A new film explores the stereotype that ‘black people don’t swim,’ but in my experience it’s more than a stereotype, it’s a truth

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David Matthews is a writer whose work has appeared in The Sunday Times, The Mail on Sunday and the Observer, and on the BBC and Channel 4. He is the author of several books, including Voices of the Windrush Generation. Follow him on Twitter @mrdavematthews.

Docudrama Blacks Can’t Swim: The Sequel, dives into why it is black people don’t much care for the water. Having lived in the UK and Barbados, I can say that it isn’t racism stopping us, we’re just, generally, not that into it.

Women can’t parallel park. Gays are fastidiously neat and tidy. White men can’t dance. Ordinarily, airing such dubious stereotypes in public, even under the free speech auspices of RT, would get me cancelled faster than Jordan Peterson doing stand-up at a transgender comedy show. But working the cultural cliché shill game sometimes has a purpose, in this case, the notion that “black people can’t swim.”

As un-PC, anti-woke or just plain “wrong” as this may sound, there’s more than a little anecdotal, and personal experience, to give credence to the claim. For one, as a 10-year-old I nearly drowned off the coast of Dorset in the west of England during a rare family summer holiday. I’d badgered my father to get me one of those cheap Day-Glo rubber dinghies, the like of which are probably banned these days, for health and safety reasons, and eventually he caved in. 

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Towards the end of one typically overcast day of the vacation, my father, sister and niece sauntered down to the local beach, ostensibly to humour me for a few minutes of splashing about in the waves with my new acquisition. I set off in the dinghy waving to my family on the beach. Within a matter of minutes, I was in deep, choppy water. And I couldn’t swim. Realising I was literally out of my depth I hopped out of the death trap dinghy only to find an absence of seabed underfoot. I panicked, started thrashing about, and was consumed by the cold, unforgiving water. They say that when you drown you see your life flash in front of you. As a 10-year-old, all I saw was silt and seaweed. 

My father, who had been a fisherman as a young man in Guyana, South America, laboured to come out to save me. I could see flashes of him wading out and my sister screaming as the current carried me further out to sea. And then, an old man with a grey beard who looked like Santa on a weekend break appeared, grabbed me and swam me back to shore. That man saved my life. I don’t know his name. We never saw him again. That was over 40 years ago, and still the fear of water persists despite the fact I live on a Caribbean island in a house with a pool. 

Every time I hear of a drowning, a boat accident or shark attack, my stomach churns – and it’s not just from personal experience. Years before we went to Dorset my parents and I went to Guyana. This was the first time I’d been abroad or flown on a plane. It was Christmas, 1974. I met my grandmother, extended family and got a sense of the culture I’d been born into, albeit remotely, coming as I did from the East End of London. But what was meant to be a homecoming, the adventure of a lifetime, at least for a child, quickly turned into a nightmare. Two of my father’s cousins, a father and a son, drowned in a fishing accident off the coast in the desolate Atlantic. A black cloud lay over the family from then on.

Such is the power of the sea and fear of water, not just for me, but for the majority of black people I know that the “black people can’t swim” stereotype is beyond a stereotype. It’s a truth. A white ex-Metropolitan Police copper I know of the ‘Life on Mars’ generation once told me that he and his equally white colleagues used to use “non-swimmers” as canteen culture code for black suspects. 

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Recently, while sipping mango daiquiris at my members only swanky beach club with an old pal from Brixton and his 22-year-old cousin, Marcus, I asked how often he went to such places after soon sensing his uneasiness with the surroundings.

“I never come to places like this,” Marcus said.

“Really?” This came as no surprise. At three thousand bucks a year in membership fees it’s beyond the realm of most bourgie expats, let alone ordinary locals. Besides, access to WTA grade tennis courts and PGA standard golf courses notwithstanding, the location is no less idyllic than anywhere else on the island.

“So, how often do you go to the beach, then?”

“Oh, about four times…,” Marcus said.

“A week?” I interjected, thinking, well, you’re young, knock yourself out.

“No, a year.” 

That, I did find surprising – as well as a mark of my latent bourgeois sensibilities. Marcus then went on to break down a key reason why in many parts of the Caribbean black people don’t swim, despite having access to the most amazing golden beaches, azure waters and diverse aquatic life in the world. 

“Other than holidays, I don’t have time for the beach,” Marcus said. “It’s more of a tourist thing. They want to have fun, get a tan. I don’t need a tan, so why go to the beach, especially if most hotels and bars catering to tourists and foreigners make you feel unwelcome?” 

What Marcus was getting at is a contentious notion that’s at the heart of director Ed Accura’s indie docudrama film, ‘Blacks Can’t Swim: The Sequel’ – namely we don’t do the water because, like skiing, bungee jumping or wearing tweed, swimming and water sports are achingly Eurocentric and thus something everyday black folk aren’t into. As one of the film’s characters says during a comedic home studio grime session: “Bro, concentrate on the music fam and we’ll be back, fam. For that swimming ting? Just don’t go near water and you’ll be good, fam. Anyway, that’s a white man’s ting, fam.” 

Blacks Can’t Swim: The Sequel © YouTube

Accura, who’s co-founder of the Black Swimming Association (BSA), only learned to swim aged 53 out of a fear that he wouldn’t be able to save his young daughter from drowning if the situation ever arose. According to Swim England, swimming’s governing body, 95% of black adults and 80% of black children in England don’t swim, and only 2% of regular swimmers are black, a disparity that led Accura to coin the phrase Bl-aquaphobia – a uniquely Afrocentric fear of water, which his film sets out to explore, with a varying degree of success. 

While Accura’s use of documentary interviews and dramatic sequences is hammy at times, and at over an hour-and-a-half the film feels overstretched, set mainly in London with a primarily black and overwhelmingly African-British cast, the narrative does offer an intriguing and detailed psychological account of why so many black people can’t or don’t swim in the UK. From near-death experiences with water to losing loved ones to drowning, to claiming a lack of role models or marketing of swimming to black people is to blame, a plethora of reasons, and excuses, are conjured up, which fascinate and frustrate by turns. 

On the role model issue, for instance, having been born, raised and lived most of my life in the UK where 87% of the population is white and, I can say with a straight face, that “some of my best friends are white” I’ve never had a sense that white people swim in their droves because every four years a handful of people who look like fish win gold medals at the Olympics. If there’s one sport that no one ever watches outside of the Olympiad jamboree, it’s swimming. I don’t buy that a Lewis Hamilton or Tiger Woods of swimming needs to emerge to get black people into pools. Why? Because, sat as I am looking out at the Caribbean watching only a handful of black people splashing about, despite it being a country where 90% of the population is black, colour has as much to do with why black people aren’t swimming here as they aren’t swimming in the UK. 

This is where Accura’s deliberately provocative title is of course misleading – and sets up a series of frustrating encounters, which a cynic might accuse of bellyaching, especially as some pretty hokey statements go unchallenged. On a holiday to Florida, for example, British Nigerian Maryam says she went to the beach, “but I didn’t want to swim, because of my hair…” We don’t hear her elaborate, but the implication is, well, black women and their hair, eh? Another contributor complains that the chlorine in swimming pool water wreaks havoc with his moisturising regime, moisturiser being as critical to black health as oxygen is to anyone else. (Pro tip dear white people: that whole “black don’t crack” thing isn’t down to genetics, it’s down to obsessive moisturising.) 

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Subjects in the film also talk about everything from major anxiety, to feeling out of place, to body dysmorphia as reasons why they don’t swim. But if the interviewees and my own “lived experience” is anything to go by, black people over-intellectualise their relationship to the water and swimming, whereas white people, quite literally, dive right in. 

It’s not that black people’s bones are heavy, and even if they were, we don’t sink to the bottom as soon as we get into the water; the issue is one about class and cultural norms. White people swim, regardless of class, for fun because swimming and water-based leisure activities, like leisure and sport, period, have been commodified by white people over hundreds of years. Black people see the water, like much of nature, as a resource to be used for practical reasons first and foremost, and arguably feared and respected because of its power. Some years ago, while working in the Great Lakes region in East Africa I met many people who told tales of children and old people drowning or being stolen away by alligators while simply collecting water. I often hear people on my local beaches talking about currents, undertows and crashing waves with hushed reverence. The last thing on their mind is grabbing a board, hitting the surf and getting “barrelled.” 

