The worst 24 hours of my parenting life started with a short, simple phone call on a dark November night five years ago. I was driving home from a football match and fast-flowing southbound M1 traffic was sharking into a dark, wet London jam when my girlfriend’s voice came on the carphone speakers. Her news concerned my then 15-year-old son, whom she calls “MB”. I was used to receiving calls from school about his behaviour, but this was a Saturday. Even so, I was too busy studying red brake lights cutting me up to catch her slightly concerned tone.
“James, Katy has just called round with MB because the police brought him and Luke back to her house after they found them on a building site.”
“Is he OK?”
“Yes. The site security guard had called the police after he caught them 15 feet up some scaffolding. The police said there’ll be no charges because the boys said they were taking photographs for a school art project and were apparently very polite and apologetic. I think he’s more concerned about when you get home than the police.”
And so it began: a run-of-the-mill teenage situation that would escalate into a very modern issue and leave me with a sense of sickness and powerlessness I had never experienced before.
As you get older you keep fear at a distance… And yet this is what my son was doing, night after night
Who hadn’t strayed or broken into places you were expressly told not to go? Even Theresa May had her cornfields. The call reminded me of my own childhood. I’d spent my middle school years in Leeds legging it through allotments, climbing railway sidings, sitting on garage roofs, roaming the brutalist University Of Leeds buildings and looking for adventure inside the Yorkshire County Cricket Club and Leeds rugby league grounds at the bottom of the road I grew up on.
Even when I was 17, a night watchman with an Alsatian and half the Humberside police force caught me and a friend, post-pub, at the top of a huge, undulating fairground slide in Bridlington, having stumbled into a stakeout after a takings burglary the night before. Getting chased out of places was half the fun, to feel the adrenaline pumping, not knowing how close you were to getting caught. I assumed this is what my son had been doing.
When I arrived home in London, MB was in his room, glued to his laptop. It was only when I was told this that an alarm bell rang. Normally he’d appear and start his defence. But he’d recently shown me a photo of him and four of his friends on the roof of a six-storey council block near us, with the financial district in the background. I was more impressed by the photo than worried about the location; I was sort of glad they were exploring and not just drinking or playing Fifa. And he’d also been talking a lot about hanging around the high-rises at the Barbican Centre.
I opened my own laptop and found his YouTube channel on which he posted his skateboard videos, then watched in disbelief as a new film showed the two boys climbing the inner iron rungs of a crane ladder. They weren’t 15 feet high; they were 15 storeys high. I was stunned. Worryingly, the video was racking up hundreds of views. The thrill of breaking into the building site wasn’t the point: getting a day-to-night clip for YouTube of the London lights and skyline from a dangerous vantage point was. I put my face in my hands and wondered what I was going to do. When a young person’s got no concept of fear and is actually getting peer group acclaim for their actions, how do you convince them to do otherwise?
The thrill of breaking into the building site wasn’t the point: getting a clip for YouTube was
While looking for a different shot of Toronto at sunset in 2007, a young Canadian photographer named Tom Ryaboi embarked upon what became known on social media as “rooftopping”. He noticed an open gate on a seemingly deserted downtown building site and walked in, finding some stairs and climbing them until he was at the top. As he has since explained on photographic website 500px.com, “When I got to the top and opened the door to the roof I got an instant rush of adrenaline… The city was right in my face, like I’ve never seen it before. The sun was setting and all the lights were starting to turn on. The noise from the street was muted: the cars and people moved about in what seemed like slow motion.”
Four years later he got the shot that propelled an online subgenre of urban exploration into the mainstream – he called it “I’ll Make Ya Famous”. He took it standing over his friend and fellow photographer, Jennifer Tse, on the roof edge of one of Toronto’s tallest buildings. It’s a moment in time: skinny jeans, ankle socks, Converse, huge drop to the city grid below. He published it two days later and within 24 hours Flickr, Reddit and 500px had all had significant traffic on it. The following weekend he woke up to 500 emails, including media requests from the BBC and National Geographic.
Three years on, a young Ukrainian, Vitaliy Raskalov, and his Russian friend, Vadim Makhorov, posted a GoPro film of them illegally climbing the second-tallest building in the world, the Shanghai Tower, on their YouTube account, On The Roofs. With its bed of soft techno the video looks more like art than a daredevil feature film. There’s a moment when they walk out to the edge at the top and there’s cloud and the peaks of other huge buildings beneath them and your stomach just goes as you realise what you’re looking at. Naturally, it has had tens of millions of views.
These were the landmark creations that drove a generation of copycats, including MB. And it wasn’t just in pursuit of art – risk and one-upmanship were also in play. One video my son showed me was of a young Londoner throwing himself over Tower Bridge into the Thames for a dare. The clip was fascinating and infamous. Teenage daredevils getting high off racking up hits; it was hard not to watch. The Tower Bridge jumper survived with the help of the emergency services but not all of these films have a positive result.
The two boys climbed the crane ladder. They weren’t 15 feet high, they were 15 storeys
In November 2018, the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah, which is also published in English, posted footage of an unnamed 17-year-old Russian attempting to jump from one rooftop to another in Ankara while being filmed for social media. The video, shot from another rooftop by his friends, who had climbed up using a fire escape, shows him failing to reach the second building as he attempts the parkour move. There’s a sickening crack, followed by an immediate thump. Eyewitnesses said he hit his head on a window ledge on the way down and died at the scene. Probably more people have seen the video because he died than if he’d lived. Maybe that’s what he would have wanted.
At roughly the same time the Russian boy and his friends were looking for kicks to attract clicks on the rooftops of Turkey, Vishnu Viswanath and Meenakshi Moorthy, married Indian software engineers and sunset-seeking travel bloggers based in Silicon Valley, were posing for photos to post on their Instagram account, @holidaysandhappilyeverafters, at the edge of a popular and very high outcrop in California’s Yosemite National Park. If you’re old enough to sleep together legally, you should be old enough to know not to mess around with fire, sea or gravity, but it seems again that likes and shares were more important than personal safety.
Despite writing, “Sooo today on #socialmediabadasstribe we are talking about limits of #doitforthegram. Yeah, sure, it can be limitless, but guys, we reaaaallly need to have boundaries,” under an Instagram post from March 2018, seven months later they disappeared off a Yosemite ledge and fell to their deaths 250 metres below the steep rock face. Another selfie-seeker who saw them there said they were so close to the edge it made him queasy.
More people saw the video because he died than if he’d lived. Maybe that’s what he wanted
The second half of Viswanath and Moorthy’s aforementioned caption was this: “A lot of us, including yours truly, are fans of daredevilry attempts of standing at the edge of cliffs and skyscrapers, but did you know that wind gusts can be fatal? Is our life just worth one photo?” Seemingly it was.
Their death isn’t a rare occurrence: hundreds die in search of the ultimate Instagram shot, many from high points of interest. At one point Reddit had to ban its “Watch People Die” channel, which featured body-cam footage among other gory endings. It’s the way of the child: poke the dead thing, watch life switch to death. As you get older you negotiate fear, keep it at a distance. Apart from mountain walking in the Himalayas, I don’t remember volunteering for fear in a long time. And yet this is what MB and his friends were doing night after night between school and being texted to come in. From their perspective, they were just marvelling at the freedom, the view, the rush of the air.
Later, I showed my girlfriend the video: two familiar skinny 15-year-olds in hoodies squeezing through loosely chained gates, crossing the site and hopping onto a platform. The camera veers vertically and focuses on hard industrial ladders inside the crane. And up they go. Arse. Legs. Trainers. Repeat. One hand on a rung, another on the phone. Then they carry on. Higher and higher. Daylight turns to dusk. They climb so high that the view below looks like it was taken from Google Earth and from the shape of the lights and the paths I recognise a park we’d lived by years before.
‘Is our life worth a photo?’ they wrote. Seemingly it was
From the very top of the crane you could see out over London – it looked fantastic – but all I could think of was the pain and terrible consequences of an unexpected, jagged shard of steel on a rung, stabbing into a soft palm while the other held the phone, or the unanticipated starburst volley of a late bonfire rocket, or just a big gust of wind. It felt surreal watching it. It wasn’t Hollywood or Instagram or looking out from someone’s high-rise apartment. It was raw nature, right up there in the sky. When I used to walk my son to nursery, we would wave to a man in a crane just 100 yards away from where he’d filmed this and imagine him waving back.
A flood of memories of his early life flashed back: his curly blond hair as a toddler, innocent questions such as “Why does Luke Skywalker always wear his dressing gown?”, wrestling for a football with him on a sandy beach in Cornwall, him falling asleep on me while we watched television. There were so many waves of fear rolling through me; I didn’t want my son doing this. Ask any parent what they want and the number one reply will be “for my kids to be OK”.
We seemed to be at a crossroads where his desire to explore had overtaken his sense of self-preservation. He was at an age when dark nights out with friends were more attractive than being at home, but it scared me. There was a lot of knife crime in our area, there are people he was at school with serving murder sentences now, but it never occurred to me that the biggest threat to MB’s safety might be himself.
The ten minutes it took for his mother to come over, after I had explained how serious this was, gave me enough time to tell MB I’d seen the video, that it wasn’t a good situation at all and that he should stay in his room until I called him.
He said, “I knew what I was doing.”
I replied, “I’m sure you do, but it’s when something unexpected happens that terrifies me. Those guys working on the cranes wear boots and heavy-duty gloves.”
His mother looked stunned. I’d never seen her this way before, like her whole world was ending. I sat with her for 15 minutes in my bedroom; we’d not been alone together since our divorce a decade before. I explained I thought the best thing we could do was listen to him and then make him realise how scared we were of losing him, rather than scolding him (I didn’t want to drive him to do it more). I said she should leave without speaking, rather than being angry. Trying something different might make him realise this was a higher level of concern. It was the first instance in all that time she agreed to go along with my take on things. MB was shocked when I told him his mother was too upset to see him, that every moment we’d had with him would be shattered if he’d fallen from the crane.
Every moment we’d had with him would shatter if he fell from that crane
The big challenge was convincing him not to do it any more; have you tried negotiating with a headstrong 15-year-old? As the discussion unfolded, what made it even harder was that this wasn’t just a whim, there was a whole strategy behind it: “This is what I’m going to do for a job. Casey Neistat has two million followers. He has sponsors. He’s a multimillionaire.”
“You can do what you want when you’re 18,” I said, sounding like the parental cliché from a kitchen-sink drama. I spent half an hour discussing it with him. I even told him I admired what he’d done, but I would feel better if he left it a few years. Telling him his mother didn’t want to see him seemed to get some sort of message home. His instincts were right, though: vlogger Neistat has more than 12m subscribers now and sold his short-form content app, Beme, to CNN for £18m.
Perhaps this interest was inevitable. Since he could crawl, I’d been taking MB to soft-play centres and children’s assault courses full of brightly coloured crashpads, slides, climbing nets, punchbags and ball pits. They are essentially a cross between a padded cell and a building site. The primary school years were kind of OK, but mid-teen parenting took me by surprise. I assumed because I’d taken drugs with musicians, had been in fights, done daft things in vehicles that veered between cool and stupid, it would cast me in a different light from the traditional teenager-controlling parent. Then it dawned on me that it doesn’t matter what you’ve done yourself as a teenager or an adult. You are the parent and they are the teen. The positions are drawn.
What fuelled my part in our inter-generational standoff was fear. As I edged nearer to 50, I had an overwhelming concern I would die before MB knew how to look after himself, how to make the right decisions, to work, earn, stay alive and be a good person. I eventually worked out why I felt like this. When my mother died, aged 52, of an accidental overdose, possibly in the face of another nervous breakdown, I was left shocked and traumatised. I was 26, but rarely shaved, owned just one shirt with a collar and didn’t really know much about life beyond my job as an NME journalist. That was my big underlying fear. And now MB was adding to this by flirting with gravity from the tops of vehicles and cranes.
I woke the next morning with the worst feeling I’ve ever had, which I recognised from my twenties and early thirties: coming round from a foggy sleep and sensing a deeply embedded nervous regret, an awareness that I’d crossed some line, scrambling my brain to comprehend the previous night’s behaviour and what the consequences would be, wondering, “What is this going to cost me in friendships, cash and other people’s contempt?”
It doesn’t matter what you’ve done yourself. You are the parent and they are the teen
But this went beyond that, because with my own behaviour I had the opportunity to make amends. In this case it was MB’s actions that had sewn that terror, someone I cared about more than myself who had inspired this worry.
Having MB in my life had kept me sober for almost 20 years. I didn’t want to be thinking what life would be like if he fell off a crane. Thankfully he joined sixth form, found a girlfriend, got a part-time job and the clock face of teenage life moved on to another important hour.
As I was writing this feature I rang up MB to ask him about that moment. He’s studying film at the University Of Leeds now and living in the area in which I grew up. He knows a lot more about life now. He’s on his second Instagram account – this one full of band shots he’s taken. He doesn’t take so many images of buildings or cityscapes any more. When I asked him how he felt, five years on, about the crane climb he dismissed it, saying he probably doesn’t even have the footage any more.
“People had been doing that way before they started putting photographs and films [online], you know? We stopped because the security changed. Before, you could be arrested for it, but it wasn’t an actual crime. Then they realised the security implications of how easy it was and it changed. Anyone could have gone up any of those buildings with a bomb. Like, the Shanghai Tower, it was mad they could just get all the way up there unchallenged. There’s no way I’d do it now; looking back, it was deranged. Maybe boys’ brains don’t detect fear until they are older?”
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