Fire Drill is an ambitious collection of essays in which the author 'attempts to make sense of the first decade of the twenty-first century'. It represents a strand of contemporary thought at once Barnie’s but also that of a wider, if relatively silent section of the general public. The essays are antagonistic to 'junk culture', political expediency, cultural imperialism, globalisation and reject any depiction of the natural world that sentimentalises its realities. Central to the book is Barnie’s atheism (his value system is dependent on scientific 'proof' rather than cultural mores) which gives a strand in the book in which he painstakingly dissects biblical texts and confronts what he believes a major contemporary problem: the influence of the literalists and creationists of modern religion. The debunking is done with engaging relish. The reader will also be engaged by another strand of vivid essays concerning Barnie’s personal engagement with the natural.
Barnie’s insights are hard won and lucidly expressed. The essays are liberal, humanist and informed by varying degrees of altruism, environmentalism and culture. They are concerned with humanity and how it responds to and is manipulated and exploited by capitalism, religion, politics and technology, and by how buying into this exploitation (knowingly or not) has created a reduction in human experience (junk culture, short-termism, the cult of self) and human capacity of experience. Barnie doesn’t set out to be popular (or unpopular), the careful, informed setting out of argument and opinion is one of the book’s strengths.
Review from The Western Mail
The end of the first decade of the 21st century offers this Welsh poet, environmentalist and musician the chance to wonder whether it was a fire drill for the future in a series of 26 crisp and crackling essays. Barnie does not limit himself to what he calls “the strangest decade of my life so far”. Instead he wonders exactly when human beings acquired, uniquely, a soul. And what happened to the other hominids? Did humans wipe them out like we probably will our remaining cousins, the apes? And what of “free will”? Did Judas choose to betray Jesus or was he doing God’s work – in which case shouldn’t he be canonised rather than castigated? As for the Book Of Revelation, he calls it a combination of the Daily Mail, Hammer Films and Marvel Comics, that was surely written by a schizophrenic or someone on drugs, or describing a nightmare. This reasoned, readable atheistic and humanist collection stares the world uncompromisingly in the face – something most of us try to avoid. As Barnie says, faced with unpredictable change and unprecedented threats, “we busy ourselves with our lives yet are haunted by self-doubts”. Self-doubt was not a characteristic of Bush and Blair. Barnie convincingly exposes Blair and shows how “freedom and democracy” are compromised by torture and war against the abstraction terror. Barnie also offers insights into spin, globalisation, capitalism, the consequences of the unrestrained exploitation of the earth’s resources and climate change. The essay on “junk culture” is particularly strong. He laments its exploitation of sex and idolisation of physical beauty and says reality television and even the news makes voyeurs of us. All of this manipulates and exploits us and diminishes our human experience. It’s not a comfortable book, but Barnie is not a pessimist who believes we face the end of time. Unlike the Book Of Revelation it debunks a lot of tosh although it will never be so influential. And like Revelation, it won’t be to everyone’s taste. Steve Dube, The Western Mail, January 2011
Review from Poetry Wales
Since freeing himself of the editorship of Planet, John Barnie has become one of the most productive and distinctive writers in the UK. He is certainly unique in Wales. Considering that he has reached his seventieth year, it's time we celebrated his contribution to the arts, although I'm sure he would detest such as idea.
The first writings I encountered by Barnie were essays published in this magazine. They revealed someone unafraid of voicing unpopular opinions. It was clear what he found uncongenial: consumerism, conformity, imperialism, loss of culture. What were most alive for him were artistic expression and the natural world. Barnie's influence, as revealed in his two previous essay collections, No Hiding Place (UWP) and The King of Ashes (Gomer), are iconoclastic poets, formidable in their dedication and austerity: they include Robinson Jeffers, A.R. Ammons, Harry Martinson and R.S. Thomas. Of the twenty-seven essays in Fire Drill the most directly concerned with poetry is 'What the raven told the eagle'. Barnie maintains that contemporary readers are increasingly ignorant of the natural world, lacking the language to understand. The tone here is similar to the elegiac 'Remembering Birds'. Meanwhile, the most personal essays evoke the writer's explorations of the Ceredigion coast, whilst birdwatching and beach bombing. (Looking for a way to pass your time? Barnie seems to ask. This is how.)
Fire Drill indicated that the high water mark of creative writing has been reached. In twenty years, the univeristy world will look very different. In fact, readers seeking modern role models could do worse than study Barnie and environmental interests, plus other languages, infuse his art. First, get outside yourself, he is saying. It would be easy to describe John Barnie as 'anti-technology'. But he anticipates such criticism.
Most people under thirty would disagree,
but there is a case to be made for the
mobile phone as a negative intrusion into
life rather than enhancement of it.
('Technology, Genetics and Happiness')
..Fire Drilll: Notes on the Twenty-First Century is utterly clear, searing hones. The prose is clean as flint, the arguments remorseless. In its lucidity, I can think of no finer recent personal testament. Compare Fire Drill, for instance, with the essays of that other atheist, the celebrated Christopher Hitchens.
Robert Minhinnick, Poetry Wales Spring 2011