Thursday, October 4, 2007

Parkour - file

Taking the Metro from Forum Les Halles to La Défense in the early 90’s was like watching a moving montage of urban culture. Around the Centre Pompidou and all over the mazey Les Halles were outbreaks of skateboarding jinx and breakdancing cliques, youth in bandana’s and baggy BDU’s pushing the limits of their street style for themselves and for their scally peers.

The street battles for proto-hoodie kudos to organic urban rhythms had natural pauses for surliness and shiftiness in the face of anyone, especially the stocky security guards and traditionally heavy-handed and violent policiere with their sticks and dogs. At this time even the Champs D’Elysee was patrolled by CRS with Uzis.

Slipping back down underground to the relative calm of the Metro, heading North West and out to les banlieues, La Défense sits at the end of the line like a huge, stamped full stop. The end of civilized language, beyond this point the local patois takes hip buzz words from the ghettoes of the world and then speaks them backwards with a French accent. It’s a street lingo called Verlan and the built-in ‘fuck-you’ grittiness echoes around the canyons of the high-rise estates that seem to extend for infinity out from the besieged romantic heart of Paris.

Being born is like coming out of the station at La Défense; the inexorable upward slide to a gash of bright light, the open esplanade that greets you and the immense full-stop that blocks your way.

I remember being struck by the scale of the shining arch up close, feeling very small by comparison. Looking around I could see the tips of the disrepaired housing blocks that form the horizon there, they too seemed struck by the scale of the thing, as if they too felt very small by comparison. What of their, even smaller, inhabitants; the immigrants, the poor, the disenfranchised and the disenchanted, living in the shadow of such a state-sponsored gleaming colossal end?

Over on the banked edges of the space around the Metro exit and La Défense itself there were some doods flying around the street furniture on their boards, or so I thought. As I approached for a nosey I realized they didn’t have any boards…

A group of about 12 ragged guys, looking like break dancers on dress-down Friday, were sprinting up a wall and somersaulting over backwards, some were cart wheeling down the concrete slopes, I saw one guy hop up a lamppost and on to a wall, starjumping off it and landing in a roll.

I was really impressed at the time thinking that the wonderful French art of subverting anything and baptizing it with Style and Art had come to gymnastic tumbling. It seemed to echo the completely sensational departure of Cirque du Soleil and the reinvention of the circus for a modern world or Savate, the peculiarly French interpretation of kick-boxing.

What I saw was ghetto ballet, set firmly in and on the concrete and steel environment that had previously only conspired in the crushing socialization of those unable to escape. Like Verlan had broken out of the languages of les banlieues, Parkour had emerged from the very walls of this economic prison.

That was years ago and while I’d always intended to find out more about what I’d seen, I didn’t. Only a chance clip of Luc Besson’s astonishing movie Yamakusi brought it back to mind, oh, I thought, this has really caught on.

I didn’t find out its name until last week; Parkour.

Back in the day (1902) there was a guy, un mec (fr.) un keum (Verlan), called Georges Hébert, a place; St. Pierre in Martinique, and a volcano; big, fiery, explosive. Hébert saved the day (and 700 people) and went on to form an exercise program that developed specifically useful skills for situations just like that.

Méthode Naturelle became the standard torture for French soldiers and sailors as well as those in the emergency services. With a ‘learn today, use today’ approach everyone had to go through the hells they would likely face, in the places they would likely face them. Later in Vietnam, for example, the squaddies would be forced to run, jump, climb and verily swing through the jungles at break-neck speed in readiness for active service.

Then David Belle got a hold of the cat by the tail and brought it scratching and squealing into the ghetto. Inspired by his father’s heroics as a military firefighter, Belle, who had always been a serious climber, martial artist and gymnast, was well equipped to carry resistant moggies and acclimatize them.

No vines or branches or soft muddy landings in the hood. Belle would set a route from one apartment block to another and then he’d get there as quick as possible, by whatever means. Skipping up sheer walls on to mezzanine floors, scaling balconies and drainpipes, running up the outside of stair wells and flying from one roof top to the next.

