6 Sep 2013

Safety First

Picture courtesy of Carlos Arlegui

Last weekend I was at the "China Festival" organised by the University of Newcastle and the Confucius Institute.

The event included, among other things, calligraphy and Tai Chi workshops, as well as music, dance and martial arts performances. Having grown up seeing my fair share of martial arts movies (and it’s hard to believe how many martial arts movies there are out there), I was keen to see the extreme martial arts performance. 

Following the rhythm of a big drum, several men went on the stage and performed a number of acrobatic moves. It was breath-taking, moreso because they carried it out without much fanfare, on cold and hard concrete. I couldn't stop myself worrying that at some point one of them may crush their skull on the ground. I tightened my muscles with nervousness as I saw them jump in the air, twist and land on their feet safely every time.  I guess the tension is part of the appeal. Suspense has been part of human entertainment for a long time. Take the old trapeze numbers with no safety net or any Hitchcock movie. I find it unnerving to watch any performance that could end with the protagonist being paralysed.  In fact I think there’s a movie to be made about the tension of seeing a gymnast doing vaulting horse exercises.

From what I know of Australian culture so far, I was surprised to see the martial arts performance done without more safety measures. A bit of padding on the floor would probably have been good.

Last time I went to the Heat Festival in Newcastle I noticed barriers around the displayed fires. A sort of guard walked up and down the displays ensuring no one got hurt. This couldn't be farther from what tends to happen in Spain.  I was in Carboneras, a small village on the southern coast of a Spain, for the Heat Festival a couple of years ago. This is celebrated on Summer Solstice. It’s tradition that friends and family gather around improvised fires along the beach. No permits needed. No limit on the number of fires. Just a bunch of wood and paper items put together and set on fire by some mates. People enjoyed a drink and some food. Children ran around. Street cats ran away from the children. Youngsters jumped in the water every now and then to cool themselves down. A pile of furniture several metres high burnt above all the others, perhaps set up by the village council. Not far from there, a pit in the sand kept a carpet of burning candles that the villagers had lit and thrown in after making a wish.  By night, you could see the fires that had been lit kilometres along the coast. The view was awe-inspiring but my husband and I were surprised at the lack of safety measures. No incidents were reported in the local paper in relation to that night though.

However there are accidents happening in Spain all the time that could be prevented with some basic safety measures. In fact there’s often contempt for any safety rules. What do you mean I have to wear a seatbelt? Speed limit? Please! There are some more folkloric examples, like the bad organisation of a running of the bulls where one of the bulls escapes and wanders around nearby villages for days, putting fear into the bones of all the neighbours. A Spanish stand-up comedian named Miguel Gila, used to joke about the inclination of his fellow compatriots to ignore the limits of safety. In one of his routines, he would play the role of a man whose son had been killed by some joking fellow villagers.  He would say “they killed my son but I had such a laugh.”

That says it all!