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Why we could all be a bit more Mary and Baden Powell

This column first appeared in the Western Mail in September 2020

Vox Pops. Latin for “voice of the people”, favoured format of TV newsmakers everywhere and enough to make me want to smoke crack.

Lynne from Merthyr sound biting her face off, spliced with a clip of Keith explaining his half-baked but firmly-held convictions about (insert topic of the day), is not news. It’s just noise.

I don’t watch the news to see people like ME. I watch it to find out what’s happening in the world from people who know their geopolitical, economic or, more recently, medical onions. Give me facts! Science! Experts! And some easy-to-understand graphics in primary colours!

Don’t give me Alan on Queen Street with a microphone shoved in his face and his freshly-minted opinions, for the love of John Logie Baird. Have we learned nothing from Brexit, and America 2016 and Boaty McBoatface? NOTHING?

I write as someone that spent an early newspaper career pointing dictaphones (look it up, kids) at the good people of Gwent to get their hot takes on, say, water rates going up or bin day changing. Vox pops are as much fun to conduct as they are to watch or read.

But last week, I caught a TV interview with a member of the General Public ™ that made my heart sing. It summed up what I love most about being Welsh. It showcased the magical essence of Welsh nans. And it reminded me of the eternal power of people to surprise you.

The late-night news bulletin was reporting an illegal rave held over August Bank Holiday in the Neath village of Banwen. Over 3,000 revellers descended to dance on a mountainside, in contravention of the Coronavirus rulebook. The vox pops told us people were COWING FUMING about this illegal gathering on their doorstep.

But then, they cut to a pair of elderly residents called Mary and Baden Powell. Her in regulation nan uniform (perm and tabard), both stood by the mountain so defiled by all this hard raving. There’s only one way this interview is going, I thought. And that is “DOWN WITH THIS SORT OF THING”.

And then the clip took me by complete surprise.

Mary said:

“We didn’t know until I got up in the morning and I looked out, and I thought where the heck have all these cars come from, inneh?  But my son came up then, and I said ‘What’s all these cars?’ and he said ‘Oh there’s a rave up the mountain’. They came in the middle of the night you know, all the cars and things.”.

She delivers this with a semi-amused smirk suggesting she was unperturbed by this episode of prohibited mountainside hugging and gurning.

Baden then interrupts, while she gazes at him adoringly.

“There were only two drunks I seen, and they were sensible….a little red car pulled up with two boys..”

Mary jumps back in: “Yes and they were tidy…I made them a cup of tea and filled their water bottles for them, no problem”.

This lovely couple gave the Welsh viewing public a very different perspective. They told us that the ravers were polite, TIDY even (the highest compliment you can pay a person this side of the Severn bridge). So, Mary did what all good Welsh nans would – she made them a cup of tea and sent them on their way adequately hydrated.

Reader, my heart nearly burst. Not because I advocate illegal raves. That sort of caper is far from ideal in the middle of a massive ongoing pandemic.  

But because it said something about the real meaning of the word “croeso” (and it isn’t the stock imagery we sell to tourists on billboards). Despite the fact these revellers were breaking the law, clogging up narrow roads and pumping loud techno on their doorstep, Mary and Baden took the two individuals they met at face value and showed them kindness.

You just KNOW they remember what it means to be young, and reckless. In the Powells’ generosity – and acceptance of the “other” – I saw a glimpse of something beautiful about what human beings can be.

So I did what anyone with access to a smartphone that has craved human interaction hard over lockdown would do. I recorded the clip and (copyright lawyers look away now) uploaded it to twitter calling it – with typical subtlety – the most Welsh vox pop in the history of vox pops. And then I went to bed.

When I checked my phone the next morning that tweet had gone – an offensive enough word at the best of times, but especially NOW, so apologies – viral. Over a third of a million people had seen it. And thousands had shared it with sentiments best summarised as THIS IS WHAT WALES IS AND I AM PROUD OF BEING WELSH.

I think that clip captured imaginations because that’s the Wales where we WANT to believe we live. A place where the generations aren’t always blaming each other for all of society’s ills. Where people can put aside – or even value – their differences and learn from each other. A cuppa-making utopia where basic human decency wins every time.

Alternatively, maybe it was shared so widely because my lovely liberal Twitter bubble is populated by many ex-ravers and plenty of the Welsh diaspora on perpetual hiraeth comedowns.

Either way, it was good to see so much positive response to the Powells’ act of kindness.

So I dedicate this column to my misanthropic friend Matthew, who always says “I want the news, not Geoff from Haverfordwest’s take on geopolitics”. He’s right. Vox pops are the worst.

But I also dedicate it to Mary and Baden Powell, for reminding us of the power of tolerance and an open mind. If we could all be a bit more Mary and Baden, I can’t help thinking the world would be a better place.

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