Gareth E Rees’s work blends memoir, speculative fiction, occult interests and landscape writing, creating a form of psychogeographic autofiction with a distinctively surreal worldview. His latest novel, The Stone Tide, published by Influx Press, simultaneously explores the psychological impact of Rees’s best friend’s death 20 years previously, and an occult puzzle connecting Aleister Crowley, John Logie Baird and the Piltdown Man hoaxer. Rees’ first book, Marshland, explored one of London’s few remaining wildernesses, on the eve of the Olympics, which threatened its existence. He is also the founder and editor of the website Unofficial Britain (www.unofficialbritain.com).
The Momus Questionnaire was created by musician Nick Currie, and is designed to identify the aspects of the subject’s personality which give them a positive self-image, or ‘subcultural capital’.
Have you rebelled against someone else’s dreary expectations of your life, and become something more unexpected?
No. I’ve rebelled against someone’s else’s unexpected expectations of my life and become something more dreary.
As she stared at me toddling around the living room, my mum dreamed of me being a doctor or a lawyer, while my dad dreamed of me scoring a try for Wales (my name is Gareth Edward Rees, after Gareth Edwards). When I was in my teens, doing well academically at school, they joked that if I became successful then I had to buy them a villa in Spain.
As it turned out, I write obscure indie books about canals, pylons, retail parks, doctor’s appointments and house renovations. Slice me in half and you’ll see DREARY written in my bones. I eat dreary for breakfast. I go to dreary places to get my kicks. For instance, last year I led a walking tour around Huddersfield’s Tesco and Sainsburys car parks. On a family holiday to Scotland I took my kids to a Makro car park I remembered as a child, a sentimental journey that bored them in an extreme way that really made me think about the depths to which I’ve sunk.
Things could have been so different. Sorry Mum and Dad. The villa’s off.
What in your life can you point to and say, like Frankie, ‘I Did It My Way’?
I did it my way when I wrote Marshland (Influx Press, 2013), a book that blends psychogeography, local history, speculative short stories, weird fiction, horror, graphic art, music reviews and recommended reading lists.
There wasn’t really anything like it around and, I’ll be honest, it was a complete accident. Influx Press asked me to turn my blog into a book, so I took the disparate strands and styles from two years of random note-taking, then fleshed them out into chapters, without worrying about getting it past an agent or publisher, or thinking about where the book would fit into a bookshop. It was already in the bag, so I could do what I wanted.
When I started work on the follow-up, The Stone Tide, I decided that I’d continue to do it my way. But this time I had an agent and comments from publishers who said things like – “too many ideas”, “too much history”, “is this a novel or memoir?”, “don’t like the title” and “why are you doing that?” But this was a book about my best friend’s death, the decline of my marriage and horrible problems with phantoms in my prostate – and I wasn’t about to prostitute my life for the sake of a marketer’s idea of what a book needed to be. The resulting work is insane, which is why only the brave/foolhardy Influx Press was willing to take it on, and why I’m proud of it, regardless of how poorly it will sell and how greatly it will be ignored by the mainstream press.
A lot of reviews of The Stone Tide say: “this shouldn’t work, but it does” which vindicates me a little. And most of those who read it, love it, and that makes three years of pain, doubt and rejection worth it.
I’m banking on it being a future underground ‘lost’ cult classic. That’ll show everybody.
What creative achievements are you most proud of?
The Stone Tide for reasons I describe above. Aside from that, what has made me most proud was when legendary DJ and producer Andrew Weatherall made a soundtrack mixtape for Marshland. To top that, early this year he played a spoken word/techno track I made with Fireflies on his radio show Music’s Not for Everyone.
If there was one event in your life which really shaped you, made you the person you are today, what would it be?
Aged eleven, I was a sporty, fit kid, brimming with physical self-confidence. When I wasn’t writing adventure stories, I’d play football, ride bikes, climb trees and go fell running with my Dad.
One day I went for a routine medical and the GP listened to my chest with a worried look on his face. He sent me for tests, suspecting that I had a heart murmur. A few days later I was in a hospital bed, wires taped to my chest, having an ECG. This was followed by an ultrasound, in which the monitor screen was tilted toward me, so that I could see my own heart pulsing before my eyes like something out of Alien.
I was filled with a deep, existential horror. A sudden realisation that I was a bag of weak flesh and bones, tissues and sinew, and nothing was safe. If anyone reading this interview has read The Stone Tide, then they’ll recognise how deeply this affected me. It’s a theme running through a lot of my writing. Our personal narratives are fictions, and when they are subverted or challenged, it’s a shock akin to a death, or bereavement.
The heart murmur turned out to be a false alarm, but attacks of hypochondria began the following year. A headache would become a brain tumour. Coughs were cancer. Puberty became a slowly unfurling body horror. I felt like a helpless prisoner trapped inside a malevolent blob of unstable matter.
Nagging, obsessive thoughts continue plague me, like a psychological autoimmune deficiency where my imagination attacks itself. Distant rumbles are nuclear bombs. Cracking twigs are monsters in the undergrowth. Ponds are full of drowned bodies ready to surface. I spend much of my life in a speculative shadow world and I blame that moment I was shown my own heart. Then again, this is probably just another fictional narrative I’ve created for myself.
If you had to make a song or rap boasting about your irresistible charm and sexiness, how would you describe yourself?
“I’m five-feet six inches of organic matter with DNA and microbial action comin’-atcha”.
Have you ever made material sacrifices because of your integrity?
I started writing published fiction, landscape essays and short stories in 2012. This has eaten into the copywriting work I do (ie. the profitable writing) and made me financially poorer. The writing of my second book pretty much finished off my marriage and we had to sell our house. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens after book number three.
Describe a public personality who exemplifies everything you’d like to be yourself, then another public personality who incarnates everything you’d least like to be.
I’ll choose two people with similar names to me: the musician/songwriter Gruff Rhys vs the politician/sinister teddy bear Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Gruff Rhys is artistic, prolific, political progressive and eccentrically leftfield in output while also making songs that people really like to hear.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (born one year before Rhys) is reactionary, backward-looking, smug, entitled, out of touch, and everything that I despise – not only in politics but in human beings.
If you were an Egyptian pharoah and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?
- My ‘suerte completo’ (complete luck) – a tiny jar of unidentifiable things in an unknown fluid that I bought from a witch in La Paz, Bolivia in 2003.
- My Victorian copy of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, my favourite book.
- My guitar, so I can form a psychedelic rock band with Horus, Anubis and Bes.
Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?
Never lick a glacier. (Gary Larson)
Everything’s true, except the bits that are made up. (Gareth E. Rees).
What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?
In 2004 I lived in Wells Street, Hackney with a flatmate who was a hairdresser, painter, amateur opera singer and white witch. She had a dog that was almost certainly a man trapped in a dog’s body. It wore a cravat and would look at me sometimes with sorrowful, intelligent eyes. When my flatmate sang opera, the dog would dance around her. She could also see auras and spirits. One of her paintings was a portrait of the ghost of an old woman that appeared to her. It was terrifying. Of course, I bought it – it was the first piece of original art I ever purchased. It’s currently above my record decks in the living room, staring out at my visitors. Nobody seems to like it but me, which suits me fine. They know where the door is.