March 23, 2016

Dispatches #99: Gay twins, shot elephants and friendly magpies

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Welcome to Dispatches, a weekly summary of my writing, listening and reading habits.

I'm taking next week off, so the next edition won't be in your inbox until 7 April. To tide you over, I've included a few more recommendations than usual. TinyLetter is telling me this is my longest dispatch yet, actually. Enjoy! 


I had a story published on SBS Australia this week. Excerpt below.

Same, But Different: Gay twins on 'coming out' (1,200 words / 6 minutes)

Twin brothers Jafar Gibbs and Aslam Abdus-samad live in different cities, but they speak so often that the distance between Sydney and Melbourne barely registers. If Jafar is walking to the store for a snack, he’ll call his twin and they’ll update each other on their joys and sorrows, their successes and failures. It’s the daily accumulation of small conversations, interactions and stories which, together, mean that the brothers are as close as could be. Besides sharing a birthday, parents, vocal syntax and similar looks, the twins share a sexual orientation, too. Now 28-years-old, they are perfectly transparent with one another about this core component of their individual identities.

This wasn’t always the case, however. While growing up in Logan, a city located 26 kilometres south of Brisbane, Aslam was the first to share his homosexuality by confiding his secret in a close friend midway through high school. Word spread, and the reception was so poor that Aslam backtracked on his statements, effectively returning to the closet. To his regret, Jafar was among the loudest antagonists – a particularly cruel betrayal, as he, too, suspected that he was attracted to men. At age 18, Aslam came out with greater confidence, earning the ire of his strictly Muslim stepfather, with whom the twins had never had a good relationship.

Around a year later, in 2005, the brothers were living together in the Logan City suburb of Eagleby. Aslam knew that his twin was gay, too, but any conversation about this matter would be quickly shut down. “I caught him looking up gay porn, and there’s only so many times he can say, ‘Oh, it’s a pop-up!’” laughs Aslam, who is now an artist, actor and theatre-maker based in Sydney. “There’s only so many times his friend Alex can buy him nice things before it becomes suspicious.”

To read the full article, visit SBS Australia.

How I found this story: This idea was workshopped in conversation with my editor at SBS, a site which recently launched a whole section devoted to writing and news on sexuality. The article changed shape a few times over the months before we settled on telling the stories of two sets of gay twins who happened to know each other from about a decade ago, when the two pairs hit the Brisbane nightclub scene. 

I also had a couple of rock album reviews published in The Weekend Australian on Saturday. I rated both four stars. Excerpts from each follow.


The Drones – Feelin Kinda Free

There’s probably only one popular band in Australia that would choose to place an uncracked, handwritten code on the cover of its seventh studio album. Based in Melbourne, this quartet has built a career on following its own instincts and interests rather than chasing a crowd or pandering to the market. That it is considered among Australia’s most consistent rock acts of the past decade is a testament to its songwriting smarts and unique sound. Feelin Kinda Free is the sixth essential release by the Drones in 11 years; 2002 debut Here Comes the Lies was good, too, but showed a band still finding its direction and purpose. This collection betrays no such doubts, though it demonstrates a considerable sonic leap from what has come before.

Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression

By joining forces with one of modern rock music’s greatest songwriting talents, Iggy Pop has produced an album that will introduce his unmistakable voice and sass to a new generation. From the clever title through to the smallest flourishes of these nine tracks, Post Pop Depression is an impressively polished and exciting collection that rates among his strongest work. For his 17th studio album, Pop has hooked up with Josh Homme, frontman of Queens of the Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures. The latter trio was completed by John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) and Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters), so Homme is no stranger to the dubious “supergroup” tag.

To read the full reviews, visit The Australian.


