Interview with Gareth E. Rees author of The Stone Tide – adventures at the end of the world

The Stone Tide – adventures at the end of the world is the new book by Gareth E. Rees, author of Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London, both published by Influx Press. The Stone Tide finds Gareth adrift on the coast at Hastings in a dilapidated dwelling stalking the occult secrets of this uncanny stretch of shoreline. Below is an email exchange where Gareth tells me more about the book.

Stone Tide - Rees

[JR] Hi Gareth – last I heard you were yomping over Hackney Marshes with your dog. How did you go from Hackney to Hackney-on-Sea?

[GR] Hi John – thanks for this!

Firstly, I’d fervently dispute the ‘Hackney-on-Sea’ tag – it’s not something I recognise or accept as a description of this deeply idiosyncratic town. If ‘Hackney-on-sea’ is synonymous with ‘Shoreditchification’ – eg a term to describe any place in which low property prices have attracted an artistic community, with some attendant regeneration, then as a blanket term for that particularly economic and social phenomenon, it could apply, I suppose. But that would then also apply to Margate, Folkestone, parts of Manchester and other regenerating areas of the UK.  However it is a highly reductive description…. Hastings is totally different to Hackney in so many ways – the music, the pubs, the pace, the attitude, the topography, the folklore, the history. You don’t get frenzied surf guitar gigs for free on Sunday afternoons in Hackney, you don’t get mass scooter gatherings in Hackney, there’s no Jack in the Green festival in Hackney, no Mardis Gras parade, no October bonfire night to commemorate the burning of Protestants, no Pirate Day, no Morris Dance-offs at dawn. I see a lot of these “Hackney-on-Sea” Guardian-type articles about Hastings and they all seem copied from each other – they’re clearly not written by people who have spent any time here. They’re lazy snapshot churnalism and they’re quite offensive to the people who’ve spent many years, or their whole lives here.

There are people I know here who used to live in Hackney, of course, but also many other parts of London, and a large part of the Influx is from Brighton, Bexhill and other parts of Kent. When you’re in a pub or at an event here, there’s a mix of locals, tourists and newcomers that you don’t get when you got to gigs and pubs in Hackney. There are no City types here. Very few people live here and commute to London every day, it’s too far and the train is too slow.

The reason I’m here? Extreme financial events forced me and my wife to make a big decision in 2013 and move away from London. This move would allow me to write more books like Marshland (Influx Press), which was just about to be published at the time, and my eldest was just about to start primary school so it seemed the right thing to do. My wife wanted to get into interior design, and it was the existence of a small community of designers and artists in St Leonards that flagged this place up for her. I just went along with it. I was traumatised by having to leave London, which had been my home for 15 years, the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my life, and a place I considered home. My only stipulation was that if I was to leave the open space of the marshes, I wanted to live by another open space, and you can’t get more open than the sea. So yes, with very low house prices at the time, Hastings was where we headed. It took my a while to get over London, but I quickly fell in love with Hastings, and not for any of the reasons I loved London. It’s a very different beast.

Gareth E Rees photo by Kelly Wilkinson

Gareth E. Rees – photo by Kelly Wilkinson

[JR] I take note of your objection to the ‘Hackney-on-Sea’ tag, my sister lives in Ramsgate and I think somebody has already dubbed it ‘Dalston-on-Sea’ for similar reasons. Funnily enough it was Iain Sinclair I heard refer to Hastings as ‘Hackney-on-Sea’, I believe he lives and writes some of the time in St. Leonards whilst also still living in Hackney (‘That Rose Red Empire’). Andrew Kötting has lived in St.Leonards for a number of years, and isn’t Michael Smith there too – seems to be a cluster of topographically-inclined writers-filmmakers there. How does the place feed into that sensibility?

Can you also tell me more about Stone Tide and how it differs from Marshland?

[GR] I didn’t realise Iain Sinclair said that. I suspect he was being provocative. Sinclair has an apartment in Marine Court, a huge 1930s seafront building modelled on the The Queen Mary ocean liner. Kotting is here too and Michael Smith, who also runs a wine shop with his girlfriend Jess, the basement of which plays host to regular nights of experimental film, electronic music and storytelling, known as Weird Shit.
I tried out a great deal of The Stone Tide at those gigs, using the small audience as a kind of sounding board. This is partly why the book has such a conversational style, and why there’s so much comedy in there. Performing parts of the first draft live stopped me from getting too indulgent or gloomy, and remembering the reader and their desire to be entertained.
Hastings encourages artistic endeavours because it’s so small, you can quickly connect with other artists, plus there’s a culture of regular free gigs in pubs, basements and indie cinemas that allows us to easily perform, share our work and collaborate with each other.
Whether the topographically-inclined have a particular attraction to Hastings & St Leonards, I don’t know. But for me, the place is a dream for landscape writing – you’ve a multiplicity of topographies, from the shingle shore to the high sandstone cliffs and rolling downs. Within a quick train ride or drive there’s Pevensey Levels, Romney Marshes, the drowned forest of Pett Level and the English desert that is Dungeness. Tucked inside the town of Hastings there are many delights – hermits’ caves, masonic graves, ruined mock roman baths, waterfalls and stone pyramids. A treasure trove really.
The Stone Tide is a sequel, of sorts, to Marshland. I’m still the narrator, Hendrix (the cocker spaniel) remains my sidekick, and the beginning of the book deliberately refers back to my experiences walking the marshes every lunchtime for five years. Upon moving to Hastings, I kept up the habit, taking long digressional walks, soaking up the sights and sounds, seeking out local stories.
Where it differs to Marshland – aside from the location – is that this is not really a psychogeography of Hastings. It was supposed be when I started, but I began to stir up dark forces, both in the locale and in my own past, and the journey went inwards and backwards and to some very dark places, including at one point my own rectum.
The book weaves together the stories of Aliester Crowley, John Logie Baird, Teilhard de Chardin and Charles Dawson (the Piltdown Man hoaxer) – all who lived in Hastings at some point – and also the story of my friend Mike, who died in tragic circumstances in 1996 when we lived in St Andrews in Scotland. At the centre of this narrative whirl is an increasingly unstable and unreliable narrator – me – tormented by guilt and grief, struggling to tell the difference between truth and lies, imagination and history.
Whereas the big threat in Marshland was the city of London itself, its seemingly unstoppable expansion, swallowing up every wild space, the developers moving in at any opportunity… the threat in The Stone Tide is the sea, an agent of climate change, unleashing brutal storm tides, crumbling the fragile cliffs and threatening the nuclear power station at Dungeness. The imminent end of the world haunts the book.

[JR] Gareth this is sensational – I was going to ask more questions but I think we have our ending there.

Readers can go to The Stone Tide to order the book, read the reviews, get the latest news, and find out more about Marshland. It’s also on Amazon or in selected London bookshops. Hastings residents should try Borough Wines, Printed Matter or Hare and Hawthorn.

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