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Living, eating and dreaming revolution

The Soviet state was born in violence and shaped with merciless determination. Lenin played a central role in its creation.

A hundred years after he came to power, Lenin’s is a face that everyone recognises. We all have our impressions of the man: my own include a marble version by the coat racks in a Russian archive where I work in Moscow, and a lump of a statue on the square nearby. In Soviet times, almost all public buildings had a portrait of the leader on display, although when it came to private space a calendar with kittens was what most people preferred.

The Lenin portraits are becoming rarer now – they have been disappearing for almost 30 years – but if you happen to be near Red Square you can still drop in on the man himself. Inside his ugly mausoleum, Lenin is deader than the clumsiest urban bronze. His very suit is dowdy, as if cut for some unloved great-grandparent. The cult that put his statue into every small-town square in Russia has drained the last sparks of humanity. Ostensibly so reverent, it turned its hero into a wax doll. His lips no longer moved, of course, but Stalin reduced him to a prop, a grotesque ventriloquist’s puppet.

Intrigued by this historic conjuring trick, I resolved to find out about the real man. My search began on a spring afternoon in the old part of Zurich, Lenin’s final European home. When he left it, in April 1917, he ceased to be an illegal conspirator, another exiled Russian in scuffed boots and bat-like coat. Accompanied by his wife, his ex-lover and an assortment of supporters, he strode through Zurich Central Station and embarked on the most momentous rail journey in history, the ride that took him on to Russia and his future as the world’s first Soviet head of state. But he started out from a European city and he always saw the continent as his political home.

Another trick the Soviet ventriloquists pulled off was to turn Lenin into their exclusive property, a Russian figure towering above the outside world. The man would never have agreed. He revered Germany and German intellectuals; he admired Europe’s cultural and economic successes. He even learned his rhetoric by watching Sunday speakers in Hyde Park. Walking round Zurich, I could not forget that he was largely made in Europe, part of a pan-Continental socialist movement whose heyday ended with the First World War. Whatever happened later, he always saw his revolution as European, even global.

Lenin loved Switzerland: he liked the mountains and the bracing walks, and he did not mind about the food. As other parts of Europe shut their doors to foreigners, Switzerland became his haven, a place where he could work and talk. Above all, he enjoyed its libraries. His favourite, beside the medieval Predigerkirche, still looks as it did when he worked there. Although he lived five minutes’ walk away (in cramped and airless rooms above a sausage factory), it was here that he passed some of his happiest hours. He was sure to be waiting outside when the doors opened each morning, ­eager to claim his customary desk and line up his pre-sharpened arsenal of pencils.

That Zurich library was the place where, in 1916, Lenin completed his extended essay “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, a work that helped to justify his revolution the following year. The research for it was prodigious. In a few months, he read 148 books and 232 articles in English, French and German, including works by Aristotle and Hegel. In a different age, he might have lost himself in books; he would have made a formidable headmaster.

The Soviets exaggerated Lenin’s so-called genius, but he was certainly tenacious and quick. What he was missing was the gene for self-doubt and humility. The man’s arrogance left others panting in his wake. Years earlier, in his student days (when he was balding fast), friends used to joke among themselves that he had such a big brain that it was pushing his hair out.

The baldness became a defining feature, but what Lenin’s acquaintances in Zurich remembered was a small and energetic man: informal, quick to crack a joke. He was a good listener, too, which is surprising in a character more usually associated with dictatorship. When Russian exiles came to Switzerland he was always keen to question them, to know each secret of their lives and thoughts. He listened to Swiss workers, too, and took an interest in the minutiae of local industrial production. A new arrival might be made to perch on one of Lenin’s battered chairs and detail every aspect of his work. But everyone was also catechised about the revolution and the working class.

Lenin lived entirely for the cause he served and expected his followers to do the same. Whatever else helped him to power, that single-mindedness was critical. “Lenin is the only man for whom revolution is the preoccupation 24 hours a day,” a fellow exile wrote of him, “who has no thoughts but of revolution, and who even in his sleep dreams of nothing but revolution.”

