An Interview with James Hudson

From back-garden ramp set-ups to the big-top and beyond, James Hudson spent the 80s and early 90s fully engrossed in the world of riding and skating, not just as a rider, but also as a photographer and magazine-man—contributing snaps to R.A.D., editing SK8-Action and publishing BMX Now.

Here’s an interview with him about riding in the Midlands, life in the circus and the differences between fact and fiction…

Interview by Sam. Header photo by Armen Djerrahian.  

What was it that set you off with riding? Was there something in particular that sparked your interest in it?

I was lucky enough to grow up in a house with a large garden, so riding our bikes round it was always something we had done from a very young age. We started to customise our standard kids’ bikes to make them more like motorbikes by putting big ‘cowhorn’ handlebars on them and motocross bike grips. When we first saw BMX in the early 80s it seemed perfect for us. 

I remember my grandfather taking one of our bikes one day and then turning round and riding it sitting backwards across the grass. It blew my mind. We could do wheelies, skids and bunny hops at the time but had not seen anything like that. We quickly learnt to do it though. 

There was always a collection of bricks and bits of wood that we would make jumps from, then one day we started to build a more permanent ramp, using an old gate propped up against a tree and taking run up for it by riding across the grass as fast as we could. At some point my mum decided she didn’t really want the driveway full of bricks and crap, or us carving a track across the lawn, so she let us clear some space under the trees at the end of the garden where we could do what we wanted. That’s where we started to build ramps which would eventually become a full-on half pipe. 

If my research is right, you grew up in a town called Retford in the Midlands. What was the reality of riding at that time in England, versus the vision of blue skies and perfect concrete that was displayed in the American magazines?

Yeah, Retford. Retty. A not-particularly-brilliant market town near Doncaster and Worksop. Up to about 1985 I don’t think we were really aware of what was going on in America because we didn’t get American magazines. Occasionally there would be a pic from the USA in BMX Bi Weekly or BMX Action Bike Mag. It seemed so clean over there and the sun made the shots seem brighter. The freestyle scene over there we saw first was mainly Del Mar skatepark in California—everyone seemed to be sponsored and were wearing shiny race uniforms. We were scrounging wood to build mediocre ramps, or sitting in the guards’ van of a train with our bikes to go ride bumpy banks in Sheffield or Nottingham. I don’t remember a lot of sunshine.

Quite the contrast. What else went with riding or skating in that era? Were there certain bands, clothes or attitudes that were sort of ‘part of the thing’, if you know what I mean? 

Music was the main thing for sure. We would play music out on the ramp all the time. I can still remember unwinding an extension lead across the grass from the house and plugging the ghetto blaster in. Van Halen, Metallica, Devo, Oingo Boingo, The B52’s, Dead Kennedys, Jane’s Addiction, a bit of Slayer. You were allowed to choose your music for your run at the contests, some of our lot would choose US punk and, a bit later on, US rap. I usually rode to The Clash or Living Colour. I did ride to Kylie Minogue once for a laugh. 

Clothing was definitely a thing for us, but it would have been for most teenagers anyway regardless of whether they were into BMX and skating or not. We were just more into the US surf look as opposed to the new romantic, goth or rock fashion vibe that most other teenagers were rockin’ then. The surf brands like Stussy, Jimmy’z and Life’s a Beach were the most sought after brands. Gotcha was actually my first proper sponsor (before Haro and Vision a year or two later). No money, but very bright crazy clothes and zillions of stickers. If there was a Gotcha banner at a contest, or stickers on a ramp in the late 80’s, it was probably me that had put them there. 

When did you ‘get good’, so to speak, was there a point where things sort of clicked?

I guess I realised pretty soon I was quite good at doing stuff on bikes. The contests were the way you could gauge how ‘good’ you were of course. I won the first race I ever entered at Doncaster despite being so scared I nearly shit myself. I only raced for a year or two, I wasn’t that physically strong or fast but just went to do jumps and mess about trying tricks between the races. 

At Gainsborough one weekend I saw a guy try a tailwhip on the ground (on a race bike with no front brake) by jamming his foot into the front wheel and kicking the frame round with his back leg. He couldn’t pull it off but it was such a next level kind of move. I knew then that I really wanted to be doing that kind of stuff. I don’t remember racing after that. 

In the early freestyle contests you had to ride flatland as well as ramps. There were even compulsory tricks for a while that you had to do! ‘Freestyle eh? When I was in the 16+ expert class at contests, Larry Bull would usually win the flatland and sometimes Eric Steel or another die hard ramp rider might win ramps, but it was often me and Graham Marfleet and Dave Beveridge competing for the ‘overall’ title which was the one I was most interested in. 

The best contest moment was definitely winning the first UK KOV halfpipe contest in Portsmouth in 1990. It was six months after coming last in my first ever halfpipe contest—the US KOV finals. I was in the USA at the time and because I had been riding in the circus I was technically a ‘professional’ rider so I had to enter the pro class and compete against Matt Hoffman. Jason Ellis (also from Retford) was with me and he definitely raised his game and did really well, but I was way out of my depth. I came back to the UK with my tail between my legs and decided to start getting my shit together. So winning that first contest was great. In terms of my riding, there was a sweet spot in ‘91 when I was doing all these little tricks but had also learnt back to back 540s and tailwhip airs and was nearly always placing in the top three in the UK contests. But after the Hoffman Mansfield KOV massive game changing backflip-late-180 thing then I stopped improving really. I had reached my limit I guess.

Bit of an aside here maybe, but it’d be daft not to talk about this seeing as you just mentioned it­—what did riding in the circus entail exactly? Did you have a set run that you’d have to perform? What else was going on there?

What it entailed was riding your bike in front of loads of people every day of the week for 20 minutes a day and getting paid £400 quid a week plus a flat to live in. I was 18, what better job could I have possibly had? In terms of growing up and seeing new people and places it was just amazing. I did a short season at the Gt Yarmouth Hippodrome with Mike Canning using one quarter pipe and a wedge ramp, then the following year, a longer season in Blackpool with Ollie Matthews using two quarter pipes. Both of those circus buildings had floors that submerged to create a swimming pool at the end of each show. There are only three such buildings in the whole world. So sometimes when we came to do our routine there was still a bit of water on the floor. Nice. 

We did fairly basic tricks but if any other riders came to watch then we would push it a bit more. We wore a bit of make-up so you could see our faces in the bright lights when we took our helmets off at the end of the show, but apart from that we wore the same clothes as we would have done for a contest or a show i.e. our Haro race uniforms. We did our ‘act’ to ‘The theme from S’Express’ by S’Express (a classic 80s tune that is lodged permanently in my brain) and had lasers and smoke. We were billed as a new, young modern circus act. Very occasionally there were even ‘groupies’ hanging around at the end of the show outside the circus. Mainly we hung around with the staff from the show as they were mostly also from the UK and about our age. Some of the other circus artists did become my friends but they were from traditional, very hard working circus families and had come from all over the world. 

In the year after Blackpool I was on a retainer as the reserve rider for a show that Dave Blundell from Liverpool and Jason Ellis were doing. They were touring in Germany with Circus Krone which was a big deal. Shows drew about 2000 people every day, tickets cost £60 quid and the audience would often dress up in black tie to go see it. Very different from circus culture in this country. The lady who owned it was treated like royalty.

One day I got a call saying Ell (Jason Ellis) had crashed and couldn’t ride in the show any longer. A brand new bike was being sent up to me from Shiner (the Haro distributor at the time) and then I would have to get on my way to Germany to ride in the show the next day. At Circus Krone Ell and Dave had been doing the show on a quarter pipe and a wedge ramp with a load of 8×4 plywood sheets laid down in the ring over the sawdust and hay. They would usually finish their show with a ‘double air’—one rider airing over the other one—on a six foot wide quarter pipe. I had been doing double airs to finish the shows of my previous circuses, but I had never done one with Dave and there was no opportunity to practice it before the show started. So instead I suggested I end that first show by doing a tailwhip air which I had just learnt—well you know, I had pulled a couple. 

The show went well considering we had not practiced together, but when I tried the tail whip at the end I crashed pretty hard. I got up, gave it another go, crashed again. The crowd was now very quiet. I was quite stressed. But there was only one option, so I got up and tried again. This time I pulled it and got a massive round of applause. After the show I was granted an ‘audience’ with the lady who owned the circus. She also congratulated me (she thought the crashes were part of the act…) and wanted me to be in the show next year as well. I rode there till the end of the season, living in an old Mercedes truck called ‘The Beast’ with my girlfriend who had come out from the UK. 

At some point I decided I didn’t want to stay in the circus though, I had been offered a job as the editor of SK8Action magazine so went off to do that the following year. The circus was great, but it becomes a complete lifestyle very quickly rather than just about riding your bike. One of the acrobats at Circus Krone decided one day that he could also do six foot airs out of a quarter pipe although he couldn’t do any other tricks on the bike at that time. So he set up a harness round his waist, attached it to two ropes on either side, which were then held by two of his brothers via a pulley up in the roof of the circus tent. The idea was they could hoist him up and keep him from hitting the ground if it looked like he was going to crash. 

He then borrowed a bike and just pedalled at the ramp as fast as he could and tried to do a big air straight away having never even tried a kick turn half way up. Obviously it didn’t work well and his brothers had to use the pulley system to stop him crashing but that was the approach to any trick of those circus people. They were committed to it as a lifestyle and they were always making new costumes, changing their acts, or developing completely new ones. To be honest I just couldn’t imagine myself living in a caravan for at least half the year. Amazingly, Dave Blundell and another UK rider, Rob Alton, both did exactly that though. They are still riding and doing shows in Germany 30 years later.

Unreal. Another question that I’ve sort of got to ask… you pioneered a seldom-seen move which involved dropping into a vert ramp backwards. What’s the story behind that? 

I think David Slade had tried a sitting backwards backwards drop in off a ledge in a street contest. He had a coaster brake at the time, so I have no idea how he thought he could ride out of it rolling backwards, but that wasn’t really the point with some of Dave’s tricks then. My version, where you sit backwards but the bike goes down forwards, was probably just something I was messing around doing on a bench in town. We used to go to Alfreton leisure centre on a Wednesday to practice with John Yull, Jamie Bestwick, Mark Atkins and that crew. It was a session organised by Roy and Diane Winfield plus some other riders’ parents—some of the unsung heroes of BMX at that time. 

Anyway, as well as a quarter pipe and wedge ramp, they had this sort of five-foot high wedge ramp that nobody ever bothered riding. It was quite steep and had a little platform on the top so it was actually perfect for trying drop in tricks, bomb drops etc. For some reason I tried my sitting backwards drop in on that ramp and it worked. Next thing I know I’m on top of the eight foot high quarter pipe and pulled it first go. Like I said earlier, seeing my grandfather riding backwards across the grass was a key moment for me when I was younger, so perhaps this seemed like the ultimate evolution of that. It’s not actually a difficult trick. I can only remember crashing once or twice. I crashed it at the end of my terrible run at the 2Hip halfpipe contest series final in LA, but I did pull it when Spike Jonze came to the enchanted ramp to photograph for Go magazine though, saving some dignity. That trick is a bit silly to be honest, but kind of became my trademark for a while. People still associate me with it, I don’t ever see anyone else doing it but I don’t think that’s because it’s really difficult, it’s because it’s just a bit daft.

Back to more pressing matters, when did you start working for magazines? Did you see yourself as a ‘photographer’, or did that just happen by chance?

I started taking photos of my friends on our ramp at first, I just liked cameras and ended up buying a pretty good one. I was studying Art and Design/Technology at sixth form so was kind of interested in media and graphic design. We would make little zines on the photocopier at my dad’s office. I guess we wanted to see how the pics compared to those we saw in the magazines but there never was a plan behind it or any kind of goal. We never expected a magazine to come to us so perhaps we thought we would just have to make our own. 

Then one day, after meeting them at the Holeshot contest in London, a magazine did come to us. Nick Philip and Tim Leighton-Boyce arrived in Retford much to our amazement and so began my relationship with R.A.D Magazine. I liked Tim and Nick very much and they were a real inspiration to me over the next few years. R.A.D was the mag that had evolved out of BMX Action Bike, the magazine I had been reading religiously since issue one. The one I had reserved at the local newsagents and would then go down several times each month hoping it had come in a day or two earlier. 

