LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Alike Yet Individual -
Richard Heath & William Heath
(formerly Michael Beardsmore) with their dogs, Spot and Boyzie
Date of photography: 6th June 2017
The tale of Richard and William’s long relationship is a fascinating one: sustained by love and sharing, both partners’ identities have remained strong yet they have intermingled into an exceptional mutuality. Two tall, strong, masculine-looking blokes walking down the street, dressed identically, will provoke a whole range of responses, especially now they have two ‘matching’ Border Collies running alongside them, adding to an effect that will excite fascination in some observers but perhaps evoke ridicule from others. Fortunately, Richard and William have broad shoulders. I suggest that some will see their relationship as ‘symbiotic’ at best while, less generously perhaps, others will discern a surrender of identity, or power. William counters this analysis very firmly: “I don’t see that either of us has surrendered any power, nor do we exercise power over each other. Through living and working together for such a long time, we have come to share a great deal; we understand each other’s needs and we know where the other is coming from. We often think alike, we have similar tastes, we live in harmony with each other, and now we choose to dress alike; to us it was a natural progression. Yes, we have lots in common but we are still two distinctly different individuals.”
Knowing Richard Heath and William Heath (formerly Michael Beardsmore) for over 30 years has been a great pleasure. Inevitably, over that time, we have all aged and matured, and have shared with one another some of the great storms and joys that life commonly brings. While we have never lived in one another’s pockets and nowadays, largely because they have made their home in France, we meet but occasionally, there is no doubt that we know one another quite well. When Richard and Michael both kindly agreed to take part in this project, I was genuinely pleased, though it did occur to me that conducting personal interviews with them might be a little awkward, given the past we share. I realised that I should have to do my utmost to maintain a proper outsider’s perspective and not permit my previous knowledge to influence my judgment. I was keen for them to tell me the story of the time, now over three decades, that they have spent together. Indeed, on the very day that this article was first edited, Richard and Michael were to be at home in France, with 80 guests, solemnising their marriage; in the best of their traditions, it was doubtless a lavish, joyful event, to be remembered by guests for many years to come. Yes, this will have been a fitting celebration of two lives spent together, at work and in leisure, for over 31 years.
I met them at the pied à terre they keep in South East London, on the very day that they had collected from their taylor the matching waistcoats and other accessories ordered for the forthcoming day of celebrations. Even the delightful Spot and Boyzie, their two Border Collies, have not been left out - they have matching neckerchiefs in blue. Richard and Michael decide to be photographed in these beautiful, identical waistcoats but to be informal otherwise. Adopting identical attire has now become the norm for them and, while this may puzzle some of their friends, it has become their accepted identity. The two ‘matching’ dogs complete the picture and the camera freezes all four of them in time, for posterity.
The impending wedding was also to bring about another change which might be a surprise to many: Michael had decided not only to adopt Richard’s surname, on their marriage, but also to exchange his own given name for Richard’s middle name. So, by the time this article is published, Michael Beardsmore will be Richard’s husband and will have given up his ‘maiden name’ to become officially known as ‘William Heath’. During this record of the interview, out of respect for Michael’s decision, my use of the name, ‘Michael’, is therefore finally superseded by my reference to ‘William’. The rationale for this significant change will soon become clear, but first, over to Richard …
Richard Heath is a man of impressive stature, immensely confident without ever being arrogant, and certainly at ease with himself. He has lived an unusual and interesting life and now, at the age of 65, he is planning to find more time for Michael and himself - for many years, they have both worked very, very hard.
I asked Richard to enlighten me about his early life and this he willingly does: “I was born in Leeds, into a professional, middle-class family with four children. We lived in a semi-detached house in the leafier suburbs and all four of us went to the local grammar school. My father was an insurance broker in the locality, and my mother, like most married women of her generation, was a housewife and mother. After school, I went on to a local college and trained as a quantity surveyor. At the age of 21, I moved to London for a year to work for a large firm, returning to Leeds to finish off my degree. At that time, work was still plentiful so, after graduating, I was able to work professionally for several civil engineering firms as well as for Bradford City Council. Housing was affordable then too, so I flew the family nest, set up in my own place, and started to explore life, especially life as a gay man.
