Tag Archives: literature

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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Publishing Weekend @ Portsmouth Bookfest

30 Jan

Portsmouth Bookfest, Star & Crescent and the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries, University of Portsmouth present:

Publishing Weekend @ Portsmouth Bookfest

Saturday 17th February – Sunday 18th February 2018

10am – 4pm

White Swan Building, New Theatre Royal

£20 per day (includes tea/coffee and a light lunch) or two day Saturday and Sunday combined ticket offer £30

BUY TICKETS HERE 

This event will be useful to anyone looking to research and edit their writing, publish their work and build their author brand. Whether you are thinking of self-publishing or going down the traditional route, understanding the process is essential. Our range of experienced experts will be sharing their wealth of knowledge on all aspects of the publishing journey and there will be plenty of opportunities to ask questions.

Saturday: Working towards Publication: The focus on Saturday is working towards getting ready for publication with talks and practical workshops on researching, editing and pitching your ideas to publishers.

Sunday: Publication and being a published author: On Sunday we focus on the publishing process and how to build your author brand through book cover design, book reviews and the use of social media.

You can book for either day or attend both days at a discounted price! Your ticket price includes a light networking lunch and tea and coffee.

Programme:

Saturday:

10am: Introduction

10.15am: Editing tips and traps with Helen Garvey and Tom Sykes

Writing a book is easy, right? Perhaps, but how about producing something you can be confident is of top publishable quality? Join professional freelance editor Helen Garvey as she discusses the process of taking your first draft through to publication, sharing her tips and highlighting the traps she wishes she had known about when she started writing.

Tom Sykes will explore the processes behind line-editing nonfiction books, making large structural adjustments to narratives, and compiling anthologies of short stories and articles.

11.45am: Coffee break

12noon: Pitching your idea/work with Wendy Metcalfe and Tom Sykes

Wendy will talk about submitting fiction short stories and novels.  She will cover preparing your story, submission guidelines, and keeping your motivation up when the rejections roll in.

Wendy has been submitting short stories and novels for over twenty years.  She will share stories from her own struggle to scale the slush pile.

Tom will examine proposing non-fiction works and journalistic articles to a range of professional markets, drawing on real-life contracts, pitch letters and editorial suggestions.

1.30pm: Networking lunch

2.30pm: Do your research with Suzie Wilde

Rudyard Kipling writes …

“I KEEP six honest serving-men
 (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
 And How and Where and Who.”

… which is a good mantra for researchers, too. But the first question is, what kind of researcher are you? Suzie will help you decide.

3.30pm: Bookshop and Q and A

Sunday:

10am: Introduction

10.15am: Thinking of self -publishing? With Chindi

CHINDI authors have self-published novels and non-fiction books in various formats over the last five years. They’ve made audio books, e-books and printed books that have sold to thousands of readers. They’ve also made a lot of mistakes along the way. Christopher Joyce will lead a discussion of how to publish your book, where to go and what not to do using experiences from the group of 22 authors. www.chindi-authors.co.uk

11.15am: Coffee break

11.30am: Judging a book by its cover – your book as a product with Christine Hammacott

In traditional publishing producing a book is all about creating a saleable product. Whether you are aiming to be traditionally published or are self-publishing the marketing and selling process starts with the cover. This workshop is designed to give an understanding of book cover design and formatting, and why getting to grips with genre is so important by publication stage. It will also cover positioning your book in the marketplace, and the all important considerations when producing your ‘product’.

12.45pm: How to build an author platform from scratch with Jo Mallory

Jo’s workshop will cover: Where to start 101; your Website; let’s talk platforms and your social media, with the opportunity for questions.

1.30pm: Networking lunch

2.30pm: Writing book reviews to establish yourself as a writer with Carol Westron

“Many of the exciting opportunities I’ve received in the past few years have stemmed from my first reviews for Mystery People. I’ve made some wonderful friends, raised my profile as a writer and honed my reading and writing skills. In this talk I will discuss the benefits of reviewing and how to write a review that shows you at your best”.

3pm: Organic marketing with social media with Jo Mallory

In this workshop Jo will cover: Knowing your audience and where to find them; mailing lists; growing your audience organically Vs paid advertising; a fun tips session; the writer trap; don’t be afraid to cull and don’t feed the trolls.

3.45pm: Conclusion, questions and feedback

Write-up on CCI Website

17 Jan

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The University of Portsmouth’s Creative and Cultural Industries – the faculty where I teach – has kindly reported on the chapter I’ve written for A Global History of Literature and the Environment (out now with Cambridge University Press).

See the full item here.

Missive #14 – Hooray for the New Wave

5 Sep

While randomly surfing the web I have, by sheer chance, just discovered that an essay of mine, ‘Ideascape’, appeared in last Spring’s Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction. I hadn’t heard back from the editors so had assumed it’d been binned. It’s about the cultural and historical context of the New Wave of Science Fiction and discusses writers such as JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock and Philip K Dick.

Once I’ve asked the editors nicely I’ll whack it up on this site.

Missive #5 – The King Street Troubadours

9 May

Do join myself, Rhys Evans and possibly some others at the King Street Tavern from 9pm on Monday 14th May for spoken word and acoustic music of the highest order. It promises to be electrifying… even though there are no amps or mics. You know what I mean.

http://www.thekingstreettavern.co.uk/

Outsiders on the SEAN: Depictions of Southeast Asia in Western fiction

22 Mar

Southeast Asia has been inspiring Western writers for hundreds of years. As the region has changed socially and politically, so the themes and concerns of its fictions have altered. From John Dryden to Alex Garland, Joan Didion to Joseph Conrad, the canon is too diverse to sum up in the space of an article this length, but we shall try.

In the early modern period, Europeans had a false conception of Southeast Asia as a land of permissiveness, exoticism and extravagance. However, he Portuguese adventurer, Fernao Mendes Pinto, found the people of Malacca, Patani, Sumatra, Aceh and Siam (now Thailand) not to be like this. Instead, he decided they were more tolerant, charitable and respectful than his fellow Westerners whom he castigated for their greed and violence. Even so, after resisting pirates in the South China Sea, he became one himself. These experiences are fictionalised in Peregrinacao, published in 1614 after his death.

John Dryden’s 1699 play, Amboyna, concerns the real-life slaughter of English traders by Dutch soldiers on the Indonesian island of Ambon. Writing at the beginning of the colonial era, Dryden portrayed the indigenes less charitably than Pinto, as one-dimensional, animal-like beings. The play was poorly received.

Heinrich Anselm von Ziegler’s 1689 Baroque adventure, Banise the Asiatic, is set in southern Myanmar and uses travelogues written by Pinto as source material. In a rousing, happy ending, the hero, Banise, successfully defends the Pegu Empire from conquest by the evil tyrant Chaumigrem. In real life quite the opposite happened.

Dryden’s and Ziegler’s oversights are partly explained by the historians Robin W. Winks and James R. Rush’s observation that ‘no piece of South or East Asian fiction was available in a Western language until the eighteenth century’. This somewhat precluded Westerners from fully understanding and writing validly about Oriental culture.

By the late 1800s, novels were addressing Western colonialism’s ‘civilising mission’ rhetoric, albeit in contradictory ways. William Carlton Dawe’s Hong Kong-based potboilers The Mandarin (1899) and The Yellow Man (1900) may have been attacked by contemporary critics for being ‘unpatriotic’, but there’s an ethnocentric streak to his characterisations. The non-white men are amoral and vicious, the women exotic but unattainable. Dawe warns against interracial relationships (‘the love of the white for the yellow’) while salaciously describing it. Jack Curzon, or, Mysterious Manila (1898), by the American author Clavering Gunter, is also full of derring-do but set in The Philippines. Published in the same year that the United States wrested control of the islands from the Spanish, the novel has an undertone of American supremacism to it, not to say an unflattering take on the indigenes. As a contemporary reviewer put it, ‘an important part is also played by a semi-civilised Tagal native, who possesses in common with all his kind, so the writer assures us, a sense of smell equal to that of a bloodhound.’

The colonial adventure genre reaches its apotheosis in Joseph Conrad’s series of novels set in the Malay Archipelago. The first, Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River (1895), is about a Dutch trader in Borneo whose marriage to a half-caste girl is as disastrous as his harebrained schemes to make money. Lord Jim (1900) begins with a young British sailor abandoning a ship full of Muslim pilgrims from the Malay states. Jim redeems himself as a raja-style ruler of a fictional island in the South Seas, winning the hearts and minds of the inhabitants by defeating the tribal king Tunku Allang. This may seem like a thinly-disguised celebration of colonialism, but Conrad’s outlook is more complex than that. Both Almayer and Jim are flawed antiheroes with questionable pasts and who symbolise misgivings about the legitimacy of the imperial project.

The twentieth century was perhaps the most eventful in the history of the SEAN. A World War, a Cold War, decolonisation and revolution all appear in Western novels of the era, many of which cast a sympathetic eye over their subject matter. Burmese Days (1934) by George Orwell tells of a British police officer in Myanmar with an affection for the native culture and a distaste for the colonial administration he works for. Just as Orwell learned the language during his time in Myanmar, so Anthony Burgess became fluent in Malay while working as a teacher during the Emergency. He conducted painstaking research into its history and culture for his Malayan Trilogy (1956-9), intending to become ‘the true fictional expert on Malaya’. Graham Greene’s early Vietnam novel The Quiet American (1955) seeks to understand the Vietminh while critiquing American CIA intervention in the country. Greene was appalled when a slushy Hollywood adaptation of the novel tried to graft a pro-American, anti-Communist message onto it. In a comparable vein, Joan Didion’s cleverly experimental Democracy (1984) exposes the profoundly anti-democratic policies of the US in Indochina from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Of all the Western novels about the Pacific World War II, James Clavell’s King Rat (1962) is perhaps the darkest. Based on the author’s incarceration in Singapore’s Changi Prison, the novel shocks with its representation of the squalid conditions, the barbarism of the Japanese guards and the Darwinian rivalry between the POWs themselves.

In recent years, Southeast Asia has come to occupy a different space in the Western psyche, as a tourist destination affording pleasures and experiences unavailable at home. The biggest-selling novel to engage with this is of course The Beach (1996) by Alex Garland. Richard is a seasoned backpacker in search of an authentic, off the beaten track experience in Thailand. His discovery of an idyllic beach commune comes at the price of his own descent into madness and murder. Described as ‘Generation X’s first great novel’, The Beach is ultimately a meditation on how our perception of reality is mediated by so many fictions, from videogames to movies to commercial tourism itself. Also set in Thailand, Michel Houellebecq’s controversial Platform (2001) addresses the behaviour of Western sex tourists in Pattaya and other such resorts.

Southeast Asian society has changed radically over the years. Western fiction has tried to keep up with those changes, sometimes getting its depictions right, sometimes wrong. We can’t predict what the novels of the future will be like, but we can be sure that the region will continue to feed the Western imagination.

First published in Quill, 2011