All posts tagged australian

  • The Walkley Magazine story: ‘Weekly Email Dispatches From A Freelancer’s Lonely Desk’, April 2017

    A story for issue 88 of The Walkley Magazine, the quarterly publication for Australian media professionals. Excerpt below.

    Weekly Email Dispatches From A Freelancer’s Lonely Desk

    Newsletter as lifeline.

    The Walkley Magazine story by Andrew McMillen: 'Weekly Email Dispatches From A Freelancer’s Lonely Desk', April 2017. Illustration by Tom Jellett

    The email subject line in edition #139 was “Clown doctors, giant pigs and public shaming”, while #99 was titled “Gay twins, shot elephants and friendly magpies”. The intention is always to pique the reader’s interest, so that if they see Dispatches among a few dozen emails in their inbox, mine is the one they’ll want to open first, because they are curious about these three unique phrases—taken from the recommendations contained within—and want to know more.

    Every week, you see, I spend an hour or two compiling an email newsletter that is sent to people around the world. Some of them are my friends and family; others I have never met before, and have no idea how they came across my work. Since starting with zero subscribers in March 2014, I have now delivered more than 140 editions. The newsletter is called Dispatches, after the Michael Herr book of the same name. It is a space where I recommend excellent feature articles and books I have read and enjoyed, as well as podcasts, music, and my own recently published writing.

    Its format has remained unchanged in the three years since I started. There are three sections: Words, Sounds and Reads. I choose a relevant image to announce each section, because I know that an email newsletter consisting only of text can be a little overwhelming.

    Since the beginning, I have sent the newsletter on Thursday mornings. This was a deliberate choice: as Friday tends to be the busiest day for office workers scrambling to meet deadlines before clocking off for the weekend, I figured that seeing a long, considered email from me a couple of mornings before the workweek ends might offer a welcome reprieve. Setting an expectation around a weekly publication schedule might help to give others some structure in their work lives, too. (Perhaps I am projecting.)

    For the first couple of years, I would compile the recommendations on Wednesday, and then wait until waking the following morning to manually press “send” using a free online service called TinyLetter. Now, I publish it just after midnight, in the wee hours of Thursday morning—which suits me better as a night owl, anyway. It’s the last thing I do before going to bed, and it pleases me to know that, by the time I’m back at the desk the following morning, more than a hundred people will have already opened the latest edition.

    To read the full story, visit The Walkley Magazine on Medium. Above illustration credit: Tom Jellett.

  • 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

  • The Weekend Australian book reviews: ‘Chemo’ by Luke Ryan and ‘Hitchy Feet’ by John Card, August 2014

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

    Running away only to find oneself

    Book cover: 'Hitchy Feet: A Grown-up’s Guide to Running Away from Home and Accidentally Getting a Life' by John Card, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, August 2014A travel memoir based on the author’s experience of hitchhiking around Australia in the late 2000s, Hitchy Feet introduces us to John Card, a Victorian high school science teacher who tires of the classroom and seeks adventure.

    The plot is rather thin: Card has designs on becoming a radio broadcaster, and hitches a counterclockwise path up the east coast toward a university in Perth for an admission interview. This stated goal is something of a MacGuffin, though, as much of the book is instead devoted to narrating the situations Card finds himself in while hitching, as well as putting his past actions under the microscope while reflecting on the man he has become.

    Card was 33 at the time of undertaking his journey, and frequently downcast about his lack of overarching life direction. While in the midst of the book’s most amusing chapter — an all-night drive through the Pilbara with ‘‘Joe’’, who sinks a carton of beer and climbs onto the roof while the vehicle moves at 120 clicks per hour — Card is handed a stack of porno mags by his gregarious companion, a friendly gesture that sends the author into a tailspin of melancholy. He craves intellectual stimulation, rather than something that’ll give him an erection. “I needed a broadsheet newspaper, a certainty for keeping me flaccid,” he writes.

    Card’s experiences as a high school teacher here and in England are well-drawn, and I’d liked to have heard more about this aspect of his life. He admits his initial passion for the job was soon overwhelmed by its challenges — a common story among young teachers — which eventually became cynicism. He believes our public secondary school system plays a vital part in capitalism, as he and his colleagues “looked after children while their parents made money”. Card claims to have no answers to this troubling situation, but his observations from the coalface of a difficult profession are valuable nonetheless.

    While struggling with the job at a London school, he almost clobbers a mouthy Serbian refugee who claims to have seduced his girlfriend. “Admitting my violent longings caused deep conflict within me,” he writes. These desires are rooted in Card’s experience of being bullied as a child. The trauma has carried into his adult life and there are times where the ­author has to fight himself to keep the violence at bay. Add booze to the equation, though, and the task becomes harder. Directionless men and alcohol seem to go hand-in-hand, and Card is no exception.

    These stories tend to be funny, but his segues can be weak: at one point, Card writes awkwardly: “By the time I’d stopped typing late in the afternoon, I’d obtained a raging beer thirst. I quenched it.”

    In the heat of the moment, though, his narration is compelling, especially when his inner monologue kicks in. The following section occurs after meeting some unsavoury parents at a pub in Richmond, western Queensland:

    I lay down on the torn mattress, thinking of Joe’s kids. I had the impression he would call them all little cunts, all the time, because of the ease with which it rolled off his tongue. I started to reflect on how this journey’s voyeuristic quality was patronising on my part. Was I putting myself in these situations in order to feel better about myself? Reaffirming myself as middle class? Was I just there for a laugh? Was I having a midlife crisis? Was I a snob? These were unanswered questions, but I felt very unlike the Joes of the world. Maybe even more middle class.

    Ultimately, it’s this sort of honesty that elevates Hitchy Feet from the middling travel memoir established in the opening pages to the salient insight into the psyche of a smart young Australian man with which we finish.

    Book cover: 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo: A Memoir of Getting Cancer — Twice!' by Luke Ryan, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, August 2014In contrast, readers know exactly what they’re getting from Luke Ryan’s debut book. The 29 year-old author was unlucky enough to have been diagnosed with cancer twice, at the age of 11 and 22. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo centres on of the grimmest periods of the Melbourne-based writer’s life.

    Yet punchlines abound to the point where there’s practically a gag on every page, a large proportion of which cut through due to tragicomic circumstances or the sheer drollness of his observations.

    “Given my white, suburban, middle-class, Catholic upbringing, quite possibly these are the only things of interest to have ever happened to me,” Ryan wryly notes.

    His painful childhood illness is viewed through the wiser lens of adulthood, complete with staircase wit: after returning to school and slipping to the social periphery, the author was told by “a group of horny reprobates” to return to hospital.

    “This was, I felt, both cruel and frankly inappropriate advice coming from anyone besides a medical professional,” he writes.

    The more socially adept older Ryan met the second round with a resolution not to adhere to the cancer narratives of journeys, battles and survivors. These conventional stories were of no interest to him; instead, he opted to craft a comic persona to deny the seriousness of his situation. It worked: he got through the experience with good humour intact, and his 2009 stand-up show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Luke’s Got Cancer, was a sell-out hit.