The cat brought superpowers to the youth. The practicality of these skills was immediately grokked by every down-with-it and dodgy street rat punker gangsta who might, one day, have occasion to vanish sharpish.

Like Hébert had done, Belle ended up formalizing his practice. What had been called Parcours du Combatant in Vietnam was dubbed Parkours (wiv a K) by the new kids on the block (literally – On the block) and eventually PK by the buzzers. Belle formed Yamakasi the first PK gang and they danced all over Paris, then London and the World.

As PK got bigger and the movies came and the stunt jobs, it started to look more like PR. Sébastien Foucan, an original member of the Yamakasi tribe, ended up bugging out and going his own way, quickly, into Free Running which is PK with clean, combed hair, slicked back and parted down the middle. Parkours split into two; the gritty utility and the dance for the masses who like all the frilly bits and forward rolls and wouldn’t dream of running from the police.

It’s easy to tell when it’s going down the pan. In the Guardian last week there was a video report which made me realize just how far PK has come from its humble beginnings. Watching a middle-aged, middle class man in a soft pink Lacoste shirt boasting of his adventures in penis enlargement and jumping off a 2 foot high vault on to a soft springy mattress in a tidy gymnasium, shouting “Oo” in excitement, I despaired.

In a globalized world that shuffles culture like playing cards, that saw French kids annex the skateboard and the hip-hop just like the Italians or the English did, it’s still a little sad to watch PK cleaned up for the petit-bourgeoisie.

I wasn’t in Harlem to watch the WASPS try to steal Jazz after its renaissance or at the Armory Show where the US Govt. claimed modern art as its own and I didn’t personally witness the Pans People doing Punk but it doesn’t matter. The gentrification of truly subversive social movements can surely only end in their eventual sanitization and conformity, like crack cocaine cut with baby powder. Not a crack fan but I fear for the future of PK.

Governments don’t want to own this one though; more like disown it, but that it’s now being practiced by the fashion conscious of Kensington and Hampstead in evening classes is an ugly symptom of its social evolution.

The truth is that PK is dangerous, anti-establishment to its very core attacking even the inalienable traditional rights of property and enclosure. Super human powers for the sub-human classes, no wonder it’s being subverted itself. It gives escape routes for hoodie vandals from the not-quite-long-enough arm-of-the-law.

I’ll not support the Egits or the kids-wi-guns but PK does offer a glimmer of equilibrium in a black unbalanced world of terror-reaction and increased powers of search and arrest, all the craze among the big boys these days. Also, a bit like the martial arts and David Belle himself, those that can give what it takes to do it well are most unlikely those who will turn to the dark side, that said, watch the videos up at Pscenes, there can be no better training for the wannabe urban warrior.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

NFL week 4 - The Velvet Bear

Well, folks, the big news in the NFL this week was that there wasn't any big news in the NFL this week. Nothing. Brett Favre finally threw his 421st career touchdown, to break the all-time record of the great Dan Marino. Even this caused only a ripple upon the surface of an otherwise calm week (though I did find myself wondering (a) just how long they had toted around the recorded tribute from Marino before the record fell and (b) why the Old Man's surname is pronounced 'Farv' and not 'Fav-ray'?). This being the case, I thought I would use this space to answer some of the questions I have been asked since I started writing here.

First of all, the Belichick affair. Yes, I know it sounds daft, but you can use TV pictures to analyse your opponents, just not covert footage you have taken yourself. I guess it is all down to some ill-defined code of fair play. Also the fact that the players know they are being filmed by TV and, as i have mentioned before, guard against it. That is not to say that some have not been caught out. There is a famous story from basketball where, with less than 10 seconds of an important game remaining, the coach of the losing team called a time out. At that time, TV cameras were allowed to film inside the huddle that basketball players go into during a time out. The other team simply sent a member of staff down to the changing rooms, where the game was being shown. He ran back with details of what the opposition were planning and the game was won.