Carlo Griggs, Paris, 1989.

The event that kicked off my photography career was definitely the 1988 BiCross and Skate event at the Bercy stadium in Paris. I was not invited to ride (not good enough, yet) but some of my friends and teammates were, and so most of the UK team I was part of went along. I took my camera and a brand new fish-eye lens along instead of my bike. That event was very special, another game-changing moment in our sport. Not only was it on an amazing, massive halfpipe, it was for bikes and skateboards and for European and US riders. It all came together. I was given a complimentary spectator ticket and told to go and sit at the back with 3000 French kids. That wasn’t going to work for me… I wanted to be on top of the ramp with my mates. And so began a process that continues to this day, that of using my camera to get myself into interesting situations. I signed up as ‘press’ and was soon on the ramp and (very economically, having only brought a couple of rolls of film…) taking pics of my skate heroes Tony Hawk and Mark Gonzales. I was also catching up with friends like Lee Reynolds who had actually come to the event with the American contingent. By this point he was showing no sign of coming back to the UK after an extended visit to California.

I returned to the UK after that epic weekend and sent some of the pics I had taken to Tim at R.A.D and also some to Mark Noble at Freestyle Mag. Both mags published a couple of them and soon afterwards Tim sent me a cheque and a ready made invoice/receipt I simply had to sign and return to him. Boom. It might not have been as good as riding in the event, and I did so want to ride that half-pipe, still do… but it was still a great experience and I realised I could make pretty good pics and now had somewhere to sell them.

After working for Sk8 Action, you set up your own magazine… BMX Now. What were the day to day workings of that? How did people lay-out magazines back then? 

There was another mag Freestyle BMX based down on the south coast. We used to complain they didn’t feature riders from up north as much as their southern mates. When the publisher closed down SK8 Action magazine he suggested I start my own BMX magazine. I am an optimist, not particularly good at saying no to opportunities and knew I would at least be able to take the photos. I got some basic agreement of support from my sponsors for advertising and then thought, “Yes, let’s do it.” 

So off I went to scenes around the UK, testing bikes, taking pics, writing stuff and selling advertising. Larry Bull came with me to see the very first issue get printed in Bristol. The printers were printing porn magazines when we arrived. One moment I saw pictures of glorious boobs and thighs coming off the press, the next moment hairy, dirty, spotty teenage boys on bikes. It was great seeing it actually printed but the reality of trying to keep it alive hit me pretty hard pretty soon after that. 

Ian Lawson, the then designer of R.A.D, designed the first issue of BMX Now! but for issue two, and the subsequent issues, I did it all myself by learning some DTP software on a Mac. No matter how much I tried to plan and get things finished early, once a month I ended up staying up all day and all night to finish the artwork and then, usually about eight am, totally knackered and stressed, getting in the car and driving to Bristol to deliver a pile of ‘camera ready artwork’ to the printer. I would then go and eat a hugely unhealthy and massively satisfying full english breakfast. As the editor at SK8 Action I had deadlines of course, but all I had to deliver was a floppy disk, a page plan and a pile of slides and prints. This was a whole new level of responsibility. The printing costs were the problem. I wanted more colour and better paper but just could not afford to do it. 

Because it was a brand new mag, lots of newsagents ordered issue one on a sale-or-return basis. Nothing for them to lose. This resulted in me getting 20,000 pre orders for issue one. I was delighted, thought I was going to be minted… but I was being very naive and optimistic thinking they would sell. By the time I was aware that about 17,000 of those first mags were coming back unsold, I had printed issue two, and was already committed to printing way more copies of issue three than I knew now would ever be sold. I wasn’t very good at spelling and was still trying to ride in the professional class et cetera. It’s all got way too much for me. But Will Smyth and Damien started helping me on issue four and when I had to call it a day they went and set up DIG.

