Fire & Terror: between politics & pathology

Friday February 9th 2007.  

Nottingham University, Jubilee Campus: National College of School Leadership

Malicious fire starting can be a way of creating terror.  In the second seminar the relationship between malicious fire-starting and personality disorder was considered.  This 3rd seminar is looking more broadly at the question of 'fire & terror'.  Professor Barry Richards ( Bournemouth University ) will be offering some thoughts on the  psychology of terror, on terror as communication and its relationship to arson.  We may wonder more generally about what we understand by fire power across nation states.  Gary Winship will be considering how images of fire  and  terror (and terrorism) and fire power become embedded in the public mind's eye.  And what happens when we step back to look at local terror, ie gang attacks using fire and the recent phenomenon of fire service staff being attacked when attending at the scene of a fire.  Vivienne Brunsden will be describing some work in progress exploring attacks on fire service staff.


Fire Starting as a Symptom of  Personality Disorder? 

Held at the Henderson Hospital Services, 132 Wandsworth Road, Vauxhall, London SW8 2LD

co-hosted by International Association For Forensic Psychotherapy

Date: July 7th 2006

Introduction - John Adlam, Principal Adult Psychotherapist, Henderson Hospital, IAFP - Anna Motz - Chair of IAFP, Working with young fire starters - Claire Purton (Arson Task Force Practitioner, London FB), Personality Disorder Treatments - Tim McInnerny, Consultant Forensic Psychiatrist, Young Persons Unit, Broadmoor Hospital, (Group facilitators, Chris Scanlon, Dr Jean Ruane, Anna Motz, John Adlam, Gary Winship).

The recent spate of fires in schools is grave cause for concern.  What do we understand about adolescent disorders, gangs and arson?  What are the gender differences in PD?

Mishima's novel: The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea is recommended reading, an account about a young boys iniation into a gang and its tragic consequences.  Mishima's powerful imagery and use of fire as a metaphor in the novel is mesmerising.  Mishima's patent talent as a noevlist means his work merits serious attention, but it is his own trubulent life and dramatic suicide which suggest that Mishima may have been near-sighted about the violent source of arson activity. 

Mishima was in the first place inspired by the destruction of the 'Temple of the Golden Pavilion' in 1950 when a young student priest in Kyoto deliberately set fire to it and burned it to the ground.  The Temple had been a masterpiece of Buddhist architecture had been revered as a national treasure for more than five hundred years.  Apparently the young priest, had been obsessed with envy of the beauty of the Golden Temple, which he saw in contrast to the perception of himself as stuttering and ugly.  At the trial of the young priest a psychiatrist said he had arrived at a diagnosis 'psychopathy of the schizoid type'.  Mishima took the dramatic events of the destruction of the temple, and the story of the young priest, as a basis for his first novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956) in which he speculated about the priest's violent motivation which was deemed to be the consequence of the young priest having observed his mother having sexual intercourse with his uncle. 


Mark Taylor, Fire Safety Education Manager, Surrey Fire and Rescue Service: "1) Networking and awareness of colleagues within other organsitions outside fire & rescue that have an interest in juvenile firesetters.  2) Thought provoking. The Broadmoor case was way beyond the vast majority of cases and young people that we work with in the main.  3) Could have done with more structure or direction. Maybe a specific subject area for each group to then feedback to the large group.  4) Practical skills for engaging young firesetters and the referal processes to link with other agencies in our areas.  5) Thank-you for organising the day. Look forward to attending more".

Claire Purton - Arson Task Force Practitioner, London FB: "Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the day, I dont know if you designed the choice of delegates but the mix was really good, at Sheffield there were far too many Fire Brigade personnel (in my opinion) so the group discussions were very one sided.  I thought the presentations were a really good mix. The small group discussions I think could be held together a little better, I thought that one or two took over the group and there were voices that it would have been good and informative to listen to.  I cant think of anything missing from the day the venue was very good the length of the day was very good, the subject matter was very interesting and I took home a lot and made some very useful contacts.

Margaret Reinders - Social Worker, South West Thames Trust: "1) A very interesting and informative day. Learning from colleagues from other services and disciplines, and also gaining valuable insights into the connections between fire setting and personality disorder.  2) I found all the presentations very interesting as the presentors all looked at the problem of fire setting from different points of view.  I found the lecture on looking at culture in relation to fire setting and examining how we relate to fire in our society of particular interest. 3) The small groups were an interesting forum for discussion and sharing experiences with workers from other services. 4) What occurs in the developmental process to cause some individuals to set fires and how this can be treated.  5) It was a good choice of venue and the lunch was excellent".

Deb Davies - Juvenile Fire Setter Co-ordinator, Hereford and Worcester Fire & Rescue Service: "I found the day very useful- especially to see what is going on with the world of Fire setters.  I would have found it even more useful to have concentrated on the juvenile aspect of this work rather than adulthood.  It was interesting to note that colleagues from outside Fire and Rescue services do not know about the amount/type of cases and input that we are dealing with on a daily basis.  Any more seminars that bring this behaviour to the forefront is essential".

Lindsey Benjamin - Forensic Mental Health Nurse, Colchester: 1)  It was excellent to have a whole day to listen and think about this clinical area.  It was also good to have such a range of perspectives.  2) All the presentations were stimulating and informative.  Enjoyed your contextual themes, the practical issues from our colleagues in the Fire Service and the case history was interesting for me as a forensic clinician.  3)  Good.  4)  Would like more on individual fire setters, particularly female.  5)  Very well looked after, lovely lunch, atmosphere very containing but relaxed.

Anne Davidson - Maddison Centre, Teddington: The presentations were all interesting and it is a shame that there was not more time for additionl case presentions etc   time is not elastic! More theory would also be good.

The Function of Fire: Ritual & Eco-Regulation

Friday July 20th, at Bass Management Centre (BMC 329), Nottingham Trent University, Shakespeare St, City Centre 9.30am-3.30pm

How does fire 'setting' with a purpose aid us in our understandings of arson.  In order to understanding the pathological aspects of fire starting, we need to develop a clearer understanding of the normalising role of fire in people's lives.  In the early aftermath of the recent arson fire in Sherwood Forest, how do we begin to understand the urge to set fires in remote forested areas?  And given the changes in global climate, will we be increasingly confronted by forest fires?

Vivienne Brunsden, (Clin Psych), Senior Lecturer, Nottingham Trent University. 

Professor Mark Davies and James Stiller (NTU) James Stiller is a Lecturer in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University. James’ research past has included zoology and evolutionary psychology as well as applying methodologies used to study ecological interactions to human behaviour and literature.  Mark Davies is a Professor of Psychology at Nottingham Trent University. Mark completed his first degree in psychology and zoology at Nottingham University in 1983. For his PhD he explored the application of Gibson’s ecological theory of visual perception to the control of flight behaviour in birds.  Mark has published in the fields of perceptuomotor control in birds, statistical modelling, face processing, trauma and the psychology of online gaming.  James Stiller and Mark Davies explore the need to accept natural fires and even set fires because of the benefits to the environment and ecology i.e. certain species of flora and fauna actually need fire to occur to be able to survive. They will set this in a socio-historical-cultural context to look at issues of how forest fires can be considered as a positive phenomenon creating iconic landscapes and useful habitats for humans. The domestication of fire is also considered in relation to how fire usage and cooking may have assisted in the evolution of bigger brains in humans.

Dr Belinda (Bin) Winder, Dept of Psychology, Nottingham Trent University. Bin will speak on the topic of fire rituals. Dr  Winder is both a Chartered Psychologist (Nottingham Trent University) and a practising Witch. She is also Vice President of the Pagan Federation - the largest and oldest Pagan organisation in the UK. Belinda will speak on the topic of fire rituals, and will attempt to give the audience a flavour of the powerful and positive symbolism evoked by fire within the ritual setting.


Delegates found the idea of fire as an extreme grazer a thought provoking and helpful idea.  Seemed particularly useful to colleagues working in rural services.  Flora & fauna across habitats have adapted to fire environments across millions of years.   Fire controls pest plant species. An eco-law of fire culturally embeds the ideas of destruction and renewal.     

Olduwan sites around Lake Turkana, 1 - 2 million years ago; Australopithicines evidence of the use of smouldering logs for the purpoae of cooking.  slash and burn farming. Out attention was also drawn to the limited, though often under estimated function of smoke, for instance  sedating bees, flavouring food, communicating (smoke signals).

The idea of man locked in existential battle with fire seemed to suggest a deeply primitive construction of man's realtionship with fire and integrity as part of human evolution.  Man is always working out ways of living with fire and using fire.  The ancient symbolism of  fire was considered by Beleinda Winder who drew attention to the variety of ways in which fire is used in many pagan rituals.      

These pagan rituals tend to take place in rural environs and there was an interesting contrast with a brief presentation by Dimitri, a fire juggler, who showed us some videos clips of his group of fire jugglers with the majority of their public performances taking place in urban settings (streets, warehouses).  Kevin parker, juvenike firesetter co-ordinatos, Essex FRS asked if Dimitri and his group had considered the impact of his performance on an audience of younger children.  There was an interesting debate about such perfomances might be an oportunity to offer some education.   

Once again one of the key discussion appoints is the way in which the binary notion as fire as simply good or bad is inadequate to explain the complexity of our encounter with fire.

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