August 16, 2017

Dispatches #160: Mortal dangers, child soldiers and sad songs

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Welcome to Dispatches, a weekly summary of my writing, listening and reading habits. I skipped last week due to travel and constrained schedules (again).

No new words this week, but some exciting news. I'm thrilled to be a finalist in the Queensland media awards – the Clarions – in two categories: freelance journalism, for a body of work that includes five stories, and feature writing for my story Dying Wish, which was published in The Weekend Australian Magazine in February. I'm particularly chuffed about the latter nomination, as Dying Wish – which is about in-home palliative care nurses – is one of the stories I'm most proud of. Clarions winners will be announced later this month. 

I also wanted to tell you about an upcoming event I'm hosting at the 2017 Canberra Writers Festival. I will be recording an episode of my podcast Penmanship with Katharine Murphy, who is political editor at Guardian Australia. This is a free event that will be open to the public, and it's taking place at the National Library of Australia at 10am on Saturday August 26. You can find more details about this event at If you're in Canberra, I'd love to see you there. If you're not in Canberra, you'll be able to hear my conversation with Katharine Murphy when it's published later this year. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the latest episode of Penmanship, linked below, which I recorded in Melbourne last month.


Gideon Haigh on Penmanship (110 minutes). Episode 40 of my podcast about Australian writing culture features author and freelance journalist Gideon Haigh. Since he began as a cadet journalist at The Age in 1984, fresh out of high school, Gideon's main subject areas in journalism have been in sport and business. For most of his career, Gideon has worked as a freelancer, and his writing has been published in more than one hundred newspapers and magazines around the world. As an author, he has written 32 books to date, with at least two more underway. The breadth and depth of his body of work is simply astounding, and I've been an admirer of his for some time. During the last few years, my main understanding and appreciation of Gideon's writing is through his role as senior cricket writer at The Australian, where he has become one of the most read and trusted voices in sports journalism.

In late July, I met with Gideon at his home in Melbourne's inner-city, and was led into his writing room, which is also home to his extraordinary collection of thousands of books. Our conversation touches on why he prefers not to think too much about the structure of his books before he starts writing them; how he goes about writing daily cricket match reports for The Australian each summer; how he has managed to avoid becoming cynical about cricket, despite writing about it for decades; how he decides which writing projects to pursue as a freelancer with several sources of income; and how he found himself occupying a sort of public service role in late 2014 as the nation came to terms with the shock death of a young Australian cricketer. The conversation begins, however, with a small discussion about the purpose of the podcast itself.

Maggie Haberman on Longform (50 minutes). If you've been reading The New York Times at all in the last year or more, you've probably read Maggie Haberman's reporting, especially since she's been covering the Trump White House. This is a fascinating conversation about how she manages her daily schedule while juggling tasks; she's even sending emails and texts while in this interview with host Max Linsky, and somehow it doesn't come off as rude. A must-listen for any working journalist.

Maggie Haberman covers the White House for The New York Times. “If I start thinking about it, then I’m not going to be able to just keep doing my job. I'm being as honest as I can — I try not to think about it. If you’re flying a plane and you think about the fact that if the plane blows up in midair you’re gonna die, do you feel like you can really focus as well? So, I’m not thinking about [the stakes]. This is just my job. This is what we do. Ask me another question.”

Triggered on Waking Up with Sam Harris (136 minutes). And for another perspective on President Trump, I really enjoyed this conversation with Scott Adams, who has been a vocal supporter of Trump and his leadership since he became a candidate. This is the most reasonable discussion I've heard about the man, and it's well worth the two-plus hour running time.

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris and Scott Adams debate the character and competence of President Trump. Scott Adams is the creator of Dilbert, one of the most popular comic strips of all time. He has been a full-time cartoonist since 1995, after 16 years as a technology worker for companies like Crocker National Bank and Pacific Bell. His many bestsellers include The Dilbert Principle, Dogbert’s Top Secret Management Handbook, and How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big. His forthcoming book is Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter.

The King Of Tears on Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell (42 minutes). This podcast is great in general, but I particularly liked this exploration of writing sad songs, and why country music tends to be more emotionally honest than other styles of music.

Revisionist History goes to Nashville to talk with Bobby Braddock, who has written more sad songs than almost anyone else. What is it about music that makes us cry? And what sets country music apart?

Long Distance on Reply All (50 minutes). This two-part, world-spanning narrative is up there with the greatest Reply All stories they've yet aired. Totally gripping storytelling, and part two is even moreso. Highly recommended.

This week, a telephone scammer makes a terrible mistake. He calls Alex Goldman.

Damon Lindelof on The Nerdist (73 minutes). I'm not sure if I've mentioned it here in Dispatches before, but one of my favourite TV shows in recent years is The Leftovers, which aired for three seasons and ended its run on HBO earlier in 2017. Its story consists of just 28 episodes. It's a show about the grief and loss experienced by those who are left behind after two per cent of the world's population suddenly disappears. Damon Lindelof co-created the show, and I can't recommend it highly enough. I also loved his work on the TV show Lost in my teenage years and early 20s, though having tried rewatching that show again a couple of years ago, before giving up, I'm pretty sure that The Leftovers will better stand the test of time. Anyway, I loved this conversation because I didn't know much about Damon Lindelof other than seeing his name in the opening credits of a couple of TV shows I've loved.

Damon Lindelof‘s professional writing career hasn’t quite hit the two decade mark, but he’s already got enough experience to last multiple lifetimes! Or multiple sideways if you want to include his blockbuster co-creation, Lost, and his critically acclaimed yet criminally unwatched HBO series, The Leftovers. Last Sunday night on AMC’s Talking with Chris Hardwick, Damon was the guest of our founder, Chris Hardwick. In today’s special episode of the Nerdist podcast, we’re sharing the extended and extended conversation between Chris and Damon!

Breaking News on Radiolab (46 minutes). What will be the purpose of journalism and the search for truth if we can no longer trust what our eyes are seeing? This is a great exploration of a subject that is likely to become more pertinent with each passing year.

Simon Adler takes us down a technological rabbit hole of strangely contorted faces and words made out of thin air. And a wonderland full of computer scientists, journalists, and digital detectives forces us to rethink even the things we see with our very own eyes. 


Mortal Danger
by Frank Robson in Good Weekend
 (3,900 words / 19 minutes). Frank Robson has spent most of his 60-plus years drinking, smoking and living life to the max, rather than giving a shit about the damage he's doing to his body. In this freaking masterpiece of a first-person magazine story, he writes about the circumstances that led him to start reconsidering some of his once strongly held convictions. The way he bookends this piece is genius. Read it.

On a bedside computer screen in the cardiac catheter laboratory, an orb-shaped network of dark arteries jumps and twitches against a pale, amorphous background. My eye seizes upon a single vein and tries to follow it through the twitching object, which looks a bit like a jellyfish space monster from an early series of Doctor Who. But there are so many arterial twists and turns that my eye blurs and then arbitrarily closes, as though this peek inside my own heart has already contravened some immutable law. "Nice music," offers one of the technicians, whose shrouded, rustling forms surround me in the gloom. "Thanks," I say, having chosen the accompaniment for my angiogram – Mark Knopfler's soundtrack from Local Hero – only minutes earlier at the invitation of one of the nurses. (Hmmm, I pondered when the offer was made, what would go well with having radioactive dye shot into your heart?) I'd forgotten just how appropriate my choice was. As someone covers me with an X-ray blanket, Knopfler's insistent, spiralling guitar pieces give way temporarily to his vocal with fellow Brit Gerry Rafferty, the two of them complaining piteously, "Why can't it be alright?/ Why can't I sleep at night?/ … Why must there be this price to pay? … That's the way it always starts/Sitting here and waiting on the beating of my heart."

Missing Pieces by Andrew Stafford in Griffith Review (4,300 words / 22 minutes). This is up there with the best essays I've read this year. It was a hard one for Andrew Stafford to write, too, as it's highly personal. While the broader themes are about journalism, integrity and mental health, part of the story is devoted to Stafford looking back at the reporting that surrounded his own sudden disappearance in February last year. Highly recommended, especially for journalists who write about mental illness.

On the evening of 22 February 2016 I scrawled a note to my former partner, threw a handful of clothes and possessions in the car, and took off into the night. I didn’t know what I was doing, or where I was going: north, south, east or west. Somewhere along the way, I fired off three tweets that were unfortunately reflective of my state of mind before deactivating my social media accounts. I drove all night, pausing only at a truck stop by the side of the highway to rest at around 2 am. The noise of the generators, and the adrenaline overloading my system, prevented me from sleeping. I drove on, pulling up again in a country town, watching the sun rise from a sleeping bag on the local sports oval, then got back in the car and kept going. By later that morning, the adrenaline had worn off, the car was labouring and I began to feel the weight of exhaustion, the magnitude of what I was doing and the distress I was causing for others. I switched on my phone, which was flooded with messages, called home and was persuaded to check myself into the nearest hospital. In between, my face was on the front of news websites. I’d been officially declared missing. If I was sure I knew what was going on in my head at the time – and I’m still not – I wouldn’t explain it to you, much less why. I was, however, carrying lethal means of self-harm within the car, to say nothing of the fact that, while stone-cold sober, I drove a twenty-eight-year-old vehicle for more than twelve hours and close to nine hundred kilometres in a highly agitated and distressed state without sleep, food or water. By the time I was admitted to hospital, I’d barely eaten in forty-eight hours.

Final Destination by Peter Munro in The Sydney Morning Herald (3,200 words / 16 minutes). A beautifully written portrait of a Sydney palliative care nurse named Justine Betteridge, and the array of dying patients she visits at their homes.

Long roads lead Justine Betteridge to another life nearing its end. She drives past convenience stores and petrol stations, high-rise apartment towers and houses with drawn curtains. On the front passenger seat of her sedan is an empty box of tissues, as she navigates the twists and turns ahead. She has weary eyes, a generous smile and ropy arms curled round the steering wheel. She doesn’t like driving – sitting still in traffic is the worst – but it’s part of the job. Justine, 51, is a palliative care worker, who visits up to 10 terminally ill patients a week in their homes. Her part-time job with HammondCare, an independent Christian charity, takes her across much of Sydney’s northern suburbs and beaches. Her patients have all chosen to die at home, rather than in a hospital. It’s an end rarely realised in Australia. A draft Productivity Commission report, released in June, found that while about 70 per cent of people want to die at home, less than 10 per cent do so – largely because of shortfalls in community-based palliative care services.

The Story Of Us by Mark Raphael Baker in The Weekend Australian Magazine (2,600 words / 13 minutes). This wonderfully moving book extract written by a widower had me in tears on a plane a few weeks back.

In the 10 months that followed my wife’s diagnosis I watched the most bewildering of tricks, the darkest of illusions unfold before my eyes. I understood what the doctors were telling me – the science behind a tumour that metastasises and eventually prevents blood and oxygen from reaching the heart, until the organs shut down. But those mechanics were not enough to explain the mystery of witnessing the sudden end of her life, or my tears, which flowed like streams of knotted handkerchiefs out of a magician’s empty hat. As I sit at her graveside at the end of her shloshim, the Jewish ritual of 30 days’ mourning, all I can think about is how to find a miraculous way to restore her to life. Her name is hand­written on a wooden stake planted in the ground above her head. KERRYN BAKER. For the past month, I have scoured my memories and ransacked our house for the bits and pieces of her life. I have stared into the empty side of our bed and recalled the 32 years when that void was filled with her warm body. I have looked through the photographs she arranged in albums, and rummaged through drawers and cupboards for clues, hoping somehow to decipher the mysteries about my wife. I shake my head in disbelief, substituting the mourner’s prayer for a rhythmic refrain: I’ll never see you again. I’ll never see you again. I’ll never see you again.

Into Thin Air by Ricky French in The Weekend Australian Magazine (2,800 words / 14 minutes). I'm late to this piece, which was published in 2013, but it's a great bit of writing about how a handful of Australians who have gone missing, and how some of them are never found, despite the best efforts of search parties. 

Lilly Pilly Gully. Its bouncy, child-like syllables paint a fairytale-like picture and there's an element of truth to the imagery. Craggy peaks encircle a bowl-shaped forest of eucalypts and ferns, through which a gentle walking track leads you in a loop. It's a peaceful place in Victoria's Wilsons Promontory, ideal for family walks, a back-before-lunch kind of stroll. I walked this path earlier this year with my family. Not far into the walk I came across a rock which bears a simple, bronze inscription. It was a memorial to a nine-year-old boy named Patrick (Paddy) Hildebrand, who on this spot in 1987 left the track and walked into the woods. Young Paddy had gone on ahead of his family about 10 minutes into the walk. The scene: a mother, calling out for her son to wait. No reply. Louder calls. Running, shouting, rising panic, retracing steps to the car park, and finally a sprint to the nearby ranger station for help. A massive search was assembled. A hat believed to belong to Paddy was found, as well as a bed of ferns, but after a week of combing the area Christine Hildebrand drove away without her son. No trace of Paddy was ever found. He had vanished into the woods.

Wordplay by David Astle in The Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum (650 words / 3 minutes). I love reading David Astle's weekly column. This man loves words more than most people love life. I always enjoy Wordplay, but I was particularly taken by this one, where Astle breaks form to tell a yarn about visiting poet Les Murray. I suspect Astle worked hard to make this piece sing, because he knew Les might read it. It's a stunning tribute to another man who loves words.

The poet doesn't trust computers. In a recent poem Les Murray confessed, "The computer scares me/its crashes and codes/its links with spies and gunshot ..." That recent poem is The Privacy of Typewriters, since Les is a lover of "inky marching hammers/leaping up and subsiding". Despite the latest RAM revamp, the highest of high-res screen, the ample Wi-Fi capacity, the poet prefers "the spoor of botch,/whiteouts where thought deepened,/wise freedom from Spell Check …" So where was his beloved typewriter, I wondered, scanning the writer's bungalow. Walls of books stared back – Lorca and Brodsky. A Solidarnosc medal from the people of Poland, a goshawk print, but no typewriter. Indeed, the poet is bereft. Typically, Les composes his verse in longhand, converting his scrawl to the old-fashioned QWERTY, though lately the QWERTY is a WP since typewriters are hen's teeth. His last one carked it and he doesn't know where to find a replacement, even where to start.

Colombiano by Rusty Young (2017, Bantam). Written as fiction but based on extensive interviews with former child soldiers who fought in Colombia, Rusty Young's second book is an absorbing account of a 15 year-old boy's transition from careless teenager to a hardened warrior seeking revenge for his father's murder. His first book, 2003's Marching Powder, told the story of a British drug trafficker who spent years inside a Bolivian prison, and was a vivid evocation of a strange life behind bars. Colombiano is a slow-burner told in nine parts totaling 680 pages, and here, Rusty Young's skill as a storyteller shines once again. The characters are three-dimensional, the stakes are high, and the action propels the reader through a dark, violent world of unsavoury characters with competing agendas. The protagonist, Pedro Gutierrez, hates the Guerrilla soldiers for murdering his father and readily joins their opposition, the Autodefensas. But as he climbs the terrorist organisation's hierarchy, and becomes an experienced soldier himself, he begins to wonder about how much separates the two sides. It's an absorbing and affecting story, and it comes highly recommended.


Thanks for reading. If you have feedback on Dispatches, I'd love to hear from you: just reply to this email. Please feel free to share this far and wide with fellow journalism, music, podcast and book lovers.


T: @Andrew_McMillen

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