Scottish-born journalist Jill Stark was a health reporter with a blind spot: despite writing about Australia’s binge-drinking culture for The Age newspaper, she would regularly drink to excess, as she’d done since her teens.
One too many hangovers, however – the last on New Year’s Day, 2011 – set her, at age 35, on the path of alcohol abstinence for the first time in her adult life. The result is High Sobriety, her first book.
As the subtitle indicates, this is an account of Stark’s sober 2011, one month per chapter. It’s part memoir, part sociological examination of our national drinking habits, and both aspects work well.
“Just like Scotland, Australia’s default bonding-ritual is drinking,” she writes near the beginning, noting that her homeland is “a place where whisky outsells milk, and teetotalism is a crime punishable by death”. Stark is being melodramatic, of course, but the narrative makes it clear: to cut booze out of her life is almost as serious as excising a limb.
On announcing her first period of sobriety – three months, as part of a youth-led health program called Hello Sunday Morning – Stark captures her social isolation vividly. When confronted by her peers about her decision not to drink or smoke, she notes that “my identity was suddenly reduced to the sum of the substances I’d chosen not to ingest”. Her transformation from centre-of-party to self-conscious fringe-dweller makes for a compelling contrast.
Every aspect of Stark’s life is laid bare: her suspicions that she drinks to dampen the fear of being alone; her troubled love life (she realises in March that she hasn’t been sober during sex in years); her depression and anxiety, perhaps exacerbated by booze; her family’s history of alcoholism, including a grandfather who drank heavily until the day he died. “At the heart of that tragedy: alcohol,” she writes after her mother tells this story for the first time. “A drug I have enjoyed with cavalier abandon simply because it’s legal.”
Her initial three-month commitment soon turns into 12, thanks in part to a popular feature article about her experience in The Age (and resultant book offers).
Stark is at pains to point out how difficult not drinking is: she wonders if she’ll be able to navigate various events without booze: her birthday, a return to Scotland, the AFL finals series, a friend’s wedding, Christmas parties and so on. These too-regular instances of self-doubt are the only aspect of her writing that grates a little.
Wedged between her own confessions are historical passages charting Australia’s history with alcohol, with a focus on the relatively recent, media-defined trend of youth binge drinking; a discussion about journalism’s long, slow dance with alcohol on the job, including war stories from older Fairfax scribes; the role of advertising in the liquor industry; and interviews with public health professionals regarding the effects this drug can have on human brains if consumption is not kept in check. Pertinent observations are plentiful and the author’s tone is never condescending.
Stark makes it through the year, of course, with more than a few self-discoveries along the way. There is a devastating, unexpected personal tragedy near the end, which pulls the book’s premise into sharp focus. As she puts it: “Life’s too short to be wasted.” This is a conclusion reached without moralising, without judging others. It’s a refreshing approach to the oft-loaded discussion surrounding drug use of all kinds. Near the end, Stark writes:
As rewarding as my year without booze has been, swimming against the tide has been bloody hard, and at times exhausting. It could be even harder for the next generation of drinkers. As long as laying off the booze leads to claims that you’re a boring, un-Australian loser in an environment set up to convince you alcohol makes you cool and socially functional, young people will continue to get pissed for confidence, comfort, and belonging.
This isn’t a guide to abstinence, nor is it intended to induce fear in those who drink, to excess or otherwise – though some of the statistics quoted are certainly enough to make any reader consider their consumption. Ultimately, it’s hard not to recommend this book: from teenagers experimenting with their first taste, to those who’ve been imbibing for decades, many will find Stark’s story illuminating, touching, and memorable.
High Sobriety: My Year Without Booze
By Jill Stark
Scribe, 320pp, $29.95
“My job is to lie to the media so they can lie to you,” 25-year-old Ryan Holiday writes on the first page of his first book. “I cheat, bribe, and connive for bestselling authors and billion-dollar brands and abuse my understanding of the internet to do it.”
It’s a frank admission from the marketing director of Los Angeles-based clothing company American Apparel, and one that sets the tone for an explosive insight into new media manipulation.
Trust Me, I’m Lying documents Holiday’s consistent exploitation of online publishers – from small-fry blogs to the websites of national media outlets – in the name of publicising his client list, which also includes Tucker Max, a popular American author whose stories centre on binge drinking and sexual debauchery.
By revealing his tactics and explaining his strategies, Holiday exposes the blog-led model of “pageview journalism” as a vapid and desperate sham.
Though this book concentrates on American websites such as the Huffington Post and Gawker, its message is relevant to all online publishers. Holiday describes his mission “to rip back the curtain and expose a problem that thus far everyone else has been too intimidated or self-interested to discuss openly”. Namely, the web is “hopelessly broken”:
The economics of the internet created a twisted set of incentives that make traffic more important – and more profitable – than the truth. With the mass media – and today, mass culture – relying on the web for the next big thing, it is a set of incentives with massive implications.
This economy – in which websites and blogs simply need traffic to sell advertisements, and where a perusing reader and accidental click are one and the same – leads the incessant hunger for new content. By design, this is a situation ripe for exploitation, as the income of many bloggers depends on their page views.
“It’s a great time to be a media manipulator when your marks actually love receiving PR pitches,” Holiday notes.
The first half of this book is devoted to how blogs work or, as Holiday describes it, “feeding the monster”. In an apparent nod to his mentor Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, Holiday outlines nine tactics, such as “give them what spreads, not what’s good” and “use the technology against itself”.
These are all valid tactics that Holiday has used when promoting his clients. However, he notes some readers may be tempted to use them as an instruction manual for manipulation of their own. “So be it,” he writes. “You will come to regret that choice, just as I have. But you will also have fun, and it could make you rich.”
In the second half of the book, “The monster attacks”, Holiday ruminates on what blogs mean. He takes a blade to press-led online extortion, iterative journalism (one top blogger is quoted as saying “getting it right is expensive, getting it first is cheap”), the sad truths of “snark” writing and “online entertainment tactics that drug you and me”.
This book is essential reading for anyone working in the media, online or off, and also for those who want to understand how the PR industry influences what appears on screens, in newspapers and magazines, and over airwaves. Marketers and the media are increasingly on the same team; this book is something of a wake-up call.
“The world is boring, but the news is exciting,” Holiday writes. “It’s a paradox of modern life. Journalists and bloggers are not magicians, but … you must give them some credit. Shit becomes sugar.”
Similarly, it is a credit to the author’s writing style and analytical abilities that this book never becomes weighed down in media theory. Every point is backed up with penetrating personal anecdotes.
The narrative is tied to a rich understanding of media history, all the way back to the street vendor “cash and carry” innovation of New York newspaper The Sun in 1833, which is eerily similar to the gaudy, attention-grabbing media model of 2012.
Holiday is incisive and merciless. It is clear he has the perceptiveness and wherewithal to turn his still-nascent career into a fortune from advising the rich and powerful, yet this book is a step back from that dark art. In the introduction, he writes of his hope that, by exposing these vulnerabilities in the media system, they’ll no longer work as well. We’ll see about that.
Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator
By Ryan Holiday
Portfolio, 272pp, $26.95 (HB)
Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist.
After exploring his upbringing in the 2010 comic memoir The Family Law, Benjamin Law turns to another topic close to his heart. An Australian of Chinese ancestry, he sets out to explore attitudes to homosexuality in seven Asian countries.
Gaysia is Brisbane-based Law’s first attempt at book-length journalism and it consolidates him as one of the most surprising and entertaining voices in Australian nonfiction writing.
On the first page, he writes: “Of all the continents, Asia is the gayest.” Given it’s populated by close to four billion people, he goes on, “doesn’t it stand to reason that most of the world’s queer people – lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and transsexual folk – live in Asia too, sharing one hot, sweaty landmass and filling it with breathtaking examples of exotic faggotry?”.
This balancing of of blunt humour and interesting information is one of Law’s strengths. Each chapter deftly combines reportage with historical facts.
For example, Law strips off at a clothing-optional gay resort in Bali while interviewing the owner, who discovered this gap in the tourism market in the 1990s. The result is a strong narrative with one foot in the present, the other in the past.
Given the topics at hand – nude resorts, prostitution, Thai ladyboy beauty contests, to name three – there’s lots of room for graphic descriptions, and Law revels in it. He’s clearly at home writing about our sexual urges and bodily functions.
From male hookers in Burma begging him to share his penis size to witnessing an awkward threesome through his neighbours’ curtains, he has masses of material to work with.
There is a serious side to Law’s investigations. The Burma chapter is particularly affecting. Law interviews widely while exploring the prevalence of HIV. The final anecdote is brutal: a desperate, 22-year-old prostitute – who had no knowledge of the virus until she tested positive – asks Law whether he can help her. To the author’s shameful realisation, his answer is no.
Gaysia is more a window on to a troubled world than a travelogue. The stories Law tells, the problems he discusses, are ones rarely explored in-depth by the Australian media. Some solutions are simple – cross-cultural sex education and widespread distribution of condoms, for example – yet many are not.
Much of the tension in this book comes down to differing social mores. In Japan, where drag queens are a constant fixture on television, Law notes that “so much of queerness seemed to be a performance for straight people”.
Yet he contends few seem to understand that homosexuals exist in reality, away from TV cameras. “As long as they’re invisible, they’ll be tolerated,” a gay bar owner tells him.
Several chapters highlight those who view homosexuality as a “bad mental habit”, to quote Baba Ramdev, a yoga instructor whose Indian followers number more than 80 million people.
In recent times in China, homosexuals were prescribed self-flagellation techniques (a rubber band on the wrist, to be snapped whenever a homosexual thought was had) electroconvulsive therapy and even, in one sad case, a cocktail of conflicting psychotropic drugs that resulted in irreversible neurological damage.
Law presents these instances of misunderstanding, persecution and outright homophobia matter-of-factly, without drawing his own conclusions.
In Malaysia he meets Christian and Muslim fundamentalists who treat homosexuality as “an affliction that can be cured”. When questioned by them, Law plays the neutral journalist, perhaps a little too well: he doesn’t reveal his sexual identity.
Yet by keeping quiet and quoting his sources faithfully, Law certainly gives them enough rope.
Highlights of this book include Law’s account of the madly detailed lengths Chinese lesbians go to when arranging fake marriages, so as to please parents on both sides; his immersion in the hysteria surrounding an annual ladyboy beauty contest watched by 15 million Thais; and a chance meeting with an excitable yet closeted Indian man on a 30-hour cross-country train trip. (Law generously transfers his gay porn stash to his new friend’s laptop.)
