Ed Edwards

Ed Edwards

Ed Edwards is a playwright based in Manchester, has written extensively for TV and Radio and currently lectures in Theatre and Creative Writing at a small northern university.

The theatre, the working class and the need for revolution
Sunday, 18 November 2018 18:56

The theatre, the working class and the need for revolution

Published in Theatre

Ed Edwards is interviewed by Mike Quille about his career, his play The Political History of Smack and Crack, about the theatre generally these days, and about the need 'for a deep, uncompromising revolutionary movement based on the interests of the poorest and most marginalised people'.

MQ: Can you tell us a bit about your background, and how you came to be a writer?

EE: I went to see a play at random at the Arts Lab in Birmingham when I was getting into bands as a youth, and was blown away by this piece in the studio which was like nothing I’d ever seen before. These three actors in a bath being funny and telling a story and not at all like the sort of theatre you’d see in a normal theatre – not that I ever went to a normal theatre. But because the Arts Lab was opening its door to local bands I must have seen a poster or such. When I saw it, I thought: “I could do that”. I went straight to a second-hand shop, bought an old typewriter and a book on how to type. and started writing sketches.

Then I saw David Bowie talking on The Tube and he said there was a massive leap from making a 3 minute pop video to a film, and I thought I’d better try writing a play, so I did. About the same time – I must have been 24 by then – I went to “night school” as they called it back then, scraped an A level in sociology and got into Manchester Uni as a mature student where I fell in love with drama. The department there encouraged students to do their own thing and we all did.

I didn’t realise at the time I was surrounded by public school kids who would go on to run the theatre and TV industries. It was only years later I began to realise the effect that sort of education has on you long-term. As they were all forging careers, I was falling apart, getting into drugs big time and ended up in jail, where I was able to start writing again, courtesy of their education department.

Ironically, after jail, my first few jobs as a writer came from the contacts I’d made among the well-educated people I met at Manchester Uni.

MQ: Your play 'The Political History of Smack and Crack' was very successful in Edinburgh. Can you tell us something about that play, and the story it tells of state sponsorship of the drugs trade?

EE: The play locates the origins of the UK domestic heroin epidemic to the period immediately following the inner-city uprisings that erupted shortly after the 1979 Thatcher election victory. It tells the story of two addicts caught up in the epidemic at the same time as analysing the wider political forces of the day. When you put it all together it’s easy to see how the uprisings and the smack epidemic went perfectly together like a toot of heroin and a hit on the crack pipe. I’d always thought of the two things as more than coincidental, but when I looked at the international history of the narcotics trade I soon discovered that the tie between counter-revolutionary politics and drug dealing has always been there.

MQ: The play surely has a tremendous relevance today, given that drug addiction has become a public health crisis in the U.S. Clearly such drug addiction problems have a significant effect on the U.S. and British working class, in terms of defusing and demoralising potential protests, dividing us, and diverting attention away from the massive problems of flatlining wages and growing poverty in both countries. Your play and its accompanying essay clearly show the role of state agencies in causing widespread drugs problems in the West. To what extent are governments also responsible for allowing those problems to continue and grow?

EE: In this country the worst of the heroin epidemic has now passed and the prevalent trend over here is polydrug use – including heroin and crack, but other drugs as well. Crack seems to be more popular than smack these days. One of the factors in the recent reduction over here has undoubtedly been the involvement of recovering addicts in the drugs services themselves, bringing real change and intelligence to the profession, although many of the services have now been privatised or cut.

But in the US clearly there is a massive and growing problem with heroin right now. You have to look to the US involvement in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and their protection of what has become the most corrupt narco-state in modern history.

The great chronicler of the politics of the international heroin trade, William McCoy, recently made a useful comparison between Colombia during the reign of Pablo Escobar and present-day Afghanistan. During the worse narco-violence in 1980s and early 90s Columbia cocaine production was approx. 3% of the country’s GDP. In Afghanistan now, according to McCoy, the figure is 53% of GDP. McCoy describes the country as the world’s first fully fledged narco-state.

Although apparently there are significant flows of this heroin to Russia, it is inevitable that huge amounts of smack will head from the servant to the master state, USA. Put this together with the recent political upheavals of the last few years – Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Southern uprisings in places like Ferguson in the USA – and all the historic elements converge for a domestic narcotic supernova.

You can see my article on the international drug trade, and the way it has been fostered by state agencies, here.

MQ: The play itself is a refreshingly direct piece of political drama, which seems increasingly uncommon. Why are we offered so little of it on most broadcasting platforms, including the BBC?

EE: It’s easy to feel that there is a conspiracy against serious political discussion in the broadcasting media. And I have to say that a BBC radio producer who would definitely not want to be named told me that the commissioner of drama on Radio 3 and 4 until recently, Jeremy Howe, “doesn’t do politics” – and that this was so strikingly obvious that this producer thought someone might have “had a word with him” to discourage it.

Also the vast majority of politically oriented radio drama (or documentary) that does get made typically tends to decry human rights abuses in countries that just so happen to be enemies of the British state – Iran, Russia, North Korea, etc. – or depict Islamic fundamentalist excesses, without mentioning the origin of this in British and US state sponsorship of covert operations by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Turkey – and indeed Britain and USA directly.

It’s possible, even likely some of the money for these dramas comes from indirect government sources. But it’s just as likely to be spawned by the prejudices of the well paid, well placed, aspiring middle-class army of hacks desperate for their next commission, as they churn out another cliché of “universal truth” as they like to style their ignorant and empty faux-democratic outpourings.

The dull and petty world of industrial/office politics and commissioning is in my view probably the biggest factor in the poor output of modern political drama. Cuts to arts funding in a competitive environment, boxes to tick and the fat carrot of a development budget for a commercial project can do the work of ten Stalins. It works in Health and Education just the same.

MQ: For working-class people, the theatre sometimes comes across as one of the more exclusive and expensive arts, both to appreciate as part of the audience, and to make a career in. Can you tell us something about your own knowledge and experience of class bias in the industry, and your thoughts on the issue?

EE: Undoubtedly there are gatekeepers with petty prejudices galore in the theatre world and it is definitely hard for lesser mortals to storm the ramparts. And true too that if a working-class voice is to break onto the scene it mostly has to speak to a middle-class audience in their own language. But the theatre is also full of possibilities and full of some of the most class-conscious people in Britain, many of whom are not upper middle-class, and many of whom operate in the prisons and community centres. They sing a purer song, almost inaudible to the outside world, but one that inspires hope and political debate.

Some practitioners have been able to take advantage of the bureaucratic box-ticking that theatres are obliged to do in order to carve out a space for political debate. The work of Synergy and Cardboard Citizens in London, Twenty Stories High in Liverpool, Grassmarket Projects in Edinburgh are a few examples that spring immediately to mind. Almost underground there is already a theatre there than can turn lives around and inspire hope even in the midst of this terrible darkness. We don’t live in revolutionary times, so this voice is small, but it is there.

MQ: 'Cultural democracy' is an approach to arts and culture which engages everyone in deciding what counts as culture. It's about equality of the freedom to be creative, so that people from all classes in society can create and enjoy art and other cultural activities. It's also about shared, social ownership of cultural institutions, and democratic management of key decisions in their work. To what extent is cultural democracy being practiced in the British theatre industry?

EE: It is actually happening, to a limited extent, but it needs to be a thousand times more.

At the same time we do need to preserve the freedom of artists to create art for its own sake – this is often the genesis of something great. When Lunacharsky was deposing Meyerhold from his leadership of the Russian revolutionary theatre around 1919, it was said: “We can trust comrade Meyerhold to keep what is new and good and to get rid of what is old and bad, but we can’t trust him to keep what is old and good.”

I love these words. It can be easy as socialists to forget that much of the culture of the past is precious and good, even though it was made by posh nobs. The trick is to make it available for all and that everyone gets an education that enables them to understand and love sophisticated art. And to destroy stupid West End musicals!

I’d like to sound a note of caution here too. Scarcity breeds inequality, as any Marxist understands. In the 1970s and early 80s there was a thriving political theatre. Companies like 7/84 could tour working-class areas and develop an aesthetic suitable to the milieu that both entertained and politicised. Other companies proliferated in the same period and atmosphere – so much so that books could be written about the movement with titles such as Stages in the Revolution. Public arts funding cuts were in big part introduced precisely to combat this trend, and sadly to a large extent they have succeeded.

Now to start fighting amongst ourselves in the theatre over ever-scarcer resources, accusing one another of taking the bigger share of the pie can have the effect of helping the arts-cutters sharpen their knives and spot their targets. Divisions leave us vulnerable and we should be wary of falling into the trap set for us. We should unite and demand significant and generous funding for the arts without government interference in how this money is spent.

It is for artists under these conditions to debate the future of art based on their experiences and on research and on whatever principles win the day. It is for socialists – and most artists actually fall at least vaguely into this category – to then argue how to be the most inclusive.

MQ: As someone who has made theatre which empowers working-class voices and narratives, what kinds of obstacles have you faced, either personally or because of the material you've presented? Some people have suggested using 'diversity quotas' when assessing the content of plays, employing actors, directors and technicians etc. to encourage equality and diversity of ethnic background, gender, and culture. Would such quotas work if they were based on class background?


EE: I think for something like this you’d need to do it and make a scientific study of how it goes, or else it’s just guesswork. How likely it is to happen is the question. I can’t imagine it wouldn’t work though. The question is a level playing field for all, fundamentally and the theatre can’t be expected to solve the world’s problems when the world can’t solve its own problems. The fundamental issue is the need for a political movement capable of pushing an agenda like this forward rather than trying to create a substitute for such a movement.

MQ. Ok, so what would your suggestions be in terms of promoting class equality in today's theatre industry, and in broadcasting institutions? What could government do, what could the institutions do, and what could we all do?

Seriously, a deep, uncompromising revolutionary movement based on the interests of the poorest and most marginalised people. I really mean that – I don’t think in the absence of a real movement for change there will be meaningful change in isolated sectors. Sorry if that sounds reductive, but I really believe it with all my heart.

MQ: How do you think a more socially representative audience, including more working-class people, can be encouraged to attend theatres?

EE: Go back to a fully-funded arts movement with a genuine mandate to go out and do this. It’s not rocket science in the end, if there’s a real political movement there will be a real political change, until then we’re stuck with more or less what we’ve got and getting worse and more bent out of shape by the ticking of boxes in a void.

The Political History of Smack and Crack: thrills, spills and the need for revolution
Sunday, 19 August 2018 23:04

The Political History of Smack and Crack: thrills, spills and the need for revolution

Published in Theatre

Ed Edwards contributes an essay on the political background to his brilliant new play, after a short review by Mike Quille.

The Review: An outstanding dramatisation of the social consequences of neoliberal capitalism on young men and women

by Mike Quille

There have been many stimulating plays with political themes at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. One of the most outstanding plays, combining radical political insight with Trainspotting-style dramatic excitement, is The Political History of Smack and Crack, written by Ed Edwards.

It deals with the shocking story of the lost generation whose lives were ruined by the heroin and drug-related crime epidemic that swept through Britain in the early eighties. This epidemic of drug use, particularly in the North, destroyed the personal health and well-being of hundreds of thousands of young working class men and women, just as their employment prospects were being destroyed by the Thatcher government’s deliberate adoption of neoliberal capitalist economic policies.

This urgent, passionately acted two-hander, based on Edwards’ own experience of drugs and crime, dramatizes the links between the drugs story and the political story, and it fizzes with radical protest, humour and authenticity. It provokes laughter, anger and sadness, as it traces the consequences of the Tories’ political choices on the lives of two Manchester lovers and addicts, involved in the working class riots in 1981 on Moss Side – an uprising which spread to London, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and many more towns and cities – and their eventual struggles with addiction, crime and recovery all taking place on the streets of Manchester.

Smack and Crack

But the play does so much more than track their personal lives. Through the bold formal dramatic device of using two ‘neutral’ narrators whose voices seamlessly blend into the two leading characters, the play insistently foregrounds the political causes behind the Tories' assault on the health, wealth and happiness of working class communities.

It shows how the brutal effects of the heroin and crime epidemics of the eighties were the direct result of shameful, counter-revolutionary foreign policies by Britain and other Western governments, desperate to uphold exploitative, capitalist imperialism against anti-colonial liberation movements.

