Undercover by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis: The best kind of argument for a free press

If these stories about undercover police weren't plucked from the pages of our newspapers, you'd think you were reading an airport thriller. This sort of classic, long-form investigative journalism is why we must retain a truly free press.

Undercover: the True Story of Britain’s Secret Police
Rob Evans and Paul Lewis
Faber & Faber, 256pp, £12.99

The Guardian’s revelations about undercover police from the Special Demonstration Squad (and more recently the National Public Order Intelligence Unit) have unfolded rather like one of its other great exclusives, on phonehacking. The steady drip of unsavoury information has culminated in the allegation that the Met Police used undercover officers to smear the family of the murder victim Stephen Lawrence.

The issue of sex is most discomforting. Nearly every officer described in the book had passionate, long-term relationships with women from the groups they were investigating. At least one, Bob Lambert, went so far as to get a woman pregnant. Shortly afterwards, Lambert, with whom this woman had expected to live for the rest of her life, faked his emigration and left her a single parent, bereft of any kind of emotional or financial support.

Lambert, who was a special branch detective between 1980 and 2006, later became a tweedy academic (he is now a lecturer in terrorism studies at St Andrews University). In 2011, while he was giving a talk, Greenpeace campaigners burst into the lecture hall and demanded answers. Like many officers, Lambert was married with children while the affairs were taking place. Another had two relationship counsellors: one to see with his wife and one to see with the woman he was having an affair with.

Most readers will find clear evidence of exploitation in these descriptions – young, idealistic activists in their early twenties were fair game to the older undercover police officers, whatever the police may claim. Others might note just how deeply the men (and one woman) in this book had to embed themselves.

Yet it’s hardly the only morally questionable decision that these officers made. They took on the names of dead children to protect their identities. Some committed crimes and lied in court. Many seemed to be not only movers and shakers in the ecological and political circles in which they were embedded but instigators of direct action.

During the “McLibel” trial (a multi - million-pound libel suit filed by McDonald’s against the environmental activists Helen Steel and David Morris, which this book alleges was at least in part instigated by Lambert), there were sometimes more spies among the activists’ group than there were activists, as a result of the combined efforts of McDonald’s and the police.

The process of infiltration, repeated for nearly 40 years, seems more often than not to have severely damaged both the police officers’ mental well-being and that of the friends and lovers they gained and discarded. Throughout this period, there was a pattern of officers who had infiltrated groups returning to desk duty and then threatening to go rogue – or doing so.

This is perhaps why Scotland Yard has not co-operated with Rob Evans and Paul Lewis. Because of this, there’s another side to the story we don’t hear – could all this pain and suffering be worth it? At one of the most significant trials mentioned here that resulted from the actions of these officers (that of the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station protesters who were arrested in 2009 because of the work of Mark Kennedy, a notorious undercover operator), the guilty were spared jail. The judge declared that the protesters had acted “with the highest possible motives”.

The phrase “domestic extremism” is, as the authors point out, “as meaningless as it [is] useful”. At various points here, the police apply it to the anti-roads movement, the Lawrence family, activists exposing allegations of police corruption and a 69-year-old retired physicist campaigning to protect a local beauty spot. The women with whom these officers had affairs hardly seem major threats to national security. Indeed, many seem to have done nothing illegal at all.

Were these stories not real, they would read like an airport thriller. More often than not, they end in tragedy for both their protagonists and the people who they deceived. Undercover compels the reader throughout, which is a testament to the investigative and writing skills of Evans and Lewis. The authors’ huge amount of research does not burden the narrative and is marshalled expertly.

The result is an example of the kind of classic, long-haul journalism that has, over recent years, produced scoops that have rattled the establishment, provoked multiple police inquiries and offered up an extraordinary series of revelations. The work of these authors is one of the best arguments in favour of a free press you’ll ever read.

Alan White writes for newstatesman.com and, as John Heale, is the author of “One Blood” (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)

Sleeper cell: Undercover cop Mark Kennedy. Photograph: Philipp Ebeling/Guardian News & Media LTD.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear