BLOG Kaja Brown

NWR Issue 119

Reclaiming Gay Rural Wales

The Ceredigion Museum is transformed for the evening. The lights are dim, life is bustling, and there is that air of anticipation that comes before a show. On 1 February, the museum held an event, ‘An Extraordinary Female Affection’, for LGBT+ History Month with Mike Parker reading from his forthcoming book, On the Red Hill before a two-woman theatrical performance by Jane Hoy and Helen Sandler.

My friend and I sink into the sofa and look into the glaring lights as the event begins. Helen gives an introduction, explaining how we would be exploring the lives of LGBT+ people in history who ‘came to Wales for the romantic fantasy that they can live together here.’ With the image of star-crossed LGBT+ lovers dancing in our heads, Mike approaches the microphone.

‘My story is a story about all kinds of things….’ Mike tells us about his book, which Cornerstone will publish in hardback in May. This memoir is set in the Fifties and Sixties, and follows the life of the gay couple from whom Mike and his partner Peredur inherited their cottage home. The book is a celebration of a movement of Welsh queer rural and gays reclaiming the countryside, and is a welcome counterbalance to the cultural trope of LGBT+ lives being portrayed against an urban backdrop. It is about Reg and George, two men falling in love at a time when this seemed most impossible, and was certainly illegal. As Mike begins his presentation, behind him a beautiful image of Reg and George comes up on screen. But this one is different from those clichés of black and white images of couples in history books or in your nan’s dusty photo-albums. Here are two men in love.

This is what LGBT+ history month is about. Showing that the LGBT+ community has always been here, in one form and another, and that our history must not be erased.

After a brief intermission and a lovely chat with Mike, two women come onstage acting as the Ladies of Llangollen. Is there something about Wales that called to same-sex couples back in the day? This pair were women who fled their homes and rigid parents in Ireland to live together in north Wales, in a beautiful cottage and friendly community. It is not certain whether these women’s relationship was platonic or something more; however, through a selection of diary entries and tender performances, Helen and Jane hint at an affection that transcends time as well as social and cultural boundaries.

Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, known as the Ladies of Llangollen, photo courtesy Helen Sandler

This evening spans an emotional range from sobriety to jollity. Mike discusses Reg and George’s budding romance alongside historical accounts of the arrests of homosexual men. Helen and Jane act out a beautiful story with a happy ending that is punctuated by non-accepting families and newspaper slurs against the women. Both halves of the evening depict myriad aspects of the LGBT+ history story, demonstrating both the hardships and tenderness that gay and lesbian couples experienced. LGBT+ history should not be portrayed as all gloom and doom, for it is something to be celebrated, to imagine your ancestors were like you and loved like you. And yet the wrongdoings done to them shouldn’t be ignored, of course. Overall, I felt like this event did justice to LGBT+ history month, and I left Ceredigion Museum’s old theatre feeling content and anticipating the publication of Mike’s tender memoir this spring.

Kaja Brown, an undergraduate of Aberystwyth University’s Department of English and Creative Writing, is a blogger-in-residence for New Welsh Review.

Images of the Ladies of Llangollen (Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby), photo courtesy of Helen Sandler, and Mike Parker’s friends, the late Reg and George, photo courtesy of the author A Living Histories Cymru event


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