John Sam Jones explores a story of gay life in Britain from the Second World War to civil partnerships through Mike Parker’s memoir of his neighbours lives in the Montgomeryshire hills.
In 1972, just five years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, George Walton and Reg Mickisch ‘upped sticks to the sticks’ and settled in a Welsh-speaking village in the Montgomeryshire hills, converting an old village pub into a B&B. George and Reg had already been a couple for almost a quarter of a century; for much of that time their relationship had, of course, been illegal – so they’d learned to be ‘discreet’, because openness would have meant arrest and imprisonment. Their first years in Wales were somewhat unsettled, but two moves later, in 1980, they moved into Rhiw Goch, an eighteenth-century farmhouse, where they lived for thirty-one years.
On the Red Hill is George and Reg’s story and, through their diaries, the story of a gay life in Britain from the Second World War to civil partnerships. It’s also the story of Rhiw Goch and its surrounding landscape, both cultural and topographical, through the seasons. It’s Mike Parker’s story too, a ‘gobby gay Brummie’ who moved to mid-Wales in 2000 and met his future husband Peredur (Preds) Tomos – a boy who never had to come out because he was never in, so comfy was he in ‘his choice of Ideal Home magazine over the Beano, and asking for a peacock for his ninth birthday.’ Mike, Preds, George and Reg became good friends, the younger couple the only witnesses at George and Reg’s civil partnership in 2006. It was Mike and Preds who inherited Rhiw Goch in 2011 after George and Reg died – just five weeks apart.
As a writer myself, I’m fully aware that it’s the reader – reading through a certain pair of eyes and from a certain cluster of circumstances – who ‘completes’ the work of any author. My eyes are those of a middle-aged gay man who grew up not far from Rhiw Goch – and who, at the age of eighteen in 1975, when George and Reg were running their first successful B&B near Machynlleth, was incarcerated in the old asylum in Denbigh, not fifty miles away, and treated with Electric Shock Aversion Therapy to ‘cure my deviant sexuality’. Homosexuality may have been decriminalised in 1967, but it was still considered sick. That George and Reg found a welcome and made a home in the same Wales that put eighteen-year-olds in psychiatric hospitals to erase their gayness was both surprising and heart-lifting.
My circumstances are that my husband and I now live in Germany – his home, because of our disillusion over Brexit, and because his ageing parents needed our support. So I’m a Cymro ar wasgar. Reading On the Red Hill, I fell in love again with Wales, which is significant given how disappointed and betrayed I felt when Wales voted to leave the European Union.
Mike Parker writes the Welsh countryside, its textures and colours over seasons and generations, with a vivid beauty that betrays his own love of his adopted home. The old farmhouse, Rhiw Goch, through Mike’s well-crafted prose, becomes a rounded character at the heart of these four men’s lives, and George and Reg smile and laugh and scowl through the decades of their long life together which unfold through Mike’s skilful re-telling of their diary jottings.
On the Red Hill is a richly layered feast of a book to be savoured – so don’t rush the read.