Sounds like quite the task. I suppose throughout all this… you were a rider—you weren’t just someone with a camera trying to make some money. How important is it that magazines and videos and, ‘the culture’ of things like riding or skating is handled by those who are actively involved?

I definitely always thought of myself as primarily a BMX rider who also skated and took photographs and made zines and ramps. I don’t think anyone thought about the money. The first pro halfpipe contest in the UK I won I think the prize money was £225. It was in Portsmouth on the south coast so my dad probably drove us down there and we had to stay in a hotel so it cost more for me to attend the event than I won. Magazines would pay about £40 per page for pictures if you were lucky. But when you consider the cost of film and processing and travelling then you were never going to get rich. I was sponsored, so didn’t have to pay for bikes or equipment and I would get paid for doing shows or television occasionally. Hardly anyone was actually breaking even from riding back then. 

It was important for riders to be involved, but back then most riders just wanted to ride and the contest organisers, distributors and promoters were often parents of riders and other adults who had never ridden BMX themselves. We were probably a bit too critical of them with hindsight. I certainly was. But how could it have been any other way? It hadn’t been around long enough for riders to have had a riding career and go into the industry. Back then it was just an older generation of people with no riding experience and a load of teenagers with scabby knees and no experience of management. But between us we kept it going. Then Ron Wilkerson, and later Matt Hoffman, took control of their bikes and contest in the USA and it changed forever. It’s amazing to think now we have ex-pro riders who also have 10-20 years of experience in the industry as well running stuff.

I imagine people had been unconsciously ‘street riding’ for years – but when did it become something people intentionally did? What set it off? And what did the public think of it back then?

Yeah definitely, street riding was what we did when we went from our house to the BMX track, or some crap banks or somewhere to practice flatland. At some point that journey became the ‘destination’. I can’t remember exactly when but in our crew Sid from Sheffield and Shaun Allison from Worksop were definitely pushing that scene. David Slade and Lee Brown would also sometimes come down from Barnsley and we would go ride street in Retford rather than our ramp. In terms of how it was received… back then the public just thought we were all idiots, regardless of what we were riding.

Tom Penny, Radlands

With riding on mainstream TV, and in the circus, it seems like in the 80s it was pretty popular, before what a lot of people term the dark ages in the early 90s. Why do you think it slumped? And was it that noticeable as someone heavily involved?

At the time I really didn’t understand why its popularity dropped in the early 90s. You are right, I was so heavily involved I didn’t really care how popular it was. With hindsight, its slump was possibly because of the low quality of the bikes and the small number of facilities was at odds with the quite drastic progression in riding. 

For example, you could have seen Mat Hoffman do the backflip late 180 at the Mansfield contest, but there were no indoor skateparks with foam pits or resi ramps for you to go and try it. You’d just break your bike and yourself—just like Mat used to do all the time. But that wasn’t sustainable. Even the expensive bikes used to break, so if you had got a really cheap one from Halfords or at a supermarket and then it didn’t last very long, that could easily give the whole activity a bad name to your parents or friends. BMX was on mainstream TV a bit, but it wasn’t ‘honest’ coverage in some ways. It always felt a bit gimmicky. It was aimed totally at kids because not many people in their 20s were doing it. 

I know you now take a lot of documentary photos, but even in your SK8 Action days, your photos showed a lot more than just the tricks. Was showing the culture around riding and skating an important thing to you?

It was but I didn’t realise it so much at the time. I wish I’d taken more of the non-trick shots to be honest. The shots Ed Templeton took as a fellow skater of his mates hanging out are actually more interesting than most of the pure action pictures us ‘photographers’ took. I think there are one or two ‘clues’ in my early skate and BMX shots to where my photography was heading. There is a shot of Jimmy Boyes in Durham with a guy in a suit with a briefcase in the background that I always liked and looks very ‘documentary’ now. 

Jimmy Boyes, Newcastle

You say you couldn’t keep up with the tricks by the early 90s, but there’s photos of you trying feeble grinds into decades—something that people don’t really try now. What else were you playing around with before you quit?

