All posts tagged story

  • The Saturday Paper story: ‘The Other Worlds Game: League of Legends and eSports’, October 2016

    A feature story for The Saturday Paper, published in the October 29 2016 issue. Excerpt below.

    The Other Worlds Game

    With hundreds of millions of players, online gaming now has professional ‘eSport’ competitions watched by huge global crowds.

    The Saturday Paper story by Andrew McMillen: 'The Other Worlds Game: League of Legends and eSports', October 2016. Photo by Dylan Esguerra

    Ten young men sit on a stage behind computer monitors deftly manoeuvring mouses and frantically stabbing at keyboards. These two teams of five are the best in Australia at a game called League of Legends, and it is their full-time job to stare at screens while attempting to outsmart their opposition. On a pedestal between them sits the winner’s prize: the Oceanic Pro League (OPL) cup, a gleaming silver trophy lit at all times by an overhead spotlight. Facing the stage is a raucous crowd of 2000 fans who have each paid $26 to sit on a hard plastic seat at the South Bank Piazza, in Brisbane’s inner city, and cheer on their favourite team.

    Hundreds have dressed in custom-made costumes based on their favourite game characters. Two commentators provide a running dialogue of the action, which is displayed on three enormous screens above the players and their machines. Wearing headphones to block external sound, the players communicate with each other via headsets. A battery of green and blue LED lights flashes overhead, while at the front edge of the stage live webcams capture the gamers’ facial expressions above their gaming nicknames: among them Swip3rR, Tally, k1ng and Raes.

    There are also tens of thousands of fans watching the OPL grand final at home on Fox Sports, at several cinemas around the country, and streaming the footage online around the world. Welcome to eSports, short for “electronic sports”. Such competitions have been enormously popular overseas for years, particularly in South Korea, where strategy games such as StarCraft and Defense of the Ancients – or DoTA in the online world’s abbreviated fashion – are watched and played by millions. The OPL 2016 grand final is Brisbane’s best-attended live eSports event to date, and one of the biggest yet held in Australia.

    League of Legends is the world’s most popular online game – the most recent figures this year show that 100 million players log on to its servers each month. LoL is a multiplayer online battle game, where each player controls a “champion” with its own strengths, weaknesses and special moves.

    Leading the Legacy eSports club is Tim “Carbon” Wendel, a 24-year-old health sciences graduate whose boyish features offset a lanky athlete’s body. “It’s kind of a mix between basketball and chess,” he explains. “It’s five-a-side, every person has an individual role, in the same way you’ll only have one centre or point guard, and you’re always moving. It’s obviously a lot less physical, and very strategic like chess, but the difference there is that it’s in real time.”

    Beside him sits Aaron “ChuChuZ” Bland, Legacy’s second-longest-serving member, a 19-year-old in a black hoodie and dark-rimmed glasses. The five members of this minor-premiership-winning team live in a share house in Sydney’s western suburbs with their coach, An “Minkywhale” Trinh. They spend about six hours a day training together by playing friendly matches with other teams. There are also regular video reviews of their performances, and individual practice is expected on top of that. Heading into events such as this, the players will spend up to 12 hours a day in front of a screen.

    To read the full story, visit The Saturday Paper. Above photo credit: Dylan Esguerra.

  • 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 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.

  • GQ Australia story: ‘Does Australia Care About Saving The Great Barrier Reef?’, January 2016

    A story for GQ Australia, published in January 2016. Excerpt below.

    Does Australia Care About Saving The Great Barrier Reef?

    Australia’s most valuable tourist asset grows weaker each year. What’s being done to save the Great Barrier Reef?

    GQ Australia story: 'Does Australia Care About Saving The Great Barrier Reef?' by Andrew McMillen, January 2016

    “Daddy, is the reef dying?”

    Hearing those five words from the mouth of his five year-old son was enough to bring Professor Justin Marshall to tears. Silver-haired, bespectacled and the owner of tanned skin that exhibits his enthusiasm for the outdoors, the 54 year-old is a neuroscientist who specialises in animal vision.

    The son of two marine biologists, Marshall knows the Great Barrier Reef better than most, which is why he had to tell his own son the truth when he was asked this question seven years ago.

    “Yes, Ben, it is,” he replied, eyes welling.

    “Why?” asked Ben, mystified.

    Seeing no point in sugar-coating his answer, Marshall said, “It’s dying because we’ve been poor guardians of it, and we keep doing the wrong thing.”

    A slightly more detailed way of putting it is that rising global sea temperatures are killing the billions of individual corals that comprise the reef. The chief cause? Man-made global warming.

