All posts tagged feature

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Higher Calling: Lachlan Smart’, June 2016

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Magazine, published in the June 25-26 issue. Excerpt below.

    Higher Calling

    A small aircraft, a 45,000km journey, a dream to be the youngest person to circle the globe solo. Talk about ambition.

    twam_lachlan

    Visibility is zero inside this dense body of rain clouds as the four-seater plane tracks away from Sunshine Coast Airport and over coastal waters. Pockets of air within the grey mass buffet the plane unpredictably, as if a higher power is shaking the Cirrus SR22 like dice inside a giant fist. It’s the sort of uncomfortable ascent that would make the pilot’s mother worry.

    But on this Thursday afternoon in early June the fresh-faced, blue-eyed young man in the cockpit has absolute faith in the technology that powers his plane through this brief moment of turbulence and into clear air. He has faith in a higher purpose, too, and it has driven him to attempt to achieve something remarkable.

    Lachlan Smart, 18, is leaving home behind and striking out on his own. Next month, he will set off from this same airport towards Nadi, Fiji, a 10-hour trip. From there, it’s on to Christmas Island, then Hawaii, Iceland and France, followed by Egypt, Sri Lanka and Indonesia; 24 legs in all, on a journey that will circumnavigate the planet and – all going well – claim a world record.

    Smart’s only companion throughout the trip, covering almost 45,000km on five continents across seven weeks, will be Freddy the Teddy. The handsome bear wears a brown aviator’s jacket and goggles and sits on the dashboard facing the pilot, his mouth a single black line fixed in a smile. Underneath Freddy’s furry feet is an array of screens and instruments that all make perfect sense to this adventurous teenager.

    A fortnight ago, Smart clocked up 40 hours while heading west to Alice Springs, then southeast to Launceston before returning home. All up he has logged 210 flight hours, more than half of which were solo. If all goes to plan, his around-the world trip will roughly double that number by the time his wheels hit the tarmac in late August.

    ++

    Through gaps in the clouds, Smart can see the endless swell of the ocean and streaks in the aqua indicating sand bars off Stradbroke Island. Sometimes he can spot dugongs, but not today. There is, however, a full rainbow. To his right he can see the built-up areas of his home on the Sunshine Coast, then the state capital, and then the high-rises of Surfers Paradise bordered by white caps and a long, unbroken line of yellow sand.

    Through his headset, he hears the air-traffic controller at Gold Coast Airport tell another pilot there’s a Cirrus in the queue ahead of him. “He’s done pretty well,” says the fast-talking male voice, offering a rare compliment amid the businesslike call-and-response. Hearing this, Smart can’t help but crack a smile. “Thanks, mate,” he says.

    After touching down flawlessly in the wet conditions, he taxis his leased aircraft to a nearby hangar, where he drops into technical support centre Complete Avionics and banters with the owner about a minor issue with an instrument that appears to be malfunctioning, emitting a series of loud beeps whenever autopilot is disengaged. Service notes duly logged for the technicians’ attention, Smart heads back to the airstrip towards another Cirrus SR22 that’s almost identical to the one he flew. Its white-haired owner, Rodney Peachey, 69, offers the pilot’s seat to his young friend, who powers up the aircraft, submits a flight plan, gains clearance and takes off into what has become a beautiful early winter afternoon.

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

  • Qweekend story: ‘School Of Hard Knocks: Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital School’, April 2016

    A feature story for Qweekend magazine, published in the April 9-10 issue. The full story appears below.

    School Of Hard Knocks

    Sick children need schooling too. At Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital School, learning proves positively infectious.

    Qweekend story: 'School Of Hard Knocks: Lady Cilento Children's Hospital School' by Andrew McMillen, April 2016

    ++

    In a light-filled corner room of a high-rise building overlooking inner-city Brisbane, a visiting local artist leads a class of six rowdy students. Aged between five and seven years old, they are tasked with creating artworks that illustrate their lives. A handful of the best drawings from this schoolwide project will be sent to China, where a school has a reciprocal arrangement. But it’s unlikely the Chinese students will be able to relate to the experience of these children – they are enrolled in a school very few families in Queensland choose to attend. This is the state’s only dedicated hospital school.

    Sam Cranstoun presents a cheerful front to the kids’ steady stream of questions and comments. The 28-year-old artist asks the four boys and two girls to use crayons to draw what they like to do. Camping, swimming, board games and PlayStation 4 rank highly, before one boy offers another option with a quizzical look. “School?” he asks, unsure of himself. He is testing the waters: is it cool to admit, at age seven, that you like school? “I’m sure your teacher will love hearing that!” says Sam, flashing a smile to the adults across the room. Gemma Rose-Holt, six, draws a swimming pool at the bottom of an enormous piece of paper, then a sun shining high in the sky. In the last couple of years, she has seen her father’s health rapidly decline for reasons she can’t quite fathom.

    Sam continues with the exercise by asking them to consider their place in the world. “Is China bigger than Gladstone?” asks one boy. They talk about their families and school. “Do you guys think about home?” asks the artist. “Yes!” they reply as one, before throwing their talents into happy drawings of the back yards and bedrooms they have left behind.

    “There’s an amazing view out the window,” says Sam, pointing behind the students. “Do you guys ever look out there?” At this, the six kids scamper to the windows, pressing their faces against the glass and pointing out the landmarks they can see from the eighth floor of the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in South Brisbane, which the Prep to Year 2 pupils are visiting for their art class. They can see Mount Coot-tha, the murky river, the Story Bridge in the distance. “I can see the cat-boat!” announces one boy, spying a blue, white and yellow ferry as it powers against the tide. “I can see bull sharks!” suggests another, prompting a laugh from the teaching staff. Not many schools have a helicopter pad on the roof, nor a giant pink bunny rabbit sculpture standing sentry near the entrance. Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital School (LCCHS) has both of these, and when its students are asked to sketch the school, these two features inevitably emerge on the page.

    For their final task, Sam turns these young minds toward imagining their future. “What do we want to be?” he asks them, prompting a flurry of ideas. Teacher? Doctor? Journalist? Soldier? McDonald’s worker? Power Ranger? “I don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up,” says Gemma. She draws a nurse standing beside a bed-bound patient wearing a big smile. That’s her father, Damien. He has no hair because the medicine took it away. “The medicine’s yuck, but he has to have it,” she tells Sam. Little Gemma lives with her mother near the RNA Showgrounds, away from her Sunshine Coast home in accommodation subsidised by the Leukaemia Foundation, while Damien receives treatment.

    The students who attend this school are bound by a common experience of illness: either their parents’, their siblings’, or their own. They are from Emerald, Cairns, Chinchilla, Bundaberg and Hervey Bay; from every corner of the state. For some of them, it is their first visit to Brisbane, and the circumstances are less than ideal. Entire families are uprooted from their normal lives and relocated to temporary housing reserved for people in crisis. Their parents have got so much on their plates when they come here that sometimes the last thing on their mind is phoning a school, notifying a teacher about what might become an extended absence from their normal classroom. These tasks fade from view when the spectre of death suddenly appears in sharp focus. Into the breach rush 24 hospital school teaching staff, a compassionate, capable bunch of professionals adept at crafting an individualised education that will define these stricken children.

    The school’s impact is wide-ranging, and it sees a diverse population. In 2015, Lady Cilento hospital had 3159 registered students, more than two-thirds of whom normally attended state schools. Of that number, the largest cohort of 21 per cent (663 students) presented with medical conditions; 17 per cent (538) were there for oncology; 13 per cent (410) attended the school because a member of their family was ill, and nine per cent (284) were patients with the Child and Youth Mental Health Service –  which is also located on level eight at the hospital – while the remainder found their way there for reasons related to the likes of surgery, diabetes, rehabilitation and heart disease.