Gaysia is a book of powerful, enlightening stories on a fraught topic, told with care, empathy, grace and good humour.
Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East By Benjamin Law
Black Inc, 288pp, $29.95
The eating disorder anorexia nervosa has the highest death rate of any mental illness: up to 20 per cent in the absence of treatment.
I didn’t know this until I read The Boy Who Loved Apples, in which first-time author Amanda Webster takes on twin challenges: to write a confessional account of the most difficult time of her life and to educate readers about the complexities of an illness few understand intimately, especially as it applies to boys. She succeeds on both counts.
The events Webster describes took place in 2003, when the eldest of her three children, Riche, was 11. The story is told through the rear-view mirror: in past tense and in a matter-of-fact tone that has the (perhaps unintended) side effect of unnerving the reader, especially in dramatic moments, of which there are many. It’s as if Webster, the narrator, is observing someone else live out her interactions, her mistakes, her omissions. This narrative device works well.
The psychological reality of living with anorexia is shocking: the battle of the book’s subtitle is no overstatement. Webster describes in painful detail the relentless, punishing routine of feeding Riche protein shakes – practically his only source of nourishment for almost a year – five times a day, while responding to his tired series of calorie-conscious questions. “This won’t make me fat, will it?” asks a boy who weighs a desperately unhealthy 25kg.
Recrimination is a consistent theme throughout this book, towards Webster’s husband, Kevin, a frequent-flying investment banker who is rarely at home during the week, and the author herself, a self-confessed “corporate wife”. It does help that Kevin is a high-income earner, as the family eventually spends more than $2000 a week to manage Riche’s illness.
Soon after she moves from Mullumbimby in northern NSW to Brisbane to begin Riche’s treatment, Webster ransacks the bookshops for anything on eating disorders. She notes wryly that such books are shelved alongside sex guides; her own love life has been no great shakes since Riche’s diagnosis. The books solidify her belief that her son’s illness was brought on by parenting mistakes. (She’s wrong, and eventually learns that blame benefits no one.)
Much of the narrative concerns interactions between the author and her son, though there’s also a recurring cast of doctors, psychiatrists, dieticians and support staff, as well as her two younger children and husband. This one-on-one dynamic works in favour of the story, as it highlights the truly consuming nature of the illness:
“It was trench warfare, an endless battle with no tea breaks. If I’d thought about it before, I would have assumed anorexia popped up at mealtimes – a fight over food, and then on with the day. I didn’t realise the illness controlled every waking moment, or that it affected every aspect of life.”
To complicate matters, it becomes clear that throughout those long, lonely months in Brisbane, the author herself is fraught with depression, anxiety and, later, post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the “skull-shattering tedium” that envelopes her life and the life of her son.
Alcohol becomes a crutch. She fights on the phone with Kevin, whose work keeps him in Sydney, and longs for the company of her other, attention-starved children.
Webster never normalises Riche’s behaviour: there is nothing normal about an 11-year-old attempting suicide after coming into contact with a tiny puddle of car oil (“It’s making me fat. Look how fat my arm is.”) or scraping the skin from his hands after an iced bun was eaten in the house (“I had to use my nails. I’m fat.”). Webster shifts between helpless fury towards his irrational, starved-brain behaviour and compassionate self-reminders that it’s the illness at fault.
That the Websters survived that terrible year is remarkable, as is the frank and humane way in which the author frames the grim realities of their situation. This is an important story delivered with a fantastic eye for detail. It is, ultimately, one focused on love and sacrifice at any cost. And thankfully there is a happy – and healthy – ending.
As cyberspace encroaches ever deeper into our everyday lives, it’s worth pressing the pause button to question how we choose to spend our time in an era of digital distractions. The two books under review present opposing viewpoints on this conundrum.
In Digital Vertigo [pictured right], Anglo-American entrepreneur Andrew Keen takes a critical stance against the technologists behind social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, for reasons exemplified in the book’s subtitle. Keen knows his topic from the inside: on the cover the title is presented as a Twitter hashtag and the author’s name as @ajkeen. He has more than 19,000 followers on that medium, and this book seems to have been written between his frequent pond-hopping to speak at social media conferences.
The tale begins with Keen staring at the corpse of Jeremy Bentham, the long-dead British philosopher and prison architect best known for his Panopticon design, in which inmates can be watched by outside observers at any time: “a prison premised upon the principle of perpetual peeking”, as Keen writes. Per his wishes, Bentham’s body is permanently exhibited inside a glass-fronted coffin — an “auto-icon” — within University College, London. Keen’s segue is that social media represents the “permanent self-exhibition zone of our digital age”.
A curious introduction, no doubt. Time and again, Keen revisits the concept of the auto-icon while examining how our culture has become “a transparent love-in, an orgy of over-sharing” and comparing today to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where “to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude was always slightly dangerous”. Many readers will recognise a kernel of truth in this comparison: to log on to the internet in 2012 is to be inundated with requests (demands?) to share, to socialise with other humans.
Keen’s title is also a reference to the 1958 Hitchcock film Vertigo, where the protagonist eventually learns that everything he believed to be true was the product of malicious deception by his peers. Keen ties this to social media by describing it as “so ubiquitous, so much the connective tissue of society” that we’re all “victims of a creepy story that we neither understand nor control”.
