I always manage to do either Reading Ireland Month or Reading Wales Month each year, and it was the turn of Wales this time around! Dewithon is run by the lovely blogger Book Jotter and the project page for this year’s is here. I will admit now that I bought quite a worthy book on the pandemic in Wales, from an indie publisher, to read as well as this one, then when I had a look at it, it was less heart-warming tales of community and more blow-by-blow political history and figures. So I sent that to a Welsh friend who I knew would appreciate it, and concentrated on reading this one, recommended back last summer by my friend Liz.

Mike Parker – “On the Red Hill”

(28 July 2020)

Mike and his partner Peredur met an older couple, Reg and George, and immediately got on famously with them, becoming bonded and close, especially Peredur and Reg. Having witnessed Reg and George’s civil partnership in the small town of Machynlleth, as the two older men became frail, they ended up living in the cottage they’d moved into and run as a guest house a few decades earlier. This book is the story of that friendship, of the farmhouse and of the nature and town around them.

The book has an interesting structure: in four parts, after the prologue, in each we get an element, a season, a direction and a person. So it starts with chapters called Air, Spring, East and Reg and follows that pattern, the seasons mainly being about Mike and Peredur’s first and subsequent seasons in the cottage. It’s a structure that does work well, revisiting, weaving around, sometimes taking in more detail, sometimes skipping over.

The countryside theme is interesting, and apart from Derek Jarman I’m not sure I’ve read any LGBTQ narratives set firmly there. As he says early on,

If the countryside appears at all in gay histories, it is usually only as a place to escape from, and as swiftly as possible. For many of us, this is a pattern that never fitted … (p. 5)

Although from near Birmingham, Mike yearns to move to Wales and just does it – much like Reg and George did, from Bournemouth, and with warnings no doubt for both. He finds local farmer’s son Peredur, who has always loved the farmhouse from nearby, and is assumed easily into his family. For Reg and George, they lived for 18 years in an illegal relationship, going right through to legitimation in a civil partnership.

It’s a moving book: the younger men certainly absorb the older men’s possessions and soon cast off a friend who advises them to clear out the traces. They worry they’re indistinguishable “to some of the local ladies of a certain age, the ones who squeeze your thigh after a large gin and tell you how much they ‘love the gays'” (p. 113) but you can tell they love the continuity and settling in to the house.

It’s not all jolly ladies and farm families. There’s a strong strand through the book about power and sex, and the abuse of power to get sex, most notably in George, but also in Mike’s past and done to and by him. There’s also nature red in tooth and claw, and although no domestic pets are lost horribly, there are a few squeamy bits and one picture I’m glad is not in colour.

Iris Murdoch and John Bayley are mentioned late in the book, with mention of Martin Amis’ famous discussion of them losing a pork pie, consumed by the wreck of their kitchen, when talking about slightly shambolic houses. He also said, “They want rain, gloom, isolation, silence” (p. 335) which rings a bell with Mike, even though he seems to suffer SAD and be glad of the clear winter light.

There are loads of photographs through the book, old ones of Reg and George, newer and arty ones, which really bring it to life. It’s in a nice decent-sized font, too. A lovely book soaked in Welsh and Wales, and a great one to read for Dewithon.