Troubadour of the Vastness: Gareth Rees 1948-2018

16 Apr

I’m truly devastated to hear of the death of my great friend Gareth Rees. I was just one of many people he inspired with his erudition, compassion, free spirit and dry humour. I first met him in 2004 when I was seeking out contributors for a travel writing anthology I was co-editing. With his paint-spattered shirt and veteran rock star looks, Gareth cut a cool, bohemian figure in the somewhat conventional setting of the Hole in the Wall pub, Southsea. My conversation with him that night was an exhilarating tour of literature, music, art, nature, politics, travel and spirituality. We’d have many more chats like that over the next fourteen years. I will always cherish them.

The son of a vicar, Gareth grew up in Gosport and later St Louis, Missouri, where he acquired what would become a lifelong passion for blues music. In 1967, aged nineteen, he went to work picking peaches on a kibbutz in Israel. One morning, after seeing Israeli tanks on the horizon as the Six-Day War was breaking out, he sensibly quit the job and hitchhiked across Europe back to the UK. The experience didn’t put him off travel – he would go on to visit Eastern Europe, North Africa, India, Iraq, the Bahamas and New Zealand, amongst other places. In 1968, he went to the University of Wales where he earned a first-class degree in sociology. After that he pursued graduate research in Canada, where he also lectured, and studied art at the University of Portsmouth.

In the 1970s, he worked as a schoolteacher in Gosport and taught English as a foreign language in Libya. It was while living and working in the Libyan section of the Sahara Desert that he devoured the works of Dickens and Trollope, both of whom he would love for the rest of his life. By the time I’d come to know him, he was also fond of travelogues by Robert Byron, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Laurens van der Post; mystical and religious texts from the New Testament to Rumi’s poetry; autobiographies (never one for ‘high’/’low’ cultural distinctions, he’d read everyone’s from Tony Benn’s to Nigel Benn’s); and the post-colonial novels of Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry and JM Coetzee. Gareth was probably the best-read person I’ve ever met.

And, of course, Gareth was himself a superb writer with a rare gift for fusing intimate, sometimes confessional storytelling with broader meditations on culture, society and the human experience. He once showed me a dusty, forty-year-old copy of the Guardian featuring one of his essays on the Middle East. That piece, too, adroitly blended the personal with the political. In the 1980s, he ghost-wrote the memoir of a British serviceman who’d been incarcerated in a Japanese POW camp during World War II. Gareth received an advance for the book, he told me, but it was never released because the publisher was bought out by a Japanese company that was worried the book would spell bad publicity for that country. His later work can be found in the anthology Portsmouth Fairy Tales for Grown-Ups and in his 2014 collection Read Rees, which includes his brilliantly understated comic account of his brief stint as a cleaner at Portsmouth Naval Base. Over the last three years, he was a major and much-loved contributor to Star & Crescent, his most powerful article concerning his battle with the cancer he likened to a ‘hostile being within me which is realising its identity by stealing my substance.’

Gareth’s creative talents didn’t end with writing. Most of his friends and family members will have at least one of his beautiful, often psychedelic painted tiles sitting on their mantelpiece. Throughout his life he played guitar and sang in various local bands including Sister Divine, and regularly performed his songs to acclaim at events such as Portsmouth Darkfest.

But it was in person that Gareth arguably made the biggest impact on me and others. As a diligent student of the human condition, he’d listen intently to anyone – whatever their class, creed or background – especially if they had an unusual or distinctive story to tell. He’d be even more intrigued if the story involved travelling somewhere he himself hadn’t been. Although usually reserved and self-effacing, Gareth could be blunt – sometimes hilariously so – with those who indulged in egotism, hypocrisy, pretension, self-righteousness or one-upmanship. After witnessing some blokeish, beer-fuelled argument about a political issue or abstract concept, he’d say to me, ‘Well, what’s the emotion behind the rhetoric?’ And if the emotion was petty or vindictive then he’d suggest that whoever was projecting it should do some self-examination before making judgements about anybody or anything else. In that same vein, Gareth was very mindful of his own feelings and motives – he strove to be himself at all times and respected others who did likewise.

While Gareth didn’t have any formal political affiliations, he knew a lot about politics and was sceptical of all hierarchies and power structures, often calling out those at the top of them – wherever in the world they were – as bullies and gangsters. As someone who was forever youthful in spirit, he was troubled about what he termed, in an interview for S&C last summer, ‘the problem of senescence … Are you with the young shoots – the future – and want to join them in fighting for change or are you afraid of the future, would prefer to stay in the past?’

His resistance to senescence extended to practising yoga most days (in his late sixties he was still able to stand on his head) and taking long, brisk walks in the country. When I saw him on the night before he passed, he said how beautiful the birdsong outside his room was, which reminded me of the strolls he and I used to take around Rowlands Castle. The following morning when I heard the news that he’d gone, I looked out of my window and thought that this was exactly the kind of bright, sunny spring day that would have stirred the pair of us to go up to Stansted Park and see the bluebells in blossom. He loved the bluebells.

Gareth is survived by his children Freya, Rhiannon, Joe and Sian, all of whom showed incredible love, care and fortitude during his last months. They have lost a great father. Others, me included, have lost a great friend. But we will always remember the ways in which Gareth brought light and beauty and energy into our lives.

This article was originally published here.

Photography by Alexander Sebley.

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