All posts tagged story

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

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

    Orange Crush

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

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

    Story by Andrew McMillen / Photography by Russell Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

  • Qweekend story: ‘Muscle Memory’, December 2013

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

    Muscle Memory

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

    Story: Andrew McMillen / Photography: David Kelly

    qweekend_muscle_memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Cottonwool Kid

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

    by Andrew McMillen / Photos by Eddie Safarik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ++

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

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

    For more on Dean Clifford, visit his website.

  • The Ascender story: ‘Digital Delta’, November 2013

    A story for the debut issue of online magazine The Ascender. Excerpt below; click the image to read the full story.

    Digital Delta

    Two men from different fields are teaming up to create the future of mapping in one of most biologically diverse wildernesses on Earth.

    The Ascender story: 'Digital Delta: Into The Okavango', by Australian freelance journalist Andrew McMillen, November 2013

    Deep in the heart of the remote African wilderness, ten men laboriously drag canoes across the high grass of a dry floodplain. Living representations of the idiom ‘fish out of water’, their companions include wild hippopotamuses, crocodiles, birds and elephants unused to seeing humans in their midst this time of year. To make the scene seem even more out place, inside one of the makoros – a traditional Bayei dug-out canoe – sits a gigantic blue-and-white solar panel, its heft manifested on the strained, sweat-strewn faces of the men as they slowly traverse the rugged terrain.

    For three days, the explorers have been confined to land, pushing through the harsh conditions under a scorching sun, burdened by the weight of their equipment that besides the panel includes batteries, computers, cameras and other gear for surviving the trying, 18-day expedition.

    If viewed from space, the humans’ circuitous path would look rather random as though this band of travelers had absolutely no idea where they were going. The men climb trees and scramble to the top of termite mounds in an effort to spy a more efficient route and get to the place they’d much rather be: on the water.

    What, then, are these men doing here?

    This is the annual flood time in the Okavango Delta, one of Africa’s last remaining wetland wildernesses in northern Botswana, and Dr. Steve Boyes and his team of wildlife researchers and local Bayei river bushmen are attempting a world-first: to record wetland bird and wildlife sightings in September, a month for which no data previously exists.

    It is ironic then, that this expedition, set against the backdrop of this remote wilderness, is on the cutting edge of location-based innovation and real-time mapping. Boyes and his team are instruments of data transmission, the hefty, solar panel offering the efficient, silent power necessary to conduct their all-important research. Every twenty minutes, the team uses a global positioning system (GPS) to sync their location onto a live map hosted at a dedicated website, IntoTheOkavango.org with evenings spent packaging the days’ captured data using watches and tablet computers – bird and wildlife sightings, photographs, text messages, body temperatures, and their heart rates – and transmitting the precious digital cargo by satellite to a team located on the U.S. east coast.

    “The whole point of the Into The Okavango campaign is to inspire,” says Boyes. “Our research is obviously the primary task out there; first we backed up and uploaded to our server all of the research data, but right after that came the campaign stuff: all of the sharing, tweeting and blogging. We were on a research expedition, but we’ll stay up later and push ourselves harder to be able to share that experience. There are certain sacrifices in this world if you really want to inspire people to be different.”

    To read the full story, visit The Ascender. The above image is titled ‘Sunset on the Hippo Pool‘, by Lawrence Murray.

  • Qweekend story: ‘Beat Generator: Tom Thum’, October 2013

    A story for The Courier-Mail’s Qweekend magazine, originally published in the October 26-27 2013 issue. Click the below image to view as a PDF, or read the full story underneath.

    Beat Generator

    A young Brisbane man with a versatile voicebox has built a career out of the unlikeliest of musical talents.

    Qweekend story: 'Beat Generator: Tom Thum' by Andrew McMillen, October 2013. Photograph by David Kelly

    Story Andrew McMillen / Photography David Kelly

    Moments after completing the most important performance of his life, Tom Thum gave a gesture that seemed fitting: he leaped in the air and clicked his heels. The Brisbane-based musician had spent the last eleven minutes with the thousand-strong Sydney Opera House audience in the palm of his hands, entertaining TEDxSydney conference attendees with little more than his voice and a microphone.

    “My name is Tom, and I’ve come here to come clean about what I do for money,” he said upon taking the stage in May. “I use my mouth in strange ways in exchange for cash.”

    Innuendo aside, Thum’s description of his own talent couldn’t be more apt. Beatboxing — a technique rooted in using the human voice as a percussive instrument in the absence of a boombox or a drum kit — is a highly specialised skill within hip-hop culture, and one that has proven almost impossible to cross over into the mainstream. Yet through a freakish ability to accurately mimic musical instruments and layer intricate compositions, allowing him to replicate the vibe of a smoky jazz dive or Michael Jackson’s signature hits – among many other unlikely and impressive feats – the 28-year-old has connected with a mass audience.

    The standing ovation was enough to prompt a celebratory heel-click, but the best was yet to come: in the hours that followed, his vocal talents contributed to an impromptu jam session with guitar virtuosos John Butler and Jeff Lang, and he was approached by Audi Australia representatives to star in an online advertising campaign that saw Thum mimicking the vehicle’s complex array of sound effects. Footage of the performance clocked one million YouTube views within two days of being uploaded in July. By the end of September, Beatbox Brilliance – so dubbed by conference organisers – had surpassed six million hits and become the most-watched TEDx video of all time. The boy from Brisbane christened Tom Theodore Wardell Horn had gone viral.