Next, the Minnesota Vikings. I'm sorry to say that my view on them hasn't changed much since I wrote the preview. They are currently 1-3 for the season, having been on the receiving end of Favre's record pass at the weekend. They have two injury prone QBs and don't seem to be able to decide which is the lesser risk. Frankly, I can't blame them. If I had to choose which was the lesser of the two evils that are Tavaris Jackson and Kelly Holcomb, I'd be putting my head in the oven. Their one victory came over the Falcons and their next best chance of not losing a game is actually this weekend - but only because they have a bye. They then have to play the Bears - who at least do know who their QB will be, after Brian Griese was confirmed as #1 this week - followed by the Cowboys, Eagles, Chargers and Packers again. This means that by the time they get a match I would expect them to win - the Raiders in Week 11 - they could easily be 1-8 and looking at their worst season ever.

Vick's drug test failure proves nothing other than that the guy is too stupid to even stick to his own bail conditions. Even Pete Doherty is - currently - managing to do that. I don't actually wish Vick ill and so long as he receives a fair punishment for what he has done I'll be happy. But talk about making life hard for yourself!

'Paper Lion' is a good book, although 'Friday Night Lights' is regarded as the definitive 'year with a team' book - probably because most Americans feel a closer affinity with their college and high school sides than with the pro sides. Another great book is 'The Blind Side' by Michael Lewis, which is a truly heartwarming story and will teach you some things about the game along the way - like why a left tackle is the second highest paid player on a team.

Heritage uniforms: For some reason, whenever a side reaches a significant anniversary, NFL tradition decrees that, for that week, they play in a uniform which is a replica of that which they played their first game in. This season, both the Eagles and the Redskins were 75 years old. The interesting facts to come out of this were that the latter only developed their slightly controversial Red Indian logo sometime later - their original one was an R with tailfeathers - and that whoever designed the original Eagles outfit had no dress sense whatsoever. They looked like page boys in helmets

Meanwhile, back in the modern day NFL:

- 'Cadillac' Williams becomes the latest exotically named star to be ruled out for the season with a cruciate ligament injury;

- Revenge is sweet for Daunte Culpepper as he leads the Raiders to a 35-17 win over the Dolphins team which released him at the start of September, scoring three of the touchdowns himself;

- Pre-season favourites the Chargers lose their third straight game, going down 30-16 to the Chiefs;

- At the other extreme, the Steelers lose their first game as the Cardinals defense puts up a massive performance to bring off a 21-14 win;

- Tony Romo throws four touchdowns as the Cowboys flatten the Rams 35-7. In one amazing play, Romo had to run back 33 yards to recover a misplaced snap which had flown over his head, then ran for 37 yards, leaving a net gain of 4 yards - and pretty much summing up the Rams' afternoon into the bargain;

- The 49ers will be without QB Alex Smith for one game with a damaged shoulder on his throwing arm. As they went down 23-3 at home to the Seahawks and went back to 2-2 it doesn't bode well for this weekend;

- A less happy QB was the Eagles' Donovan McNabb, who managed to get himself sacked a record-equalling 12 times in a 16-3 defeat to the Giants;

- Changing QB doesn't help the Bears. Not only do they lose 37-27 to the Lions, the lack of Rex and the Giants' victory means I don't have anything to laugh at. Couldn't Lovie Smith tell from the names that Grossman and Griese would be the worst double act ever?

- That's all for this week. Thanks for reading. Keep the questions coming and I'll be back next week to talk about padding, or positions, or something. VB

Monday, October 1, 2007

Maestro, please - premcorrespondent

These men stands at the centre of it all, controlling tempo, angles, possession, goals, assists. These men hold the crowd in their thrall - at their whim tattooed dockers weep. Brady, Dagliesh, Haynes, Cantona.

And this week they came again: Arteta, Elano, Fabregas.

Each at the heart of their team's play. Untouchable. The others seem to tip their game to them. The opposition relied upon to do their bidding as reliably as the ball.

