Gary Matthews fell headlong into a subterranean world haunted by vicious fantasies. But he wasn’t vicious himself. “I knew him since he was 19,” his friend Peter Roscoe told me. “He was a gentle guy. He wanted a better world. I am so sorry in recent times he became convinced that Covid was some kind of hoax.”
The “hoax” killed him, his relatives said. He had a positive Covid-19 test and went home to isolate. He died, aged 45, alone in his flat in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, on 12 January.
His short life and lonely death seem as far from the overindulged world of London’s anti-scientific right as it is possible to get. Matthews was hard up and all but unknown. He could never have been a Toby Young or Julia Hartley-Brewer. The Telegraph would never have let him write columns declaring with no evidence whatsoever that the common cold could provide “natural immunity” to Covid-19. Talkradio would never have paid him to shout that the “virus isn’t causing excess deaths any more” even as the corpses piled up in mortuaries. No local Conservative association would have thought of adopting Matthews in the hope he would become the next Steve Baker. None of them would have given him the time of day.
Roscoe said he met the young Matthews when he was selling Socialist Worker and that rings true. People who began with vaguely greenish, vaguely leftish politics and ended up believing that 5G causes cancer and big pharma wants to kill you are a large part of the anti-vaxx movement. Assuming they are not just cynics milking the perennially profitable stupidity market, the crank rightwingers in the media and politics appear to be their opposites. An ultra-conservative hatred of the state drives them. How dare it tell us to wear “face nappies”? How dare it restrict my freedom and build its tyrannical power by feeding me the lie that lockdowns save more lives than they destroy? They claim to be respectable “lockdown sceptics” rather than weirdo conspiracy theorists. But, as we shall see, that is a distinction without difference.
It is worth remembering Matthews and not only because so many are dying around us without even a paragraph in their local paper to mark their passing. His creepy conspiracy sites are not so far from the newspaper columns and radio shows of the London right. Not far at all.
Matthews left few traces online. Pretty much all you can see is that he made a bit of money as a self-taught artist and amateur photographer. His acquaintances in Shrewsbury described an inaccessible man. He had “this rather guarded manner and just seemed very uncomfortable”, said one. “But he found his ‘tribe’ in this very murky world which is, of course, longing for people to join its ranks.”
The kingpin of Covid denialists in Shrewsbury is called Charlie Parker. Attention-seeking and self-assured, he was everything Matthews was not. Videos on one of the thousands of private Facebook groups that spread so many lies show a bearded man in middle age confronting Jacob Rees-Mogg and declaring: “We know the British [Covid] figures are being inflated.” Meanwhile, the Shropshire Star reported that Parker was arrested after a pointless anti-lockdown protest on the roof of a local college.
Parker said that Matthews was a co-founder of his “Shropshire Corona Resilience Network” Facebook group. I managed to join and could find no trace of Matthews. All I could see was the pornography of the paranoid. There were quack posts on how vaccines may kill you. Anti-NHS posts accusing doctors of “fear-mongering”. Racist posts saying that Jews deserved to be persecuted. Pro-Putin posts from his RT propaganda station. But nothing by or about Matthews, until he died, that is, when a grotesque struggle over his body began.
Covid can’t have killed him, it just can’t. No hard fact can be allowed to break through the defensive walls of an enclosed ideology, even after the death of a friend. “The cause of death is currently listed as Covid-19,” Parker told his followers. “It is now the duty of those he has left behind to ensure that his name is not used to further this gargantuan fraud.” Parker hinted that Matthews had asthma and it might have killed him. (This is news to his family.) Others suggested he took his own life. I’ve seen screenshots of a WhatsApp conversation where a Shrewsbury conspiracist says he “could have been murdered” by shadowy figures – Bill Gates, maybe, or the head of an intensive care unit – because he was “part of the movement, one of us”.
Matthews’s cousin Tristan Copeland said he had begged him to wear a mask and maintain social distance. “But he and his friends had the mindset that they needed to go out and meet people to show they didn’t believe the government.” Perhaps his posturing killed him.
How mad and how different from what passes for respectable opinion. But shift the conversation just a little and the conspiracy theories are not so different from the propaganda pouring out of rightwing radio stations and newspapers. Their claims that masks and lockdowns don’t work, that Covid is no more deadly than the flu, that 91% of so-called Covid cases are false positives and that there are no excess deaths are as false as imagining Gates wants to microchip the world and just as deadly. It’s not that they are made by people who know nothing that makes them so objectionable. They are made by people who can never know anything. Just as the anti-vaxxers of Shrewsbury had to deny the reason for the death of their comrade, so the presenters on Talkradio and LBC and the columnists on the Telegraph must maintain their ignorance and scream down all who try to enlighten them or their audience will look elsewhere.
Throughout this piece, I have tried to emphasise that Gary Matthews’s true friends said that he may have been an unlucky and limited man but he wasn’t a bad man. He deserved better than to have his life endangered by a flood of fake news – and so do millions of others.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist