Review: On the Red Hill – Where four lives fell into place

Background picture of Machynlleth by Reading Tom (CC BY 2.0)

Jon Gower

This is a rustic and compelling tale of two gay relationships and the way they intertwine.  When Mike Parker and his partner Peredur, know as Preds, befriended George and Reg – who happened to be the first civil partnership registered in Machynlleth – they were not to know that the old couple would eventually bequeath their home to them.

‘On the Red Hill’ tells of all four lives in Rhiw Goch, a vivid and truthful portrait gallery of the house’s inhibitants and the way they each loved the place in their own way.  It is life divided into fours – the four seasons, the cardinal compass points, the four elements and the four of them.

George, even in his eighties had enough stamina for long distance cycle rides and energetic seductions but remained aloof, disdainful even towards the area and its culture whereas Reg burned with eagerness to lean about it, to tap deep into its sense of sanctuary.  In this he was helped by Preds, the son of a local farm, who spoke the language and knew the land’s textures, not least as a gardening man. And then there is middle-aged grump Mike.

When the restless, map-addict Mike saw the ‘house from the children’s stories’ it was certainly not love at first sight.  As he puts it ‘We fall for places as giddily as we do people, harbouring a fantasy of locative love at first sight, of turning a corner and there in a shower of stars and peals of bells is the place we are destined to spend a soft-hued forever.’

But Rhiw-goch was a place weary with sad decrepitude, a draughty, rickety pile and full of George and Reg’s accumulations. Parker was also worried about being forced into intense and isolated co-dependence and his gadfly, outsider spirit not fitting in in a community of deep settled dpth.

Yet the new couple slowly changed the place, rescuing it with ‘gales of laughter, as friends, family and neighbours swept in with plants, cakes, cards and wine’ so that the old house ‘yawned and stretched, blinking in the brass-bright dawn, and opened its arms wide.’ The truth dawned slowly on him, though, that ‘in the love of both men and milieux, the slow burn is what is required.’

Sequels

So one of the new additions is a swimming pond for the heathenist Mike, set in a damp field blessed with springs.  His enthusiasm for dipping in river race and still pool is shared with fellow author Roger Deakin, and ‘On the Red Hill’ is full of Deakin-esque nature writing, where the metaphors come from unexpected places and have the same galvanising shock as jumping into a fast stream.

So, out in the fields, the tupped ewes are ‘tattooed like dockside hookers by the ink-pad around the ram’s neck’ while walking in moonlight ‘can be far too much of an ice-white adrenaline shot.’ The book is shot through with such vital nature writing, for it also an account of seamless seasonality, coupled with a shadowy dread of winter and its depressive effect on Mike.  Amid the ‘shrouded permadrizzle of the hills’ the author enters the autumn of his days.

It is a forensic and sometimes self-lacerating selfie. Parker tell us so much more about himself, from his falling into a paedophile ring at an early age, of sometimes stewing in acid self-pity through to his body dysmorphia, an inability to see his physical self as it really is.

This was a trait he shared with George, with its origins, Parker suggests, in ‘frosty childhoods where affection came only in the strangest of flavours, and on the strictest of rations.’ In many ways Mike and Preds are sequels to George and Reg’s story, absorbing their friends and neighbours just as they’d inherited their furniture.

Map

One of the most intriguing signs that Preds and Mike were destined to live at Rhiw-goch is the chiselled three-pronged bench-mark of the Ordnance Survey, chiselled into the wall of an old granary building. The thoroughly map-addicted Parker first came to Wales to chart the country for the ‘Rough Guide’ series and has subsequently mapped out the difficult relationship between the country and its eastern neighbour and written one of the finest books in the series of Welsh psycho-geographies with his ‘Real Powys.’

He has been peregrinating around the country ever since, alert to telling facts  such as Wales being so often used as a measure of things disappearing, areas of rainforest and so on, that is has become a unit of loss.  Thus in this latest book we connect with Murray the Hump, Al Capone’s right hand man who had his roots in the area, and learn so much about weather that Parker admits he lives in its infinitely prolific metaphor.

This is a multi-layered, laceratingly honest and deeply revealing book about landscape, love of place and most of all about love with all its complexities.  It tells us about the relatively new freedoms and old repressions of gay lives in Wales, from large scale arrests such as those in Abergavenny in 1942, when many men were sent for prison for a decade to the fact that many gay men such as writer Rhys Davies, actor Emlyn Williams and impresario Ivor Novello simply had to leave Wales to be themselves.

Luckily Mike Parker chose to stay here, and write here and try to fully understand the place. In writing ‘On the Red Hill’ he may just have written his finest book. It is a complicated, form of declaration that he has found both the man and milieu that he so fervently desired.

And on the red hill he has found the best possible subject with which to marshall his writer’s gifts and inquisitive energy.  Here he has mapped out a small patch of land, parcelled it and made a gift of it to the reader.

On the Red Hill by Mike Parker is published by William Heinemann and costs £16.99. You can buy it here.

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