• 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.

  • Qweekend story: ‘View To A Kill: Brisbane tree vandalism’, June 2015

    A story for the June 20-21 issue of Qweekend magazine. Excerpt below.

    View To A Kill

    The poisoning of five trees in a Brisbane suburb is symptomatic of a wider problem of property outlooks trumping nature, but are councils’ reactions justified?

    Qweekend story: 'View To A Kill: Brisbane tree vandalism' by Andrew McMillen, June 2015. Photograph by Russell Shakespeare

    On a windy Friday, Andrew Stovell stares skyward, sizing up an eye-catching addition to a collection of tall trees in the inner-north Brisbane suburb of Ascot. What he sees is part art installation, part social experiment, yet its message is difficult to misinterpret. Stretched between two dead trunks is a large blue banner whose bold type reads: Tree vandalism is a serious offence.

    In sum, five trees of the Eucalyptus and Corymbia genera that stood beside the busy thoroughfare of Crosby Road were poisoned last year: two tallowwoods planted on the traffic island that divides the road, and three bloodwoods that neighbour a small park area, including a public barbecue and picnic table. From a certain angle high above Crosby Rd, the gap in the foliage offers impressive views of the city. It all adds up to a suburban whodunnit in which the culprit or culprits have not been charged, for lack of evidence.

    Stovell, 49, is a tall, affable arborist of 20 years’ experience who owns Redlands Tree Service. He is quietened by the sight of the dead trees, and by the strong measures Brisbane City Council has taken to address the matter. In addition to the bold blue banner and nearby corflute signage informing passers-by that the incident is being investigated, dozens of metre-wide shadecloth drapes have been affixed to the trees’ thick upper limbs.

    “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” says Stovell, looking up. “I understand what they’re trying to do: ‘Okay, you didn’t have a view beforehand. You’re still not going to have a view, and you shouldn’t have poisoned the trees’.”

    While poking around in the long grass at the base of the three trees by the footpath that runs parallel to Crosby Rd, Stovell uncovers ten fallen limbs, each around a metre in length, which are weighty enough to have potentially caused injury. Walking underneath the structure feels risky and somewhat foolish on this windy afternoon, as the banner and shadecloths contort in the breeze. When a mother pushing a pram on the footpath alongside her young son sees Stovell studying the scene, dressed in jeans, a blue polo shirt and work boots, she stops and calls down to him, worried: “Is it safe to walk past here now?”

    Archival photographs taken by Google’s Street View car from 2007 onwards show the towering trees with healthy canopies providing shade to the footpath and nearby park area. The most recent Google image, from October 2013, is in stark contrast to what happened here in April 2014, when residents noticed that the five healthy, mature trees had mysteriously become ill overnight thanks to a generous application of agricultural poison.

    Brisbane City Council officers undertook a letterbox drop and also doorknocked nearby residents in an effort to gather information about who might have been responsible for the poisoning but, without conclusive evidence, they were unable to enforce fines of up to $55,000 per vandalised tree.

    David McLachlan is the councillor in Hamilton Ward, and it was on his watch that the shadecloth drapes and signage were installed in late January this year. While sitting at the park table in the shadow of the deadwood on a mild Wednesday morning, he says the council spent $14,000 on the installation, which was carried out by a contractor, Enspec. On advice from Enspec’s arborists, the trees and their attachments are to stay in place for two years, until the poison has leached from the soil.

    The community response has been largely supportive of his actions. “We’ve had brickbats and bouquets; it’s probably running at 20 per cent to 80 per cent,” says McLachlan. “It makes me cross, angry and sad that people want to do this, but when it comes to improving property values, people lose sight of the broader community in which they live. The alternative was to leave the trees bare, and for people to continually ask, ‘What’s happened here? Why aren’t you doing something about it?’ Or to remove the trees, which would be the ultimate [act of] tapping the mat.”

    Qweekend story: 'View To A Kill: Brisbane tree vandalism' by Andrew McMillen, June 2015. Photograph of Steven Mann by Russell Shakespeare

    To read the full story, visit The Courier-Mail. Photography by Russell Shakespeare.

  • Announcing ‘Penmanship’, my podcast about Australian writing culture, May 2015

    Logo for 'Penmanship', Andrew McMillen's podcast about Australian writing culture, launched in May 2015. Logo design by Stuart McMillenI’m proud to announce the launch of Penmanship, my podcast about Australian writing culture.

    Penmanship will feature interviews with Australians who earn a living from working with words: writers, editors and publishers, among others.

    Each episode consists of an in-depth, one-on-one conversation about the guest’s career, craft and inner life. The show’s goal is to provide unique insights into the creative process, mechanics and skills behind the best writing in the country. The podcast exists to explore the diversity and complexity of Australian storytelling by speaking directly with leading contributors to the field.

    The written description and embedded audio for the first episode are included below.

    Penmanship podcast episode 1: Trent Dalton, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2015Penmanship Episode 1: Trent Dalton

    Trent Dalton is a staff writer at The Weekend Australian Magazine.

    He’s one of the most influential journalists in my life, and I’m honoured that he’s my first guest on Penmanship.

    Trent’s writing moves and inspires me with shocking regularity. Judging by the volume of praise-filled letters to the editor published in The Weekend Australian Magazine following each of his stories, I’m not the only one.

    Our interview touches on Trent’s upbringing in Bracken Ridge, Brisbane; his early interest in magazine journalism; working at an auto-electrical parts supplier for a year after finishing high school; studying creative writing at university; his first writing job at Brisbane News on a salary of $26,000; his pre-interview tactic of looking in the bathroom mirror and reciting a mantra misquoted from Reservoir Dogs; and his transition to writing feature stories with great emotional depth.

    Previously, Trent was a staff writer at Qweekend and an assistant editor of The Courier-Mail. He has won a Walkley Award for excellence in journalism, been a three-time winner of the national News Awards Feature Journalist of the Year Award, and was named Queensland Journalist of the Year at the 2011 Clarion Awards for excellence in Queensland media. His journalism has twice been nominated for a United Nations of Australia Media Peace Award.

    Trent Dalton on Twitter: @TrentDalton

    Direct download          iTunes          libsyn

    Click here to read the show notes for this episode.

    To learn more about Penmanship, head over to its standalone website, and subscribe via iTunes or your preferred method of podcast consumption.

    The show’s logo and header image was designed and illustrated by Canberra-based cartoonist Stuart McMillen; click the below image for a closer look at the full desk scene.

    Desk scene logo for 'Penmanship', Andrew McMillen's podcast about Australian writing culture, launched in May 2015. Logo design by Stuart McMillen

  • Backchannel story: ‘This Video Game Has Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar’, May 2015

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

    This Video Game Has Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar

    I tried taking lessons. I tried reading guitar tabs online. The only thing that worked was Rocksmith.

    'This Video Game Has Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar' by Andrew McMillen on Backchannel, Medium.com, May 2015

    Music has long struck me as a kind of magic. In terms of my life essentials, it ranks only just below oxygen, food, water, shelter and love. For 11 years I have been attempting to conjure some of that magic myself by learning to play guitar.

    Yet for most of those years I practiced fitfully, and at some point I stopped improving. When my progress plateaued, so did my enthusiasm. Despite the pleasure I derive from watching a person with a six-string plugged into an amplifier, plucking and strumming to elicit beautiful noise, I seemed destined to never fully master this iconic instrument.

    But then I discovered a video game that rekindled my obsession. It’s calledRocksmith, and it is designed specifically to teach people to play guitar. Earlier games, namely Guitar Hero and Rock Band, had shown that tens of millions of people could become hooked on playing fake, simplified instruments while fake, simplified musical scores scrolled down their televisions. After clocking in several jam sessions, many players even began to sound competent. But that expertise evaporated the second the game shut off.

    Laurent Detoc, the North America president of Ubisoft, a game development studio, hated the gulf that separated actual and simulated musicianship. In 2011 he told the San Francisco Business Times, “I just could not believe the amount of waste that had gone in people spending so much time with plastic guitars.” His company had assigned some designers to figuring out how to make playing real guitars just as fun for gamers as jamming on a plastic replica. What they came up with is, to my mind, the purest demonstration of the power of gamification—using the principles of game play to make actual learning feel addictive. Case in point: I’ve learned to play more songs in two and a half years with Rocksmith than in the previous eight years of lackluster progress combined.

