Monday, 30 December 2013

Magic, Music, Mastering & Teeth: Meet Shrewsbury's Own Gareth Jenkins....

 ....aka God. ‘I’ve been plagued by that,’ Gareth says.  We’re in the Lion Hotel having a quiet drink, and Gareth is looking back upon his starring role in the recent production of Noye’s Fludde. ‘You go into a restaurant and ask if there's a table, and the answer comes back Yes, for God. All my priest and minister friends warned me about the danger of becoming God with a hat,' says Gareth, 'but I had to do it, didn’t I? I ignored all their warnings.  I thought I’d be behind a pillar booming forth, but oh no, Maggie Love had me up in the pulpit in a gold wallpaper frock for all the town to see. Now I’ll never live it down.’

I’m quite sure that Gareth will live it down. Shrewsbury expects nothing less from him.  Whether it’s dressed up as God intoning in his rolling Welsh accent or popping up on the telly in Come Dine With Me, Gareth Jenkins is a continual ‘watch this space’.  The one thing you don’t expect from him is a quiet life.

When the phone goes, Elizabeth hands it to Gareth.  ‘It’ll be for you,’ she says. Along with their four wonderful now fairly grown up children, she is high on Gareth’s list of things in life that define who he is [‘couldn’t have done anything without her toleration and support/everybody knows I married someone quite amazing/to be married to a chap like me, all these irons in the fire, is no easy task’].  But even higher on Gareth’s list is the word ‘Dentist’.

Gareth Jenkins is my dentist.  When we first met some thirty-three years ago, I’d no love of dentists and the newly qualified young Gareth wasn’t that impressed with me.  Or, at least, he wasn’t with my teeth. Things have improved since then. Thanks to him I never lost them, and I’m no longer terrified of dentists. Perhaps he hypnotized me - I can’t quite remember. Or perhaps he cast a spell on me.

Magic doesn’t feature on Gareth’s list, but it should. At five years old in his home town, Llanidloes, Gareth mastered his first trick. During his primary school years he worked at developing his skills. At the age of ten he put on an hour-long show at the church Christmas party.   ‘My parents were wholly supportive,’ Gareth says, sitting back in his chair, glasses stuck on top of his head, beaming at the memory. ‘I had two other brothers who were quiet, reasonable sort of children, then there was this middle brother, me, who liked nothing better than singing and performing.  I was a bit of a star turn over the next few years. In and around Llanidoes.  I’d do church events, and then the Liberal Party got hold of me, and to prove I had no political bias I performed for the Tories. Back and forth, that kept me busy.’

Gareth became a regular feature in the County Times. One day his Headmaster called him into his office to reprimand him. If he carried on this way, he said, Gareth would get nowhere in life. The Head didn’t want to see Gareth’s photo in the County Times again.

‘My next show was coming up at a Young Offenders’ institution.’ Gareth smiles at the memory. ‘But I had to insist on anonymity. I got my back on that Head, though. I won a significant essay competition and the prize was £100 of book tokens. That was a huge sum in those days. Seriously, a lot of money. I spent the whole lot on magic books, and because the competition had been entered via the school the Head had to sign for them. 

‘That was Llanidloes County School. I was Head Boy. The way they worked things there, if you were a girl you studied French and History and if you were a boy you were funneled into Physics and Maths.  I wanted to study Biology too, and then Music on top of that, and for some reason that really threw them. Finally I was allowed to take the subjects I wanted, but then when it came to the exams it turned out that the teacher had got confused and taught the wrong syllabus. We opened our exam paper and didn’t have a clue what it was about.  But the Headmaster swung it somehow. He was brilliant. He wrote an impressive letter to the exam board and that did the trick.’

When Gareth was at school, he was very keen on essay competitions. One was run by the joint Welsh Examination Board. Gareth won it twice. His prize was an all expenses paid trip to the Eisteddfod.  ‘That changed my life,’ Gareth says. ‘I discovered choral music. Primarily it’s been Bulgarian and Eastern European choirs that have interested me.’

I remember bumping into Gareth once at the Eisteddfod.  I was with my husband. He told us who to listen to and who would win. He was right. Over the year’s he’s visited Eastern Europe on a regular basis - Bulgaria, in particular, where he’s made many friends.  He likes the complex rhythms of their music and has risen to the challenge of transposing those rhythms onto English or Welsh words, Welsh preferably because, he says, the natural rhythm of Welsh is more musical.

Gareth has attended choir competitions all over Europe; France, Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria.  He’s got to know the Bulgarian conductors and composers, whom he describes as interesting people. ‘Back in the old days of communism they were elevated by the state,’ he says. ‘They were very hospitable. I was invited to a lot of festivals representing Great Britain.  Flights, cars, dinners etc – it would all be paid for.  When communism went, so did all of this.’

For the last few years, Gareth and his wife have been looking after a Bulgarian boy, sponsoring him to study at Shrewsbury School, where he has a scholarship, and looking after him at weekends. He’s a remarkable pianist, Gareth says. One of the best the school has ever had.  Probably he’ll go on to the Royal College of Music. His name’s Galin Ganchev.

In addition, Gareth also composes.  These are works he describes as ‘done for my own interest, largely as an academic pursuit’. Generally his work is quirky, he says. Maybe that sort of thing will become fashionable one day, who knows?  ‘I’ll have a shot at anything,’ he says. 

That could well be the motto for Gareth’s life. Everywhere the conversation takes us, a new interest pops up.  Take Gareth’s fascination for garden architecture, which he designs and builds.  His garden, he says, is littered with structures. There is literally no room for any more pergolas, pagodas, potting sheds and other exotic structures, including the one he built for his children. With its pool table and computers this has now become a ‘community games room’, attracting gatherings of his children, their friends and random associates most nights of the week. 

‘Every year I build something,’ says Gareth. ‘I sometimes wonder how I have the energy.  My conservatory took me the whole year. I’m very proud of my conservatory.’

Gareth has a lot to be proud of, not least the dental practice that he’s built up from scratch. What led him into dentistry, I want to know. ‘I wanted a job that would use my hands,’ he says.  ‘I was good with my hands - all the practicing magic had probably done that - and everybody said that Llanidloes needed a good dentist, so my path seemed set.’

‘Except that you didn’t go back to Llanidloes,’ I point out.  ‘No, I came to Shrewsbury,’ Gareth says. ‘The plan after college was to do a couple of years here, then move back home. But I stayed.’

When Gareth first came to Shrewsbury he worked at Bellstone. Then he opened his own practice down by the railway station, then finally he took that practice to its current location, Bowdler’s House. My early memories of him are as a dentist who could fascinate children with coins appearing from behind ears as well as sorting out their teeth. One time I remember him hypnotizing a friend of mine who’d refused for years to let a dentist anywhere near her teeth.  

‘I used to lecture on medical and dental hypnosis,’ Gareth says.  ‘It’s effective at eliminating phobias, including fear of dentists.  And of spiders. It was less successful though with giving up smoking.  Hypnotism is all about talking to the subconscious, trying to influence or alter inner feelings. But the power of nicotine is very strong.’

Gareth is a NHS dentist.  ‘As long as I offer a good service, I’ll always be busy,’ he says.  He’s also a Draper.  In fact, he’s this year’s Master Draper, with the flashy-looking fur-edged cloak to prove it.

Gareth loves the Drapers, he says.  Based in the Drapers’ Hall, next to St Mary’s Church, he describes them as genuine, public spirited, three-dimensional people who want to carry on the Guild tradition that first brought Shrewsbury to eminence and made it what it is.  They were the ones who first provided housing for the poor in Shrewsbury. From the old almshouses at St Mary’s [now long since gone, along with the Victorian almshouses that used to be where Waitrose is today] to their current almshouse project out at Holy Cross, the Drapers have had a long-standing interest in providing housing in Shrewsbury for those with little means.

‘I’m loving my year as Master,’ says Gareth. ‘We have a carol service at Christmas to which we invite all our almshouse residents and treat them to lunch. Then we have guest nights when we invite friends and other Guild members from around the country. There are other church services too, like the choral evensong we have at St Chad’s. What we’re trying to do is maintain the traditions of the Drapers with authentic accuracy.' 

'This year the Drapers have the huge challenge of getting the Holy Cross Almshouses built. The existing Holy Cross almshouses next to the Abbey will remain [designed by Samuel Pountney Smith in 1853, regarded as classics of their architectural type and period], along with those managed by the Drapers at Fairford Place and the Hospital of St Giles. However up to twenty more units are planned at that site, providing accommodation  for a further thirty-two residents, bringing the total number up to just over fifty. 

This is a massive project. As well as housing, the development will also provide facilities designed for the benefit of the neighbouring community. Eight of us Drapers are on the Holy Cross board,’ says Gareth. ‘We’ll have several meetings a week with planners and people from the Charity Commission, contractors and so on.  We also have a team of fund raisers who have brought in some incredible donations. This is a 2.7 million pound project. Juggling builders’ start dates and the getting in of grants is really complicated.  It’s on a knife’s edge at the moment.  Christmas. You know what it’s like. Just when you need to talk to people everything is closed for a month.’

There’s a lot more that could be said about Gareth. Governor of Priory School. Running the annual Gregynog Young Musician Competition with a £3,000 prize, for under eighteens. Member of the Shropshire Magic Circle, performing throughout the year in gigs as far-flung as Norway and the Patagonian Welsh. Organizer of extraordinary concerts.

If you haven’t attended Gareth’s annual November concert in aid of the Huntington’s Disease Association, you’ve missed a trick. One of Gareth’s many talents is that he’s good at persuading often really quite famous musicians to come to Shrewsbury and perform. ‘I get talking to them,’ Gareth says. ‘I bring out my magic and show them a few tricks. I lure people in – and once they’re in they want to come back, and to do it for free.’

The concert, typically, will include pop, opera, all forms of music all with their own merits.  There will be young musicians and established ones too. The Maidment Building up at Shrewsbury School will be packed. The after show party usually ends up with the concert starting up again back at Gareth and Elizabeth's house.  ‘2.00am’s the limit,’ Gareth says. ‘Then everybody goes.’

I’ve one last story I want to tell you about Gareth.  This has been a long interview, I know, with lots to read, but this is a story that can’t possibly be left out.  Until recently, Gareth looked after an elderly relative who lived in Shrewsbury and was once a piano teacher at the High School. When she died, he found a bureau in her house with a locked compartment.  Eventually he found the key, and inside the bureau he found, amongst a pile of diaries and other papers, a hand-written letter [as distinct from a merely hand-signed letter] to Gareth’s relative from the king.

The king in question was George VI.  He had written to say thank-you for what this relative, named Doris, had done for her country.  As yet Gareth hasn’t been able to find out what exactly it was she did, but as the letter came at the end of the Second World War, it doesn’t take too much imagination to figure out what it might have been.

In addition, Gareth found Doris’s papers – the ones she never wanted anyone to see.  Whenever he’d asked why she’d never married, she’d always said she hadn’t been interested and that the right person hadn’t come along.  However, according to the papers locked in her bureau, there had, after all, been a great love in Doris’s life. He’d been an eminent author, and in the locked compartment of the bureau Gareth found his life’s work – manuscripts, lecture notes, books and private correspondence.  All on the subject of sex.

We haven’t had much sex yet in My Tonight From Shrewsbury, but it’s never too late. The love of Doris's life was an eminent sexologist who wrote learned books on sex and travelled the world lecturing on the subject. That's how Doris first met him. As an asthmatic, she was interested in the ways in which this condition might have held her back. She attended his clinic in a spirit of exploration. They fell in love. She was in her early twenties, he forty years older than her.  

These were the war years. Doris lived in Shropshire near to an air base.  To keep out of danger’s way, or so she said, she moved to the relative security of mid Wales. According to a Shrewsbury friend, ‘We don’t know what Doris did during those years’.  Maybe she’d simply moved closer to the new man in her life.  Or maybe she spent those years spying for king and country.  

Gareth doesn’t know.  Never in all the years he knew Doris did he pick up an inkling of any of this.  In her latter years he enjoyed keeping an eye on her, reading her letters when her eyes went, bringing in her shopping. She was very kind to his Bulgarian ward, Galin, whose musicianship she thought was superb.  Nobody had a clue about her secret life.

‘You know Doris was a direct descendant of William the Conqueror,’ says Gareth. ‘She'd worked it all out.  Her mother came from Yorkshire. She was a stunning artist. Her family name was Grosvenor, but she painted under the name 'Minnie Duck'.  When Doris died,  I found sixty water-colours in her house in tight roles. The colours were vivid and the technique beautiful. Doris was a first cousin to Henry Holt.  Her grandfather was the first man to produce crown plate glass.  Twenty thousand people went to his funeral. There were only fifteen for Doris.  Doris Grosvenor-Davies was her full name, but to us she was always the daughter of Mother Duck.’

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