Mark Cassidy was a friendly, working-class joiner from a Catholic background in Birkenhead, with a bashful charm and an authentic presence. Alison* was a Jewish Londoner, an energetic English teacher, passionate about introducing inner-city kids to the joys of Shakespeare and Coleridge. She was also active in the National Union of Teachers (NUT).
When they met in the spring of 1995, she was 29. He was 27, he said. After their first date, things moved quickly. By July, Mark had moved out of his dingy bedsit with brown lino on the floor and Class War posters on the wall, and into Alison’s Hackney flat. They settled into a life of happy domesticity. Then, in 2000, he vanished, never to be seen again.
Mark was one of a number of undercover officers sent to infiltrate groups by the police.
Before his disappearance Mark had fitted a new kitchen in their home. It had taken him a surprisingly long time. Some time later, Alison learned that was because he wasn’t a joiner, but a police officer. Mark Jenner — his real name — worked for the Special Demonstration Squad, a secret police unit that spied on people in left-wing groups.
Later still, she would learn that she was one of at least 50 women targeted by the unit, manipulated into long-term intimate relationships. The men had children with some, robbed others of the chance of motherhood, and were sometimes involved with more than one woman during their missions. And they all ultimately vanished from the women’s lives.
Through painstaking detective work, the women worked out that their spy-cop exes were all married —“they had to have something to go back to” says Alison — and had been provided with passports and driving licences, issued in the names of dead children. Their discoveries caused the police operations to dramatically and publicly fall apart, enabling the women to find each other and take collective legal action. In 2015, they won an unprecedented apology and an out-of-court settlement. A judge-led public inquiry into undercover policing was also announced. The debacle became one of the biggest policing scandals of our time.
Now, Alison and four of the women have written about their stories of betrayal in their powerful book Deep Deception, which is published this week.
Deep Deception is available now
“Part of me doesn’t want these men to have the attention this book will give them,” says Alison. “They already controlled our lives for years, behaved as if they were omnipotent. Being hurt by a dishonest boyfriend is painful enough, but to discover he was a fictional character, who was only in your life because his employer positioned him there, places the experience in a different dimension. I was deeply in love with Mark and he knew it. You need to be a sociopathic narcissist to do what he, they, did. They don’t deserve any more attention.”
But she believes it is important that people know how the state can operate, and how a group of exploited women brought those responsible for their abuse to account. “That’s why my story is in the book,” she says.
Her Jewish story, that is. Alison was a peaceful activist raised in a left-wing Jewish household. All families tell stories about themselves and her socialist mother’s was that she’d persuaded her school library to stock the Daily Worker newspaper. Other Jewish touchstones of Alison’s London childhood were the Battle of Cable Street and the 43 group, the anti-fascist group set up by Jewish ex-servicemen after the war. “My grandmother lived in a council flat in the East End and I grew up with the ideas depicted in Arnold Wesker’s play Chicken Soup with Barley,” she recalls.
It was also a family with connections to Israel. They went there on holiday in 1973 to see friends in Tel Aviv and cousins in Nahariya. And she made several more trips with her Jewish youth movement when she was in her teens, including her gap-year on a Jewish youth leadership course.
Mark Jenner was sent to infiltrate left-wing groups, and was undercover for years
In the summer of 1997, Alison booked a three-week trip to Israel with Mark. He was excited to go, explaining how he was fascinated by the country and its history, and joking about the grilling he was prepared for from El Al security. At the time, Alison reflected on how lucky she was. “If I’d fallen in love with a more stereotypical activist, he’d have never come with me,” she writes in the book. “He’d have been too restricted by anti-Zionist dogma to countenance it. Mark wasn’t like that.”
The ruse was “very clever,” she says. “He was presented as a kind of ingenue, someone interested in learning and discovering, who wasn’t ideologically stuck. It enabled him to move in different directions without raising too many questions.”
In fact, when they first met at the Colin Roach Centre — an eclectic group which promoted trade union and anti-fascist politics and which had successfully exposed police corruption in the early 1990s — Mark described himself as an anarchist. “They tend to be more nuanced about Israel than the Trots. He was a well-drawn character.”
In the event, Mark was waved through El Al security without being asked a single question, leaving Alison open-mouthed with shock; she had been questioned for what felt like an age. Then, their trip to Israel was abruptly cut short by a week.
They were celebrating her 32nd birthday on Tel Aviv beach when Mark said he wasn’t feeling well. Alison’s friends rushed him in their car to Tel Hashomer Hospital, where medics diagnosed pneumonia and advised an immediate flight home for three months of recuperation. But back in London, despite Alison’s protestations that he needed to rest, Mark made a miraculous recovery and returned to work almost immediately.
“I can’t know for sure, because I’ve had no disclosure from the police throughout our case... But my hypothesis is that he was called back, and that the security and medical authorities in Israel knew everything.”
The strongest clue to her fake lover’s identity came that autumn when Alison found a NatWest bank card in the name of M Jenner, and a signature on the back in Mark’s handwriting. She confronted him immediately. “His arms dropped to his sides and his face took on the expression of a small child confessing a misdemeanour,” she writes. He explained he’d bought it off a bloke in a pub, knew he’d been stupid but had only used it once to buy petrol. Alison cut the card up and threw it into a bin. She was furious, but agreed to never tell anyone.
Then there was the time he refused to go and see an old friend of Alison’s who lived outside London and who’d just had a baby.
“It didn’t make any sense,” she says. “He was always very accommodating, never said no to anything and was always happy to drive anywhere. In fact, he was a phenomenal driver. Of course he was; Mark Jenner was in Special Branch. But at the time, I put it down to him not being your typical middle-class campaigner. Mark was burly and physically capable, had a tough working-class quality which, ironically, made me feel very safe.”
Now she suspects that her friend rented her home from people who had some sort of connection to Mark Jenner.
Alison lived with Mark for years before he suddenly left.
Although she would spend more than a decade investigating Jenner’s background, hiring a private detective to track him down, she developed the theory that he was some kind of spy soon after his disappearance.
She returned from work one day to find a letter on the kitchen table saying: “I have to get away. We want different things. I can’t love you as you need me to.” It didn’t feel right.
“For two years, I obsessively told everyone I possibly could,” she recalls. But when she floated her theories, most people said that she was mad. “I didn’t care,” she says. “I had the kind of grandeur of insight you see in conspiracy theorists. You know, I don’t blame you for thinking I’m mad, but I know I’m right. And unlike conspiracy theorists, I actually was [right].”
Among the handful of people who believed Alison was David, a friend from primary school who had also been at her Jewish youth club. At 16, they’d had a romantic fling but had then gone their separate ways. She could trust who he said he was. Not only did David believe her story, when most did not, she had known him for decades. She knew she mustn’t let the opportunity escape.
“A nice Jewish man? Yes, please,” she says. “Look what the radical left had brought me. I’d fallen in love with the enemy. And for five years, he was completely integrated into my life.
“Mark had accompanied me to bar mitzvahs, eaten Friday night dinners cooked by mum, and come to her second wedding. Yes, I thought he was Mark Cassidy, but in the Venn diagram between Mark Jenner and Mark Cassidy the overlap is probably quite large, isn’t it?
“I needed to own up to what had happened and question the point of being so politically purist.”
Two decades after they reconnected, Alison and David are still very much together and parents of two teenage children. “It’s no exaggeration to say the closeness and security of my Jewish family and the wider community saved me,” she says. “I was able to go home, to leave a world where I had felt safe, but which had suddenly become really scary. I feel very lucky.”
People sometimes ask Alison if she thinks Jenner had genuine feelings for her. She thinks the question is irrelevant.
“Did Mark Jenner genuinely fancy me? I’m sure he did. Did he genuinely have a good time with my friends and family? Of course he did. We are nice, decent people. But a copper wouldn’t sleep with a gay man to infiltrate, would he? And the state would never task a police officer with raping a child to infiltrate a paedophile ring. That’s not a job in a civilised society. I was a perk of the job.”
And an entirely gratuitous one. None of the women targeted by police for their links to activist groups has ever been prosecuted.
“If people do commit crimes, then you find the evidence and charge them. That’s what the criminal justice system is for,” says Alison.
“The truth is, if you gave most men fake ID and sent them across the city, most would exploit the opportunity to lead another life.
“The sexism and misogyny in society is reflected in the police. It’s institutional. I hope our book makes clear why this abuse should never have been allowed to happen, and why it should never happen again.”
*Alison is a pseudonym. Deep ‘Deception: The story of the spycop network by the women who uncovered the shocking truth’ is published today by Ebury Publishing