Dear Readers, I can’t remember ever reading a book in the genre of nature writing that begins with a civil ceremony, but then ‘On the Red Hill’ is not an ordinary ‘nature’ book. Mike Parker manages to interweave two stories; that of Reg and George, a gay couple who owned the house on the red hill, Rhiw Goch, and that of the author and his partner, Preds, who inherit it. Underlying the book is a history of the lives of gay men, and of this part of Wales. There is also a meditation on what Welshness means, and on the tug between urban and rural life.
The stories of Reg, the homemaker and socialite, and George, who longs for the perfect body and who controls the purse-strings, are fascinating. They become civil partners after six decades together, when Reg is 79 and George is 89. They have been through the whole gamut of social attitudes: for the first eighteen years of their relationship, it was illegal. And yet they have run a series of guest houses, and seem to have had a mostly happy life. Towards the end of their lives, George develops dementia, and goes into a nursing home, while Reg contends with the aftereffects of a series of strokes. It’s thought that George is beyond recognising Reg, but then:
‘Near to the end, when Reg was once taken to the local rehab hospital, George – already there- saw him across the foyer and burst out. ‘There’s Reg! I love Reg!’ Even the nursing staff, inured to daily doses of heartbreak, looked momentarily teary.’
So at the heart of this book is at least one love story. But the relationship between the author and rural Wales is much less straightforward. He baulks against the quietness of Rhiw Goch, bursting out into the night and railing against this new identity;
‘The night punches me in the innards…I see nothing but a black wall and no escape’.
His partner, Peredur, is Welsh born and raised, and takes to the making of a home and garden with ease. He is a man so comfortable in his skin that he never had to ‘come out’ officially to his family – being a child who wanted a peacock for his ninth birthday seems to have been indication enough. But the author has suffered from body dysmorphia and a deep sense of shame. He normally pushes away anyone who likes him too much, but here he is, with a man who adores him. Will it work out?
‘…he silenced my frets with a kiss, whispered, ‘I promise you, I am going to build us the most beautiful home ever‘, and kissed me again. The thaw was instant, total.’
The author makes a swimming hole so that he can luxuriate in the water. He walks for miles. They have community parties in the house and the barn, bringing together friends and family and neighbours. But underlying everything is a sense of melancholy that’s difficult to shake. I wonder whether the author will be able to settle, or whether his restlessness will drive him on. It isn’t clear to me at the end of the book, and I don’t think it’s necessarily clear to the author either. But this is true to life, after all; we never know where fate will take us, or what will happen next. It’s difficult to know how we’re going to feel tomorrow, let alone in a year’s time.
What is unique about this book, at least in my experience, is that it sets out the story of gay men in a rural setting – everything else I’ve read has been about city life. I always expect the countryside to be more conservative, less tolerant of difference. But this is a stereotype; the author and his partner are touched to learn that their ‘next door’ neighbour, who is about to sell her house, quizzes all potential buyers on whether they are homophobic, much to the chagrin of her children who think that she should just get on with selling the place. Reg and George, and the author and his partner, seem to have just been absorbed into the life of the area, and accepted as they are. There is a phrase in Welsh ‘yr hen lanc’, which literally means ‘the old lad’, ‘the confirmed bachelor’, and there were and are many such men in rural areas, living with a special friend or a ‘brother’, looking after their mothers, running the shops, working away on the farms. And such women too, living quiet lives with their ‘friends’, often organising everything that matters in their villages.
And where, you might be asking, is the ‘nature’ part of this book? Well, as in so many of the other books I’ve read, I’d have to say that it takes a back seat to the human dramas that are going on, though it does provide a stunning backdrop, and the descriptions of the area through the different seasons are beautifully conveyed. Inasmuch as you can sum up what nature writing is these days, it seems to be almost anything that creates a sense of ‘place’, and of the author’s relationship to it, and this book certainly does that. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I loved the new perspective that it gave me. Reading the Wainwright Prize shortlist has been a real delight, and I can’t wait to see who wins on 8th September (bad timing on my part with two books left to review, but still).
And, for those of you interested in some advice on nature writing, I loved this piece by Helen MacDonald, of ‘H is for Hawk’ fame (her new book of essays, ‘Vesper Flights’ is just out). Let me know what you think, lovely readers.