Culturally, the majority of the world that isn’t European doesn’t prioritise swimming in the way white people do, particularly where water is seen as a “white space.” Growing up in the East End, my mother actively discouraged me from going to the local “baths” as she saw it as a hotbed of disease, degeneracy and sexual impropriety. This was as much a legacy of her colonial past as it was of her Windrush generation’s presence. For her generation, viewing the English aquatic space as “a white man’s ting” was a way of protecting me from contact with a breed of people who weren’t to be trusted. But in doing so, and not being encouraged to swim regularly, my parents put me in harm’s way when dealing with water. This irony is lost in Accura’s film because the voices of the Windrush generation, and their contemporaries, are absent. Instead, we hear young people talking about why they can’t or won’t swim with very little cultural or historical insight. 

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Accura says that black children are three times more likely to drown than white children. This, I can well believe given my own experiences and the triggering stories I hear of drownings, particularly involving black people. Publicised drownings of black people often have a social mobility subtext to them: it’s London pastor Gabriel Diya and two of his children Comfort and Praise-Emmanuel who died in a pool on the Costa Del Sol on Christmas Eve, 2019; it’s Derrick Andrew Otim, the Nottingham Forest academy player who died last July on a boating trip in South Carolina; it’s Folajimi ‘Jimi’ Olubunmi-Adewole, the college graduate who drowned on his way home from work when he dived into the Thames to save a woman in distress. 

There’s always been a racial or even racist stereotype to the reasons why black people have an aversion to the water. But the same can be said of almost any ethnic group. In fact, I’ve met Indian and Arab fishermen who can’t swim. Maybe there’s a question missing in all of this that can tell us something very different about the changing nature of cosmopolitanism: Why do white people swim? Hmm… I might just make a film about that.

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China providing vaccines to South America isn’t ‘aggression’ or ‘bullying’, they’re just stepping up where Washington failed

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Americans moaning about China making a play in what they patronisingly call ‘their own backyard’ don’t have a leg to stand on having left Latin America to fend for themselves throughout the pandemic.

Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin is bemoaning China’s “vaccine diplomacy” in Latin America. Whilst the United States has suffered from large scale mismanagement of Covid-19, hoarding vaccines and taking a robust ‘America First’ policy to overcome the pandemic which has left close to 600,000 dead, China has taken a leading role in providing assistance to Latin America. Beijing has sent units of Sinovac to both Central and South America, exporting and donating millions of vaccines to almost every major country in this region excluding Paraguay, who choose to maintain ties with Taiwan.

With the region having faced aggressive variants, most particularly the one originating in Brazil, the nations of Latin America have had nobody else to turn to except China, and to an extent: Russia. This has been much to the disdain of Rogin and the US media in general, who are aiming to keep the blame focused on Beijing who is, he says, “abusing its power at every stage” and “advancing its interests.” Somehow portraying China’s support to the continent as a form of aggression, bullying and expansionism whilst the United States was perfectly happy to sit on the sidelines.

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According to an unnamed Biden administration official in the piece: “The countries of the Americas are not dumb, they know they are being leveraged… And when the Americans come in, they will recognize who their friends are.” This of course is a strange, deeply ironic and utterly bizarre comment given the circumstances. One must question, if the United States truly is a “friend” of Latin America, and, if it is, where was it during the peak of the crisis? Washington is barking about China’s involvement in the region on the back of having done literally nothing itself, yet still simply expects these countries to flip towards the United States and push away China when it is finished putting itself first? Why would they ever be so stupid?

Undisputed hegemony over Latin America is the top goal of US security. Washington often describes the region as “its backyard,” revealing rhetoric in itself as it implies ownership. Since the 19th century, the US has pursued a foreign policy strategy called “the Monroe Doctrine” which aims to keep all geopolitical competitors, at that time meaning Britain and France but later extending to the Soviet Union, out of the Western Hemisphere. This has led to policies of long-term interference, election meddling, orchestrated coups, targeted sanctions and outright invasions to punish any state in the area hostile to Washington. It is the bedrock of the hostility towards Cuba, and the efforts to force regime change in Venezuela.

Fast forward to the new era of “Great Power Competition” and the focus is on China’s influence in Latin America, as it provides an alternative source of investment and support to Washington. As suggested by the initial column, the US has suffered some setbacks in the pandemic as it has exposed the more obvious reality that Washington doesn’t really care about the prosperity or wellbeing of Central and South America, it just wants control. This, combined with the disastrous Covid-19 outbreak at home, left the US a mere spectator as China provided support to numerous countries. This was even enough for Jair Bolosanaro, a staunch supporter of the US, to flip away from being anti-Beijing and U-turn on a proposed ban of Huawei in the country’s 5G networks.

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As a result, the mainstream media have waged a relentless campaign to discredit China’s vaccines, with a repetitive emphasis on trying to brand the Sinovac product, which has been used widely in Latin America, as ineffective. There is a particular focus on Chile which is currently suffering a strong second wave of the virus. Even though Santiago released a study showing the vaccine in fact does yield positive results, this has not stopped the headlines repeatedly attempting to discredit it. The media spotlight has not been on America’s obvious inaction in the region, but a constant focus on attempting to undermine and question China when the participating countries have been suffering a crisis and had few serious options. Pfizer might be a better vaccine, but America isn’t sharing it and won’t until its own needs are met.

This makes the “true friends” rhetoric all the more ridiculous. Washington claims Latin America as its “backyard” then refuses to do the gardening. Why then, with an attitude like this, would Latin American countries simply boot out China when the United States finally gets around to helping out? Obviously, thanks to geography, the United States will always be the bigger power in the region, but, from the point of view of these countries, they want more, not less options. Why choose one source of help when you can have multiple? Instead of begging for scraps from Washington’s table, why shouldn’t they accept the relief China is offering? And, no, that doesn’t mean they are “switching loyalties” in the zero-sum way it is being depicted. At the end of the day, a catastrophic global crisis has been occurring and America wasn’t there to help, so what right do they have to still expect and demand obedience. This isn’t Chinese aggression or “bullying,” this is a foreign policy failure by two consecutive White House administrations.

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After 4 years of Trump, what will President Biden’s approach be to the unstable and polarized politics of South America?

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By Richard McColl, a freelance foreign correspondent based in Colombia who has been published in print and featured in broadcast media all over the world. He hosts the popular weekly podcast, Colombia Calling and holds PhD in Social and Human Sciences from Javeriana University in Bogota.

As politics in the Andean nations of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru shift it remains unclear how Biden’s approach to the region will differ from his predecessor’s myopic tactic of simply battering Venezuela at every opportunity.

With his government’s desire to emphasize the importance of climate change, international cooperation, and the rule of law in South America, US President Joe Biden will seek to pass these issues seamlessly into his foreign policy agenda for the region. However, due to the polarized nature of recent and future presidential elections, a coherent roadmap for the Biden administration regarding the Andean nations of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru is far from clear. It’s too early to predict what will happen, but there is good reason to suspect that President Biden may continue the practice of maintaining a cordial but unsubstantial relationship in terms of policy towards these nations. 

While President Biden will be keen to extend an olive branch of friendship and cooperation to governments in the region, his first task will be to unravel the half sighted policies of his predecessor which extended no further than a fixation on Venezuela and the narcotization of the relationship with key strategic ally in the region, Colombia. Right now, Biden’s advisers will be looking south, searching for a pattern uniting the politics in the three countries and envisioning the Ecuadorian president-elect, Guillermo Lasso, as someone they can work with.

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Beyond this simplistic interpretation, the outlook is complicated.

Peru’s June 6 second round presidential run-off between socialist Pedro Castillo and conservative Keiko Fujimori is being billed as a battle of extremes, a class war of left versus right and poor versus rich. There are, however, startling similarities between the two candidates, just as there are in the political arenas of the three Andean nations in question. These congruences will be giving President Biden and his team a significant headache.

What is clear is that voters in the region are disgusted with their politicians, the electorate is staggeringly polarized and disillusioned with the political system, Covid-19 deaths are spiraling and economies are in free-fall. On April 11, in Lasso, Ecuadorians elected a former banker who will preside over a highly fragmented National Assembly in which his party is the fifth largest.

Whichever candidate wins in Peru will oversee a Congress with no clear majority and beholden to legislative populism in a country which has seen five presidents in five years.

Beleaguered Colombian President Ivan Duque, who is constitutionally prohibited from running for a second term, will vacate the Palacio de Nariño presidential palace after the 2022 election. It is not known who the presidential candidates will be, but a safe bet is that Colombia’s presidency will be contested from the left by Senator Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla and runner-up in 2018, and from the right by either Alejandro Char, a former departmental governor and mayor of the port city of Barranquilla, or Tomas Uribe, the son of divisive former President Alvaro Uribe.

The similarities continue beyond the electorate’s mere disgust, minority governments, and polarization. President Lasso and whichever candidates emerge victorious in Peru and Colombia will all come to power as presidents arriving in periods of turmoil, significant unrest, and uneven economic recovery. Just cast your mind back to late 2019, pre Covid-19, when demonstrations turned violent in all three countries challenging the political fabric of each one. The large-scale political unrest which caused the protests has not been miraculously resolved, only placed on hold by the pandemic.

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“Yes, they won, but can they finish their term?” said Sergio Guzman of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consultancy based in Bogotá, Colombia.

The risk of political instability will persist through each administration. In Peru, both Fujimori and Castillo each answer to political mentors, former presidents Alberto Fujimori (her father) and Ollanta Humala respectively, both of whom are currently imprisoned on charges of corruption. In Colombia, should a right-wing candidate win, then the specter of peace accord saboteur, former President Alvaro Uribe, will loom large. Current Colombian President Ivan Duque was handpicked by Uribe, and is widely seen as a presidential kingmaker. Bucking the trend, Ecuador was spared the strongman fate when candidate Andres Arauz, chosen by former President Rafael Correa, who is living in exile after receiving an eight-year prison sentence on corruption charges, was defeated.

What will President Biden do?

Although President Biden does not have a philosophical alignment with any one of the premiers or potential premiers in the region, unlike former President Trump’s automatic support of Bolsonaro in Brazil, the US government finds itself in a position where indifference to the Andean area is the easiest route.

President Biden will want to contain China’s influence in the western hemisphere, but at this uncertain juncture of history, Latin American governments are willing to do business with anybody. As a key figure in the construction of Plan Colombia – a hawkish policy devised in 2000 to strengthen the Colombian military in the war on drugs – President Biden will seek a more pragmatic solution to coca cultivation such as crop substitution. From afar, one can also expect that President Biden will promote regional dialogue to address international cooperation in terms of the 4.6 million Venezuelan migrants spread across the continent.

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But will he be able or even want to go beyond the superficial?

Whichever route President Biden takes, he will be wary of close relationships with presidents who may not see out their term, such as those in Ecuador and Peru, have socialist or semi authoritarian policies, and who have connections to dubious former presidents and populist tendencies. President Biden may utter the right soundbites with regards to a renewed and positive new policy towards South America, but the region will find itself very much on the backburner for his tenure.

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South America a new COVID epicenter, Africa reaches 100,000 cases

May 22, 2020 / 5:24 PM / Updated 3 hours agoSouth America a new COVID epicenter, Africa reaches 100,000 cases

Gravediggers wearing protective suits prepare to bury the coffin of a person who died from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) during a ceremony with no relatives, at Vila Formosa cemetery, Brazil’s biggest cemetery, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, May 22, 2020. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

GENEVA (Reuters) – South America has become a new epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic with Brazil hardest-hit, while cases are rising in some African countries that so far have a relatively low death toll, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.

“The COVID-19 pandemic today reached a milestone in Africa, with more than 100,000 confirmed cases. The virus has now spread to every country in the continent since the first case was confirmed in the region 14 weeks ago,” the WHO said in a statement, noting there were 3,100 confirmed deaths on the vast continent.

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, who is from Botswana, said: “For now COVID-19 has made a soft landfall in Africa, and the continent has been spared the high numbers of deaths which have devastated other regions of the world.”

Even so, she said, “We must not be lulled into complacency as our health systems are fragile and are less able to cope with a sudden increase in cases.”

About half of African countries are experiencing community transmission of the virus, the WHO said.

The situation in South America appeared graver. Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO’s top emergencies expert, speaking earlier to a news conference, said: “In a sense South America has become a new epicenter for the disease.”

Brazil is the “most affected,” and authorities there have approved broad use of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine for treatment of COVID-19, he said. He reiterated that clinical evidence does not support the drug’s widespread use against the disease, given its risks.

Nine African countries had 50% rises in cases in the past week, while others have seen a decline or have stable rates, Ryan said.

The low mortality rate may be because half the continent’s population is 18 or younger, he said, while saying he remains worried the disease will spread on a continent with “significant gaps” in intensive care services, medical oxygen and ventilation.

Paraguay has South America’s best record on coronavirus after early lockdown

April 14, 2020 / 10:05 PM / Updated an hour agoParaguay has South America's best record on coronavirus after early lockdownDaniela Desantis

ASUNCION (Reuters) – As a global coronavirus pandemic spread around the world, landlocked Paraguay did not wait, imposing a strict lockdown in early March, before neighboring countries. The result: the fewest cases in the region.

The grains producer with a population of around 7 million people has just 159 confirmed cases and seven deaths. Just three of the infected people are hospitalized, with one in intensive care, health ministry data shows.

That compares with over 2,000 cases in Argentina, 10,000 in Peru, almost 8,000 in Chile, and 25,000 in Brazil. Smaller neighbor Uruguay has almost 500 confirmed cases while Bolivia has 354.

Luis Alberto Escoto, representative of the World Health Organization in Paraguay, told Reuters the country’s success was due to aggressive social distancing measures.

“Their best result can be attributed to adoption of these and the attitude that the population has despite living in a difficult context, of inequality and poverty,” he said.

Paraguay’s government shut schools and suspended large events in the second week of March. Shortly later, it closed its borders, airports and ordered a total quarantine of the population with very few exceptions.

Police and military watch the streets and shops and have punished more than a thousand people for violating restrictions.

The South American nation, however, also has one of the lowest test rates for the virus, with 26.2 tests per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the WHO and Pan American Health Organization. It has shortages of tests and a lack of qualified personnel.

It has also had trouble getting ventilators and protective equipment for medical personnel, part of the reason President Mario Abdo extended the quarantine on Monday.

Escoto, however, said this was not masking a hidden crisis, while local lawmakers emphasized the country’s health system – though under-funded – was not buckling under the strain.

“There is a certain under-reporting that exists. But the absence of mortality or serious cases saturating the system suggests there is not exponential community transmission yet,” said Senator and former Minister of Health Esperanza Martínez.

“The fear is that when these measures are lifted without having a rapid test strategy,” she added, “Paraguay may get the sort of peaks that have occurred in other countries.”

Passenger – When We Were Young

We used to never say never
Used to think we’d live forever
Flying free beneath the sun

Days go running and hiding
The weeks go slipping and sliding
Years leave quicker every time they come
Remember when we were young

Look back to the best of days
Collecting our yesterdays
As they build up one by one

Oh how we beg and we borrow
Say we’ll do it tomorrow
But tomorrow never seems to come

We used to never say never
Used to think we’d live forever
Flying free beneath the sun

Days go running and hiding
The weeks go slipping and sliding
Years leave quicker every time they come
Remember when we were young

And we were boys on the beach
Everything was in reach
I know it’s hard to remember

But oh how the years they vanish
I always wanted to learn Spanish
And travel ’round South America

We used to never say never
Used to think we’d live forever
Flying free beneath the sun

Days go running and hiding
The weeks go slipping and sliding
Years leave quicker every time they come

Remember when we were young [x3]