    Though Ryan’s incisive wit is the chief narrative voice here, he’s not above lifting the curtain to show the anxiety and fear that swirled through his mind offstage. These glimpses of emotional honesty are some of the book’s finest moments and add gravitas to a fine memoir that never approaches self-pity. After all, as he writes in the introduction, this isn’t a book about denying cancer, but about seeing cancer as part of a life, rather than its sum total.

    An intelligent writer of great talent, Ryan wilfully acknowledges that with the publication of this book he has milked this particular subject and its minutiae of sickness and tedium for all it’s worth. Having proved himself a deft hand at the task of painful self-examination, Ryan seems highly likely to excel at whichever topic he chooses to write about next.

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based journalist. His first book, Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs, is published by UQP.

    Hitchy Feet: A Grown-up’s Guide to Running Away from Home and Accidentally Getting a Life

    By John Card

    Finch Publishing, 224pp, $24.99

    A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo: A Memoir of Getting Cancer — Twice!

    By Luke Ryan

    Affirm Press, 288pp, $29.99

  • Qweekend story: ‘The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco’, July 2014

    A story for the July 19 issue of Qweekend magazine; a profile of Australian music entrepreneur Paul Piticco. The full story appears below.

    The Grass Is Greener

    Paul Piticco struck success while managing Powderfinger and now oversees an empire that stretches beyond music into events and hospitality

    Qweekend story by Andrew McMillen: 'The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco', July 2014. Photograph by Russell Shakespeare

    by Andrew McMillen / Portrait photograph by Russell Shakespeare

    ++

    Five of the men who walk out onto Brisbane Riverstage on this warm Saturday night are well-known to the 10,000 fans in attendance, as together they have written some of Australia’s most popular songs. Between encores, though, another bloke in a grey suit with short black hair makes an appearance. Drummer Jon Coghill playfully wipes a towel across the stranger’s forehead. The band’s frontman approaches the microphone. “Ladies and gents, we have to introduce the virtual sixth member of Powderfinger: this is our manager,” says Bernard Fanning, gesturing to the man who is now copping a good-natured head-rub from guitarist Ian Haug. “He’s been our manager for the whole time. His name’s Paul Piticco. Put your hands together.”

    The crowd obliges. After he gives a few quick bows to the hill and to each of the bandmembers, Piticco waves and jogs back to the side of stage, seemingly embarrassed at such public attention.

    It’s 13 November, 2010, the night of Powderfinger’s final performance, a hometown send-off for the Brisbane quintet crowning a 34-date national tour that sold more than 300,000 tickets and grossed $30 million. After a final encore performance of ‘These Days’ and a group bow, Powderfinger ends its career on a high.

    The band’s achievements are remarkable. Among them, more than 2.5 million albums sold in Australia alone, 18 ARIA awards, five consecutive ARIA No 1 album debuts, and twice topping Triple J’s annual Hottest 100 music poll. Behind their artistry was the business brain of Paul “Teaks” Piticco, a self-taught entrepreneur whose beginning as the wet-behind-the-ears manager of a little-known Brisbane rock band expanded into successful stakes in music festivals, touring and publicity, two independent record labels and a recent foray into the restaurant business.

    As he tells it, Piticco’s achievements can be attributed to persistence, enthusiasm and a willingness to have a go. “That philosophy that you’re only as good as the last thing you do is something that I’ve always subscribed to,” he says. “That’s how you do great work: by being really interested, and by giving a shit about the outcome. I certainly don’t want to die wondering.”

    It wasn’t always thus, according to Coghill, the last member to join Powderfinger, completing the quintet’s line-up in late 1991. In the 2011 band biography, Footprints, the drummer recalled his first impressions of the men with whom he’d spend the next two decades: “They were just these potheads who used to sit around the lounge smoking,” he said. “And Teaks was the ringleader … I remember that night [we met] he showed me this massive marijuana plant he had in the back yard. It was four metres high and two metres wide. I think before Teaks was the manager of the band, he was the manager of the lounge room and the bong.”

    ++

    An only child born to Sernando and Carmel at the Royal Brisbane Women’s Hospital on March 7, 1969, Paul Anthony Piticco grew up in the inner-west Brisbane suburb of Paddington and attended Petrie Terrace State School. He loved school because it was his first chance to measure himself against others. “Maybe that was the germination of my competitive streak,” he says with a smile.

    His father had emigrated to Australia from Italy at age 19, carrying only a suitcase and $10. He cut cane in North Queensland, bought a house in Brisbane and started a construction business. Piticco says Sernando advised his son to “figure your own shit out” and learn from his mistakes. Carmel – who worked part-time jobs in nursing and education – encouraged Paul to spring out of bed in the morning, follow his dreams and do what makes him smile.

    His parents’ record collection was “diabolical”, so it wasn’t until he started at Kelvin Grove State High in Brisbane’s inner north-west that Piticco’s musical horizons expanded. When KISS played at Lang Park (now Suncorp Stadium) in 1980, he snuck down Ranley Grove onto Given Terrace and watched them through the fence. It was the first time Piticco made a connection between hearing a song on the radio and tens of thousands of fans going to see a band play live in a stadium. He was enthralled, and started buying cassettes and vinyl – David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits – while learning guitar and saxophone, both of which he failed to practise. At 15, he’d take a square of cardboard to Queen Street Mall and attempt to breakdance while dressed in baggy pants. This phase soon passed – as Piticco puts it, “The world moved on, and I moved with it.”

    It was during his first job, as a paperboy selling the Telegraph, that Piticco established his work ethic. He determined how to achieve the maximum return with the smallest effort by catching customers at the former Arnott’s biscuit factory on Coronation Drive when shifts were crossing over. A regular clientele earned the ten-year-old hefty tips for his value-adding personal touches, such as handing over the paper with the sports page or the horoscopes facing up, ready to read.

    In his mid-teens, Piticco worked weekend nights at the 24-hour Windmill Cafe on Petrie Terrace, where he learned how to be patient with intoxicated people, which he notes has “come in handy working in bars, venues and festivals in the years to come”. He completed Year 10 at Kelvin Grove High but dropped out part way into the following year. “My passion for study declined rapidly,” he says, after he discovered smoking and drinking.

    In his late teens, Piticco tried working part-time for his father and uncle’s construction business. It didn’t take. “I didn’t want to work a manual job, grinding it out in the sun like my dad. I knew that I wanted something different; I just didn’t know what it was yet.” It was around this time that he discovered cannabis. “There was a fair degree of overlap between my pot-smoking days and my lost years,” he says. “It just heightened all my senses in terms of listening to music and having a good time. In a stereotypical way, it was a countercultural way to rebel as a late teen.”

    At the time, Piticco worked as a steel sales representative for Boral and lived in a share house in the western suburb of Indooroopilly. One night, he and housemate Ian Haug went for a drive, and the guitarist asked his friend whether he’d be interested in managing Powderfinger as Haug had grown tired of juggling his band’s business interests and writing music.