    My attempts to learn guitar followed a path familiar to many teenage rock enthusiasts. They began with an acoustic guitar my parents gave me in 2004, for my sixteenth birthday, and weekly lessons with a tutor. My teacher—a bookish, chubby, middle-aged man who looked nothing like Jimi Hendrix—was prescriptive in his instruction. He told me that my left thumb mustremain pointing skyward against the back of the neck, regardless of the notes or chord shape required. This dictum puzzled and infuriated me, as none of the popular musicians I’d seen in music videos were so staid in their playing; rather, they were fluid and catlike. I wanted to be like them.

    Learning to read music was an unwelcome chore, too, especially when my setlist consisted of nursery rhymes to be wrung out one note at a time. I wanted to learn guitar because an expert player sounded and looked cool, yet there wasn’t much that was cool about my tutor’s dry approach. So I quit lessons.

    Many of my favorite songs—from bands such as Tool, Led Zeppelin, Metallica and Rage Against The Machine—sounded thin and bloodless when ineptly fretted on an acoustic guitar. Eventually, my wallet lined with money saved from my first job as a dishwasher at a Sizzler restaurant, I acquired the desired technological upgrade: an electric guitar—a handsome, dark blue copy of the classic Fender Stratocaster—and a 30-watt amp.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

    Note: I also published two outtakes from this story on Medium.com, which are essentially ‘deleted scenes’ from the longer story. The first is about Rocksmith’s origins, and the second is about the process through which Ubisoft licenses popular music to appear in Rocksmith.

  • The Weekend Australian book reviews: Joel Meares and Liam Pieper, May 2015

    Two books reviewed for The Weekend Australian in a single article, which is republished below in its entirety.

    Sex and drugs and on a roll

    'We're All Going To Die' book cover by Joel Meares, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, May 2015Genuine candour is one of the most difficult emotions to capture in any form of human communication, writing included. There seems little point in committing to write a memoir if not to tell the whole truth and nothing less.

    This is especially so for young writers, whose ambition and urgency to impress by sharing their innermost secrets has become something of a cliche in an era of online ‘‘oversharing’’. Walking the line between tiresome navel-gazing and insightful, rewarding revelations is tough, but with his debut book Sydney writer Joel Meares succeeds with style.

    In his job as arts editor of The Sydney ­Morning Herald, 30-year-old Meares acts as a cultural gatekeeper, deciding who and what is worthy of coverage. In We’re All Going to Die, his astute editing skills are on display across 10 personal essays that illuminate his early life and formative experiences as a young adult. There are ­occasional asides to his professional career but, by and large, Meares uses the book as a vehicle to examine his intertwined paths as a writer, son, friend, horror-film enthusiast and gay man.

    It is on this last path that he is at his ­strongest, through two central chapters that draw the book into stark focus. The first ­concerns Meares slowly coming to terms with his homosexuality in his 20s, after denying it constantly throughout his childhood and adolescence. One section, in particular, ­provoked a sharp intake of breath, when ­Meares writes that he denied his homosexuality because

    … being gay is something you grow up knowing is bad. It’s not just the ‘‘that’s so gay’’ shit of playgrounds, it’s that being gay, the very idea of it, is ingrained as something ‘‘other’’ — it’s still the go-to pressure point when you really want to take a young bloke out right at the knees.

    I’m sad to say that these sentences rang true for me, as someone a few years younger than Meares who has only relatively recently become aware of the gravity of these types of insults. It is insights such as this for which We’re All Going to Die is strongly recommended, as Meares is clearly a man with something to say and ample ability with which to say it. The chapter that immediately follows, titled So Is Dad, concerns his father’s coming out and it is beautifully and sensitively written.

    Elsewhere, Meares writes of his brief but intense enthusiasm for ecstasy and cocaine. “In Subway sandwich terms, I’ve never been a six-inch man — it’s always been a footlong or nothing,” he writes. “With jalapenos.” This dalliance culminates in panic attacks and several visits to the emergency room, capped with a stern warning from medical professionals that some people just can’t handle their drugs. “Drugs scared me once because they were ‘bad’; they scare me now because they are bad for me,” he concludes.

    The essay on drug use is rooted in a feature story Meares wrote years ago about Sydney’s cocaine scene, and the same is true of his chapter on paruresis, or ‘‘bashful bladder’’ syndrome, which grew out of a 2012 article for Good Weekend magazine. In that story, Meares proved himself a willing comic foil for a serious topic by admitting he had long struggled to ­urinate anywhere but in a closed toilet cubicle. It’s fascinating, this psychological quirk that caused many men embarrassment and inner pain when faced with shared urinal situations, such as at music festivals, yet Meares handles it with good humour and grace.

    'Mistakes Were Made' book cover by Liam Pieper, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, May 2015Slightly more embarrassing than being unable to piss in the presence of other men is the act of hugging a pony in northern NSW and unknowingly picking up a tick that burrows its way into the back of one’s skull, towards the brainstem, and breeds. This simple transaction — a hug for a tick — becomes near-fatal for Melbourne writer Liam Pieper, who contracted a bacterial infection that disabled the lymph nodes on one side of his body, partially paralysing him and coming dangerously close to entering his brain. This took place while Pieper was visiting the cannabis countercultural hub of Nimbin. He was on assignment as a freelance journalist, researching a story for an unnamed “Very Important Magazine”. He ended up filing a 15,000-word story that was three times longer than the magazine requested, written under the disorienting effects of the arachnid’s neurotoxins. The “tick-addled gibberish” was spiked by his editor and the writer nearly died.

    This sequence of events isn’t funny. Or at least it shouldn’t be. But the way Pieper contextualises it is very funny indeed. This opening essay, Catching the Spirit, is one of four that comprise Mistakes Were Made, a breezy and compelling read that exhibits Pieper’s hilarious, dark way of observing and interpreting the world around him.

    The central narrative thread through these four stories is the writing, publication and promotion of Pieper’s memoir, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year, released last year, where he wrote about his experiences as a teenage drug dealer, including the time he sold cannabis to his parents. “What I didn’t understand then is that the first angle to a story to come out tends to be the one that stays around,” he writes. “My folks got a little pot off me once, and that would be the defining narrative of my life for the foreseeable future.”

    With this little book, Pieper builds a strong case for redefining his narrative post-memoir: the other essays concern contrasting racial prejudices in Australia and the US, being stopped at Customs by Los Angeles airport and queried on his drug history, and his brief adoption of a dog named Idiot Geoffrey. His writing is electric: charged with meaning and energised by surprising comedic turns. Between Meares and ­Pieper, there’s not a trace of tiresome navel-gazing; instead, true candour abounds.

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.

    We’re All Going to Die (Especially Me)
    By Joel Meares
    Black Inc, 210pp, $27.99

    Mistakes Were Made
    By Liam Pieper
    Penguin Specials, 67pp, $9.99

  • The Weekend Australian book review: ‘The Abyssinian Contortionist’ by David Carlin, May 2015

    A book review for The Weekend Australian in May 2015, republished below in its entirety.

    The Abyssinian Contortionist: biography of a circus performer

    Book cover for 'The Abyssinian Contortionist: Hope, Friendship and Other Circus Acts' by David Carlin, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, May 2015A biography written across several years in real-time, in the immersive style of narrative non­fiction, The Abyssinian Contortionist is a book as striking and memorable as its cover art. Its author, Melbourne-based writer and teacher David Carlin, charts the course of his friendship with a circus performer named Sosina Wogayehu, who was born in Ethiopia, visited Australia as a teenager in the late 1990s, and has lived and worked here since.

    It feels strange to summarise Wogayehu in a sentence as stark as that, however, as hers is a story of such emotional depth and complexity that it is certainly deserving of a book-length narrative. In Carlin, we have a narrator of rare honesty and bald self-doubt. On numerous occasions he makes clear to the reader that this story was written in close collaboration with its subject: he writes of poring over early drafts of the manuscript with Wogayehu, taking in her feedback and sharpening his prose accordingly.

    At one point, while visiting an Ethiopian locale of special significance, he writes, “I look across at Sosina relaxing in the cool air, chewing on her lunch. ‘Do you think this is where the book should end?’ I ask her.” (The answer is self-evident, as the story continues for another 10 pages.)

    This meta, self-reflexive style of writing easily could have been a gimmick, and quickly tiresome, but from the outset it is clear Carlin is a master storyteller who is well-equipped for the challenge of capturing the life of a woman about whose culture, at the outset, he knows practically nothing. The subject of The Abyssinian Contortionist is clearly a remarkable person of unusual social mobility and ability, yet Carlin manages to navigate the high-wire act of astute observation without falling into hagiography.

