Giles Fraser: No way to overcome urban ennui

by
25 November 2009

THE run-up was along the top of a narrow, gently descending wall. Three young men were taking it in turns to make the jump, casting themselves off their slender launch-pad to land three metres away, on the top of the river wall of the Thames. The tide was out, and beyond the river wall was a perilous drop. Anyone who fell off the wall would surely die.

Yet these guys were running at full pelt and making the jump. As we walked by, I clutched my son’s hand so hard that he complained. I could not quite believe what I was seeing. One false move would have meant curtains. Welcome to the extra­ordinary world of Parkour, also known as free running.

Perhaps the best-known ex­ponent of Parkour is Sebastian Foucan, whose opening chase around a building site in the James Bond film Casino Royale was its highlight. As a sport, Parkour began in the suburbs of Paris, and is gaining a cult status worldwide. For Parkour, the urban environment is an obstacle course to be overcome, a series of leaps from buildings and dramatic athletic twists and turns.

My first reaction to witnessing Parkour on the streets of London was pure fear. It seemed like a deliberate courting of death, a hugely irresponsible fad that would lead many into wheelchairs and coffins. I am sure that there was a sense of hidden fury in my voice when I told my wide-eyed son that Spiderman was not a real person.

I still feel that outrage. But it would be a mistake not to see what makes Parkour attractive. There is nothing quite like the facing of death to make one feel fully alive: the thumping heart, the heightened senses, the determination to savour every moment. Of course, I say “fully alive” deliberately; for not only is it a common explanation of why free running is so popular, but it also links with that wonderful quotation from Irenaeus: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

Later, at evensong, I was struck by what a difference there can be in the very idea of what it is to be fully alive. I am sure the guys running along the Thames wall would think this service stultifying, even deaden­ing.

Yet my anger at Parkour was that, for all its excitement, it contained an implicit nihilism, a manufactured thrill-seeking for those whose lives were so dull that they required artificial danger to give them mean­ing. Perhaps that is too judgemental. Still, playing chicken with death is no way to overcome urban ennui. Being fully alive issues from the author of life itself.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.

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