The wartime debate among socialists in Europe is largely a forgotten one. Soviet propagandists ensured that Lenin would appear to dominate, as confident as any prophet with his eyes fixed on the way ahead. But the reality was more confused, and even Lenin sometimes worried that his destiny was falling behind schedule. Just days before the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917, he told Swiss workers that he feared he might never live to see the revolution he was working for. At such times, he put his faith in the idea that life must constantly improve, accepting Marx’s view of History (with a capital H) in the same breath as Darwin’s natural selection or human technological progress. Capitalism was wrong, imperialism was worse, and therefore working people must eventually defeat both threats and liberate themselves. Lenin was never fatalistic – he was obsessed with action and leadership – but whenever the machinery of revolution stalled he was sustained by that logical certainty.

In Zurich, I was struck by the absurdity of it. The mere idea of progress was becoming obsolete in 1917. For evidence, you need do nothing more than stroll from Lenin’s quarters to the Cabaret Voltaire, which still stands on the bottom corner of his street. When he was living up the hill, this was the home of Dada, the wartime movement that rejected order, reason and virtuous self-improvement. Even as Lenin was proclaiming Soviet power, there was something quaint, even old-fashioned, in the idea that human beings could perfect their world.

However innovative early Soviet culture proved, attracting artists from across the world, I suspect that at its heart there was a measure of nostalgia. The First World War blew great holes in the dream of human perfectibility. Soviet fantasies were attractive precisely because they offered to patch those up, to make things better, get us all back on our feet.

But revolutions need more than beautiful ideas. The Soviet state was born in violence and shaped with merciless determination. Lenin played a central role in its creation. In some ways its eventual character – anarchic provincialism cropped and stretched to fit a template as unkind as the mythical Procrustean bed – remains the best guide to the inner workings of the man. He was ever labouring, crushing himself as well as history to fit a shape. But no biographer is satisfied with that. Yearning to look beyond the politics, each seeks to turn the leader into someone like ourselves.

***

His sex life is a favoured starting point, but the reality of that was dull. Lenin met his future wife when he was 24 and remained with her (more or less) until he died. Nadezhda Krupskaya was serious, loyal and committed; she made a perfect consort for this gifted and difficult man. The only other woman in the case was a well-to-do mother-of-four, Inessa Armand, with whom Lenin had a brief physical affair. Instead of engaging in torrid rows with his wife, however, Armand befriended her. The pair would sit and mend the leader’s clothes. They also shared the burdens of their man’s unending party work: the ­letter-writing and accounts, the maintenance of international contacts. Lenin was an exile and a socialist, but somehow he missed out on all the absinthe and late-night cigarettes.

It bears repeating that Lenin’s priorities were exclusively political. He chose his friends for their commitment and broke with almost all of them on points of principle. He was the first to suffer from his own relentless discipline, giving up pleasures such as chess and music because they distracted him. Even the hiking that he loved was designed to maintain his fitness for the day when revolution came.

Abjuring sentimental pacifism, he carved out a position on the far left of the European anti-war socialist movement, enjoining the working class to turn its weapons on the rich. His message was bloodthirsty even by wartime standards, but his tenacity got him noticed. In April 1917, when officials at the German foreign ministry were looking for someone to destabilise the Russian empire and destroy its capacity to fight, Lenin’s was the name that topped the list. It was the German government that got him home and German gold that helped finance his subsequent campaign.

In Russia’s capital, Petrograd, the revolution was already two months old. Lenin was not the first exile to come home to brass bands and popular applause. A few weeks previously, the Georgian socialist Irakli Tsereteli had arrived from Siberia and immediately assumed a prominent role in the directly elected Petrograd soviet. Three days before Lenin, the grand old man of Russian Marxism, Georgy Plekhanov, had arrived at the Finland Station to a hero’s welcome. The crowds turned out for other liberated exiles, too, including the well-known Bolshevik Lev Kamenev and a louche young man called Joseph Stalin. In the chaos of springtime Petrograd, each made some impact on the revolutionary cause, but none had the volcanic force of Lenin. He stepped off the train from Finland, after eight days of relentless tension, at 11.10pm on Easter Monday. His feet had barely touched the ground before he began his first great speech. His words were shocking, electric and terrifying.

Lenin’s secret was simple: he would give shape to Petrograd’s inchoate disappointment, bringing new focus to the people’s anger, fear and hope. But that first night his audience thought he was mad. He dismissed any thought that democratic Russia had been coping splendidly without him. This went against the grain for some; at the point when he returned, the revolutionary government was moving towards agreement on the conduct of the war, a painful process that involved calming the fears of Russia’s allies (Britain and France) and indicating how liberties should not be taken by its enemies (Germany and ­Austria-Hungary). In thrashing out this policy, Petrograd’s ill-assorted leadership had begun to coalesce: the businessmen with monocles, the professors and lawyers, the writers and the whey-faced former exiles of the left. There were dissenters on all sides, including left-wing members of Lenin’s faction, but the majority saw merit, even hope, in fragile unity. In his first breath in Petrograd, Lenin savaged the lot of them.

He told his listeners that workers had no interest in the capitalists’ war. The people should be armed, but their opponents were the bourgeoisie – the landowners and businessmen – not German proletarians. Lenin also insisted that his party should stop co-operating with the representatives of the old bourgeoisie, the men in suits who still sat in the government. Only the soviets, he said, could speak and act for workers as the next stage of the revolution dawned.

Within three months this clarity, which looked insane on that first night, became his party’s greatest strength. But Lenin’s very popularity turned him into a political target. In July 1917, accused of treason in connection with that fabled German gold, he fled to Finland in fear for his life.

Once there, he pondered the bleak news from Petrograd. The war was going badly for Russia. The tsar might no longer be in charge, but nothing else in the army had changed for the better. As the summer wore on, desertions ran to tens of thousands and regimental discipline collapsed. Meanwhile, the pressure on production workers, especially those in the armaments and transport industries, grew ever more intolerable, while prices rose and food supplies remained erratic. Strikes once again left factories at a standstill, but the left-liberal government had no convincing answers. Even some socialists, in so far as they remained committed to defensive war, appeared to share responsibility for the mounting hardship, rage and fear. Only one party stood out from the rest, the one that had been calling for an end to fighting all along, the one that promised workers their time had come.

***

Lenin had won that argument, but he remained cautious. State power in a tormented Russia was a prize few cared to win. From July to early September, the leader urged compromise and creative delay. But something changed in mid-September. In his borrowed Finnish dacha, Lenin may have heard that the provisional government was at last considering peace talks with Germany, a development that might eliminate his party’s obvious political edge. Drawing on ideas that he had explored back in Zurich, he may have thought the time was right for a European revolution that Russia had a duty to lead. Whatever the reason, he started calling for an armed uprising. His letters even outlined the strategic moves. Once again, his followers were horrified. As he had done when he reshaped his party’s policy in April, Lenin faced the task of convincing them.

It was a job that called for all his bullet-proof self-confidence. With the government cracking down on dissent, even the journey back to Petrograd was risky. Disguised in a wig, Lenin arrived in such secrecy that he surprised his own lieutenants. Two weeks before his celebrated coup, he was a beardless refugee, hammering a suburban table as his comrades sat and stared. But the speeches that he gave that October were among the best he ever made. He did not view his revolution as a local matter, nor merely as a power-grab. In Zurich, he had come to see his country as the weakest link in the chain of global imperialism, the link whose rupture would begin the liberation of the world. If lost, this moment might not come again. As he put it to a midnight meeting in a borrowed room way out of town: “History will not forgive us if we do not take power now!”

This is the Lenin everybody knows, the one in all the portraits. He strides towards the future or he rages at the crowd, but everything he does is right and he can be relied upon to know the way ahead.

In fact, the coup in late October that overthrew Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government was a disputed affair: to the end, some of Lenin’s comrades urged a democratic deal and power-sharing. Then came the details, practical and gritty, which Lenin trusted to a group of stalwarts working round the clock. He provided the leadership – he never seemed to tire in those first critical weeks – but he relied on Leon Trotsky and his armed detachments of Petrograd workers, on members of the Baltic fleet, on his Latvian guards. In the provinces, where his revolution encountered early resistance, the comrades clung on through sheer energy. The Bolsheviks’ hour might have come, but none of Russia’s problems had been solved.

It took arrogance to hold the line throughout the civil war. As Russia tore itself apart, Lenin proved as obstinate as he was merciless. He could order the deaths of tens of thousands – terror became a propaganda tool – and he encouraged class-based hate without compunction. Yet all this was his duty, not some sadistic rampage. Tight-lipped and sober, always with a pen to hand, he never ventured to appear in military uniform. He took no joy in bloodshed, never witnessed executions. There was no white horse for this man to ride, nor did he tour the front lines of his own long war. As flies swarmed on the corpses in the streets and other people’s libraries were burned for fuel, he worked an 18-hour day and never grudged the paperwork.

His authority was legendary. At his new office in Moscow in the Kremlin, Lenin was the ultimate arbiter, the indispensable voice of the future. There was no proper challenger. But that was also his final problem, because it meant there could never be an heir. However loftily he towered over politics, the private Lenin knew that he had failed. He had seized power for the world, but even Europe let him down. In Germany and then Italy and central Europe, the spark of revolution flickered briefly and died. Soviet Russia was becalmed in a sea of hostile capitalist powers, unable to proceed with its global communist mission. Lenin died in January 1924. His revolution had not brought about the future he had planned for it.

At the end of my journey, the biggest surprise is not the monstrosity of Lenin’s vision (we are all familiar with that) but the sentimental clutter in which he lived. His apartment in a respectable part of Petrograd, where he spent three months in the spring of 1917, returning every night from late-running meetings at the headquarters of his party’s paper, Pravda, does not reflect futurism or the glories of a communist new world – the rooms could have been designed for characters out of Dickens. Every cushion and pillowcase is edged with fancy needlework, each surface crowded with knick-knacks. Lenin may have changed the course of history, but his imagination stopped at beaded lampshades and a matching shaving set. The effect is suffocating, yet it was this gentility for which so many died.

Imprisoned in a sanitorium by his final stroke, Lenin must have pictured these old rooms, revisiting the wooden clock, the copper bath, his mother’s framed studio photograph. That embalmed corpse is very dead; the horror is all here.

Catherine Merridale is the author of “Lenin on the Train” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
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“I teach dirty tricks”: the explosives expert who shows armies how to deal with terrorists

Sidney Alford used to blow things up in his garage. Now his expertise is helping save lives.

“I’ll fetch the hammer,” says Sidney Alford, leaving me in a laboratory filled with mysteriously named drawers and small bottles with skulls on their labels. When he has fetched it – “it’s a jeweller’s hammer, given to me in Paris by a friend of Salvador Dali” – the 82-year-old plans to tap gently on a small mound of white powder called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, better known as the explosive favoured by Isis in their suicide belts and homemade bombs. Because of its instability and destructive power, its nickname is “Mother of Satan”.

Tapping it with a hammer is enough to make it go bang.

Directing me to stand by the door, he searches for ear plugs before stuffing some paper in his ears – “I’m quite deaf, you know,” were almost his first words to me that morning – and begins to tap the Mother of Satan. On the fourth tap, it explodes in a genteel fashion with a flash and a pop. Its sensitivity to percussion is one of the reasons that jihadi bomb-makers suffer so many workplace accidents. “See,” Alford says. “You’d be OK walking, just don’t fall over or get shot.”

I have wanted to meet Sidney Alford ever since I heard about him from the investigative journalist Meirion Jones, who once uncovered a British man who sold £50m-worth of fake bomb detectors in Iraq and other countries. (The fraudster, James McCormick, was jailed for ten years in 2013.)

Giving a presentation to students, Jones mentioned that he could prove the gadgets were useless – just black boxes with radio aerials sticking out of them – because he had taken them “to a guy the BBC uses for explosives, who has a quarry in Somerset where he blows things up”. I decided then and there that I was very interested in being in a quarry in Somerset where someone blew things up. Maybe I would even get to press the button.