    Or to get a little more technical: it’s dying because of a process called ‘coral bleaching’, in conjunction with complicating factors such as pollution runoff from Queensland’s farmlands, shipping channel activity linked to the state’s coal mining exports, and the proliferation of a tough, hardy critter named the crown of thorns starfish, which eats stony coral polyps and thrives in warmer water climates – such as those linked to the carbon emissions of human industry.

    None of these complicating factors is making the Great Barrier Reef healthier, by any stretch of the imagination, which means that Marshall’s son, now 12 years old, will bear witness to the continual decline of Australia’s greatest natural tourist attraction during his lifetime.

    In 2001, Marshall co-founded a non-profit citizen science project at the University of Queensland named CoralWatch. This program allows visitors to the reef to use the colour of coral as an indicator of its health, and report their findings.

    Equipped with a waterproof chart developed by Marshall and his colleagues, divers and snorkelers can inspect the creatures – which, together, form the planet’s biggest single structure made by living organisms – up close, in order to provide meaningful data on the extent of bleaching.

    In turn, this information is fed back to researchers at the University of Queensland and elsewhere, for the program is used to gather reef data not just in Australia, but in 70 countries.

    Like all citizen science projects, from bird-watching to mapping freshwater turtle activity, CoralWatch is founded on a simple principle of inclusivity. Its ethos is based on a memorable concept: tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I will learn.

    By handing the average punter a simple mechanism to evaluate coral health while diving, then allowing them to upload their findings to a centralised server via website orsmartphone app, the effect is one of empowerment. Rather than the Great Barrier Reef being a faraway, abstract notion that occasionally flashes across our screens before disappearing again, for those involved with CoralWatch, it becomes a three-dimensional, concrete concept.

    Importantly, it becomes something they’ll discuss passionately with those closest to them.

    To read the full story, visit GQ Australia.

  • 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.

  • Qweekend story: ‘The Player: John Collins and The Triffid’, November 2014

    A story for the November 1-2 issue of Qweekend magazine. The full story appears below.

    The Player

    Making it as a muso is a hard act to follow, but ex-Powderfinger bassist John Collins is rolling the dice with his new gig in venue management.

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David Kelly

    by Andrew McMillen / Photography by David Kelly

    ++

    For now, the only music heard in this room comes from a dust-coated radio audible in intermittent bursts between a dissonant symphony of hammering, grinding and sawing. Shortly, though, this formerly vacant hangar in Newstead, in Brisbane’s inner-north, will come alive with the sounds of live music. On this midweek morning in early October, John “JC” Collins wears a blue hard hat and bright yellow high-visibility vest atop a black dress shirt and blue jeans. Transforming this building from a forgotten shell into what Collins hopes will become a shining light in Brisbane’s sparkling live music scene has occupied much of the past two years of his life.

    Thick, black electrical cables snake down from the curved ceiling. At the far end of the hangar, a hip-high raised stage sits at the foot of a brick wall painted bright green. Its sizeable main hall and mezzanine will accommodate up to 800 guests. It will be the first significant venue to open in the inner city since West End’s 1200 capacity Hi-Fi debuted in 2009.

    Outside, in the beer garden, a temporary worksite office is stacked atop shipping containers that will function as bars and a kitchen. In the adjacent “band garden”, green astroturf leads through to a stage door being painted grey. As Collins tours the construction site while consulting with a squad of architects, acoustic engineers and insulation specialists, The Triffid’s distinctive look and feel is slowly taking shape all around him. What began as an aspiration is very nearly a live, loud reality.

    From the mezzanine vantage point, the team of hard-hats inspects the original rainwater-tank roof. It’s been kept intact, but perforated with thousands of finger-sized holes and stacked with several layers of insulation in order to absorb the venue’s maximum volume of 110 decibels – and, hopefully, to stop future nearby residents from complaining about the noise. The former industrial hub of Newstead is on the cusp of a property boom set to rival neighbouring Teneriffe and New Farm; across from the venue, five residential towers comprising 900 apartments will soon sprout.

    Tapping the 60-year-old ribbed roof, lead architect Mick Hellen says with a smile: “This was JC’s bright idea, but it’s the worst possible shape for a music venue.” Collins laughs, and shoots back: “It’s still better than a square box, though. Hey, it worked for The Beatles at the Cavern Club,” he says, referring to the Liverpool venue where Beatlemania was born. Who knows what The Triffid will mean in time to emerging Brisbane acts?

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David Kelly

    ++

    When The Triffid opens its steel doors next Saturday, it will be almost four years to the day since the former Powderfinger bassist joined his bandmates for their final public performance at Brisbane Riverstage. The intervening years have not been particularly relaxing for Collins, 44, a restless soul who searched high and low for a project in which to invest his energy. After a two-decade career in which his identity was synonymous with four fellow musicians united under what became a household name, Collins initially struggled to find his own way.

