I first met Andrew McMillan in July of 1999. The place was Gove Airport, which services the north-east Arnhem Land mining town of Nhulunbuy. Andrew was acting as a media liaison officer for the inaugural Garma Festival, an annual cultural exchange program between the local Yolngu people and Balanda (whites) established by the Yothu Yindi Foundation. I was working on a story for the Australian edition of Rolling Stone. I spent nearly a week in Andrew’s company and only caught up with him on one other occasion, but he certainly left a mark on me.
I was already familiar with his work. When I was a teenager, growing up in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne before my family relocated to Brisbane, Midnight Oil was the band that changed my life. They were a rock & roll awakening, and a political one, too. McMillan’s book, Strict Rules, was a document of the Oils’ tour through the Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory and Western Australia, an experience that led to the ground-breaking Diesel And Dust album in 1987.
Before that, Andrew had begun his writing career in Brisbane in the late ’70s. He’d been turned on by punk and had started Australia’s first fanzine (the horribly named Suicide Alley, quickly re-christened Pulp) with Clinton Walker. But his trip into the Dead Heart of the country changed his life, and he became one of the keenest and most honest observers of the tortured relationship between this country’s original inhabitants and their colonisers. In Strict Rules, he refers to himself as “the hitch-hiker”, marking himself as an interloper in a country that’s not his own. Yet he also had an affinity with the landscape that shone through in his frequently luminous prose:
“Out in the deserts of Central Australia, the razorback ridges of the Macdonnell Ranges split the plains like a wedge, splintering the earth with shards of granite and sedimentary deposits. A glowing, primeval spine from the air, they crease the desert like the ceremonial scars on an old man’s chest.
For thousands of years the region was the domain of tribes like the Eastern and Western Aranda, nomadic hunters and gatherers whose relationship with the land was so deeply spiritual that to harm the country of their ancestors would have resulted in unspeakable retribution.
In person (and I stress that I did not know him well), he seemed quiet, a listener. He was a slight, Livingstone-esque character with a mop of curly hair under a pith helmet and a severely cleft palate which left him with a slight lisp. Whether out of shyness, reserve or unusually good manners, he spoke quietly, and seemingly only when he had something genuinely useful to say; a quality to aspire to.
At the airport, I noted a bunch of Yolngu kids kicking around a football. Australian Rules is close to a Territory religion. Andrew noted my interest.
“Who do you barrack for?” he asked slyly. Among AFL fans, it’s a potentially incriminating question.
“Collingwood,” I replied. It’s the most incriminating of answers.
He regarded me sidelong, nodding. There was a pause. “We’ll be mates,” he said, unsmiling, but with a warm twinkle in his eyes. Remembering it is something that makes me wish I’d done better at keeping in touch with him.
But Andrew could be irascible. He certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly. And he liked a drink: on the last night at the bone-dry Garma festival, I found him swigging from a flask in his swag, earning him a rebuke from a Yothu Yindi backing singer. Of course, he was hardly Robinson Crusoe that evening. A couple of years later, I cold-called him at his home in Darwin in the hope of interviewing him about Brisbane for my first book, Pig City. I should have found another means of getting in touch first, for I fear I caught him on a bad night.
Many years later we reconnected, as he swung through Brisbane for a writer’s festival, plugging his Intruder’s Guide To East Arnhem Land, for which he’d won the inaugural NT Chief Minister’s Book of the Year award. I don’t think he’d been back here for a long time. He autographed a reprinted version of Strict Rules for me to replace my long lost original, and I had the pleasure of doing the same for him with a copy of Pig City. I never did find out what he thought, or even if he got around to reading it, but it doesn’t matter. It was a pleasure to meet and speak to him again.
I didn’t know he was sick until just before Christmas, when another Brisbane writer called Andrew McMillen came calling to borrow Strict Rules ahead of a planned trip to Darwin. The prospect of interviewing his near-namesake was too tantalising to resist, and apparently Andrew was intrigued too, as he’d been getting confusing calls and emails for a couple of years from people inquiring about new pieces they’d read which he hadn’t actually written.
Unfortunately, the two Andrews with only a vowel between them didn’t quite get to make the connection. Andrew McMillan died in a Darwin hospital on Saturday night, the result of a battle with bowel and liver cancer. He was 54. A bit over a year earlier, he’d attended a living wake in his own honour; he did well to make another 14 months, and he was apparently working up to the end.
To me, he’s a great example of how the briefest of encounters with individuals can leave lasting impressions on us. Andrew took the traditions of New Journalism and put a dry, dusty and uniquely Australian twist on it that I doubt anyone has matched before or since. I don’t think my friend Andrew McMillen will mind my saying, with affection to both, that there was only one Andrew McMillan.