Lewis Davies reviews the powerful new book from Mike Parker, On the Red Hill, and unpicks a thread of LGBTQ+ writing in Welsh fiction.
George Walton and Reg Mickisch moved to the hills of Wales in 1972. They were young, hopeful and in love. They bought a decommissioned village pub and with taste, money and enthusiasm converted it into a guest house. The first paying visitor was a C.W. Brook (Mr), who in October 1973, recorded he “enjoyed every moment with good company” and was provided with “excellent service”. George and Reg would go on to run two further guest houses, never a bed and breakfast, finally finding a home at Rhiw Goch. In his new book On the Red Hill, Mike Parker has written an affectionate and revealing portrait of a successful marriage with its compromises, pleasures and failures, illuminated by his own search for happiness in the queer rural.
Parker moved to Wales in 2000 as a “gobby, gay Brummie” and Wales has been lucky to have him. He’s written about the country and his perception of the culture, found a husband, and even stood for parliament in Ceredigion as the Plaid Cymru candidate: one of the most conservative but also strangely liberal constituencies. The travail of this campaign he brilliantly turned into a revealing and entertaining book The Greasy Poll, which effectively skewered the ridiculousness of the compromises many prospective parliamentary candidates have to endure. He escaped with his sanity but not a majority, which was a shame for Ceredigion and the political life of the UK as a whole. He would have made an excellent member of parliament: committed, honest and funny. In the final poll, a controversial earring and a colourful back catalogue of words and jokes proved too much for the good burghers of Aberystwyth. Or perhaps despite learning and loving Wales, Mike Parker was just insufficiently Welsh for the supporters of The Party of Wales.
With On the Red Hill, Mike returns to his strengths as a writer: a love for the essence of a place, the maps, physical and mental which allow us to live our lives. The story of George and Reg and how they managed their progress through decades of change allows him an insight into his own successes and failures, friendship and romance, personal and public. He first meets Reg and George at a summer garden party. Within a few years, they are firm friends, both with Mike and his own partner, Peredur, quickly shortened to Preds, a Welshman from a prominent farming family, who Mike met when he moved to Wales. The couples recognise kindred spirits and with no one else to leave their worldly goods to on their death, Mike and Preds, inherit a substantial farmhouse from George and Reg, lock, stock and smoking diaries.
It is the diaries and the written ephemera of lives that Parker turns to in creating a picture of George and Reg in very different times. When they moved to Wales sex between two men had only just been decriminalised but attitudes would certainly take another generation or two to change. John Sam Jones was one of the first writers to explore gay life in rural Wales in anything more than code, with his short story collection, Welsh Boys Too. He recalls in his memoirs, The Journey is Home, that after a nervous breakdown brought about by the stress of coming (partially) out while at college in Aberystwyth studying theology, he was subjected to electric shock therapy at a hospital in north Wales that was prescribed to cure his lust for sex with men. He was twenty-one. He survived.
Earlier it was all firmly in the dresser, Welsh or otherwise. There is a fair bit of lusting for men in Glyn Jones’s novel The Valley, The City, The Village but it is never expressed openly, while Rhys Davies, in The Withered Root, manages only a passing mention to the struggle of a young man coming out to a priest during the 1905 revival. Pressure and a struggle Davies found himself still facing in the London of the 30s after a valley’s childhood. Men were regularly at risk of prison if they were convicted of sexual activity with a fellow consenting adult. In Wales, it ruined many lives. Parker has a theory that the rural life was always more accepting of difference: “Every parish had its hen lanc (the old lad), often living undisturbed, perhaps with his special friend, his brother, blood or otherwise.” However, he is positive that other options have now opened up and you don’t have to live within a prescribed code.
Growing up in rural/urban south Wales in the 80s there was still a vicious undercurrent of anti-gay and lesbian feeling which was still in evidence throughout the 90s and exemplified by some of the abuse the rugby player, Gareth Thomas received from the terraces in his early career. In his book Proud, Thomas tackles some of the challenges of being gay and high profile in professional sport through which, he has become a role model and changed perceptions both in Wales and out in the wider world. Things have got a lot better but we have to be careful as Mike himself declares “Though it often feels that progress is stalling, the revolution over the last half-century in notions of gender, sex and sexuality is real and massive; it lives in the fields and hills just as happily, and just as unhappily, as it does in the streets.” His own partner Pred, the youngest child of the large extended family never really bothered to come out as such. Initially, this irks Parker: “When we first got together, I regularly nagged Preds about his ‘failure’ – by my definition – to have come out to his family.” But gradually as he begins to understand the dynamics more the realisation dawns “he never came out, because he was never in. A little boy so comfy in his choice of Ideal Home magazine over the Beano, and asking for a peacock for his ninth birthday… ”
Mike Parker is keen to explore a rural, quiet way of life despite having been forced to be out in the public eye himself in the pursuit of making a living. In a way, Reg and George also changed perceptions. They became a successful couple with a wide circle of friends while never compromising on their love. Parker is particularly good at patiently revealing their different personalities which emerge through the letters, art and diaries. George was a professional photographer in Bournemouth but his interest fades as he gets older, he becomes a keen cyclist, a physical fitness fanatic after retirement while is Reg is more reserved, shy and artistic while being conscious of dyslexia which hampered his confidence in the shadow of George’s sometimes bombastic erudition. From the pictures which illustrate the book Reg is clearly beautiful, “posing like a movie star” but very much the younger man eclipsed by George’s urbane experience. As they grow older, their relationship subtly changes. George’s health declines first which gives Reg a bit more personal freedom. He begins to go into town a bit more on his own, unencumbered by George he rediscovers his younger self. He’d worked in retail on the south coast and becomes a regular of Pred’s failing shop but thriving community support centre on the High Street in Machynlleth, gossiping with the locals. Reg is also befriended by Penny, a retired nurse and a fellow immigrant to the hills above the town. She becomes crucial to Reg and George. Ferrying one or the other to hospital appointments in Shrewsbury when the journey alone becomes too much for them. Penny becomes one of the many people who make rural life in Wales a possibility as the distance and time fragment many family support networks, especially for the immigrants. An expression of the culture and society of civil society. She is instrumental in persuading Reg and George to make things legal with a civil partnership. Then they don’t invite her to the wedding. “I was devasted.” She comments to Parker when remembering it.
There are other people to be lost along the way. Reg’s one friend Peter from his days at the Robert Old Menswear store in Bournemouth is a regular but paying guest in Wales for more than twenty years. He even helped them move. He indulges George by posing naked for his art photography but his real love, probably unrequited, is for Reg. Then out of nowhere, George asks Peter, “Is there anywhere else you can go on your Spring holiday?” Peter is still hurt when he tells Parker the story decades later,“after all those years they were not just friends they were my best friends. I was hurt… dreadfully”. Mike catches a difficult and poignant moment beautifully “I could still see the pain on Peter’s face ‘Did they ever mention me?’”
Parker is good on change. He is candid about his own early romantic life governed by lust and opportunity. He even reveals, with some humour, his now redundant seduction techniques. Living with his husband he has found some stability as age catches up with him. He is now in his early fifties and uses the lives of Reg and George to look into a possible future and reflect on his past. He can probably see selves in both men. He also uses the house and the seasons to pace a book about life. On the Red Hill is a quietly successful book. There are no fireworks. Parker quotes a phrase about the Welsh telling stories in curves while the English prefer straight lines. He has certainly gone native but I would have preferred fewer diversions and an occasional by-pass with a sharper edit as once or twice the prose is stretched to breaking point in an attempt to wrest some significance out of the change of seasons, dogs, trees, crows, farmers and sheep: rural life in all its diversity. Parker’s own winter depressions, which although mentioned aren’t really faced in their full bleakness but alluded to as they slide by. There’s the occasional birthday party as well, we all have those.
But that’s to be miserable and a bit Welsh. He’s got a lot to say. It’s a fine book.
Richard Lewis Davies is a publisher and writer. His short story, The Stars Above the City appears in Queer: An Anthology of Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Fiction from Walesedited by Huw Osborne and Kirsti Bohata to be published in 2020.
On the Red Hill