When Candy Bedworth opened the critically acclaimed book by Mike Parker, On the Red Hill, she expected a beautiful story of love triumphing over struggle, because that’s what all the reviews promised. But instead she found a narrative littered with the red flags of domestic abuse. Here she talks to Parker about what she felt was the dominant, yet overlooked, theme of his book.
Mike Parker’s 2019 On the Red Hill (Heinemann) looked like a perfect read for me. Set locally in Mid-Wales, written by a fellow Brummie, and combining twin threads of rural Welsh life with a snapshot of gay history.
Writers (and the Guardian newspaper) have heaped praise onto this project, which started life as an obituary piece. ‘Where four lives fell into place,’ was the strapline on a beautiful lino-cut style cover by Ceara Elliot that drew me in to the lives of Reg, George, Mike and Peredur. The reviews gushed of a story overflowing with love and romance; they spoke of beauty, tranquillity and joy. The publisher’s blurb follows a similar vein. But once inside those beautiful covers, I found a different story to the one I was promised. Perplexed, I contacted author Mike Parker, who kindly agreed to an email conversation where we chewed over the issues.
Almost half of all gay or bi-sexual men will experience some form of domestic violence in their lifetime (Stonewall)
On the Red Hill tells the story of George and Reg, who forge a live for themselves in rural Wales running guest houses as a queer couple after moving there in 1972. Parker interweaves their story with his own as an Englishman who moved to Wales in 2000, since which he has written well about the country, stood for parliament, and found a husband in Peredur. The couples recognise kindred spirits and eventually George and Reg, on their deaths, bequeath to Parker and Peredur a substantial farmhouse that include a treasure trove of diaries. It is these diaries that form the backbone of Parker’s book.
The skill with which Parker tells this story is undeniable, but from the start I begin to recognise something that no review or blurb has s much as hinted at. I’m sure that what I’m seeing here, in George, is an abuser: a bully, an oppressor, a manipulator, a sexual predator. There is a point in the book where Reg is essentially a prisoner in a remote, semi-derelict house, with no money and no transport – subordinate and dependent. This is a textbook act of domestic violence.
Whenever Reg settles, or makes friends, George forces him to move on. They moved three times during their lives together in Wales, each time an uprooted Reg had to re-build a home, a garden, and a business under George’s close supervision. This was not a life ‘falling in to place’, but a life falling into another’s control.
Although Parker lays out the bones of the partner abuse episodes, I’m not sure he explicitly calls it. I asked him what he thought about that?
“I am in no doubt that George was a controlling man, a bully,” he said. “And I say so on numerous occasions, and in very many ways, throughout the book. Perhaps I could or should have been even more explicit, but I think that I lay enough of the facts out as I understood them for people to see the full picture.”
Abuse can encompass, but is not limited to psychological, physical, sexual, financial and emotional issues (UK Government)
Delving deeper, I ask about research into George’s life. Parker read his letters; he scanned through his diaries and pored over his photo albums. If it did become apparent that this was an abusive and controlling man, can this still be a love story? Parker thinks yes. He said that although abuse was obvious in their first and second Welsh homes, that changed as they aged. “By the time they got here (Rhiw Goch), the dynamics of their relationship had altered considerably and for good, in both senses of the word.” And to be fair to the author, he points out that he knew George personally only when he was much older, and sliding in to dementia.
I’m not convinced that a man who has persistently and repeatedly mistreated his partner over many years is rehabilitated just because he has become a less competent abuser. If the dysfunction within the personal relationship of the two older men isn’t analysed, does that make Parker a collaborator and an apologist?
Having spoken to Parker I sincerely believe he had no desire to cover up for or apologise for George. Or to hide the behaviour. He said: “I am pleased that the book is playing its part in raising the (hitherto rather hidden) topic of abuse within gay relationships and wider gay culture. I have talked about this specific issue in book readings, on the radio and in a podcast. It is not a hidden theme by any means.”
I mention that the long-time friend and neighbour Penny was the only voice in the book who explicitly calls it: ‘George was a lot older and all power; Reg was nothing’. Why is it Penny, as a character, who explicitly names the abuse for what it is, and not Parker? He said: “this was not a conscious sidestep of my responsibility, though on balance, I can see how it might come across that way, and perhaps there was a subconscious process at work there that I didn’t acknowledge.”