    More often than not, the hospital teachers’ efforts work wonders for the children and their families. During a midweek excursion to the Gallery of Modern Art at nearby South Bank, Mitchell Cawthray, 12, cautiously approaches a teacher watching over the group of about two dozen students as they eat lunch. He wears a black T-shirt that reads “The Force is Strong In This One”, reflecting an indelible truth of this blue-eyed boy’s tough character. His light brown hair is shaved close to his scalp, and when he turns his head, you can see the scar on the back of his neck where the life-threatening medulloblastoma tumour was removed from the top of his spine almost a year ago. “Are you having a good day so far?” asks the teacher cheerfully. “Great day,” Mitchell replies, nodding. He pauses, weighing his words carefully, then looks around to make sure none of his peers overhear his next words. With a shy smile, he says, “I’ve never really said this before, but I think I like school now!”

    ++

    Most children go through childhood without great complications, and without seeing the insides of healthcare waiting rooms for longer than it takes to receive an immunisation jab, to set an accidental bone fracture in plaster, or to go through the motions of a doctor’s check-up. Mitchell, Gemma and their peers are the unlucky few, and the LCCH treats Queensland’s sickest of the sick. All of the “first-world problems”, as Mitchell’s mum, Janine Cawthray, puts it, fade into irrelevance when your child is diagnosed with brain cancer.

    In Mitchell’s case, he and Janine relocated to Brisbane at Easter time last year for his treatment, while his father stayed home in Hervey Bay, managing their small business and caring for Mitchell’s sister as she completed Year 12. “I take my hat off to the teachers,” says Janine. “They not only have to deal with normal academic requirements as per the curriculum; they have to deal with a multitude of personalities – from parents, medical staff – as well as medical requirements and children’s individual needs. They also have to report back to the children’s mainstream school. They’re juggling all of that, and that’s a hard call, but they manage it very, very well.”

    In the middle of the building, on level eight, is a place where a familiar timetable reigns between the hours of 9am and 3pm each weekday. It is a place of whiteboards and colouring-in; of assigned readings and class discussions. It is a place of boring adult words such as literacy, numeracy, curriculum, assessment and “personal learning plans”. For some families, the hospital school quickly becomes the only constant in a life now marked by endless blood tests, chemotherapy and invasive surgery, and – sometimes – dramatically shortened horizons.

    None of these horrible things happen on level eight, however, where the LCCHS middle and senior classrooms serve an ever-changing cohort of students from Years 5 to 12. Nor do horrible things happen on the ground-floor junior school next door, on Stanley Street inside the old Mater Hospital building, where Prep to Year 4 students are taught. In young lives that have suddenly been dropped into seas of anxiety, pain and uncertainty, these two campuses emerge as towering islands of normality.

    There are no school bells here. No uniform, and no rules, per se, only three expectations: be safe, be respectful, and be responsible. Teachers are not known by stuffy honorifics; the students are on a first-name basis with their educators and support staff from the first day. Though visits to these islands of normality are usually short-term matters, these two school campuses can easily act as a home base for months on end, depending on circumstances.

    This unique style of teaching has its roots in doctor-soldiers and military nurses returning from World War I in 1918 and concerning themselves with the rehabilitation, retraining and education of limbless soldiers. From that point, it took only a short leap of logic to twig that children ensconced in hospitals required special schooling, too. The Sick Children’s Provisional School opened at the Hospital for Sick Children in the bayside suburb of Shorncliffe on August 11, 1919; it was the nation’s first such educational institution. Since then, it has been relocated several times. A purpose-built school at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Herston opened in 1978; in 2009, it celebrated 90 years of service to more than 60,000 pupils.

    Vicki Sykes was the longest-serving principal of Mater Hospital Special School in South Brisbane, which opened in 1983.  Appointed in 1986, she served 23 years before retiring in 2009; today, the junior school playground is dedicated in her name with a handsome plaque. In 1986, Sykes described her workplace. “Students come to school from the wards in pyjamas and wheelchairs,” she wrote in an unpublished memoir. “Some are on crutches or have their arms or legs bandaged. During the day some students may need to go off for operations or medical treatment. Teachers don’t know from day to day how many students will be coming to school.”

    In that sense, little has changed since the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital School opened on December 1, 2014.  Its purpose is defined by Professor John Pearn in his 2009 history of Queensland’s hospital schools, To Teach The Sick. “Unrealised long-term educational potential has, in the past, been an under-acknowledged legacy of childhood illness,” wrote Pearn in the book’s introduction. “In the context of life’s fulfilment, such may be more serious than any medical after-effects.”

    ++

    The school’s average weekly enrolment is about 150 students, and the student-to-teacher ratio is about seven-to-one.  About half of the students are too ill to make it to either of the two campuses at Lady Cilento, so the teachers come to them, providing bedside tuition. They set daily assignments, and return regularly to check their progress. Depending on scheduling, these ward visits might only last 15 minutes if a teacher has a long list of inpatient appointments. But for the bed-bound students, they might also be the only minutes in a day where they are given a task and purpose that’s divorced from their unfortunate medical reality.

    When visiting a couple of beautiful sisters from Springfield Lakes who have been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a palpable sense of cabin fever permeates their immediate environment. Their world has shrunken to a cruel size. Little girls aged six and eight don’t belong in a small room separated by white curtains, behind a door that must remain closed at all times, and where visitors must wear gloves and gowns before entering to minimise the risk of transmitting infections.

    “Homework” is an imperfect word to describe the learning tasks set by these teachers, since the sisters’ entire lives are confined to this room. The hospital, for now, is both their home and classroom. Mid-lesson, a nurse enters to prick their fingers for a blood test. As the precious red liquid is squeezed from a tiny finger, the blonde girl calmly continues reading along to a picture book named Mr Gumpy’s Motor Car with her impromptu teacher, who leaves several worksheets for her to complete. She has long since been conditioned to something that would prompt tears from most other six year-olds.

    For these teachers, visiting inpatients on the wards requires a sense of persistence, positivity and optimism. Every day, these teachers see amazing and terrible things, such as degenerative neurological conditions that strip language and meaning from a young boy’s life with each passing week.

    From his bedside, it’s a short walk to visit a young girl in a wheelchair whose body hosts a flesh-eating viral infection that has left her face disfigured and her forearms resembling those of a burns victim, wrapped in plastic for her protection. Tourism is her passion, and so the ward teachers resolve to bring her homework that suits this interest.

    These teachers are not medical professionals. They cannot fix these problems or treat pain. They can, however, provide stimulation for young minds, if only for 15 minutes each day.

    ++

    After lunch on Thursday, the junior school students file into the flexi-room on level eight for school assembly.  Only Prep to Year 4 are in attendance, as the middle and senior grades are still on an all-day excursion to GoMA. Brianna Iszlaub, 11, with patchy tufts of blonde hair, couldn’t attend the latter as her blood count was down today. She stands beside a girl in a wheelchair as the two of them co-host the weekly event, beginning with an Acknowledgment of Country and an energetic, indigenous-flavoured rendition of the national anthem. “Thank you, please be seated,” says Brianna at its conclusion. School staff and a few parents are scattered around the edges of the dozens-strong group, while the students sit in chairs or on cushions.

    Once Brianna finishes reading from the prepared script, hospital school principal Michelle Bond says to her, “Good girl.” A short and energetic woman who radiates positivity, Michelle, 49, welcomes the younger students to stand up and present their handmade graphs based on a recent visit to a petting zoo downstairs. The principal – who led Royal Children’s Hospital School since April 24, 2006, and LCCHS since it opened – then presents a handful of awards: to an outstanding student who has shown consideration to his peers; to one who has overcome challenges; to one who has made a positive start after joining the school this week. The group sings happy birthday to a shy blonde girl. “Some of these kids would never be chosen to lead an assembly at their own school; they usually choose the school captains and the sporty kids,” Michelle tells Qweekend quietly. “I’ve had parents come and tell me that their child has never received an award before coming here. It’s lovely that we can do that for them.”

    The class’s guest for the day, University of Queensland PhD candidate Maddie Castles, cues a PowerPoint presentation loaded with photos from her recent visit to Namibia. The title slide shows a selfie of her grinning wildly into the camera while a giraffe munches on some leaves behind her. She tells the group about her job studying giraffe social interactions, or “who they’re friends with,” as she puts it. A teacher aide quietly brings a boy in a wheelchair into the room. He is barely conscious, his head held in place by brackets. As time passes, he shuts his eyes and dozes while his classmates leap up for a group photo with Maddie, who might be the first scientist they’ve ever met.

    Posted on the door inside Brianna’s Year 7/8 composite classroom is a photo of her before treatment. Her glorious, long locks are framed by a beaming face. The photo was taken when she first arrived at the school from Townsville in January, after being diagnosed with an aggressive lymphoma in late November. Her chemotherapy has stolen her hair and some of her energy. Sometimes she prefers to hide her changing scalp beneath a black beanie with devil horns. But none of this is discussed during school hours.

    Brianna’s teacher is Anna Bauer, 35, a bespectacled brunette with sparkling brown eyes who has worked in hospital schools for three years and now can’t imagine teaching anywhere else. “No one here will ask you a medical question,” she says of her classroom. “The kids are so tolerant … You can walk in with a nasal gastric tube and a drip tree, and that’s it. We might give the drip tree a name, like ‘Molly’, and then everybody gets on with what we’re doing. It’s what I wish the real world was like.” Working here sometimes demands that the adults develop coping strategies for their own emotional protection, too. “I have to believe that, when they walk out the door, they live happily ever after,” she says.

    In Anna’s current class, Brianna has cancer; the mother of a bubbly Bundaberg girl is being treated for leukaemia; and the fiercely intelligent girl who co-hosted assembly is temporarily in a wheelchair after two recent strokes. But the students she sees aren’t confined to physical illness. “I have so many kids with mental health issues who don’t look sick,” Anna says. “They walk around without baldness, or a nasal gastric tube, or a limp, or a drip tree. There’s no physical evidence, so there’s a real lack of recognition that there’s something wrong with your child. I’m not a parent yet, but oh my God – how awful must that be?”

    During Anna’s second week of teaching at the hospital, a student from the previous day didn’t arrive. When she asked a colleague about their sudden absence, she learnt they were being treated in the emergency department after attempting to end their life. “I took that quite badly,” says Anna quietly. That was when her happily-ever-after belief began to cement itself, as a self-protective measure.

    Some days are worse than others. “You’re on and lifting, all of the time,” says Anna. “But I find it quite humbling, and incredibly powerful, that it’s my job to make their lives feel normal. It can be sad sometimes, but most of the time, it is not; it is joyous, happy, friendly, loving and supportive. The children are sick, but I’m not a health worker. When I’m in here, and they’re so excited to see me, because I’m not a doctor or a nurse, there’s no time to be sad. You’ve got spelling and times tables to do, and we’re going to have fun while we do it.”

    Posted on the door inside Anna’s classroom, beneath the class photos of smiling children at eye level, is a laminated A4 page consisting of a paragraph of white text against a black background, framed by a pink border. I want a life that sizzles and pops, it begins. That first line popped into Anna’s head a little while ago, on a particularly bad day, when her class of six teenage girls were all in a low mood. “And I don’t want to get to the end, or tomorrow even, and realise that my life is a collection of Post-its and unwashed clothes, bad television and reports that no-one’s ever read,” it continues.

