’s how I learn: I look at BMXers. I look at you all and I see things that I can’t do. Because I’m coming from a completely different place, I’m constantly extrapolating things I could try from watching people. And I’d have no problem stealing a trick off a scooter baby if it was doable! This idea that you would just get all your work from other skaters: it’s a bad idea because they’re also getting all their ideas from other skaters! There’s not enough aliens in skateboarding. I’m an alien… If I was a brand or a shop I’d just sponsor the maddest person and not worry about anything else!’
‘A groundhog day of happiness’
This piece is coming to end and although it feels like I left our conversation with just as many questions as when I started it, a couple of things are at least now very apparent.
The first is that when Paul looks like he is going to have a stroke as he rolls away from something (often followed by some triumphant, infectious laughter) that is indeed pure joy.
And it is not there by accident. What I mean by this is that he’s chosen a life for himself where he can have that whenever he wants at 56. And he told me straight up, from growing up on council estates in Birkenhead to today where he just works a couple of hours cleaning in the evenings: ‘I’ve had fuck all money my entire life’. But he has unlimited time to make music, skate, read books, etc. and a loving community at Stockwell to share these things with. He once described himself as living ‘a groundhog day of happiness’, and I’m now convinced he really meant it.
The second is that if we want more Pauls in our scenes – and we do – it’s on us to make space for them. Because as much as we hate to admit it, although the endless stream of skateboarding we get to enjoy online is technically making our culture richer, it’s also inevitably homogenising it, making true individuals like him all the more precious. And I don’t care if this sounds cheesy but democratisation of our sacred activity is happening and will continue to happen (it’s even about to go turbo with the bloody Olympics), so if we’re going to make this work we’re all going to have to be extra welcoming. That’s welcoming to 56-year-old ‘aliens’ like Paul, welcoming to the kid with kneepads Paul defended at the skatepark, and welcoming to anyone else who may not fit this ‘skateboarder mould’ our industry has spent so many decades constructing.