The scenic route that Keen takes to arrive at this tenuous point is not particularly interesting. He fills entire chapters by paraphrasing academics and journalists, and attempts to list seemingly every start-up social business making waves in Silicon Valley. As a self-described “super node” of the social network, Keen seems quite proud to tell us that he closed his personal Facebook account in September last year.
What could have been an original tech-dissident’s tale from the belly of the never sleeping beast is instead convoluted and messy. Keen draws heavily on historical references and too often these miss the mark, though a thorough examination of the creation and fiery destruction of the Crystal Palace in London is a highlight. It’s worth considering whether the meandering and messy nature of Digital Vertigo — including many typographical errors — is a symptom of the author’s inability to avoid the attention-shattering properties of the web.
At the time of writing, @ajkeen was still tweeting, by the way.
Conversely, British novelist Nick Harkaway tries his hand at long-form nonfiction for the first time in The Blind Giant [pictured right], and strikes on a narrative that immediately grips the reader. Using tight language and evocative descriptions, Harkaway’s introduction is a nightmare vision of a dystopian, tech-led society where “consciousness itself, abstracted thought and a sense of the individual as separate from the environment” are all withering away. A contrasting vision of a “happy valley” follows, and is just as realistic and compelling.
Harkaway admits in the afterword that the book had its origins in “unpicking the idea that digital technology was responsible for all our ills”. This late-declared bias aside, The Blind Giant is a measured and thoughtful take on a problem that will concern us all soon, if it doesn’t already.
Though the author is clearly tech-inclined – he notes on page one that he was born in 1972, the same year as the release of the first video game, Pong – he is not fanatical. He compares attempts to switch off from the internet with refusing to open your mail: “It doesn’t solve the problem, it just leaves you ignorant of what’s happening, and gradually the letters pile up on the mat.”
His narrative arc is well considered and draws on disparate topics such as neuroplasticity (how the brain alters its make-up to take on new skills and abilities), whether social media helped or hindered the anti-Mubarak revolutions last year (in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and London) and the intriguing idea that we are living in an era of “peak digital”: “the brief and impetuous flowering of digital technology during which we inhabit a fantasy of infinite resources at low market prices”.
Harkaway is a consistently engaging narrator: his fascinating analogies, elegant word play and occasional use of humour all point to his storytelling skills. True to the subtitle, his book cuts to the core of what it means to be human and how we might go about managing new and emerging technologies.
It’s no self-help guide to unplugging yourself from the wired world, nor does he encourage us to spend more time with our heads in “the cloud”. Instead, Harkaway urges us to acknowledge our humanness on a regular basis, regardless of whether that human happens to be engaging online or off.
Jacked: The Unauthorised Behind-the-Scenes Story of Grand Theft Auto
By David Kushner
HarperCollins, 368pp, $29.99
‘GRAND Theft Auto revolutionised an industry, defined one generation, and pissed off another, transforming a medium long thought of as kids’ stuff into something culturally relevant, darkly funny, and wildly free,” David Kushner writes in his second video game-themed book.
His first was Masters of Doom in 2003, which looked at Nazi and demon-shooting games such as Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake.
Here, Kushner focuses on the GTA series, which casts players “at the centre of their own criminal universe”, to quote the game’s Scottish creator, Sam Houser. Since its 1997 debut, GTA has courted controversy by allowing players to do whatever they please. Originally set in an urban environment viewed from above, the concept moved into three dimensions in 2001 with the release of GTA III on the Sony PlayStation 2. This proved to be the franchise’s breakthrough: from a camera positioned a few metres over the shoulder of the player-controlled character, gamers could follow the laws of the game world – which mirrored real life – if they so pleased.
Nobody did that for more than a few moments, though, because breaking the law was much more enjoyable: stealing vehicles, running down pedestrians, firing weapons into crowds of people, leading the police on elaborate cross-country car chases after gunning down officers in cold blood. The series has sold more than 130 million copies worldwide; four GTA games have been banned or censored in Australia at some point.
All the things you’d never do in real life, GTA made possible. Kushner describes it as a “brilliantly open world to explore”, where unlike other, comparatively plain video games, “there was no high score to hit or princess to be saved”. Jacked – a title that refers to the in-game ability to carjack – charts the evolution of the team behind the initial game through to their rebranding as Rockstar Games, which is one of the most respected names in the industry. It also examines the shockwaves that GTA’s law-defying gameplay sent through Western culture.
“It’s hard to understand those who came of age at the turn of the millennium without understanding GTA,” Kushner writes.
I was nine when I played the first game and 16 when I bought GTA: San Andreas on release in 2004. I’ve invested thousands of hours into exploring intricately detailed virtual re-creations of Miami, Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles. It’s evident that Kushner, too, is a big fan, despite his preference for a dispassionate, omnipresent style of narrative nonfiction.
Though the author has spoken at length with seemingly everyone who had anything to do with the games, many of his book’s significant scenes are exaggerated for dramatic purposes. Although they took place in reality, Kushner’s poetic licence is occasionally jarring.