    ++

    While the empty building bakes in the heat of an early spring day, the artist reclines in a well-worn office chair in a recording studio at Elements Collective, a hip-hop dance studio in inner-north Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. He tweaks the vocal mix on a local MC’s debut album at high volume while hunched over a Macbook. Navy curtains block out the sunlight; a bold, colourful graffiti mural dominates the back wall. Wearing long pants, a baggy black shirt and silver sneakers, the jetlagged artist is enjoying his second full day back in the Queensland humidity.

    Some of Tom Thum’s appeal can be ascribed to his gregarious on-stage nature. In the video, he comes across as a personable extrovert who revels in the ability to share his talent with the middle-aged audience, many of whom have probably never seen or heard anything like it. It helps, too, that the tanned, blue-eyed young man is easy on the eye; plenty of YouTube and Facebook comments mention his appealing appearance. It’ll disappoint those adoring female fans, then, to learn that he’s been in a relationship for three and a half years. “I think she likes my work,” he says thoughtfully. “But she doesn’t like the things my work makes me do.”

    By this he refers to the fact that most of his year is spent on the road. The past several months have been devoted to touring throughout the United Kingdom, Europe and United States, performing both solo and as a duo, alongside Melbourne-based singer and guitarist Jamie Macdowell.

    While Horn’s dance card has been packed of late – he’s spending a little over a week at home before jetting off once again, this time to work on a hush-hush project with a well-known American animation studio – it’s been a hard slog to get to this point in his career. Born at South Brisbane’s Mater Hospital on April 2, 1985, Horn attended Yeronga State School and, later, Anglican Church Grammar School in East Brisbane. “People always ask me if my real name is Tom Thum,” he says. “My parents aren’t that sadistic! Tom Horn would’ve been a good stage name; either that, or a porn star name.”

    Horn is a true student of hip-hop, having embraced the art form in its four distinct elements – aural, physical, visual and oral – and excelled at each of them. His entrée into Brisbane’s underground hip-hop community began with taking an interest in graffiti writing in 1999. He started learning how to breakdance in 2000, but it wasn’t until 2001 that Horn heard beatboxing for the first time. “It was a couple of years after that until I realised it was something I could pursue,” he says. “I just really liked it, and worked at it. I never thought about it competitively; I did it because I was a hyperactive kid with too much time on his hands.” He was never diagnosed with attention-deficit or any associated disorders. “I just picked up a microphone,” he shrugs. “That was the medication.”

    After graduating from Churchie and exploring the fringes of Brisbane’s independent music scene, Horn started a Bachelor of Arts (Psychology) at southside Griffith University in 2003. He sat in a crime and justice lecture and wondered, “What am I doing here? I’m a hyperactive little graffiti writer in a room full of aspiring cops! The second that I understood that no-one was going to force me to go to uni, I was like peace, baby!

    Horn gave up breakdancing earlier this year as a result of constant injuries and between 2007 and 2012 toured the world with Tom Tom Crew, a theatre troupe that featured five acrobats backed by three musicians who blasted loud drum’n’bass, dub and hip-hop. Horn has also released three albums as a rapper under the MC name Tommy Illfigga, an EP as Tom Thum in 2012, as well as a 2010 LP of beats as Crate Creeps, a partnership with fellow Brisbane musician DJ Butcher. Beatboxing is Horn’s forte, though: his versatile voicebox won him first place at the World Beatbox Battles alongside compatriot Joel Turner in 2005; and in 2010, he was awarded “best noise and sound effects” at the World Beatbox Convention in Berlin.

    ++

    Brisbane beatbox musician Tom Thum performing at TEDxSydney in May 2013One Saturday morning last November, Horn woke with a start in his rented Berlin apartment. His musical offsider, Jamie Macdowell, was about to leave to get a second key cut. The pair had performed together the previous night and come home, completely sober; a strangely quiet Friday for two young men in a foreign country. Suddenly, Horn broke the silence by yelling for his friend. “I went into his bedroom and Tom was reeling,” says Macdowell, 27. “He said it felt like there was a ten cent piece on his sternum, and an elephant was sitting on the coin. As soon as he sat up, he just lost his mind. The pain got so intense that he couldn’t talk or move. He fell back down onto the bed and was shaking. It looked like he couldn’t breathe.”

    An ambulance took him to hospital, where he was admitted to a cardiac ward. His roommates were two elderly Germans. The pair listened to the doctor describe what had happened to Horn in complicated medical terms. “We couldn’t understand; we were nodding quizzically,” says Macdowell. “Tom got it before I did. He said to her, ‘is this the kind of thing that you would explain to someone who’d just had a heart attack?’ She looked straight at him, full of intent, and said ‘yes’.” The next day, Horn underwent an operation to put a stent in his heart; “a rollcage that stops your artery from collapsing,” in his words.

    That near-death experience provided fertile ground for planting the seeds of artistic inspiration. “It was fucking boring in the hospital,” Horn says. Naturally, his creative mind wandered. While he couldn’t understand what the doctors or his roommates were saying, he was intrigued by the beeps, hums and whirs of the medical machinery that kept him alive. A key moment in Horn’s solo show is a layered reimagining of the sounds of the hospital, which gradually evolves into an evocative cover of Hearts A Mess, a 2006 single by chart-topping Melbourne musician Gotye, aka Wally De Backer.

    To his frustration, the assumption that many strangers make upon hearing this story is that Horn’s heartrate must have been artificially boosted. This couldn’t be further from the truth. “Everyone assumes that, because I’m a musician and I had a heart attack, [I should] lay off the cocaine a bit,” he sighs. “No-one can tell me what [the attack] was from. I’d been deemed perfectly healthy by doctors. It’s not what you expect at age 27. Now I have to live on these medications – but at least I get to live on them. It gave me a great piece for my show … Everyone seems to think that heart attacks only happen to people over 60.”

    Macdowell adds: “Tom’s the most sober person I’ve ever met. He’s changed a lot since the heart attack. His consumption of alcohol has almost completely ended. He eats really well, and tries to exercise. It’s really changed him for the better.”

    Ever the perfectionist, Horn says he’s got four full albums of original material that haven’t yet seen the light of day due to his “inability to let go of things, and to call something ‘complete’. I’ve got a vault of music that hasn’t been opened yet.” He adopts the voice of a Hollywood mad scientist: “Soon I shall relinquish my pretties!

    With a few more dollars in his pocket of late, he’s keen to outsource some of the do-it-yourself ethic that has always surrounded the production of his own music. “I’ll still have 100 per cent creative input and control,” he says, “but I can be like, ‘okay, press record now! Drop the bass out of this, filter out that sample, boost this’. Because now I know what I’m talking about, I can still drive the ship without having my hands on the wheel.”

    ++

    For those few months each year that he calls Brisbane home, Horn stays with his parents in inner-south Annerley. His 60-year-old mother, Sue, admits that the cloud of noise that surrounds her eldest son can be irritating.

    “Especially if you’re watching something really good on TV, one has to be very patient,” she says. “I think if he lived at home all the time, it could be quite difficult. [This living situation] probably works well for us all.” The former nurse and her husband Murray, a forensic scientist, occasionally fret about his chosen career in the performing arts. “I’m not really happy about it, because I think it’s not a terribly stable industry. But he’s his own person. We have no influence,” she laughs. “We frequently have these discussions.” Are they playful discussions, or serious? “Playfully serious,” she replies. “Tom doesn’t appreciate them at all! He went to uni for a year and said that was the greatest waste of time. But I think he does have a lot of talent.”

    Macdowell agrees. “Tom is a prodigious noisemaker. He has no attention span for anything except beatboxing and creating sound effects. His practice is relentless. The guy just doesn’t stop making noise. It infuriates me when we’re on tour; I was okay with the European tour ending, just to get some silence,” he laughs. “But every time I think about saying something, or coming close to telling him to shut up, I remind myself that that’s why he’s so brilliant – he doesn’t stop.”

    While Qweekend’s photographer and his subject explore the colourful canvases at Elements Collective, 25-year-old Alex Steffan slips into the studio, slides on a pair of headphones and listens to the latest vocal mix that Horn has spent the morning working on. He nods his head in approval. “He was always the most talented one of our group of friends; he always had freakish abilities with his beatboxing, breakdancing and graffiti,” says Steffan, whose stagename is DJ Butcher. “We’ve all been waiting for him to blow up. All of a sudden, the TEDx talk has let the world know what we’ve known for ten years.”

    Throughout the photo shoot, Horn’s voicebox produces soulful trumpet tones, intricate beatbox phrases, and even a note-perfect take on Fly Me To The Moon. He’s preoccupied with perfecting his saxophone – “reed instruments are hard; I’ll get there one day” – and says that the hardest thing about making sounds with his mouth is in finding the instruments’ accents; their defining characteristics. The pluck in a blues guitar, or the woozy feel of its tremolo arm. The way the pitch slightly wavers in a trumpet when the player stops blowing so hard. The breathy tone of a flute. These are the sounds that Tom Horn studies and rehearses in a constant feedback loop that fills nearly every waking hour.

    “People often ask me if I’m making a living out of beatboxing,” he says. “I reply, well, I’m making a ‘not dying’. I’m not hungry. I’m definitely not making a living in terms of the traditional sense of saving up for a house, a home loan, a wife and kids; an Audi …” he smiles. “I’m not rich monetarily, but I’m definitely rich in experience, and that’s my priority at the moment. I’m not earning mad cheddar, but I’m 100 per cent happy with my life.”

  • BuzzFeed story: ‘The Royal Prank’, August 2013

    A story for BuzzFeed; my first for the site’s longform vertical. Excerpt below; click the image to read the full story.

    The Royal Prank: The Story Behind The Worst Radio Stunt In History

    by Andrew McMillen / illustration by Justine Zwiebel

    When a pair of Australian DJs went viral by prank calling the London hospital treating Kate Middleton last December, they were lionized at home and vilified in the U.K. Then the nurse who answered the phone committed suicide amid the outrage, raising questions about mental health, privacy, and the very definition of a joke. What responsibility do pranksters have to their victims?

