Mike Parker and his partner, Peredur, are overwhelmed when they discover that their elderly friends, George and Reg, have bequeathed their beautiful house in mid- Wales, Rhiw Goch, to them. They had in fact been caring for their friends during their long, sad illnesses, had got to know and love Rhiw Goch, and hoped to buy it when George and Reg died. The generous gift of the house meant that they were able financially to make the changes to the house they wanted- but it also had the symbolic force of further strengthening the bond of friendship they felt for Reg and George. This book is a moving tribute to their friendship, but also, with Rhiw Goch at its centre, a history of the house, of rural mid Wales, and of gay relationships in Wales and England. The book is wide ranging and multi faceted: the initial draw for me, when I first came across it in the Cletwr community shop, was the aspect of memoir,immediately apparent in the striking black and white photos of the handsome couple, Reg and George. But then, as a newcomer to rural life myself,I became entranced by Mike Parker’s wonderfully detailed nature writing and his knowledge about the history, mythology and landscape of Wales spoke to my own search for my Welsh roots.
Reg and George had lived at Rhiw Goch from the mid 70s: it was their third house in rural Wales, and like the others, they’d been running it as a guest house. When Mike and Peredur took it over it was stuffed with books, diaries, letters and photos from which Mike was able to reconstruct their earlier lives. They’d met in London but their relationship really took off post second World War in Bournemouth, where George ran a photographic studio and Reg worked in a gentlemen’s outfitters. The author describes the post war period as being relatively liberal for gay men- it was the return of a Tory government in 1951 when they really cracked down – and this was a halcyon period for George and Reg, enjoying outings to the beach, picnics in the country with friends and, later, trips to the Continent, much of this recorded in photos showing a radiant couple pulsing with sunshine and lust. It was a legacy from Reg’s father, and George’s desire for a change, which brought them to Wales in the early 70s and to a new career. It was Reg’s role to clean and cook in the guest house- and the comments from guests indicate he excelled at this-but he was also a gifted gardener. George meanwhile ran the business side of things. Always fascinated by the body beautiful, he also rediscovered his love of cycling and proudly sported his trim and tanned physique on the hills of Wales well into his eighties.
The author tells their stories with sensitivity and a light touch: he is honest at admitting some discomfort in George’s predilection for the beautiful young men who modelled for him and often became his lovers- was there some manipulation involved here? While it’s clear that George was the more dominant partner, he also questions whether George held Reg back and actively discouraged his other friendships: several people notice Reg’s increased cheerfulness and confidence in his last few years when George is in a home and Reg can run his own life. Reg he describes as acutely sensitive, always aware of his difference, not just in his sexuality, but also in his Polish- German ancestry, in his stammer and his dyslexia. While he struggled to express himself in writing, he was a talented artist and often drew cards and pictures for others- a talent which was not encouraged by George. Reg embodies the element of air- it is playful, flirtatious, quick and light. It is in the east, the dawn and the morning; in spring and youth. In all of these, it is Reg, that high-flying kite of a man bringing joy and colour to the skies.
The association of Reg with the element of air in fact forms part of the book’s structure: divided into four quarters, and starting with the new beginnings of spring, each section is based on a season, a compass bearing, an element and one of the four men. So there is a real cyclical feeling to the book which takes hold of you as you read on, the cycle of the seasons being replicated in the cycle of life, the death of Reg and George at the beginning giving way to the new life breathed in to Rhiw Goch. It also allows for Mike Parker’s beautiful observation of nature to be tied in to the seasons: so we have in spring the soon-to-bud blackthorn blossom, tight little snowballs in a crown of black spikes…. the inflorescent buds of the hazels, miniscule flamenco skirts in a shameless pink. And his appreciation of winter: I like its clear sightlines and uncluttered horizons, even its muted palette. When the prevailing complexion is grey, and for months on end, the eye soon learns to focus and feast on the tiniest nuance: the tinctures of purple, pink or gold that briefly smudge the damp sky at either end of the day; the distant fields and hilltops that blush suddenly with sunshine and go out.
The cyclical structure is one expression of the sense of time passing which runs through the book. From the beginning we are made aware of Wales’ ancient prehistory which provides a kind of deep bedrock to the landscape and the Welsh consciousness. Opposite Rhiw Goch, on the other side of the valley, stands the seven foot stone, Carreg Noddfa, the Stone of Sanctuary. This stone, together with two others, provides a triangle of territory which acted as a place of safety and sanctuary from persecution in the pre- Norman era and in later times. The author often comes back to the idea of noddfa in the book, and this is just one example of his interweaving of history and landscape. I also liked his narrative of Rhiw Goch’s own history, relating the changing ownership and change of use, essentially the selling off of the land and the changing fortunes of farming, as he beats the bounds of the property as it stood in the 1845 tithe map.
But the other history which is related here is more of a social history, namely that of the gay community in rural areas and here too, Mike Parker excels at conveying social change. Some of this is told through the experiences of the four main characters and he brings out well the different attitudes to their sexuality held by the two generations. He references the lives and experiences of other well known gay writers and thinkers: Edward Carpenter at Millthorpe near Sheffield, E. M. Forster whose only openly gay novel, Maurice, was published posthumously. The author also traces gay life and homophobia in Wales specifically, citing the lesbian couple known as the Ladies of Llangollen and, at the other end of the spectrum, the appalling case in Abergavenny in 1942 when 24 men were charged with criminal offences, some on trumped up evidence. 14 were sentenced with up to 10 years’ penal servitude, one defendant killed himself, two tried and failed, and one even had suicide added to his charge sheet. Since then and with legalisation in the 1967 Act, attitudes have thankfully changed: Mike Parker relates that though he received some horrible reactions to his candidature for Plaid Cymru in 2015, almost none were to do with his sexuality. And, like Francis Lee, director of God’ s Own Country, he is clear that there is no more homophobia in the countryside than anywhere else.
This is a deeply personal book: not only is the author one of the protagonists, but he is also searingly honest about some aspects of his own life. He writes about the miseries of his own upbringing- the bullying and the humiliation- but is also frank about having some initial misgivings about moving to Rhiw Goch and occasional feelings of dislocation/ loss of identity when thoughts of the busy city streets ambush him in the impenetrable dark of the rural night. Such thoughts will ambush me but they pass. I’ve found this immensely helpful. And I won’t be able to pass the ash tree on the lane near us again, standing proud against the horizon, without thinking of its gangly outline and Gothic pallor, its grey geometric bark and gentle-giant solidity. This is a wonderfully rich text, as varied and layered as the geological strata of Wales itself. It will speak to many readers.