In this example, Kushner writes from the perspective of a Miami attorney named Jack Thompson, who became one of GTA’s most strident critics and opponents (before being disbarred for professional misconduct):
“Thompson examined the video game box in his hand. The cover was broken into frames like a comic book — flaming cars, a girl in a pink bikini, a black guy with a big gold chain and a gun. He eyed the tiny little logo in the bottom-right corner, the yellow square with the letter R and the star. Rockstar Games? Get ready to be Jacked.”
The narrative doesn’t benefit from these attempted flights of fancy, nor do we need Kushner’s frequent, tacky reminders that the members of the development team at Rockstar were, in fact, rock stars in an industry established by geeks. “Part of what we’re trying to get away from is the lone, girlfriendless, pizza-ordering fat guy in the basement,” GTA’s marketing director says at one point.
Yet Rockstar Games is portrayed as a company full of narcissistic, arrogant wankers. Houser modelled the company on his favourite music label, Def Jam Records. He sold T-shirts and stickers bearing the studio’s name. His employees exhibited behaviour somewhere between extreme devotion and cult-like worship: they wore branded tracksuits and military jackets at industry trade shows; they’d shave their heads during “crunch” time in the lead-up to a game’s release.
When it came to the media, “ego trumped economics”: the PR team would abuse publications for awarding GTA games anything less than perfect scores, and threaten to pull ads.
These insights into Rockstar’s inner workings are the highlights of a strong, if flawed, tale about this generation’s most influential video game series. Kushner’s well-researched book will appeal to gamers and those looking to understand how gaming came of age after being dragged kicking and screaming, with the release of each subsequent Rockstar game.
Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist.
Darwin-based journalist and author Andrew McMillan [pictured below] died yesterday, January 28 2012, aged 54. I received word via a text message from Andrew Stafford just after I went to bed, around midnight. I wrote back, “Holy shit. Thanks.” Then I lay awake for the next hour, cursing myself. I was to meet him in Darwin, six days later.
I first became aware of the eerie reality that I was following in the footsteps of my near-namesake soon after my work was nationally published. Looking at my email history, the first mention of his name is in a note from Australian writer Clinton Walker on August 12, 2009.
this is so funny because only lately been in touch w my old friend from bris old rock writer andrew mcmillan, you must be aware of your precedence, and a fine one it is too [...] i had a look ata bit of your stuff and really enjoyed it and wanted to say goodonya and keepitup. clinton walker
In February 2010, I was emailed by the international label manager/A&R at Shock Records, David Laing.
I assume you’re the same AM who used to write for RAM? If yes, first of all, thanks for all the great writing that was hugely influential on me in my teenage years fromthe 100th issue of RAM (my first) onwards… also, I’m responsible for a few releases that you may have an interest in if you care at all for the styles of music you used to write about – including a couple of compilations called Do The Pop! that trace the incluence of the Saints and primarily Radio Birdman into the local real rock’n'roll scene in ’80s, and also some reissued from the Hitmen – and I’d love to send you copies if you’re interested in seeing them…
Thanks and regards
Then in May 2010, in an email conversation with Brisbane writer Andrew Stafford:
By the way, are you aware of yet another rock-writing Andrew, your namesake in fact, Andrew McMillan? Slightly different spelling – but Andrew, along with Clint Walker, was one of the original rock journos in this town, and arguably the most original. Started Suicide Alley (later Pulp) fanzine with Clint – the first rock fanzine in the country – and later wrote Strict Rules, his fantastic account of Midnight Oil’s tour through Aboriginal communities in 1986, leading to the Diesel and Dust album. A fascinating man and a great writer, well worth your checking out. – AS
Then in November 2010, in an email conversation with Australian singer Carol Lloyd of the band Railroad Gin:
It may freak you out to know that in the 70’s, Railroad Gin were often reported on by a guy who wrote for Rolling Stone, Juke etc. who was called Andrew McMillan….! He’s now a novelist based in Darwin..saw him when I did a panel thing with Noel Mengel at last year’s Brisbane Writers Festival.
I wrote back, “By the way, I am aware of Andrew McMillan! We’ve not met yet, but I’m sure it’ll happen eventually.”
The sad reality is that this will never happen, now.
In recent months – having reached a point in my writing career where I felt up to the challenge – I became more interested in exploring the concept of meeting this man, this well-known writer with whom I share more than a few parallels. I knew that he was ill, first with bowel cancer, and now with liver cancer. On November 25, 2011, I emailed him for the first time:
I don’t believe we’ve ever emailed, but I’ve certainly been aware of you for a few years now as we have almost exactly the same name. I’ve been mistaken for you many times! More on me at the web address in my signature..
How are you? Last I heard was that you were in a poor state following the removal of a bowel tumor – I think this is the last thing I read about you, just over a year ago. Judging by your Facebook page, seems you’re doing much better now. I caught your recent interview on the MusicNT website, too. Good stuff.
I wanted to ask a favour. I’d like to visit you at your home in the new year, and interview you extensively. I think it’d be an interesting idea for a young journalist like myself to talk about writing and life with an older bloke who almost shares the same name with me.
Is this a possibility? Is this something you’d be interested in? Or should I bugger off?
Happy to chat anytime mate. My number below.