Kathleen Noonan on Penmanship (94 minutes). Episode 20 of my podcast about Australian writing culture features my interview with a journalist and weekly columnist at The Courier-Mail. For 13 years, Kathleen has written a column in the Saturday Courier-Mail named ‘Last Word’. It’s a blank canvas where she is tasked with writing one thousand words about whatever has caught her eye or piqued her interest out in the world that week. It seems no topic is too big or too small for this canvas: I’ve been reading her every Saturday for about six years, and that column is among the most consistently fascinating, moving and insightful pages I’ll read all week. Besides being an eminently experienced and capable journalist, I have long wondered how Kathleen manages to write such wonderfully original material based only on her careful observations and analysis of herself and other people. It’s a brilliant trick, and her name has been near the top of my list since I first conceived of using Penmanship as a vehicle to meet and interview my favourite Australian writers.

I met Kathleen at her home in East Brisbane on a Monday morning in mid-March, where I was enthusiastically greeted by her white Jack Russell puppy, Basil, who was keen on playing with the stranger in his house while we chatted nearby Kathleen’s writing desk. The sounds of suburbia were in chorus that morning, prompting her to shut the window and doors to avoid power tools and leaf blowers on a couple of occasions. Our conversation touches on how Kathleen manages to come up with fresh ideas for ‘Last Word’ each week; how she decided to write a column about the recent passing of her beloved greyhound, which prompted an unexpected flood of reader mail; what led her to seek out a job as a cadet reporter in North Queensland; how she handled the tricky task of performing ‘death knocks’, and the advice that she tends to give when aspiring journalists contact her.

Keeping Australia Alive (60 minutes). The first episode of this four-part documentary series screened last week, and it's utterly gripping. The premise is beautifully simple: 100 cameras operated across the country on the same day, all trained on capturing one 24 hours in the national health system. Naturally, they need to focus on a handful of the strongest stories and characters, but it's such an ambitious project – and so well-executed – that I can't help but applaud. Essential viewing for journalists, as there's a lot to learn here about storytelling and decision-making. And the medical people interviewed are fantastic, of course; I especially liked the focus on a rural doctor who was struggling with having to tell a patient (and friend) that his prognosis was not looking good.

The Australian health system in one snapshot. From the thin blue line on the pregnancy test to the flat line on the ECG, this episode examines the role of our health system in our lives from cradle to grave.

Sacha Baron Cohen on WTF with Marc Maron (110 minutes). The man who plays Borat, Bruno, Ali G et al finally gives an interview as himself, and it seems he's ready to talk, as Maron can barely get a word in edgeways as he rattles off story after incredible story. The only other interview as himself that I'm aware of was a decade ago, when Neil Strauss profiled him for Rolling Stone, so this is a must-hear for anyone interested in comedy. 

You know Borat. You know Bruno. You know Ali G. But you probably don’t know much about Sacha Baron Cohen. The man himself sits down with Marc in the garage to talk about what goes into bringing such rich comedic characters to life, why he was drawn to comedy in the first place, and what’s next, with his new movie The Brothers Grimsby on the horizon. 

Meat Without Misery on Waking Up with Sam Harris (67 minutes). A fascinating interview with an entrepreneur who is working on "cultured meat", which can be grown in laboratories without the need for factory farming. He doesn't like the term "synthetic meat", but the company has recently taste-tested its first products (including a meatball) and were pleasantly surprised by the results. This is cutting-edge technology and it's cool to hear the host coming to grips with its implications, too, as he has recently been talking about his ethical concerns around continuing to eat meat despite being disgusted by the way in which the animals are treated before reaching his plate. (Note: you can probably skip the first 15 minutes if you don't want to hear him talking about the other topics mentioned in the first sentence below.)

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris offers a few more thoughts on Clinton vs Sanders, as well as on the ethics of strong encryption. He then speaks with Uma Valeti, cardiologist and CEO of Memphis Meats, about the future of food production.