I can’t say that Quantity Surveying was the vocation of my heart’s desire; my interests were always more in architecture, in the renovation and redevelopment of property, including the purchase, restoration and resale of houses. Well, I suppose you could say that that is exactly the type of work that I have spent most of my life doing, including running a successful business, together with Michael, over in France.”
I asked Richard when he had become aware, with respect to his sexuality, that he might be different from others around him. “As a fairly young teenager, I began to notice that I was sexually attracted to men, but not to women. Of course, I didn’t do anything about it and I was quite well aware that what I should be doing was dating women, not men. When I was 17, I followed the usual pattern and dated a girl for a period of time, but our completely platonic relationship eventually fizzled out. Only when I came down to London, at the age of 21, did I decide to accept who I was and I came out. My first sexual experience was on a packed Northern Line tube train when a man touched me up; it felt really good. Indeed, for several days after that initial experience, I made certain that I took the same train and, for sure, so did he.” Richard smiles and continues: “Of course, I was soon to discover what was still, in those days, the clandestine world of alternative clubs and pubs where gay men could meet and socialise. I am well aware that many people struggle and suffer greatly on discovering their homosexuality, but I have no hesitation in saying that I simply accepted myself for who I was; I was determined to live my life as a gay man. My parents were not illiberal but they were certainly conventional, so my gayness was never ever discussed; at the same time, it’s fair to say that they never attempted to prevent me from doing anything either. Just as it was for many families at that time, sex and sexuality were things one simply did not talk about.”
“Together with my then partner, David, I started my own business in Bradford, purchasing properties, renovating them, and selling them on. Once we both moved to London, where the opportunities were far greater, the business grew impressively. Gay life in London was flourishing too, after all those years of homophobia, persecution and oppression. Michael arrived in London to join the business in 1986; he was 21, with a spark that ignited the passion between us - it felt good to be alive. Then, like many other businesses, we were hit by the crash in property prices, discovering to our cost that the banks, which had been only too keen to fund small enterprises like ours, were now equally happy to foreclose on the mortgages we could no longer service, take possession of our properties, and get rich on assets which they would later sell at great profit. These were truly terrible months; we lost almost everything but Michael and I salvaged what we could and managed to move to France in 1992. We consolidated the assets we had left and started up in a new business there. And, after thirty-one successful years together, Michael and I have never been apart.” Richard concludes his interview with the glint of a tear in his eyes.
Michael was born in Pinxton, in Derbyshire, into what was very much a working-class family; unsurprisingly, his father was a coal miner, as most men in that area were. Coal had been extracted in the locality since 1800 and by the beginning of the 20th century, there were a number of deep coal mines operating in the area. Life was hard and dangerous, and miners had to be tough as steel, otherwise they perished. Young Michael was destined to undergo the same treatment as every other young man in his village; he was to be toughened up to face life the way it was - rough. Michael had an older sister and a younger brother, so he was the eldest son, the first man, and expectations of him were high - tradition had always given special status to the first-born son. If you were to see Michael now, on a building site, coordinating contractors and directing the workforce, you would see someone who radiates confidence, strength, masculinity and authority, but things were very different for the young Michael. “I had a horrible childhood, to be honest; I do not have many good memories of my childhood at all. I was always being picked on by my parents. Looking back now, I suspect that the reason for this treatment was simple; my parents realised that, from an early age, I was different from their two other children. I wasn't tough. My father tried to make me do boxing, karate and all that physical stuff and while I did it for him, I did it reluctantly.”
I asked Michael if he thought that he was different from the others and with a remarkable directness, he replied: “Milan, honestly, I looked at my family and thought to myself, ‘I do not belong here!’ I was not allowed to have friends either; my parents didn't allow me to get out very much, they sort of kept me close to them, to control me or ‘cocoon’ me in some sort of way. I noticed that my brother, who was younger, always received different treatment. I am now starting to understand why my parents felt that they had to control me, to try to turn me into what they thought of as a quintessentially masculine man rather than an effeminate one, one who might be seen as a poof.”