    The teacher was getting nothing out of them, that day, so she put the spelling lesson aside and assigned the girls a task: to write about what makes them feel better. Anna kicked them off with that first sentence, and encouraged them to fill the page. She did, too. “I want to see what I see through the lens of a camera and drink wine like it’s real grapes and wrap myself in warm towels that smell like my mum’s washing and dance to songs I don’t even like,” she wrote.

    The girls pasted the text into an online image editing program, fiddled with the design, printed the results and took them home to stick on their walls. These pages were intended to act as a reminder of all that is good in this world, especially on the blackest days. Anna stuck hers to the wall of a classroom where nobody will ask medical questions, in a building that none of the children particularly want to be in. Her paragraph concludes, “I want to wrap my hands around warm cups of tea with friends that will make me laugh so hard I wee a little bit, and I want every day to belly laugh with my people, glad and grateful, that I love the life I have.”

     

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Different Strokes: Anthony Lister’, April 2016

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Magazine, published in the April 9-10 issue. Excerpt below.

    Different Strokes

    Renowned street artist Anthony Lister was paid to beautify public spaces – then he was arrested for it.The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'Different Strokes: Anthony Lister' by Andrew McMillen, April 2016

    One of Australia’s great modern artists traipses up and down the inner-city streets of his home town wearing a high-visibility yellow vest atop a white polo shirt and shorts. His tool today is not charcoal, paintbrush or aerosol can but an extendable claw that he uses to pick up rubbish from the footpaths and gutters of Spring Hill, Brisbane. On this gloomy Saturday morning in mid-February, Anthony Lister is ­performing community service because two weeks earlier a magistrate found him guilty of ­wilful damage by graffiti in a case brought by Brisbane City Council – which first encouraged Lister to paint its traffic signal boxes in 1999.

    The irony of this situation is not lost on a man who rejects the label “artist” in favour of “adventure painter”. Lister donated his time for that council initiative, painting 120 boxes in total. In the years that followed he was paid to paint more of them by the Department of Main Roads, earning him enough to set out on the path to international renown. Yet in an abrupt about-face several years ago, BCC endeavoured to make an example of the artist whose work they once encouraged. This morning, a man whose artistic ethos is to beautify degraded ­public spaces with paint is now tasked with beautifying them by picking up rubbish.

    A middle-aged Queensland Government worker meets the crew, comprising Lister and three fellow ­community servants, at a Corrective Services building on Little Edward Street at 9am and chaperones them on a winding route through the neighbourhood. Had the government worker typed Lister’s name into Google, he would have found recent news articles which note that ­Lister’s bold, provocative works hang in the homes of Hugh Jackman, Geoffrey Rush and the musician Pink. He would have seen that Lister’s individual paintings can sell for up to $20,000, that Art Collector magazine has listed him as one of Australia’s most collectable artists, that ­Complex named him among the most influential street artists of all time and that luxury brand Hermès gave over its window in Collins Street, Melbourne, to a Lister installation last year.

    As the community servants pass the Australian Federal Police headquarters and St Andrew’s War Memorial hospital, their black plastic bags grow heavier with each squashed aluminium can and discarded plastic bottle they snatch with their extendable claws. Lister, a boyish 36-year-old and father of three, smiles often and ­presents an air of playful charisma that infects those around him. He speaks quickly, at a near-manic pace. He is an idealist and an optimist who, in recent years, has taken it upon himself to act as a mouthpiece for street artists.

    Past Brisbane Grammar School and the ­bustling Roma Street railyards they walk, noting the dearth of tagged graffiti that once coloured the walls neighbouring the carriages and train lines; they are now painted a uniform grey. The group tramps past six signal boxes that Lister painted around the turn of the century. They have since been refreshed with other artists’ work, but he remembers them well. There are around 1000 of these throughout Brisbane, and after painting 120 of them for BCC for free, an agreement with the Department of Main Roads allowed Lister to charge $250 a piece for 40 of these paintings, earning him his first $10,000 as an artist and setting him on the path to financial independence.