The play itself, and the comprehensive, powerfully argued essay Edwards has written to accompany the script, and which he summarises below, dramatizes and presents the clear evidence for the links between government policy and the massive increase in drug use and drug-related crime - phenomena which still blight many working class communities, particularly in areas of de-industrialization and high unemployment.

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In this present time of economic crisis, political uncertainty and deepening inequality, Ed Edwards’ arresting new play is a brilliantly relevant piece of political theatre. It helps us see the connections between disgracefully reactionary, anti-socialist foreign policies and domestic social misery. It powerfully and movingly exposes and dramatises the horrific damage caused by globalised, neoliberal capitalism to so many working people’s lives.

It is also a refreshing example of exciting, committed and challenging political theatre, whose dramatization of uncomfortable truths is increasingly smothered by overt and covert censorship by the arts elites in this country, by the growing structural barriers to working class participation in the theatre as actors, writers or directors, and the general drift towards vapid, diversionary spectacle and safe, frothy entertainment. Here’s what the playwright says about political theatre these days:

There are obvious class barriers to proper public debate, in that theatre – especially non-musical theatre – tends to be the preserve of the middle and upper classes these days. But with the budgets required for film and TV, and the unofficial but effective ban on political drama on Radio 4, theatre is still the best forum for debate.

I want the play to raise questions and make people angry and sad – and yes – to make them hate the system that can produce such a catastrophe. I hope audiences will experience thrills, spills and emotion, and enlightenment about the need for a revolution.

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The play runs at Summerhall, Edinburgh, until the end of August, then plays at the Soho Theatre from 4th – 22nd September.

Later on it will transfer to the city where it was born, Manchester, opening at the Mustard Tree, which is a local refuge providing care for people trapped by homelessness, dependency and poverty since 1994. 

The Essay: Maintaining a Decaying Capitalist Order

by Ed Edwards

Introduction

I was politically active in the late 1980s and personally witnessed the dying away of the political spark on the streets of inner city Manchester in the wake of the nationwide inner-city uprisings of 1981-85. One day around 1987 I was asked by a Moss Side street dealer if I “wanted anything to smoke” as I passed. I knew the guy faintly from my student pot-smoking days when we might have bought a “five pound draw” if we couldn’t buy resin from our usual sources.

Instead of the usual five quid’s worth of “sensi” though, the lad proffered several bags of brown heroin. By then you couldn’t buy “a draw” on the streets of Moss Side. The miners were defeated, Winston Silcott, Mark Braithwaite and Engin Raghip had been framed for the killing of PC Blakelock during the Tottenham uprising, Viraj Mendis was soon to be deported to Sri Lanka after a police raid on the inner-city church in Manchester where he sought sanctuary, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Heroin was everywhere by then, and the cops had a free hand.

The vanishing of street politics and the flood of hard drugs into the cities never felt like a coincidence to me, and when my own drug problems took off in the dead years that followed those historic defeats, I found myself doing three-and-a-half years in jail for drugs offences. On the landing one night a white lad from working class Huyton put it like this: “We took Liverpool that night – the city belonged to the youth that night. The cops had to fight their way back into Liverpool! Next thing I’m jumping over the counter at the offie with an Uzi, tryna feed a habit!”

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All these years later, I’m a recovering addict of many years sobriety – part of a worldwide 12-step movement – and that lad’s words have found their way into the heart of my play. I wonder if he’s still alive, there’s a very good chance he isn’t. Saving his words feels like a small victory.

A couple of years ago I realised that the young people I was teaching in a drama school had a thirst for political knowledge beyond what was available on the curriculum. I offered to give them some lectures on revolution. I listed some subjects on the board and straight away The Political History of Smack and Crack, with its obvious links to two revolutions, was a hit.

I felt almost obliged to write it up as a play, and the more I investigated the subject, the more the long-standing link between counter-revolution and narcotics became apparent. Unfortunately, when writing the play itself I didn’t find it possible to get all my discoveries into the script itself. Many people who witnessed early drafts fed back that the political history was interesting but hard to absorb in that much detail – after all a play has to follow the rules of dramatic structure and entertainment.

In the end, during the play itself, I opted to boil the politics down to the flood of Contra/Mujahideen narcotics hitting Britain at that dangerous moment FOR THE BRITISH STATE in 1981 when the mass inner-city uprisings occurred, in the context of world forces that could so easily have tipped away from Thatcher and her neoliberal cronies.

The publishers of the playscript – Nick Hern Books – were happy to include the historical detail we couldn’t get into the play itself, into a postscript entitled Narcotics and Counterrevolution. Culture Matters have asked me to summarise the main points of the essay, which stretches to 30 pages, here. The story is all documented in forensic detail by historians and diligent journalists elsewhere – but this is of course ignored by the mainstream media.

Prohibition, the FBI and Lucky Luciano

In the USA, 1920s Prohibition gave heroin a double boost. The drug was an obvious substitute intoxicant and created the beginnings of a mass market for illicit narcotics. Despite the disapproval of their already rich, more socially conservative bosses, such as Al Capone, young Mafia bootleggers, yet to make their fortunes, were happy to step in to meet the new demand. The end of Prohibition gave rise to an intergenerational shooting war, which established the young pharmaceutical-heroin-dealing generation as kings under a new boss of bosses, Lucky Luciano.

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This newly organised Mafia became an efficient nationwide crime syndicate for the first time. However, despite the natural affinity of these gangsters for capitalism, evidenced by their enthusiastic murder and brutalisation of radicals of all kinds, in the face of impending world war the FBI take exception to the potentially morally corrosive power of heroin and they crush the new, supposedly indestructible Mafia completely. Lucky Luciano goes from New York socialite to inmate of Sing Sing prison, serving 50 years. Meanwhile Mussolini does the same to the Mafia in their homeland of Sicily for similar reasons. However....

The Mafia and the French Connection

At the end of War War II, with the fall of fascism and the anti-capitalist feeling sweeping Europe – not to mention the Soviet Army smashing the cream of Hitler’s army and making their way to Berlin – the U.S. authorities changed their approach. Lucky Luciano was promised freedom, in return for which the U.S. army got Mafia spies, Mafia guides and a Mafia-inspired uprising to aid their 1943 invasion of Sicily. The U.S. military then appointed Mafia mayors all over the island, and Mafia soldiers help brutally smash radical forces in the whole of southern Italy.

Luciano was deported to Sicily where he went on to lay the foundations of the modern international heroin trade. At home in New York, the U.S. Mafia took over the unions, as in Brando's On The Waterfront, and crushed the remnants of wartime dockyard radicalism. New York mafiosi also cleared the way for the mass importation of non-pharmaceutical heroin which they refined in collaboration with the Corsican Mafia in Marseilles: the famous French Connection.

The French Connection was established when U.S. military intelligence encouraged the Corsican Mafia to crush the left wing of the French resistance in its radical Marseilles heartland. Heroin refineries were set up locally by the Corsicans, now protected by the CIA, ex-Vichy elements and the millionaire socialist ex-resistance leader Garston Defferre, charismatic mayor of Marseilles.

By the end of the struggle to crush the left wing of the Resistance, Mayor Defferre had the two biggest Corsican gangsters – the brothers Guerini – as his personal bodyguards. This corrupt relationship continued until at least as late as 1967, as does the French Connection, although ace detective Gene Hackman, in his pork pie hat, discovered nothing about it in the film of the same name. 

The dirty dealings of French and U.S. military agencies

In the postwar period, the western trade in illegal narcotics was small beans compared to that going on in the revolutionary heartlands of the anti-colonial struggle – China and Vietnam – supported by the dirty dealing of the U.S. and French militaries.

It was the West’s struggle against the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions from the late 1940s to the early 1970s that really gave birth to illegal narcotics production, and dealing on the international scale we see today. A trade that size is of course impossible without some form of state knowledge, oversight and even direct involvement. Enter the French and U.S. militaries. 

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In the late 1940s and early 1950s, in Vietnam and China, the French and U.S. militaries must keep alive deeply unpopular, brutal and ruthless forces in the face of international revulsion and a lack of political support from their own governments at home. Both militaries arrive at similar methods at the same time, with a few subtle differences. 

Secret intelligence units of the French military flew tons of raw opium from the mountains of Laos to Saigon in French Air Force planes, where it was refined into heroin by gangsters protected by corrupt elements of the Vietnamese military. They, in turn, were protected by French intelligence officials. Some of this opium was also sold to Corsican gangsters and refined in Marseilles, where militant French dock workers were striking in support of the Vietnamese liberation struggle, while being attacked by Corsican gangsters. 

The profits from this whole operation were used to fund the network of spies, armed religious fanatics, gangsters and brutal warlords the French vainly relied on to keep the North Vietnamese revolution spreading to the whole country. 

By the time the French were roundly defeated at Dien Bien Phu and had to hand over power to the U.S. Army, the Saigon heroin trade had become the military and political key to holding the whole of the newly created South Vietnam. This was of course an impossible task, but nevertheless 57,000 US soldiers died trying to achieve it. 

Opium, heroin and counter-revolution

The CIA’s role in the anti-communist struggle was to aid the hated and defeated Chinese regime of butchers and buriers-of-people alive, as they plotted the re-invasion of China from the poppy-growing highlands of Burma.

Not surprisingly this task led the U.S. state onto murky ground. The CIA’s methods differed in that they operated at one remove compared to the French military, providing mainly logistical and political cover as well as arms and cash for their opium dealing/heroin refining allies, and for tribal warlords who acted as their “boots on the ground”. Here the trade lines ran from Burma to Thailand, where U.S. client militias handled refining and export, in collaboration with our old friends – Luciano’s Mafia. 

These two opium/heroin regions, sponsored by the French and the Americans, soon merged into one – popularly known as the Golden Triangle. It was in reality little more than a huge international counter-revolutionary struggle. 

Contra commandas 1987

So by the 1980s, nothing that happened in Nicaragua leading to the crack epidemic in the West, or in Afghanistan leading to the heroin epidemic in the West, was very new. The main difference from the Western point of view was that whereas in the Golden Triangle period relatively little of the heroin was consumed in the West, in the Thatcher/Reagan years the stuff was allowed to flood into the West, where the profits were so much more valuable. In addition, the demoralising human consequences of drugs and crime undoubtedly suited the Thatcherite neoliberal social engineering project. 

In the Afghan War in the 1980s over half the CIA covert aid, amounting to about a billion dollars in the form of cash and arms, was given directly to an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist leader allied to the Pakistani secret services, who owned at least 6 major heroin refineries in the Afghanistan border region.

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This character, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was famous in his early career for having dispatched his followers to throw acid in the faces of female students who dared to discard the veil. During the war 17 DEA agents were posted to Kabul, where they diligently documented the existence of 100 such refineries, run by the mediaeval bands of butchers and rapists who were described by Ronald Reagan as 'freedom fighters'. In reality, they were the West’s proxy army in the war against the Afghan revolution.

After the DEA reports were submitted, not one of these refineries were busted, although police forces across Europe complained that the decision not to move against them had been taken “at the highest level”. Neither was the existence of this network of refineries acknowledged by the army of Western journalists residing in Kabul during the whole decade of war. Only after the Soviet Army withdrew, did stories begin to emerge.

A decaying capitalist order defended by the CIA

This filthy hypocrisy in the East was matched in the West, when George Bush Sr. was filmed in the White House wielding a bag of crack, declared it to be 'a great scourge' and implicitly blamed poor black communities in America for the problem.

In reality, fascistic forces ousted from Nicaragua by the popular Nicaraguan revolution, together with anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Florida and Western-friendly gangster militias in Colombia, all secretly backed to the hilt by the CIA, were the real culprits.

However, it’s worth saying that despite the CIA’s international struggles to protect the world’s biggest drug dealers for decades, it’s clear that the agency has only been doing what it has to do under difficult circumstances. Its actions are only what has been necessary to maintain a decaying capitalist order, in the face of worldwide popular and desperate resistance.

Had it not been for the CIA’s gargantuan counter-revolutionary efforts through this worldwide dirty dealing, surely the world would now be a very different, massively more anti-capitalist place. There would be far fewer illegal drugs on our streets, far less drug-related crime, and socialism would have had a better chance of success.

For fuller details and references, see the essay in The Political History of Smack and Crack, published by Nick Hern Books, ISBN: 9781848427815.

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See also The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the International Heroin Trade, by W. McCoy, or any of the writings of the late, great Gary Webb.