The Lives of Ronald Pinn

Andrew O’Hagan

I first went to Camberwell New Cemetery about six years ago, looking for the grave of a young man called Melvin Bryan, a petty criminal who died after being stabbed at a drug-house in Edmonton. Walking down the pathways and over the crisp, frozen leaves, I’d noticed how many of the people buried there had died young – you can often pick them out by the soft toys resting against the gravestones. Last winter I came back to the same place. It was even colder this time, and the pathways were glittering as I made my way down to the church. I hadn’t taken in before that Charlie Richardson, leader of the Richardson Gang, was buried here, as well as George Cornell, the gangster shot by the Kray Twins in The Blind Beggar pub. But it was the graves and sentry toys of the unknown children that had lodged in my mind. The trees were bare, filtering light on the tombstones and pointing down at the stories gathered there. When I say ‘stories’, I don’t only mean the ones clinging to the gravestones, but the stories you come with, the tales you tell yourself and that don’t yet have a particular meaning. For some reason not yet clear to me, I noted down the names of Paul Ives, Graham Paine (‘who lost his life by drowning’), Clifford John Dunn, Ronald Alexander Pinn and John Hill, all of whom were born in the 1960s, as I was, and died early.

The practice of using dead children’s identities began in the Metropolitan Police Force in the 1960s. Until very recently, it was thought, in-house, to be a legitimate part of an undercover officer’s tradecraft. It involved taking a child’s name from a gravestone or a register and building what the police called a ‘legend’ around it. When I first heard about it, I wondered if the officers involved in this activity were not in fact covert novelists, giving their ‘characters’ a hinterland that suited the purpose of their present investigations, as well as a false passport and a new face. The Met officers, without informing the families of the children, and using their original birth certificates, built a profile for themselves that would pass for an actual person. And as such – as actual people – these policemen infiltrated left-wing groups posing as activists. In 2013 several officers who had worked for the Met’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), including a Sergeant John Dines, admitted using the identities of dead children to conceal their own identity. Dines took the name of John Barker, who died of leukaemia in 1968, at the age of eight. In several of the cases, officers kept their fake identities for more than ten years and exploited them in sexual situations. To strengthen their ‘backstory’, they would visit the places of their ‘childhood’, walking around the houses they had lived in before they died, all the better to implant the legend of their second life.

Mick Creedon, chief constable of Derbyshire, reporting last year as part of Operation Herne, stated that 106 covert identities had been ‘identified as having been used by the SDS between 1968 and 2008’, and confirmed that many of those identities had been ‘fictitious’. For reasons of ‘operational security’, the chief constable would not confirm or deny the names of specific dead children or specific police officers. There was no moral questioning. The report was forced into existence by bad press, and, though it made apologies, we were left with no real sense of what exactly had been done. The situation said a lot about the power of the police and the power of the media to move the police to apology. Yet the story went deeper than that. What was it to live a second life? What was it to use a person’s identity – and did anyone own it in the first place? Is it the spirit of the present age, that in the miasma of social media everyone’s ‘truth’ is exploitable, especially by themselves? Is the line between the real and the fictional fixed, and could I cross the line of my own inquiry and do the police in different voices? Could I take a dead young man’s name and see how far I could go in animating a fake life for him? How wrong would it be to go on such a journey and do what these men had done? I chose to get at the conundrum by pursuing Ronald Pinn into the fantastical dimensions of a future life he didn’t live. If the task ahead turned on an outrageous defilement of a person’s identity, then that, too, would be part of the story I was trying to tell. But the costs were real. An immersion in wrongdoing and illegality would be necessary to tell it from the absolute centre.

Ronald Alexander Pinn
DIED 9.8.1984
Aged 20 years.
My happy handsome son,
I pray for the day when we meet again,
All my love, Mum.

I had no idea as I left East Dulwich that evening how far beyond the police’s bad behaviour the story would go; that it would be about the ghostliness of the internet and the way we live with it. But I remember putting on my car headlamps and watching the yellow light pick out the graves, and I stayed there for a while thinking about the fictions I had grown up with.


The real Ronald Pinn was born on 23 January 1964. His mother’s name was Glenys Lilian Evans and she came from the area around the Old Kent Road. His father grew up in the same part of London and was working as a builder when Ronnie was born. In that year, they lived at 183 St James’s Road in Bermondsey. British Pathé footage shot on the Old Kent Road during the 1970s shows children on the streets, and early in my search, I used to scan the little groups playing by building sites or standing at bus stops, the children under the advertising hoardings or walking past the shops, to see if any of them resembled a blond-haired boy in a photo on a family tree, a boy that a family research website told me was Ronnie Pinn.

That photo was the only evidence of Ronald Pinn’s existence in the public domain: a blurred and fuzzy image of a person whom hardly anyone still remembered. As far as the internet was concerned, Ronald Pinn had never existed, and neither had any of his family. There were no reports, nothing from any newspapers, no certificates, no records and no social media footprint to measure. Just this single, blurred photo. I began to wonder if paperwork or old-fashioned memory might have preserved what the internet disdained, but everyday material that hasn’t been digitised and has no fame value is increasingly hard to find. I wrote to all the people in all the school classes that might have been attended by Ronnie Pinn. I wrote to all the Pinns in London. And only slowly did one or two emerge from the non-digital ether, the old-fashioned air, to tell me what they remembered of him. His family had lived in Avondale Square, just off the Old Kent Road, and I went to see the tired old flats down there. I could see him playing on the grassy mound in the hot summer of 1976 when he was 12. I could see him shouting up to his mother standing on the balcony and parking his Chopper by the trees under the flats. And often I realised it wasn’t Ronnie I was seeing: I was seeing myself, a boy of similar age who somehow knew those places well, and hung about in the unrecorded life.

Ronnie went to Sir John Cass’s Foundation Primary School, a Church of England school not far from the Tower of London, but nobody remembers him there. I saw some photographs of boys on an outing to Stonehenge; it was the right period, but Ronnie wasn’t pictured. Pupils remembered other people and they remembered the school’s routines, like walking in twos to St Bodolph’s in Aldgate to take part in church services. Ronnie’s mother hadn’t liked the look of the primary school near where they were living, so he made the journey each day to Sir John Cass’s, and he was happy there if not commemorated in any way. Former pupils at Bacon’s Secondary School in Bermondsey still talk about the famous people who went there, but nobody noticed that, after primary school, Ronnie Pinn was there too, until 1980. In my hunt for the real Ronnie, I thought several times that I saw him in grainy photos posted by ex-pupils on Friends Reunited. Was he not the boy in the white shirt at the edge of a photograph taken in front of the school in 1980, with kids tumbling over each other and somebody spraying from a shook-up can?

He tended to do well in class but on a report card for July 1978 you can see things were changing. His attendance was dropping and he had four detentions. He got an A in Maths and Drama, but did less well in English and got a D in French (‘Ronald made very little progress this year’). He got an A in Metalwork, but the teacher couldn’t think of his name and wrote ‘Robert’ while telling him to keep up the good work. His form teacher, Mr Norman, said that ‘Ronnie’s attitude and standard of work is slipping. I hope that he takes note of what has been said to him recently. He is always pleasant and happy.’ Ronnie seemed like a person ready for the world outside and he left school as soon as he was allowed to. Someone remembered him on a trip to Wales. ‘Ronnie said he was in the dorm when a little boy came and sat on the end of his bed in the middle of the night, a boy dressed in old-fashioned clothes. Then he disappeared.’ The person who told me this then sighed. ‘I think Ronnie was born to die. I mean, we all are, but him especially.’

Ronnie met a girl, Nicola Searle, whose family worked the market stalls just outside London, and he started working with them. That was his life for a time, a certain amount of ducking and diving in the stallholders’ world. Eventually he bought a Golf soft-top car and he idolised it. He wasn’t ambitious. He went on nights out and he bought some suits and took the occasional line of cocaine. It was the early 1980s and boys like Ronnie were popping up in the City and making new selves for themselves. But Ronnie seemed happy to stick with the same small group of friends in South London. Some time in 1983, his girlfriend broke with him and took up with a guy they both knew called Coxy. Ronnie couldn’t understand it – the guy turned out to be no good – but he found another girl, Sharon, ‘a girl with legs up to here’, he said, and people insist he would have married her. The break-up was awkward because he was still living in a flat he’d leased from Nicola’s family, high up in a block in Cotton Gardens, halfway down Kennington Lane.

It was a Thursday, the day he died. He had a habit of ringing his mother every day but she hadn’t heard from him that week. She went looking for him, and, after asking around, found his car in a side street off the Tower Bridge Road. She couldn’t understand why he would leave his car there and she went in search of him. At a pub near Avondale Square she met a friend of Ronnie’s called David. He said he’d been with Ronnie the day before and that Ronnie was in bed the last time he saw him. (The coroner would later describe this man as an ‘unsavoury witness’ without detailing why.) Mrs Pinn, in company with another boy from the bar, went to the block of flats where Ronnie lived. She was nervous going up there because it just wasn’t Ronnie to let days go by without ringing her to say hello, and her panic increased when they discovered his flat was locked from the inside. The caretaker and the young friend went to find another way in while Mrs Pinn sat in a neighbour’s flat. When I first learned of the basic circumstances of Ronnie Pinn’s death, I didn’t know if his mother was alive. I was still looking through electoral rolls and writing letters to people who weren’t her. She never believed Ronnie was a heroin addict. Was the heroin dose that killed him part of a life she didn’t know about?

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