    'The Royal Prank: The Story Behind The Worst Radio Stunt In History' by Andrew McMillen for BuzzFeed, August 2013. Illustration by Justine Zwiebel

    Speaking with the Queen of England on the telephone, even for a moment, is, by any measure, an out-of-the-ordinary experience. But Jacintha Saldanha, a 46-year-old nurse at King Edward VII’s Hospital in central London, didn’t mention her brief conservation with Her Majesty to her husband Benedict Barboza on Tuesday, Dec. 4, last year.

    Barboza and their children — Junal, 17, and Lisha, 14 — lived 118 miles away in Bristol. Along with the hospital’s reputation of caring for upper-class British citizens came a higher income than Saldanha previously earned at Southmead Hospital in Bristol, which in turn allowed the family to live in comfort while they paid their mortgage. Saldanha’s life consisted of staying at nurses’ quarters during the week and savoring weekends at home.

    The nurse spoke to her family again on Wednesday and made cryptic reference to the fact that they should watch the news on television. But she didn’t call at all on Thursday. Concerned, Barboza called the hospital soon after 9 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 7, and asked a colleague to check on his wife. What they discovered in her room was a lifeless body with cut wrists, hung by a scarf tied to a wardrobe.

    Three suicide notes were found: two at the scene, one among Saldanha’s belongings. The first note was addressed to her employers, and reportedly contained criticism of hospital staff. The second asked that she be buried in her hometown of Shirva, Udupi, India.

    The final handwritten note read: “I hold the Radio Australians Mel Greig and Michael Christian responsible for this act. Please make them pay my mortgage. I am sorry. Jacintha.”

    ++

    The hospital had been quiet that early Tuesday morning. That one of the most famous women in the world, the Duchess of Cambridge, was resting upstairs, recovering from acute morning sickness was not unusual; the hospital had been treating royalty since 1899. Elizabeth, the queen mother, underwent treatment here many times: In November 1982, a fish bone was extracted from her throat during surgery. The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip, was hospitalized here for five nights with a bladder infection in June 2012. There was no reason for the skeleton staff on the night shift to expect anything out of the ordinary.

    On the other side of the world, in Sydney, Australia, two radio announcers at 2Day FM were recording a bit for their nightly program. Michael “MC” Christian, 25, had only that week begun hosting the summer edition of the Hot 30 Countdown program, broadcast nationally through Southern Cross Austereo’s Today Network each weeknight from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., alongside 30-year-old Mel Greig. The show mixed pop hits with softball celebrity interviews and gossip items and, as such, attracted some of the country’s biggest advertisers. It also launched the careers of a few now-famous Australian radio personalities such as “Ugly Phil” O’Neil, Kyle Sandilands, and “Jackie O” Henderson.

    “Here’s the thing,” Christian said at the beginning of the segment. “We’ve been handed a phone number. We’ve been told that this phone number is the hospital where Kate Middleton is currently staying. We thought we’d give it a call. We don’t want to cause any trouble, we don’t want to stress her out. But I reckon we could maybe get her on the radio tonight.”

    “Look, I don’t know,” Greig faux-cautioned. “I mean, everybody would be trying this.”

    “Well, this is why I’ve thought of a plan,” Christian replied. “We can’t just ring up and go, ‘Hi, it’s MC and Mel from the Summer 30, can we chat to Kate?’ Hang up. Not gonna happen. You are going to be the queen…”

    “This is awesome!” whispered Greig, a former Amazing Race Australia contestant. She affected an upper-class British accent. “Hello, I’m the queen.”

    “I’m going to be Prince Charles.” Christian gestured through the glass to his producers, Emily Mills, 26, and Ben Hamley, 21. “Ben and Em, you’re involved in this as well. We thought that maybe you could be the royal corgis, if you’re OK with that?”

    The pair made enthusiastic barking sounds. “Sure, we’ll pop on in, in a sec,” replied Mills.

    “This is fun!” Greig said. “I mean…” She readopted the posh British accent. “…this is fun.”

    Christian gave his best attempt at imitating a British man nearly 40 years his senior. “Hello. Prince Charles over here, mummy!”

    “Oh, you’re Prince Charles,” Greig-as-queen said. “I like your ears.”

    Shortly after 5 a.m., a telephone rang at the hospital’s front desk. Answering the phone wasn’t really Saldanha’s job, but since the reception switchboard wasn’t staffed overnight, she must have felt obliged to pick up after three rings.

    “Hello, good morning, King Edward the Seventh Hospital,” she said.

    A haughty, straining British accent replied, “Yes, hello, I’d like to speak to my granddaughter, Kate.”

    Saldanha recognized the voice immediately, though if she was taken aback by this request, she didn’t show it. “Oh, yes, just hold on, ma’am,” she said.

    Gentle strings and a tinkling piano played while the pair held the line.

    “Are they putting us through?” asked Christian, dropping the Charles facade.

    “Yes!” Greig replied. They both laughed.

    Christian lowered his voice. “If this has worked, it’s the easiest prank call we have ever made.”

    To read the full story, visit BuzzFeed. On a personal note, I’m honoured that this story resulted in my first mention on both Longform.org and Longreads.com, the web’s two leading aggregators of longform journalism.

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

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

    School’s out early for overworked and undersupported young teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    To read the full story, visit The Guardian.

  • Qweekend story: ‘Learning As One’, July 2013

    A story published in The Courier-Mail’s Qweekend magazine, July 13-14 2013. Click the below image to view the PDF, or read the full story text underneath.

    Learning As One

    Mainstream education is the goal for thousands of Queensland children with disabilities. The ideal of inclusion for all remains fraught and Gavin, 8, is one of many yet to make the leap.

    Qweekend story: 'Learning As One: Queensland inclusive education' story by Andrew McMillen, July 2013. Photo by Russell Shakespeare

    Story Andrew McMillenPhotography Russell Shakespeare

    The stomping of little boys’ feet on polished wooden floors echoes through the Angas-Johnson family home in East Brisbane. At the front door, Ben greets me with a smile and a handshake. He’s flanked by his excited sons – Gavin, 8, and Lachlan, 5. After the boys are given ice blocks and decamp to the next room to watch television, Ben, 40, and his wife Dina, 42, take a seat in the kitchen and begin talking about their ongoing attempts to find suitable schooling for Gavin, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder four years ago.

    “It is an emotional and social disability, not something that’s really obvious,” Dina says. Alarm bells sounded when they noticed that Gavin wasn’t talking like his peers. At first they thought speech therapy was the answer. “We found that Gavin started falling behind because of the limited support in the [state] school system,” Ben says. “He was also doing one hour of speech therapy per week, all year, but that wasn’t enough for him to improve.”

    Now in Year 3, Gavin attends The Glenleighden School in Fig Tree Pocket in Brisbane’s west, a specialised co-ed facility that accommodates students from early childhood to Year 12. Its motto is “Helping children to speak … and find their voice.” Gavin needs the extensive speech and language programs that only Glenleighden can provide.

    “We’re unbelievably lucky that it’s in the same city as we are,” Dina says. Yet she and Ben want nothing more than for Gavin to be in mainstream education. “He’s going to a special school now, but that’s not where he’s going to learn to live in the world,” Dina says. “It’s just a temporary thing to help him get up to speed.” She smiles and compares her eldest son’s complex educational needs to a puzzle, a Rubik’s Cube.

    “You keep adjusting, twisting, and tweaking.”

    ++

    Since coming into effect in August 2005, the Disability Standards for Education manifesto has sought to ensure that Queensland students with disabilities are “able to access and participate in education on the same basis as other students”. That’s the goal: all children, in the same classroom, learning as one. Previously, Queensland operated on a segregation model for children with disabilities, both physical and cognitive. These students would attend special schools, known then as “opportunity” schools and they rarely interacted with children in regular schools. In 1975, a Division of Special Education was established by the State Government; three years later, following a report titled Future of Special Education in Queensland 1978-1982, this form of teaching was trialled in the state for the first time.

    The vernacular surrounding special education has changed over the years, from “opportunity” to “mainstreaming” and now “inclusive” education. Education consultant Liesl Harper, of Ladder Consulting, prefers to talk about diversity, not deficit. “The phrase ‘inclusive education’ gives the sense that somebody’s out, and somebody’s in,” says Harper, 43, who has worked in the area of special education for 20 years. “It says that you’re still working to include someone, as opposed to just saying, ‘they’re actually all here!’ Our communities have diversity, so do our schools, and we have policy and legislation which requires us to understand that diversity.”

    This naturally presents a challenge to teachers called on to manage up to 28 students per class – a number which is likely to include at least one child with a disability. “It’s tough to find the time to understand the child, their style of learning, and determine the best way to teach them,” Harper says.

    Qweekend story: 'Learning As One: Queensland inclusive education' story by Andrew McMillen, July 2013. Photo by Russell ShakespeareLast year, 24,955 students with disabilities were enrolled in Queensland government schools, roughly 5 per cent of their students. Of that number, 3892 – about 15 per cent – attended 42 state special schools, meaning just over 21,000 were mainstreamed. Within the other schooling sectors, Independent Schools Queensland says 2500 of its students, or about 2 per cent, have ascertained disabilities, while in the Catholic sector, it’s 3 per cent or 4253 students, an increase of 82 per cent since 2007.

    The trend for state schools in recent decades is to operate Special Education Programs and Early Childhood Development Programs, which provide learning support for children with hearing, intellectual, physical, speech-language and vision impairments, as well as Autism Spectrum Disorder – 628 SEPs and ECDPs currently operate in schools statewide. “Parents can choose wherever they want to send their student,” Harper says. What parents of children with disabilities find, though, are systemic roadblocks that stand between their ideals and some schools’ attitudes towards inclusion. “Unfortunately, parents of kids with disabilities are questioned [during pre-enrolment interviews] about the skills of that child, how the school’s going to manage, and a series of other, often really intrusive, personal questions.”

    ++

    The inclusive classroom presents a range of challenges to Queensland teachers. Elliott*, 24,  is a second-year high school teacher in a practical field. In his second semester last year, Elliott taught a Year 8 class of 25, which included five children with disabilities. The first four weeks of class were particularly difficult, as the student with the most complex behavioural problems hadn’t yet been assessed but was eventually found to require a full-time carer. “The teacher aide and I spent the majority of our time with those five students, while the rest of the class just worked through their activities,” he recalls. “I was still helping them, but I wasn’t extending their learning. They were getting enough instruction to pass the subject, but that’s it.”

    The student with complex problems was eventually diagnosed with ASD and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, as well as intellectual impairment. “He threatened students on numerous occasions with sharp implements; he’d fight with them in the classroom,” Elliott says. “It was overwhelming. With that student, I was frightened to go to class.” Elliott his drive to and from school each day thinking about how to manage the situation and at night he was preoccupied with how to control the student. “I’ve never dealt with anyone like that in my life,” he recalls. “This year I have a similar student who is difficult to work with, and although I have the experience from last year, the same techniques don’t work with him. This time I’m just lucky I only have three children with disabilities in that classroom, not five.”

    Despite the difficulties, Elliott says he believes in inclusive education. “I have beautiful ‘learning support’ children as well, who strive for excellence despite their disability. But I think there needs to be a hard line drawn on safety. For me, that’s the biggest concern. If any student is being violent, there’s no way they should be allowed in the classroom, regardless of learning ability.”

    Now in her mid-50s, Bundaberg primary school teacher Helen* has witnessed the shift to inclusion. “When I first started teaching, any children of the level we’ve got now would’ve gone to the special school,” Helen recalls. “When the change-over first happened, teachers didn’t want to have kids with disabilities in their class. I felt the same. You’ve got enough to do with the children you’ve already got, let alone trying to cater for those with particular needs. I would rather not have had them, but you’re basically chosen because the administration thinks you can cope with them. Someone has to have them.”

    In recent years Helen has taught students who are blind, have spina bifida, acquired brain injury, autism, muscular dystrophy and intellectual impairment. Despite receiving no specialised training for any of these disabilities, Helen – like all state school teachers – is expected to be a jack-of-all-trades. “The majority of parents don’t understand the stress and difficulties that the situation presents,” she says.

    ++

    Shiralee Poed is the co-ordinator of the Master of Education (Special Education, Inclusion and Early Intervention) course at the University of Melbourne. A former Queensland Catholic school teacher, Poed, 42, later worked as a policy advisor for Education Queensland, and is completing a PhD on nationwide court cases where families sued state education departments on the basis of discrimination.

    “Within the first five years of teaching – which is when we lose the largest numbers of teachers from the system – the number one reason cited for them leaving is working with children with ‘complex behaviour’,” Poed says. “It might be kids without disabilities who are doing things like ‘out-of-seat behaviour’ – they’ve been told to sit down, but they’re roaming around the room – through to kids who bite, kick and punch as a way of communication, because they don’t speak.”

    “The second reason they leave is uncertainty about how to program for all of the children in their class. There’s such tension surrounding inclusive education because everyone wants the best outcome. The family wants the best for their child; to a lesser extent, they’re not as concerned about the peers, whereas the schools, and the teachers, are looking for the best outcome for all kids.”

    True inclusion remains fraught. Queensland Teachers Union president Kevin Bates says there are very few circumstances left where that withdrawal model – where students spend most of their time in a Special Education Program, and occasionally interact with students in the general classroom – is the one that dominates within a school. “The employer, EQ, has a very clear policy about inclusion,” Bates says. “and I think schools are gradually moving toward realising that policy across the state.”

    One school where inclusive education is working is the 1400-student, independent Canterbury College in Waterford, 30km south of Brisbane. “We have a non-selective enrolment policy,” head of college Donna Anderson says. “Our inclusive education is not solely for students with disability; there are children with other low-level skills, or who need advancement in certain areas. Some of those students may be qualified to receive funding from Independent Schools Queensland, but there are other students who receive no funding, that we support through a range of learning support teachers.” The school funds this initiative itself.

    Executive director of Independent Schools Queensland, David Robertson, explains how funding is allocated. “Students have to go through a verification process to determine their specific needs,” he says. “The higher the need, the higher the funding.” Level one allocates approximately $3000 in commonwealth and state government funding per student, per year; level two $7000, and level three about $10,000 annually. “The school makes the final decision [about fund allocation], but ultimately the money has to be used to support the student’s education plan,” he says. “The number of students eligible for funding in independent schools is increasing at a very rapid rate. This year we’re close to 2500 students, whereas five years ago, it was about 1500.”

    ++

    On March 21, 2011, the sixth anniversary of World Down Syndrome Day, Queensland Senator Sue Boyce addressed her colleagues in the federal Senate. “I am a very strong advocate of closing down all our special schools and moving all the resources of the special schools into the mainstream,” Boyce said. “I see this as the only way that we will, long term, push inclusive education and, therefore, real inclusion into the education system.”

    Boyce, 62, has a daughter with Down syndrome, 28-year-old Joanna, and today remains committed to her view. In 2009, Boyce ran a public seminar at the Brisbane Powerhouse, titled Making Inclusive Education Work: Is it the Will, the Skill, or what’s in the Till?

    “The answer is ‘all of the above’,” she says, “but I think the will is the most critical part. I had an interesting experience with the primary school where Jo went: about five years later, under a new principal, another child with Down syndrome tried to enrol there, and suddenly the same school ‘just didn’t have the resources to cope’, and was pushing this child elsewhere. In my view, it’s mostly about the will. You can always work your way around the resources, if people want to make it work.”

    Academic Jennie Duke finds herself regularly challenging “urban myths” with the teachers of tomorrow, when lecturing in inclusive education at Queensland University of Technology.

    “They think they’re not going to be teaching kids with disabilities, because, ‘Oh, they’ll all go to a special school!’. In fact, 82 per cent of students with disabilities are enrolled in their classrooms, not in special schools,” says Duke, citing a figure taken from the Department’s 2011-2012 annual report.

