Bonfire of the first editions: author loses life's work in garden shed fire


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

One of Britain's most impressive private book collections has been lost after a shed belonging to the author Francis Wheen went up in "spectacular" flames.

Mr Wheen, the deputy editor of Private Eye, peered through the window of his home near Chelmsford, Essex, to find his shed ablaze, and with no hope of retrieving what he described as his "life's work".

"I've lost all the books I've written, and a 51-volume set of the collected works of Marx and Engels, which would cost £1,000 to replace," Mr Wheen told The Independent yesterday. "Some were out of print, or 19th century first editions – I don't know how you value those."

In addition to his personal library of 5,000 books, he lost his current work in progress – a novel set in 1850. "Most annoyingly, my computer, which had the book I'm meant to be writing at the moment [was lost in the fire]," he said. "I had printed out a hard copy, neatly stacked up, but the whole lot went."

Essex County Fire and Rescue Service was called at 6.53pm on Friday night. Two fire engines with 10 crew arrived to find the shed "100 per cent alight". It is believed that the blaze was triggered by an electrical fault.

"I don't suspect it's arson," Mr Wheen said wryly. "There's somebody who goes around setting straw bales and hay bales alight, but that seemed to be a specific arsonist who had it in for straw."

Now, in the absence of books or records to entertain himself, he would simply "sit in the lotus position and contemplate the four noble truths".

Despite apparently remaining upbeat, Mr Wheen, 55, admitted that the past few months had been difficult. He is currently suffering from spinal problems and was laid low with a "ghastly virus" on Saturday which left him "throwing up all over the place".

"I'm going to read the Book of Job to find out what happens next," he said. "Is it the plague of locusts? Or will I have my camels and oxen taken from me?"