I awoke to the smell of a bitter, black smoke assailing my nostrils and lungs.

Hmm, smells like burning literature,” I thought. For from experience I have found that a burning book has a fairly unmistakable, pungently chemical odour to it that, once experienced, is subsequently immediately recognisable thereafter. And indeed, as events were to prove, on this occasion my suspicions were not unfounded. With watering eyes I stumbled thru the haze to investigate. Although I didn’t know the What or Why, in my heart I already knew who the Who would be. “It’s gotta be those damned Christians,” I muttered.

For it was the humour of the Fates to decree that a small fringe group of nutter Christians should move into the house next door and be my neighbours. They were kind of a mini-Children-of-God type outfit, you know, an informal ministry of former druggies & acid-casualties who’d seen the Light. Now they ran their own ‘street ministry’ by turning their rented house into an “open house” for scamming street kids and criminal dregs on parole with nowhere else to go.

Ironically, I knew their Founder and supposed spiritual leader “John” from his earlier Life before apparently he saw the error of his ways, back when he was “Jamie”.

Back then he was an ecstasy dropping, fag-boy guitarist with Alternative pretensions, and played at practising Crowleyan magick..

He was locked in a tight little relationship with another gay-boy musician, and together they played the “couple -power-trip” in every band they joined and inevitably destroyed.

Although a competent guitarist, he had an inability to communicate which he hid behind a mask of hip arrogance.

In retrospect he was clearly one of these wildly unstable characters you come across, who suddenly swing wild 180 degree turns and have extremely varied careers. One moment they’re ultra-decadent art-psueds or hard core Rastafarian, then one day they suffer a personality collapse, repudiate everything they said they ever believed in, flip over and run away to join the Hare Krishna’s or the Police. Finding God is often an option for such desperately seeking personalities.

Sometimes you can see them coming, like say when you get some new, wildly enthusiastic recruit to the anarchist or the socialist or whatever cause. Their enthusiasm has something false about it that you pick up instinctively. “They’re just passing thru”, you think to yourself, “just a tourist”.

And so it apparently was with Jamie/John. Clearly he had a deep well of hidden guilt inside him there. All that magick & gay sex and drugs and rock n roll the devil’s music etc. eating away at him. Possibly he had a Catholic upbringing. That’ll often do it, create these conflicted personalities. Perhaps he had a bad trip that brought it all to a head.

At any rate he did the flip. Left his long time Lover, stopped using drugs, gave up music except for strumming the occasional Christian ballad on an acoustic guitar and changed his name to John. Of course it’s not enough for these extreme types just to join a religion. No they have to found their own. And so it was with John.

He hung around the streets talking to the street kids and homeless dregs, and they used his house to hang around. They regarded his attempts at ministering as a joke but tolerated it as he clearly had no control over anything. So they used the place as a squat and ran amok generally at all hours, gradually trashing the house and annoying the neighbours.

I’d already had a showdown with “John” over some of the street dregs calling harassing comments over the fence at my then Personal Assistant. I’d been forced to establish my status as Alpha Male of the neighbourhood. Fortunately, aside from the psychological advantage I possessed by knowing John’s shameful past, the more superstitious members of his household already regarded me as a “black magician”, a reputation I did nothing to diminish or dispell.

This reputation came in handy when I ranted and threatened dire but unspecified consequences, for as it happened, a couple of hours later a huge thunderstorm came up and blew over a huge, old, dead tree in my yard, which crashed over the fence and landed on their back verandah, a single gaunt branch extended like a skeletal finger towards their back door, like it was rapping on the glass.

They hadn’t bothered me after that.

So what the hell was going on now, I asked muttered irritably.

I peered over the fence. Sure enough, “John” and a couple of slack-jawed gawkers were burning a pile of books, adding just enough kerosene to keep the flames crackling merrily and give the scene a suitably sombre air.I suspected most of the books were from “John”s old collection. When I suggested he sell them if he didn’t want them, he explained they were “satanic” books on magic, not safe to let others be influenced by.

I glanced at the titles on top of the pile. I spotted a couple of books on Buddhism and a yoga guide. Satanic, huh! As they were only slightly singed I rescued them from the flames for souvenirs. “I’ll have these,” I said vaguely and wandered off.

Later though, I thought about it, and what I thought this: Why should nut-case Christians and right wing ideologues have all the fun. Whats so wrong with burning books? After all, in this Age of the Printed Word, this Age of the Internet, there is not much chance of any precious knowledge getting lost in the process. Hell, the surest way to have a best seller is to get banned and hope some lunatic burns copies somewhere. Certainly didn’t do the Beatles any harm when American Zealots burnt copies of their records. Copies here is the operative word. We’re not talking about burning down the library of Alexandria after all. Really all a book burning is these days is literary criticism in the form of Performance Art. A Critical Installation. Like that Burning Man festival they hold in the desert.

So getting together with David Much Free of the anarcho-Insurrectionist sporadical THE FUTURE NOW we decided to have our own book burning and publicised the forthcoming event in our mutual publications, I in my cultural review PRAGUE SPRING and he with the Future Now. The chance to annoy humourless lefties and knee jerk civil libertarians was irresistible. In preparation I scoured the second hand bookshops and my shelves for suitable material to be sacrificed.

On the day of the Burning, I passed by “John” as I carried a big sack of books down the driveway.

I’ve decided to burn over a new leaf,” I told him as I handed him an invitation. Strangely he did not attend.

The venue for this august event was a rubble strewn vacant lot in a seedy part of Woolloongabba, which had the virtue of providing much kindling ready to hand.

David lived in one of the surrounding low rent flats, boarding houses and general dives that formed a natural amphitheater, and many of his neighbours, artists and druggies mainly, were observing the activities from the windows with keen interest.

Conveniently there was a large trench dug in the clay which provided an appropriate fire pit. As the sun set over the buildings about thirty-five to fifty lunatics had gathered for their own reasons to burn some books.

First we tossed a great stack of lumber into the hole, and with a healthy dose of petrol poured in we were ready to start. As self-appointed Minister for the Elimination of Decadent Culture I cautiously applied a match to the improvised wick.

Seconds later, and lacking entirely in eyebrows, I added the first books to the flames that were licking the sky hungrily. Joan Collins was the first to go, as I recall, followed shortly thereafter by the Book of Mormon. In fact we burnt many Books of Mormon that day. Everyone seemed to have brought one.

I have to admit we cheated a little and burnt magazines and Newspapers as well. The Courier Mail and the Australian were represented of course but the Green Left Weekly was not ignored. Australian works were not neglected either; My Brother Jack joined the flames and burning Patrick White somehow felt good too.To show our even-handedness and complete lack of bias, David and I also burnt copies of our own publications, to the heartfelt cheers of onlookers.

Later, to give the event a little class, I tossed in a copy of the Works of Cicero.

My Assistant of the time asked what Cicero had ever done to me.

I never could stand the pompous, self-promoting bastard” I drunkenly slurred. But again I cheated readers, for I had another copy in better condition back at home.

My Assistant meanwhile was paying Shakespeare back for when she was made to appear in that embarrassing High School version of the Merchant of Venice.

It was getting dark. “The Secret of Dianetics” was burning with a lurid greenish flame that gave off clouds of oily vapour. Someone dropped a block of hash and we subsequently spent a ridiculous amount of time crawling on our hands and knees in a rubbish infested vacant lot looking for it in the dim light.

After finding and consuming the errant hash we then ran a narrow plank across the fire-pit and took turns crossing the narrow path above the scorching flames. It was a funny feeling to be balancing there above the burning books, watching them curl and turn brown, then black. Every now and then one would explode softly, sending out a small clouds of sparks and ashes. The cheese yellow moon peeked slyly over the city skyline.

At this stage the cops turned up, clearly confused and agitated. We all play the “anarchist defence” ie., Nobody’s in charge. No-one knows who lit the fire. No-one knows anyone else. I was just walking past. No-one knows why books are burning in a pit in the twilight while outrageously drunk and stoned crazies with no eyebrows babble gibberish while others scuttle off into the shadows. In the end they gave it up as too hard and went away.

It was time to go anyway. We had run out of books and besides everyone was getting a headache from all that burning literature. Twenty centuries of culture going up in flames produces a hell of a lot of toxins let me tell you. So we all went home to lie down and left the flames to mutter and hiss and eventually die out by themselves.


Well all this happened way back in the Nineties, but I was put in mind of it recently by all the various hoo-haa and controversy going on about those Cartoons supposedly offensive to Mohamed and the case of that American Pastor (not my denomination) who burnt a copy of the Koran. But as I reminisced to my current Personal Assistant about my own long ago book-burning hi-jinks, she put it to me that the times were more serious now. In this age of Fatwa’s and Jihads, she suggested, perhaps its not a good idea to burn books, people are so sensitive now. No-one appreciates a Da-daist joker playing with fire. Did I not think, after all, that that American Pastor should be prevented from burning books?

Nonsense, I said, people should be free to burn books all day if they want. Thousands of books get thrown into the garbage or pulped everyday and no one gives a damn. But set fire to one of the bastards and people start acting like your forcing Galileo to recant.

No, I said, I don’t care if people burn books.

It’s when they burn the authors that you’ve got to worry.



The Reverend Hellfire is a Practising Performance Poet

and an ordained Minister of the Church of Spiritual Humanists and the Church of Life.

Bow down ye mighty and despair!



~ by reverendhellfire on April 24, 2011.

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