Living in America – how I became part of Wales’ brain-drain

The Stars and Stripes. Photo by crazyemt, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Huw Webber

My great-aunt owned an ancient pub and told stories of American life and much else. She had been born in an era when Wales was an industrial wreck, and had moved from place to place managing pubs and arranging the management of pubs, and generally excelling as what we might now call a sales person, of the first order.

The pub was an old pile, and a classified (architecturally important) building in Ynyswen, the interior and exterior of which had been used in Welsh language television programs to project a paradigm of the 1950s or 1960s. It was cavernous, ornate and grandiose. Almost a hotel. It smelled of wood, polish and leather – and booze.

Magdalene (Auntie Mag, as I knew her then) had poise, style and, now in my tricksy memory, a hint of Margaret (Thatcher) – a blonde with blue eyes, and a bird like frame. Her life took her to Rhodesia, Australia, Canada (Vancouver) and California (Los Angeles). And then she came back. I often visited her in my late teens and early twenties, imbibing tea and cake seated near the Aga, while her husband glowered in the background reading the Daily Mail.

At the zenith of her career she had become the EA of the President of the Carnation Corporation and had personally introduced the Ferrero Rocher chocolate to Los Angeles through clever marketing. And she knew a lot of folks from her time at (Hollywood’s) Neiman Marcus (which I now suspect was probably her gateway to the EA job). There was always an anecdote to tell.

Her politics, religious and family views were weird. And most of my family were a little wary of her. That was a good thing as far as I was concerned.

At that time in my life, I really, really wanted to get out of Wales. The politics, weather and society grated. And I did not fit in. Fortunately, I was good at exams and almost studious, and went up to University. And after I failed to find a job in England after graduating, I had to come back. My great-uncle (Hayden), always a bit red and drunk, suggested that I try to get to America, after all, I was educated and had qualities he felt would be useful in America. And so the seed was planted.

At five, I had been offered the chance to go with my beloved Mamgu (grandmother) to visit Mag, her sister. The prospect of the plane terrified (lack of trust was also the reason I didn’t learn to swim until the age of 11, when I was thrust into the deep end). Not even Disneyland could overcome that. I knew that I would visit, but it would take 17 years before I’d head to California itself. Road travel to America, I was advised, was impractical. And you couldn’t get a ferry from Russia to Alaska.

In 1992, my cousin, Elizabeth, still lived in Los Angeles. She would eventually repatriate her mother and father in their declining years, where I would see them again during the early part of my US career. I had been granted leave to visit for four weeks.

It was August, I was about to start at KPMG, an accountancy firm in Swansea, and I had a whole month to see LA. Elizabeth was kind and tolerant, and only forced me out of the house twice (to take trips to Las Vegas (by air) and to San Diego (by bus)) so she could get time for herself. I spent my days going to the beach in the morning, or visiting attractions, and talking in the evening. I wanted to stay forever.

I returned the following year and took a road trip, thinking hard that KPMG was not for me. That’s when I started to fall in love with the landscape, and real mountains. And deserts. And big sky.

Glamour

Auntie Mag had told me stories of Madoc, and of the fact that my grandfather’s father had been born in America. There was glamour in America, and the TV and movies I watched were full of America. It had the hottest places, the coldest, the biggest. It had variety. Colour. It had opportunity. Star Trek and Star Wars were born there. It had American women (have you seen Twin Peaks recently?). How could I join?

The opportunity was an American company, Oxford Analytica, that used its academic brand to sell hacked copy to American business for exorbitant fees. Rumour had it that the CIA kept the firm in business. It was run by a “plumber” – part of a covert White House Special Investigations Unit set up during Nixon’s time to plug damaging leaks!

I figured I would get to work with Americans, which was a gateway to working in America (through a process of friendship and networking which I shall not bother you with). Unlikely as that scenario seems, it worked. I ran away from accounting and embraced technology.

Now Wales does have something going for it: a great flag (originally from the Romans), a great anthem and lovely (if wet, dark, moody) countryside and seashores. And a great, sonorous language. There is the tradition of matriarchy and close family ties. And respect for education. And history, etc. etc.

Unambitious

But, in my time, Wales was (and perhaps still is) unambitious. And what was the best job I could land? A trainee accountant? I was trained to analyse, reason and govern (Oxford PPE) and so there was a distinct lack of opportunity, a mismatch. I wasn’t bright enough (or disciplined enough) to be an academic. I didn’t have a vocation of any kind. And I can’t do politics (inadequate people skills). But I could do technology.

Furthermore, Wales was backward. And essentially an extraction economy and, brutally, a colony. A backwater. With no will to better itself. And I disliked England with its prejudice (against accents/ class/ colour), its monarchy, its established church.

And London was a pit of the first order (old, too full, polluted). Things may have subsequently changed for the better (more self-rule), but the politics (Brexit, Labour dominance) is parochial, limited and stifling.

There may have been an unhappy relationship too (oh, Chantal), but that was proximate.

My family knew I was odd (I was the only non- fluent Welsh speaker in my family, for a start (thanks mom!) and I think she suspected I’d move out of Wales (if not so far as the USA).

Painful

My mother gave in and accepted. My father was encouraging. The politics were intricate. Some of the intricacies painful: saying goodbye to my grandfather (for the last time, it turned out); saying goodbye to my mother and aunt at the airport, and taking my place in the security line armed with my US Visa; being pressured to return at each visit. It was, after all, an adventure.

Now, having lived 20 years here, I still love America. The land, the ideas and the people. And my woman (of course). And my home.

There are things wrong: a generation that’s been trained to be intolerant and fixate on conspiracy theories (these folks are aging rapidly); an imbalance in the concentration of (inherited and/or speculative) wealth; the various idiocies of the GOP in general, the Democrats at certain times, and the Nameless Narcissist at all times. And uncorrected market failures (global warming, oligopoly) and ignorance. And vested interest (NRA – FU! Big Prison, etc). And all the bad things about the Deep South, and Texas in particular.

Dynamism

But there’s an optimism and dynamism that works, and an openness and kindness with many (most) of the people I work with or know through friends and family. There is a beauty in the diversity of the people (that makes for interesting mixes of ideas – diversity does make for stronger teams and better results) and a beauty in the ideals of the republic (liberty; light-touch government; freedom of speech, religion, assembly; no established religion; no inherited right to rule; equality before the law).

And I love, absolutely love, the diversity of the landscape, with its moods, colours, complexity and bigness.

There is a coda. It turns out my grandfather’s father was born in America. The Office’s own Scranton, PA is the host to his birth. This part of the family were supposedly descended from the Levis of Swansea, and became profitable merchants. But there is a mystery, based on genetic evidence. Lots of scandal in the Welsh PA community methinks.

My great-aunt did better when she returned to California, but eventually fell to dementia. When I flew in to visit, on a semi-regular basis in 1997-8, she still told wild tales. But if there is a lesson to be learned, once you have become – in some sense – native, you can never truly go home and be happy; best to stay in your new homeland.

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