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.