Not waving, drowning

<photo by Brian Hartigan>

Veteran Irish songwriter Andy Irvine took a moment during his recent concert in Brisbane to tell a story about the day he was almost a drowning victim off a New South Wales beach. You could hear an intake of breath among the devotees gathered at the Old Museum. A founding member of the 1970s super group Planxty, Irvine visits Australia over and over – loves the place. After his first-half gig, he told us he had to leave almost immediately to drive to Sydney, where he would catch a flight to Tasmania next day. The life of a troubadour.

As he told it, the near-drowning happened when he was swimming at a beach in northern NSW. He got caught in a rip.
“I didn’t even know what a rip was,” he told the audience. “All I knew was the harder I swam the further out to sea it took me.” Close to exhaustion, wondering if his time was nigh, Andy dimly heard a gruff voice off to his right: “Oi, mate, over here.”
“I knew it,” said Andy, “God’s an Australian.”

More later in this piece about drowning and why 83% of victims are males (and 8.83% are overseas visitors). Andy was rescued from the surf and, under protest, taken to a hospital for observation. The local newspaper reported “Irish tourist saved from rip.” If only they knew.
So we savoured that concert, where the humble 74-year-old singer-songwriter and campaigner for social justice took us through a mixed set, including the famous My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland, A Blacksmith Courted Me and a complex story-song about Harry Houdini.
After chatting to fans and posing for photos, Andy and his wife Kumiko loaded up their Landcruiser with his bouzoukis and octave mandolin and set off for Sydney. At an age when many of his generation are playing lawn bowls, going on South Pacific cruises or pushing up daisies, he sets a cracking pace. In late November, he wrote on Facebook about having finished a marathon tour of the UK and Germany – 43 gigs in 59 days, wryly saying he needed a day off.
In December, he headed to Australia, teaming up with young Tasmanian musician Luke Plumb, who is back living in Australia after a decade playing with Scottish folk-rock band Shooglenifty.
The duo featured at Woodford Festival, after which Plumb went home to Tassie where he reunited last weekend with Irvine at the Cygnet Festival. Irvine and Plumb have two more festival bookings (Illawarra and Newstead) with concerts in between.

January, the month of drownings

Some of you might be still saying “Andy Who?” even though some of his May gigs in Ireland are already booked out. He’s as popular as ever among Irish music fans. There’s always rumours of another Planxty Reunion (with former members Donal Lunny, Liam O’Flynn and Christy Moore), last heard together in 2004.

And we owe it all, apparently, to a couple of bronzed Aussie surfers, standing up to their thighs on a rock shelf, willing an exhausted Andy Irvine to paddle his way towards them.

All Australians should be able to swim. It is a necessity in a continent with a 19,320 km coastline. But, whether they could swim or not, 280 Australians drowned in 2015/2016, 83% of them males. They drowned in the surf; they drowned in rivers, creeks, lakes and waterholes. Some were swept off rocks while fishing, some were tipped out of boats, but most were drowned while swimming at beaches.

We all know it is foolhardy to swim outside the flags or worse, at an unpatrolled beach. Many of us have had our brush with death via rips or other misadventures, as happened to me one time in the 1960s.
Clowning around in the east coast surf with my teenage mates I was suddenly dragged out of my depth, a powerful current towing me out to sea. I remembered from a physical education lesson, if finding yourself in trouble; raise your arm as high as you can. So I did and lucky for me that Dave, a member of the school swimming team, was further out than me and grabbed my arm as I swept by.
“What you doin’ out here?” he said, tucking his arms under my armpits and swimming backwards down shore where we emerged tired but happy.
Go on, you all have stories like that. Things you never told your mothers.

Your penance, should you choose to do it, is to download the Royal Life Saving Drowning Report 2016, from which these facts emerge.

Even if you skim through it, you’ll be all over your teenage kids like sand rash. The statistics which chill are as follows:
Drownings: 280
Men: 83% Women: 17%
Average age: 43.1
Age groups with most drownings:
25-34 (19%); 35-44 (15%);
Unhappily, drownings in the aforementioned age groups are increasing against the 10-year average, by 27% and 11% respectively.
The positive news in this sobering, 32-page report is that education programs are working on youngsters and their parents. Drowning deaths are down 30% in the 0-4 years group and 38% in the 5-9 age group.
There were 14 drowning deaths among the young (5 to 17) in 2015-2016, with a somewhat telling increase to 23 deaths in the 18-24 age group.

If I may editorialise, the latter can be largely explained away in the song by Rage Against the Machine− “F**** you I won’t do what you tell me.” Youngsters love to rebel and one clear way to give the metaphorical finger to your folks is to go swimming at an unpatrolled beach.

The Australian Water Safety Strategy has some ambitious targets, the key one being to reduce drowning deaths 50% by 2020.
This includes targeting “key drowning challenges” which are: boating, watercraft and recreational activities, alcohol and drugs, high-risk populations and extreme weather.
Royal Life Saving found that 44 people died with positive alcohol readings in their blood stream. More than half were above the legal limit in most Australian states and territories (0.05mg/l). Of those, 40% recorded a blood alcohol reading four times the limit or higher. Similar figures were quoted around people with cannabis or methamphetamine in their blood.

Who me, swim?

I’d like to say I can swim, after braving adult learn to swim classes in the 1990s. If you threw me in the deep end of a pool I’d paddle my way to the shallow end. But these days, if I were swept off my feet in angry surf, in future you’d be re-reading some of the early FOMMs and saying “Such a shame about Bob”.
If you’d wondered, I’m writing this not because it’s Friday the 13th, but because January is the month when most drownings occur (40 deaths last year). This is the main holiday time for families with young children and inevitably they head for Australia’s beaches. They need to be vigilant.

Some closing words, then, from Andy Irvine, ABC regional radio, circa 2003. He’s set to play his song, “My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland,” about the days in his first band, Sweeney’s Men.

“I’ve reached an age of looking back nostalgically at my past,” he told ABC South West Victoria Radio’s Steve Martin. “I nearly drowned in New South Wales about ten years ago and I wrote that in hospital. I was recovering from my near-drowning experience.”

‘Irish tourist’ indeed.

YouTube: My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland (with Donal Lunny)

Cucumbers and the silly season

Photo by Scott Elias

All through my journalism career I tried to take holidays at this time of year – the peak summer period known universally as the ‘silly season’ It’s called that, here and abroad, to describe the sudden drying up of real news stories (or even cleverly disguised fake stories). The media must continue on its 24/7 quest for yarns, but the fare becomes increasingly trivial, short on detail and (gasp) exaggerated.

In Australia, the ‘do not disturb’ sticker can safely be slapped across the calendar between December 23 and January 26. This is when all traditional news sources and their spin doctors head for the beach. Businesses close, parliaments and law courts go into recess. It’s down to emergency services to keep the media fed, and there’s a limit to the amount of mayhem holiday-makers can digest through the festive season.

Smoke but not much fire

Here’s a splendid example of a silly season story, introduced by a breathless headline: “Warwick church struck by lightning”. The fire brigade turned out in numbers to St Mary’s Catholic Church, a Warwick landmark, as did spectators. St Mary’s administrator Kathleen Cuskelly told FOMM the fire was not serious but could have been without the call to emergency services by a witness to the lightning strike. The blaze, which damaged two square metres of ceiling above the side aisle, was extinguished by a lone firefighter who found his way in through a back door.

The church-hit-by-lightning yarn certainly livened up the week for weather-watchers, braced as always for a natural disaster but more often left without a real story.

Mariah Carey’s Times Square technically-flawed performance on New Year’s Eve had the celebrity writers rolling in oily hyperbole. Carey described by as the ‘golden-throated chart-topper’ was left on centre stage unable to cope with lip syncing which went awry. Someone played the wrong track, leaving the lesser-crested warbler nonplussed. The Daily Mail (UK) summed it up:

Mariah Carey has stormed off stage after she lashed out during her botched New Year’s Eve performance, after the wrong lip-sync track played.”

That’s a lot of storming and lashing over a relatively tiny tinkle in a teacup. Besides, Mariah sang the hell out of Auld Lang Syne at the start and that’s what counts, right? And she appeared to know all the words.

A few days prior to this earth-trembling news, like so many other heat-stressed people, I was hanging out in the local supermarket, hovering around the deli fridges, a packet of frozen peas clamped to the back of the neck. My mobile chirped and there was a text message: “jar of pickles pls.” Thus challenged, I quickly grabbed a jar, added it to the week’s supply of groceries and headed for the check-out.

The peak summer months, when Europeans and North Americans lock up and head for the beaches, coincides with the cucumber harvest. So their ‘silly season’ is known in many northern countries as ‘cucumber time’.

The ever-useful Wikipedia reveals that in many languages, the name for the silly season references cucumbers (more precisely: gherkins or pickled cucumbers). Examples given include komkommertijd (Dutch), agurketid (Danish) and agurktid (Norwegian, where a piece of news is called agurknytt i.e., “cucumber news”).

There are other examples: the Sommerloch (“summer (news) hole”) in German-speaking countries; la morte-saison (France) and nyhetstorka or news drought, in Sweden.

Media analysts have speculated that people employed as public relations consultants or media advisors in private enterprise and government now outnumber real journalists by five to one. The highly-paid spin doctors take January off and go to the beach. So their carefully crafted “news” releases, sanitised, scrutinised and signed off on by at least 10 people slow to a trickle then stop.

Meanwhile, the skeleton squads left holding the news forts have to forage for items to fill the ironically larger news holes (in the newspaper business advertising also takes a holiday). So the only thing a reporter or a news crew can do is follow the fire engine. On arrival, take emotive video of the cat stuck up a gum tree and hope (though only deep within their craven souls) that the rescuer in the cherry-picker might take a nasty tumble from a great height. The video editor can lip-sync it later and the presenter can do the nodding I-was-really-there-honest footage later. Back to you in the studio, Brian.

Bob Hawke lobbies for nuclear waste (again)

Perhaps the most egregious silly season story thus far was the reporting of comments made at a Woodford Festival talk by former PM Bob Hawke. Mr Hawke said Australia should embrace nuclear power and become a country where the world can store its nuclear waste. Mr Hawke has said this before, many times, but most news reports lacked this kind of background.

Warming up for Woodford, perhaps, Mr Hawke trotted out the nuclear waste trope at Sydney University late last year.

In 2013 he singled out South Australia, a vast and sparsely populated state, as best suited to (underground) storage of nuclear waste.

At Woodford 2016, the 87-year-old former politician employed much the same rhetoric he used when floating the idea in September 2005:

“Australia has the geologically safest places in the world for the storage of waste,” he then told the 7.30 Report’s Mark Bannerman.

“What Australia should do, in my judgement, as an act of economic sanity and environmental responsibility, is say we will take the world’s nuclear waste.”

Then Labor Opposition Leader Kim Beazley sharply responded to the comments by Hawke (who retired from politics in 1992):

“Bob is a respected father figure in the Labor Party, but that’s well outside the platform.”

In 1999, foreign company Pangea Resources tabled a specific proposal to build an underground radioactive nuclear waste storage facility in central Australia. South Australia and Western Australia swiftly responded by passing nuclear storage prohibition acts. Nick Minchin, Federal Resources minister at the time, said an emphatic ‘no’ and Pangea, a consortium of Swiss and British firms, folded up its tent.

Industry website estimates that the nuclear industry has generated about 76,430 tonnes of used fuel over the past 40 years. Most nuclear plants recycle used fuel, which will ‘eventually’ be permanently stored as high-level radioactive waste. US Congress made a pledge in 1982 to build such a facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, but the proposal has been ensnared in political wrangling since and was shelved by Barack Obama in 2010. Bloomberg reported in November, however, that a Trump White House would make the permanent dump site a priority.

Finland and Sweden are meanwhile working towards the first permanent radioactive waste sites in the world, the first of which could be operational by 2023.

But as then Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott told the 7.30 Report in 2005 (and little has changed):

“There are a lot of politics in this. Now, right at the moment, we can’t even get agreement on where to put a nuclear repository for Australia’s waste, let alone a repository for the world’s waste.”

Mark Bannerman closed his 2005 report with this apt quote from a Northern Territory woman:

“If it’s safe, take it down to the Lodge, put it under Kirribilli House. I think they’ve got a hide.”


A crossword in your ear

Photo: Not at all relevant, but one of my better sunset photos from 2016

I lashed out this week and shouted* myself a new crossword book as the old one was (more or less) completed and someone had (a) left melted chocolate fingerprints on pages 19 and 20 and (b) the cover and edges of several pages were festooned with the squashed remains of a cockroach which dared to stray too close to the late-night toast and marmalade.

After a bit of trial and error, I settled for an A5 sized book with 65, large-type crosswords. At just $4.60 that’s astonishing value compared to buying a daily newspaper, about eight cents per crossword compared with paying $3.50 for a weekend newspaper which might have two crosswords, if you’re lucky. Let’s be clear – I don’t do cryptic crosswords because my brain does not work like that. I mean, who can work with clues like this one from a weekend newspaper:

“A cradle of land left after a big bang?”

Oh, I hear some of you crypto fans cry – any dunderhead knows that! We’ll have to wait for tomorrow’s Sunshine Coast Daily to be sure.

One of my readers, closer to 80 than 70, does the cryptic crossword in the weekend newspaper, Macquarie Dictionary opened on a reading stand.

“It might take me all week,” he said, when the subject came up, “but I get it done.”

Newspaper crosswords don’t let you know the solutions until the following day or week, so there cannot be, ahem, cheating, as there is with crossword books, which have the answers in the back. Never let it be said that I sneak a peek. That would be defeating the purpose, which is to keep the mind sharp, test one’s accrued general knowledge, learn new words and whittle away at the cockroach population.

I place a cross next to a word I’ve never come across before, and there are more than a few crosses in my tattered copy of Crosswords for Pleasure, which is being recycled as we speak. Fantail, for example (the overhanging part of a ship’s stern), or deists (believers in God). Grammarians and sub editors might know this one – cedilla (the diacritic put under a c in some languages).

Anyroad (northern English dialect for ‘anyway’), this is not really about crosswords, or even well-tempered words; no, this is about our shared love of the English language and its many foibles. I was telling a reader this week that when I post FOMM to my WordPress website, invariably the Readability program button flashes red. Too many long sentences, it grumbles. Too much use of the passive voice. Last week I did better, apparently, scoring only 9% use of passive voice (below the maximum recommended use of 10%).

I did not fare so well with a recent essay about racism in Australia (hard to sum up in 1,200 words, but I gave it a bash).

Apparently, 45.9% of sentences contained more than 20 words, which exceeds the recommended maximum of 25%. Also, 27% of sentences contained passive voice. But worse, the essay scored only 52.3% in the Flesch Reading Ease Test. Perhaps you don’t remember that one?

To be or not to be (Shakespeare) to be, to be, doo (Sinatra)

William Shakespeare was better known for his use of the subjunctive and prepositions but this is cited when grammarians give examples of passive voice: “Hamlet was written by William Shakespeare (passive) instead use “William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet” (active) although there is a lively debate whereby some scholars claim he did not write the play.

Charles Dickens didn’t mind a long-winded sentence – so much so his critics claimed (wrongly) he was being paid by the word. George Orwell ran on a bit too. I tested the first chapter of Down and Out in Paris and London with my website’s readability tool to find that 29.2% of sentences contained more than 20 words and 22% of sentences contained passive voice. While Orwell’s first chapter scored 69.9% in the reading test (considered ‘OK’), the programme chided him for starting three consecutive sentences with the same word.

“Try to mix things up,” the programme suggested.

Blogger Stroppy Editor says Orwell complained about the passive voice while using it extensively himself, even in the same sentence as his complaint.

The opening chapter of Bleak House by Dickens begins four consecutive sentences with the same word, but also packs 150 words or more into a paragraph (which he does six times) and 35.6% of sentences in chapter one contain more than 20 words.

Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.” 33 words.

What writers love about the Internet is that, having had an idea, one can always find someone out there who has touched on the subject. The Huffington Post compiled a list of famous authors who made it OK to commit grammaticide. Of these, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle often used the passive voice, because unclear writing is a mystery, and Arthur loved a good mystery.

The girl had been murdered’ is more gut-wrenching that ‘someone murdered the girl’ because it puts the focus on the girl without revealing who murdered her.

Or: “No, your boy had been observed, and that gave me a guide where to look.” (Hound of the Baskervilles).

Journalist Constance Hales wrote in the New York Times blog Opinionator: ‘the most pilloried use of the passive voice might be that famous expression of presidents and press secretaries, “mistakes were made”.

Politicians have long used the passive voice to spin the news, avoid responsibility or hide the truth. One political guru even dubbed this usage “the past exonerative”.

Stroppy Editor says one obvious thing you can do with the passive (but not the active), is to omit the agent.

“This is very handy if the agent is unknown, irrelevant, too obvious to mention or too contentious to mention. This technique can also make a passive sentence much shorter and punchier than any active equivalent.”

“Yesterday I got dumped, fired, burgled and urinated on.

Yesterday, armed with an active-voice shopping list and a high school drop-out’s notion of grammar, I went to the butcher shop to pick up the Christmas ham.

“Mate,” I said. “Is there a ham here to be picked up by me?”

The kindly butcher, used to the eccentricities of the locals, called out to his off-sider “If the ham for Mr Wilson be ready, it is to be picked up by him now”.

You’ll be delighted to find, despite the provocative, 66-word opening sentence, that this essay scored 71.7 on the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. And I only used one cliché. A handy tool, but don’t let it fence you in.

We wish you and yours a safe and happy holiday. Friday on My Mind returns on January 6.

*In Australia, to ‘shout’ is to buy (a beer, a meal or a crossword book) for a mate.


Obama’s last Christmas card

Image: White House

The first you know it’s getting close is when you receive the first Christmas card. Like many of you, though, we’ve been receiving fewer cards each year as friends and family switch to email and social media.

But it was so nice of Barack, Michelle and the girls to remember us! #dontleave

We are organising a ‘Secret Santa’ gift-giving ritual. This means if there are 10 people coming for Christmas dinner; each person buys one gift to an agreed value. The Secret Santa organiser assigns shopping tasks – “You can buy a gift for Auntie Val. I heard her grumbling last week that her pruning shears have had it.”

So rather than 10 people each spending about $599 (the average Christmas gift spend, according to a Commonwealth Bank survey), you each spend $50 and there’s a good chance the person receiving the Secret Santa gift will get something they actually want/need.

An international survey by ING Bank conducted in October found that 82% of Europeans received one or more gifts in 2015. One in seven (15%) were given something they didn’t appreciate, didn’t like or couldn’t use. The proportions were only slightly different in the US and Australia. Of the 15% who admitted to receiving unwanted presents, more than half kept them anyway. Others gave them to someone else (25%), sold them (14%) or tried to return them to the store (11%).

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has estimated that $798 million of the $8.8 billion spent on Christmas loot goes on unwanted gifts.

There are three basic options if you want to rein in your Christmas gift spending. The family could agree to (a) not buy gifts at all (b) organise Secret Santa or (c) donate money to organisations like World Vision or Oxfam; the latter uses the money to buy practical items for poor African villages. The gift recipient receives a certificate, which says something like, Congratulations (name), you have bought a goat for a village in Sudan. The certificate goes on to explain what a goat can mean for a poor African village. You can pin the certificate to your office noticeboard and feel virtuous for a whole year. (Or as Little Brother says, you could go to a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas and give the whole circus a swerve.)

Some children get $200 cash and more!

The Australian and Securities Commission (ASIC) website Moneysmart, which aims to educate consumers, compiled an Infographic (see fact sheet link which shows how much money Australians spend on Christmas gifts. The average spent on gifts ranges from $401 (South Australia) to $548 (NSW). Sixty percent used savings when they went shopping, 20% used a credit card, 10% borrowed money from family and friends or used a bonus/tax refund and 10% used lay-by. Of those who used a credit card to pay for Christmas, 80% paid it off within three months.

Nine out of 10 children received some cash as Christmas presents with 20% receiving between $100 and $200 and 22% more than $200! Boys spent the cash on console games (45%), computer games (24%), and other games (22%), put the cash toward saving for a big item (31%) or banked it (43%). Girls spend the cash on clothes (40%), music (22%) and going out (20%), though 29% put the money towards saving for a big item and 45% put the cash in the bank.

Australians will spend all-up around $48.1 billion in the six weeks leading up to Christmas, with this weekend and December 23 and 24 identified as the bonanza shopping days. This massive spend includes $19 billion on food (we all have to eat) and $2.8 billion on on-line shopping. The Retailers Association of Australia and Roy Morgan Research say Victoria will show the biggest increase in spending ($11.6 billion, up 4.6% year on year followed by Queensland ($9.5 billion, up 4.2%).

And if you’re wondering on Christmas Day how Little Johnny could afford to give Dad the boxed set of Game of Thrones, ARA’s research shows that shoplifting will cost retailers $1.4 billion over the six-week period.

Of course buying gifts is only one part of it – then you have to buy wrapping paper and either wrap presents or pay a professional to do it for you. Australian Ethical and Clean up Australia provide some tips for people who feel bad about the 50,000 trees that get pulped every year to make your Christmas gifts look appropriately festive.

Australians use more than 8,000 tonnes of wrapping paper each year and, as Clean Up Australia chairman Ian Kiernan points out, foil sheets are hard to recycle. His suggestions for a sustainable Christmas include:

  • Rather than buying someone a physical gift like a CD, consider buying them a service, like a singing lesson;
  • Buy yourself a real Christmas tree – they smell fresh, last well, and are biodegradable through your green waste (they can also be planted out);
  • Cut back on gift wrapping, resize large cards to make gift tags, get creative with newspaper or magazines for wrapping presents and recycle the wrapping that you can’t use anymore.

“It’s not over till it’s over and you throw away the tree” (LWIII)

There is an unhappy trend to brand someone trying to moderate spending at Christmas as a Scrooge or a Grinch. The inference is we are spoiling the festive season by questioning excessive consumption.

And then there are Christmas cards, which come in ever-diminishing numbers, despite assurances that the market is doing better than ever.

The Greeting Cards Association of Australia says Australians spend $500 million on greetings cards and ours is the world’s third largest market per capita.

In the US, Christmas cards represent about 25% of the $6.5 billion greeting card market, where sales are steady, although profits are declining. Marketing expert Brandon Gaille expects global sales to keep declining as multiple issues confront the industry, including rising postal rates and competition from DIY cards and low-cost e-cards.

The Obama family sent out their last Christmas card this week, which created a sentimental outpouring around the hashtag #dontleave.

The cards are sent only to friends, supporters, White House staff and the media (which explains the hurriedly scanned copies on Twitter, Facebook and just about any traditional media outlet you can name).

The White House can afford to send out at least one million* cards featuring the Obama family’s last hoorah. Since 1960 the incumbent President’s political party has paid for this indulgence.

Back home, listeners told 720 ABC Perth the cost of postage is the overwhelming reason people are resorting to emails, texts and social media messages. I can vouch for this, having spent $70 at Australia Post sending a few calendars overseas and buying a dozen Christmas cards and stamps for friends who don’t do email.

Even though you get a 35c discount when buying card-only stamps, the high cost of postage is pushing more people to compose annual “e-letters” (complete with happy snaps).

But as one ABC Perth listener lamented, “You can’t really put an email on the mantlepiece, can you?”

*Ronald Reagan set the one million White House Christmas card benchmark in 1983 but was upstaged in 2009 by George W Bush Jnr (1.5 million).


Independent journalism, commentary, satire and droll humour, posted here on Fridays.