On the Red Hill: Where Four Lives Fell Into Place
By Mike Parker
As a sub-genre, or micro-genre, what we might call ‘queer rural’ is rather on the small side, because writers, more often than not, tend to locate their queer narratives – as queers mostly live their lives – in cities. For many LGBTQ people brought up outside of cities, the countryside can be a hostile and lonely place to be abandoned as soon as the baby rural queer comes of age. The journey of the young queer is often seen as from the rural to the city, and not the reverse. Yet there are queer narratives that reverse the trajectory, the city-dwelling queer escaping the heady predatory rush of the queer city for the silence and solitude of the rural.
Think Maurice, or Jarman’s books documenting his life in Prospect Cottage, Dungeness. Mike Parker’s On The Red Hill is a valuable addition to the genre, a treasure trove that is part memoir, part queer history, part meditation on nature and the seasons, and part a paean to Wales, where Parker has made his home with his Welsh partner, Preds.
Originally from Kidderminster, Parker settled in Wales in 2000, and even stood for parliament in Ceredigion as the Plaid Cymru candidate, although he didn’t win. The other two lives mentioned in the subtitle are an older gay couple, Reg and George, who ran a guest house, Rhiw Goch, or ‘Red Hill’, whom Parker and Preds befriend in their twilight years, and who bequeath the house to them when they die.
They also inherit the contents – including diaries and travel journals and photographs that document Reg and George’s life together and for me these are the most powerful sections of the book, as Parker offers a fascinating account of queer history through the microcosm of these two men’s lives.
For the first 18 years of their relationship, homosexuality was still illegal, and in 2006 they were able to marry, so they are a generation who saw enormous changes in the status and social standing of gay men in the UK. Reg and George moved to rural Wales in 1972, and until their deaths in 2011 they lived a full if quiet life and were on the whole accepted by their chosen community. Parker really brings the two men to life, especially their travels across Europe in the 1950s and 60s.
The book begins with the E M Forster quote about the greenwood and Edward Carpenter gets more than a passing mention in relation to historical precedents of the queer rural
Some of the lengthy descriptions of flora and fauna became a bit too much for this city boy but Parker’s prose is always vivid and at times lyrical. You can feel at times that you are there. There’s some exceptional nature writing in these pages, especially in the passages charting the changes of the seasons, where his eye for detail and his skill at description are in full effect.
Parker presents the story of Reg and George as pioneers of the life he himself has sought for himself and found with his partner. He writes modestly,
“Had someone asked me to imagine my improbable dream, I would have hesitantly talked of Wales, of an old stone house, of night skies, and open fires, of a man I loved and who loved me back, of a dog and walks and swims in cool green waters … ”
How many of us can say we had a dream come true? This is an engaging and intelligent book that really makes its subject matter come to life and was a joy to read.
Mike Parker is a writer and broadcaster. His books to date include Map Addict and the Rough Guide to Wales. He writes for publications including the Guardian and the Sunday Times, and presents on radio and television.
Published by William Heineman
Review by Jonathan Kemp
Queerguru London Contributing Editor Jonathan Kemp writes fiction and non-fiction and teaches creative writing at Middlesex University. He is the author of two novels – London Triptych (2010), which won the 2011 Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, and Ghosting (2015) – and the short-story collection Twentysix. (2011, all published by Myriad Editions). Non-fiction works include The Penetrated Male (2012) and Homotopia?: Gay Identity, Sameness and the Politics of Desire (2015, both Punctum Books).