• GQ Australia columns, December 2015: Fear, climate, guns, suicide and cannabis

    In July 2015, I was invited to write occasional online columns for GQ Australia. I’ve collected these five columns as excerpts below, with the publication date noted in brackets beside the title.

    Are We Living In An Australia Led By Fear? (July)

    An increase in national surveillance powers has an equal and opposite reaction of a decline in civil liberties – writes Andrew McMillen

    'Are We Living In An Australia Led By Fear?' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    One particular sentence on nationalsecurity.gov.au catches the eye: “Protecting all Australians from terrorism and violent extremism is the Australian Government’s top priority,” it reads.

    This sentence appears on a website which is home to the National Terrorism Public Alert System, among other cracking reads such as a list of ‘foiled Australian attacks’ (four incidents) and ‘overseas terrorist attacks’ (six).

    The National Terrorism Public Alert System informs us that the nation is currently at a ‘high’ level of alert, indicating that a terrorist attack “is likely”. This is just one step down from ‘extreme’ – where a terrorist attack “is imminent or has occurred” – but a step above the previous ranking of ‘medium’, which warned that a terrorist attack “could occur”.

    It was in mid-September 2014 that the alert rating changed from ‘medium’ to ‘high’. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine captured the change, between September 12 and September 18.

    The switch-over itself was pretty simple stuff, really: the web copy is practically identical, and a blue map of Australia with an ugly black font in the centre was replaced by a white diagram ringed by blue.

    To read the full column, click here.

    Why Australia Is Headed For An Avoidable Climate Calamity (August)

    Climate change is the iceberg of our times and Australia is steering straight into it – writes Andrew McMillen.

    'Why Australia Is Headed For An Avoidable Climate Calamity' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    One of mankind’s greatest achievements is the discovery that the energy from coal – ancient sunlight buried in the ground – could be used to drive our technological progress.

    In 2015, we continue to reap the rewards of that discovery, yet most of us acknowledge that coal, like oil and gas, is a finite resource: there’s only so much of it beneath our feet, and sooner or later, the supply will be exhausted.

    There is a simple logic behind this problem. When one generation selfishly chooses to use as much coal, oil and gas as humanly possible, the next generation will suffer the supply shocks, as well as the environmental effects: burning these fossil fuels adds a toxic combination of pollutants to the atmosphere, increasing the speed at which the planet warms.

    Intelligent governance acknowledges this as a fact, and a problem to be solved swiftly, lest future generations suffer for our inaction. For a time, Australia led the developed world in this regard, when then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced in 2007 that climate change was “the great moral, environmental and economic challenge of our age”.

    These were sage words from a leader who ultimately failed to install an effective mechanism to solve that challenge. Politics got in the way of true progress, cruelling an admirable long-term vision.

    To read the full column, click here.

    Why Encouraging More Guns Into Australia Is A Terrible Idea (August)

    In the wake of the Martin Place siege, Australia’s relationship with its long-standing gun laws might be about to change and that’s a very scary thought – writes Andrew McMillen.

    'Why Encouraging More Guns Into Australia Is A Terrible Idea' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    A gunman named Martin Bryant forever changed Australia on 28 April 1996, when he used a semi-automatic rifle to kill 35 people at a cafe in the Tasmanian town of Port Arthur.

    Within twelve weeks, John Howard’s government had devised, drafted, debated and implemented legislation which saw the banning of semi-automatic weapons and shotguns, and triggered a compulsory gun buyback scheme. As a result, the ownership and storage of other firearms were tightly restricted, too.

    The Australian approach to gun control was shown in stark contrast to the United States in September 2013, when John Oliver’s brilliant threepart series on The Daily Show neatly skewered gun-mad Americans who mindlessly oppose any change to gun laws.

    “Obviously, gun control doesn’t work. It can’t work. It will never work. So how was your scheme a failure?” Oliver asked a bemused John Howard, who replied, “Well, my scheme was not a failure. We had a massacre at a place called Port Arthur 17 years ago, and there have been none since.” Australia’s rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people was 1.03, compared with 10.69 in the U.S., according to 2012 figures from gunpolicy.org.

    In the 18 years prior to the Port Arthur massacre, there had been 13 mass shooting incidents , where five or more people were killed by a firearm. The gunman’s destructive actions so shocked and appalled the electorate that Howard’s sweeping changes to gun ownership laws were widely supported in the community.

    To read the full column, click here.

    Why Australian Men Need To Talk More About Suicide (September)

    Too many Australians die of suicide – around 2,500 per year, or 48 per week – and too few talk about it, or its surrounding issues – writes Andrew McMillen

    'Why Australian Men Need To Talk More About Suicide' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    The numbers are shockingly high: suicide is the leading cause of death for Australian men and woman aged between 15 and 44.

    I’m a member of this demographic, but stating sad facts such as these in plain black-and-white can have a numbing effect. Though mentally healthy myself, I have seen the devastating effects of severe depression up close with someone I love, which is one of the reasons why I’ve made a few attempts as a journalist to uncover stories about Australians who have faced mental illness with courage and openness.

    The first was an article for Australian Penthouse in 2012, The Low Down, about an online campaign named Soften The Fuck Up, which seeks to challenge the low levels of mental health literacy recognised by its founder, Ehon Chan, after he moved to Australia from Malaysia.

    “What’s the most common thing that Australian men get when they talk about any kind of weaknesses?” he asked me during our interview. “The response is generally, ‘Harden the fuck up.’ There’s no equivalent phrase for that in Malaysian!” he said with a laugh. Soften The Fuck Up aims to encourage offline conversations, by equipping young people – in particular, men – with ideas of how to recognise signs and symptoms of mental health issues among their peers.

    My most recent story on this topic, Over Troubled Water, was published in The Weekend Australian Magazine in early September 2015, ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10. This article explored the topic of suicide prevention at an iconic location in inner-city Brisbane: the Story Bridge, which is the site of at least four suicides per year, on average. Counterintuitive though it might seem, installing anti-jump barriers on high bridges has been shown to greatly reduce the incidence of suicide, and the problem is not simply shifted to another location.

    To read the full column, click here.

    How We Could All Benefit From Cannabis Regulation (October)

    The potential benefit of legalising cannabis means drug reform in Australia should be taken seriously – argues Andrew McMillen.

    'How We Could All Benefit From Cannabis Regulation' by Andrew McMillen for GQ Australia, 2015

    A few years from today, once other Australian states have followed the lead set by Victoriain early October 2015 to move toward the legalisation of cultivating cannabis for medicinal purposes, the nation might finally be ready to have a conversation that needs to be had. Namely: why don’t we regulate and tax the recreational use of cannabis, our most popular illicit drug?

    At least 1.9 million Australians use cannabis each year, according to the most recent data from the United Nations 2014 World Drug Report. This is a huge proportion of Australians, and it’s significant for a couple of reasons. First, that’s a lot of adults of voting age, who’d probably be keen to support political parties that provide reasonable alternatives to the tired, ineffective tough-on-drugs approach we’ve seen in this country for generations.

    And second, this number represents an enormous amount of disposable income that’s leaking from the national economy into an unregulated market, far beyond the reach of the Australian Taxation Office.

    Given that recreational cannabis use is illegal, the only way to obtain the drug in 2015 is to associate with people who are, by definition, criminals. Once that transaction has been made, and you hand over your cash in exchange for the product, you’ve become a criminal, too. If caught by police, you will face charges of possession which may result in fines or, at the extreme end of the spectrum, imprisonment.

    This reality is known, understood and accepted by most Australians who choose to interface with illicit drug use. Perhaps a small minority of particularly inflammatory cannabis users get a kick out of breaking the law in this way, but most would probably much rather avoid the hassle of potentially being exposed to the criminal justice system purely because of their desire to use a drug that’s increasingly being legalised by state and federal governments throughout the world.

    To read the full column, click here.

  • The Weekend Australian book reviews, December 2015

    I reviewed a handful of books for The Weekend Australian in 2015. Most of them were very good, but my review of the book I enjoyed most – published in November – is included in full below.

    The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships by Neil Strauss

    'The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships' book cover by Neil Strauss, reviewed in The Australian by Andrew McMillen, 2015In the opening pages of Neil Strauss’s 2007 book The Rules Of The Game, the dedication reads: “To your mother and father. Feel free to blame them for everything that’s wrong with you, but don’t forget to give them credit for everything that’s right.”

    Eight years later, Strauss — an American author who came to prominence as a journalist for Rolling Stone and The New York Times — has published The Truth, which is dedicated to his own mother and father. “They say a parent’s­ love is unconditional,” he writes. “Let’s hope that’s still true after you read this book.”

    The Truth comes a decade after The Game, which tracked his journey from dateless no-hoper into master ‘‘pick-up artist’’. The multi-million seller is often maligned and mis­understood as a manual for dateless no-hopers looking for cheat sheets on how to attract the opposite sex, yet The Game is a powerful narrative of transformation which ends with Strauss giving away single life after finding love.

    This new book begins with Strauss cheating on his girlfriend — a different woman to the one he met at the end of The Game. What follows­ is a thorough exploration of the inside of his skull, and how his behaviour toward women has been shaped by his parents’ toxic relationship: a hypercritical, overprotective mother and an aloof, distant father who spent his whole life browbeaten by his wife. It’s a superb­ set-up to a long book, which quickly becomes a compulsive read powered by questions of how Strauss can escape his warped childhood and regain the trust of his scorned partner.

    The narrative covers four tumultuous years of Strauss’s life, through sex addiction therapy and a temporary reconciliation with his partner, followed by the supposed freedom of alternative relationships, such as an attempt to live with three sexual partners concurrently. He is aware of how this all sounds to anyone familiar with The Game: he encounters a man at sex addiction therapy who points out that “a book about learning how to meet women is destructive, and a book about learning how to stop meeting them would be good for the world. And ironic”.

    What sells the story is Strauss’s writing, which is never less than engaging, and frequently­ funny, heartfelt, or both. His observ­ations are astute and poignant: when attending a conference for polyamorists — people with more than one lover — and feeling awkward around a bunch of naked strangers, he notes: “Loneliness is holding in a joke because you have no one to share it with.”

    Like The Game, The Truth might be miscateg­orised under ‘‘self help’’ in bookstores, because the questions Strauss grapples with are universal: how to find love, maintain a relationship, and manage sexual attraction to others without jeopardising what you have built with your partner. Like his past few books, it is written in a first-person perspective, yet the lessons he learns during his journey can be understood and appreciated by many. This is a clever gambit­, and part of the reason that his writing appeals widely, as any attempt to directly instruct­ the reader would dampen its impact.

    Throughout the book, Rick Rubin — a famousl­y bearded record producer who has worked with many great musicians, from Jay-Z to Slayer — pops up as both wise counsel and exasperated onlooker to the author’s behaviour. Similarly, a therapist Strauss meets while being treated for sex addiction provides regular guidance and perspective, and occasionally she and Rubin appear in the same scene. All of the characters Strauss draws are three-dimensional and believable, including a few fellow sex addicts who have their own dysfunctional relationships and attitudes toward faithfulness.

    The two individuals who come under the most scrutiny are the author’s parents, however — hence the dubious dedication at the book’s beginning. Now 46, Strauss has been trying his whole life to please his strict, punishing mother, who frequently confided in her son how much she hated her husband. During therapy, he discovers that there’s a name for this sort of thing, where a mother is emotionally dependent on a child and has intimate discussions that should be had with a spouse: emotional incest.

    Learning that his mother wants to be in a relation­ship with him blows Strauss’s mind, naturally, but also helps him to understand why he’s been unable to live in a healthy, long-term relationship. The toxic environment in which he was raised coloured his romantic experiences in adolescence and adulthood. He became more dysfunctional after learning how to seduce­ women in his 30s.

    “My whole life, I’ve been fighting against love for my freedom,” he realises at about page 300. “No wonder I’ve never been married, engaged­, or even had a love that didn’t wane after the initial infatuation period.”

    Strauss is an incisive writer, and his struggle in these pages has to have been the toughest assignme­nt he’s ever taken on. It’s certainly his best and most important work to date. “For me, the best way to understand what actually transpired in any given situation is to write about it until the truth emerges,” he notes at one point. Writing this book can’t have been easy, yet the real genius of his work is the multiple layers at which he engages the reader.

    Just as The Game is often misunderstood as a straightforward seduction guide, The Truth could be misrepresented by those who seek to pursue alternative sexual relationships. As with the book he published a decade ago, though, the destination is more important than the journey, and where Strauss finds himself at the end is a much happier place than where he began.

    I also reviewed the below books for The Weekend Australian in 2015. They are listed in chronological order, with the publication date noted in brackets.

     

  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, December 2015

    I reviewed 15 albums for The Weekend Australian in 2015. Many of them were great, but the only five-star rating I awarded was to the below album, which was released in early August. The full review follows.

    HEALTH – DEATH MAGIC

    HEALTH - 'DEATH MAGIC' album cover, reviewed by Andrew McMillen in The Weekend Australian, 2015That this Los Angeles-based electronic pop quartet insists on capitalising all of its song and album titles speaks to the confronting nature of the music it creates. DEATH MAGIC is the group’s third album, and its best: a futuristic and immersive marriage of electronic beats and pop sensibilities. Its style on previous records was rooted in the abrasive repetition of noise rock, and while that scaffolding remains in place, HEALTH has spent the six years since its last album, GET COLOR, perfecting an aesthetic which is entirely its own.

    Since 2009, the quartet has composed an eerie, atmospheric score for a popular video game, Max Payne 3, and according to an interview published on Pitchfork in April, they “made this record like four times”. The rewrites were well worth it.

    This is among the most vital and exciting albums to be released in any genre in any year. It is a masterpiece of staggering depth and immediacy. Each track pulses with energy and the optimism of youth, yet its overarching lyrical theme is an obsession with the end of life: “We die / So what?” sings guitarist Jake Duzsik on fourth track ‘FLESH WORLD (UK)’. “We’re here / Let go,” he intones atop an insistent backbeat and snippets of warped, metallic squalls.

    Wedged among the unrelenting darkness are two anomalously poppy tracks, ‘DARK ENOUGH’ and ‘LIFE’, which appear back-to-back in the middle of the set list. “Does it make a difference if it’s real / As long as I still say ‘I love you’?” sings Duzsik on the former track, while on the latter he reflects, “Life is strange / We die, and we don’t know why”.

    For a bunch of guys in their early 30s, this preoccupation with death is curious, but as fuel for their art, clearly it has been a boon. The mood that surrounds these themes is far more ebullient than funereal. In acknowledging its mortality rather than denying it, HEALTH seems to have replaced existential anxiety with self-confidence. First single ‘NEW COKE’ is the album’s darkest arrangement, wherein Duzsik’s ethereal vocals state a mantra (“Life is good”) that’s offset by waves of engrossing electronic distortion, like a plane crashing in slow motion. In the middle of the track, there are a couple of brief moments of silence, before the diabolical noise returns anew.

    Stylistic decisions such as these are perhaps influenced by the notion of “the drop” in electronic dance music: compulsive snatches of anticipated euphoria which spur the mind and body into action. DEATH MAGIC is a tough album to categorise: half pop, half electronica and wholly immersive, it is the sound of four singular musicians mining a rich, untapped vein of material. Defiantly, proudly, this band sounds like no other in existence. What HEALTH has come up with here is a towering achievement best played very, very loud.

    I also reviewed the below albums for The Weekend Australian in 2015. They are listed in chronological order, with the publication date and my rating noted in brackets.

     

  • BuzzFeed story: ‘The Cop At The End Of The World: Neale McShane’, November 2015

    A feature story for BuzzFeed, published in November 2015. Excerpt below.

    The Cop At The End Of The World

    The longest serving officer at Australia’s most remote police outpost, Neale McShane is about to retire. But first, one last big weekend watching Birdsville, population 80, become an unlikely — and ill-suited — tourist destination.

    BuzzFeed story: 'The Cop At The End Of The World: Neale McShane' by Andrew McMillen, November 2015. Photograph by Paul McMillen

    On a map of Australia, Birdsville is situated toward the middle of the country, yet its remoteness is so absolute that it might as well be on another planet. Established in 1881, the town abuts the edge of the Simpson Desert, an enormous expanse that consists of more than 1,000 sand dunes. That a town was built here at all is testament to either human willpower or outright folly. It is not quite self-sufficient, as most goods are either trucked in via hundreds of miles of snaking gravel tracks dotted with roadkill kangaroos and carrion birds, or flown in via the twice-weekly mail service.

    On windy days, the red dust from the desert blows across the town’s few dozen buildings, adding a fine film of rusty grit that bonds itself to every surface. On hot days — which is most of them — bush flies revel in the stark stillness, incessantly seeking out the moisture of sweaty human skin.

    In Birdsville, if you want to buy a coffee, you have one option: the Birdsville Bakery. If you want to visit a restaurant, you have one option: the Birdsville Hotel. If you want to buy alcohol, you can do so from either place. If you fall ill, you’ll be treated at the Birdsville Clinic, and flown nearly a thousand miles to the state capital if you can’t be fixed there. If you want to buy basic groceries, you’ll have to settle for whatever Birdsville Roadhouse has in stock. If you want to see a film or live music, you’re in the wrong town. Birdsville State School has five students. The kindergarten has three. There are no teenagers. There is no crime. There is, however, a police station. It is manned by an officer who chooses not to carry a gun, because he has no need to.

    The police station is situated at the edge of town, a short walk up the main street, toward the pub, the combined grocery store–cum–fuel station, a tiny airport, the school, and the clinic. When the airstrip’s runway-lights system is switched off at night, a stroll along this route reveals the breathtaking volume and variety of stars overhead, which flicker brightly, knowingly, free of all light pollution. Shooting stars are seen more often than cars on the main street, which might be used by 30 vehicles on a busy day.

    For most residents of Queensland, Australia’s second-largest state by area, Birdsville will only ever be a geographic curiosity seen at the edge of the map on the nightly weather report. Locals say the population is 80 people, half of whom are Indigenous Australians, but the sign posted outside of town notes that the population is “115, +/- 7,000.” After driving over a thousand miles to be here, seeing that sign somehow quickens the pulse. Once a year, during the first weekend of September, this sleepy desert town sparks to life, relatively speaking.

    To read the full story, visit BuzzFeed. Above photo credit: Paul McMillen.

  • Qweekend story: ‘Freedom Thinkers: Brisbane Free University’, November 2015

    A story for the November 7-8 issue of Qweekend. The full story appears below.

    Freedom Thinkers

    In their underground “carparktopia”, the women of Brisbane Free University dispense knowledge to anyone within earshot.

    Qweekend story: 'Freedom Thinkers: Brisbane Free University' by Andrew McMillen, published in November 2015. Photo by Russell Shakespeare

    by Andrew McMillen / Photograph by Russell Shakespeare

    ++

    About once a month, beneath a bank on Boundary Street in Brisbane’s inner-south West End, an enterprising trio of young women direct their energies toward setting up a classroom unlike any other you’ll find in the city. Under harsh fluorescent lights and between 13 Westpac customer car parks, dozens of plastic chairs are sat facing a white banner taped to the brick wall, covering the bank’s logo. A second banner is hung above the entrance, so that curious passersby might be drawn in by the impromptu gathering of education-minded locals.

    Since November 2012, a motley crew of passionate, engaged learners has been flocking to this initiative, dubbed Brisbane Free University. Pictured on the banner beside the name is the unmistakable image of an ibis taking flight, its wings outstretched. This bird was chosen for its antagonistic scavenger spirit, and illustrated by 26-year-old co-founder Anna Carlson. It wasn’t until much later that a happy accident was uncovered: the Egyptian god of knowledge, Thoth, was often depicted as a man with the head of an ibis. There’s a curious duality at play here, then: the inner city-dwelling ibis takes what it can from its surrounding environment to survive, while the women of Brisbane Free University enjoy nothing more than to share knowledge with whoever happens to be in earshot, free of charge, to enlighten the lives of those around them.

    Carlson and her two co-founders – Fern Thompsett, 28, and Briohny Walker, 30 – do not take an adversarial approach to the city’s existing tertiary education institutions. To do so would be a touch hypocritical, as the trio met while studying arts/law, anthropology and philosophy, respectively, at the University of Queensland, and a review of BFU’s past sessions show a strong presence of UQ, Queensland University of Technology and Griffith alumni. By 6.30pm on this particular Thursday, Walker steps forward and speaks into a microphone connected to a solar-powered PA system whose two speakers are positioned atop wheelie bins.

    “Thank you for coming down to carparktopia for BFU. It’s lovely to see you all,” she says, beaming. “Tonight is particularly special because it’s a meta-BFU: tonight at free university, we’re going to be talking about free universities. The acoustics here are a little bit weird, so can I check that everyone at the back can hear me?” After getting the thumbs-up from those in the back rows, she hands over the mic.

    Facing the audience are two chairs; one for Thompsett and one for the American guest speaker, Laura Nelson, a 26 year-old student of Harvard University who is studying a PhD on the history of free universities. Both are casually dressed and clearly comfortable with fronting this crowd of around 30 attendees, whose average age appears to be about 22. After acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we sit, Thompsett gives a brief overview of how the event came to be.

    “When Briohny, Anna and myself co-founded BFU, we didn’t realise that there were any other free universities in operation, even at this point in time, let alone in history – which is probably really politically naive of us,” she says with a smile. “It was just an idea that came out of the blue, and a bottle of wine, and then it took form in this very carpark approximately three years ago. It was only a couple of months into the project that we realised that what we’d tapped into was a global movement that stretched back in time, and right around the world.”

    Last year, Thompsett spent five months travelling throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico, visiting free universities and studying the interrelated concept of radical education.

    While spending time in Australia, Nelson has been researching this country’s founding movements. She reads aloud a quote to begin: “Training for the economy is the de facto centre of the university’s operations. Students flow in from the public examinations and flow out clutching tickets to membership in the occupational elite. Through the university, a semi-closed upper status perpetuates itself from one generation to the next, preserving the lines of privilege which universal secondary education was thought to destroy. Because their attention is on getting good jobs, the mass of students are insulated from the academic culture of the university and from the radical traditions of student life and thought.”

    As Nelson explains, this quote was first published in a Sydney University student newspaper in October 1967 and became the foundation manifesto of what became known as the Free U, which ran out of a rented house in Redfern and reached a peak of 300 students within two years. The Sydney experiment inspired similar movements in Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide, among others. As Nelson speaks, buses noisily accelerate out on the street, while occasional hecklers direct their voice toward the carpark, an action which is met with smiles by the organisers. The whole point of using this space is that there is no door between the public and private; instead, anyone interested may walk down and take a seat. That doesn’t happen tonight, perhaps because the audience is among the smallest in recent memory – possible a reflection of the meta theme – but previous discussions on sex and consent, the future of West End and women in media have each attracted healthy crowds.

    After chatting amicably for an hour, Thompsett opens the discussion up to questions and comments from the floor. A young guy in a suit and a flat cap raises his hand; he drones into the microphone for minutes on end about several tangentially-related concepts before attempting to form a question for the two women. I find myself quickly frustrated by his presence, and reflect on how this behaviour would not be tolerated in a mainstream university classroom; he would soon be drowned out by groans, and the lecturer, sensing the restlessness, would likely intervene. Here at BFU, he is indulged with silent patience by all in attendance, though a couple of young women in front of me start rolling their eyes at one another and quietly giggling to themselves.

    This young man is passed the microphone several more times during the group discussion. His barely coherent monologues fill the space, and each time Thompsett skilfully acknowledges his contribution before steering the conversation toward more productive pathways. I realise my frustration toward him is rooted in my own studies at UQ several years ago. I rarely enjoyed the Bachelor of Communication program, doing the bare minimum to scrape through with a pass while pouring my time into socialising and extracurricular activities. This is a fault of mine, not the university’s, yet even here, I found myself thinking in terms of exams and assessment criteria.

    Thoughts such as these are in direct opposition to what BFU represents: learning for learning’s sake, rather than simply chasing a piece of paper, an admirable grade point average or a high-paying job. It’s a beautiful, freeing approach to education, as it opens up avenues beyond the traditional classroom model. It rejects the notion that learning ends with high school, or university. Instead, it’s a lifelong process, and movements such as this acknowledge the universal human hunger for knowledge, discussion and understanding.

    An informal “tutorial” is scheduled to take place in the beer garden of the nearby Boundary Hotel once the organisers have reset the carpark and packed up the PA, but for now, says Thompsett, “I don’t have any conclusions, I just have more questions, which I think is probably the sign of a sound research project – at least for within this framework of anarchist learning spaces.”

    As the audience filters out onto Boundary St after helping to stack chairs, minds and mouths alive with inspiration, it’s clear that this has been another successful chapter not only for BFU’s three founders, but for a radical educational concept that first took root almost 50 years ago.

    brisbanefreeuniversity.org

  • The Weekend Australian Review story: ‘Etched In Memory’, October 2015

    A story for the October 31 issue of The Weekend Australian Review. The full story appears below.

    Etched In Memory

    Glenn Ainsworth’s art is an exercise in beauty, tragedy and catharsis

    Baxter Ainsworth, as sketched by his father, Glenn, in 2014It was the night before the stillbirth of his son that Glenn Ainsworth realised he needed to sketch Baxter. He and his wife, Nichole Hamilton, were staying overnight in Buderim Hospital, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, in February last year. It was a Wednesday, and that morning the couple had been told Baxter had no heartbeat. They were offered sleeping pills, but both refused. Instead they lay together, numb with grief.

    “We just both lay there all night, watching the bloody clock,” says Ainsworth , a softly spoken 38-year-old. “That’s when I knew what I wanted to do.”

    Hamilton gave birth to Baxter on Thursday, February 13. “We were dead tired; we’d been awake for two days,” says Ainsworth . “I was just staring at him, trying to burn him into my head. You know that your time’s limited. You’re not going to see him after that day.”

    At first Ainsworth chose not to tell Hamilton of his plans to sketch their son, but when he did, she wasn’t surprised. Art runs in Ainsworth’s blood. Inside the garage of their two-storey home at Peregian Beach is a studio where the civil engineer paints and sketches, honing a talent he first picked up between rugby league matches while growing up in Biloela, a rural town in central Queensland. With Baxter’s sudden death, the couple were ushered into an exclusive club that no one joins voluntarily.

    “I thought stillbirth was something that only happened in Third World countries,” says Hamilton, 40, beside her husband of 10 years. “Nobody talks about it, and that makes it harder for friends and family to know what to say.”

    In time, the couple found their way to Sands Queensland, an organisation that provides support to parents who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth and newborn death. It wasn’t long before Ainsworth decided to offer his skills to those who had joined the club. “It just grew from there, I suppose,” he says. “I thought it might be a nice opportunity for other people: if they can’t do a sketch, I’ll do it for them.”

    Says Nicole Ireland, president of Sands Queensland: “Glenn wanted to do something. He suggested that parents could make a donation to Sands, and he volunteered his skills to sketch their babies. A lot of people are more comfortable displaying drawings rather than photographs.” Parents can order a “free spirits” personalised portrait, hand-drawn by Ainsworth, based on supplied photographs. The proceeds go to the organisation, which is funded through Queensland Health’s community self-care program as well as via member donations. “(Glenn and Nichole) obviously have great support around them,” says Ireland, whose son Nicholas was stillborn 10 years ago. “But (Glenn would) have to balance his giving back with his grief.”

    In the couple’s home, adjacent to the rooms downstairs where Hamilton runs her physiotherapy clinic, Ainsworth sits at his computer and opens a scanned copy of his sketch of Baxter. His eyes trace the soft curves of his baby boy’s face, hooded in a blanket, his tiny hands grasped together just so. “Some of them are quite difficult, because some of them are quite young in terms of the gestation period,” he says quietly. “A lot of the bubs get a bit bruised, and have skin tears and stuff like that, which is just awful. I look at the pictures, then don’t do anything for a couple of weeks. I just have a think about it.”

    He starts with the face, making sure to get the proportions right before adding other details. Sometimes he draws composite sketches based on several photos. At the parents’ request, he can sketch around tubes and cords, thus removing their child from a medical context. He has completed 11 sketches so far, averaging one a month, and usually has another two or three waiting in the queue.

    Moving across to a filing cabinet beside his workspace, he flicks through folders until he finds his original drawing of Baxter. He holds it carefully at the edges, silently taking in his priceless drawing of a boy who was gone too soon. In the shock that followed his stillbirth, neither parent considered taking a photograph of their son. Hamilton’s sister did, though, and in the months that followed those few photographs became the couple’s most important possessions. A framed copy of the sketch of Baxter hangs now in their bedroom. “I’m glad that Glenn’s art has a chance to help people,” says Hamilton. “It’s a beautiful thing to share. I love his drawing of Baxter.”

    When asked how long each drawing takes to complete, he laughs and replies: “Put it this way: on an hourly rate, I’d be on about 20c an hour.” But it’s not about money.

    Ainsworth tends to lose track of time down in the quiet of his studio, with performers such as David Gray, Lady Antebellum and Amos Lee playing softly from the speakers. He sketches with a range of pencil grades and isn’t picky about brands or styles, opting to buy whatever the local art shop happens to have in stock. He is a self-taught artist, and doesn’t pay much attention to the work of contemporary professionals, though he is particularly fond of a New Zealand landscape artist named Tim Wilson.

    The grieving process hasn’t been easy. Hamilton says that for the first year, she cried every day. Ainsworth’s experience was much the same. “I’d get in my car each morning and cry all the way to work, and on the way home, 40 minutes each way,” he says. “I burst into tears all the time now.”

    Talking about the experience in his home with a stranger isn’t easy, either. Hanging on the wall of his living room are some of Ainsworth’s artworks, including photorealistic paintings of a sea turtle and clownfish. “You’ve got everything ready to bring a baby home. You go from the highest feeling to the lowest,” he says. “I’m just climbing out now, after 18 months.”

    Losing Baxter has made the couple stronger. “It’s welded us together,” says Hamilton, smiling at her husband. “I couldn’t have survived it without Glenn’s hugs and help.”

    The father still experiences the odd moment where the memory of his son hits him like a punch to the sternum, prompting him to ask himself: Holy shit, did that happen? They both find it hard to hear other parents making complaints about their children.

    “To hear your baby cry, you’d give anything,” says Ainsworth.

    About 106,000 couples experience reproductive loss each year, yet it remains a difficult topic of conversation. Indeed, Ainsworth and Hamilton are highly attuned to how uncomfortable this topic can be. When new patients arrive at her clinic and ask whether she has kids, there’s now a moment of hesitation as Hamilton measures whether to tell the truth. It’s much easier to talk about a dead grandparent than a dead son. “It’s not our discomfort anymore, it’s theirs,” she says.

    Since that February day last year, the couple has learned a few things about how to best support bereaved parents. Just be there. Be an ear. Sometimes a hug is the best response. Ask the parents: What was the child’s name?

    For the artist, his is a project wrapped in beauty and pain.

    “It’s something to immerse myself in,” says Ainsworth, returning to the computer and showing some of the other baby boys and girls he has drawn. “It’s this little guy’s birthday next week, I think.”

    He pauses. “It’s an awful thing: no one should ever have to bury their child, irrespective of age. With stillborns, you don’t get to share any of those memories. I do these sketches for my sanity.”

    For more about Sands Queensland, visit sandsqld.com

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘The Bone Collector: Dr Carl Stephan’, October 2015

    A story for the October 24 issue of The Weekend Australian Magazine. Excerpt below.

    The Bone Collector

    Carl Stephan is building Australia’s first modern skeleton library – with a little help from an army of flesh-eating bugs.

    'The Bone Collector: Dr Carl Stephan' by Andrew McMillen in The Weekend Australian Magazine, October 2015. Photo by Eddie Safarik

    It is dark inside the skeletisation room, which is just how the hide beetles like it. It’s dark beneath the soil, too, which is where they are more commonly found. Down there, the purpose of their existence is to seek and consume the soft tissues attached to bones, which they do methodically, stripping off every last molecule of flesh while leaving the bones intact. Here in the laboratory it’s quiet, too, with only the gentle drone of a fume hood providing the soundtrack. This is their home, above a bed of coco peat and beneath layers of torn cardboard and paper towel that’s occasionally sprayed with water. Here, they are well-fed on the soft tissues of Queenslanders who have chosen to donate their bodies to science.

    These native beetles have a key role in an Australian-first project whose educational benefits will echo through these halls for generations. They’ve travelled 1700km via air freight to the University of Queensland, where a kindly forensic anthropologist named Dr Carl Stephan ensures they’re never hungry. Inside large plastic tubs in this secure, well-hidden room in the School of Biomedical Sciences, they are thriving in thousands-strong colonies.

    Stephan removes the lid of one tub and a new odour fills the room – not unpleasant, exactly, but certainly strange and distinct. Inside the tub on this Wednesday in early May are the tarsal bones of a human foot. Noticing my ­reaction, Stephan says, “That smell you’re ­getting – not very much of that is bone. Most of that is the natural smell the beetles have: it’s an ammonia-type smell, kind of like Windex, so it’s sharp on your nose.”

    While he’s here, Stephan has brought some fresh material for the beetles to feed on. He produces a few sealed plastic bags containing small bones from five digits of a right hand. Before proceeding, he looks me in the eye through his plastic goggles. “If you feel like you’re hot in the feet, and that heat grows up your legs, just let me know, so I can catch you before you hit the ground,” he says. I thank him for his concern, but this isn’t my first exposure to a cadaver: that happened a few months earlier, when I began observing first-year medical students while they dissected donor materials in anatomy classes.

    As he opens the first bag, out leaks an unmistakeable waft. “This material hasn’t been embalmed,” he says. “But it’s been dissected down as much as it needs to be.” The finger bones are cool, having been recently removed from a freezer. Their owner once used them for writing, waving, typing, texting and shaking hands; small, routine gestures that we take for granted, yet help define a life and make us human. “You can see that we have them labelled. There’s a reason for that, so that we know precisely which digit these bones come from, after they’re cleaned. That way, there’s no chance they can be mixed up.”

    He reaches into the tub and pulls back a layer of cardboard, revealing a few dozen adult beetles and some hairy juveniles attempting to hide from the light. “We try to keep them nice and healthy, and happy,” he says with a smile. He gently places the new bones beneath the cardboard and closes the lid.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian. Above photo credit: Eddie Safarik.

    This story is part of my research for a book about body donation, to be published by University of Queensland Press in 2016.

  • The Weekend Australian Review story: ‘Artistic Insight: Stephen Nothling’, October 2015

    A story for the October 24 issue of The Weekend Australian Review. Excerpt below.

    Artistic Insight 

    A visually impaired Brisbane painter turns ordinary street scenes into extraordinary works of art.

    'Artistic Insight: Stephen Nothling' by Andrew McMillen in The Weekend Australian Review, October 2015. Photo by Glenn Hunt

    The house on the corner of Louisa Street is designed to catch the eye. It is painted pink, with purple gutters, for the simple reason that he always wanted to live in a pink house, though shocking the neighbours was a pleasant side effect, too. Though largely hidden by greenery, his friends like to refer to it as “the jewel of Highgate Hill”. He walks out the front gate, pausing to shut it so that his two small dogs are confined to roaming the yard and barking at passers-by. Held in his left hand is a white cylinder that he periodically consults while climbing the footpath as it rises to a crest, revealing the skyscrapers and construction cranes of Brisbane in the distance. Since buying the house on the corner in 2001, walking this route has been an entrenched part of Stephen Nothling’s daily routine. Now, this route has become art.

    When unfurled, the cylinder becomes a long sheet of paper that details the gallery layout of the artworks that comprise his upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Brisbane. The star of the show is this unremarkable street in the city’s inner-south. On a map, Louisa Street lies at the edge of two suburbs, which is why Nothling has chosen to name it The Last Street in Highgate Hill. The museum exists to capture the people, places and stories of its inhabitants, and when director Peter Denham approached Nothling to present an idea for its ongoing Document series, the artist replied that what he’d really like to do is head out the front gate and paint the street he walks up and down every day.

    Nothling, 53, carves a striking figure as he strides up a street he knows better than anyone on the planet. Tall, blond and pale, a white shirt hangs loosely from his thin frame atop blue jeans and scruffy black shoes. Between June 2014 and June 2015, Nothling worked most days on this collection of paintings, which depict the beautiful minutiae of Queensland urban life. With a camera, he captured every house on the street, then used those images as reference points to work from, occasionally dashing back out to inspect smaller details — such as particular colours and materials — from up close, with his own eyes.

    His work reveals a forensic attention to detail, a point influenced by the fact Nothling’s eyes are different than most. He was born with oculocutaneous albinism, a genetically inherited condition that affects around one in 20,000 people worldwide. The vision in his right eye operates at about 10 per cent functionality, thanks to a cataract and deformed nerve endings at the back of the lens, while missing parts of the cellular structure in his left eye means he has a significant blind spot, which he describes as a “black hole of nothingness”. His visual impairment resulted in social isolation while growing up in the seaside Queensland city of Redcliffe; as a child, he was never picked for team sports. “When you can’t be a player, you become introspective,” he says.

    He also wore thick, Coke-bottle glasses in an attempt to correct his vision. It didn’t work. An eye specialist once told him that if he truly knew how other people see the world, he’d be crushed by depression. It is ironic, then, that for three decades Nothling has built a career out of looking at things and painting what he sees.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian. Above photo credit: Glenn Hunt.

  • The Kernel story: ‘How The World’s Greatest Hand-Fart Musician Captivated Millions On YouTube’, October 2015

    A story for The Kernel, published in October 2015. Excerpt below.

    How The World’s Greatest Hand-Fart Musician Captivated Millions On YouTube

    Gerry Phillips got to travel the world making noises with his hands, and Iron Maiden loves him.

    The Kernel story: 'How The World’s Greatest Hand-fart Musician Captivated Millions On YouTube' by Andrew McMillen, October 2015. Illustration by J. Longon

    Beneath a tin shed during a hot summer in Melbourne, Australia, a bespectacled, middle-aged man sits on a stool before a small crowd. He pairs a white shirt and shoes with black slacks, looking every inch the kind of unremarkable guy you’d pass on the street without giving him a second glance. Today, though, the cameras are trained on him, as are the eyes of the 20-strong production crew. He’s here to play music, and he’s traveled thousands of miles to do so. His name is Gerry Phillips, and his music follows him wherever he goes, because his instruments are a part of him.

    His task on this December morning in 2007 is to perform the “Infernal Galop” from Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, a rousing, bouncy number most associated with images of high-kicking can-can girls. To complicate matters, however, he has been asked to play a different version—one he hears for the first time only a few minutes before filming begins.

    The cameras roll, and as the string introduction plays out for a few bars, he applies a touch of baby powder to his hands before passing the tiny bottle off to a stagehand. Three times he squeezes his hands together, smiling slightly when they produce a sound best described as flatulent.

    And then he’s off, the muscles and tendons in his mighty hands rapidly contracting and relaxing with a dexterity that approaches the sublime. A microphone underneath his shirt captures the space between his palms filling with air and being emptied just as quickly. Against a kitsch living room backdrop, this unlikely musician works that temporary vacuum to deftly perform the “Infernal Galop” in a style few have ever heard. The music that he makes is so surprising, so breathtaking, that some in attendance cannot stop themselves from laughing. Nobody plays music like Gerry Phillips, a man whose hands have been heard around the world.

    After one final, triumphant note, the crowd breaks into applause, and even Phillips seems surprised to nail it on his first attempt. “Wow,” he says softly, returning his instruments to his lap. Off-camera, someone says, “All right!” An onscreen tagline appears: “Exceptionally average.”

    Even eight years later, Kristian Jamieson remembers this day well, because he’s the one who booked Phillips to fly around the world and appear in an advertising campaign. Jamieson, now 41, is creative director at a communications agency named Marilyn & Sons. His client was Pacific Brands, and the product was Dunlop Volley, a popular but unremarkable brand of Australian footwear. “We wrote the line ‘exceptionally average’ because the campaign was based on being brutally honest about the product,” Jamieson recalls. “But at the time, everyone was wearing them, from hipsters to tradesmen.”

    The original concept developed by Marilyn & Sons was for the camera to slowly pan from someone’s head to their feet in a single shot. “But halfway down, we wanted them to be doing something amazing,” Jamieson says. “So we started Googling people who can do crazy things with their hands, and we came across Gerry playing this ridiculous music.” At that point Phillips had been posting videos for a year. To date, his YouTube account has amassed 24 million views across more than 170 videos. Impressively, virtually all of his videos are shot in a single take: There are no edits, and if he flubs a note, he starts over. And he’s covered a broad range of musical styles, from the classic heavy metal of Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” (3.4 million views) and the Super Mario Bros. theme (2.6 million views) to ’80s pop hits like A-ha’s “Take On Me” (947,000 views) and the tricky instrumental piece “Classical Gas” (153,000 views).

    To read the full story, visit The Kernel. Above illustration credit: J. Longo.

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Over Troubled Water: Suicide at Brisbane’s Story Bridge’, September 2015

    A story for the September 5 issue of The Weekend Australian Magazine. Excerpt below.

    Over Troubled Water

    The Story Bridge is a beautiful Brisbane landmark – but it’s also a site of untold misery

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Over Troubled Water: Suicide at Brisbane's Story Bridge' by Andrew McMillen, September 2015

    It was raining on the morning that Troy Aggett decided to end his life. Shirtless and ­shoeless, the 39-year-old drove from Logan, 25km south of Brisbane, to the Story Bridge, the city’s key visual icon linking the suburbs of Fortitude Valley and Kangaroo Point. He obeyed the speed limit and all traffic signals on the way there. “There was no urgency to what I was doing,” he says. “There was no rush.” He hadn’t slept the night before. It was March 22, 2012, a Thursday, when he parked near the bridge at around 6.30am and hastily wrote an apology note to a long-lost friend: “Sorry I couldn’t catch up.” Helpfully, he placed his driver’s licence inside the note, so that police could identify him.

    While the rain fell steadily, Aggett strolled up to the 1072m-long bridge, which is traversed by 30 million vehicles annually. Though scared of heights, he paused every now and then to look over the edge. When he found the highest point over a pathway in Captain Burke Park below, he stopped and checked out the drop: 30m onto a hard surface. He didn’t want to land in the ­Brisbane River, as people have been known to survive the watery impact. All that stood between his troubled life and his certain death that morning was a 138cm-high fence.

    Aggett had reached this point of despair after 19 months of sick leave from his job as an ­Australian Federal Police officer, where he had turned whistleblower against what he perceived to be a poisonous and corrupt culture, triggering a drawn-out court action which he ultimately won. He was near rock bottom, having lost everything he cared about. “It was just a private moment; I wasn’t trying to cause a scene, I wasn’t trying to get people involved,” he says. What he didn’t count on was that a passerby – an off-duty member of the Royal Australian Air Force – was quick enough to grab his arm as he swung over the barrier, locked elbows so that Aggett couldn’t drop, and began a conversation. Soon, two police officers were on the scene to hear his final wish: “Just bury me when I’m done. A pauper’s funeral; I don’t care. Just scrape me up nicely, and put me in a box. That’s enough.”

    This story has a happy ending. After three hours of negotiation – most of which took place while Aggett stood holding on to the outside of the railing with three fingers of his right hand, near-naked and shivering – he gave permission to be strapped into a bright red firefighter’s ­harness and brought back over the railing. Within moments he was covered with a fluorescent yellow raincoat to shield him from the cold. Spent from the exertion of holding himself in a precarious position all that time, he dropped to the bitumen. A policeman leaned down and pressed his head against Aggett’s, while nearby officers comforted him with pats on the back. A female officer lent over the barrier and gave the thumbs-up signal to paramedics who had gathered beneath a tree in the park below to shelter from the steady rainfall, stretcher at the ready. A fire engine with its cherry picker ladder extension that had been waiting out of sight, in the shadow of the Story Bridge, was no longer needed. Raincoat-clad police officers waiting nearby were at last able to breathe a sigh of relief.

    On that morning, some two dozen emergency services staff were focused solely on bringing Aggett back from the brink. His life was all that mattered. What’s remarkable about the scene, however, is that its final minutes were captured by a member of the public who happened to be filming from a high-rise apartment across the Brisbane River, on the outskirts of the CBD. A zoom lens framed the scene in extraordinary detail as the amateur director shakily panned to ensure that every emotion was writ in high definition. The care and compassion on display in the four-minute video is humbling. It was uploaded to YouTube on the day of the incident, tagged: “Australian trying to commit suicide”.

    Aggett found the footage around two years later. He has watched the video of this low moment in his life several times, enthralled and a little embarrassed. Today he’s 43, healthy, married, running his own flooring business, and able to speak frankly about that day on the bridge. “I keep an eye out for people who do jump: where they jumped, how many jumped, whether it was successful or not,” he says between sips of a cool drink at a Brisbane cafe, his wife by his side. “It’s just curiosity, I think. It’s hard to explain, but it feels like I’ve got a connection to these people now. I know what they’re going through, inside.”

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

    World Suicide Prevention Day coincided with RUOK? Day on September 10 2015; details at wspd.org.au. For help, contact: Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467, Lifeline 13 11 14, Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800, Headspace 1800 650 890, Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636, Survivors of Suicide Bereavement Support 1300 767 022.