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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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#ReclaimTheNews: Apply for Our Free Local Journalism Course

19 Feb

Star & Crescent has partnered up with the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) to offer 12 local residents a FREE place on a 10-week local journalism course worth £100s and based here in Portsmouth.

Are you ever disappointed by local news coverage? Do you feel like there’s more to a story than a few hundred words in the local paper? Have you ever wished there was something you could DO about it?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then we’ve got some great news for you and it’s called #ReclaimTheNews, a new training course coming to Portsmouth in April 2018.

What is the #ReclaimTheNews course?

This spring, the Star & Crescent team are joining forces with the Centre for Community Journalism to teach 12 Portsmouth residents the fundamental skills needed to deliver high quality, investigative local journalism that makes a real difference to our communities.

From April, the S&C team will be joined by national experts and journalists over 10 weeks to train participants in a range of areas relating to investigative and community journalism. Alongside their training each week, participants will be supported and mentored to write at least one story for publication on S&C from July 2018.

Participants will be invited to remain with S&C after their training as part of our new Community Reporting Team.

Find out more here.

Hurrah for the DUP! An Election Reflection with Sir Eugene Nicks

20 Jun

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Many Conservatives are concerned about their parliamentary party’s new deal with a hard right-wing, terrorism-linked outfit from Northern Ireland. Not so our regular pundit Sir Eugene Nicks, QC, KBE. 

Good Lord that election was a close shave, wasn’t it? We almost had for PM that buffoon who looks like he’s just staggered out of a folk music festival from 1967. And I know how much Star & Crescent readers hate him and his Monster Raving Stalinoid Labour Camp Party!

Alright, Mrs M’s campaign had about as much style as a solicitor has moral scruples or my old mate Peter Griffiths had cultural awareness, but I for one am very very very optimistic about our new collaboration with those lovely ladies and gentlemen of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). We are, at last, returning to our roots as true reactionaries. If only Mrs T* were still here to giggle about it as much as I am right now.

Read more here.

Election ’17: Evading the Brainwash with Gareth Rees and Tom Sykes

1 Jun

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Gareth Rees has been following politics for fifty years and has written about it for the Guardian, Contemporary Review and S&C. He chats to S&C editor and contributor to New Statesman and Private Eye, Tom Sykes, about how the Labour Party has changed, the ‘infantile’ clicktivists of Facebook and the need for scepticism towards the ‘back to the seventies’ slur and others.

Tom Sykes: What was the first election you were aware of?

Gareth Rees: Harold Wilson’s in 1964. It was exciting. There was a lot of involvement at my school – we had mock elections and it was a big deal. Posters were everywhere and there were vans with loudspeakers going round. I think today the parties know pretty much which constituencies they need to win and they focus on them. I’ve hardly seen a poster here [in Portsmouth South] because it’s not a marginal seat. It’s all decided in the marginals these days.

TS: Did you get a sense that there was a clear choice between Tory and Labour in ’64?

GR: God yeah.

TS: Was there a point in your life when you felt like there stopped being a difference between them?

GR: I suppose the Tony Blair era, wasn’t it? Everybody was aiming for the centre but that seems to have changed with the latest Labour Party manifesto. It’s clearly different this time.

TS: Many are saying that Corbyn isn’t up to the task of being Prime Minister.

GR: That’s media brainwashing. The old guard of the Labour Party have undermined him, betrayed him, so it’s made his position look weak. Having said that, I’m not sure about some of the people on his team. Emily Thornberry seems a bit flaky to me and so does Diane Abbott. They’re not masters of their briefs, which you need to be if you’re going to be in government.

TS: It’s interesting that initially he was trying to reach out to the right wing of the party and appoint them in positions in the shadow cabinet. It seems like he’s the one who’s been conciliatory.

GR: If his opponents in the party had got behind him I think things would be really really different now. What are people like that doing in the Labour Party anyway?

TS: Perhaps people called Tristram shouldn’t be let into the Labour Party in the first place. Do you feel the media coverage of Corbyn has been…

GR: Disgraceful. The tabloids are a disgrace.

Read on here.

War is a Politician’s Vanity Project

23 May

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Graham Horne of the anti-war campaign group Veterans for Peace (VfP) talks to S&C editor Tom Sykes about what the coming election could mean for Britain’s arms industry, foreign policy and international relations.

Tom Sykes: Will the election have any impact on VfP’s campaign work? Is VfP getting behind any of the candidates?

Graham Horne: As far as I’m concerned, it’s a case of steady as you go and keep taking the tablets. Whatever comes out of the election is unlikely to affect VfP. We are strictly politically neutral. We do not endorse candidates of any description whatsoever. At the same time, we will talk to anybody who wants to make common cause towards peace and against interventionist wars wherever they may be in the world.

TS: In the past you have interacted with a politician that will figure heavily in this election: Jeremy Corbyn.

GH: We have had one or two dealings with Corbyn, that’s true. It appears that he’s been pressured by his party to adopt a multilateralist approach to nuclear disarmament, whereas he personally has always been a unilateralist, as I understand it. Yet again, we’ve got what appears to be a duplicitous and perfidious politician who will go against his heartfelt conscience in order to gain votes. This makes me cynical, I’m afraid. I just don’t trust any of them. We at VfP have known for a long time that lobbying the Labour Party to, say, return to a unilateralist policy is a busted flush. It’s a waste of effort.