    “They think, someone else will deal with those kids, not me. A lot of our upcoming teachers are white, middle-class people who didn’t go to school with the variety of learners that they’re about to meet [in the classroom] when they graduate.”

    Training teachers to cope is difficult: though they’ll encounter a wide range of students with disabilities in their career, compulsory inclusive education modules comprise only a small part of an undergraduate teacher’s Bachelor of Education program. While mainstream teachers are increasingly called upon to educate children with disabilities, this is an area that requires specific skills.

    “It’s incredibly specialised,” says Ches Hargreaves, vice-president of the Australian Special Education Principals’ Association. “Not everybody can be a good teacher in this area. [Special education] is not a place for refugees who can’t teach. It’s a place for the very best teachers in our system – because if you don’t have that, then you don’t get the outcomes.”

     * Names have been changed

  • The Monthly story: ‘Chalking The Walk’, May 2013

    A story for The Monthly in the May 2013 issue – my first contribution to the magazine, in ‘The Nation Reviewed’ section. The full story appears below; the illustration is credited to Jeff Fisher.

    Chalking The Walk

    The Monthly story: 'Chalking The Walk' by Andrew McMillen, May 2013On a Tuesday morning in March, 80-odd young people wearing red T-shirts hopped off two buses in Lismore, in northern New South Wales, and began canvassing shoppers and retailers in the central business district. Their quest, as declared on their chests, was to help end extreme poverty. Not in Lismore per se, but globally, by petitioning the federal government to bump up its foreign aid spending.

    The team was one of many converging on Canberra from around the country, as part of “The Roadtrip”, a week-long campaign organised by the Oaktree Foundation, the youth-run group that also arranged the MAKEPOVERTYHISTORY concert in 2006. About eight hundred “ambassadors” were taking part all over the country. Their aim was to gather 100,000 signatures, or around 125 each, over the course of the trip via a smartphone app.

    The target didn’t sound overly ambitious. But, by noon, many of the locals out and about in central Lismore had been approached several times. Some were starting to get ticked off. “We’re actually irritating people now,” noted a group leader, Tammy, and the entire team retreated to a McDonald’s restaurant, where the buses were parked. One overweight team member was in tears. A local woman had accosted her, shouting: “If you stopped eating at fuckin’ McDonald’s, there wouldn’t be any poverty!” The canvasser’s peers moved in to soothe her. “That’s really rude,” someone countered.

    Three days earlier, the volunteers, aged from 16 to 26, had met for the first time at the University of Queensland in Brisbane to undertake an intensive course in political campaigning. Most were university students; a handful were still in high school. Ebony from Townsville was a champion skateboarder pining for her board. James, 21, was a soccer-mad Scot. Emily Rose, a petite redhead, showed off an unnerving party trick: the ability to dislocate her limbs at will. Each had stumped up $400 to cover food, travel and accommodation costs.

    The ambassadors had been taught some handy lines: “The door to ending poverty is opened by thousands”; “Two-thirds of the 1.3 billion worldwide living in poverty are our neighbours”; and “Australia’s fair share is just 70 cents in every $100 to fight global poverty”. This last line was central to the campaign. In 2000, Australia agreed to adopt the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, aimed at reducing extreme poverty. This meant setting aside 0.5% of Australia’s gross national income for foreign aid by 2015 (recently put off till 2016) and 0.7% by 2020. Currently, the nation contributes 0.37%.

    “The government has made a commitment,” the Roadtrip ambassadors pitched to shoppers. “We’re here to keep them true to that.” At night, the team slept rough in local church and sports club halls. By day, when not canvassing or on the buses, the team courted the local media, debriefed, attended further campaigning lessons and enjoyed “personal energising time”, as spare hours were denoted on the itinerary. Some members worried that they were falling behind on their petition targets. “Relax, it’s not about the signatures,” said a group leader. “It’s about the movement.”

    The day before they were in Lismore, the team had detoured briefly to the retirees’ paradise of Bribie Island, where half the group “chalked the boardwalk” with messages – “Help keep the promise of a fair share!” – while the other half were assigned the task of “painting the town red”, by asking local businesses to display campaign posters in their shop windows.

    Many shop owners were charmed enough to comply. “I don’t think they’ll achieve anything, but good luck to them,” a 74-year-old manager said. A girl serving ice-cream next door could barely remember the pitch – “something about foreign aid?” – but said she assented to their request because “they were young, and looked like they were important”.

    Wyatt Roy, the 22-year-old local MP, joined the ambassadors for a barbecue lunch. Wearing sunglasses and a crisp white shirt with rolled-up sleeves, he stood on a picnic table and said, “In this job, very often do people come to me with problems, and very rarely do they come with solutions. Thanks so much for doing what you’re doing.” As the team left Bribie, a sudden downpour washed away the chalked messages. The ambassadors coasted into Canberra two days later, via Kempsey and Port Macquarie, late on Wednesday afternoon, with 47,000 digital signatures.

    The next morning, at seven o’clock, the various busloads from around the country assembled at Parliament House. A giant map of Australia had been painted on the lawn, and the eight hundred ambassadors stood within their respective state boundaries. Chanting slogans, they made a lot of noise. Greens MPs hung around. A cherry picker was on hand so that TV crews and Oaktree’s media team could take shots from above. Bob Carr, the foreign minister, addressed them. “We are on target for 0.5%,” he said, before turning and gesturing behind him. “It’s up to you to persuade everyone in that building that they’ve got to act!”

    Scores of meetings had been scheduled between ambassadors and their local MPs, but many representatives either cancelled or sent staff in their place. Julie Bishop, the shadow foreign minister, slated to speak at the morning assembly, sent her apologies, too.

    The bus trip home, via Sydney, was a long one. A question kept coming up: had they actually made a difference? Was Wayne Swan, the treasurer, any more inclined to heed their call to increase spending on foreign aid by a third, to 0.5% of gross national income? His sixth federal budget will answer that, on 14 May. No one is holding their breath.

  • Rolling Stone story: ‘Hungry Kids of Hungary Get Serious’, February 2013

    A story that was published in the March 2013 issue of Rolling Stone Australia. Click the below image for a closer look, or read the article text underneath.

    Hungry Kids Of Hungary Get Serious

    Personal tragedies and isolation inform the Brisbane band’s second album

    'Hungry Kids of Hungary Get Serious' story in Rolling Stone by Andrew McMillen, February 2013A band that writes a debut album brimming with sunny indie pop songs can be reasonably expected to write more of the same for their follow-up. Such was the situation in which Brisbane’s Hungry Kids of Hungary expected to find themselves following 2010’s Escapades, which hit a sweet-spot between classic Sixties-era pop and their modern take on the form. Real life has a habit of intervening, though.

    In March 2011, the four-piece – Dean McGrath (lead vocals, guitar), Kane Mazlin (lead vocals, keys), Ben Dalton (bass) and Ryan Strathie (drums) – were booked for a three-week tour in North America, including showcases at South By South West and Canadian Music Week – great opportunities to extend the band’s growing reputation overseas. Then, suddenly, all shows were cancelled and the band was homeward bound.

    “2011 was a pretty full-on year for me,” says McGrath, whose experience triggered the return journey. “A lot went down. Naturally, that really coloured the songs I was writing.” He won’t be drawn on specifics, but notes that a “personal tragedy that affected someone I was close to” meant that he had to catch the next flight home.

    “That incident echoed throughout the whole year for me,” the singer/guitarist continues. “It was an ongoing ordeal. It’s funny; writing songs for this band, we’ve always been fairly carefree, but after that [experience], these songs started coming out that were fairly intimate and personal. I was like, ‘shit, how are people going to react to this when they hear it?’”

    The result is You’re A Shadow, a collection of songs somewhat divorced from Escapades’ brimming optimism. Kane Mazlin’s contributions were coloured by a sense of isolation and melancholy, too, in part influenced by a stint in Denmark while his girlfriend took an internship. “She was busy during the day. I was by myself: I didn’t speak Danish, didn’t know anyone,” he says, over a beer in late December. “That had a huge impact on two or three of the songs that I wrote.”

    It wasn’t all bad news internationally, though: footage filmed at the Dutch festival Pinkpop in May 2012 shows the band performing before a crowd of thousands. “The Netherlands seems to be the area where it’s taken off, which is weird,” says McGrath. “When we started talking about doing overseas stuff, that’s not really the area that we imagined we’d be delving into.” Mazlin chimes in: “I think Nirvana started there, didn’t they? It’s a goldmine!”

    After the rush of Pinkpop, though, it was an abrupt comedown in Belgium. The band played that show – “a giant blur of fun” is how Mazlin describes it – and then drove half a day to Antwerp. “We played a tiny show there, where no-one knew who we were,” says McGrath. “We were like, ‘what the hell? We only drove for a few hours, why don’t people know us here if they know us there?’ You forget that it’s a different country! We crossed a border, and they don’t get the same radio [stations]. Touring Australia has conditioned us to think that it’s natural to drive a few hours to get to the next big city!”

    When it came time to choose which tracks made the new album, the four tended not to argue too much about what made it past the rehearsal room. “We do try to keep it to four equal votes, but if two of us feel really passionately about something, then the other two will probably either give it a go, or scrap it,” says McGrath. “Song-wise, we haven’t had to do that a lot leading up to this record, because we’ve seen eye-to-eye on most things without any need for debate – which makes life easier.”

    Five things that influenced You’re A Shadow

    Classic pop

    Kane Mazlin: “I listened to a lot of Camera Obscura, The New Pornographers and The Shins; really nice, classic-sounding pop records with great guitar sounds.”

    Live quintet

    Dean McGrath: “Knowing that there’s a second guitarist during live shows drastically affected the way that I write my parts – it’s not so chordal, busy and strummy.”

    Debut co-write

    Mazlin: “We were on the same wavelength this time, to the point where we were able to co-write a song, ‘When Yesterday’s Gone’ – something we’d never done before.”

    Deerhunter

    McGrath: “I listened to Halcyon Digest on repeat for months, and it heavily influenced how we recorded a few songs in the studio: that ‘lo-fi pop songs, washed out’ approach.”

    Producer Wayne Connolly

    Mazlin: “He had great ideas from the very first email: he told [bassist] Ben Dalton, ‘you need a hollow-body bass and flatwound strings’. It sounded awesome!”