There was a less childish reason for visiting, too. Sidney Alford’s life story is interwoven with one of the technologies that defines the modern world: explosives. We fear explosives – suicide bombs, car bombs, bombs on aircraft – but we also need them, for everything from realistic film scenes to demolition. (Alford has a letter from Stanley Kubrick thanking him for his help on Full Metal Jacket.) Surprisingly, the best way to defuse an explosive is often with another explosive, something that Sidney’s company, Alford Technologies, has pioneered.

In other words, if you want to make something go bang – or, just as importantly, stop something going bang – he is the man to talk to. Quite loudly.

***

The first explosive materials Alford ever saw were fragments of bombs and V2 rockets left over from the German shelling of London. Born in 1935 in the suburb of Ilford, he moved with his family to Bournemouth when the Second World War broke out. When he returned, he found rich pickings in his battered neighbourhood in the form of magnesium incendiary bombs, which he filed down and turned into fireworks.

I ask him if, like my own father, he ever frightened his teachers with nitrogen triiodide, an unstable explosive compound that schoolchildren used to make themselves and set off in lessons to terrify unwary members of staff in the era before health and safety. “Oh yes,” he says. “I put it under my French teacher’s chair.” A pause. “He’d been in the army, so he didn’t make a fuss.”

Alford went to a grammar school, where he was an undistinguished pupil, angry that the headmaster wouldn’t let him learn German (rather than Latin) so he could speak to the Jewish child refugees he knew. But he was always interested in chemistry, and “by the fifth form, I’d recruit classmates to make bigger bangs”.

A chemistry degree came next, followed by a series of odd jobs, including diet research and studying the brain, an MSc in the science of environmental pollution, and two business associations with men he now characterises as “bad sorts”, who ripped him off.

By this time, he had moved to Ham, in west London, and had begun to take his chemistry experiments more seriously. It was the early 1970s, and the IRA’s bombing campaign had come to England. How could these weapons be neutralised, Alford wondered? Was it better to encase suspect packages in “blast containers”, or use shaped charges – typically, small cones that focus explosive energy into a point – to disrupt their ability to go off?

A brief digression on explosives is necessary here. When you think of something going bang in a spectacular fashion, that’s a detonation. “Detonare,” says Alford at one point during my tour of the quarry, relishing the Latin. “Like thunder.”

High explosives such as TNT, nitroglycerin or Semtex can be detonated by administering a violent shock to the main charge using a small amount of relatively sensitive and violent material in a metal capsule. This creates a hot shock wave, which sweeps through the substance faster than the speed of sound.

Old-fashioned gunpowder, house fires and your car’s internal combustion engine go through a different process, known as “deflagration”, where the chemical reaction moves through the molecules much more slowly. This burning is usually less dramatic and easier to manage. (Alford hates the term “controlled explosion”, reasoning that an expert should always control their explosions. If they fail, it’s a cock-up.)

The theory goes, then, that if you attack a munition just hard enough to ignite its contents but without causing a violent shock wave, it will deflagrate but, on a good day, it will not detonate. “Yes, it might make a massive fireball, but I’ve done it in jungles under a tree,” says Alford. “[With deflagration] the tree may lose most of its leaves, but with detonation, there is no tree.”

In the 1970s, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his suburban garage. There, he would experiment with making explosive charges, using measured quantities of material in different casings. He would leave his car engine running so any bangs could be plausibly written off as backfiring.

This cover story clearly didn’t wash with the neighbours, though, as first the police and then MI5 – “the most gentlemanly man” – came round to see why exactly a chemistry graduate they had never heard of was blowing stuff up in his suburban garage. When he explained himself to the security services, they put him in touch with the Ministry of Defence, and he was offered a contract.

***

Alford Technologies has a slogan: “For when you can’t afford to fail”. It also has an office in a business park outside Trowbridge in Wiltshire, but the real action happens at its testing ground, a former quarry amid the rolling hills of the Mendips, not far outside Bath. It feels like a cross between a scrapyard and a building site. “Here’s the bottom half of a Soviet mine, which we use as a brazier,” says Alford at one point, prodding it with a toecap.

Soldiers from various armies come here to learn about explosives and how to render them harmless. It’s vital work: last year in Iraq and Syria there were dozens of car bombs, with a single one in Baghdad claiming 250 lives. In Manchester this year an Isis-inspired jihadi killed 22 concert-goers and injured 250 with a backpack bomb apparently built from instructions found on the internet.

Learning to counter such threats means understanding them; jihadists and other terrorists might have access only to basic materials, but many also display great ingenuity. When I ask why Alford has a packet of Tampax in his lab, he says the tampons can be dipped in liquid explosives and turned into cartridges: “I teach dirty tricks so they don’t get caught out by them.”

Sidney Alford’s contributions to the world of explosives rest on an unlikely substance: water. When he first began tinkering in his garage in the 1970s, engineers had already worked out a rough-and-ready way of disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They used a gun barrel loaded with a blank cartridge to fire a jet of water that broke through the explosive’s casing and disrupted it. However, a sufficiently strong casing – say, one made of steel – could defeat this method.

In a low outbuilding in the quarry, Alford shows me his answer to this problem. Within a shaped charge, the force of a small explosion collapses a metal cone, turning it inside out and extruding it into a long, thin rod that shoots out at high velocity, about five times faster than a bullet.

The young chemist had an idea: why not combine the water from the older gun-barrel method with the accuracy and force of the metal jet in a shaped charge? In Alford inventions such as the Vulcan and the Pluton, the explosive charge shoots a targeted jet of water at high speed and with incredible accuracy.

Ho ho, you’re thinking. Water! Very scary. This is broadly what I thought until I saw one of Alford’s smaller shaped charges in action. After the demonstration with the hammer, he put on a pair of sturdy boots instead of brogues and we hopped into a small four-by-four to get to the base of the quarry. “Should I take my safety glasses?” I asked, even though we would be inside an old reinforced lookout hut salvaged from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. “Oh no,” replied Alford. “If it goes wrong, it will kill you. No need to waste a perfectly good pair of glasses.”

The Vulcan is about six-inches long, with a case of grey plastic, and loaded with 30g of plastic explosives with a cone of water held in front of it. The explosive is “about two toasts’ worth of butter,” said Alford’s project manager, Matt Eades, who served in the Royal Engineers for 25 years.

Alford placed the charge above a 10mm-thick steel plate using the aluminium-wire legs as a tripod, inserted an electric detonator into the Vulcan, and we retired to the hut, whose thick, double-glazed windows gave a good, if smeary, view of the sandpit. “If you write a nice, ingratiating article about me you can press the button,” said Alford.

I pressed the button.

There was a significant bang, making me glad of my ear defenders, but the plume went straight upwards. When we ventured out to the sandpit, Alford practically skipped up the side and fished out the metal plate, now with a clean-edged circular hole punched straight through it.

This practical demonstration had followed a whirlwind tour of the various Alford Technologies products and a brisk explanation of the theory of explosives. Alford clearly enjoys naming his creations: the Vulcan sits in his display alongside the Krakatoa and the Vesuvius, which can also be used for bomb disposal and demolition. The BootBanger is so called because “it bangs car boots” while the Van Trepan cuts a neat, round hole in the top of a larger vehicle. The Bottler is not only shaped like a bottle, but named for the Australian slang “that’s a bottler”, which Alford translates as “the cat’s whiskers”.

Even the Dioplex, a linear charge that creates a chopping blade, has a story attached: “I thought it was a do-it-yourself device, but I thought ‘do it oneself’ sounded better. So: ‘Do It Oneself Plastic Explosive’.”

One of the things a trip to the quarry teaches me is that the ways in which humans try to kill and maim each other are nothing if not inventive. The company sells a version of a Bangalore torpedo, an old invention used by Alford’s own father when he fought in the First World War. This is a modular tube you can push underneath barbed wire, blowing it apart to clear a path for infantry. A stronger version was needed, Alford says, because of the advent of razor wire. “Barbed wire was soft steel, designed to keep in cows. Razor wire was designed to cut you.” The new Alford Bangalore Blade torpedoes through the wire coils, severing them using four aluminium cutters and creating an unobstructed 10m route through.

The Breacher’s Boot is a door-shaped panel filled with water, used to punch through walls in hostage situations. “It gives a ‘kick’ to the wall, so bits of it will fall down. You don’t want to use shaped charges then,” he says. “If there’s a person on the other side of the wall, you’d cut them in half. And if you simply used a mass of high explosive, the concrete would fly almost horizontally.”

A similar idea lies behind the Alford Strip, a sticky rope of explosives and tamping material used in terror arrests, where the police would once have used a sledgehammer to open a door, but are now much more worried about booby traps. You run the 25mm- or 42mm-long plastic extrusion down a door, window or wall and then lay a length of det cord far enough away from it to put service personnel at a safer distance.

Down in the quarry, having punched through one square steel plate, we now try ten taped together versus a 40g load of explosives and a copper cone. The result: a 2m-high flash and the same clean hole – although the jet doesn’t make it through all ten plates. It stops at seven.

This isn’t an error: the shaped charges can use copper, water, aluminium or magnesium, depending on the force and space needed. Magnesium is incendiary; water and aluminium might be chosen because they lose velocity very quickly. You cut through what you want to cut through, without damaging either the structural integrity of the object surrounding it or innocent bystanders.

This precision is particularly important in demolition work. Last year, Alford Technologies took over the contract to break up Didcot Power Station, slicing through steel beams to dismantle the decommissioned building. It was called in after a terrible accident on 23 February 2016, when four workers employed by a respected firm, Coleman and Company, were killed while trying to lay charges inside the structure. “There was this crash – I looked over my shoulder and saw the boiler coming down,” one of the survivors, Mathew Mowat, told the Birmingham Mail. “We ran in self-preservation – then there was a loud bang and a massive cloud of dust, we couldn’t see much for a few minutes.”

It took months to recover the bodies of all four missing men, who had to be identified from dental records and tattoos.

***

Over an Eccles cake in the main office, Alford tells me about some of his other jobs, including cutting up sunken ships in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” of the mid-1980s, between Iran and Iraq, and joining a mission to retrieve £40m in gold bars from HMS Edinburgh, which sank in 1942 off the coast of Norway. (It was carrying 4,570kg of Russian bullion destined for the western allies.) The ship had been designated a war grave to stop it being plundered, and an air of mystery hung over the whole salvage project. Alford was told not to mention that he was an explosives expert.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work – and his anti-authoritarian streak – has caused conflict. “I’m doing things government departments ought to be doing,” he tells me in the car on the way to the quarry. “I’m in the anomalous position of someone who is quite admired, but also quite despised. Civil servants hate my guts.” When he was 40, he says, he asked for a formal job working with the department of defence, “and was told I was too old to have new ideas”. He set up Alford Technologies in 1985, and it now employs six people. The latest set of accounts at Companies House value the firm’s net worth at £2.3m.

Although Alford is scrupulously careful when handling explosives, he loathes health-and-safety culture. As we tramp round the quarry, he indicates a sign next to a pond, reading “Deep Water”, and tuts theatrically. He voted for Brexit to give the establishment a kick, not thinking it would actually happen.

It is a source of great chagrin that the government breathes down his neck, regulating what compounds he can keep and how he can keep them. “You have to have a licence for every substance,” he tells me in the car. “I’ve got them all. Well, it might be different if I wanted to go nuclear.”

 In 1996, he decided to make a stand against the pettifogging bureaucracy that, as he saw it, interfered with his work. Spooked by the thought of Irish republican terrorism, the regulators had insisted that he had to put a lock on his explosives store. “I told them that if the IRA really wanted to get my explosives, they would kidnap one of my family.” (He has two sons with his Japanese-born wife, Itsuko; the elder, 46-year-old Roland, now runs the business.) Besides which, he didn’t see why he should put an alarm on his few kilos of various explosives when the farmer next door had tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, a key ingredient in the IRA’s bomb-making.

The stand-off broke when his request to renew his explosives licence was turned down; soon after, the police came to raid his stores. He had tipped off a friendly journalist, however, and the visit was captured on camera and written up first in the local paper and then the Daily Mail, where Christopher Booker took up the cause of a Englishman’s inalienable right to keep high explosives in his shed. “I felt morally obliged to be prosecuted,” he says now.