    “He did a tremendous job with the signal boxes and should be commended for it,” says David Hinchliffe, Brisbane’s former deputy mayor, who first commissioned Lister’s work on the BCC boxes in 1999. “He should be given the keys to the city in my opinion.” All up, Lister left his mark and his surname on about 160 signal boxes, turning drab, utilitarian electrical cabinets into unique canvases that added colour and personality to the days of thousands of drivers idling at red lights throughout the city.

    In court, Lister admitted that he painted two Fortitude Valley walls, a Paddington skateboard park wall, a city firehose box and a steel garage door in Elizabeth Street. He says that of the five sites, two were painted with the permission of the buildings’ owners, while two were additions to other artists’ works. The charge that stuck related to one of Lister’s iconic faces, drawn on a firehose box in January 2014 in black Sharpie and tagged with his name. The police complaint and restitution reports for each of the five incidents, recorded between 2010 and 2014, show that none was deemed offensive. “If I’d been more criminally minded, maybe I wouldn’t have written my name on the wall,” Lister notes.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian. Above photo credit: Jonathan Camí.

  • The Weekend Australian Review story: ‘In From The Cold: Vivica Genaux’, April 2016

    A story for The Weekend Australian Review, which appeared on the cover of the April 2-3 issue. Excerpt below.

    In From The Cold

    Vivica Genaux: from an Alaskan log cabin to the world stage

    ++

    The Weekend Australian Review cover story: 'In From The Cold: Vivica Genaux' by Andrew McMillen, April 2016For a girl raised in Alaska, traditional gender stereotypes tended to be trumped by practicality. Jewellery, make-up and flashy clothing are much less important than staying warm or, say, learning how to quickly change a car tyre during a nine-month winter. It’s a harsh environment that demands self-reliance and resilience from its inhabitants. So it was for Vivica Genaux, one of the world’s leading mezzosopranos, who spent her first 17 years living in a log cabin in a valley outside the town of Fairbanks.

    Today home to a metro population of 97,000, Fairbanks is commonly known as America’s coldest city, where temperatures sometimes drop below minus 50C. “Growing up in Alaska, you had to be useful and functional, more than masculine or feminine,” she says. “You had to be strong and capable of confronting difficult environmental situations.” Old habits die hard: despite a successful and acclaimed career in the performing arts, Genaux still prides herself on an ability to solve problems and fix things — “Duct tape is a big thing in Alaska!” — and carrying a Swiss Army knife everywhere, just in case. Except when carrying luggage on to an aircraft, of course.

    Her home-town climate meant the young girl had to become comfortable with spending most of her time indoors, encased within the warmth of four walls. Genaux was drawn to artistic expression from a young age: she experimented with dance, pottery, stained glass-making, ballet, orchestra and jazz choir. Big band practice was scheduled before school. While some of her friends missed class for days on end due to being snowed in, Genaux’s mother taught high-school English and foreign languages, so absenteeism was never an option. “My mum had to be at school at 7am anyway, so I might as well do something,” she recalls with a laugh. “I’d get up at six o’clock, and there was Orion — which has always been my favourite constellation — smack-dab in front of me as I walked out into the 40-below.”

    One art form that didn’t take with the young performer was opera. She was no stranger to classical music; she played violin for nine years in the school orchestra, and her father — a biochemistry professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks — would listen to symphonies as he graded papers. Opera was where she drew the line, though: Genaux’s vacuuming duties not-so-coincidentally overlapped with her mother tuning into Met Opera broadcasts. “I hated it!” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t know anything about opera. I always completely avoided it when I was growing up. But when I started singing, I learned that it was so much fun as a form of expression. I just loved it. There was an opportunity for expressing anything, and as a nervous, timid, shy girl, I found that I could really get my guts into it.”

