Review: Small Town Girl by Donna McLean

When activist Donna McLean meets Carlo Neri at an anti-war demonstration, she believes to have found the perfect partner, until he suddenly vanishes. More than a decade later, she learns the truth about him and the secretive police unit that targeted her.

Anti War Demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament before the Iraq War, September 2002. Protesters wearing face masks showing Tony Blair and George W Bush – Alamy

Donna McLean was a woman in love, and Carlo Neri, her partner, was the perfect boyfriend. Caring, considerate, loving, he quickly found the keys to her heart. They met in September 2002 at an anti-war demonstration, at which he was stewarding. Mutual friends, who were trade unionists, introduced them. They were quickly inseparable and within six weeks, he’d moved in with her. Just three months after meeting he proposed. They talked about having children; they went on holiday together; he met her family. But their relationship lasted just two years, before he first appeared to have a nervous breakdown, and then disappeared.

It wasn’t until 2015, thirteen years later, that Donna learnt the truth. Carlo Neri hadn’t suffered a breakdown. In fact, Neri wasn’t even his surname. It was Soracchi. Carlo was an undercover police officer, and their entire relationship had been a cynical ploy.

Rule-breaking, deception, and lies are in the news at the moment. At the time of writing, Prime Minister Boris Johnson desperately tries to cling on at N010, and his excuses for attending COVID rule-breaking parties ring increasingly hollow. The Metropolitan Police, too, have been in the public eye of late, and not for anything good. First, there was the horrific murder of Sarah Everard by a serving cop, and since then, a string of officers have been convicted for crimes linked to misogyny, such as the two who shared images of the bodies of murdered sisters, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, over WhatsApp. The force’s refusal to investigate the Downing Street lockdown parties only risks tarnishing its reputation further. 

With such a string of wrongdoing, it’s easy to conclude that a rot has set into the fabric of our institutions. And perhaps that’s the case. But within the Met Police there’s powerful evidence that in one division at least, the rot has festered for a long time. Special Branch was a secretive unit tasked with investigating issues surrounding national security and intelligence. In 2006, it merged with the Anti-Terrorism Branch to become the Counter Terrorism Command, though some other regional forces retain a separate Special Branch to this day.

Within the Met’s special branch was a sub-unit known only to a few. The Special Demonstration Squad was founded in 1968 in response to anti-Vietnam War demonstrations outside the American Embassy. Its original purpose was to infiltrate left-wing direct-action groups, and while this broadened out over the years, mostly it continued to focus on the left, environmental and social justice groups (a tiny number targeted the far right, and only for very short periods of time). A feature of the unit, and the latter units to replace it after its disbandment in 2008, was long-term undercover deployments. Unlike undercover operations against organised crime run by SO11, the Met’s intelligence branch, SDS operations lasted months, even years.

The SDS was first mentioned in a BBC television series in 2002 called True Spies, presented by Peter Taylor. But it wasn’t until the exposure of Mark Kennedy as a police spy by journalists and activists in 2010, and publication of the book Undercover, by Guardian journalists Paul Lewis and Robert Evans, that the true extent of what they had been doing came to light. Indeed, it was this which first alerted Donna to the possibility her boyfriend Carlo might have been a police spy.

Other activists who had suspicions about Carlo contacted Donna. They had guessed Kennedy was not alone, but one of many. They looked for patterns and soon found them: men (and a few women) who had more money than the average activist; drove a car or a van and ferried people to protests; made themselves useful and took on key roles; were relatively apolitical compared to others; and who suddenly disappeared, often having suffered some kind of crisis.

Indeed, the official inquiry released an SDS training manual into the public domain. While heavily redacted, it’s clear that all this was a carefully constructed template, right down to the extraction procedures which involved faking personal crises and then disappearing. Another equally appalling aspect was the “Jackal Run”. The name is taken from the Frederick Forsyth novel The Day of the Jackal and involves SDS officers trawling the registry of births and deaths for children who were born near to their birthdate, but who died in childhood, and who had the same first name (so the undercover officer would react naturally when their first name was spoken). They would then adopt this dead child’s persona as their own.

As Donna recognised, Carlo ticked all these boxes. He had money; he had a car unlike many of his fellow activists living in London; he rarely talked politics but focused more on the practical aspects of protesting; he worked as a locksmith and offered to help improve the home security of friends and associates. This last point took on a sinister dimension in the activists’ minds once they realised he was a spy, because it meant he had the keys to their homes, which would have been very useful to his masters.

Small Town Girl is not the first book to be written about the SDS and its successor units, and it won’t be the last. But it’s a powerful account not least because it humanises the story. It draws out just how callous the police spies’ behaviour was. These men not only insinuated themselves into these women’s lives, but they did so with a cruelty and relish which is difficult to reconcile. Carlo not only met Donna’s family but courted them too, becoming part of their family to the extent they embraced him as a future son-in-law. His proposal, which he obviously had no intention of going through with, is the manifestation of his calculated attempt to make her fall in love with him, all just to burnish his cover story. Then there’s his disappearance, leaving her to wonder and worry about what had happened to the man she loved. It’s small comfort no doubt that she could have fared worse: some of his colleagues fathered children with the women they courted, only to abandon them afterwards. And all the while, he led a double life. Like other SDS officers, he had a real wife, and children at home. This is a story about (primarily) men, who caused immeasurable harm to scores of women and children in their wake.   

A deeply moving story that demands accountability from the Metropolitan Police, Small Town Girl is a vital read for our times.

Small Town Girl is published on 3rd February by Hodder & Stoughton in Hardback (£16.99) and ebook (£9.99).

A journalist and author, James worked for over 10 years in Current Affairs television and documentaries, researching and producing films for Channel 4 Dispatches, PBS Television and National Geographic. In print, he’s penned articles for the Times Educational Supplement and the Times Higher Educational Supplement. James also has PR experience, working for three years as a Political Officer for Slough Borough Council where he advised local councillors on policy implementation and media relations.

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