• 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.


  • 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.

  • Backchannel story: ‘The Heroin Heroine of Reddit’, July 2015

    A story for Backchannel, the technology section of Medium.com. Excerpt below.

    The Heroin Heroine of Reddit

    How a former addict uses the internet to save drug users’ lives

    'The Heroin Heroine of Reddit' by Andrew McMillen on Backchannel, July 2015

    On a quiet night in late April, Brad Treseler slipped off to his bedroom at his family’s home in Cumberland, Virginia. His friends kept on chatting in the living room, but after a few minutes they began to wonder what Brad was up to. They found the 25-year-old slumped on the floor of his room, blue and unresponsive. He had overdosed on heroin and benzodiazepine.

    Brad’s friends cycled through the options. They could call 911, but the responders might not arrive in time and might tip off the police. Or they could run to the apartment next door and wake Treseler’s older brother, Bill. They knew that Bill had a small vial containing a clear liquid called naloxone, which can counteract the effects of an opiate overdose. In a panic, they opted to make the short sprint and bang on Bill’s door.

    Together, they carried Brad into the bathtub and cranked on the shower. Bill dipped a syringe into the vial and drew in the naloxone, then injected the the liquid into the fatty part of Brad’s thigh. Nothing happened, so Bill refilled the syringe and injected him again. Brad stirred, and opened his eyes to see his brother and terrified friends peering down at him. As he came to, he thought: This is what being dead is like.

    Brad had acquired two vials of the naloxone months earlier. Some states—including New Mexico, Washington, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and California—allow it to be sold over the counter. But it is illegal in Virginia, so Brad received his shipment in the mail from an unlikely source: the online forum Reddit.

    Brad is an active member of the Opiates subreddit, a lively forum where queries about safe injection practices and rehabilitation are posted alongside tactics for hustling cash and coping with constipation, an unwelcome side effect of frequent opioid use. He saw a thread where a moderator known as the “mother of r/opiates,” named Tracey Helton, was offering to send clean needles to fellow Redditors. When he reached out to Tracey about the free needles, which were rare in his scene, she told him that the package included naloxone. Brad replied, “Oh man, that’s awesome! That’s a great idea!”

    Five days later, a yellow padded envelope arrived from San Francisco, where Tracey lives. Inside was a bag of clean syringes, two vials of naloxone and a post-it note with a hand-drawn smiley face. “I thought, ‘Holy crap!’ I didn’t send her any money. All I did was send her one little message,” Brad says. “Somebody out there cares that much.”

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

  • The Saturday Paper story: ‘Sobering Proposals’, July 2015

    A news feature for The Saturday Paper – my first for that publication – published in the July 4 issue. Excerpt below.

    Sobering Proposals

    Proposed changes to liquor licensing laws in Queensland are ruffling the feathers of venue owners and drinkers alike, but data following strict changes in NSW correlate with a sharp fall in assault rates.


    For bouncers in pubs and nightclubs, the turn happens about 1am. After that, there is very little good to come.

    “Most of the positive interactions happen by then, in terms of people finding partners,” says Peter Miller. “After that point, the night starts to take a different direction: the later it gets, the uglier people get.”

    Miller knows a bit about this, having spent a decade working security in Melbourne and Geelong. Now a 50-year-old associate professor of psychology at Deakin University, he still spends a fair amount of time in bars, but he has traded his walkie-talkie for an iPhone app, which he and his team use to conduct in-the-field academic research in the form of “unobtrusive observations” of bar-room behaviour and interviews with pub patrons. “I’m not an ivory tower researcher,” he says with a chuckle. “I worked in the industry for a decade, and I’ve spent the last five years on the street.”

    The bouncers’ maxim Miller relays, that ugly behaviour sees a sharp rise after 1am, is particularly pertinent given that the Labor-led Queensland government plans to follow through with its pre-election commitment to curb alcohol-related violence by introducing a raft of statewide changes to liquor licensing. The laws follow similar regulation in New South Wales.

    “We will be bringing legislation before this house to stop pubs and clubs serving alcohol after 3am, and introducing a 1am lockout,” the Queensland attorney-general, Yvette D’Ath, said in state parliament on March 26. “We will be giving police the power to breathalyse drunk or disorderly patrons so they have the evidence they need to prosecute licensees, managers and patrons who breach the Liquor Act.” Also on the agenda was preventing the sale of “high-alcohol-content drinks” – including shots – after midnight.

    The thought of breathalysing patrons to prosecute venues seemed wild and open to police abuse. Drunkenness is not an unknown quantity in any bar at closing time. The Gold Coast Bulletin seized on the claims, running a front-page story headlined “D’Ath Vader”, complete with a Photoshopped image of the minister dressed as the Star Wars villain. The strapline: “Attorney-General using the force to keep the peace … and keep you sober”.

    “Allowing police to breathalyse drunken patrons will help them to build cases for prosecution for court,” D’Ath told the Bulletin. “For example, police consider a [blood-alcohol] reading of 0.15 to be highly intoxicated.” Strangely, D’Ath’s office issued a clarifying statement the same day, which noted, “There is no plan to random breath-test drinkers and there never has been.”

    To read the full story, visit The Saturday Paper.

  • Qweekend story: ‘Man In Black: Ben Salter’, June 2015

    A short profile for the June 27-28 issue of Qweekend magazine.

    Man In Black

    Ben Salter likes to blend in with the crowd but, with a singing voice like his, that’s not going to happen.

    Qweekend story: 'Man In Black: Ben Salter' by Andrew McMillen, June 2015. Photography by Russell Shakespeare

    When performing in public, Ben Salter wears an all-black get-up, including a suit jacket, more often than not. There are a few reasons for this. One, it’s a hangover from his early career busking in a black-clad trio. Two, it takes the decision out of what to wear. And three, it’s a way to casually fit into practically any stratum of society, whether he finds himself on a farm, on a plane, or in inner-north Brisbane, sitting in a Fortitude Valley cafe not far from the Brunswick Street venues where he has performed hundreds of times.

    “I just want to be anonymous,” he says, wearing black spectacles beneath his trademark mop of curly brown hair. “I want to be one of those characters who can blend into the background and be the ‘everyperson’.”

    The irony of this third reason, however, is that as soon as he steps on stage and opens his mouth, the sounds that he makes are the exact opposite of background noise. Few other performers in the country can turn heads like Townsville-born songwriter Ben Salter, whose striking voice – as capable of full-throated roar as sweetly-sung harmony – was earned through grit and graft, busking in the Queen Street Mall four days a week for six years. “He’s an enormous singer,” says his friend Tim Rogers, frontman of esteemed Melbourne rock band You Am I. “He’s got the right amount of burr and purr. He could sing anything, and I’d believe him.”

    Salter, 38, has just released his second solo album, The Stars My Destination, on ABC Music. It is only the most recent collection of stunning songs that he has penned since moving to Brisbane and embedding himself deep inside the city’s independent music scene by fronting an array of bands, including hard-rock quartet Giants of Science and, later, nine-member pop collective The Gin Club, which in 2013 celebrated its tenth year of existence.

    At the beginning of 1994, ahead of starting his final year of high school, Salter rode 24 hours in a bus from Townsville to attend the Big Day Out music festival at the Gold Coast Parklands. The self-taught guitarist and admitted “total nerd” was most excited to see Seattle grunge band Soundgarden, but instead had his mind peeled open by another American rock act, the Smashing Pumpkins, whose landmark album Siamese Dream had been released a few months earlier. “They just blew me away,” he says. “I was like, ‘I want to do that’. I was already into music, but after that, I was obsessed.”

    After starting a Bachelor of Arts at James Cook University in 1995, Salter moved south two years later, ostensibly to continue his studies at the University of Queensland. In reality, however, most of his attention was invested in playing in as many bands as possible. (It took him ten years to graduate.) This open-hearted attitude led him to the Queen Street Mall, where under the name Trampoline, Salter and two friends busked without amplification, relying on the quality of their vocal harmonies and acoustic guitar interplay to attract, on a good day, $150 each for two hours’ work. Though the work was rewarding for the trio – who started with Crowded House, Neil Young and Simon & Garfunkel covers, before eventually settling on playing Beatles tunes exclusively – it wasn’t entirely hazard-free. “I used to stamp my foot on the ground to try and make a rhythm,” says Salter. “And on two occasions I had doctors come past and say, ‘You’re gonna wreck your knees if you keep doing that’. Then they’d say, ‘But you guys are great!’ and give us money,” he laughs.

    The Stars My Destination borrows its title from a 1956 novel by Alfred Bester, an American science fiction author. Salter is proud of its 11 songs, and rightfully so. “I think the title track and ‘No Security Blues’ are two of the best songs I’ve ever written,” he says. “When I studied literature, there’s this amazing essay by T.S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent, which is about reaching a mature point where you stop writing from an emotional point of view, and you start being detached. That’s when you can really resonate with people. I don’t think I’ve quite got to that, but I’m starting to.”

    Qweekend story: 'Man In Black: Ben Salter' by Andrew McMillen, June 2015. Photography by Russell ShakespeareThe album’s final track, ‘No Security Blues’, is a darkly humorous ode to Salter’s comparative wealth, despite the challenges of earning a living through voice, pen and guitar. “I have 99 problems,” he sings. “But they are not real problems.”

    “Compared to most of the world’s population, I’ve got it easy,” says Salter. “I’m on easy street. Just being born in this country, to middle-class parents, with opportunities coming out of my arse…” He pauses, smiling. “I don’t have a lot of time for musicians whingeing about how hard they’ve got it.”

    His friend Rogers offers an alternative perspective: “Ben’s got this God-given talent, but I know that he feels fortunate. He’s played so much around the world; there could be 100 people there, or there could be one, and he’ll put on the same show. He’s born to do it.”


    Ben Salter plays The Spotted Cow, Toowoomba, Fri 16 July; Black Bear Lodge, Brisbane, Sat 17 July; The Bison Bar, Nambour, Sun 18 July. bensalter.com.au

    Photography by Russell Shakespeare.