As a child in the 1970s, Clare Carson knew her father, with his bushy beard and secretive ways, was a funny sort of copper. But it was only as an adult that her memories of their strange suburban life began to make sense.
My father was an undercover cop in the 1970s. As a child, I knew he was doing something secret, but I didn’t know quite what. It wasn’t until a documentary named him in 2002, three years after his death, that I realised he had worked for the Special Demonstration Squad, a secret police unit that infiltrated political organisations on the grounds of public security. Then the strange memories of my childhood began to make more sense.
A unit of recruits from the Met’s Special Branch, the SDS was created in 1968 in response to what was seen to be the increasing violence of anti-Vietnam war demonstrations. It was part-funded directly by the Home Office until 1989, and closed in 2008. A police report published in 2013 suggests that, until the later years, few people outside Special Branch knew the SDS existed. That doesn’t quite capture the surreal dimensions of its operating principles. As a young child, I knew my dad was a funny sort of policeman, and that he was part of this strange secret thing called “The Hairies”. I’m not sure anybody told me this in a direct way. I just grew up knowing.
Looking back, I can see my family was like an undercover cop version of The Sopranos. We attempted to live a normal life in the suburbs, turning a blind eye to my father’s membership of this clandestine organisation. The secrecy about my dad’s work was my normality. As a child, I was told not to talk about his job. My parents didn’t explicitly give me a cover story for my dad. I told people he was a policeman, and usually left it at that.
Of course, I was curious. I must have opened a mental file, classified it “confidential” and filled it with my observations: a child’s eye view of her peculiar father and the dark arts of the secret state. At some point in the early 70s, my dad grew a prolific beard. Sitting in the garden, I asked him why and he told me he was a hairy. I must have guessed the beard was part of some subterfuge. I asked him if it was his disguise.
“No,” he said. “The disguise is when I shave it off.” That reply captures the essence of my father and my relationship with him. He was always bantering. I never knew whether he was being serious or not, and I’m not sure he did either. I suspect that, like many undercover agents, particularly those involved in monitoring political organisations, he wasn’t always entirely certain on which side of the line he stood.
He wore a donkey jacket and dirty jeans. He drove a very old Bedford van. When he wasn’t working, he left it parked on the verge outside our house. It was covered with dirt and lots of people had written on it. Somebody once scrawled, “I’m a dirty Bedford.” The Bedford had been crossed out and replaced with “bastard”. One day, I decided to write my own name in the muck. My dad caught me and went mad. At the time I felt he was being unreasonable. If everybody else wrote rude messages, why couldn’t I write my name? Later, I realised that he was trying to protect me and maintain a barrier between work and home. He left the suburbs and drove, I suppose, straight into his other life. The wall between the two now appears incredibly flimsy but, I assume, was easier to maintain in those nearly unimaginable pre-internet days.
He was pretty much an absent father. We never knew where he was going or when he would be back. Sometimes we didn’t see him for weeks. There was no number to call or person to whom we could speak if we were worried. Not knowing what he was doing was, at times, quite scary. When he did turn up, he was often tense. He was a heavy drinker. He sought escape in the countryside beyond the commuter belt. He bought a decrepit boat, moored it on a river in Kent. We kids hared around the meadows while he patched it up or, much to my mum’s despair, piled on board and gleefully cast off downstream with Dad at the helm to see how far the boat could travel before it started sinking.
I thought at the time that he was a difficult dad. When I look back as a parent now myself, I’m almost impressed by his restraint, the way he managed what must have been a stressful job. We, his family, managed him by laughing about it, on the whole.
There was an edge of absurdity to his job and our family life. Occasionally we went out together to the theatre. He would park the car some distance away and then instruct us to walk off in a different direction from him. He didn’t want to run the risk of being seen with us, he said. I didn’t entirely believe his rationale. I always suspected he used the Official Secrets Act as a way of dodging whatever he didn’t really want to do. He had a habit of failing to turn up for the first half of anything. We would inevitably find him during the interval, sitting at the bar, chatting up anybody within earshot.
Some neighbours were wary of him. He was charismatic in a slightly domineering, argumentative way. Despite the popularity of television cops, in reality policemen had, and still have, something of an untouchable low caste status. Plods and plebs. And anyway, it was obvious that my father, with his Jesus hair and beard, didn’t fit the Z-Cars or Sweeney mould. The “he’s a policeman” line probably prompted more questions than it answered. He certainly jarred in the conservative fringes of London. Some of my school friends weren’t allowed to visit our house because their parents thought my dad was a dirty hippy. The friends that did visit loved hanging out at our place because it had a less restrictive atmosphere than the average suburban home. A touch of excitement, danger even.
It was difficult for us as children to outdo his unruly habits. I did sometimes envy my friends’ seemingly more stable, calmer families. My mum’s response was, “Well, would you prefer somebody boring for a dad?”
My father ended up running the unit for a couple of years in the late 70s. I remember sitting with him around this time – 1978 – and watching a television programme called The Sandbaggers. It was about a unit of secret agents. Neil D Burnside, the man in charge, spent all his days in Whitehall negotiating with ministers and bureaucrats. I thought it was the most tedious programme ever. My dad loved it because, in his view, it was completely realistic. That was why, he said, he left that job in the end; he couldn’t be bothered with the paperwork and the politics.
He was politically liberal. He didn’t believe in capital punishment. He was pro immigration. He argued about it with less liberal neighbours. When he chose to go back to uniform and was in charge of a police district, he appeared in the local paper twice. The first time because he said drug users needed help not prosecution. The second, because he refused to move a group of Travellers as they had nowhere else to go. He didn’t try to stop me from joining activist groups. He didn’t ask me any questions, just as I had learned not to question him. I spent the first half of the 80s involved in exactly the kind of political activities the SDS are now known to have targeted. I went to peace camps. Got arrested. Lived in a squat.
My political activism made me speculate about his undercover work. But by that time, it was in the past. He left the SDS in 1979, and left the police in the mid-80s. Moved on. He always was a person who lived in the present. He died in 1999, when he was 60.
In 2002 True Spies, a documentary about undercover policing, named him as the SDS cop who infiltrated Peter Hain’s Stop the Seventy Tour. This was an anti-apartheid campaign trying to prevent the all-white South African Springbok rugby team from touring Britain. It was a shock to hear my dad’s name spoken. Even now, ingrained reflexes of secrecy make me wary of writing his name here.
It took me a while to work out that the SDS was the official title of the Hairies. Then the fragments of my childhood memories added up and I could see he was an undercover cop who not only monitored a political organisation but became part of it. He had a whole other identity and a second life.
The puzzle for me is that the identity he adopted wasn’t so different from the liberal father I knew. The activities of an anti-apartheid organisation? Why? He would have supported their goals. I can’t help seeking the most positive interpretation of my father’s actions. Obviously he was following orders, and he believed in doing his public duty. Still. Fifteen years after his death, 45 years after the event, it unsettles me, makes me question my memories. I don’t know all the facts and it’s hard to reconcile the ones that have been disclosed. I suppose the true identity of somebody who was once a spy is unlikely to be straightforward.
This article was originally published in The Guardian on Tuesday 26th May 2015.
Claire Carson's debut novel, Orkney Twilight, is out now in hardback and ebook.