Wright Thompson on The Rewrite (53 minutes). A must-listen for feature journalists, as Wright Thompson reveals the mechanics of how he approached Michael Jordan for an ESPN magazine profile to coincide with his 50th birthday. I hadn't read the piece before listening (and still haven't), but was still enthralled to hear Thompson read aloud his original approach to Jordan's people, and how far in advance he put the wheels in motion. The profile was inspired by a 2006 New York Times article about Paul McCartney turning 64, for reasons obvious to Beatles fans, so it was cool to learn about Thompson made the leap to apply it to Jordan. Smart man.

ESPN’s Wright Thompson discusses his National Magazine Award-nominated profile of Michael Jordan at age 50. The guys mull the passage of time, learn how to hang out credibly with a basketball legend, and discover that lots of things journalists normally worry about are bullshit. 

Deep Stealth Mode on Love + Radio (23 minutes). A great story about a child coming to terms with being transgender, and how her mother attempts to ease her stress during her transition.

From our friends at the Here Be Monsters podcast: Marlo Mack gave birth to a son. At least, she thought she did. But her son crawled towards dresses, wanted to be a princess, and asked to grow long blonde hair. At age 3, Marlo’s son asked to go back into mommy’s tummy, so he could come back out as a baby girl. Marlo thought it was a phase–it wasn’t.

Ramin Djawadi on Song Exploder (12 minutes). Ever wondered how the Game Of Thrones theme was composed and recorded? Of course you have, so of course you'll listen to this.

Game of Thrones premiered on HBO in April 2011 and became the most watched show in HBO’s history. The main title theme was written by Emmy-nominated composer Ramin Djawadi. In this episode, he’ll break down the different elements in the piece, and how themes within the show inspired his composition and choice of instruments.

Anatomy Of Doubt on This American Life (60 minutes). A rather disturbing episode devoted to what happened after a young woman was raped, then disbelieved by police and the people closest to her. 

This week, a story about doubt: how it germinated, spread, and eventually took hold of an entire community, with terrible consequences.

Heather Jones on Conversations with Richard Fidler (55 minutes). A fascinating and occasionally terrifying interview with a professional truck driver based in Perth, who has spent most of her adult life behind the wheel and has a load of stories to tell. Toward the end she talks about some of the near-accidents she has experienced, and gives some advice for drivers about sharing the road with trucks. Also, she talks about how if a heavy vehicle is forced to break suddenly and unexpectedly, it can cause up a huge amount of damage to the engine and tyres. I didn't know that.

In an industry where women make up only 5% of drivers, Heather Jones is respected as an experienced voice and astute operator. Heather was working as a secretary for a mining company, when the call went out for long haul truck drivers. It was a life she'd never considered, but as a single mother with two young children, money was tight - so she took the job. She turned her long haul truck into a mobile home and took her daughters on the road. 25 years later she has her own successful business, and is the co-founder of the Pilbara Heavy Haulage Girls.


Who Wants To Shoot An Elephant? by Wells Tower in GQ
(7,400 words / 37 minutes). A gripping and smartly written piece wherein the writer embeds with a couple who have paid a lot of money to hunt and shoot an elephant in Botswana. Along the way, he grapples with the ethical and moral dimensions of witnessing the killing, and what it means for African tourism. Any possible response that you could have to this topic is covered by Tower in this balanced and compelling story about a terrible act.

Fair warning: An elephant does get shot in this story. It gets shot pretty soon. Maybe that upsets you, as it did 100 percent of the people (hunters and nonhunters) to whom I mentioned this assignment. Elephants are obviously amazing, or rather, they are obvious receptacles for our amazement, because they seem to be a lot like us. They live about as long as we do. They understand it when we point at things, which our nearest living evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee, doesn’t really. They can unlock locks with their trunks. They recognize themselves in mirrors. They are socially sophisticated. They stay with the same herds for life, or the cows do, anyway. They mourn their dead. They like getting drunk (and are known to loot village liquor stashes in Africa and India). When an elephant keels over, its friends sometimes break their tusks trying to get it to stand up again. They bury their dead. They bear grudges against people who’ve hurt them, and sometimes go on revenge campaigns. They cry. So why would you want to put a bullet in one?

Goodbye and Good Riddance: Sociopathy of Gawker and Gawker-Like Media Finally Exposed by Ryan Holiday on Observer (2,400 words / 12 minutes). You might have heard that Hulk Hogan was awarded $115 million in damages against the news website Gawker last week, after it posted a sex tape of him a few years ago. This piece was written before that verdict, but it is a scintillating condemnation of the site's approach to journalistic ethics. Holiday is well-versed in this material: he wrote about it at length in his book Trust Me, I'm Lying, which I recommend to all journalists.

Regardless of the outcome of this case, the facts of the trial have revealed without a shadow of a doubt the depravity and avarice that have long driven the Gawker and its sister sites since their creation by Nick Denton in 2003. Over the last few months, and now on videotape in front of stunned jurors and spectators, we’re finally able to see it for ourselves. What critics could only begin to try to explain to the public has finally been laid bare: the Gawker Media Empire is rotten with a deep and cancerous sociopathy…and always has been. You don’t have to take my word for it—their own words will do. During a taped deposition prior to the trial, Gawker’s former editor A.J. Daulerio was asked whether it was correct to say that any consideration of the human being on the other end of his story never entered his mind. His reply: “Correct.” 

Wing And A Prayer by Cameron Bloom in The Weekend Australian Magazine (2,000 words / 10 minutes). A beautiful book extract about how a family was torn apart by an accident, and brought back together with the assistance of a friendly magpie.

Penguin was just a small, wobbly-headed magpie chick when Noah found her lying in the car park next to his grandmother’s house. ­Gusting winds had tossed her out of her nest and one wing was hanging limply by her side. The boys immediately named her Penguin, after her black-and-white plumage, and we made a simple nest out of an old cane laundry basket lined with soft cotton fabric to keep her warm. While getting Penguin to eat, drink and rest was a real victory, her recovery remained touch and go. Though her damaged wing turned out not to be broken, she was severely weakened and prone to illness. Some evenings, as we tucked her into bed, we wondered if she would survive the night. But over time, Penguin grew in stature and confidence.

Seriously, Mate by Trent Dalton in The Weekend Australian Magazine (3,900 words / 19 minutes). I didn't expect to like this profile, as I didn't think I cared about its subject, former rugby league player turned commentator Matthew Johns. I was wrong, but credit that to the writer, who seems to be able to write beautifully about anything and anyone.

Johns winks and raises a cheery thumbs-up to someone over my shoulder. It’s Israel Folau, the wonderful Izzy of Oz. All these beautiful people keep saying beautiful things about Matty Johns. Nicest bloke on TV. Funniest bloke on TV. What you see is what you get. What I got from him first was his coffee. “Seriously, do you want it?” he asked. This was three hours ago at around 5.15am when Johns, the working-class Newcastle Knights rugby league five-eighth who survived life’s great ­dustbowl twister and emerged king of Sydney’s sporting media castle, saw I was the only rookie idiot in a room of 20 red-eyed pre-dawn radio workers not holding a takeaway coffee.

Reach Of Privilege by Tom Ballard in The Saturday Paper (1,400 words / 7 minutes). An honest and funny piece about the challenges of attempting to find humour in Australia's refugee policies while writing a comedy show, and the "white guilt" that Ballard felt while visiting refugees in detention.

The first time I visited a detention centre, I was hungover. That has to be up there as one of the most pathetic, privileged, white person things you can do. I had used my freedom to dance the night away and drink a lot of gin and try, unsuccessfully, to kiss boys. Now I was here. I’d met Nick on a Facebook group that facilitated visits to detention. He met me out the front to chat before we went inside. “So, Tom, why were you keen to come along and visit today?” I explained the premise of a show I was writing, and peppered it with a bit of “I’ve-been-meaning-to-do-this-for-a-long-time-anyway”. Nick nodded cautiously.

I No Longer See My Daughter's Down Syndrome, I Only See A Beautiful Girl Called Emma by Greg Jericho on The Guardian (1,000 words / 5 minutes). A beautifully written piece about the writer's fears for his daughter when she was born, and how they've both changed as she has grown up. Make sure you watch the embedded video halfway through.

One of the toughest things about being the father of a girl with Down syndrome is for me to remember that she is not the representative of all people with an extra 21st chromosome and that she is able to succeed and fail as an individual. Late last year my wife and I sat in the audience waiting to see our daughter dance in her school’s end-of-year concert. Emma may struggle to match her classmates in many things, but not dance. She loves it, and is very good at learning routines. We had missed the matinee performance as we were both working, but we knew she had been doing well in rehearsals and so were excited to see how she’d go. And then the curtain opened, and we both knew immediately something was wrong.

The Crash Of EgyptAir 990 by William Langewiesche on The Atlantic (10,700 words / 54 minutes). A thoroughly reported 2001 feature on the investigation into an airplane crash, and how Egyptian and American governments quarreled over the investigation's findings into the pilot's apparently intentional act.

I remember first hearing about the accident early in the morning after the airplane went down. It was October 31, 1999, Halloween morning. I was in my office when a fellow pilot, a former flying companion, phoned with the news: It was EgyptAir Flight 990, a giant twin-engine Boeing 767 on the way from New York to Cairo, with 217 people aboard. It had taken off from Kennedy Airport in the middle of the night, climbed to 33,000 feet, and flown normally for half an hour before mysteriously plummeting into the Atlantic Ocean sixty miles south of Nantucket. Rumor had it that the crew had said nothing to air-traffic control, that the flight had simply dropped off the New York radar screens. Soon afterward an outbound Air France flight had swung over the area, and had reported no fires in sight—only a dim and empty ocean far below.

Foul Play by Matthew Condon in Qweekend (3,400 words / 17 minutes). A chilling story about how one of the world's worst serial paedophiles was allowed to operate unchecked here in Brisbane. When he was eventually found out, he gassed himself, yet strangely, his enormous archive of nude photos of young boys has since disappeared.

He was a world-class stenographer and his name was Clarence Henry Howard-Osborne. To an outsider, Howard-Osborne, known as plain Clarry Osborne, was nothing more or less than a mild eccentric, a perfectionist, a man who did not suffer fools gladly. Given he was a leading shorthand writer for the Queensland courts and later state parliament, he appreciated order. But as he lived unobtrusively in Eyre St – from at least the early 1960s – he harboured an extraordinary secret within the walls of that plain house. In the spring of 1979, a suburban Brisbane mother accidentally overhead her young son talking about being photographed in the nude by a man. When she later pressed him for details, he volunteered that a person named Clarry Osborne had taken pictures of him and other boys.

The Loser by Gay Talese in Esquire (8,100 words / 40 minutes). A classic story from 1964 about 29 year-old boxer Floyd Paterson, who was knocked out by Sonny Liston and who at the time was working toward another fight. Talese writes himself out of the piece, and has an enormous amount of access to Paterson's inner life while working on this piece, which is nothing less than a masterpiece of feature writing.

At the foot of a mountain in upstate New York, about 60 miles from Manhattan, there is an abandoned country clubhouse with a dusty dance floor, upturned barstools and an untuned piano; and the only sounds heard around the place at night come from the big white house behind it—the clanging sounds of garbage cans being toppled by raccoons, skunks and stray cats making their nocturnal raids down from the mountain. The white house seems deserted, too; but occasionally, when the animals become too clamorous, a light will flash on, a window will open, and a Coke bottle will come flying through the darkness and smash against the cans. But mostly the animals are undisturbed until daybreak, when the rear door of the white house swings open and a broad-shouldered Negro appears in gray sweat clothes with a white towel around his neck.

Thanks for reading. As ever, let me know if you liked this, or didn't. Please feel free to share this far and wide with fellow journalism, music, podcast and book lovers.


T: @Andrew_McMillen

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