    In the two years following the band’s November 2010 finale, Collins hired a desk at a friend’s business in inner-north Bowen Hills with the intention of giving his days structure and purpose, and separating his work aspirations from his home life at Morningside, in the city’s east. There were protracted investigations into business ventures in race cars and printing companies, as well as extended travels with his wife of 14 years, Tara, and their children, 10-year-old twins Grace and Rosie and Scarlett, 7.

    Eventually, he threw his weight behind the idea of a live music venue and after months of location scouting in the surrounding suburbs, he found the empty hangar on Stratton Street. Collins met with its owner in February 2013 and spent almost a year working through proposals, budgets and designs. “It was a tough year, because I felt like we had a good idea between us,” he says now. “I felt really strongly about it; I hadn’t felt this strongly since the ‘Fingers started. It was a gut feeling.”

    Born in Murgon, 250km north-west of Brisbane, on April 27, 1970, Collins grew up in the town of Kerry near Beaudesert, 85km south of the capital. While attending boarding school at Brisbane Grammar in inner-city Spring Hill, he met fellow boarder Steven Bishop, with whom he shared a love for music. The pair began playing with another student, Ian Haug, after the budding guitarist noticed Collins wearing a handmade shirt that advertised Sydney band Sunnyboys. The trio formed the first iteration of Powderfinger in late 1988, and while Bishop vacated the drum kit in 1991, the three men occasionally play together in a band called the Predators, whose debut EP, Pick Up The Pace, was released in 2006.

    “Powderfinger was an awesome thing. I loved it,” says Collins. “I don’t expect it to ever happen again with music, but I’ve always wanted to do something else. That was part of the decision to stop [in 2010], because if we’d stopped in our fifties, things would have been tougher; we worked through half our working lives.” In the intervening four years, singer Bernard Fanning and guitarist Darren Middleton have proceeded with solo careers, drummer Jon Coghill has pursued a career in journalism, and Haug has been recording at his home studio and joined Australian rock institution The Church. “It’s taken me three years to get that next act going,” says Collins.

    ++

    Its name is rooted in both literary and musical references; not just John Wyndham’s 1951 science fiction novel The Day of the Triffids, but more appropriately, the Triffids were a seminal Australian band based in Perth during the 1980s. “A few people have said to me, ‘Why didn’t you call it The Hangar?’” says Collins, who is one of several partners in the venture. “But that sounds more like a beer barn to me. I wanted to make sure people understood it’s a creative space, not just a place to come and skol piss. If you’re in a band, and you ask ‘Where are we playing?’ and the manager says ‘There’s this new venue in Brisbane called ‘The Triffid’, automatically you’re more inclined to think, well, okay, they must be at least a bit creative…”

    Beside the bar on the mezzanine level is an office that overlooks the lobby through glass salvaged from Powderfinger’s rehearsal space in Albion, in the city’s inner north, which was flooded a few years ago. To complete the fit-out, Collins is in the process of sourcing historic gig posters that will illustrate Brisbane’s rich musical heritage. The venue will fill a gap between The Zoo (capacity 500) and The Tivoli (1500) in Fortitude Valley, as well as The Hi-Fi on the other side of the river. “We definitely didn’t want to come in and tread on anyone’s toes,” says Collins. “Places like The Zoo, The Hi-Fi and The Tivoli are really important. We want to make the pie bigger, not take somebody’s slice.”

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David KellyAs we walk downstairs, I ask Collins what’s at stake here. “My reputation,” he replies. “And a bit of money. I’ve willingly put my name and my hand up to back this project. If it doesn’t work, my partners can walk and do another one, whereas I’ll go down with the ship. Obviously I’ve put a lot of time, energy and passion in, and I’d like it to work financially, too.”

    Haug is confident his friend and bandmate has bet on the right horse, as it were. “We’ve played so many venues around the world; he knows how to do it, so the musicians will be happy with how it’s all set out,” says Haug of Collins. “He’s surrounded himself with the best people to do sound and lighting. He didn’t think it was going to be easy, but he probably didn’t realise it would be this hard to build it from the ground up.”

    With a laugh, Haug adds: “He’ll be glad when it’s open, that’s for sure.”

    The Triffid opens on Saturday, 8 November with a line-up that includes Saskwatch, The Creases and MT Warning. thetriffid.com.au

  • Good Weekend story: ‘The Whistleblowers: Australian football referees’, July 2014

    A feature for Good Weekend, the colour magazine published with the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age each Saturday. This is my first story for the magazine. Excerpt below.

    The Whistleblowers

    Good Weekend story: 'The Whistleblowers: Australian football referees', by Andrew McMillen, July 2014

    Who’d want to be a referee – the man everybody loves to hate? Andrew McMillen talks to those prepared to make the tough calls.

    ++

    North Queensland Cowboys co-captain Johnathan Thurston has had enough. It’s an hour into a rugby league game at Sydney’s Parramatta Stadium one Friday evening in June and Thurston’s team is menacing Parramatta’s defensive line when they make a mistake, which prompts tall, muscular referee Ben Cummins to blow his whistle in favour of the home side. Thurston explodes. His team is down six points to 18 before a stridently partisan crowd of 10,142 seething Eels supporters. Beneath his trademark white headgear, the Cowboys captain is viciously mouthing off at the official. He, too, has had enough, and raises both hands skyward as a signal to stop the clock.

    “Okay, Johnathan,” begins Cummins, in a measured tone not dissimilar to a headmaster disciplining an unruly pupil. He states his reason for the stoppage: “It’s the way you’re talking.” Thurston is furious. He’s not listening. His ears are shut but his mouth continues firing. The crowd responds to this conflict between match official and enemy captain by jeering enthusiastically; their team is winning and Thurston is losing his head. The ref has heard enough.

    “Johnathan, I’m talking here,” Cummins says. “It’s the way you’re talking to me. Talk like that again and I’ll penalise you.” Having poured cold water on Thurston’s fire, Cummins blows his whistle and the game continues.

    In the tunnel between team dressing rooms prior to kick-off, it was a different story. Cummins met Thurston and Eels captain Jarryd Hayne for the ritual coin toss. The trio traded easy smiles and handshakes. After the referee introduced me to Thurston, I asked the Cowboys captain whether he’s a Ben Cummins fan. His reply came with a laugh: “I’m a referee fan, mate!”

    Prior to the Parramatta game, I meet former NRL official Tim Mander at his office in Everton Park, in Brisbane’s inner-north. Mander, 52, called time on his on-field role in 2005, then worked part-time as a video referee for another six years. He is now the Member for Everton and Queensland’s Minister for Housing and Public Works. A framed photograph of a referee sin-binning Queensland league legend Wally Lewis is mounted on his wall.

    “I was involved with first-grade football for more than 20 years,” says Mander. “Every year, the same story would break, that the referees were ‘in crisis’. [The National Rugby League] has done everything you could possibly do to improve refereeing standards.” He counts them off on his fingers: they became full-time professionals, they adopted two referees per match, and they introduced the video replay system, among other changes. “What else can they possibly do?” he asks. “They can’t do anything else. The issue is that, unfortunately, the selection of referees is contained to people of the human race.”

    Few of us hold jobs in which our momentary lapses in concentration take place before televised audiences numbering into the millions. A mistake made by a referee can shift a sporting world on its axis; a decision to award a penalty or not in the final moments of a tight contest can end careers – of players, coaches and staff. It takes a certain kind of mind to embrace this role with confidence.

    As kick-off approaches at Parramatta Stadium, Cummins – a primary school physical education teacher who enjoys any chance to return to the classroom should his schedule permit – changes into his pink uniform and weighs himself. He’s 89 kilograms, but will drop two kilos in the ensuing 80 minutes. Every top-level sports official is a picture of health; NRL referees run nine kilometres each match, on average, while their AFL counterparts run 12.

    At the age of 40, Cummins looks strong and fit enough to be running with either team tonight, as does his slightly shorter assistant, Gavin Reynolds. The referees’ dressing room is a cosy four-by-five-metre box that contains an adjoining room with showers and a massage table. The jocular mood in the room belies the seriousness of the role; after all, there is security posted outside the door, and they’ll be accompanied to their cars at night’s end.

    “It’s a requirement that we’re escorted back to our cars,” says Cummins. “Generally, nothing happens. There are some games where the crowd gets quite heated, and you make sure you have security. If you give the game 30 to 60 minutes, most people have headed off by then. Most people take out their frustrations on forums or social media these days.”

    To read the full story, visit the Sydney Morning Herald.

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

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

    Orange Crush

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

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

    Story by Andrew McMillen / Photography by Russell Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

  • Qweekend story: ‘Muscle Memory’, December 2013

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

    Muscle Memory

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

    Story: Andrew McMillen / Photography: David Kelly

    qweekend_muscle_memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Cottonwool Kid

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

    by Andrew McMillen / Photos by Eddie Safarik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ++

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

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

    For more on Dean Clifford, visit his website.