One Last Deadline
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
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At around 6 am, on the morning after his fifty-fourth birthday and the day before New Year’s Eve, the Darwin writer Andrew McMillan typed on his laptop:
Now that the album’s almost out of the way I’ve started work on a new project as of last night: Andrew McMillan’s Last Ball Advantage: An Anthology. Short stories, poems, lyrics, extracts from Death in Dili, three old RAM stories, the 7,900wd hitch-hiker’s journal from 1978, recollections and reflections … as a companion for the album and my passing. Another plank in the legacy, more royalties perhaps for the NT writers’ trust fund, certainly something to keep me occupied and engaged for another few weeks. I’ll get back to it.
Two thirds of the way through this new project, on 18 January, Andrew McMillan was asked by this magazine if there were anything he’d like to write “about music, Darwin, yourself, death”.
McMillan replied late that evening, habitually the start of his working day. He said he’d like to compose some reflections on Darwin and friendship. In the interim he had attached a short piece that had been kicking around for almost as long as his bowel cancer, and shared the same name. It began:
Jack the Dancer was a freebooting scoundrel and a cad. He moved into Bowel somewhere around 2010. It was a shitty address but there he squatted, gorging himself and marshalling his forces ’til he was fit to burst the walls. He became such a pain the Scalpels evicted him on October 19 of that year, a bloody affair that razed a long tract of productive real estate and left the nation state of Body bedridden for 54 days.
Throughout 2011, ‘Jack the Dancer’ – the article, not the cancer – kept being rejected. “So,” McMillan wrote in his email, “I’ve turned it into a spoken-word piece for a live album – Andrew McMillan’s Rattling Mudguards Live At Happy Yess – that should be out through Laughing Outlaw early next month. I’m also including it, as the last piece, in an anthology of my work 1976–2011.”
He added he would put his mind “to something more substantial when and if the fog settles”.
That haze, of pain and discomfort, had been hanging around for 16 months. McMillan lived in a broody, detritus-strewn “bunker”, where he toiled by evening, drank by night and slept by day. It had been the port of call for many a visitor curious to know more about life and politics in the tropics.
As Jack danced on and time closed in, somehow McMillan, whose books include Strict Rules (on the 1986 Warumpi Band/Midnight Oil tour), Death in Dili, Catalina Dreaming and the award-winning An Intruder’s Guide to East Arnhem Land, became more prolific. McMillan had always been a frantically creative spirit, writing poetry, journalism, short stories, film scripts and song lyrics.
As McMillan writes in the preface to Last Ball Advantage: “In primary school I won a couple of awards for Temperance Society essays. When I was 13 I submitted a script for a TV cop show called Homicide. Evidently, I wanted to be a writer.”
He would not remain the Temperance Society’s pet for long. Anthony O’Grady, founder and editor of RAM (Rock Australia Magazine), was one of the first to read the words of the then Brisbane Grammar schoolboy, who was already desperate to make it as a rock journo. McMillan kept all of O’Grady’s editorial responses – they were sharply critical, as well as encouraging. It’s hard to conceive of young writers now having the passion and commitment to weather such editorial storms.
Right up to his final weeks, McMillan continued to entertain his friends over many nights of talk and drink. Visitors included the musicians Paul Kelly, Ed Kuepper, Peter Garrett, Rob Hirst and Don Walker. He kept in constant touch with his mother, Lorna. And he kept his sense of humour: the Last Ball Advantage? “It’s an old pinball term,” he wrote in one of his last notes. “Knowing what you’re up against toward the end of the game.”
McMillan died on 28 January, friends at his side. His departure left Darwin’s cultural life not adrift, perhaps, but certainly less tethered. The Last Ball Advantage had been completed a day beforehand: reproduction rights secured, preface signed off, pictures selected – all deadlines met.
The proceeds of Andrew McMillan’s estate will go to the Northern Territory Writers’ Centre to establish the Larrimah Writers’ Retreat for emerging writers. He has been buried at a quiet bush place near Larrimah. Last Ball Advantage will be published in May.