Interview with Dr Wyn Thomas, historian and author of John Jenkins: The Reluctant Revolutionary?

John JenkinsDr Wyn Thomas is a history tutor at Swansea University. His book Hands Off Wales (Gomer, 2013), a superbly researched account and analysis of the militant campaigns carried out in the name of Welsh political nationalism between 1963 and 1969, has been called the definitive account of this period of militancy. He also wrote and presented BBC1’s Tryweryn: 50 years on.

Based on over a decade of interviews with John Barnard Jenkins, mastermind and leader in the 1960s of Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru, or MAC, John Jenkins: A Reluctant Revolutionary? is a sensational biography that is not just a study of one man, but an absorbing social history which analyses in depth the cultural background to and impact of MAC’s protest bombing campaign. The biography has been described by journalist and author Jon Gower on as a “morally challenging book to read, especially if one agrees with many of the sentiments expressed by John Jenkins about the historical injustices meted out to the Welsh.”

Here, Dr Wyn Thomas answers some questions regarding his love of history, the background of how he came to write the book and the importance of remaining balanced, impartial and fair as a historian:

1.    What first sparked a love of history in you?
History has held a fascination for me since very early childhood.  As with music, history has always touched me in a way which is almost spiritual in its intensity.  I appreciate that statement seems dramatic – indeed pretentious – but I have no other way of describing it.  Initially, I assumed others felt as I did.  But it soon became apparent through the attitude of friends, peers and contemporaries – some of whom certainly enjoy history – that this was not the case.

I’m not sure why I should feel so drawn to history.  A friend, who believes in regression, suggested a link to the past through my having experienced past lives.  Who am I to argue?  But she may have a point.  Because integral to my relationship with history was watching The World at War, which was screened on ITV on Sunday afternoons in the early 1970s.  Knowing I was aged only 6 and 7, I’m not altogether sure how, or why, my parents allowed me to watch The World at War as regularly as I recall doing so.  But I am very grateful that they did.  Because the impact on my developing intellect was significant to say the least. The World at War was so absorbing; and I looked forward to watching it.  Although, I have to assume that I was more attracted to the visual aspect of the production – and perhaps Laurence Olivier’s wonderful narration – than the intricacies of the epochal political picture.  Yet, I should add that it was the sights and sounds which really struck a chord with me: the wailing cry of the air raid siren; the savage destruction of the blitz; and indeed, the sad, poignant songs of the era.

Nonetheless, I was also at this point hearing historical stories in school – most notably, stories which concerned British history.  My interest was piqued further, when my parents bought a copy of The Heritage of Britain, in 1975.  I still dip into it.  The pictures and accounts of Britain’s historical journey – even if the principal story concerns England – bring back wonderful memories of my reading the book all those years ago.  But it was Mrs Jennie Davies, my Primary School teacher in Llandrindod, who first recognised and nurtured my love of history.  Those Friday afternoons, when Mrs Davies read accounts of both Welsh and British history, was the highlight of my tutored week.

2.    Which books or historians have most influenced your own writing?
I have to confess that I did not much enjoy school.  Or rather I did enjoy school, but for entirely the wrong reasons!  I cannot criticise for a moment my history teachers in Llandrindod High School.  Lord knows they tried hard to further my interest.  But it was at home, while reading in my own time and in my own way, that I truly developed an understanding of what I believed history was trying to say to me – and the lessons I could learn from it.  So too music.  Listening in my bedroom to ‘With God on Our Side’ by Bob Dylan, when aged 14, taught me far more than I ever learned in school about the misappropriation of history and the spiritual message for a political objective.  A quite incredible piece of song-writing – and Dylan was aged just 21 when he wrote it!  On hearing it today, it still makes me smile and close my eyes in wonderment.  A reaction often repeated on hearing many of the songs that I first listened to during those wonderful and formative adolescent years.

My girlfriend at the time, and now my wife, still reminds me cheerfully how I would encourage her to join me in ‘bunking off’ from school in order to listen to this song, or that song, or to discuss this, or that, historical point.  I may well have had ulterior motives, she was a pretty girl, but listening to brilliantly constructed music and/or discussing an historical event remains one of my deepest pleasures in life.

As for historians and their works: I have both enjoyed and been impressed by many history books, both before and since the publication in 1993 of Dr John Davies’s A History of Wales.  But it was Dr Davies’s seminal work which proved the first history book which really impacted upon me in adulthood.  I took a copy of A History of Wales, along with Jan Morris’s A Matter of Wales, when I went global back-packing in February 1997; and these two books, along with the BBC World Service, proved my constant companions and sources of entertainment for the next 12 months.  It was such an honour when Dr John later agreed to mark my PhD thesis.

3.    Tell us the background to how you first started interviewing John Jenkins 15 years ago…
I first met John Jenkins in Cardiff on St David’s Day in 2004.  Being unsure how John might react, I approached him rather tentatively and politely explained that I was a post-graduate student undertaking research into the flooding of Cwm Tryweryn and MAC’s militant campaign – which I was aware John had orchestrated.  Might it therefore be possible, I nervously enquired, if he could answer my few questions?  What struck me immediately was how gracious John was.  He answered all my questions – and others besides – and then invited me to his home near Wrexham to discuss further the matters under review.  This, I did, 3 weeks later.  Although I should admit to having felt rather over-awed by John, and I occasionally still do – despite our close connection – I must add that John and I seemed to ‘hit it off’ immediately.  Many years later, John disclosed that he had been somewhat impressed by a number of factors: my sincere, respectful and frank approach to the subject; my candid admission that my dad might have been killed by a MAC device; and my hope that my factual account of the MAC offensive would provide a warning – and a warning to both the politicians for the need to listen, and those who might feel inclined to relaunch a militant campaign in Wales. From my perspective, I cannot insist enough that without John’s disarming honesty, The Reluctant Revolutionary? would not have been written.  As a researcher/writer, it has therefore been an honour and a privilege to write such factual and engaging history.

John Jenkins and Dr Wyn Thomas at the launch of John Jenkins: The Reluctant Revolutionary? in Wrexham, Summer 2019


4.    Why do you think John Jenkins’ story needed to be told?
Up until my own research into John Jenkins and the MAC militant campaign I believed that the subject had not been afforded the correct degree of respect and consideration it deserved.   For instance, and for whatever reason, the MAC protest had not been subjected to any degree of proper academic scrutiny; while moreover, more ‘popular’ appraisals available for purchase seemed either to read like a Boys’ Own adventure, or the information contained sometimes conflicted with the information which John himself was providing me.  It left me perplexed, as I began to wonder if some writers had deliberately embellished the story?  I am not sure.  But it reaffirmed my belief that history in the wrong hands is either fiction, or simply propaganda.  It also reminded me why I don’t like misunderstandings, exaggeration, or liars – there is only one truth.

5.    What made you feel particularly qualified to tell it?
I suppose my answer is two-fold: being possessed of a genuine interest in learning from John Jenkins what really occurred during the MAC bombing campaign, and the fact that during this same period my father, as a young PC, was routinely tasked (especially during periods of heightened security threats) with patrolling the Welsh section of the pipeline from Cwm Elan to Birmingham in search of explosive devices.  It was my mother who informed me of this.  She did so in response to my jovial discovery that the pipeline, no more than 5 miles from the family home, had been targeted some twenty years before by Welsh militants.  She further explained how worried she had been: both for my father’s safety, and knowing that should he be seriously injured – or worse – she had 3 young sons to bring up.  It was a sobering moment – and as I came to terms with this disclosure, I decided that were I ever in a position to write history, I would endeavour to do so in a balanced, impartial and fair manner.

6.    Why do you think the story has been largely ignored by historians and the press?
Probably because the subject has been regarded as too contentious.  There are perhaps a number of reasons for this.  Has a degree of trepidation existed among academics, whereby any degree of analysis might appear to condone the MAC campaign?  Or indeed, have commentators been fearful that proper scrutiny might inflame a further militant protest?  Possibly.  But throughout the Welsh political and cultural mainstream, it is safe to assume that the militant protest of MAC – and others – has been dismissed (certainly openly) as ‘not the Welsh way’.  I can appreciate such viewpoints.  But as I pondered how I felt history should be written, I also came to believe that if history is ‘swept under the carpet’, it does not disappear.  But rather, it develops an alluring mysticism.  It is far better, therefore, to subject an historical episode, such as a militant campaign, to careful, nuanced and considered analysis.  And I truly believe that such an approach, as adopted when I wrote John Jenkins: The Reluctant Revolutionary?, has removed any degree of ‘glamour’ which might have surrounded the story.  I would encourage any young historian to follow a similar course of action.  Namely, to contact as many people who were involved, and who were affected, as possible, in order to ‘tell it as it is’.  Such an approach will ensure that the lessons of history are there for all to see – and to learn from.  Should they be willing or able to do so.

7.    How do you see the events that happened in Wales at the time in the wide context of Europe?
It is a good question.  Because it is important to remember that the MAC campaign occurred during a period when much of the western world witnessed sweeping social and cultural change, and political protest.  This was surely no mere coincidence, as people demanded that their voice be heard during a time when it was felt that many of the wrongs of the past needed to be addressed.

8.    Did you learn anything from John Jenkins?
I think one of the things that has always struck me about John is how true to himself he is.  John Jenkins is a highly intelligent man – and a person possessed of a fierce sense of fairness who believes strongly in the principle of personal loyalty.  I may not agree with all of John’s pronouncements.  Although I can recognise why he felt the need to do what he did, during a period when – in the eyes of many – Wales was being treated so unfairly.  But nonetheless, having proved yourself to John that you are trustworthy, genuine and sincere, he is gracious and unassuming and displays an honesty, intelligence and vulnerability which is as impressive as it is endearing.  And it is these qualities which radiated most with me during my often-intense discussions with John.

9.    What long-term effects do you think the MAC campaign had?
There are certainly those – and John Jenkins among them – who believe that the MAC campaign was an essential part of Wales’ slow and incremental devolution journey.  While I think it is important to remain cautious of such an evaluation, it is certainly a beguiling view point.  And that is because the MAC bombing campaign did unite, to some degree, those from different political and cultural backgrounds.  Rightly or wrongly, the MAC bombers were seen as ‘standing up for Wales’.  Might such a mind-set have led to an increased political awareness among the Welsh people as to their political situation, and therefore, over time, the belief that Wales required a legislative assembly in order to protect the nation’s cultural and political interests?

10. Do you see any similarities in the Welsh political situation then and now?
In one sense I do.  During these uncertain political times is the voice of Wales being ignored?  I am unsure.  But consider the controversy which surrounded the renaming of the second Severn crossing in 2018, when – against considerable online protest in Wales – the bridge was named the Prince of Wales Bridge.  Might this decision suggest that the voice of Wales is still being disregarded?  But whatever the truth, I strongly believe that the last thing Wales needs now is a militant campaign.  While moreover, unlike the 1960s, Wales today has an elected political assembly.  And so, if the people of Wales want independence – and all the economic factors for becoming an independent nation have been properly and positively addressed – then they can vote for it.

11. What are you working on now?
Along with my second CD of self-penned and performed songs, which I am currently recording with Danny Chang and hope to release for sale in early summer 2020, I am currently working on a manuscript which addresses the controversial flooding of Cwm Tryweryn.  I am led to understand that Tryweryn will be the definitive account of the Cwm Tryweryn story.  My only response to that appraisal is that I am certainly doing my best to write this history as well – and as fairly  – as I can.  It is hoped that Tryweryn will be released for sale in autumn 2020.

John Jenkins: The Reluctant Revolutionary? by Dr Wyn Thomas is available to buy now:

Hardback: £19.99 | Paperback: £12.99

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