Myths and stereotypes about same-sex partner abuse, minimise the experiences of LGBT people with abuse and make it difficult for the victims to seek help. Some of the more common stereotypes and myths suggest that abuse in same-sex relationships is not as serious as heterosexual abuse. That it is ‘mutual’. That gay men can more easily protect themselves, or just leave (Stonewall)
But what of those reviews, and the publishers’ words? I couldn’t find one article which mentioned domestic violence. Let’s just imagine, for a moment, that this was the tale of a heterosexual couple. What would these critics say, on reading of a man who kept a woman prisoner, who vetoed her friendships, who retained total financial control, and who preyed on young people for sexual gratification? Would they still talk of romance? No, they’d shuffle uncomfortably and talk about gritty realism and patriarchy. Why the double-standard for a homosexual couple? Do we think abuse is ‘normal’ in same sex relationships? Or an expression of gay masculinity? Somebody needs to gather up their hetero-sexist myths and have a re-think.
Controlling behaviour is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape, and regulating their everyday behaviour (Galop.org)
Galop is the UK’s only specialist LGBT+ anti-violence charity. The quote above is from their website, and in the book, George exhibits every one of the behaviours mentioned. This is what domestic violence looks like. This is what it smells like and tastes like. Domestic violence isn’t just the soap opera stuff of drunken fists and battered wives. Although of course it is sadly that too.
It seems to me that the desire to make On the Red Hill a double-ended, four-part harmony, a same-sex love story which echoes twice within a magical spot, has over-shadowed a much darker narrative. Manipulation and coercive control is subtle yet potent. Coercive control wasn’t outlawed in the UK until just five years ago, and almost all cases are dropped before they make it into court.
Domestic abuse remains one of the most prevalent crimes in England and Wales – involving two million adults. More than one in ten offences recorded by the Police are related to domestic abuse (Home Office, UK)
I asked Mike if he felt he had failed to tackle an important issue for the sake of narrative structure? His answer was very interesting: “Some things were indeed lost once I settled on the idea of the 4×4 structure. The integrity of the element/season/direction/character structure was hugely important to me; it felt like a gift that I wanted to honour, and quite a delicate gift at that.” He continued: “I chose not to use such stark terminology as ‘coercive control’ or ‘domestic violence’ for fear of their definitive absoluteness dominating the balance and nuance of the text. Shine too bright a light on a scene and it eradicates all the shadows. This is a book about the million shades of grey between the stark opposites of black and white.”
And he’s right that no reader wants to be beaten around the head with the political correctness stick. Nevertheless, if we don’t tackle the culture that hides personal domestic abuse, how are we ever going to move on, to sexual and emotional freedom for all? Parker brilliantly uses the book to educate us about some of the myths around gay lives, and how same-sex couples can run the gamut of political persuasions, ages, social and family backgrounds.
He also shows us the horrifying effects of homophobia and state-sanctioned acts of aggression in the post-war years, which have repercussions even today. The abuse perpetrated on the gay community from outside is expertly mined and reflected upon. Parker tells it for what it is. It is brutal and true and heart-breaking. In contrast, his opinion on the abuse perpetrated by George can feel foggy, indistinct, shifting.
We must finally get past the idea that abuse is an issue of gender or sexuality. It is about power and control dynamics (Rolle et al, Frontiers in Psychology)
There are times in the book when unacceptable behaviour is trivialised, or down-played. And to normalise controlling, abusive behaviour, perpetuates the conditions that allow it to flourish. When George offers their home address to a young man making fraudulent benefit claims in exchange for sex, Parker states that Reg was probably more bothered by the fraud. And describes the sex as occurring with ‘impressive’ regularity.
Reg has just one long-standing friend from his past, who visited the B&B annually. George persuades the friend to head outside with him, to ‘strip off’ for photos and indulge in sex play. Parker does use the word ‘manipulative’ here. He tells us that George used Reg’s friend as a ‘sex toy’, then refused to allow him to visit the home again.
Parker admits that he feels kinship with George. He says: ‘his flare-ups made for spotlit blazes of passion; when they passed, there might be debris but it was reparable.’. But the truth is that the ‘debris’ he talks of is another human being. And although the human ‘debris’ limps on, it is forever scarred. Is Parker reframing pain as passion?