    Wogayehu’s story begins in her birthplace, the national capital of Addis Ababa, where the eight-year-old entrepreneur earns pocket money by selling single cigarettes to passers-by each afternoon after school. (This fact alone speaks volumes of her canny character.) Life in Ethiopia is tough, and although her father has a job at a local brewery and her mother runs a combined hotel, restaurant and cafe attached to the family home, their means are limited. Sosina teaches herself how to bend her body into seemingly impossible shapes by watching a weekly German variety show on the only television station in the land, and it is in the family lounge room that her career as a contortionist and circus performer takes root.

    So she joined Circus Ethiopia, a group that performed on Broadway in New York, in London and Europe, and in Australia. A scandal erupted within the ranks of the performers, who were disturbed by their exploitation, financial and sexual, during a visit to our shores. The man at the centre of subsequent charges, Marc LaChance, committed suicide after confessing his sins of pedophilia. A splinter group of 15 performers, mostly teenagers, fled Circus Ethiopia seeking humanitarian asylum from the Australian government, which eventually relented by agreeing that Sosina and her friends could stay.

    It was while working as a director for Circus Oz — “among trapeze bars and tightwire walkers”, as he puts it — that Carlin crossed paths with the young performer, who had recently graduated from the Australian national circus school. As he notes at the beginning, he was drawn to make a book “that traced the contours of the gap” between the two of them. Carlin states early in the piece that he was also looking to write about something other than himself, having published his acclaimed debut in 2010, Our Father Who Wasn’t There, about his father’s suicide when Carlin was six months old, and his resultant search for paternal figures.

    This story, however, would have been a far less compelling read if it were a straight biography, as Carlin-as-narrator is present throughout its telling. His regular asides are by turns poignant and comedic, as the narrative smartly jumps between reconstructed scenes from the past and first-person observations in the present without jarring the reader. This is quite a skill, and it is one of Carlin’s chief achievements here, as the book was written across several years and includes two visits to Ethiopia. The closing chapters see Carlin tagging along to his subject’s home town following a death in the family, where he is allowed the rare privilege of bearing witness to the startlingly wide-screen, surround-sound manner in which Ethiopians mourn and grieve. In these scenes, Carlin’s fish-out-of-water presence — as a tall white guy among a sea of dark skin — is never clearer, and his insights into this foreign culture are many and worthy. Throughout The Abyssinian Contortionist, his writing is so crisp and vivid that, on reading its final pages, I felt a deep satisfaction and a longing for more.

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.

    The Abyssinian Contortionist: Hope, Friendship and Other Circus Acts
    By David Carlin
    UWA Publishing, 244pp, $29.99

  • The News-Mail story: ‘The Message of the Anzacs’, April 2015

    A story for The News-Mail, the newspaper of my hometown in Bundaberg, Queensland. Excerpt below.

    The Message of the Anzacs

    The News-Mail story: 'The Message of the Anzacs' by Andrew McMillen, April 2015

    Anzac Day at Bundaberg East State School in 1993 was an unceremonious affair all but indistinguishable from the weekly whole-school assembly.

    To the school’s newly appointed teacher-librarian, Paul McMillen – my father; a traditionalist who carried a briefcase to work, and coupled shorts with long socks pulled up to his knees – the spectacle was an embarrassment.

    On that April morning, 250 primary school-aged children sat fidgeting on hard concrete, scarcely paying attention to what was being said by the adult addressing the student body.

    At one point, as the restless murmurs grew, an admonition was delivered in a raised voice: “You should be showing more respect for what was done for you in the past!”

    To which any of the students wearing bright green shirts that morning might have replied: what, exactly, are we supposed to be respecting?

    It wasn’t clear.

    The remembrance ‘service’ was little more than a dull formality composed solely of adults talking down to children.

    The teachers’ hearts didn’t seem to be in it, either.

    In all, a thoroughly forgettable occasion.

    Then aged 38, and having recently transferred from a deputy principal role at a nearby primary school, McMillen had neither a particular interest in military history nor a connection to the armed forces.

    Yet something hidden stirred in him that day.

    Soon, he approached the school principal, Doug Ambrose – himself a recent appointment; a no-nonsense sort of bloke who wore a bushy moustache – and said, “I think we can do better than this.”

    “Kids today watch war movies that are ‘glitz and glamour'; full of massive explosions and CGI,” Mr McMillen said to his boss.

    “They have very little idea of what war is like. If the kids are going to respect Anzac Day, they need to have ownership. If their peers are running the service, it’ll belong to them more than a teacher talking to them, as they’re used to in the classroom.”

    In response, the principal gave his new teacher-librarian the nod to proceed with his plans.

    After Mr McMillen’s year of preparation outside of his regular duties – tasks which included networking with the local RSL, writing scripts to be read aloud by the Year 7 students, and building anticipation among the classes that visited his library each week – the school’s Anzac Day service of 1994 was a “monumental occasion”, says Mr Ambrose.

    “It was new ground. The response from the kids and the parent community was astounding; it was one of those special moments.”

    A senior student played the ‘Last Post’ on trumpet.

    No adults spoke to the hushed crowd; instead, a dozen or so students.

    The president of the local RSL attended, dressed in his Air Force uniform, as well as an Army Reservist who stood out from the crowd of 50 parents by wearing his greens.

    Having sat on hard concrete throughout 12 years of unmemorable remembrance services during my own public education in Bundaberg, it is hard for me to imagine 250 children sitting in rapt silence, hanging on the words of their peers as they told stories of decades-old conflict and death under the watchful eyes of solemn men in uniform.

    To read the full story, visit The News-Mail.

  • Rolling Stone story: ‘The Last Page’ Q+A with Sticky Fingers, March 2015

    An interview for Rolling Stone‘s regular ‘Last Page’ feature, which appears at the back of the magazine. The full Q+A appears below.

    The Last Page: Paddy Cornwall of Sticky Fingers

    We catch up with Sticky Fingers’ bassist Paddy Cornwall ahead of the band’s Groovin The Moo shows in April and May.

    Rolling Stone story: 'The Last Page' Q+A with Sticky Fingers by Andrew McMillen, March 2015

    The last album I loved
    Lost in the Dream by The War On Drugs. I put it on pretty much every day. It’s good to wake up to, it’s good to have sex to; it’s good for everything. I saw them at Oxford Art Factory at the start of last year; I hadn’t heard them before, but I was watching them and a schooner glass literally slipped out of my hand.

    The last time I Googled myself
    I haven’t Googled my name for a long time, but I Google the band’s name in different areas a bit, because obviously we’re competing with a pretty famous Rolling Stones album, as well as a plethora of other things called Sticky Fingers, like [former Stones bassist] Bill Wyman’s ribs restaurant in London, or a chain of day-care centres. For the band’s first three or four years, it was interesting to even be found [online], but I think we’re killing it now.

    The last time I shouted at the telly
    Probably at something like The Voice or Australian Idol. I just feel like it’s giving me brain cancer. [Laughs]

    The last time someone mistook me for someone else
    Last night at the Courthouse Hotel in Newtown, a group of dudes were sitting next to us, working up the courage to come and ask me something. A guy came and said, “Hey, are you the guy from Tame Impala?” And I said, “Yeah.” They were happy with that.

    The last time I was starstruck
    When I met Noel Gallagher at the Big Day Out when he was touring with the High Flying Birds. It could barely even pass as meeting him; he walked past and said, “You right, mate?” and I went silent.

    The last time I got into a fight
    I don’t really get in fights. I used to. Matt Rule, who used to own the Annandale Hotel, is also a boxing trainer. I do that with him twice a week; I just did it yesterday. Maybe because of that, I don’t feel like I need to fight as much.

    The last time I offended someone
    Last week, I smoked a spliff for the first time for a long time, and you know sometimes when you’re saying everything that comes into your head straight off the bat? [My girlfriend] came home, and she’d dyed her hair blonde. It looked great, but she also dyed her eyebrows bright blonde. It gave me a little shock when she walked in the room. I looked at her and went, “Oh my gosh, you look very sick!” She got a bit angry at me.

    The last thing I do before going on stage
    Throw up, from anxiety. That’s how I get on top of it: it manifests in the physical action of throwing up, then I suddenly feel really light, and not anxious anymore.

    The last time I saw one of my high school teachers
    My old principal got charged with 11 counts of sexual assault on a minor. That was quite surreal, seeing the footage of him being arrested at the airport. I went to a really strict Catholic school; I never did like that guy. He actually kicked me out of that school in Year 10. Then I went to Newtown High, my local school, and that’s where I met [Sticky Fingers’ singer/guitarist] Dylan [Frost]. So he kind of did me a favour!

    The last time I was accosted by a crazed fan
    Most of the time, they’re really cool. Sometimes when people show us tattoos, it freaks us out, because sometimes you don’t know whether or not you’re worthy of that yet.

    The last TV series I watched
    I’ve been getting back into The Sopranos recently, watching the box set. My girlfriend said she’d tried to watch it a couple of years ago, but wasn’t really following the way they talk. I’ve been watching it with her, and pausing to explain what’s going on.

    The story can also viewed on Rolling Stone’s website.

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Tall Poppies: Tasmanian opiates’, March 2015

    A story for the March 7 issue of The Weekend Australian Magazine. Excerpt below.

    Tall Poppies

    It supplies up to half the world’s legal opiates, but Tasmania’s poppy industry sees danger ahead.

     The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'Tall Poppies: Tasmanian opiates' by Andrew McMillen, March 2015

    Perched in a corner of Keith Rice’s office, atop a cupboard and behind a bright yellow hard-hat, sits an old white sign that warns of grave peril.DANGER. Prohibited area. KEEP OUT. Trespassers ­prosecuted.

    In front of it, an updated version includes a skull-and-crossbones captioned POISON. In bold red text, the bottom of the new sign reads: ILLEGAL use of crop has caused DEATH. This recent shift in tense — “may cause” to “has caused” — came after three deaths from poppy misuse in the last three years here in Tasmania. Clearly, something had to change, beginning with the signage that borders roadside poppy crops.

    Rice, chief executive of Poppy Growers ­Tasmania, keeps glancing at the sign as we chat over coffee on a cool Launceston morning. A tall 66-year-old with tanned features and thinning white hair, he’s talking me through the complex web of politics, painkillers and, more recently, protectionism in which he has been involved for nearly 30 years.

    Above Rice’s desk hangs a wall calendar ­bearing a colour photograph of green countryside flanked by snowy mountaintops, as well as the name of Tasmanian Alkaloids, one of two pharmaceutical companies to have invested heavily in the poppy industry. It has been a big earner for the state, which grows up to 50 per cent of the planet’s legal ­opiates — from which morphine, codeine and thebaine can be extracted — that relieve the pain of humans throughout the world in the form of medicines such as OxyContin and Nurofen Plus. The warning signs are required by law to be displayed on all ­roadside paddocks to deter would-be drug experimenters from picking poppy heads and brewing the ill-gotten plants into a tea. “It’s a dangerous crop because you don’t know the alkaloid content,” says Rice. “Thebaine is like strychnine in your system.”

    Tasmania produces around 90 per cent of the world’s thebaine, which causes convulsions in humans at high doses. In the past two decades thebaine production has eclipsed the old fav­ourite, morphine. A more effective painkiller, ­thebaine is also much more dangerous, as two Danish backpackers found last February after stealing 40 poppy heads from a farm near ­Oatlands, in the centre of the state. The pair brewed the plant into a tea; one of the drinkers, a 26-year-old male, fell asleep and never awoke. In November 2012, morphine toxicity also killed a 17-year-old who stole five kilograms of poppy capsules from a farm at Lewisham, near Hobart, and consumed a poppy tea. In February 2011, a 50-year old man died in similar circumstances in the Launceston suburb of Ravenswood.

    Tasmania’s $100 million dollar poppy ­industry is hidden in plain sight: drive north from Hobart towards Launceston in the ­summer and rolling fields of white, pink and purple flowers dot the landscape. At its peak a few years ago, 30,000ha of poppies were planted in a season; that number is now closer to 20,000ha per year due to a dip in world demand following changes in US prescription policies arising from drug abuse.

    The pharmaceutical companies who pay farmers to grow their products have a long ­history on the island, but mainland state ­governments have been paying attention to the economic consistency of Tasmania’s poppy crop, too. Last September, then federal health minister Peter Dutton wrote to his state and ­territory counterparts asking them to revise a 43-year-old agreement that has restricted poppy production to the island. Soon after, legislation was passed in Victoria and the Northern ­Territory that allowed the narcotics to be grown under strict licensing conditions following small-scale commercial trials during the 2013-14 season.

    It’s a worrying development for Tasmanian farmers who for more than four decades had cornered a secure and lucrative market. The path of Tasmania’s poppy industry so far has been one of prosperity and productivity, with the occasional pothole when misuse of the crop has caused death, or when heavy rains have ruined crops or a mildew outbreak occurs, as it did last November. The great unknown is how big a pothole the mainland expansion will be in the state’s proud history of painkiller production.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.