Well I invented a drug

that made everyone happy.

They banned it, of course,

straight away.

When Researchers decided

it wasn’t addictive

They cut off their funding

and pay.


They passed several laws

that just pushed up the price,

when it should have been

sold for a song.

Then when I confessed,

that it had no effect,

They wouldn’t admit

They were wrong.


Well the drug’s still illegal,

but don’t ask me why,

coz really

it doesn’t exist.

But it made Them so happy,

to make it forbidden,

I hadn’t the heart

to insist.




“Dopeland” by John Birmingham,

Random House, 2003.


John Birmingham’s writing has always kind of annoyed me.

This may surprise some of my Brisbane readers, as he is often accorded cult status locally for his collection of share-house stories, “He died with a Felafel in his Hand.Felafel of course also went on to be a minor hit as a play and a movie starring Noah Taylor. Subsequently Mr Birmingham has been able to ride this success for the rest of his career, and indeed it would have been the reason for him being commissioned to write Dopeland in the first place.

For essentially Dopeland purports to be a survey of Australia’s contemporary cannabis culture, and consists mainly of what Birmingham is renowned for, ie., wandering around smoking pot with the locals and collecting stoner urban legends. Though later in the book he attempts to come to grips with the history and mechanics of Prohibition in a fairly coherent fashion.

But generally John Birmingham is a follower of the Chopper Reeves philosophy; “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” I know from personal experience that this is one author who never lets strict accuracy get in the way of recounting events. His goals as a story teller are to amuse and impress.

An example would be his recounting, as told in John Stafford‘s book “Pig City“, of the day that radical radio station 4ZZZ was seized by security guards in the pay of a reactionary student council. Later that day 4zzz workers and a gathering mob of supporters stormed the building and retook the studio. (I’m proud to say I was part of that mob) It was a historic day in Brisbane‘s counter-cultural history, but the Birmingham reminiscences trivialise the whole event into an undergrad prank, telling sniggering anecdotes of fucking on the Chancellor’s desk. The actual key events of the day and their significance apparently passed him by.

There are a number of other reasons for my irritation with the works of John Birmingham. Some are petty and have their origins deep in the forgotten collective-past of fellow Brisbanites. (Holding a grudge is part of Brisbane culture after all.) For one thing a number of stories in Felafel are about me and my friends, and not only does he get the stories wrong, but they are far less funny when he tells it. (Thats right Birmingham. I know who your informants are and I know where they live. The ones that are still alive that is.)

But more importantly perhaps is the chap’s Hunter S. Thompson fixation.

Birmingham desperately wants to write like the Good Doctor. Sadly, he usually comes across more like a sort of Australian undergrad version of P.J. O’Rourke, he of “Republican Party Reptile” fame . Indeed, he reminds me of me a little, when I was a young writer at seventeen, full of drugs and hubris and wanting to write the next Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Actually, Hunter nearly ruined a generation of young writers. We all wanted to have written Fear and Loathing.

It must be admitted the Good Doctor casts a long shadow and its hard not to write about drug craziness without echoes of Las Vegas coming in. But John baby swipes a whole swag of the Doctor’s favourite phrases and motifs repeatedly. I mean, just consider the plot in his second book, The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco, climaxing with a drug binge in Surfers Paradise (Brisburg’s answer to Las Vegas) whilst running a scam on a Casino. Hmm seems vaguely familiar. “Walking with the king” indeed!

Well most of us grow up and develop our own style, but after three books John still writes like he’s seventeen. Hence, lots of Dopeland is in the following vein;

“”I’ll tell you what rocks,” said Dan with real admiration in his voice,”is that monster fucking trumpet that he rolled. Wasn’t that a neat looking joint? Four papers, that really fiddly, intricate filter system, nicely tucked over at the top.”

Most of his humour is on the boy-stoner juvenile level as well. Birmingham shows the teenager’s cruel knack of caricaturing people with dismissive labels in all of his books. So he makes fun of dykes (unless they’re good looking “lipstick dykes”) and hippies and white trash. Writers necessarily have to sketch characters, but ole J.B. veers too often into stereotype & cliche.Very much in the nasty, white, frat boy style of P.J. O’Rourke back in his National Lampoon days. Maybe it’s true when they say Marijuana delays adolescence. Perhaps ole J.B. is just accurately mirroring an unfortunate reality about the Australian cannabis culture, much of which does seem like an advertisement for arrested development.

Included in Dopeland is a potted history of cannabis usage (pun intended), which is accurate enough but contains nothing new. A fair swathe is plundered from Jack Herrer’s esteemed Emperor tract & John Jiggenses writings on the history of pot in Australia. But thats what our boy J.B. does, after all. He’s a cultural magpie stealing things for his nest that look interesting. But don’t look to John boy for an accurate history of the various H.E.M.P. campaigns for decriminalization. His analysis of the failure of Pot Prohibition, however, is well reasoned and persuasively written. Or perhaps I’m just prejudiced. At anyrate, by the books end there are signs that J.B. might be on the verge of maturing, both as a person and a writer and to that I look forward. He’s already proved he can tell a story.

Oh and my final thought is this; The man clearly can’t hold his dope. OOh four bongs! John your such a rager!



The Reverend Hellfire is a practising Performance Poet and an ordained Minister of the Church of Spiritual Humanists! 



~ by reverendhellfire on September 5, 2010.

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