The court case, documented in the newspaper clippings, sounds like a mixture of deadening legal procedure and high farce. At the magistrates’ court, Alford and a friend pursued and rearrested the next defendant, who tried to do a runner; when his case was kicked upwards to Swindon Crown Court, he turned up in an armoured Daimler Ferret, posing for photographs with his head poking out of the top, white hair tucked into a helmet. He was eventually charged with possessing explosives without a licence and fined £750, with £250 costs. The judge ordered the police to give him his licence back, but ticked him off for using the court system for political purposes.

Listening to this story, it becomes clearer why Alford never ended up in the warm embrace of an official government role. He offered his ideas to the Ministry of Defence, but he shows me a letter from April 1977, where an unlucky official reveals that he is “regarding your correspondence with diminishing enthusiasm”. Still, he is sanguine. “Most of my enemies have now gone to the laboratory in the sky, or retired,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t work for them. Would I have fitted in? Probably not.” In any case, he has had some official recognition, receiving an OBE in 2015.

***

Alford’s work is used in war zones including Afghanistan, but also places like Cambodia, which are still riddled with unexploded ordnance from previous ground wars. Over the years, he has visited that country and Laos several times to practise new ways of dealing with old bombs. (The company produces a more affordable version of the Vulcan for non-military use.) He first went to Vietnam during the war; the last person, he says, to get a Japanese tourist visa into the country in the 1950s. The company’s brochures show smiling locals posing next to the sleeping monsters they have had to live alongside for decades.

But Iraq, too, is in dire need of methods to deal with cheap, homemade explosives. After Matt the Ex-Army Guy and Alford have demonstrated how to blow a door off its hinges, cut through a 50mm steel bar, and turn a fire extinguisher inside out – “that is unzipped in all known directions, it is a former IED,” says Alford, Pythonesquely – they show me the Bottler and the BootBanger.

They drag beer kegs into the boot of an old blue Nissan Almera, explaining that these were a favoured IRA device: who questions a few beer kegs in the street? First, they stick a Bottler between the front seats, showing how you would disrupt any electronics without setting the vehicle on fire – which would destroy forensic evidence. “They’d usually use a robot,” explains Matt. “And the robot usually leaves [the area], because they’re expensive.” A six-wheeler bomb disposal robot costs around £750,000.

We retreat again to the hut. I must be looking increasingly nervous, because Alford tries to reassure me about the building’s structural integrity: “If it tips over, it will take two weeks to get you out. But they’ll know where to find your body.”

As promised, the explosion is focused – and controlled, in the Alford-approved sense of the word. The windscreen is peeled back, lying on the roof, but the fuel tank didn’t ignite and the back windows are intact. “I know it might look like a mess,” says Matt, “but this would be classified as a result. You use a smaller bit of explosive to get rid of a larger one.”

Finally, it’s time for the big one. Matt slides the BootBanger, shaped like a suitcase, under the back end of the car. It has a curved sheet of 400g of plastic explosive through the middle, sandwiched by water on both sides and encased in nondescript grey plastic.

Now this is a bigger bang. I suddenly see the point of all those “Blasting!” warning signs that surround the quarry. If you drove past and heard this, you’d think the Russians had invaded. As an orange-red flame flashes and a deep, throaty boom fills the quarry, the beer kegs are fired out of the back of the car, pinwheeling 20 feet in the air and coming to rest yards away. Debris rains down on the roof of the hut. I swear I can hear the plinking sound of metal cooling. The car is now missing its back windscreen, and is, it’s fair to say, probably never going to pass another MOT. Nevertheless, it is still recognisably car-shaped; the skeleton is undisturbed.

Unfazed, Alford hurries to the car, and plucks a piece of paper from the boot, clearly left there by a previous owner. It is undamaged.

And then it’s time to rejoin the real world. As he drives me back to Bath, I ask Alford what it feels like to do what he does. He has saved possibly hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. “Yes, but in an already over-populated world,” he sighs.

I know he doesn’t mean it callously; he just doesn’t want credit for what, in his eyes, is barely a job at all. The schoolboy who wanted to make a bigger bang got his wish. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution