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)

Surfing the gender vote

Photo “The Watch” by Eric Neitzel

So we’re walking along the beach, me feeling over-dressed in board shorts, t-shirt, socks and joggers (to protect a bruised toe). We passed a group of more appropriately beach-clad women and girls (though one wore a wet suit), taking surfing lessons from a sun-worn guy in his 30s. Not that I ever surfed, but it seems to me that in the 1960s, surfing was something boys did while the girls sat on the beach, admiring their boyfriends and guarding personal items.

Later, She Who Always Wears Sunscreen came out of the change rooms wearing shorts and a bra.

“Seems I left my t-shirt on the beach,” she mused. “And I don’t feel like going back to get it.”

It says a bit about feminism in 2016 that a woman can feel OK about going around in public in a bra, however temporarily.

It covers considerably more of me than some of the women I’ve seen on the beach,” she rightly observed.

Despite statistics that suggest women make up only 15% of the surfing cohort, the sport is rising in popularity among the under-20s. There’s lots of research about this, though you need to get behind click bait articles like “Top 20 Hottest Girl Surfers” to find there has always been a determined posse of women who wanted to surf waves – since the 1920s even.

Yet Cori Schumacher, writing in The Guardian, contends that despite female pro surfers pushing the standards ever higher, they still have to compete with a double standard that demands they define their femininity within ‘a male sexual economy’.

Schumacher explained this double standard goes further than female surfers feeling pressure to surf in a bathing suit. Body image issues aside, prize money for professional surfers is skewed heavily in favour of men.

In 1976, the first year pro women surfers were paid, 20% of prize money was allocated to women. In 2011, when Schumacher wrote this, 22% of the total prize purse went to female surfers.

The ‘babes in bikinis’ gender caricature aside, there are plenty of strong female role models listed in Surfer Today.

In politics, as in surfing, one not ought to confuse a woman’s right to compete with an assumption that being female equals feminist ideals and/or leftie politics.

There have been more than enough female world leaders to suggest that they are just as likely to lean to the right as the left of politics.

It is now known that 42% of women voted for Donald Trump in last week’s shock election result. The New York Times noted that 70% of those participating in an exit poll said they thought Trump’s behaviour toward women was ‘a problem’, yet 30% of people who said that voted for him anyway.

One can hardly rely upon US election statistics to define social trends when 46% of Americans did not vote at all.

The Atlantic tried to set the record straight about gender voting in the US, maintaining that 54% of women voted for Hillary Clinton and 42% for Donald Trump (it also means 4% voted for someone else, but let’s not muddy the waters).

Exit-poll data indicated that 94% of black women and 68% of Hispanic women voted for Clinton, The Atlantic reported a few days ago.

The article cited Kelly Dittmar from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University: “If only women voted in this election (and no one else), Clinton would have won.”

That kind of wishful thinking aside, the more relevant number is that roughly 100 million eligible people (approximately 48% of whom are women), did not vote. Many journalists opined that those who did not vote were lazy or apathetic.

Yet the Pew Institute’s research on non-voters said only 2% cited ‘laziness’ as an excuse, the same proportion of those who said they could not vote because they were in jail or on parole.

The five main reasons for not voting were:

  • No time or just haven’t done it (voted) 19%;
  • Recently moved 17%;
  • Don’t care about politics 14%;
  • No confidence in government 12%;
  • Not a US citizen 7%.

We have seen many successful women come and go in the ruthless sphere of international politics. Recent female Prime Ministers include Helen Clark and Jenny Shipley (New Zealand), Julia Gillard (Australia) and Portia Simpson-Miller (Jamaica). Incumbent government heads include Theresa May (UK), Angela Merkel (Germany) and Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi.

Forbes Magazine recently published a list of the world’s most powerful women, currently headed by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen. After November 8, 2016, Hillary Clinton may be off the list altogether.

One might also expect First Lady Michelle Obama to drop off this list too, although she has plenty of support to have a crack at the top job.

The list included 11 heads of state, one 90-year-old monarch, two first ladies and two top-seed diplomats.

A FOMM reader greeted me at the markets one day, suggesting as a future topic the humble bicycle’s role in gender relations, circa 1890. Simply put, the bicycle allowed Victoria-era women freedom of movement; moreover, the practicalities of riding a bike dressed in hoop skirt and girdle led to less cumbersome garments and, ahem, greater freedom of movement. David Hendrick remarked upon this in a paper for the University of Virginia, noting that the advent of the bicycle gave Victorian women autonomy and a way of leaving the house without relying on men for travel. He agreed with women’s rights advocate Susan B Anthony that the bicycle had “done more to emancipate women that anything else in the world”.

This was a good 30 years before the first Wahine took a long board out beyond the breakers, but perhaps you’ll see my point.

Cori Schumacher, an openly gay, world-ranked surfer, says she grew up surfing in California in the 1980s and 1990s, but very few women surfed in the earliest days of her youth.

Surfing was then described as a ‘male-dominated’ activity, but even with the growing population of female surfers, there has not been a corresponding increase in representation or equal pay.

Schumacher said “…rather than surfing being merely male-dominated, it is also a farm for masculinity and androcentrism.”

No doubt someone is running a book right now on the prospect of an androcentric Trump presidency appointing any women (apart from the third first lady, if you get my meaning), to a position of influence.

The odds of a prominent Muslim woman being appointed, even as a White House advisor, are longer still. Interestingly (facts gleaned from my kind of surfing), show that two of the Muslim women described in this article were appointed as White House advisors.

As if that were not enough, FOMM’s online surfing also uncovered three new words: androcentrism (placing the male human being at the centre of one’s world view), Wahine (female surfer) and Awk! (old school cry of alarm or excitement – e.g., spotted an excellent wave).