A talented artist, proudly sharing his work and enjoying that of others over a couple of beers with friends at Shrewbury’s old C21 bar.
Those are the fond memories of Gary Matthews that one family member will hold dear, a far cry from the isolated figure swept up in a virtual echo chamber of conspiracies and lies that may well have contributed to his premature death.
Gary, from Shrewsbury, died on January 13 after contracting Covid-19. He was just 46, had been ill for a week and tested positive the day before he died.
It is not known exactly how he caught the virus, which has killed more than 100,000 people in the UK, but according to his family he did not wear a mask or adhere to safety measures and continued to meet with friends.
Gary did not believe the virus was real, and shared in that belief among online forums which refute indisputable facts in favour of theories that suit their own agenda.
In a cruel twist of fate, it was the very virus in which he disbelieved that contributed to his death.
His cousin Tristan Copeland wanted to remember the kind and creative man that his family and friends knew best.
“He was still a beloved member of the family and he didn’t change as a person,” he said. “He always loved his painting. He painted portraits. A lot of his work was around celebrity culture.
“We used to got to C21, where creators would go together to put on displays and have a couple of beers. He was a brilliant artist. He’d always be happy to whip up a quick sketch. He could be a bit shy but he was always kind.
“It has been heartbreaking for the family. We’re still taking it all in. They were all very close. He’d speak to his family every other day. He had a sister and a niece and nephew.”
Many people have felt desperate in the search of more information over the course of this pandemic – whether its worries over health or jobs, or simply a yearning to escape the loneliness and isolation and return to the social lives we used to enjoy.
And a lot feel let down by the politicians in charge of getting us out of it, and the attempts of the media to hold them to account. Both are legitimate views to hold as people are bombarded by a daily deluge of information.
But, sadly, the heart-wrenching stories people have told of their loved ones gasping their final breaths alone in an ICU and the desperate pleas of respiratory consultants who are seeing their wards fill up with gravely ill patients, is not enough for some.
Gary had developed a distrust for the media and felt compelled to seek the truth in his way for some time, a search that led him into a dark hole.
“About two or three years ago he became very concerned about the conflict in Syria from a humanitarian point of view,” said Mr Copeland.
“I think he read a few stories which led him to distrust the media. Eventually that led him to some climate change denial groups which he started posting on.
“When I came back to Shrewsbury we would hang out, and I would ask him if he actually believed this stuff. There was no swaying him. I’d show him a report to disprove the theory but he would come back with a less than reputable one that backed up his idea.
“It’s just a way of thinking and it is hard to break people out of that.
“He would tell me I was brainwashed by the media. This thinking is impenetrable when you are arguing with facts.”
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As Gary’s posts about his beliefs became more frequent, Mr Copeland felt he had to switch off – something he now regrets.
“I feel like I failed him by muting him. I do feel guilt. There were lots of people trying to help bring him out of it but it didn’t work.
“He could be quite shy and even though he did have friends I think he found it difficult to make close friends.
“I think these groups gave him that. He was ripe to be adopted into it and they led him astray.”
Gary’s death also proves that the virus can be devastating to the physically fit. He went to the gym and took pride in his appearance.
A local conspiracy theorist, who was a friend of Gary’s, told them he had asthma and insisted there should be an autopsy to uncover what he believes would be the real cause of his death.
His family were not aware of Gary having asthma and say he may have had an inhaler to claim he was exempt from wearing a mask. Gary had been ill for around a week before he went for a test, which came back positive. He died the following evening.
“He didn’t deserve that,” added Mr Copeland. “No-one does.”
A handful of protests attended by small numbers of people have taken place in the county over the course of the pandemic, including one by two men on the roof of Shrewsbury College’s London Road campus, which led to a road closure and wasted hours of police time.