Operation Julie by Lyn Ebenezer

Originally published in Welsh, in 2008, ‘Operation Julie’ by Lyn Ebenezer looks at what is arguably the most famous UK police drug operation in history. This English edition was published in 2010 and has the novel advantage of being the first book exclusively on Operation Julie not to be written by one of the policeman involved. However, as we shall see, this is still a collection of threads that are primarily woven together by the police operation itself.

In March 1977, after over a year of surveillance and intelligence gathering, the Operation Julie taskforce, which included officers from eleven different police forces, swooped on their targets. What they believed they’d found was a vast LSD manufacturing, packaging and distribution service, but which in fact turned out to be two, still large but different operations co-existing in Britain. Coupled with a furious media frenzy, which lavished praise on the officers and demonised the defendants, Operation Julie became something of a triumph for the police force within the public arena.

Lyn Ebenezer is an ideal position to write this revised (in so far as a more objective point-of-view is taken) overview of Operation Julie. Not only does he know the communities in Wales, in which Richard Kemp conducted his LSD manufacturing, but he was a journalist involved at the time. In concentrating on the Welsh half of Operation Julie, he builds a contrasting picture between the ideals of the London LSD circle and the Welsh, yet also between his own version of events and previously published stories. The Welsh locality becomes a character in itself in this retelling, and Ebenezer weaves the community into the tale with great care and good humour.

The two previous books dedicated to Operation Julie were both published a year after the arrests were first made. The authors and publishers of these books tell us a great deal about the processes behind the creation of what Guy Debord called ‘the society of the spectacle’ or, in this case, the spectacle of Operation Julie. The first, also titled Operation Julie, was written by one of the central police figures in the operation, Dick Lee and co-authored by Colin Pratt of the Daily Express. The second, titled Busted, was co-authored by Martyn Pritchard (an undercover policeman involved in the operation) and Ed Laxton (who worked for the Daily Mirror.) Busted was also published by Mirror Books. The popular appetite for sensationalist stories looped a grim, warped version of events back at themselves.

However, whilst one of the aims of this book is clearly to decentre the police angle by focusing on the Welsh community and thereby absolving the stark criminality  that had previously been thrust onto those arrested, the police angle is actually unavoidable. Largely because none of the principle, arrested characters have since told their stories. Also, perhaps, it’s unavoidable because although Richard Kemp and Henry Todd (who headed the London based ring, with Andrew Munro as his chemist) had worked together in the early seventies, they’d since parted company and were working alone. It was Operation Julie and the speculations of the officers involved that connected the events in 1976.

Right at the heart of Ebenezer’s version is a cultural debate over LSD. Whilst Ebenezer takes care not to be to moralistic as the narrator, he does beautifully demonstrate the tension that exists in the story between three very different outlooks on the drug. Firstly, and most obviously, the criminal reading that has been created by the state through law and policing practice, which imbues Operation Julie with the very groundwork of its existence. It was also unquestionably the position of the popular media. Secondly, the differing attitudes of Kemp and Todd themselves. The later was high-spending, lavish-living and portrayed in the book as a businessman with expensive tastes. The former, frugal, simple-living and believed, along with his partner Christine Bott, that they were providing a service to the consciousness of humanity. LSD was invested with a multitude of conflicting values.

Lyn Ebenezer’s Operation Julie is a well written and entertaining book, which goes a long way at redressing the balance of perspective that was so badly skewed through the media take on events, and the self-mythologising of the officers and police force. Yet, notwithstanding the past exaggerations, it remains a police story, which nowadays could easily be read as a cautionary tale of just how warped the criminalisation of LSD is. There remain many unanswered questions, which Ebenezer carefully outlines alongside some of the mythology that has since grown up; but whether these questions belong to the story of Operation Julie, or rather the story of two separate LSD chemists remains to be seen. You can buy a copy of this book here.

Via the House

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