Reviews and Views

On The Red Hill by Mike Parker

This is a book that sticks with you long after you have turned the last page. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself thinking about the characters, seasons, and compass directions to which are similar. North, by the way.

Described as a memoir of ‘love, acceptance, home and the redemptive power of nature’, On the Red Hill takes the reader on a lyrical journey through the twentieth century with four men of different characters and instincts as guides: Reg, George, Mike, and Preds.

The most striking feature of the book, for me, is the inclusion of a range of photographs which chart the lives of Reg and George in particular. Some them are utterly remarkable hinting at ways of being that are now, to all intents and purposes, lost to time. My favourite sequence can be found in SOUTH: a lone figure staring out the window; a row of figures at the beach; and set of postcards about to be dropped into the postbox. For readers of the academic literature on queer domesticity (mostly set in London, of course), these images will add a Welsh dimension, for those being introduced to that world for the first time in this book prepare to have your assumptions keenly challenged. About time too, I hear you say!

The literature on LGBT life in Wales has been going through a belated renaissance in recent years. Following Meic Stephens’s biography of the novelist and short story writer Rhys Davies, and Huw Osborne’s shorter study of the same figure, we have been treated to Queer Wales edited by the latter for the University of Wales Press; Norena Shopland’s Forbidden Lives; and my own A Little Gay History of Wales due out in October 2019. Mike Parker has added to that literature in his focus on the rural environment – a world easily missed out of an otherwise (seemingly) urban experience. With its rich observations, nature and human nature, and a good dollop of honest and reflection, On The Red Hill opens the door on the queer rural in such a way as to ensure it cannot now be forgotten as an essential part of Welsh LGBT life. Reg and George were victims of homophobia, to be sure, but they were also welcomed into the communities they lived – this may seem surprising to those who have become accustomed to the idea that only the metropolitan worlds of London and Manchester, or, perhaps, Cardiff, provide a comfortable environment, but it has always been thus.

In fact, in the course of my own research, I learned that the Gay Rural Aid and Information Network (GRAIN) was largely based in Wales – for a long time the organisation’s secretary lived in Colwyn Bay – and the Quarry Bookshop at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth sold various LGBT magazines and newspapers in the 1980s (a rare enough sight in Wales, in any case). Reg and George could hardly have settled in a better place for a rural adventure. But this is a book that is about more than being gay and living in the countryside, it is about growing up and accepting one’s self, and finding one’s own (to borrow the Welsh for a second) milltir sgwar. The rhythms and light associated with each of the seasons are, in essence, the same sort of thing. One finds resonance and harmony with the low winter sun, for instance, or the fresh winds that roll across the hillsides in the spring.

This is, of course, a book about Wales, and about what it means to live in a part of Wales that tends to be subject to neglect (ask someone from Swanley, say, to give you a Montgomeryshire accent, and they’ll still sound like they’re from Swansea); to the queues of summer tourists; and to the on-going clash between incomers (mostly, though not only, from England) escaping to the countryside, and those from the inside who are faced with the stark choice of remaining and eeking out a living in the few trades that exist, or leaving and not coming back (until pangs of country living pull them home, at least). Parker does not necessarily offer solutions, here, but he does show the possibilities of integration and of ensuring that moving into rural Wales does not mean overlaying it with the urban habits of elsewhere. Although a sensitive subject, Parker handles it with the right nuance and is able to convince his readers of the action to take – conscious, I imagine, that many will be incomers rather than insiders.

On The Red Hill has many potential audiences – a signal of its triumph as a work of nature writing, memoir, history, and travel – and it is to Parker’s credit that each of them is afforded the right degree of attention. Historians might well have wished to hear more from the diaries and letters of Reg and George – and they might well point out that it was the Social Democratic Federation rather than the Social Democratic Foundation (p.121 in the review copy) in which the Duchess of Warwick was involved in the early years of the twentieth century. But historians are like that! Students of twentieth century culture and literature will, I think, devour the hints at reading habits and the ways in which Reg and George ‘learned’ (as it were) to be queer; those passages of the book are endlessly fascinating. And I am certain that every reader will see a side of Wales they did not know about and which is only now giving up its secrets. This is a remarkable book and one that deserves its place on your bookshelf.

On The Red Hill by Mike Parker is published by William Heinemann and is priced at £16.99 (HB).