Yeah the stuff I couldn’t see myself being able to keep up with were (even) bigger airs and backflips. The progression in street and vert lip-tricks I was really into. I had pretty much given up flat land by that point though. The last few times I rode was with Larry Bull, we were trying to mix up street and flatland moves. He was doing 180 Abubaca/Fufanu to decade, and nose manuals (which were still called front wheel wheelies then…) to late 180 bar spin out on ledges. I do remember trying 180 to fakie toothpick grinds down little rails (a direct translation of a skateboard trick to BMX) but I’m not sure I made many of them.

And then, as you say, you stopped. Was it hard not to be doing something you’d been so heavily involved with for the past decade? I imagine riding vert at the level you were is a pretty mad buzz—what did you replace it with?

I’m not sure I tried to replace it with anything. That would not have been possible anyway. It had been too intense for me, so rather than looking for anything to replace it with, I think I actually appreciated having a much more mellow existence for a while. I definitely have subconsciously tried to find, and even create, little creative communities that might have the same vibe as we had back then but never quite found it. There have certainly been times when I blamed the failure of a particular project on not having such a great community around me. This was actually an unhealthy belief I had been carrying around for a long time and that I have only fairly recently (through a course of CBT) managed to let go of. 

Some of the manic, creative approach and energy remains though. It’s still in me and occasionally bubbles up and I get reminded about those early days. I think, “Bloody hell, I used to be like this 24 hours a day.” I think Mark Gonzales, the skater, still is. Amazing.

Mark Gonzales, Paris, 1989.

You mentioned something called Enneagram theory in one of your Instagram posts, and how your early years went on to influence your life today. Do you ever wonder where you’d be if you hadn’t found riding or skating? 

I don’t really wonder about what would’ve happened if I hadn’t been into riding, skating and photography. It’s difficult to imagine what else would have happened, mainly as I haven’t really stayed in touch with anybody who didn’t ride back then. I think I always wanted to get out of Retford one way or another. I did go to an open day at Loughborough University for their automotive engineering and design degree with my dad when I was 17. I quickly realised my maths and physics weren’t going to be good enough to get me on the course, and also that designing cars wasn’t apparently about sitting in a café drawing pictures of cars that looked like beautiful women. By the time I had done my A-level exams I had already got the job in the circus so I wasn’t really bothered about my mediocre results. My fellow students were all like, “what are you going to do now?” I thought, I’m just going to ride my bike.

I have occasionally thought about what would’ve happened if I’d have stayed in the BMX and skateboarding world. It’s quite easy to think about it because of seeing what my friends Jamie Bestwick and Simon Tabron went on to achieve from exactly the same place I was at. Also, Wig Worland remained one of my best friends so I was also aware of what was happening in the skate world in the 90s and 00s. But it was never really an option for me. 

Financially, physically, creatively and emotionally it had all come crashing down in a few months in 93. The magazine had lost thousands of pounds so I had to get a job in a factory to pay the mortgage and to avoid bankruptcy. I quit riding competitions and soon lost all enthusiasm for riding street as well. I could not see myself doing backflips and other ‘next level’ tricks that were being done then. Classic burn out. 

But yeah I do believe those late teens/early 20s years really define us. I’ve just been re-writing my artist CV with help from the coach. He has pointed out to me that what I did in those formative years is quite clearly traceable through to my current practice. Despite being only ever on the fringes of the BMX scene for the last 25 years, and having worked in a variety of industries, there is still a direct link. My approach to projects now is actually quite similar to my approach to riding. I still want to make stuff, still be out on the street, still take risks and still get inspiration from others doing similar stuff. It has been great going through all this old stuff, and I’m enjoying the nostalgia and catching up with old friends, but the reason I have been doing it is really for research for a new piece of fictional work I am making that is set in the late 80’s.

Belinbinder Singh, Birmingham

What made you want to go down the fictional route?

Once I had realised that money wasn’t the driving factor behind my work in the various creative industries I ended up in, I started to do more documentary photography. But after a while I also realised that I wasn’t all that interested in journalistic issues or actually in the objective qualities of photography either. It turned out that I wasn’t actually interested in truth very much in my creative work. I had only started really reading books properly in my mid to late 20s, but ever since have been very interested and entertained by fiction. Written fiction and illustration were always more of an inspiration to me than other photography.

