Dispatches #164: Pot monopolies, native orchids and heartbreak hills
Thursday, 21 September 2017Welcome to Dispatches, a weekly summary of my writing, listening and reading habits. I'm Andrew McMillen, a freelance journalist and author based in Brisbane, Australia. I skipped last week due to late reporting on the below story. which you can read below.
Words:I had a story published on Guardian Australia last week. Excerpt below.
'His Death Still Hurts': the Pfizer anti-smoking drug ruled to have contributed to suicide (1,800 words / 9 minutes)To read the full story, visit Guardian Australia.
An Australian coroner says Champix had a role in Timothy John's death, which occurred after only eight days on the drug
When the retired Queensland schoolteacher Phoebe Morwood-Oldham started an online petition following her son's suicide in April 2013, she could not have known that her insistence on asking hard questions of one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies would lead to an Australian-first finding by a state coroner.
On Thursday in Brisbane magistrates court, coroner John Hutton found that a commonly prescribed drug named Champix – manufactured by Pfizer and sold internationally under the name Chantix – contributed to the death of a 22-year-old Brisbane man, Timothy John, who died by suicide soon after he began taking a medication that he had hoped would cut his smoking habit from eight cigarettes a day down to zero.
For Morwood-Oldham, the finding was a satisfying outcome for a lengthy process that began with a Change.org petition that she started four years ago, which asked for on-the-box warning labels on Champix packaging. It has been signed by 49,000 people. "His death still hurts so deep," she wrote at the top of the petition. "After taking the anti-smoking drug marketed as 'Champix' for just 8 days, my beautiful boy hung himself. But despite reports of 25 suicides linked to Champix in seven years – there still aren't proper side-effect warnings."
Every Sunday for four years Morwood-Oldham and her older son, Peter, have visited Timothy's grave at Cleveland cemetery. The weekly routine involves the laying of lillies and turning their minds toward a young man who was, as his headstone says, "much wanted and loved". Morwood-Oldham tells Guardian Australia that Timothy's death "was so sudden" and it affected her deeply.
"I lost the person I love the most in the world, in eight days. I never expected it."
Talking about Timothy, Morwood-Oldham warns that her emotions are "all over the place". He is never far from his mother's mind, nor her gaze: when she opens her laptop to share some photographs, there he is, her screensaver. A cute, blond boy aged six, aiming a cheeky smile at the lens.
Timothy had suffered mental health issues, something his mother speaks of in terms of grades out of 10. He had for a time been a 4/10, then, after cognitive behaviour therapy, he was back to 9/10.
"How did he go from a 9/10 to a 1/10 in eight days on Champix?" she said. "The autopsy showed there were no alcohol or drugs in his system other than Champix and Ibuprofen."
The inquest heard that, on a drive back from the Gold Coast just hours before his death, Timothy asked, "Mum, do you think I should give up the Champix? It's making me feel strange." Morwood-Oldham told the original two-day inquest in November last year: "I said to him, 'Timothy, if it's helping you to give up smoking maybe you keep it up'." She had not been part of the consultations with her son's GP when he was prescribed the drug and the Champix packaging did not contain warnings for any potential adverse effects.
For help if you are in Australia: Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Lifeline 13 11 14, Survivors of Suicide Bereavement Support 1300 767 022. For help if you are outside of Australia, visit suicide.org's list of international hotlines.
How I found this story: I've had some awareness of Champix and its potential adverse effects for a while, particularly around the Timothy John coronial inquest late last year. I became interested in taking a closer look late last month, when I learned that the coroner's findings were soon to be handed down. I met with Phoebe Morwood-Oldham the day before the coroner's hearing, and attended court with her the following day. It was remarkable to see the shift in her mood: from uncertain and worried the day before, to elation after hearing what the coroner had to say.
In this case, the coroner's findings could have significant impacts, both in Australia and internationally. I'll continue to watch this subject, as I believe there's more to be told: as a society, we want fewer people to smoke cigarettes due to the health burden, and Champix is reportedly up to three times more effective than placebo at helping people to achieve that end. But we also want smokers to live long, productive lives, and as the coroner's findings made clear here, this drug can have potential adverse effects, particularly among those with neuropsychiatric conditions.
Nick Feik on Penmanship (68 minutes). Episode 41 of my podcast about Australian writing culture features Nick Feik, editor of The Monthly. Since its inception in 2005, The Monthly has been one of the few Australian publications to strongly invest in longform journalism. Each month, the magazine publishes a handful of essays from some of Australia's best writers and critics, which regularly run in excess of 5,000 words apiece. Because of this dedication to funding and promoting serious journalism that concerns the nation's culture and politics, The Monthly has built a large and devoted base of subscribers and readers. Nick Feik has been in the editor's chair since April 2014, after joining the magazine's publisher, Schwartz Media, several years earlier to establish online projects which included daily email newsletters and building a home for longform video.
I met with Nick at the Schwartz Media office in Melbourne in late July, shortly after he and his team had sent the August issue off to be printed. Our conversation touches on the origins of a cover story that Nick wrote about the effects that tech giants Facebook and Google are having on the media landscape; how the choice of cover photograph or illustration can affect The Monthly's newsstand sales; his routine for getting away from screens in order to read first drafts without distractions; what he's looking for when commissioning work from first-time contributors to the magazine, and how he feels about being the first person to cast his eyes across essays by great writers such as Helen Garner.
Dr Robin Carhart-Harris on Under The Skin with Russell Brand (66 minutes). I only just discovered Russell Brand's podcast via this rather good Guardian profile of the man. It's been a while since I heard his voice; I enjoyed his YouTube series The Trews several years ago, but hadn't followed him since. I've gotten a lot of enjoyment and enlightenment from his public speaking over the years, particularly on the subject of drug laws and addiction. This episode, then, is a good conversation with a scientist who is conducting psychedelic drug trials. I'm cherry-picking episodes with familiar guests so far, but another I can recommend is one where Professor Brad Evans interviews Russell about his new book Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions (49 minutes).
Tim Rogers on Conversations with Richard Fidler (44 minutes). A great chat with one of Australia's best songwriters about his memoir Detours, though it's a shame this one isn't a full hour-long conversation – I think because Fidler chose to play songs throughout, which are shortened for the podcast version due to licensing issues.
Dr Robin Carhart-Harris (Head of Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London) discusses unlocking the unconscious, the potential therapeutic uses of psychedelic drugs, and why research into their benefits has been shut down for over 40 years.
Lindsay McDougall on HearSej (87 minutes). I grew up listening to Lindsay McDougall aka 'The Doctor' on triple j radio, and as he discusses at length here, he's full of stories and can probably talk underwater. This is one of my favourite HearSej episodes to date, in part because McDougall and host Seja Vogel have known each other for many years.
Tim Rogers spent part of his childhood in Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, growing up in a sports-obsessed family as the son of a football umpire. Although he loved the AFL with a passion, he wasn't sure where he belonged. By his late teens Tim was grappling with anxiety and severe panic attacks. Until he was asked to become the frontman for the band You Am I, he had hoped for a life running a small pizza restaurant. Despite his introverted side, as a singer-songwriter, Tim's become known for his flamboyance, and his ability to mix tender and reflective songs with driving rock & roll.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah on Longform (53 minutes). This is an excellent conversation mostly about a 12,000 word story that Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah recently wrote for GQ, which is also linked in 'reads' below. I recommend reading her story first, then coming back to this to glean additional details about the intense and occasionally scary reporting that went into it.
Seja talks to her guest Lindsay McDougall (Frenzal Rhomb) about their love of greyhounds, Lindsay's recent road trip through Australia with his wife, and regrettable tattoos (great podcast topic!). They cover his formative years, how he almost became a multi-tiered keyboardist, how being able to play guitar helped him to not get beaten up in school, and how this all led him to audition for and play his first shows with Frenzal. So much 'content' in this podcast, including their reputation on the radio, the feud with Jackie O and Kyle Sandilands, difficult interviews, Bill Stevenson and earnest song writing.
Lorde on WTF with Marc Maron (75 minutes). A conversation between two music nerds, essentially, though there's about 30 years separating them. It's wonderful, and makes me like Lorde even more.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah is an essayist. Her latest piece is "A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof." "I remember feeling like 'you're playing chess with evil, and you gotta win.' Because this is the most terrible thing I'd ever seen. And I was so mad. I still get so mad. Words aren't enough. I'm angry about it. I can't do anything to Dylann Roof, physically, so this is what I could do."
Not every global pop superstar would feel at home in Marc's garage, but Lorde isn't your average global pop superstar. The singer-songwriter takes some time before kicking off her worldwide Melodrama tour to talk with Marc about her life in New Zealand, her frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff, and the math of making pop music. They also go down a music rabbit hole as Lorde reveals herself to be a knowledgable student of classic rock, power pop, rhythm and blues, and Phil Collins.
A Most American Terrorist by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah in GQ (12,000 words / 60 minutes). This story is nothing less than a masterpiece. It is about a white American man named Dylann Roof, who killed nine black Americans in their church and then refused to give any reasoning or motives for his actions. Journalist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah was infuriated by his silence, and so she decided to spend months in South Carolina searching for answers to the questions of where he came from, and why he did what he did. She spoke with Dylann Roof's mother, father, friends, former teachers and victims' family members in an effort to understand how one of the coldest serial killers in American history was raised. Her story is incredibly powerful, and a must-read; I consider the final scene to be among a handful of the most moving conclusions to a magazine story I've ever read. (Once you've absorbed this, I highly recommend listening to Rachel Kaadhzi Ghansah talking about the reporting and writing process on Longform, which I also mentioned above.)
The Great Pot Monopoly Mystery by Amanda Chicago Lewis in GQ (5,000 words / 25 minutes). An excellent read about a potentially major play to corner the market on legal cannabis in the United States. Amanda Chicago Lewis sets this one up perfectly: she heard a tip at a weed conference and chased it as far as she could, and the result is fascinating.
Sitting beside the church, drinking from a bottle of Smirnoff Ice, he thought he had to go in and shoot them.They were a small prayer group–a rising-star preacher, an elderly minister, eight women, one young man, and a little girl. But to him, they were a problem. He believed that, as black Americans, they were raping "our women and are taking over our country." So he took out his Glock handgun and calmly, while their eyes were closed in prayer, opened fire on the 12 people gathered in the basement of Mother Emanuel AME Church and shot almost every single one of them dead. At the trial last December, two survivors and the many relatives of the victims sat in a courtroom and looked at the back of Dylann Roof's head, the thinness of his neck. The ever growing bald patch at the center of his bowl cut almost made him look like a young, demented monk with a tonsure. He was dressed in the sort of getup that a man wears when life hasn't presented him with many opportunities to wear a suit: a worn crewneck sweater and thick polyester khakis that hung low over cheap-looking brown leather dress shoes. During two stages of his trial, Dylann Roof decided to represent himself. When family members of the victims testified, they listened to him, without looking over, as he lifted himself weakly from his chair and dismissed them from the stand with his deep, always bored, blunt voice, which sounded like his mouth was full of Karo syrup. He didn't object often, but when he did it was because he was bothered by the length and the amount of testimony that the families offered. Could they keep their stories about the dead quick? Whenever he stood to be walked back to his holding cell, his mouth moved with what I first thought was a sigh or a deep exhale–really, it was an ever present twitch, a gumming of his cheeks that sometimes ended with his tongue lolling out and licking his thin lips. Felicia Sanders, one of the few survivors, told the courtroom early on that Roof belonged in the pit of hell. Months later, she said that because of him she can no longer close her eyes to pray. She can't stand to hear the sound of firecrackers, or even the patter of acorns falling. Because of Dylann Roof, Felicia Sanders had been forced to play dead by lying in her dying son's blood, while holding her hand over her whimpering grandbaby's mouth. She had pressed her hand down so tight that she said she feared she would suffocate the girl. Eighteen months later, Felicia Sanders pointed that same hand toward Dylann Roof in the courtroom and said, with no doubt in her voice at all, that it was simple–that man there was "pure evil."
Pleasure And Pain by Barry Divola in Rolling Stone (1,800 words / 9 minutes). Queens of the Stone Age are my favourite band; their new album Villains has been on high rotation since it was released about a month ago. (I'm not writing music reviews for the foreseeable future, but trust me, if you like rock music, you should give Villains a try, and let me know how you like it.) This is one of the better profiles/features about the band I've read since the release of Villains, in part because frontman Josh Homme tends to say smart and funny things in interviews, but also because Barry Divola uncovers a devastating detail about the terrorist attack at the Eagles of Death Metal show in Paris, where 89 people were killed – which Homme was meant to attend, but cancelled at the last minute.
The search for the hidden forces that might soon control the marijuana industry began, as many wild journeys do, in Las Vegas. It was last November, and I was party-hopping at the biggest weed-business gathering of the year, a week of overlapping conferences and decadent soirees. I was a few blocks off the Strip, celebrating a new line of bongs and pipes in a penthouse with chandeliers and dark-wood furniture, when I happened to meet a faunlike 40-something man named after a character from The Jungle Book: Mowgli Holmes. Holmes had something he needed to get off his chest–a quagmire that had been keeping him up at night for the better part of a year. He was soft-spoken but had an earnest intensity that made me lean in to hear him. Little did I know that he was about to set me off on a months-long quest that would involve an obscure company potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars, the most prominent cannabis scientists in the world, and the former talk-show host Montel Williams–all to uncover an audacious plot with profound implications for one of the country's biggest agricultural products. All around us, former drug dealers chatted with finance types, passing vape pens as they pressed one another for information, boasting all the while about how much smarter and better positioned they were than everyone else there. The people in this room were vying to become major players in a marijuana industry that was getting larger every day. A sense of inevitability around legalization had left everyone giddy, but few understood that the greatest obstacles were yet to come. Holmes pulled out his phone and showed me what he saw when he looked at this surge of people working in weed: a 3-D visualization he'd created to illustrate the thousands of kinds of pot now on the market. Turns out he had a Ph.D. from Columbia and ran a lab in Portland, Oregon, where he'd been mapping the genetics of every marijuana strain he could get his hands on.
Blood Line by Amanda Hooton in Good Weekend (3,700 words / 18 minutes). An extraordinary, untold story about an Australian medical success story that involves "anti-D" donors and two million babies across 50 years. Brilliantly written and reported.
Josh Homme emerges from behind a black curtain into a backstage room at Sydney's Hordern Pavilion as if he's materialising out of thin air and trying to make an entrance. He doesn't have to try. At six feet four inches, with slicked back hair, a flash of a grin that reveals a silver incisor and a profile that bears a passing resemblance to Elvis Presley, the 44-year-old leader of Queens of the Stone Age tends to take up the space in any room he enters. And on this occasion, just a couple of hours before he's due onstage, Homme enters with a bad limp and the aid of a walking stick. He's fucked up his knee. No, not the knee he fucked up in 2010, which resulted in a botched operation where his heart stopped and he was technically dead before being revived with a defibrillator. "It's the other one! The good knee!" he smiles, without going into exact details about how this happened. "Apparently I'm not too easygoing on myself. That's what they tell me. I was informed that I tore my meniscus. But you know what? I'm not cancelling. I'm not going anywhere. "I have to take something strong enough for the pain but I want to be able to get up on stage and sing. I have to find the balance between it all. A little pain is guaranteed. But that's fine." Homme tends to hold forth like a cross between a motivational speaker, a rock & roll evangelist and a sports coach at half-time when his team is down a few points but still in the game. Perhaps coming back from the dead – not to mention dealing with terrorists trying to kill your fans and friends – will do that to a guy.
Heartbreak Hill by David Leser in Good Weekend (2,600 words / 13 minutes). An intriguing and intimate read about personal politics, jumping to conclusions, and learning how to listen to people, even if you don't like who they voted for.
In 1999, Nicole Mannix-Power was young, fit and expecting her third baby. On February 16, in the midst of an enervating Sydney summer, one of her girlfriends at work noticed she didn't look very well. "She said to me, 'Are you okay?'" she recalls. "And I said, 'No, I am so fricking tired I feel like dying.'" It was hot, she was 36 weeks pregnant, she had two young boys at home: of course she was exhausted. Still, this seemed extreme. "My friend said, 'Have you felt the baby move lately?' I was like, 'Oh, I'm busy, I'm sure it has.'" "Go straight home," her friend told her. "Go straight to the doctor." I meet Mannix-Power at Sydney Airport, where she organises freight for Cathay Pacific (she recently sent a load of goats to Kathmandu). She's slim and healthy-looking, with curly hair pulled firmly back, wearing a neat maroon skirt and sensible court shoes. Remembering that day almost two decades ago, her eyes fill with tears. She wipes them away. "When I got there, they put the thing on my belly, and there was no heartbeat. I thought, 'Oh my God.'" Mannix-Power's baby – a girl – had died in utero, less than a month before she was due to be born. She had died of Rhesus D Haemolytic Disease of the Foetus and Newborn, or HDN, a disease in which a mother's body creates an antibody that destroys her unborn child's red blood cells. It can cause severe spleen and liver problems, brain damage, and death in babies. "Historically, HDN was one of the major causes of infant mortality and lifelong severe disability in our population," explains Professor Robert Flower, transfusion scientist at the Australian Red Cross Blood Service. "It was a terrible, terrible condition." And it still has the potential to affect one in every six newborns in Australia. That's about 40,000 babies every year.
Dry Run by Jane Cadzow in Good Weekend (3,600 words / 18 minutes). An excellent profile of author and former journalist Jane Harper, who diligently learned to write books by studying the form and constantly improving her work, before experiencing enormous success with her debut novel The Dry.
A few weeks before Donald Trump was inaugurated as 45th president of the United States, I played tour guide to my American cousin on her first ever visit to Australia. We'd met only once, 34 years earlier, on her family farm outside Birmingham, Alabama: she, the adorable, gummy-toothed five-year-old; me, the 28-year-old reporter visiting from New Orleans. Not once in the intervening years had we managed to meet, but here she was, an elegant woman, whip-smart and funny, sitting in the passenger seat of my car as I showed her the sights of Sydney. There was such cause for happiness and reflection that morning, so many topics to explore: our loves, careers and far-flung lives; our long-deceased maternal grandmother who had loomed so large over our respective families; the recent loss of her father, my uncle, whom I'd barely known; the latest news on her four siblings; my two daughters, whom she'd not yet met. Somehow – and I guess this was inevitable given the recent political earthquake in the US – the conversation turned to politics and she said something that made me start. "Oh God, you didn't vote for Trump did you?" I asked, half in jest, because at that point in my life I'd never actually met a Trump supporter. "As a mat-ah-fact aaah deed," she said in her deep Southern drawl. It was a glorious sun-kissed morning and we were actually cresting Heartbreak Hill, the two-kilometre stretch of road between Rose Bay and Vaucluse, when she uttered these words, and I had what can best be described as an "amygdala hijack" – a takeover of the brain's limbic system. Faster, shallower breathing; increased heart rate; dilated pupils; a flood of stress hormones, mainly cortisol – all resulting in general loss of conscious reasoning.
Orchid Moments by Helen Razer in The Saturday Paper (1,500 words / 8 minutes). To end this week, here's an entertaining and educational article about cultivating native orchids. I'm no gardener, but I sure love reading Helen Razer whenever she writes about gardening.
When Jane Harper decided to become a novelist, she recognised there was a hitch in the plan. Quite a big one. "I wasn't sure how to write a novel," she says, as afternoon light streams into her bayside Melbourne apartment. "I didn't know how you started it, or how you pulled all the pieces together to get to the end." Harper is a practical person. If her ambition had been to tile her bathroom floor, she would have enrolled in a floor-tiling course. As it was, she signed up for a novel-writing course, which, sure enough, gave her the guidance she needed. In 12 weeks she produced a 40,000-word draft of a murder-mystery set in a drought-stricken Victorian town. "I didn't have any real expectation that this book would be published," she says. "I thought, 'I'm just going to try to finish it and I'm going to learn what I can from it. And then maybe I can write a better book next time.'" Harper, who is 37, with pale skin and auburn curls, permits herself a smile. Her murder-mystery did make it into print. The Dry is something of a publishing phenomenon: a bestseller that has won rave reviews and a swag of prizes in this country, including being named book of the year at the 2017 Australian Book Industry Awards. Now it is climbing the international charts. In The New York Times, respected critic Janet Maslin called it "a breathless page-turner" and expressed amazement that it was the work of a novice. In the UK, the major book retailer Waterstones took the unusual step of selecting it as its thriller of the month for both June and July. British GQ magazine has tipped it to be "the biggest crime release of 2017". At last count, it has been translated into 24 languages, most recently Macedonian. A movie deal has been signed.
To cultivate plants is to cultivate despair. If you've given your hands to the dirt for more than a season, you already know this very well. Certainly, there are moments of easy bliss – spring's dependable anemone; summer's generous peppers. But these serve largely to sustain the gardener who is otherwise battling weeds, grubs, soil and death. So much death. I still can't look at a picture of the Chatham Islands forget-me-not – a blue New Zealand megaherb that looks as a hydrangea would if it had taken a very long turn at an upscale Polynesian spa – without shame. I failed four of them. Then, when the fifth lay dying, I banned myself from the cultivation of any species with which I had not shared at least six months of life. I would stick with what little I knew and introduce no new genus to the earth until the casualty rate slowed. Well, I have violated probation. And I was seduced in the most predictable way. Human hunters and insect pollinators sacrifice their lives to the same enormous family of flowers that now tempt me. Heiresses have offered it their every waking instant. Botanists have actual stand-up brawls over its taxonomy. Charles Darwin spent decades researching a book in its name, Orchidaceae. There can be no resistance to the orchid.
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