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
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;
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
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
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
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.