He replied the next day:
Tickled to hear from you. The first I heard of you was via a flurry of emails from fans who read a piece in the The Australian and wondered what the fuck had happened to my style. I was bewildered. Then in 2009 when I was due to appear at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival I found myself on the bill of a Queensland music festival with old mate Christie Eliezer etc talking about music journalism. A strange call, given I’d rarely concentrated on music writing since about 1985. I accepted the invitation but got no response. Obviously they had the ‘en’ in mind.
I get emails occasionally congratulating me on reviews of records I’ve never heard. And calls from people seeking contact details for band managers I’m supposed to be best mates with. I plead ignorance; they, no doubt, hold my ignorance against you.
That said, I’m intrigued by the concept of a music journo called Andrew McMillen coming out of Brisbane. I was first published in 1975 and got out of there in 1977. Never looked back.
I’m now dealing with liver cancer and all kinds of shit, so my time appears to be short, hence forming a band The Rattling Mudguards and having much fun on the way out.
I trust your transcriptions are accurate so I’d be happy to entertain you in Darwin in January.
The Christmas period passed. I finished reading Andrew Stafford’s copy of Strict Rules: The Blackfella-Whitefella Tour, Andrew’s account of the 1986 tour of remote Aboriginal communities shared by the Australian rock groups Midnight Oil and Warumpi Band.
(To further confuse matters, a handwritten note on the book’s first page reads, “To Andrew – welcome to Strict Rules. Best wishes, Andrew McMillan.” It’s for Stafford, not me, but plenty of people thought otherwise when I showed them.)
It’s an excellent read; profound, beautiful, and heartbreaking, by turns. You can read an excerpt on Midnight Oil’s website. Drummer Rob Hirst wrote the foreword for a re-released version of the book in 2008; it was first published in 1988, the year I was born.
McMillan captures the feel of the Australian desert better than any writer I’ve read. For the first half of the book, he refers to himself in the third person, as “the hitch-hiker”. (The book is dedicated to Andrew’s mother, father, and “the people who pick up hitch-hikers.”) It’s a cracking read, and the pace never wavers as he explores the logistics behind the tour, the nightly performances to mostly-bewildered locals, the history of the land, and the people who live there. After I finished, all I could think was: I wish I read this sooner.
On January 2, I emailed Andrew to arrange my Darwin visit.
Hi Andrew – happy new year. How are you?
I want to check with you re timing for my planned excursion to Darwin. Are there any particular days or weeks that we should avoid? My January is filling up pretty fast so it might be best to look at early-mid Feb. What do you think?
He replied the same day:
At this stage my diary is free for 2012, apart from putting the finishing touches to an anthology (selected works 1976-2011) and the live album my new band The Rattling Mudguards recorded in October with Don Walker on piano and the Loose Screws on backing vocals.
Apart from that, everything else is dictated by my health. I’m fairly confident, despite the prognosis, that I’ll still be around in February and look forward to meeting you then.
I asked him whether I could stay at his home, and about the exact nature of his prognosis. On January 3, he told me:
You’re welcome to camp here unless I’m in need of a full-time carer by then. Hopefully that won’t be the case.
The prognosis? They got it wrong last year when they said I wouldn’t make through the footy season. The latest, a month ago, gave me three months max. I aim to beat that. I’ve got a few things to finish off yet.
On January 16, after getting caught up in the day-to-day minutiae of freelance journalism for a couple of weeks, I emailed Andrew after working out my ideal travel dates.
How are you? A quick note to let you know that I’m intending to fly to Darwin on Thursday February 2. Not sure how long I intend to stay yet; up to a week is my best estimate at the moment. I just wanted to check that this date is OK before booking flights.
The next day, Andrew said:
Feb 2 sounds good. If we run into problems, friends within the neighbourhood and without have offered to put you up for a few nights.
I’ve attached an old RAM story from 1981 I’ve dug up for my anthology. I transcribed it a few nights ago. Would you mind proof-reading it for words that are obviously out of place? I figure it’ll be a neat exercise for you, giving you a clean sense of how I was writing 30 years ago and how we move on.
I was honoured to proof-read his old work, about an Australian band named Matt Finish. The same day, January 17, I replied:
Flights are booked for Friday Feb 3, returning Wed Feb 8. Arriving around midday on the Friday. I’m seeing (and reviewing) Roger Waters do The Wall on Feb 1 and didn’t fancy the early flight on the 2nd. So 3rd it is.
A good read on Matt Finish. Had never heard of them. I’ve attached a doc with a couple of comments down the right side, but no changes to the main text. Just a few small things that I noticed.
I was chatting to Jim White of Dirty Three today for a story I’m writing. He asked whether I was you. He remembers your writing from RAM.
Do keep sending through some stuff to read ahead of my visit. I finished Strict Rules a couple weeks back (borrowed Andrew Stafford’s copy) and loved it.
That was the last I heard from Andrew. On January 24, I followed up my last email and asked, “Is everything OK – or as OK can be, given your situation?” Four days later, he died.
I feel foolish for having not ventured north earlier, for not having appreciated the urgency of his situation. Upon receiving that text message last night, I felt immediately that this mistake will be one of my biggest regrets.
I have no idea how our meeting would have unfolded. I was looking for inspiration, for insight; I wanted to learn about writing from a man who has written his whole life. It saddens me that we only ever exchanged a few casual emails. I was looking forward to days of conversation, of introspection, of self-analysis, of advice, of inspiration.