    “He knew nothing about the music industry; we gave him an opportunity because we could see something in him,” says Haug. “We needed a ‘bad cop’, and he was a good bad cop. We didn’t want to be the ones ringing up bikers saying ‘pay us our money’. He had to be the tough guy. And Piticco’s a pretty tough name.”

    Qweekend story by Andrew McMillen: 'The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco', July 2014. Photograph of Powderfinger in 1991; Piticco is third from left.Bassist John Collins saw it another way: “We thought, if he could sell steel, he could sell rock.” With the assistance of a lawyer, the band drew up a management contract which determined that everything outside of the actual music-making would be split six ways. “After that contract lapsed, we worked with him without a contract for most of our career,” says Haug. “Probably in retrospect it wasn’t a wise business decision for the band, but he did a good job for us.”

    It took years before the band started seeing any real money for their efforts. “As a manager, you’re only ever as good as your band,” Piticco says. “Your fates are hitched in a fiscal sense.” As Powderfinger’s star ascended, the six men named on the contract came into good money following years of low-income toil. “Money was always much more important to Paul than the rest of us,” says singer Bernard Fanning. “We were always surprised by the fact that we actually earned a living and made money out of being musicians. Paul has always liked the idea of money, and the potential of it, rather than the actual act of splashing out and buying a fancy bottle of champagne.”

    Haug suggests Piticco didn’t change much throughout the band’s two-decade career. “He’s just loaded now, whereas he used to be flat broke,” he laughs. The entrepreneur reinvested his earnings into the industry, forming an artist management company, Secret Service. His independent record label, Dew Process, was established in 2002 and has released popular albums by international acts such as Mumford & Sons, The Hives and London Grammar as well as Australian artists The Living End, Sarah Blasko and, of course, Bernard Fanning. Album sales still account for the majority of the label’s income. In 2012, Piticco established another record label, Create/Control, which in effect turns the old business model on its head by partnering with acts to distribute and market music they’ve funded and recorded themselves.

    In conjunction with Powderfinger’s longtime booking agent, Jessica Ducrou, he established Splendour In The Grass, an annual multi-day music festival – being staged at North Byron Parklands next weekend – sidestepping the competitive summer circuit. All 27,500 tickets to this year’s event, headlined by Outkast, Lily Allen and Two Door Cinema Club, were sold within hours of going on sale. “Paul and I have done all sorts of glamorous jobs – directing traffic, picking up garbage,” says Ducrou, 44. “He’s really positive, he mucks in. He has no airs and graces. He’ll do whatever is required.” The pair’s Secret Sounds touring company has also invested in The Falls Festival, traditionally a southern (Tasmania and Victoria) camping event which debuted in Byron Bay in late 2013.

    Critics point out that a handful of Piticco’s acts inevitably appear on Splendour’s bill each year, a tradition that stretches back to the first event in 2001, headlined by Powderfinger. “Why wouldn’t you book yourself?” asks Patience Hodgson, singer of Piticco-managed Brisbane pop band The Grates. “Paul doesn’t take any commission when we play Splendour, and that’s to lower his invested interest.”

    If such criticisms are laid at Piticco’s feet, so be it. He’s happy to wear the tar and feathers if it means his artists stay squeaky clean. “If people hate him, but love the band, he totally understands that’s fine,” says Hodgson. “He’s not trying to protect himself; the band always comes first. If he’s offered a gig and thinks we should be paid more money, he asks. I really appreciate that, because I could never do that for myself; I wouldn’t want to seem like a dick or be rude. Paul is happy to ask, and if people say no, he doesn’t feel shame.”

    ++

    Piticco has one favourite album – DeadSexy by little-known Rhode Island (US) alternative rock band Scarce – and two favourite songs: ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie and ‘The Funeral’ by Seattle rock act Band of Horses, who he has booked to play Splendour twice. His favourite Powderfinger album is 1998’s Internationalist. When asked to name a favourite song, he deliberates for two minutes. “The one that makes me feel and think most positively about the band is ‘Sunsets’,” he replies, referring to a single from 2003’s Vulture Street album. “Amongst all those anthems that they wrote, that one, to me, sounds and feels like Australian music at that time. It definitely pulls at my heartstrings.”

    Qweekend story by Andrew McMillen: 'The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco', July 2014. Photograph by Russell ShakespeareAt 45, Piticco is showing no signs of slowing down. In 2014, he seems to have his fingers in more pies than ever before. “There’s a good balance between Paul being a serious, effective entrepreneur and knowing how to switch off and have fun, and not take things too seriously,” says Ducrou. For his 40th birthday, Piticco booked an AC/DC tribute band to play at the property near Mount Warning in northern NSW where he lives with his partner of 15 years, Lisa Wickbold, and their children Phoebe, 7, Ivy, 5, and Darby, 3.

    It takes considerable drive and intensity to create record labels, music festivals, national tours and artistic careers out of thin air, especially when based outside of the traditional Australian music business seats of power in Sydney and Melbourne. For Piticco and Powderfinger, moving south never appealed. “We were regularly encouraged to leave by labels, agents, promoters and other bands; ‘Come down here, it’ll be better, there are more opportunities!’” he says. “Brisbane had value to us. It wasn’t just more affordable, it provided a framework and an emotional base. Our social networks were here. It’s something we’ve always been proud of, this city. There was never any doubt. I’m glad we stayed.”

    The sun sets over the Brisbane skyline on a recent cool evening as we sit at a table in South Bank restaurant Popolo, which Piticco co-founded in late 2011 with restaurateur Andrew Baturo and Denis Sheahan, Powderfinger’s former tour manager. Its name is Italian for people, in reference to the menu’s inclination towards shared dishes. While we talk, plates are laid out in quick succession. It’s far too much food for two men; Piticco jokes that his children will have some interesting leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch.

    In addition to Popolo, Piticco co-owns a stake in CBD venue The Gresham Bar, which opened late last year. This left turn into the hospitality industry has been on the cards for years. “The chef is the artist, the restaurateur is the producer,” Piticco says. “The chef serves up his works; the producer critiques them, works out which ones are going to be the hits, which ones will pad out the menu. Instead of listening, you taste. The ambience is the marketing and packaging – the visual representation – but the real thing that makes a successful restaurant is the food. It’s just as it is in the music industry: a lot of bad bands have an image, but the songs are really the meat of the proposition.”

    Observing the detritus of a fine meal, Piticco sums up his life so far in simple terms. “I’ve always had this theory that stems from my mum,” he says. “Whether you’re a chimney sweep, a brain surgeon or a band manager, if you’re good at what you do, the rest takes care of itself. I just like having the opportunity to make a living out of music, for myself and others, and along the way make a whole bunch of people happy by enriching their lives in some way. And to get paid for it? That’s fucking awesome!

    Splendour In The Grass, July 25-27, North Byron Parklands, Byron Bay. splendourinthegrass.com 

  • Qweekend story: ‘Orange Crush: Thomas Broich’, April 2014

    A story for Qweekend, published in the April 5-6 issue of the magazine: a profile of Brisbane Roar footballer Thomas Broich. An excerpt appears underneath; click the image below to view a PDF version.

    Orange Crush

    His sublime skills made Thomas Broich one of Queensland’s most welcome sports imports. And his move from Germany not only revived his passion for football but gave Brisbane Roar a man for all seasons.

    Qweekend story: 'Orange Crush: Thomas Broich' by Andrew McMillen, April 2014

    Story by Andrew McMillen / Photography by Russell Shakespeare

    The Saturday morning sun warms the lawn as 20 or so men in orange shirts follow the path of a round ball. Players yelp after bone-shaking tackles and groan at the sight of missed shots skirting the crossbar. Complimentary coffee and bacon-and-egg burgers are on offer for the crowd that has gathered outside Ballymore Stadium in Brisbane’s inner-north Herston for this open members’ training session.

    Wendy Shaw stands with arms crossed beside a sign that reads Beware: flying footballs. The 55-year-old supermarket manager hasn’t missed a Roar home game since the club’s inception nine years ago. She stares intently at number 22, a tall, tanned man with dark hair and green boots.

    “He’s had a shave, that’s always a good thing,” she laughs. “That’s one of our superstitions – if Thomas has a shave, it means we’re going to win!”

    Just out of earshot, attacking midfielder Thomas Broich is delivering cross after cross to the team’s strikers, who attempt to put the ball past goalkeeper Michael Theo. The 33-year-old Broich – who earlier this year played his 100th game for the club – has been a professional footballer for nearly half his life, and has been subject to intense media and fan scrutiny.

    After a rollercoaster ride of a career throughout the 2000s in the German premier league, the Bundesliga – the world’s most attended football competition – Broich was near the end of his tether, and considering quitting. It took a timely transfer to a club halfway around the world to reignite his passion.

    Since he first wore the orange jersey in the 2010-11 season, Brisbane Roar has been a consistent presence at the pointy end of the A-League, winning two of the past three championships.

    A home game on March 22 saw the team secure its second premiership in four years; the match-winner arrived in the 92nd minute, when Broich attracted the close attention of four Melbourne Victory defenders before he passed to midfielder Luke Brattan, whose pinpoint strike sealed the game 1-0. The team heads into the finals series as favourites to take its third championship.

    ++

    So deafening was the buzz surrounding the young midfielder in the seasons leading up to his Bundesliga debut that a television journalist named Aljoscha Pause approached him in 2003 with a tempting offer: to be the subject of a feature-length documentary, the first such film portrait of a German footballer.

    “I wanted to find somebody who would be charismatic enough to carry a whole film, and intelligent enough to reflect the business from inside – not an easy task,” Pause tells Qweekend. At the time, Broich was 22 and playing in the second-division Bundesliga; the project was initially scheduled for two years.

    “It was meant to show me break through into a big club, or the national team,” says Broich. “Then it just turned to shit. Excuse my language!” He gives a sheepish grin, momentarily forgetting his well-practised media manners. “It went the complete other way. That’s when the project became interesting for completely different reasons – it wasn’t about the rise of a footballer any more, it was more about the fall of a footballer.”

    Pause estimates that the pair spent about 400 hours filming together, over the course of eight years and several club transfers, first with Borussia Mönchengladbach (2003-06); later, FC Köln (’06-’09); and finally, with FC Nürnberg (’09-10). The pair became close during the process, which made Pause’s job more difficult; the line between filmmaker and friend became blurred. The result, Tom Meets Zizou, was released in 2011 and charts Broich’s youthful naivety.

    Early on, the football press picked up on his preferences for classical music and philosophy, dubbing him “Mozart”. The youngster was eager to please, and played up to the caricature by posing for photographs while engaged in intellectual activities such as reading, chess, and playing piano. These points of difference weren’t particularly well received in the hyper-masculine world of professional football. Says Broich with a grimace in 2014: “I look at the young guy in the film and think, oh my god, you’re so stupid. Who do you think you are?”

    Ultimately, the film chronicles an optimistic, skilled young player being gradually worn down by a ruthless industry. It was only when then-Brisbane Roar coach Ange Postecoglou travelled to Germany to offer Broich a lifeline that a fitting dénouement became clear.

    “When I hit rock bottom, I made the decision to come to Australia, and that’s where the fairytale started for me,” says Broich. “For the first time in years, I was able to enjoy my football again.”

    The film ends with the Roar’s spectacular first grand final in March 2011. Before a record home crowd of more than 50,000, Brisbane was down 2-0 to the Central Coast Mariners with just three minutes of extra time remaining. It would take something remarkable to claw back the scoreline. In response, Broich made a casual assist in front of goal to the Brazilian striker Henrique, who netted the chance and made it 2-1. Then, in the 120th minute, Broich sent a corner kick onto the head of fellow midfielder Erik Paartalu, who tied the game, resulting in a penalty shoot-out won by the home team. It was Broich’s first championship trophy. He was 30 years old.

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

     

  • Qweekend story: ‘Muscle Memory’, December 2013

    A story for the final issue of Qweekend for 2013. Click the below image to view the PDF, or read the story text underneath.

    Muscle Memory

    Mates on a mission to nail the essence of manliness find that the Aussie bloke’s a hard character to pin down.

    Story: Andrew McMillen / Photography: David Kelly

    qweekend_muscle_memory

    A dozen men stand quietly, with crossed arms and firm expressions, surveying the martial arts demonstration. There is silence as two men dressed in white robes grapple with each other on the floor of the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre. After several thoroughly awkward minutes of grunting, throwing and painful-looking choke holds, the two men bow to one another and head backstage, seemingly dispirited. I clap my hands out of respect for my fellow man. I am one of few to do so.

    There aren’t many people at this Man Expo but I’ve come along to try to find out what it is that makes an Aussie bloke. I don’t consider myself to be particularly masculine, so I’ve brought my manliest mate with me on this fine Saturday morning in mid-October to see whether two heads are better than one.

    Craig Johnson is a strongly-built engineering student with a beard and a fondness for barbecuing, bourbon and thrash metal. He is mechanically minded and fond of fixing things; he spent a year working as a truck driver in an underground mine. We share a birth year and an enthusiasm for soccer and playing guitar, but otherwise we’re completely different men. My writer’s hands are soft, my facial hair negligible at best; my home improvement skills are limited to changing lightbulbs, and my brain is more suited to asking questions than knowing answers.

    Two halls down, past the Craft & Quilt Fair – very few men there, too – is a doorway flanked by smiling models distributing showbags, blinding strobe lights and a billowing smoke machine. It’s a fitting hero’s welcome to an event billed as “the ultimate man-cave experience”, but one at odds with the rest of the brightly lit space, which is filled with stalls marketing products – beef jerky, hunting knives, bar fridges, fitness equipment, rum – and experiences with names like “Blokes Weekend Off”. The entry fee is $17 for men and $3 for women.

    Sports cars and fishing boats are positioned on the outer rim of the room. Tabletop arcade-style video game consoles occupy the centre. Golf, cricket and beer pong are the sporting activities on offer. A barbecue demonstration proffers steak and brisket samples. Many manly eyes follow the four slim women in red bikinis and high heels as they slowly walk laps around the stalls, posing for photographs and flashing megawatt smiles at the mostly middle-aged crowd in attendance, some of whom have brought their young sons along.

    “Sometimes I still feel like a boy in comparison to my Dad,” Craig tells me while we sit on couches within a cordoned-off space dedicated to matchmaking. We are the only ones here, besides a bored-looking young bloke guarding a beer-filled fridge. “I look up to him because whenever he’s faced with a tough situation, he just hits a six and gets on with it. I try to do the same, but I haven’t got all my ducks in a row just yet. I feel that when I finally do, I’m then a man.”

    I’m struck by the realisation that I feel much the same way. Both of us were raised in loving homes by parents who married decades ago. Our fathers – mine a primary school teacher, his an electrician – remain positive influences in our lives, to the point where establishing our own identities is still something of a work-in-progress. Perhaps this is how it has always been for young men raised in the shadow of strong fathers.

    Both of us are unmarried and childless; I am in a long-term relationship, Craig is not. We are 25 year-old men who rent our homes rather than owning them. Neither of us has any significant personal assets. Earlier, an interaction with a financial planner had left a sour taste. “Money can’t buy you happiness, boys,” he told us while grinning like the Cheshire cat. “But it can buy you a bloody big boat to take you to the place where it is!”

    One of the bikini models sidles up to us, proffering back issues of the men’s magazine she was hired to promote today. “What do you think makes a man?” Craig asks her.

    “I like a good, old fashioned, manly man who works on the house, and in the backyard,” she replies. “He drinks beer, knows how to cook on a barbecue, lift weights – and has to know how to make a girl laugh, too.” Tara Mills, 23, tells us that she only landed this promo job a few hours earlier, after seeing a call-out for models on Facebook.

    “I can’t get over how different this atmosphere is to [annual adult entertainment exhibition] Sexpo,” she says. “I was a body paint model. I did it for free for a friend; I got painted and walked around. Five years later, I still do it. It’s so much fun there; you can talk to everyone. Here, I’m really struggling to mingle with the crowd, because there’s not much of one.” It’s true; for most of the day, it has seemed as though there are more salesmen here than paying men.

    I ask Mills – a recent graduate in the health services field, who is here today simply to earn some extra cash – how she feels about being objectified by the men in attendance. “I don’t have an issue with it, because I’ve put myself in this position,” she says. “I don’t think it’s sexual. It’s fun. Guys like girls in bikinis; I have no issues with being in a bikini.” She gives a coy smile. “I look good, so why not?”

    As the thin crowd of men disperses and stallholders begin packing up, I spy one of the wrestlers who entertained a crowd of dozens earlier in the afternoon. “Hey, Wolverine!” I yell. “Can I talk to you?” A stocky bloke in unremarkable clothing and a green-and-gold full-face mask strides over. As we shake hands, I introduce myself by my first name. “Luke,” he replies. “Oh, that’s my real name.” He pauses, then laughs. “I shouldn’t have told you that!”

    A few hours ago, Australian Wolverine did battle with Rufio, a lithe, shirtless young man in red-and-black trackpants. Though the wrestlers weren’t making full contact, their sheer physicality was among the manliest displays of the day. I ask the 30 year-old OfficeWorks night manager what a manly man looks like. He jerks his thumb at a nearby strongman, a strapping specimen of masculinity who stands posing for a photo with the petite frame of Mills sitting atop his outrageous biceps. With a cheeky grin visible beneath the white fangs that hang from his mask, the wrestler says, “Maybe that guy, with a couple more scars from knife fights – or from breaking his arm in the middle of a match.” He rotates his inner left forearm to show off a gigantic scar.

    I’m impressed. Clearly, this is a man willing to put his body on the line for entertainment’s sake. What other traits define a man? “His determination and dedication to whatever passion or work he does,” replies the Wolverine. “And just being a very genuine person, too. I find that’s a good manly trait, because I find being fake or lying to be very catty,” he says with a laugh.

    So where does wearing a mask fit into that ideal? He’s momentarily lost for words. “You’ve got me there!”

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘The Cottonwool Kid: Dean Clifford’, November 2013

    A story for The Weekend Australian Magazine – my first for that publication. This story originally appeared in the November 30 2013 issue of the magazine; the full text appears underneath.

    The Cottonwool Kid

    He’s an inspiration to his beloved Broncos; a motivational speaker; a weightlifter who keeps raising the bar. But it’s a miracle Dean Clifford is even alive.

    by Andrew McMillen / Photos by Eddie Safarik

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'The Cottonwool Kid: Dean Clifford' by Andrew McMillen, November 2013. Photo by Eddie Safarik

    Within metres of the halfway line, a Brisbane Broncos fan cheers from a plastic chair in the first row of Suncorp Stadium’s western grandstand. He isn’t a big man, but he might be stronger than any of the 31,199 people here this Sunday afternoon, including the 26 players on the paddock.

    Underneath his Broncos jersey, shoulders and biceps strain against too-tight skin. He shows his appreciation by nodding and clapping his bandaged right hand against his left shoulder, where the flesh is strong.

    This is the fan who motivated the Brisbane Broncos to win the 1992 grand final. He has watched more rugby league games in his 33 years than most people will witness in a lifetime but he hasn’t kicked a full-size football since he was a child. He last felt grass under his bare feet at the age of three.

    After the final siren, happy that his team has prevailed, he unlatches a gate and heads towards the team dressing rooms, shiny gold walking stick in hand. Nobody stops his slow, steady progress. A black-and-red cap hides a blotchy scalp where hair grows in random patches. His brown eyes, framed by fleshy circles frequently dampened by overactive tear ducts, appear sunken in the absence of eyelids. He can’t blink, so he seems to stare at the Broncos’ captain, Sam Thaiday, who gives him a quick wave and a thumbs-up while leading his team off the field.

    Taking up his usual spot against a wall in a warm-up room swarming with fans, reporters and television cameraman, he chats with security staff before he’s welcomed into the home team’s dressing room. A trio of giant younger Broncos stops in the doorway, glancing down to admire his improbably strong frame. One player asks him about his weightlifting training. “I’m aiming for next weekend – another record attempt,” he says. “Make sure you video it, mate,” replies another, impressed. Thaiday stops to greet him with a warm handshake and they share a joke about the game before the fan takes his leave.

    Ten minutes later, he arrives at Christ Church on nearby Chippendall Street, where the Sunday evening service is in session. Clad in a maroon polo shirt, Bill Hunter – a thin, handsome former policeman who is the Broncos’ team chaplain – is standing before 40 people of all ages who line the first few rows of pews. “I want to introduce a good friend of mine, Dean Clifford.” Applause echoes from the high ceiling as Dean makes his way down the aisle for an impromptu interview.

    “Dean, you were born with a very rare skin disease,” Hunter says. “Basically, your parents were told, ‘Take him home, let him die’, because you weren’t going to live past two.”

    “They were told, ‘Hope for the best’,” Dean replies, in a high, slightly nasal voice brought about by his lack of nostrils.

    “And how old are you now?” Hunter asks.

    “I’m 33 now,” he says, leaning against his gold walking stick, microphone in hand. “I’m in the best health of my life. I’m planning to be around for a long period to come.”

    It’s an unassuming, low-key sort of speech that the audience takes in while nodding and murmuring in admiration. He doesn’t mention the fact that, each morning, the blistered and ulcerated skin that covers his feet, knees, elbows, shoulders and hands requires four hours of scrupulous care and attention; that he has to get up at 4.30am just to make a 9am meeting. To Dean, this morning ritual of bathing and bandaging is an accepted fact of life.

    “He’s also a guy who can bench-press 142-and-a-half kilograms,” says Hunter, to a few gasps and exclamations from the audience. “And how heavy are you, Dean?”

    “I’ve just turned 70 kilos,” he replies.

    “So what percentage of your body weight is that?”

    “You’re looking at about 203 per cent of my body weight,” he smiles, waiting a beat for the crowd murmur to die down. “Next week, I’ll be aiming for a new record of 145 kilos.”

    ++

    “He was born perfect,” says Jenny Clifford, 58. “Then, 12 hours later, he started getting a little blister on his bottom.” This blemish spread to the size of an egg yolk; another appeared on the opposite cheek. After three days he was put in isolation; the medical staff were mystified at what was happening to his skin. The doctor who’d delivered Dean visited two days later and gave Jenny some bad news: he suspected epidermolysis bullosa (EB), a condition he’d only seen once before, when training in England. That child had lived for 10 days.

    Children with EB are colloquially known as “cotton wool babies” because of the need to wrap their bodies in bandages lest the slightest pressure or contact tear off layers of skin. Dr Dedee Murrell, professor of dermatology at the University of NSW’s Faculty of Medicine, describes EB as “a genetic condition where some of the glue holding your skin together is missing”. There are at least 18 variations of the condition. Dean’s type, junctional EB, is severe and rare – only an estimated 1000 Australians live with the condition today – and life expectancies are short. With junctional EB, most patients die of infection before they’re a year old, says Murrell. How, then, did this boy survive? “He got very good care,” she replies.

    Inside the front door of Peter and Jenny Clifford’s home in Albany Creek, northwest of Brisbane, is a sign listing 14 house rules. Among them: Love each other; Be happy every day; Be positive; Be grateful; Never give up. Their first child, Jodie, was unaffected by EB. Only when Dean was born did Peter and Jenny learn that they both carry the gene; their chance of producing a child with EB is one in four.

    The pain that dominated Dean’s childhood has lessened, but it is not forgotten. “When I was younger I had no skin at all on my face; it affected my entire face, including my nose and eyes,” he says. “When it all started to heal back, the flesh closed over my nostrils when I was two or so. I don’t remember ever having nostrils or breathing through my nose.”

    It was a terrifying time for the whole family. “We wanted to go home and hide, and live our life as best we could with the situation that we had,” says Jenny. “When you’ve got a long-term, chronic illness, you get to a point where it’s about quality of life, not quantity.”

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'The Cottonwool Kid: Dean Clifford' by Andrew McMillen, November 2013. Dean is pictured with parents Peter and Jenny in this photo by Eddie SafarikThe Cliffords, who spent those early years in the Queensland rural town Kingaroy, made a big deal out of each birthday because they never knew whether it would be his last. They never expected their son to get to school, but were astounded by the support he received when he did. “Who’d like to be Dean’s friend?” asked the preschool teacher; all of his classmates raised their hands.

    A constant refrain on Dean’s school report cards was that he could have done a lot better. It wasn’t merely the time he missed; a kind of fatalism set in. “In high school, in particular, I was struggling for the motivation to put in the effort,” he recalls. His friends in Year Nine would worry about impending deadlines. “I’d say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got an operation next month, and if I don’t recover, you’ll get the day off school!’?” His friends would look at him in horror while he laughed at his own dark joke.

    Thin, frail and wheelchair-bound, during his adolescence Dean was only ever a slight breeze away from death. His open wounds, blood loss and moisture loss left him malnourished and by 14 he was being fed through a tube. Illness began to distance him from his peers. “I’d go to school and hear about people sneaking out to parties at night, or having sleepovers, and I’d still have to be at home to be connected to the tube feeding into my stomach while I slept because I was so malnourished. Mentally, that side of it irritated me more than the disease, the fact that everybody was going out, starting to have girlfriends, getting their learner’s licences. I was still stuck at home, still incredibly sick, and still basically continuing to hang on to life rather than experience all the things that everyone was talking about … I was on the outside, looking in.”

    Yet that awareness of mortality was also strangely liberating. “I finished school at grade 10 because I didn’t expect to be alive for my 18th,” he says. By the age of 15, he jokes, he was already 10 years past his use-by date.

    In 1995, he began work experience at a local radio station, 1071 AM, and initially only had the stamina to work one morning per week. The station owner, Marc Peters, says he’s “absolutely glad” he took the chance on employing Dean, who eventually became a popular breakfast radio announcer. “I think it turned his life around,” Peters says. “It gave him confidence; it made him part of the community.”

    A change in station ownership in 2000 meant that all staff were made redundant. The Cliffords, high on the confidence-boosting radio gig and the thrill of Dean carrying the Olympic torch through Kingaroy, decided to chance a move to Brisbane in 2001. It didn’t work out; no employer would take on a young bloke who looked like a burns victim, regardless of his skills and experience. The trio returned to Kingaroy at the end of 2001. Dean, dejected, resigned himself to a life of limited means and experiences. “It was a devastating year for me,” he says. “I was just blown away by how obvious it was I’d achieved so much, yet in Brisbane I was still the little kid who everyone was scared to be around.”

    “He was quite crushed when I first met him,” says Corinne Young, who became Dean’s disability employment worker after his return. When he was knocked back without reason for a public service job in Kingaroy, Young became determined to find him work. “I didn’t sleep that night,” she says. “I thought to myself, ‘Who in Kingaroy deserves Dean?’?” The next morning she drove to the local Toyota dealership, owned by Ken Mills. It wasn’t a hard sell: aware of Dean’s warm persona on radio, Mills created a part-time marketing role for him that endures today, 11 years later. In 2005, he became a brand ambassador for Toyota Australia and that same year he became an ambassador for his favourite sports team, too.

    Marc Peters set those wheels in motion back in 1989, when Dean was nine. “I was told that he’d give anything to be able to go to a Broncos match,” Peters says. “I knew someone who had a connection; he went down to a training session and they virtually adopted him from that day on.” Former Broncos coach Wayne Bennett remembers Dean as “the guy we won the 1992 grand final for”; the then 12-year-old was thought to be close to death. Second-rower Andrew Gee – Dean’s favourite player of all time, still with the Broncos as general manager of football operations – recalls the young boy sitting next to the trophy on the plane home.

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'The Cottonwool Kid: Dean Clifford' by Andrew McMillen, November 2013. Dean is pictured with Brad Thorn in this photo by Bruce LongIt was then-Bronco Brad Thorn who saw the potential for Dean to build his upper body strength and devised an exercise program for him that began with three sets of 10 bench-presses at 30kg. That was in 2006. Thorn has been blown away by the progress Dean has made since then: in the mid 1990s only the strongest Broncos players could bench-press 140kg. “It’s given him so many things,” Thorn says. “You imagine the frustration with his condition as a young man. When he works in the gym he can let out that emotion. He’s got the condition, but there’s still a man in there.”

    Despite his achievements so far, Dean isn’t satisfied. When we meet he’s following a strict training regimen with his sights set on bench-pressing 145kg. As his parents speak fondly of their only son from their couch, Dean is downstairs in his personal gym where his training partner, Greg Weller, 32, stands behind the bench-press. “When you’re ready, Deano,” Weller says calmly. “Let’s do this, man.”

    Two video cameras capture him sitting on the edge of the bench, breathing heavily as he psyches himself up. He lifts 145kg up and out of its resting position. He guides the weight down to his chest and begins to thrust it skyward. “Drive it, drive it, drive it! C’mon man, push it!” urges Weller, but the pressure is too great. After a stifled “Nup!” Weller helps to return the bar to its starting position. Clifford lets out a roar of defeat. Sweat pours from his body. He rips off a glove and tosses it across the room. “So close, hey,” says Weller.

    Dean reviews the video footage frame-by-frame until he pinpoints the moment of failure. That word hasn’t existed in his vocabulary for quite some time; it’s been two years since he has failed to meet a weightlifting goal. Talk between Dean and Weller quickly turns to rebuilding his confidence at around the 140kg mark before rescheduling his next record attempt.

    From chronically ill cotton-wool baby to seasoned strongman, it’s difficult to imagine a more unlikely weightlifter.

    ++

    “What does raising the bar mean to you?” asks Dean, standing before an audience of staff from a Sydney pharmaceutical company. His left hand grasps his walking stick; his right hand holds a wireless device as he clicks through confronting photos from his childhood. “To me, ‘raising the bar’ would have to be my three favourite words,” he says. “I get chills just thinking about it: how I can take on the next challenge, how I can overcome the next obstacle.”

    Since he first stood before a small crowd at the Kingaroy Rotary Club in 2003 and began telling his story, with the encouragement of Ken Mills and Corinne Young, Dean has built a healthy career from motivational speaking. His portfolio is filled with letters of praise from clients as diverse as Harley-Davidson, Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School, Qantas and the Australian Federal Police. Today at Link Healthcare he presents the challenges of his early life in characteristic matter-of-fact style. A couple of women click their tongues simultaneously in surprise at the sight of a close-up photograph showing Dean at his worst: a red, raw, skinless face fills the screen.

    Watching him, an earlier conversation comes to mind. His motivational speaking came about after those bruising setbacks in Brisbane in 2001. “I hated the thought of someone else feeling as defeated and as trapped as me,” he says. “No one was prepared to give me a chance. One person said I couldn’t work at the front counter because people would be scared of me; they told me I’d have to work in the back rooms, out of sight. I’ve proved that’s not the case. I’ve stood before 5000 people, speaking; I haven’t hid behind curtains or out of sight. I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve survived.”

    “There’s a bit of shock and awe when people first see Dean,” says former Broncos front-rower Shane Webcke, who befriended him in the early 1990s. “I think people automatically think he’s a burns victim.” Dean’s father, Peter, was always troubled by strangers staring at his son in public. “A few years ago we stopped at a McDonald’s in Rockhampton,” he says. “Dean was walking in and this little kid came running out, yelling to his mother, ‘Mum, there’s a scary man!’?”

    Dean tends to laugh off these interactions. “It’s normal for me,” he says. “It’s so second-nature that I don’t pick up on it a lot of the time, unless it’s over-the-top aggressive. When we’re out at a pub or a nightclub, my friends and I will turn it into a joke: ‘It takes a lot to look this good – these are designer clothes!’?”

    But he does get lonely on occasion. “I don’t have a lot of friends, but those that I do are almost like family to me. They’re very close and important people in my life.” He hasn’t had a girlfriend, though there were a couple of female friendships that came close. “Dating is incredibly hard,” he says, slightly pained. “It’s more about building strong friendships, and if anything develops out of that – great! I do hope that one day, it will.”

    Near the end of his talk to the pharmaceutical company, Dean plays the two-minute video of his 142.5kg lift. The staff crane forward as the man in the video breathes heavily, beats his chest four times with his right fist and then lies down on the bench, bandaged hands grasping the steel. Thirty pairs of eyes watch the seconds tick down to the moment when he raises the bar from the rack, guides the weight steadily down to his chest, and then thrusts it skyward. While the staff applaud his effort, Dean can’t help thinking how much more impressive it’d be if he could lift those extra 2.5kg.

    ++

    Postscript: Dean achieved his bench-press goal of 145kg on November 17. He’s already talking about 150kg.

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'The Cottonwool Kid: Dean Clifford' by Andrew McMillen, November 2013

    For more on Dean Clifford, visit his website.

  • The Vine story: ‘The benign threat of using mobile phones on planes’, August 2013

    A story for The Vine. Excerpt below; click the image to read the full story.

    The benign threat of using mobile phones on planes

    The Vine story: 'The benign threat of using mobile phones on planes' by Andrew McMillen, August 2013One Tuesday afternoon in April, the Attorney-General of Australia, Mark Dreyfus, was sitting on a Qantas flight bound for Brisbane. While the aircraft taxiied to the runway, Dreyfus used his smartphone to check and reply to emails. His posture was a familiar sight of the modern era: head down, hands low, eyes trained on a rectangular cluster of LEDs, while fingers and thumbs silently fondled a touchscreen.

    A nearby passenger took issue with the Attorney-General ignoring the instructions broadcast throughout the cabin to switch off personal electronic devices prior to take-off. A flight attendant reminded him of this obligation. Dreyfus eventually complied, pocketing the device, but the flight attendant informed the captain of the incident and as a result, Dreyfus was met on arrival in Brisbane by an airport security manager who again reminded the Attorney-General of the rules. These events were reported nationally; some commentators wondered whether a non-politician would have received the same treatment.

    “I am a very, very frequent flyer,” Dreyfus tells me over the phone – maybe the offending smartphone in question – in early June. “I probably know by name half of the Qantas attendants; that’s how often I fly. It was a courteous, very quick reminder in accordance with the protocol that they have, of the rules – which I know.”

    Dreyfus says he’s now a changed man. “I regret the incident,” he says. “For the avoidance of error, I now switch off my phone before boarding. But I do switch it on when the plane has landed. I can recite to you all the flight attendants’ instructions, and this one is: ‘If your mobile device is within reach, you may now switch it on.’ And I do!”

    In this incident, Dreyfus acts as a stand-in for those always-on wage slaves who view air travel as an impediment to productivity, rather than a break from the demands of an era where the ability to communicate with anyone, anytime is no longer an aspiration but an expectation. RIM’s flagship smartphone has long been referred to as a CrackBerry, and there might be no greater symbol of modern technological addiction than witnessing the speed at which those tiny screens are illuminated once humans inside an aircraft return to terra firma.

    Our national airlines have relaxed their policy on mobile phone use in recent years to the point where the devices can be used until the cabin doors are closed, and switched back on shortly after the wheels hit the tarmac. Yet according to some surveys, up to 30 per cent of passengers simply ignore those incessant warnings that electronic devices may cause navigational interference, surmising that if smartphones, laptops, tablets, and e-book readers were a true menace to aircraft, there’s no way in hell that any airline would allow them in the cabin.

    A well-known Australian musician tells me that he never turns his phone off on planes. “I don’t really believe that my smartphone is going to interfere with navigation equipment,” he says. “I think it’s just a power trip from the airlines to make you stand in line.” This personal ethos has never caused any in-flight drama, though my source is always unimpressed when asked to turn off his Kindle e-book reader – a device which lacks any wi-fi or transmission capabilities. “So I have to read your shitty in-flight mag?” he sniffs. “Or I have to buy a physical book? Give me a break, fuck!”

    This particular musician – who wishes to remain anonymous, to avoid being hassled on future flights – is a self-described time management freak. “If I’m running late, I like to turn my phone on before I land to check who’s picking me up. When we’re in a holding pattern, I’ll try to get a signal to check emails and Twitter, to see what’s happened since I’ve been on the flight.” Not one of these planes has ever dropped out of the sky as a result of one phone seeking a connection to the nearest terrestrial tower; it’s unlikely that several hundred devices doing the same thing at the same time would make a difference, either.

    To read the full story, visit The Vine.

  • The Guardian story: ‘School’s out early for overworked and undersupported young teachers’, August 2013

    A story for The Guardian Australia; my first for the website. Excerpt below; click the image to read the full story.

    School’s out early for overworked and undersupported young teachers

    Nearly half of all teaching graduates leave the profession in the first five years, Monash University research has found

    The Guardian story: 'School's out early for overworked and undersupported young teachers' by Andrew McMillen, August 2013

    Close to 50% of Australians who graduate as teachers leave the profession within the first five years, many citing overwhelming workloads and unsupportive staffrooms as their main reason for leaving the job, according to new research.

    The apparent exodus of early career teachers is a significant drain on resources, says Dr Philip Riley, of Monash University’s faculty of education, who is leading Monash’s research into the reasons that lead to young educators resigning at an alarming rate.

    “It’s costing the nation a huge amount of money. It’s just a waste, particularly when we’ve got so many threats to the funding of education,” he says.

    Riley estimates that between 40% to 50% of “early career” teachers – defined as recent graduates with less than five years of practical experience – ultimately seek work in another profession, a nationwide figure that’s consistent with research published in the UK and US.

    The most frequently cited reasons for teachers leaving aren’t related to the traditional complaints of difficult student behaviour or mediocre salaries. Instead, Riley’s research – currently unpublished, with a view to publish later in 2013 – pinpoints unsupportive staffrooms, overwhelming workloads, and employers’ preference for short-term contracts as the main areas of tension.

    “Graduate teachers feel relatively well-prepared to deal with difficult kids, although that can be hard,” says Riley. “Young teachers tend to go into schools highly optimistic and full of energy, but if there’s no one to take them under their wing and help them through those first couple of years, they get very disillusioned. The smart ones start to imagine an easier future doing something else.”

    The estimates in Riley’s study are supported by the Australian Education Union and highlight a system in crisis. “It’s a very demanding profession,” says the AEU federal president, Angelo Gavrielatos. “Workloads and stress are both high. Teachers remain undervalued, underpaid and overworked.”

    This scenario rings true for Nick Doneman, a 28-year-old based in Brisbane. He graduated with a bachelor of education from Queensland University of Technology in 2007. “I really enjoyed my degree,” he says. “My practical experiences [before graduating] were really good. But all of that died quite quickly when I saw that the job wasn’t so much about teaching as it was about being a parent. That was a huge turn-off for me. I felt like classroom teaching was only 25% of the job – the rest was dealing with kids and all their issues, the things that go on between them and their parents, and behaviour management, as well as paperwork.”

    Doneman says he got “thrown from school to school” upon graduating; he took several short-term contract jobs, teaching English, Film and Television, and Social Science, but found it difficult to attain full-time employment. His contract stints involved travelling to schools in and around Brisbane, including Kenmore, Bray Park and Carbrook. He found that it wasn’t the kind of job where you could go home at the chime of the three o’clock school bell with a clear head, either.

    “It involved a lot of work in the afternoons and on the weekend, if you wanted to do the job properly,” he says. “It’s easy to be a bad teacher, and not plan ahead of time what you’re going to teach.”

    In each staffroom, Doneman looked around him and found that very few teachers could relate to the young graduate’s initial passion for making a difference to students’ lives.

    “The majority simply did it as a job,” he says. “They didn’t feel like they had the responsibility to do any planning outside of work. I couldn’t live like that, doing a crappy job. There was no teacher at any of those schools where I looked at them and thought, ‘I like what your life looks like’.” After three and a half years, Doneman threw in the towel, went back to university, and now works as a paramedic.

    To read the full story, visit The Guardian.

  • The Weekend Australian album review, July 2013: Karnivool – ‘Asymmetry’

    An album review for The Weekend Australian, published 20 July 2013.

    ++

    Karnivool – Asymmetry

    Karnivool - 'Asymmetry' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, July 2013Never before has an album like this been released by a popular Australian rock act. Dark, deep and challenging, Asymmetry is the third album by Karnivool in eight years, and it sees the Perth quintet moving further away from the accessible, pop-like approach to songwriting that characterised its early releases in favour of intricate, unwieldy prog-rock suites.

    For this, the group is to be admired, as it certainly is not taking the easy way out by pandering to the sensibilities of its significant national audience. Taken in whole, as a 66-minute song cycle, it’s an interesting listen. The problem here is that the songs simply aren’t strong or memorable in isolation. “Interesting” is probably not the adjective these five musicians were aiming for, either.

    Better known as frontman for Birds of Tokyo, Ian Kenny is Karnivool’s most potent weapon. While this was certainly true on 2005 debut Themata and 2009’s Sound Awake, here, Kenny’s vocal hooks are frustratingly few and far between. Dominating the mix is the incessant sturm und drang of his bandmates, who appear to have become scholars of Swedish technical death metal band Meshuggah.

    Shifting tempo changes are the order of the day; aggressive and contemplative moods crash into one another, with little rhyme or reason. The overall effect is as messy and disorienting as the album artwork. Complexity for the sake of complexity soon numbs the ears, and even after repeated listens Asymmetry simply doesn’t make much sense.

    LABEL: Sony
    RATING: 2 stars