Tag Archives: star and crescent

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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The Siege of Somerstown Part I

1 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

Sir Eugene Nicks, QC, KBE is a modest man who doesn’t normally like to discuss his highly distinguished and widely decorated military career. But as a regular columnist for Star & Crescent he is duty-bound to share his recent experiences and one of these was his appointment by the Civic-Colonial Governess to lead a detachment of troops to repress a nationalist uprising in Portsmouth’s own ‘heart of darkness’.

Read it here.

War is Failure: An Interview with a Veteran for Peace Part III

29 Nov

The third and final instalment of my interview with Graham Horne, South East of England Coordinator for Veterans for Peace, is live right here.

In this part we explore state-corporate propaganda, US-UK war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan and why Jeremy Corbyn isn’t anti-war enough.

New Portsmouth Smeargate Story in Red Pepper

26 Apr

Sarah Cheverton and I have a story on the Red Pepper blog all about the lowdown behaviour of Tory councillors towards anyone who dares question their insane neoliberal policies.

In Memoriam: André the Shaman

1 Jan

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While Portsmouth-based author Tom Sykes was in Ivory Coast researching a Bradt guidebook, he and his photographer Alexander Sebley met  up with a fêticheur, a traditional African shaman.

Alexander and I are led by our translator into a courtyard in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s biggest city, where women with babies in back-slings sweep up dust and kola nut shells. We scale concrete steps, pass through a greasy curtain and kneel to enter a cubby hole. Its main wall is spattered with burgundy dried blood. Either side of it the skulls of cats and chickens swing from hooks above overturned rum bottles strewn around the floor. Between the bottles are black spheres of rope covered in feathers which, we are later told, represent particular spirits. On another wall is a bizarrely Mughal Indian-style picture of an African fêticheur with an equine tail and two yellow-clad African kids trampling on the belly of a moustachioed South Asian-looking man.

André, the fêticheur, comes into the room and sits down cross-legged. He’s young, no more than twenty-five, but has the deadened eyes of an old man that fail to glow when he smiles and shakes our hands.

‘Why exactly do people come and see you?’ I ask him through our translator; André is Burkinabé and prefers to speak Mandinka to French.

He fastens his palms together. ‘If someone comes to me with a problem,’ he says, ‘I can perform a ritual that will allow me to contact a good spirit for assistance. If a bad spirit is causing the problem, I can ask him what we can do on Earth to gratify him.’

‘What sorts of problems do people come to you with?’

‘Money or family issues, sickness also. I can perform a ritual either in person or by phone.’ He goes on to tell us that he inherited his magical gifts from his father and that this been a place of fetishism for 47 years.

Alexander asks him which animals he has sacrificed.

‘Goats, chickens, lambs and cows,’ says André casually.

Looking this toilet-sized room up and down, I marvel at how he ever got a cow inside, much less slaughter it.

‘Do you use a knife on the animals?’

‘No,’ he smiles.

We ask him if we can take pictures and he tells us that the last foreigner who tried to do that here died instantly.

‘Best we don’t then,’ says Alexander.

A man wearing Snoop Dogg braids and a STOP EBOLA t-shirt enters the room. He gives André some sachets of gin and a plastic bag. From the bag the fêticheur removes a black chicken with its feet tied together, and lies it down on its front.

André looks to the north, the west, the south and the east. He places two blobs of karité butter onto the floor and one into the palms of my hands.

‘Is what you are doing in Ivory Coast your idea or someone else’s?’ he asks.

‘Mine.’

Into my hands he then adds a lump of shea butter, some sea shells, a kola nut and a 1000 West African francs note. He asks me to think about all my current problems and I do so. He then takes all the items away from me, cracks the kola nut in half and tosses it onto the floor. He stares at it while muttering incantations. The chicken looks on with beady eyes.

‘What are you doing here?’ André asks.

‘Researching a tourist guidebook.’

He looks puzzled.

‘I’m writing about hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, that sort of thing.’

‘What do you want from life?’

‘Er… health and happiness, I reckon.’

He tosses the nut again, mutters some more and turns to me gravely. ‘You have to go out and buy a small can of Bonnet Rouge condensed milk and give it, along with 20 francs, to a poor person. When you get back to Britain you must fill a calibas jug with salt water and talk to it about your business plans.’

I try to think what my ‘business plans’ might entail. I’m not sure I’ve ever had any.

‘And in the short term,’ he adds, ‘I don’t see any health issues for you.’

‘Great.’ As a fairly committed rationalist and materialist, I struggle to comprehend how talking to a jug of water will have any direct bearing on my future life chances. But, at the same time, I’m fascinated by the rituals and symbols of fetishism – or more specifically their cultural meaning to and influence upon Ivorians. And, lest anyone for a moment think we in the “developed” West no longer believe in supernatural causality, don’t forget about Derek Acorah or the extraordinary political sway of Christian evangelists in the US.

André repeats the procedure for Alexander and tells him that he must purchase three different kinds of millet and one white kola nut, put them down in a garden and talk to them about his business plans. ‘Did you lose something important in England?’ he asks Alexander.

‘No, but I lost a camera tripod in Ivory Coast.’

‘Be careful,’ says André, ‘because you may lose something important in the future. To try to stop that happening you should buy another kola nut, a red one, talk to it and then throw it away. Your health is good too.’

André picks up a sachet of rum, tears it open, pours some of it on a calibas and chucks the rest over the other fetishism objects. He reaches into another plastic bag and withdraws some black medicinal powder that he won’t divulge the name of. He asks me to take two pinches of the powder and drop them onto the floor. He adds karité and mixes the substances together to create a paste which he uses to draw a cross on the inside of the calibas. He picks up the chicken by its bound feet and flips it onto its back, his hand pressing against its stomach. Eyes bulging, the chicken occasionally squeezes out a cluck. Using his free hand, André wraps up the calibas with a cloth, closes his eyes and incants some more. ‘I am asking the spirit if I am permitted to kill the chicken,’ he tells us. He then turns the chicken onto its side and breaks its wings in four places. The animal goes quiet, perhaps out of shock. André continues his incantations as he returns his hand to the chicken’s breast. Eventually its head flops to the side, eyes slowly shutting.

While Alexander and I suspect André choked the chicken using brute force, he is adamant he killed it by channelling his supernatural powers. ‘I didn’t press hard,’ he says. ‘I can do this to human beings too, but it would be an abuse of my position.’ I think of the cow again and how he could have possibly suffocated a beast that size.

At any rate, Alexander and I are now blessed. André douses his trinkets with a further sachet of rum.

‘What will you do with the dead chicken?’ I ask him as we leave.

‘I’ll have it for dinner,’ he smiles.

Postscript: André sadly passed away only yesterday, some three months after I met him. The official cause of death was untreated malaria, but those around him suspected he fell foul of evil spirits and dark forces.

Originally published in Star & Crescent.

The book will eventually be available here.

S&C: Onward and Upward

20 Sep

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We are thrilled down to our toenails that Star & Crescent has been selected as one of ten hyperlocal news sites to be awarded funding from Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) to be part of their Destination Local research project on Audience Analytics.

As if this wasn’t exciting enough, from TOMORROW we’ll be publishing 3-4 times a week, so get in touch with us about the local burning issues you think we should cover and add us to favourite news sites.

Tom and Sarah

Issue 2 of Star & Crescent is Live!

21 Apr

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The warmest of welcomes to issue 2 of Star & Crescent, a community news, culture and commentary site casting a critical eye over Portsmouth. It’s been an exciting, if busy, couple of months since issue 1 and, in that time, we’ve had almost 12,000 visits from readers not just in our area but from all over the world. We couldn’t have wished for a better response.

Issue 2 is certainly bigger, arguably better and, we think, deeper and bolder than issue 1. We’ve added new dimensions to our coverage, engaging with asylum, the arms industry, students’ rights, surrogate parenting, self-harming, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s spiritualism, Portsmouth’s upcoming Pride event, independent local cinema, how music and creative writing have changed in the digital age, Portsmouth’s standing as a global and multicultural city, and a lot else besides.

We delayed release of the issue in order to land a little closer to the most unpredictable general election in living memory. We hope you enjoy our vox pops from local voters, our call to women to get involved in the political process, our commentary on the rise of smaller parties and our thoughts on the meaning of class in mainstream politics.

To lighten our workload and make S&C an even wider collaboration, we are now working with a group of passionate and accomplished contributing editors. A big thank you to all of them and an extra special thank you to Conor Patrick, who edited some of our fiction for this issue.

And of course, many many thanks to absolutely everyone who contributed writing and visual art this time.

Tom Sykes and Sarah Cheverton

21st April 2015

Star & Crescent Deadline Extension to April 1st

24 Mar

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Despite receiving a huge wodge of fine work already, we’re extending the submission deadline for S&C issue 2 to April 1st. This should give those who need it a bit of extra time to finish stuff off. O time, I just about remember you. Where did you disappear to?

That the deadline is now April Fool’s Day does not mean you can send us eyewitness reports of the Martian colonisation of Copnor or scoops on UNESCO’s decision to make the Spinnaker Tower a World Heritage Site… unless of course you’re writing for our brand new Pompey-related fiction section.