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NWR Issue r32

On the Red Hill, Where Four Lives Fell into Place

Cover of On the Red Hill by Mike Parker

It was a beautifully sunny afternoon when Mike drove me and my girlfriend from Machynlleth to his home. The landscape was glorious, with jutting hills, babbling brooks and new lambs leaping about. When we got to Mike’s home, Rhiw Goch (Red Hill) I felt like I had stepped into an episode of ‘Escape to the Country.’ This secluded, characterful cottage was surrounded by hills, fields and trees, and I’m sure that if Alistair Appleton had shown someone this property then they would have been very pleased indeed.

As soon as we got out of the car, Mike’s dog, Fflos, came bounding over and immediately made friends with my girlfriend. They seemed equally excited to meet each other and Mike and I beamed at their mutual love. We went into the idyllic garden, mostly managed by Mike’s partner, Preds, which was full of plants, flowers, secret areas, open areas, and even a pond-come-swimming-pool. It was remarkable to be in this special place that I had read about in Mike’s book. Serenity washed over us as we started our interview.

Kaja Brown, New Welsh Review: What inspired you to write this book?
Mike Parker: Well, when we moved into Rhiw Goch eight years ago, we found that our friends Reg and George, the previous occupants and subject of my book, had left us not just the house but a mountain of diaries, photos and letters too. They were great characters, with an incredible story, and I wanted to celebrate them. Initially, I submitted a piece about them to the Guardian’s Other Lives section, their obituaries of so-called ‘ordinary people’. That piece elicited such a response that I knew that this was a story that was meant to be heard. I just had to do something with it.

NWR: You come close to touching the idea of fate and spirituality in the book: why do you think this story is meant to be heard now?
MP: It is planting a flag for the richness of gay lives in the countryside and there’s been so little of that… It is even more relevant now than I could have imagined because instead of steady progress (with gay rights), beliefs and rights are coming under attack all over the world. So now, more than ever, it is important to bring queer ancestors out into the spotlight, so we know what we are fighting for, and remember that we are still aiming to improve things. The story of queer people living in rural Wales shows how we belong everywhere. We belong, full stop.
Writing this book made me feel more politically charged, and it made me angry too. At the very end of my research, I found out that Reg’s first boyfriend was sent to prison in 1953 for being gay. Reg was always such a frightened man, and it suddenly made sense; that fear never left him. It made me reflect too on my own background and the damage I carry as a queer man. Although I grew up decades later in the 1980s, there was still so much political and cultural turbulence over people being gay, and it really damaged me. So, the book is meant to highlight our recent history, and why it’s important to know it – for all of us to know it, not just those of us who are gay. Even though we may seem to have won now, people still carry that emotional baggage, and there remains the constant danger of society regressing, of rights being lost again. As the structure of On the Red Hill helps to illustrate, history is no straight line. It loops and curves, and can all too easily repeat itself.

NWR: What gave you the idea to structure the book in the way that you did?
MP: I struggled for a while with how to arrange this wealth of material, for Reg and George were such hoarders. The obvious way was purely chronological, but that didn’t feel right at all, and then one day I had a real lightbulb moment. As a pagan, one of the tenets of my belief system is the centrality of the elements (air, fire, water, earth), their corresponding compass points and the seasons, and how we need to hold them all as far as possible in balance. The day I realised just how much the four of us – Reg and George, Preds and me – each embodied an element was the day it fell into place. We really do; it could not have been clearer. By dividing the book into four quarters, each with an element, direction, season and one of us, I cast a circle, a magical space. It was an absolutely joyful structure to work within, one that really liberated the material, and the best thing about it is that it works whether the reader ‘gets’ the pattern or not.

NWR: This book could fit into several genres: what made you want to bring nature writing into it?
MP: Because so much of it is rooted in the landscape, and what brought me to Wales was the nature and the culture, and it wasn’t something I could have possibly excluded. I’ve learned so much about nature since being at Rhiw Goch, and I wanted to explore and share that, the cycle of the seasons especially. But I was probably most scared of writing about that because I have not established myself as a nature writer as such.

NWR: How did the extension of civil liberties and gay rights inform the different sections?
MP: It forms the backdrop to everything. In the darkest days of anti-gay repression, Reg and George went to live in Bournemouth because of the underground gay subculture. There weren’t many places where it was even relatively safe for them to be. Since being a young man in the 1930s, George had wanted a cottage in the hills, but that wasn’t an option before the law changed in 1967. For their generation, the idea of equality was just impossible. Civil partnership, the precursor to equal marriage, even alarmed them, and it wasn’t easy getting them to have one themselves. George, in particular, had no interest in gay politics, but maybe just living his life with Reg as his companion for 62 years, was his own protest. It took strength to live the way that they did.

NWR: What was it like, writing about friends and turning them into characters?
MP: I so desperately wanted to get them right, and to be kind… Reg, I loved writing about, as he was so easy to love. George was more difficult; he was spiky, and tended to withdraw from people if they displeased him. Because he had lost his youth to the war, he was desperate to rekindle an alternative young adulthood for himself, and that wasn’t always very appealing, for it could make him quite vain and selfish . They both had something quite special, though. They spurred each other on to be adventurous. And they were soulmates. Reg softened George, and George toughened Reg up a bit. Writing the book made me realise how lucky I’d been to have known them. It was an honour to spend three years thinking and learning about them.

NWR: Final question now, and a bit of a weird one. In Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the movie ends on a rather drab note about how LGBT+ people belong in the city, where they are protected, so how does your picture of rural Wales as a queer haven challenge that notion or even present a kind of gay utopia that might attract others?
MP: Queerness is woven into the fabric of rural Wales. There are just so many outstanding characters to unearth, which I do to some extent in the book. And so many quiet, stoic lives as well; throughout Welsh history there were always people living with their ‘friend’, same-sex married couples in all but name. There is also just something in the air – a ‘queer cunning’ I call it in the book – that I felt as an outsider when I first came this way in the 1990s to research the Rough Guide to Wales. I constantly picked up fascinating titbits of history, and kept meeting people, and being told of others; there were evidently networks even in the remotest of corners, and even before we all got online. In the 1990s, I already knew that ultimately I wanted to be in Wales, though I worried that I was just tricking myself into believing it to be a queer haven, just so I could move here! I wasn’t, there really is something here. I hope this book will spark off a lot more conversations and stories and history about gay people in rural areas, and rural Wales in particular.

It’s important too to remember that this history is not just for the LGBTQ population. It is for everyone, just as it is for white people to engage with Black history, or men to engage with women’s history. Truly regressive forces are on the rise everywhere at the moment, and the way to fight this is through more understanding of others and more connecting with each other. Just in the last five years, it feels that queer history has moved out of its little ghetto and about time too!

Personal Note The characters in ‘On the Red Hill’, being real people, are diverse and complex. Although George’s sometimes predatory ways made me very uncomfortable, I enjoyed reading about Reg who was a softer soul with a love of the people and culture in Wales. This is an interesting read which is more relevant than ever and being in Rhiw Goch, for me, really brought the book alive. Mike talked about queer nature writing on BBC Radio Four’s Open Book on Thursday, 27 June and on iplayer.

Kaja Brown is a blogger-in-residence for NWR and an undergraduate at Aberystwyth University.

On the Red Hill was published by William Heinemann, part of the Penguin group, in June.


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