Thursday, February 5, 2009

Dafydd Jenkins' "A Nation on Trial: Penyberth 1936": Book Review

Does a moral law overrule that of the State? What happens if you reject violent protest, but you still fight back practically? Can military installations turn legitimate targets for anti-war activists? Symbolically, would a small act of damage to an RAF bombing school turn a nation away from craven submission or economic capitulation to its dominant, ruling neighbor?

These questions, posed by later radicals such as the Catonsville Five, have been debated for centuries by theologians, judges, citizens, and especially among members of an oppressed minority faction. Schoolteacher D. J. Williams, Baptist preacher Lewis Valentine, and university lecturer Saunders Lewis directed their rage, only after eloquent and learned appeals to the Crown. The English-- who previously had saved a similar site in England for the preservation of swans-- determined to go on. As usual, the Welsh had been ignored, patronized, or ridiculed.

The English, preparing for another world war, built a bombing range and training school on the Welsh-speaking bastion, pilgrimage-hallowed trails, and natural beauty spot of the Llŷn peninsula in Caernarfon, beyond Pwllheli. While some locals welcomed the jobs this project would bring during the Depression, most Welsh people who were polled opposed this intrusion into an ecologically fragile and linguistically sensitive region. I reckon this may have been one of the first instances in a Celtic country when these two causes were explicitly linked.

Jenkins wrote this account originally in 1937 (in Welsh "Tân yn Llŷn" or "The Fire at Lleyn") six months after the trial for arson of what came to be known as "the Three" at what must have been a very young age, for he offers sixty years later an updated forward to this 1998 edition. Williams, Valentine, and Lewis were tried first by a Welsh court in Caernarfon and then, under great publicity for the refusal of the men to testify in English but only in Welsh, as moved to the Old Bailey in London. As with perhaps in more tense circumstances the arrests and executions of the Irish rebels after the 1916 Rising met at first with disdain or indifference among many of their countrymen and women who soon would rally to the Cause-- many Welsh people appear to have back then regarded "the Three" as cranks or crooks. They failed to ignite a national rebellion. Yet, their stance inspired those who had relegated the tiny Nationalist party Plaid Cymru to the far margins; from 1936 on, the momentum steadily grew, if slowly, for a revival of the language and a maturity in what would control the direction of Welsh nationalism.

Their decision to not only do damage to the military base, however minor, but to turn themselves in immediately so as to demand their right to be heard by a jury of their linguistic peers in a Welsh court, so as to make their case known to a wide audience in an honest and principled fashion, certainly speaks highly for their daring P.R. ploy. Jenkins offers a carefully presented depiction of the background, the arson, the two trials, and the stirring testimony of Valentine and Lewis.

The minister proclaimed his allegiance: "It was my responsibility for the Kingdom of God in Wales which led me to strike a blow for Wales in this act, since there is a higher law than the law of the English state-- our allegiance to Christianity is higher--"(at this point the judge interrupts; 74) Valentine defends their destruction as a means to alert people to the threat that war, ammunition, and imperialism represent for a nation that never invaded another land, and for a people who asked to be left in peace, free from the carpet bombing and mass murder that would soon overcome Europe again.

Comparisons between "the Three" to Martin Luther King, Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama may or may not have been made before, but they'd be intriguing ones. Do you go limp before the fire hoses? The later president of Plaid, Gwynfor Evans, twice to my knowledge went on hunger strikes: do these offer a sensible offensive? How far can totally non-destructive protest go? Can there be, as some argued in Irish republicanism, legitimate economic targets that can be hit, with no risk for loss of life? Could this provide strategies for an alternative radicalism? Or, especially post 9/11, must we expect only "state-sponsored terrorism" to be met by state-sponsored aggression in an endless if sanctioned war on terror levied from us all?

For Lewis, his intellectual rationale overlaps with Valentine's Christian antinomianism, but this critic of Welsh literature tends to assert a subtly structured, yet boldly stated, rationale. He regards the arson as another lesson to prove his studies relevant, to assert a Welsh Wales. As president of Plaid Cymru, he had and has often been denigrated as a highbrow out of touch with popular instincts. Yet he roused a few (under Evans) who led the party into a resurgence. Their rearguard stance in retrospect may have saved much of what remnants remained of Cymraeg or Cymry Cymraeg from annihilation under cultural colonial carpet bombings.

I cite at length from Lewis' defense, for his statement deserves consideration in the wake of what has happened among many liberation movements and freedom fighters before-- and since.
"I have repeatedly and publicly declared that the Welsh nation must gain its political freedom without resort to violence or physical force. It is a point I wish to affirm today. And I submit to you that our action in burning the Penrhos aerodrome proves the sincerity of this affirmation. Had we wished to follow the methods of violence with which national minority movements are sometimes taunted, and into which they often are driven, nothing could have been easier than for us to ask some of the generous and spirited young men of the Welsh Nationalist Party to set fire to the aerodrome and get away undiscovered."

The strategy had been deployed to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the Union in 1536. The marches and petitions had not worked. The Welsh needed, Lewis and his colleagues reasoned, an event to rally around. He continues that "the Three" had "determined to prevent any such development" as a regression into mob rule or assaults by vigilantes and fires set under darkness. Instead, they vowed to take responsibility for their crime, and then in court to aver it was no crime at all.

"When all democratic and peaceful means of persuasion had failed to obtain even a hearing for our case against the bombing range, and when we saw clearly the whole future of Welsh tradition threatened as never before in history, we determined that even then we would invoke only the process of law, and that a jury from the Welsh people should pronounce on the right and wrong of our behaviour." (77)

This savvy ploy earned them a degree of attention, if less than might have been expected. John Davies in his forward examines the mixed legacy of Penyberth's burning, for it meant Plaid members expected their leaders to suffer trials and incarceration on behalf of those at large, afforded "delightful political thrills." (xi) Ann Corkett's translator's note cautions that the tactical side of Lewis may have been obscured by his rhetorical stand. Yet, as she agrees, our knowledge in hindsight of what Jenkins may not have known in 1937 regarding legal countermoves by the defence does not diminish the real risk "the Three" took. The maximum sentence of penal servitude for life may not likely have been employed, but it remained an option for this trio of mild, kindly, and sensitive men who faced the possibility of prison.

This book originally appeared while they still served their terms. A brief appendix sums up the main players, an afterword recaps the reasons why Penyberth had been so highly regarded by lovers of Welsh culture, and a bibliography in both languages steers readers further along a fascinating episode in Welsh history, as well as a precursor for other such principled reactions to power and war later last century. One wonders if a Tibetan, Cuban, Palestinian, or Chinese reader might learn about Penyberth today, in some half-forgotten library. While not an easy book to procure even in its reprinted editions, it remains a thoughtful and valuable account of how ordinary folks can stand up to tyranny, however benignly or inevitably masked.

(Posted today to the half-forgotten listings of Amazon in US & Britain.)

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