TS: If the Tories win the next election, as predicted, will British foreign policy change? What about the prospects of further conflicts abroad?

GH: Theresa May has been talking about raising defence spending. It’s what the militarist establishment and the military-industrial complex like to hear. It wouldn’t surprise me if the politicians were planning for a war in the near future, given their track record in recent years. They may dress it up as they usually do with the doublespeak of ‘humanitarian intervention’. ‘We’re bringing food or liberation to an oppressed part of the world,’ something like that. Remember the same rhetoric about Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan? And look how worse off those countries were after we’d finished with them.

We know May’s going to walk through the door with a thumping majority because of our corrupt first past the post system. She’ll want a war because prime ministers in the past, Labour and Tory, have had one. Attlee had Malaya and the Greek Civil War, Eden had Suez, Heath and Wilson had Northern Ireland, Thatcher had the Falklands, Blair had Iraq and a load of others. War is a vanity project for a politician. May might come to be affected by ‘the Falklands factor.’ Now I don’t know if you remember 1982?

TS: Just about.

GH: In the opinion polls in 1981, Thatcher’s government was looking like it’d get a beating in the 1983 election. She’d come in on an anti-working-class ticket and she’d hit the ground running, attacking everything in sight. It was a bit like what the Tories are doing at the moment. Thatcher was thrown a lifeline in the form of General Galtieri of Argentina, who himself was dealing with a lot of internal political pressures. His invasion of the Falkland Islands was an answer to her prayer because, when you bang the nationalist drum and declare a war for a ‘righteous cause’, next thing you know your party’s in power for the next 15 years.

Read more here.

What Donna Can Learn From Donald

19 Apr

Photo credit; Screenshot from Saint Hoax’s #ElectionsDragYouOut video

In the spirit of boosting the ‘special relationship’, Sir Eugene Nicks KBE of the All-Portsmouth Conservative, Regressive and Imperial Association (established 1799), celebrates the similarities between the leader of Portsmouth City Council and the new leader of the Free World.

Isn’t this a whizzo time to be alive, readers? Me old mucker and business partner Donald Trump’s doing sterling work as the Lord High Maniac-in-Chief of Ol’ Washington Town. How delightful that, right now, his pus-coloured mane is drooping all over the nuclear red button. He’ll probably be dribbling over it too, but that’s one of many problems of his that I vowed to keep confidential.

I may be the only man on Earth – while it’s still here, anyway – who is personal chums with both Donald and Donna, his near-namesake and counterpart over here as leader of Portsmouth City Council. In other words, I’m on excellent terms with the most powerful, egotistical and offensive person in the world… and Donald Trump. And I view this connection as what the Donald might call a ‘golden shower opportunity’ – I think that’s business jargon for something or other – to bring two great minds and two great cultures closer together as we enter an exhilarating new epoch of hope, freedom and tolerance. Or something to that effect.

Read the rest of the article here.

Democracy in Portsmouth? It’d Be a Good Idea

27 Feb

In the wake of recent protests both local and global, I question how representative our elected representatives really are – in Portsmouth and beyond.

Criticisms of democracy have been around since the birth of democracy itself. But new questions are being asked in the West about how fair, efficient and representative our systems are given the allegations of dirty tricks in the run-up to the EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump with almost 3 million fewer votes than his opponent Hillary Clinton. The unprecedented protests against Trump across the United States are, in part, a symptom of public frustration with a perverse procedure that, on four occasions in American history, has handed the presidency to the candidate who won the electoral college but lost the popular vote.

Read the rest of this article here on Star & Crescent.

Brexit Doesn’t Go Far Enough

9 Dec

We present an almost considered opinion about the EU referendum from our columnist Sir Eugene Nicks QC, KBE, Policy Advisor to the All-Portsea Conservative, Regressive and Imperial Association (established 1799).

I trust all Star & Crescent readers are as delighted as I am by the result of the Grand Patriotic Plebiscite. This was a victory for fear over love, belief over thought, orderly queues over anarchic free-for-alls and knee-jerk invective over rational debate. In short, we as a nation – and as a city – succeeded because we played to our strengths. Read more here.

If You Want a Nincompoop For Your Neighbour…

7 Dec

We reluctantly present some words of praise for Portsmouth’s most (in)famous Conservative by Sir Eugene Nicks QC, KBE: soldier, lawyer, lover, brother, mother and Policy Advisor to the All-Portsea Conservative, Regressive and Imperial Association (established 1799). Read them here!

The Siege of Somerstown Part III

5 Dec

The Siege of Somerstown: Being a Portion of the Records of a General of the Fifth Hants Involuntary Air Rifles Concerning an Infantry Sortie on Behalf of the Crown and Portsmouth City Council’s Department of Colonial Warfare

After leading an infantry charge against the recalcitrant subjects of the Empire’s outer reach – or Somerstown to use the native designation – General Sir Eugene Nicks finds himself detained by the infamous headman known only as Kev. To survive he must depend on his wits, his courage and his enormous regulation moustache. Read it here.