Radio fliers make for a memorable Thanksgiving

By on November 30, 2016

Cocalico Corner Donna ReedWhen you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, you pretty much don’t worry about what people think of you.

After all, your table, like mine, is probably pretty much filled with familiar faces.

Well, okay, there may be that aunt who’s never seen a half-full glass.

And, yeah, there might be that cousin who shows up year after year with half-baked jokes.

And, possibly, there’s someone whose “special dish” even makes the dog look for better digs.

But usually, the faces of Thanksgiving, our bizarre national holiday that falls so inconveniently on a Thursday, are those we know well and connect with for good or ill.

This year, out of the blue — skies, literally — our family holiday meal included two gentlemen from across the pond, BBC Radio journalists on assignment from London.

Presenter Mark Mardell and producer Lewis Vickers were in Berks County to explore how folks in my area were coping with the aftermath of our very historic and historically divisive presidential campaign.

A former colleague now with a Reading-based non-profit was contacted by Lewis who was in search of a family split with supporters of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Our extended family, with ages spanning from six to 91 and diverse professions, political philosophies, and experiences made us one of the journalists’ three stops in Berks.

And it was at the Wyomissing home of my sister and brother-in-law, minutes north of the Cocalico region, that we all sat down to feast, recording microphone at the ready.

A full table on Thanksgiving at the McCrae household included BBC producer Lewis Vickers (at head of table) and Mark Mardell (seated at right of table). Photo by Donna Reed.

A full table on Thanksgiving at the McCrae household included BBC producer Lewis Vickers (at head of table) and Mark Mardell (seated at right of table). Photo by Donna Reed.

I won’t go into a lot of detail about who said what about Trump and Clinton. Suffice it to say we were a pretty evenly divided group, some more passionate than others about their candidate. And, I can tell you with pride, there were absolutely no heated arguments around the dining room table.

And that, perhaps, was somewhat surprising for our visitors. Lewis explained why his BBC editor and his colleagues centered on conversations in Berks to be a part Mark’s popular Sunday afternoon news and world affairs programme (that’s how they spell it in the UK!), The World This Weekend.

“We knew we wanted to go to a Democrat state that traditionally voted Democrat, but voted for Trump this year, so that meant Michigan, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania,” said Vickers. “Once we decided on PA (mainly because it’s easy to get a direct flight from Philadelphia from London) we did some research into areas that were a good representation of middle, real America and we came across Berks County through this blog —”

Berks which, like Lancaster, borders the Philadelphia suburban swing counties but it is pretty much an even mix of Democrats and Republicans. Cocalico and Lancaster in general are overwhelmingly Republican.

Lewis, in his late 20s, is just slightly older than our son Harry. Based in London, he’s been producing and working on BBC Radio news and current affairs programs for the past two years, but has been in broadcasting for some time prior.

Mark, at age 59, has had a lifetime of experience in radio, most with the BBC. He was such a comfortable conversationalist and down-to-earth guy that I never realized just how important a player he was in the BBC organization until I asked him (following our dinner) to send me some background for this column.

“I was BBC News’ North America editor – i.e. main correspondent for TV and radio,” he said. “I was based in DC but reported from every state except for Hawaii, Alaska, New Mexico, South Dakota and Utah. I still hope to get around to these!

“Before that I was the Europe editor — and reported from all 28 EU countries and beyond. Before this I was BBC chief correspondent at Westminster covering British politics and political editor of Newsnight, our main daily current affairs programme.

“Since presenting TW2 as we call it, I have presented the show live from Paris after the two attacks, Beirut during the refugee crisis, Bulgaria as NATO launched a big exercise, and Greece several times during their election and referendum during the Euro crisis.”

Whew — wow — and I thought he was just a regular guy in a flannel shirt who was effusively enjoying his first taste of Cope’s Dried Corn. He also fancied the turkey gravy (“the best I’ve ever had — really full bodied and tasty”) and the candied sweet potatoes that were Lewis’ favorite pick.

But, as it is with most strangers, it quickly becomes clear that the degrees of separation are indeed just slivers. My husband and I, both lifelong journalists, were pumped to exchange stories with professionals in our field. Like Mark, I’d lived in and knew DC.

My sister, a retired teacher, noted a former student now living in the UK whose husband works in the BBC. My brother-in-law, whose cooking so impressed, shared thoughts about some favorite eateries in the UK familiar to our visitors.

Other conversational topics provided more common ground. Shared news sources, shared interests in topics of the day proved right at that dining room table that the world indeed is a small place and “global village” is more than just a metaphor.

Mark and Lewis traveled to the BBC Washington bureau to produce the segment for the Sunday show and then back home. As someone accustomed to lean editorial budgets, it was pretty mindblowing that the BBC flew them to America for what translated to 15 minutes or so of airtime gleaned from their combined visits.

Turning the tables, I sent them a follow-up email with some questions about their visit and their impressions about our area and our people.

“This (greater Reading) is the reality of the USA away from the biggest cities and the coast —and while a city it is part of the country/rural environment, I feel — still close to the land,” said Mark.

“The people, as ever, very friendly very welcoming, very open. As a journalist it is a delight being in America — you don’t have to prise opinions from people; they are willing to share their views — that says something for the vibrancy of the democracy.

“On the other hand, as I expected a really deep gulf — as much cultural as political — and Hillary supporters in deep shock and mourning much like ‘remain’ voters in the UK are Brexit. They are they ones who feel they have lost their country and that it could become a more old-fashioned, nastier place. “

But Mark drew some optimism from those he interviewed who voted for Clinton.

“On the other side some glee — but more ‘fingers crossed’ and ‘let’s hope he’ll be good’,” he said, adding, “I think (there was) general relief that, on the whole, the rhetoric of the campaign has been dialed down.”

Lewis also offered an upbeat take on things.

“My impression of Berks County was a positive one,” he said. “Everyone we met was welcoming and friendly, and willing to explain their feelings about the election.

“What I discovered was a community aware of the divisions this election exposed, which was willing or hoping to heal.”

Our family likes to think we added to Lewis’ and Mark’s good take on the community we call home. If you’re interested in hearing the programme, here’s the link: It will be available for another two weeks.




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