Arsenal saw off West Ham thanks in large part to their pint-sized boyband-lookalike/best-player-in-the-world Cesc Fabregas and a misplaced linesman's flag. In the 60s George best boozed, looked like a Beatle and ruled the world as a teen genius. Fabregas looks like a clean-cut member of one of the androgynous anodyne all-boy acts that seem to clog up the hit parade in this post-Blair Britain. But he plays like an angel.

Over in Manchester Elano proved that Sven's eye for talent is of more value than a Thai chequebook. Elano is currently displaying something that Chelsea, Manchester United, and Liverpool lack. Someone to play the ball to and through who has class. City, inspired by this Brazilian from Donetsk, took Big Sam's Newcastle apart 3-1.

Arteta comes from Spain via Glasgow and doesn't look like a boyband member, but that mattered little as he ran the show and Everton lived up to one hack's pre-season hopes in a 2-0 suffocation of Middlesbrough. And McFadden played quite well and looks like he's in Travis, so that's fine.

As well as the return of the playmaker, this week has also harked back to the golden days of Stoke City defeating West Brom 10-3 with Sir Stan running the wing. Yes, in a comedy performance straight out of the 50s golden age, or the MLS, Portsmouth beat Reading 7-4. As I said to the man at the turnstile - if I'd wanted a cricket score I would have watched Fiji play rugby.

Of course, if we wander down the Kings Road we find the home of Haynes, Marsh, Best, and latterly Malbranque and Davis at Craven Cottage. Next to Fulham is 60s glamour side Chelsea. Zola, Gullit, Wilkins, Osgood, Vialli. Unfortunately all these players have now left. About the best thing in a turgid 0-0 draw was "not good enough for the Championship" Diomansy Kamara. Chelsea slip to 8th in the table.

Derby and Bolton joined in with Fulham in proving that not every team in white plays like Real Madrid. In fact, a white shirt seems to be more of a French flag than a symbol of attacking flowing football. Derby and Bolton drew 1-1 with each other. They continue to prop up the table, the less said about Leeds the better.

Spurs - the remaining achromatic outfit - were at home for their 125th anniversary. They managed to blow a 1-0 lead to draw 4-all and complete a whitewash of the relegation places. If they had a goalkeeper they might have scraped to the 4-0 they deserved, but panicking at their lead Leeds reject Paul Robinson (who also plays with the white shirts of England) handed Villa four straight goals to make sure Spurs didn't get ahead of themselves.

Gianni Brera wept.

In other news Mark Hughes' Blackburn beat Roy Keane's Sunderland to cement his position as the top manager managed by Ferguson in a previous life. But then competing with two newly promoted sides makes this job somewhat easier.

Alex Ferguson's Manchester United and Rafa's Liverpool both eked out 1-0 wins against no-hopers Birmingham and Wigan respectively. They are now in second and fourth, split by Sven's City.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

NFL Roundup - the Velvet Bear

For the benefit of those of you who hadn't realised, these little pieces are all about the professional side of American Football. What you might not realise, though, is that there are two other levels to the game - High School and College. These are exactly as they say they are. High School games are played by those who have not left school yet and are hugely well supported. Some of you may have seen the television series Friday Night Lights. This was originally based on a famous book written about high school football in the late 1980s. Famous and controversial, as it exposed the pressure that these young athletes were placed under, the pressures imposed upon them and the crazy education system which contrives to keep the academically inept in school because they are good sportsmen.

You will gather that high school games are mostly played on a Friday night, which means that Saturday is the day for college - effectively university - games. The goal of every high school player is to win a scholarship to college, which then gives them a shot at the big time of NFL football. It is the parallel of the apprenticeship system in soccer, only with more studying and less boot cleaning; indeed, some colleges have sports facilities which put even those of Premiership soccer clubs to shame. Needless to say, the attrition rate is high. Only a tiny proportion of those who win college scholarships will reach the NFL and only a fraction of those will be successful there. To do this, many will have to change position - for example, Antwan Randle El was a star college quarterback who became a moderately successful wide receiver in the NFL. He won a Superbowl with the Steelers, who would occasionally put his old skills to use by having him throw a pass instead of the quarterback (trick plays like this are known as 'gadget plays', for reasons I've never been able to find out, let alone explain).

Why am I telling you this? Because of something which happened in a college game last weekend. Texas Tech's QB Graham Harrell threw for 646 yards in a game against Oklahoma State and still lost. Imagine how that must feel. You throw the ball for almost SIX AND A HALF TIMES the length of the field and still end up on the losing side. And remember that in calculating these yards, they only count if someone catches the ball after you've thrown it. The game finished 49-45 to Oklahoma, so it is not as if the passes he threw were ineffective, or the product of bad choices. Indeed, the game ended dramatically when the Oklahoma tight end (you know how I love those guys) Brandon Pettigrew ran more than half of the length of the pitch for a touchdown.

Only three people have thrown further than Harrell during a college game. Oddly enough, the man he passed to take that fourth place was Cody Hodges, who also played for Texas Tech. The fact that Hodges set his mark in 2005, though, might indicate that other teams have now sussed out Oklahoma's tactics.

And if all this wasn't enough to depress Harrell, of the top five guys in this list, only one, David Klingler, made it to the NFL - and he was a huge disappointment there. It's tough at the not-quite-top.

Meanwhile, in the NFL itself:

● The Giants come back from 17-3 down at half time to beat the Redskins 24-17 with their defense holding out for four plays on their own one yard line to seal the win;

● Nate Burleson catches a touchdown pass with a minute to go to enable the Seahawks to edge out the Bengals 24-21;

● Old Man Favre levels Dan Marino's record of 420 career TDs and couldn't care less: “I'm so glad we one I couldn't care less about the record”, he paraphrased;

● Atlanta lost again, but Joey Harrington had his best day since taking over from Michael Vick and all was going well until Carolina lost starting QB Jake Delhomme. Replacement David Carr made a pitch for the starting role by leading the touchdown drive which put the Panthers ahead. The killer, though, was Falcons' cornerback DeAngelo Hall losing his cool at Panthers WR Steve Smith. First he picked up a penalty for shoving Smith, then added another for continuing to abuse him. This not only lead to the touchdown from which Carolina levelled the scores, it cost him a $100,000 fine and suspension from at least the first quarter of the Falcons' next game. And you thought Chelsea were in trouble;

● My favourite whipping boy finally got his comeuppance this week. A loss to the Cowboys lead in turn to Bears coach Lovie Smith losing his restraint and Rex Grossman losing his starting berth to veteran Brian Griese. Yes, that's pronounced 'greasy'. And no, it doesn't mean that he takes Rex's place on my laugh-list. Where's Eli Manning?

● As if trying to prove my 'this is a pretty safe sport' riff of a fortnight agon, Texan's defensive end Cedric Killings broke his neck on Sunday. He's making even swifter progress than Kevin Everett - who is still doing very well - but may not play again. We wish both of them well;

● A bad week for star names. Shaun Alexander, JP Losman, Heinz Ward, Tommie Harris and Steven Jackson will all miss games with injuries, whilst Deuce Mcallister's season is over after a torn cruciate ligament;

● The Saints' nightmare continues as they lose to the Titans;

● Marc Bulger will play on with two broken ribs. Well, at least until the first time someone tackles him;

● Patriots' Vince Wilfork is fined $12,500 for the low tackle which injured Losman. Video evidence indicates that it may have been an accident, but the Pats aren't exactly flavour of the month and it is hard not to suspect that Wilfork is paying for the sins of others;

● Samari Rolle of the Ravens will miss another week after suffering an adverse reaction to medication. Which just goes to show that all the medical facilities in the world won't help if your body won't play;

● Finally, it is nice to hear that the life of Michael Vick is getting worse. Not only is he now likely to be indicted in further dogfighting charges which might lead him to 40 minutes in the clink, he also tested positive for marijuana in September, in violation of his bail. Idiot - but a nice way for the rest of us to end the week.

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