March 2006

The Nation Reviewed

A short history of pyromania

By Edward Scheer

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Clare is in tears. She has lost the farm where she grew up in the foothills of the Grampians. Not only that, but the farm next door went, too. Both were destroyed by the January bushfires in Victoria.

Michael is 19. Two years ago he left school, and he is still unemployed, still at home with his mum and his stepdad, who wants him out of the house. He is driving through the smoke back to the end of the road where the day before he had thrown a lit match onto a patch of dry grass and watched it go up and the flames speed away.

I am forty-odd and standing on the patio watching the smoke from the barbecue drifting towards the doors, and trying to keep my kids away. They want to be held over the plates to see the fire below. They love fire.

There is a special place in the Australian psyche for fire. Alongside an atavistic fear of an essential, elemental thing that cannot be predicted or easily controlled, there is also a kind of familiarity. The domestication of fire goes hand in hand with the wild conflagration; the inferno calls forth the barbecue.

Growing up anywhere in Australia in the ’60s and ’70s you could see the smoky haze of the weekly burn-off hanging over the streets. In every backyard of every suburb, red-eyed fathers stoked the flames with any bit of combustible garbage within reach. Were we out of our minds?

We had public incinerators, too. Finely and expensively constructed buildings of civic significance. Walter Burley Griffin designed a number of these around Australia in the 1930s. Bizarrely enough, one of his, in Sydney’s Willoughby, was destroyed by fire in 1996 before being restored. Another, in Moonee Ponds in Melbourne, is now the Incinerator Arts Complex, while one in Ipswich’s Queens Park has been turned into a theatre. (Visiting these one has to overcome the urge to “rush into a crowded fire and shout ‘Theatre!’” as the artist Laurie Anderson wrote.)

To be fair, the ’60s and ’70s were the years before recycling and knowledge about carbon dioxide emissions, when the incinerator was seemingly a labour-saving device like any other. But unlike toasters and washing machines, the labour it saved was an exclusively male preoccupation: burning was a man’s business, carried out with suitable solemnity every weekend.

I recall that parental instructions to dispose of rubbish beside the incinerator were as frequent as the admonition to stay away from it at other times. Ours was a sturdy besser-brick construction surrounded by piles of garden refuse and timber. I received a painful injury as a child when playing on this pile: an upturned nail embedded itself deep into my foot, and along with it the meaning of the admonition.

In the late ’70s most city councils banned the burn-off after advice from medical lobbies about the effect of poor air quality on people’s health. The smoke gradually cleared from the suburbs. But what happened to the rituals of the burn-off, and the desires of men to stand around a blazing fire in the open air?

Surely there’s no connection between everyday suburban-male pyromania and that of the deranged criminal fire-starters of the summer? Matthew Willis, a researcher with the Australian Institute of Criminology, has adapted an FBI criminal profile to that of the bushfire pyromaniac: a lone male, around nineteen, unemployed and unskilled, with inadequacy issues that are often a result of an unstable childhood. The cookie-cutter criminal profile. Technically, pyromania is a more specific problem: an ‘impulse control disorder’, as the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) says, but it is also a metaphor for a helpless attraction to fire.

Summer in Australia has always been the fire season. So the proximity of pristine bushland to so many suburban areas in Australia is both a blessing and a curse, as any firefighter will tell you. A childhood friend of mine would casually light fires while walking home from school through the bushland that surrounded it. One of his fires nearly took off, and only the efforts of a number of senior students saved the situation. My friend just laughed and ran off into the bush. I followed the trail of burning grass and bushes to the top of a waterfall, where he mercifully dropped the remaining matches in the water. I can still feel the relief I felt then. But I don’t remember questioning his motives. I felt I understood his need to light fires, and putting them out again seemed a perfectly natural sequence of events.

This is not a defence of pyromania, but a suggestion that fire is not an accidental element: it corresponds to a need within us. After all, fire, in the right hands, is an ecological tool, as indigenous Australians knew perfectly well. Virgil wrote, “Often too it is good to set fire to a sterile field and to deliver the light stubble to the crackling flame.” These words can equally be understood as an ecological moral or a hearty evocation of the pyromaniac’s craft.

In 2000 we welcomed another kind of pyromania to our towns and TV screens: the torch relay and opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Not the first torch relay in games history – that honour belongs to the 1936 Berlin games – but surely the most exhaustive. The itinerary took the sacred flame from Mount Olympus right along the east coast of Australia into Homebush, and included a stretch underwater. A victory, orchestrated against nature, of one element over another.

But a healthy Prometheus complex isn’t the same as real pyromania. Olympic custodians of the flame don’t disseminate flames at random; they only hand it on to select persons. The pyromania I am defending is perhaps best exemplified by the torch relay for the 1956 Melbourne games. As it came through Sydney, a group of university students lit their own torch some blocks away from the town hall and sent one of their number to pass the flame to the lord mayor who, in the tumult, didn’t notice that anything was awry until the silver paint came off on his hands. Ron Clarke was still a couple of miles away. The students lit their own flame, as they always do, and then appropriated a major event and made it new, at least for them. Not custodians of the flame, but pyromaniacs.

I guess the real difference between them – as between the criminal arsonist and the bloke at the backyard barbecue – is that, as Matthew Willis says, “For the pyromaniac, the fire is not a means to an end but an end in itself.” Bear this in mind, men of Australia, and don’t burn the snags.

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