Mal Pope 1st Sept
Out of the 56 people who signed the American Declaration of independence 16 could trace their roots back to Wales. 5 of the first 6 presidents were also “Welsh’,. That actually doesn’t include President Jefferson Davies of the Confederacy during the Civil War. John Adams, who took over the role of President from George Washington, traced his roots back to LLanboidy in Pembrokeshire. He was actually the first US President to live in The White House.
The Welsh in North America have been on my mind a lot this week as I am currently writing this week’s column from the ‘home of the free and the land of the brave’, Washington DC. The DC bit is really important if you’re booking anything before you board a plane for the states. There’s another Washington which is a complete State of its own somewhere out on the West Coast. Now that’s an expensive mistake if you are ordering a taxi from the airport to your hotel.
The reason I’m here is I’m a guest speaker at N.A.F.O.W. The North American Festival of Wales is held every year in a different city in the USA or Canada over Labor Day weekend, the only bank Holiday Canada shares with its big neighbour. The first festival was held in 1929 at Niagara Falls. Back then over 4000 gathered for a Cymanfa Ganu. Nearly 90 years later the Cymanfa Ganu is still at the heart of the weekend but these days they ask people from the ‘old country’ to come over and host seminars and concerts.
A number of us came over together on the same plane. It had the feeling of an old Sunday school outing or maybe a school trip to the Urdd Eiseddfod. Rarely, I suspect, has so much Welsh been spoken in the queue for Homeland Security in Dublin. Dublin has such an amazing relationship with the USA that it actually has US officials and guards offering Pre clearance to the States.
It was the oddest feeling walking downstairs in Dublin airport and literally walking onto American soil, together with Stars and Stripes and pictures of President Trump smiling down on us as we waited patiently in line. It wasn’t that quick but as anyone who regularly travels to the US knows getting passed Homeland security can take hours if your lucky. That’s just what you need after a long transatlantic fight. So it was fantastic to spend only 45 mins queuing up to explain the reason for our visit and that we wouldn’t be working or expecting to stay in the USA for any length of time.
When I say fantastic, it was for most of us. Huw, who I only met on the short flight to Dublin from Bristol was going to lead a couple of tours to places of special interest to the North American Welsh in areas surrounding Washington. It was only when we got to the other side of the ‘Wall’ that we found out he had been detained. It turned out he needed to answer 2 specific questions about working and getting paid which were fairly straight forward and only took 2 minutes to answer but, the 2 hours he spent in detention meant he missed our flight and had to travel alone via New York later in the day. In his real life Huw is a school teacher so I expect he’s used to detention!
On arrival the first people I met in reception were wearing red welsh dragon t shirts. Of course the first question from me was where are you from? One was from Kansas and the other New Jersey. It only took a couple for minutes to find out that their roots back to Wales were in a very dim and distant past but boy that didn’t stop them feeling the Hiraeth when I said I came from Swansea.
I didn’t have a lot of time to make new friends because while I’m out here I’m still presenting my early morning show for BBC Radio Wales. The BBC have a news bureau right in the heart of DC. Thanks to friends and colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic, studios and special ISDN lines had been booked. I had also spoken to the engineers in Washington to work out what gear I needed to bring myself.
By the time I arrived in the centre of DC I was starting to feel a little jaded. It had been almost a day since I had last slept properly and having left Swansea in a leather jacket because the first hint of autumn was definitely hitting the air the DC late night humid temperatures of the low 90s was taking its toll.
Now, despite the best laid plans I got to the BBC Bureau and fund the doors were locked, there was no one on reception and no one answered he door bell. After loitering around for 20 mins some French journalists let me in as they were leaving the building. This might be the headquarters for the BBC in Washington but they share the building with French and Russians broadcasters too.
After I’d unpacked all of the gear I had brought with me i then started re patching things on the BBC desk. All studios intrinsically look and work the same way except for the really small important bits that you need a pretty high krypton factor to work out. Thankfully Brajesh, a BBC journalist on the late shift was only too pleased to help out.
We call it ‘boy scouting’ in the trade. It’s where you do everything you can before hand to ‘be prepared’ and then you completely overpack your own gear in case what they told you wasn’t quite right. By 10.30pm I was pretty sure I had done everything I possibly could to ‘be prepared’. The lines weren’t booked until 11.30pm local Washington time and there wasn’t going to be anyone in Cardiff to test the system until 4.30am anyway so with an hour to kill I decided to grab a quick burger and go for a walk.
Full on French fries and a beef pattie the size of Gower I turned right out of the restaurant and just kept going. Washington is a very clean, smart city, full of grand buildings which all look as if the walls have all just been hoovered or repainted. The boulevards were strangely quiet at 11 pm except for the occasional police patrol car. As I walked down the street the police presence seemed to get more noticeable. It was only when I walked through a park and saw The White House that I realise why.
The Bureau was pretty busy when I got back. Apparently President Trump had been tweeting all night and The BBC together with the French and Russian Broadcasters were all rushing to get their reports back home.
Thankfully, after a bit of worrying I linked up with the studios in LLandaff and instead of starting the show with my usual ‘ A Very Good Morning’ I think I just said ‘Howdy! The show seemed to go relatively smoothly; having a strap line that describes the show as ‘an hour and a half of inane banter and general incompetence’ means that you can pretty much get away with anything and the early breakfast club members area very forgiving lot.
The opening ceremony and seminars for the N.A.F.O.W. seemed to go pretty well and I’ve made a lot of friends here from all across North America. They are a very dedicated lot these North American Welsh. They are very proud of their heritage no matter how tenuous the link may be. Maybe we should take a leaf out of the Irish book, if they can have US pre clearance in Dublin, why can’t we have it at Swansea airport at Fairwood. After all if its wasn’t for the Welsh and that Declaration of Independence America would still be a British colony!