    Call it fate or fortune but the music worked its way into Genaux’s heart, and this happy pairing has been humanity’s gain. She studied at Indiana University, where she received a bachelors degree in vocal performance, before spending five summers in Italy with the Ezio Pinza Council for American Singers of Opera. Her career as a recording and performing artist began at age 24, and more than two decades later, this voice from the cold has built an extraordinary repertoire of baroque and bel canto music. She has inspired words such as these from The New York Times in 2006: “Her voice is as striking as her looks: less striking, even, for the light, free upper notes or rich chocolatey lower ones than for the runs of coloratura that she releases with jackhammer speed, gunfire precision and the limpid continuity of spring raindrops.”

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

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

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

    The Cop At The End Of The World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Etched In Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    For more about Sands Queensland, visit sandsqld.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Man In Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ++

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

    Photography by Russell Shakespeare.

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

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

    View To A Kill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • CNET story: ‘Ingress: The Friendliest Turf War on Earth’, February 2015

    A feature story for CNET; excerpt below.

    Ingress: The Friendliest Turf War on Earth

    We embed in the field and go behind the scenes of Google’s augmented reality game, Ingress. Is walking through the streets of hundreds of countries the future of gaming?

    CNET story: 'Ingress: The Friendliest Turf War on Earth' by Andrew McMillen, February 2015

    Eleven of us gather deep in the enemy heartland on a balmy Sunday evening to partake in Operation: Green Court. Meeting in secret, we are agents of the Enlightened, a faction which seeks to advance society through our actions. The enemy will be unaware of our presence until we begin attacking and capturing a long corridor of their prized portals, flipping them from blue to green while figuratively flipping them the bird. Our movements must be coordinated and efficient, as it won’t be long before we attract the attention of the Resistance, the opposing faction which fears change and seeks to crush our idealism and progress.

    In actuality, we are 10 adults and one child meeting on a street corner to bond over our smartphones — specifically, an app called Ingress, a free-to-play augmented reality game that has been downloaded over 8 million times and is being played in more than 200 countries.

    The massively multiplayer mobile game encourages its players to walk around the real world, using data overlaid atop Google Maps to attack and defend real-world public locations known as “portals”. Our common goal for this operation is to turn the suburb green — the colour of the Enlightened, and the colour of the shirt of Aladrin, the 39 year-old agent who arranged this operation via Google+ earlier in the week.

    Milton — an inner-city suburb of Brisbane, Australia — is usually coated in blue, thanks to the dedicated efforts of its Resistance population, many of whom work at nearby IT firms. Our own neighbourhood, just across the Brisbane River, is firmly green-held, but on this Sunday night we’ve set out to ruffle a few blue feathers. Owing to their team colour, Resistance players are commonly referred to as “Smurfs”. The Enlightened tend to self-identify as “frogs”.

    Among the eleven of us is Apocs85, a dedicated level 15 agent who is widely known and respected as the unofficial guardian of Brisbane’s West End. The 29-year-old loves his day job of testing video games, and his Ingress statistics show that he has walked 118 kilometres (73 miles) in the last week while defending and rebuilding portals throughout the inner-city.

    Niantic’s ‘success failure’

    In-game action is shown on our smartphone screens, which act as “scanners” to reveal the portals located all around us. They’re invisible to the naked eye, but with Ingress loaded on our Android or iOS devices, we’re able to see portals attached to structures, artwork, historic locations and buildings of cultural significance — train stations, public parks and post offices are three common examples.

    The portal locations are user-submitted and manually checked by staff at Niantic Labs, the game’s Google-owned developer, to ensure their accuracy and suitability. Globally, more than 3 million such locations have been approved so far, in numbers far greater than expected when the game was first released as a public beta version in November 2012.

    “At Google, we call that a ‘success failure’,” says Niantic Labs founder John Hanke with a chuckle. “It’s a failure because it’s so successful: lots of people submitted portals, which is great, but now it’s more than we can really handle to keep the response time down.”

    To read the full story, visit CNET.