Vale Andrew McMillan. I hardly knew you. I wish I did.
Written by Brisbane-based journalist Andrew McMillen, January 29 2012.
Above photo credits, respectively: Bob Gosford, Glenn Campbell, Bob Gosford.
Update, January 30: ABC News NT have uploaded a fine video tribute to Andrew on their YouTube channel. It runs for two and a half minutes and can be viewed below.
Women of Letters: Reviving the Lost Art of Correspondence Curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire
Penguin, 412pp, $29.95
A fine cross-section of humanity – largely womankind – is on display in Women of Letters, a book born from a series of live letter reading and writing events “celebrating wine, women and words” in eastern capital cities in 2010.
The events were founded by writers Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire through their desire to “showcase brilliant female minds”, and also in the name of a good cause: all royalties from the sale of this book will go to Edgar’s Mission, an animal shelter in Victoria.
Comprising 69 authors, many of whom are well-known Australian musicians, writers and actresses, and 16 topics, Women of Letters contains many surprises, joys and profound learnings. Here are but a handful of moments that this reviewer felt most appealing:
Comedian Judith Lucy’s letter “to the night I’d rather forget” taught her “the invaluable lesson that it is never a good idea to combine alcohol with being a f . . kwit”. In a letter “to my first pin-up”, Adam Ant, former Triple J Magazine editor Jenny Valentish reflects on music journalism: “writing about tortured artists for a living, my keyboard is constantly awash with salty sentiment . . . I’m like a professional enabler for these people”. Actress Claudia Karvan and comedian Virginia Gay take a literal interpretation of “a love letter” by addressing theirs to the concept of love itself, with very different outcomes.
In a letter “to the moment it all fell apart”, musician Amanda Roff strikes on speculative fiction so absorbing that John Birmingham would give a nod of approval. “I remember lining up outside Melbourne Zoo, waiting for the army to sell the last of the meat,” she writes, taking the reader deep into her post-apocalyptic world.
This freedom of the open brief offered each writer the ability to choose how much of themselves to reveal. Many opt for brazen honesty. Singer Missy Higgins is particularly touching when writing “to my turning point”: she discusses her first experiences with depression. “I’m thankful to you, dear Turning Point, for . . . showing me that I’m not alone, that it’s OK to be sad.” In “to the letter I wish I’d written”, musician Georgia Fields asks, “Why am I still, at 27 years of age, so paralysingly terrified of what people think of me?” she writes. “Why can’t I just relax and be myself?”
The few blokes who appear in these pages generally opt for sentimentality too, especially when writing “to the woman who changed my life”.
Bob Ellis writes to his wife: “You are more than I deserved, and I less than you deserved, and this is too hard.” Rocker Tim Rogers is brutally honest in his self-assessment while writing to his ex-wife. “I wanted to thank you for what you’ve done to me. It wasn’t intended to be a love letter. But what changes someone more completely than love, and loss?”
Comedian and actor Eddie Perfect comes up with a great line while writing to his wife: “I don’t know what a family is, how to define it, other than as a collection of people who bind themselves together and get weirder and weirder until no one understands them.”
The highlights are so plentiful that I must mention a few more: Crikey editor Sophie Black writing “to my first boss” about her 1993 work experience at New Idea (“in one working week, at five dollars a day, I learnt enough to put me off journalism for the next decade”); Jennifer Byrne’s decision to read a heart-wrenching letter written in 1910 by a dying explorer on a fraught expedition to Antarctica; Noni Hazlehurst writing “to my ghosts”, which turn out to be the “gloriously impulsive, intuitive, emotional” voices in her head, and radio broadcaster Fee-B Squared writing “to my nemesis”, her bad back.
Women of Letters offers a joyous bounty of many voices, writing styles, laughs and regrets. Having read this book, I feel as though I know humans and their various conditions much better.
Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist.
HipsterMattic: One Man’s Quest to Become the Ultimate Hipster By Matt Granfield
Allen & Unwin, 303pp, $24.95
First a definition, for understanding this central premise is crucial. The 2000s-era wave of hipsterdom, Matt Granfield writes, began as a quiet and conscientious uprising that unfolded behind the scenes.
“Long-forgotten styles of clothing, beer, cigarettes and music were becoming popular again. Retro was cool, the environment was precious and old was the new “new”. Kids . . . wanted to be recognised for being different — to diverge from the mainstream and carve a cultural niche all for themselves . . . The way to be cool wasn’t to look like a television star: it was to look as though you’d never seen television.”
Thus, the modern hipster. In the wake of a crushing break-up, wherein his ex-girlfriend – who works for Triple J, “the biggest hipster radio station in the country” – accuses the author of not knowing his true identity at age 30, Granfield decides to “throw everything into becoming a particular brand of person”. It helps that he’s halfway there: in the words of his best friend Dave, the author is “probably the biggest f . . king hipster I know”.
This is not a particularly strong foundation for a book, yet Granfield redeems himself after a tenuous start by sampling and experiencing a wide range of styles and activities enjoyed largely by the cooler kids. Almost all the action takes place in the inner-city suburbs of Brisbane which, as the author proves time and again, are fertile grounds for would-be hipsters. It’s helpful that he lives in New Farm, adjacent to the grungy nightlife hub of Fortitude Valley, “the sex shop and strip-joint capital of Australia”.
By day, Granfield runs a social media and PR agency and writes and edits for the ABC’s The Drum and Marketing Magazine, yet his professional life is almost entirely ignored. This is a curious decision, as viewing the advertising industry through hipster-tinted glasses might have made for interesting reading.
Instead, Granfield grows a beard, learns to knit, gets a tattoo, runs a fashion-oriented market stall (for one day), buys a fixed-gear bicycle online and takes a photography course using only his iPhone. All par for the hipster course.
A visit to Ikea shows the author at his best: “In 5000 years when alien archaeologist anthropologists want to identify the point at which human society began to devolve, they will dig up a homemaker centre car park and find the skeletons of 2000 white lower middle-class suburbanites, loading flat-screen televisions they can’t afford into Hyundais they don’t own, buried and perfectly preserved under a volcano of interest-free store credit paperwork.”
Such moments of brilliance are rare, unfortunately, though Granfield’s writing style, which flits between inner monologue and punchy dialogue, is enjoyable on the whole.
Occasionally, he digs beneath the flimsy veneer of hipster culture and unearths some interesting points, such as how Triple J staff are sent so much new music by record companies that they don’t have time to discover anything for themselves; or how indie record labels aren’t interested in what’s cool, only in what will make them money, a process that relies on some hoodwinking of hipsters.
The narrative draws to a close as Granfield explores drinking alcohol, trying to enjoy coffee (by drinking 12 shots in a single session) and alternative lifestyles. “There are three reasons why people choose to be vegetarians,” he writes. “The first is because they have a moral objection to eating animals. The second is for medical reasons. The third is because they’re trying to impress a girl.” Guess which category the author falls into?
He also tries to start the ultimate hipster band, while making occasional references to past musical experiences. Like his advertising industry sidestep, this is another curious decision on Granfield’s part, as his history includes a stint in a relatively successful indie rock band. Another missed opportunity, perhaps.
Fittingly, the photos that appear within these pages were all taken using the iPhone app Hipstamatic, which uses software filters to give off the effect that the images were taken using an antique film camera, not a smartphone.
This kind of retro fakery is central to the conceit of hipsterdom. By holding a mirror up to hipster ideals through his pursuit of a new identity, Granfield convincingly exposes the true absurdity of it all.
Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist.
If the office exists in your phone, how is it possible to claim the right to be away from it for any length of time?
This question is central to Work’s Intimacy by Melissa Gregg, a senior lecturer in gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney. Gregg’s book is the result of a three-year study of information workers – including broadcast journalists, librarians and academics – which took place in Brisbane between 2007 and 2009.
“That question captures the twin tensions in the book’s title: the idea of work being something that we’re invested in, in a way that’s pleasurable, and the way that technology allows that relationship to be available wherever we are,” she says. “Mobile devices are increasingly marketed as this desirable object because it gives us access to every pleasure we could possibly imagine,” she laughs. “The more portable the device, the more intimate the device, right?”
If we’re to believe the companies that market these devices, that’s absolutely correct. Yet Gregg’s book contains dozens of examples of salaried professionals struggling to draw barriers between their work and leisure. This behaviour extends to checking and replying to emails outside of the workplace, in preparation for the actual workday.
“That was extremely common,” Gregg says. “It seemed to point to a sense of unpredictability in people’s work days. We once thought of the office as a mind-numbing routine of 9-5, of always knowing what’s coming, and that being part of the problem. This tendency to check email outside of the office seemed to suggest that, individually, people did not know how to cope with the pace and the unpredictability of the workplace today.”
For Gregg [pictured below], being based in Brisbane for the duration of her study was a blessing. “As someone who’s always been a bit of an outsider to any city I’ve lived in, I saw this as a great chance to look, from an outsider’s point of view, at changes that were happening in Brisbane at that time”; namely, the way in which the city was positioning itself within a creative economy.
This confusing transitional period was reflected in the workers Gregg interviewed. She met a 61 year-old university professor, Clive, who said “I worry that I’m going to miss something” if he doesn’t check his email constantly. “I’m a bit addicted,” he said. “Partly because I don’t want email to swamp me. If I had a weekend off the Internet, then on Monday, I just have a huge inbox.”
Similar anxieties were expressed by Patrick, a 24-year old part-time radio producer who barely sees his partner, Adam, since their schedules rarely align. Yet Patrick admitted “I do get a pang of sadness” when the pair were home at the same time, but both absorbed in their individual computer screens. The author dubs this being ‘together alone’.
Gregg says that maintaining an emotional distance in these scenarios is “one of the challenges of this kind of research, because you’re always needing to retain objectivity in the moment of the interview, and to say as little as possible to affect them telling you what’s really going on.”
She says that “a number of the interviews were quite shocking to me, and did make me feel that there was merit in having people talking about these issues, because they could at least become prominent in their minds for a while, to see just how much they could recognise their relationships had changed within the family structure.”
Though Gregg says she’s “no shining example” in contrast to the work/life issues raised by her interviewees, she hopes that people “take a little more independent action to refuse the pace of their workplace. Teamwork culture is very coercive because of the rhetoric of collegiality and friendship, so it does make it very difficult for people to resist. But that’s not going to stop me recommending that people do it.”