A group of men – a mixture of weathered old bachelors with milk bottle glasses and flatcaps and ruddy faced young ‘uns (for which read between 30ish and 60ish) with quiffs, hand knitted sweatshirts and impressive mutton chops – stride across the black and white celluloid hills above Halifax.
They are arguing over an arcane set of rules relating to the now almost forgotten game of knurr and spell, or ‘potty knocking’ as it was apparently known in Barnsley; this is explained to younger viewers by the crisp tones of BBC sports commentator Barry Davies. The men, he says, are arguing the toss over the draw for the 1972 World Championships before its commencement in Greetland.
As Davies explained, the game is played with sticks topped with mallet heads and a hard china clay ball (the knurr, traditionally made of wood), which is launched from a wooden trap (the spell). The ball is launched in the air, then walloped as far as possible.
So what, I hear you ask, does this little watched video that I sometimes like to force on people when I’m drinking have to do with skateboarding? It struck me, as I watched Paul ‘Wapo’ Watson reach hour number two of attempting a line at Leeds’ incredible looking but stubbornly shit to skate Sausage Banks for Will Smith’s Northern-centric Vans video ‘Mush’, that for many people skateboarding is on a par with knurr and spell when it comes to opacity of purpose. “Can’t you do that somewhere else?” came one disgruntled shout from a flat above, as Paul hit his 50th slightly under-spun backside flip. “Can’t you go potty knocking somewhere else?” was I’m sure a question occasionally thrown in the direction of a knot of squabbling, ball fondling Yorkshiremen.
One major difference is that, while one pastime is in the Olympics, the other is lost and presumed extinct. What this says about Western culture’s mythologisation of youth, of addiction to adrenaline and of addiction to consumption of US culture is probably the subject of a dissertation rather than a short magazine article, but the fact remains.
The rabid fandom of zine culture, a holdover from the connection between skateboarding and punk music, probably played no small part in keeping skating alive during the lean years (though if anyone reading this is in possession of any knurr and spell fanzines I will happily trade some old Thrashers and Transworlds for them).
The prevalence of niche interest magazines in skateboarding’s infancy ensured its place in print media from its outset, whilst by this point knurr and spell was the province of a hardy few, ignored outside of the north of England.
If those magazines had existed, there undoubtedly would have been an equivalent of the infamous issue of Skateboard! Magazine which exclaimed on its tagline, “Skateboarding officially pronounced dead!”
Would Timothy Taylor’s be classed as a performance enhancing drug, or would they have their own brand of cask energy drink? Would there be a team of boffins developing a more aerodynamic flatcap? Would there have been a brief but spirited fad for spells with copers, or handles with rip grip?
In fact, skateboarding’s Olympic foray is in spirit closer to potty knocking than it is to the activities on display in this article and the accompanying video. Paul Watson, Albie Edmonds and Sam Hutchinson are much happier in the free flowing concrete river of the streets than in a competitive environment, whilst in the hotly contested knurr and spell finals emotions are on a hair trigger. In fact, the argument in the clip intensifies as the Barnsley contingent cry foul, arguing that the Greetland team are trying to sneak in an unqualified player. Could the same be said of the inclusion of no less than four southerners in a video focusing on the Yorkshire Vans contingent and whose working title for a time was ‘Be Reyt’?
Regardless, tempers flare as one of the Barnsley group describes the whole thing as ‘nothing but a big farce’. On this, at least, skateboarding is less competitive at almost every level; even at the Olympics there weren’t any noticeable histrionics, and those that are prone to such outbursts are soon marked as shit craic and avoided at the bar by the majority. Going back in time and onto the hills of Greetland, however, further drama descends upon the scene when the game is moved to the bottom of the hill due to high winds. The Barnsley contingent are not happy.
With the cycle of skateboarding’s popularity seeming to have plateaued, fears abound as to the potential negatives of its unbridled success. Having been a witness to a few of the filming missions for Mush, however, I think I can safely say that things are looking alright. As long as skateboarders are willing to spend hours exploring the streets or putting in hours lurking in skateparks and skater owned shops – kicking against the constraints of public abuse, defensive architecture and the criminalisation of how public space is used – then skateboarding will probably be fine. Skateboarding in this day and age, despite the naysayers (of which I am occasionally guilty of being found amongst), is in a solid position with regards to a generation of skateboarders not only comfortable on all terrain and in all environments, but with a grounding in the importance of community and grassroots scene support.
The three skateboarders in Mush are also notable for their dedication to creative pursuits outside of skateboarding; Paul and Albie are both musicians, and Sam is an artist and photographer. As for those caught playing knurr and spell for posterity, we know less; their thoughts, their other interests and their artistic inclinations are the subject of an article far beyond the research scope of this one. But, by a quirk of technological innovation (as well as the BBC, whose Reithian values deigned this strange pursuit to be of some kind of value), we can forever watch them carving out their own slice of leisure and enjoyment in defiance of a completely disinterested or quietly amused majority. Much like we can in the video which accompanies this article.
As to a resurgence of the ancient game? If Hollywood was to put Will Ferrell or Mike Myers in a feel good sports comedy detailing its glory days, who knows – we could be seeing it knocking skateboarding out of the five ringed behemoth before the decade is out.