Thinking about it, I read a lot more fiction books than factual books—but I still get a lot of facts out of them. Does fiction tell the truth better sometimes?

I don’t think it tells the truth any better but fiction is so approachable that it allows you to draw in an audience and then subversively introduce your ideas, concepts and themes. Readers have to do some of the work in good fiction which makes it more rewarding. Good non-fiction might be interesting, but you are often just thinking, “Yes, yes, I agree, that’s so right”, etc etc. You are not as engaged, you are absorbing it and are probably then going disseminate it, but not a lot more. They both have their place of course and I do read non-fiction all the time. What has only recently become obvious in my own practice is that I want my work to entertain people as much as communicate the ideas and themes I’m interested in. I can’t believe it’s taken so long to realise this, I was in the circus after all so it really should’ve been bloody obvious to me a while ago.

Going through these photos from years ago must have been a strange experience. Are there things that stand out now that you maybe hadn’t noticed at the time? Do you look at this stuff in a different light now? 

The archive has always been close to hand, so I had been dipping into it occasionally, often after moving into a new house. When I did the Skate Park Life project about ten years ago I went through it all to see if there were any old shots that I could use alongside the new documentary pictures I was taking, but there were only a couple. I remember feeling quite disappointed about how many utterly shite photos were in there. 

This time round though there have been a few that really appealed. They are double exposures and odd moments rather than action shots that I’d missed the first time round though. The pictures of Carlo Griggs at the French contest surprised me. I had seen them before, and think even published one of them, but hadn’t quite realised how bloody high he went at that contest. That was actually sometimes a problem when you’re looking through a camera rather than just watching somebody as a fellow human being. But yeah I am looking at them in a different light now, I’m interested in the graphic quality of the image more than the trick or rider/skater. I’ve particularly been looking for shots that might inspire the narrative for the book and shots that contain an element of the Zeitgeist of those days.

James, back-garden can-can

What are your thoughts on riding today? Do you pay attention to it at all?

Yeah I do watch a bit of it every now and again. Plenty of it comes up on Instagram, but I struggle to relate to black bikes with no brakes, massive bars and very low seats to be honest. I totally see how they have progressed and they definitely needed to, but many of our bikes back then were really personal—expressions of our personality—although we didn’t realise it. I used to spend ages taking parts of and painting them and putting stickers on. 

In terms of the riding it’s just crazy. Seeing stuff I had dreamt up, then drawn little diagrams of in my rough book at school the following day, actually being done is just great. I saw a video of a guy doing a 540 tailwhip to disaster to backside revert the other day. Damn. Three of the hardest/favourite tricks I used to do all done as one! I just think the whole way it has gone is really bloody brilliant. Skate, BMX and action sports are everywhere. The fact that there are so many skate parks, and also that so many ex-riders are employed in (and own) the industry is great. 

It’s so established now that I can’t ever see it disappearing. I always wanted there to be more alternatives to the organised, physical contact team sports like rugby and football when I was younger—those where winning or losing is so crucial, and that so often erupt into violence. I really didn’t connect to that whole world, and still don’t. And although top level skating and BMX is a big deal, and super competitive these days, it’s still a much better alternative for so many people at a grassroots level to that whole team sports mentality. Being a skater or BMXer back then meant you were going to get a lot of stick from people. Constant jibes and jokes—a total lack of experience, context and history. A much easier route for most kids was to stick to the organised team sports. Or do tennis. Or do nothing. And it was also almost an entirely new male environment back then. Most of that negative vibe has now gone and been replaced with understanding and respect and inclusion. There are facilities and there are positive role models and it has been a consistent and stable activity for a while now. Tony Hawk is a household name in the states and everyone now knows what BMX is. Just amazing.

I think I’ve run out of questions now. Have you got any wise words to wind this up with?

Haha—I thought you were never going to run out of questions. Not sure I’ve got any wise words. I still feel like a kid who is making it up as he goes along, and I’ve made so many mistakes I hardly feel qualified. However, I can tell you that what most BMXers call a smith grind is actually not really like a smith grind on a skateboard. 

Interview originally published in Red Steps issue 5.

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