I asked Michael if he had any concept then of what a gay man was: “No, absolutely not! I knew that I was different. I didn't like girls but at that stage, to be honest, I didn't like boys either. Perhaps I was a late developer! My parents, especially my father, thought that I wasn’t masculine enough. He was a tough, coal face worker; he knew that to survive as a man in his world, you had to be tough. Having his first son a potential homosexual was probably his worst nightmare. When I became aware of being gay myself, then I was truly petrified. I feared that my folks would find out - ironically, it transpires that they had begun to fear that this might be the case many years earlier. They watched television on a Saturday and, in those days, there were quite a few effeminate male entertainers, like Larry Grayson, Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams, so that was the image of homosexuality that they always had in mind - ridiculous, effeminate men who weren’t proper men, they were just something to laugh at. I certainly didn't want to be like that. Even when Boy George first performed on TV, I didn’t want to be like him either. I felt horribly embarrassed because I thought that if you were gay, the only option was to be like one of these camp performers on the television, people I despised. Pinxton was a small place and, as far as I could see, I was probably the only gay in the village!”
Michael continued: “My father was an abusive man; to be fair, he was actually abusive to everybody, although at that time, I felt that he was just abusive towards me. He would come back from work, have a drink and then he would simply punch me. I was constantly being beaten for no reason at all. I don't remember ever being told by my parents that they loved me, not even by my mother; there was precious little show of affection in our house.”
“I went to the local comprehensive school but I didn't do very well there, and every time a school report arrived at home, I got beaten up. I would say I was about 15 years old when I realised that I was gay but I was also very much aware that this was something I shouldn't be. I even had a girlfriend, all the boys did, but ours was a purely platonic relationship, a sort of cover. I also began to realise that I fancied men. I did consider leaving home, escaping to somewhere else, but never having lived anywhere other than home, fear kept me there. I also suspected that if I ever did leave home, I would never be allowed to return. Once I had my driving licence, I used to travel to nearby Nottingham, where I would purchase a copy of Gay Times, read it in the carpark, cover to cover, dispose of it there and then, and then drive home - I wouldn’t have dared to take it home with me. But at least I learned from my fleeting readings of Gay Times, that I could be gay without being an effeminate homosexual. I had a number of local, after-school jobs and, for a period of time, I also worked as the local milkman, regularly meeting with virtually everyone in the village. It was therefore very important for me to keep my secret to myself and well away from all of them. I went to catering college, got my City and Guilds and then, at the age of 21, I answered an advert in one of the gay papers, subsequently arriving in London to join Richard and David’s thriving property enterprise. At last, I reconciled myself to being gay, but for years, I struggled with the thought that I might be an embarrassment to my family.”
“Some years later, when Richard and I lived in France, I did actually muster the courage to come out to my parents and they responded rather better than I expected. Somewhat to my surprise, they were both happy to come to France on holiday and all seemed well - we had an almost amicable relationship for around ten tears. I even got the impression that they had finally recognised and accepted my relationship with Richard. My sister accepted my gayness too but my brother never did. Then one year, during a heated exchange with my parents, no doubt over something trivial, I vented my true feelings about how I felt I had been treated as a child. Well, that did it and my relationship with my parents went into terminal decline. Before long, all contact was severed.”
“When my mother and, shortly afterwards, my father died from cancer, I was not even informed, nor was I invited to their funerals. My sister, who has never spoken to me since, then conspired with my brother to deprive me of my share of the family inheritance.” Somehow death seems to bring out the very worst in people and, sadly, the Beardsmore family behaved as many other families have done, they excluded Michael from his rightful place amongst their number. For many years, Michael’s peace of mind was perturbed by a baleful cocktail of anger, sadness and bitterness - while, in his early life, he had felt himself almost a stranger in his own family, once he was literally excluded from it, he found the feeling equally if not more painful.
Michael might no longer have a family, as such, but his bond with Richard has helped the two of them to overcome many adversities and brought to them happiness that is evident to anyone who knows them. Michael adds: “Richard is my lover, my work colleague, my partner, and my best friend; soon he will be my husband too. And Richard feels the same way about me; it is a relationship of equals.”
I mustered the courage to ask why the two of them had started to dress identically; had they forgotten the importance of individuality? This development in their relationship has fascinated some friends but has been viewed by others in not an entirely positive way, even perhaps being seen as strange. Michael responded almost instantly, struggling not to giggle: “Milan, BOGOF! It’s all to do with Buy One Get One Free offers. It was more or less my own idea and Richard went along with it. When I purchased something, let’s say a shirt, that I liked, I felt it would probably look good on Richard too. And do remember, when we work together, we are in work uniforms, which are almost identical anyway, so we were already half way there.”
Two tall, strong, masculine-looking blokes walking down the street, dressed identically, will provoke a whole range of responses. Now they also have two ‘matching’ Border Collies running alongside them, to add to an effect that will elicit fascination from some observers but perhaps even ridicule from others. Richard and Michael have broad shoulders, however, and perhaps even a touch of exhibitionism too - alter all, not being noticed can be distressing too. I suggest that some people might describe their relationship as symbiotic at best and perhaps, less generously, as some kind of surrender of identity, or power. Michael counters this analysis in a very firm voice: “I don't see that either of us has surrendered any power or has exercised power over the other. Through our having lived together and worked together for such a long time, we have shared a great deal; we each understand the other’s needs and know very well where the other is coming from. We often think alike, we have similar tastes, we live in harmony with each other, and now we dress alike; to us it was a natural progression. Yes, we do have lots in common but we are still two distinctly different individuals. We complement each other in life and in business too; we are also complementary in terms of our ideas, while we continue to take different approaches to the resolution of problems - that has helped us to come up with what are often innovative and unique solutions, especially when it comes to the imaginative renovation of our clients’ properties in France. We are well known for this by now - it’s almost become our professional signature.”
I next asked Michael why, at this stage in his life, he had decided to change his name completely, adopting Richard’s surname and replacing his own first name, Michael, with Richard’s middle name, William. Michael replies unhesitatingly: “Since my childhood, I have associated my surname, Beardsmore, with all my embarrassments, with all those things that I was ashamed of, and I was reminded often enough that I was seen as something less than a proper Beardsmore. Richard and I are about to get married; no-one raises an eyebrow if a woman decides to change her surname at that point and, while we don’t seek to draw an exact comparison, I intend to take the opportunity too, and change my surname to my partner's surname. The Heath family have always been kind to me and accepted me fully for who I am, while my own family rejected me absolutely, so you could say that at this time in my life, I am formally rejecting them. I can no longer feel any pride in being a Beardsmore. Changing my given name from Michael to William is for me a sort of exorcism, it’s drawing a line in the sand; it is also a way of honouring Richard, my partner, to whom I have devoted most of my adult life. Our relationship is the most important thing I have and this is the way I want to mark that. From 5th August 2017, I will formally become William Heath.”
From now on, I will refer to Michael as William. William continues: “My close friends are already starting to call me Willy, while others will need a bit more time to get fully used to it. All the formal documents are in the process of being changed too. It all takes time but I know for certain that what I am doing is the right thing.”
Richard nods and continues: “I fully respect William’s decision, which I think is both touching and flattering. William is not denying his past but, having been rejected by his own family, it might be said that he has taken the drastic step of drawing a dividing line between them and himself. I fully understand what he is doing and why.”
William concludes: “When my parents died, I was not even informed. I was denied the chance of being there when they were laid to rest and, to my mind, this just made my family’s rejection of me complete. I was excluded despite the fact that both of us, both Richard and me, have tried our best over these 31 years to help them whenever they needed our help. The most painful thing of all, the thing I can never forgive, is that no-one in my family ever hugged me and told me that they loved me for who and what I am.”
We sat in silence for a while. Perhaps more could have been said but doubtless enough had been said already. We all long to be recognised and to be loved for who and what we are, yet some people are desperately unlucky, they have to live with rejection for ever.
When this article goes live, Richard and William Heath will be husband and husband. You might say that nothing much will have changed between them - after all, they have shared each other’s lives for three decades - yet, certainly for William, everything will have changed. I hope we can all wish them many more years of happiness, togetherness and harmony, not forgetting the companionship of their faithful furry companions, Boyzie and Spot.
Text edited: 5th August 2017
Page modified: 17th March 2019