In 2019 domestic violence figures rose by 24%, whilst cases referred on to the Crown Prosecution Service fell by 11%. (Office for National Statistics, UK)
I wish that Parker had taken this opportunity to fully address an issue we don’t often talk about, or even recognise. This isn’t a historical issue – statistics for domestic violence are rising. Same-sex couples are as likely if not more likely to experience domestic abuse. They certainly face greater social exclusion. In fact, a recent study by the Scottish Transgender Alliance reported that within the trans community, 80% have experienced domestic violence of some kind. This is a public discussion we all need to have.
Victims of domestic violence in same-sex couples believe, at some level, they deserve the violence because of internalised negative beliefs about themselves (Richard Carroll, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, USA)
I appreciate the fear that recognising the problem could further stigmatise already marginalised groups. And, my goodness, it’s so hard to call it, especially when we know or love the person. But a writer must feel the fear and do it anyway. Isn’t writing, after all, a form of resistance? As passionate activist and writer Andrea Dworkin wrote, you must make something visible, and name it, as a pre-cursor to action. Without that, society cannot be transformed.
Parker’s own experiences of abuse are touched upon in the book, but almost in passing. Being abused by his Church camp leader is covered with a fleeting mention. Being violated within a paedophile ring is a strangely flat, short paragraph devoid of feeling. I asked the author about his own history, and he was admirably candid: “I’m sorry if I short-changed readers here, but I honestly included as much detail on these things as I felt able to at the time. After publishing the book, I came to realise that I had indeed held back to some extent, and that On the Red Hill has a sequel that will take those themes and go far deeper into them.”
Approximately 60% to 80% of LGBT+ survivors, have never reported incidents to the police or tried to find advice, support, or protection from organisations and services. LGBT-specific refuges and services are rare. (Galop.org)
I realise I wanted to get to a point in the book where Parker himself said, explicitly, that Reg lived and died with a partner who was not always a safe place, emotionally or psychologically, for him or for others. That Reg carried all the internalised stresses of homophobia, shame and fear of stigma, and to that George loaded a burden of control and isolation. Degradation and humiliation lock you into an identity and a role that is hard to shake off.
But Parker is emphatic in his response: “That would have placed Reg squarely – and perhaps solely – in the role of victim, and that I could and would not do. Reg overcame so many difficulties in his life, George’s behaviour included, to become truly one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered. He was beautiful, powerful, proud, engaged, intelligent and terribly compromised, and would have hated, absolutely hated, being defined in that way. He and I talked often of those early days in Wales, and never once did he express any sense that it was a time of suffering for him. Of course, one could say that that is itself perhaps some version of Stockholm Syndrome, but I really do not believe that to be the case here.”
Mike Parker’s decision to tell the story of his friends’ lives is one to be applauded and rewarded. His willingness to share their shortcomings (and his own) is honest and brave. This is no sentimental tale, and for that I am glad.
There is a lot to love in this book. The nature writing is vivid and personal. Parker brilliantly evokes that feeling once described by Georgia O’Keeffe as ‘smothered with green’ when it all gets a bit claustrophobic. It must strike a chord with anyone who has lived through the strange seasons of a mid-Wales year. The complications and compromises of growing old fast but growing wise slowly are expertly and humorously handled.
There are many stories here – a great, complicated, painful story about George and Reg and what society and war and homophobia did to them. There is a nature-based rumination on wild Wales, and all the disparate peoples who call it home. And there is the story of what happens to an incomer like Parker when love strikes in the capital of ancient Cymru. But for me, given what we learn about George and Reg, this cannot be the four-person symmetrical love story the critics and publisher have claimed it to be.
There is actually no legal definition of domestic violence or domestic abuse, so there are no actual criminal offences under those names (Fullfact.org)
Parker is an experienced, fluent and politicised writer. We all need to be mindful when we speak or write about partner abuse, coercion, and control, that we do not normalise, minimise or legitimise it, whatever era it belongs to. It was, and always will be, morally wrong. But some may hold the power to hide it, to make it acceptable – even lawful. Systems like that must be challenged and dismantled. The Domestic Abuse Bill, intended to transform our response to partner abuse of all kinds, was lost following the suspension of Parliament in September 2019.
I am very grateful to Parker for such an engaged and frank discussion about his book, and I will give him the last word: “When writing On the Red Hill, I was deeply aware that as there are so many diverse ingredients to it, including many thorny and/or controversial ones, the reactions from readers were likely to be almost infinitely wide, highly engaged and sometimes intensely personal. And so it is proving.”
The Safer Wales ‘Dyn Project’ was developed to support Heterosexual, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender men to access services which support their needs. The Dyn helpline is 0808 801 0321