March 2012

The Nation Reviewed

One Last Deadline

By Chips Mackinolty
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Andrew McMillan

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.

Chips Mackinolty
Chips Mackinolty is a graphic designer, journalist and former adviser to the Northern Territory Labor government. He has contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, the Australian and the Bulletin.

From the front page

Image of fans taking a selfie with a photo of tennis star Novak Djokovic ahead of first round matches at the Australian Open in Melbourne. Image © Hamish Blair / AP Photo

‘Health and good order’

If Novak Djokovic is “a talisman of anti-vaccination sentiment”, what does that make George Christensen?

Image of Kim Philby (left) and Phillip Knightley

On Her Majesty’s secret disservice

The reporter who uncovered the truth about Kim Philby, the 20th century’s most infamous spy, and his warnings for democratic society

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Echidna poo has changed our understanding of human evolution

Citizen science is not only helping echidna conservation, but changing how we think about evolution

Image of sculpture by Jane Bamford

The artist making sculpture for penguins

How creating sculpture for animals is transforming wildlife conservation and the art world

In This Issue

Quarterly Essay 45, 'Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals', by Anna Krien, Black Inc., 125pp; $19.95

Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals

The Broken Hill 'Barrier Miner', 2 September 1952. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

After the Dance

A 1952 Murder Mystery in Broken Hill

A quota success story: an elected female representative leads an Indian village meeting for local women. Courtesy of the Hunger Project.

Status Quota

Do Mandatory Gender Quotas Work?

Happier times: Rhys Muldoon and Kevin Rudd in January 2010. © Ella Pellegrini/Newspix

Kevin Rudd: A Coup By Any Other Name


More in The Nation Reviewed

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Declaration of independents

The success of Indi MP Helen Haines points to more non-aligned voices in parliament

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Echidna poo has changed our understanding of human evolution

Citizen science is not only helping echidna conservation, but changing how we think about evolution

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Who runs the mines in Papua?

Foreign mining companies are exiting Papua, amid accusations of Indonesian corruption

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Lockdown loaves and hampers

The pandemic has led to a surge in people needing help putting food on the table


Online exclusives

Still from ‘The Worst Person in the World’, showing Anders Danielsen Lie as Aksel and Renate Reinsve as Julie. Image courtesy Everett Collection.

‘The Worst Person in the World’

Renate Reinsve is exceptional in Joachim Trier’s satisfying Nordic rom-com

Image of WA Premier Mark McGowan earlier this week announcing the state will reopen its border to the rest of the country on February 5, after almost two years of border closures. Image © Richard Wainwright / AAP Images

Family’s grief compounded by WA’s hard border

The awful predicament of a Melbourne family unable to bring home their son’s body shows the callousness of WA’s border policy

Image of Liliane Amuat and Henriette Confurius in Ramon and Sylvan Zürcher’s film The Girl and the Spider. Image supplied

The best of 2021 on screen

This year may have been difficult to live through, but it produced an extraordinary crop of films

Image of Rob Collins as Tyson in ‘Firebite’. Image supplied

Raising the stakes: ‘Firebite’

Warwick Thornton’s magnificently pulpy Indigenous vampire-hunter drama leads the pack of December streaming highlights