Wild hearts: the Brontës built a mythology around the Yorkshire landscape. Photo: Michael Turek/Gallery Stock.
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The A-Z of northern fiction

From the bonny beck to the kitchen sink and Heathcliff to the angry young men, Frances Wilson explores the personality of writing from the north of England, while Philip Maughan asks how the land lies today.

In Writing Home, Alan Bennett describes having speech difficulties. He grew up to be fluent in two voices. There was “speaking properly”, like in the matinees at the Grand Theatre on a Saturday afternoon, and there was “being yourself”, which was how he was expected to speak at home in Leeds, where his father was a butcher. “Speaking properly” was metropolitan and they did it down south; “being yourself” was provincial, like it was up north. As a fledgling dramatist, what was he to do? Should he write about the middleclass life he knew from books or the life in a dull, northern town in the 1950s that was “largely unwritten about”?

The children in the stories Bennett read as a boy all “spoke properly”. They called their parents Mummy and Daddy and lived in a “down south” equipped with thatched cottages, millstreams, picnics on red-and-white chequered tablecloths, owls in hollow trees and sticklebacks in buckets. Leeds could provide none of these things, not even hollow trees, so his only option if he wanted life to be more like literature was to try replacing “Mam” with “Mummy”. This was discouraged by his father as a sign of social pretension and of not “being himself”.

My experience of childhood reading was the opposite of Bennett’s. My compass always faced north. As someone of no fixed abode whose family perched during my most impressionable years in the West Midlands, I didn’t have a book in my bedroom that didn’t take me up the M1. The north had personality – it almost seemed to be a person – whereas the south, slumbering beneath me, was only a place. The south was literature’s finishing school but the north undid etiquette; it was where people stopped talking properly and became themselves. It was in the north that the spoiled Mary Lennox found her secret garden in the tangled grounds of Misselthwaite Manor and turned from nasty to nice; the north was where E Nesbit’s “railway children” – Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter – sent their love to their father on the 9.15 train to London and where John, Susan, Titty and Roger camped on their Lake District isle in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Dracula landed in Whitby, Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White was set in Cumberland and West Riding provided Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey and Catherine Earnshaw.

I would have loved then to have known the Newcastle of David Almond’s Skellig, where Michael befriends a Blakean angel in the garage. To me, the north was a place of courage and transformation while the south was about storing what you already had (sticklebacks in buckets).

Northern tales often contained two voices. In Wuthering Heights, some characters spoke “properly” while others, such as the servant Joseph, were so brazenly themselves that they seemed not to mind whether we understood them or not. Joseph’s vernacular was his badge of belonging: “T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld,” he would scowl. “Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him.” Like the poet and playwright Tony Harrison, Joseph subjected everything, as Alan Bennett put it, “to one defiant Leeds voice”. When Mary Lennox speaks, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, her words fall dead on the page but the language of her servant Martha soars into flight. The moor, Martha explains, is “none bare. It’s covered wi’ growin’ things as smells sweet.”

I identify the north of my childhood reading with the heritage north catered for by the refurbished Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth and the dinky reconstruction of Wordsworth’s cottage in Grasmere. There was, I later learned, a less Laura Ashley experience of northern writing. A new school of writers emerged in the social transformation of postwar Britain and the kitchen sink replaced the bonny beck. Bennett’s “largely unwritten-about” world became the subject of the northern “lad lit” of John Braine, raised in an Irish-Catholic enclave of lower middle-class Bradford; Stan Barstow, a coal miner’s son from the outskirts of Wakefield; and the Leeds-born Keith Waterhouse.

“We had the temerity to think we could write,” said Barstow, “but [with] no teachers and no models.” Heathcliff and Rochester had morphed into the daydreaming William Fisher in Waterhouse’s Billy Liar (1959), the upwardly mobile Joe Lampton in Braine’s Room at the Top (1957), Vic Brown in Barstow’s A Kind of Loving (1960) and the angry young Frank Machin, who leaves the pit to play league rugby in David Storey’s This Sporting Life (1960).

The other England: (from top left) Thomas De Quincey,
John Braine, Charlotte Brontë and Alan Bennett
Photos: Bridgeman, Rex, Getty

 

The West Riding of Waterhouse, Braine and Barstow is isolated and landlocked, caught, as David Storey puts it, between “two deep and narrow valleys on the eastern slope of the Pennines”. Its “obsessively puritan” inhabitants operate on a “very simple morality: that work is good and that indolence is not so much deplorable or unfortunate as evil”. In Storey’s Wakefield mining community, the maxim is further simplified: physical work is good and mental work is evil.

In the opening pages of Room at the Top, Braine’s first novel, we read: “I came to Warley on a wet September morning with the sky the grey of Guiseley sandstone.” Warley is the name Braine gives to Bradford; Guiseley is a small town in the suburbs of north-west Leeds. We note the weather; the writing is spare. In an interview with J B Priestley – another Bradford man – Braine described his home town as dominated “more than any other in England . . . by a success ethos”, an ethos that is at the heart of his fiction. Joe Lampton comes to Warley from Dufton with the aim of earning £1,000 a year. He secures a desk job, joins the amateur dramatic society and gets the girls.

“It is hard now to convey,” Stan Barstow once said, “the importance of Room at the Top for a generation of writers from the north of England.” Braine’s novel allowed Barstow, Storey and Waterhouse “to hoe their own row”, to write about the world they knew “from the inside”.

In Billy Liar, William Fisher, working for the local undertaker and living with his parents in a small Yorkshire town, fantasises about life as a comedy writer in London. In Barstow’s A Kind of Loving, Vic Brown’s dreams end when he gets his girlfriend pregnant and, because there is a housing shortage, the couple move in with her mother.

What readers responded to in these novels (and in the films that they all became) was the primitive sexuality of the men. D H Lawrence, the last provincial writer to have risen to the top, had cleared the path in this respect. Working-class men, especially those with northern accents, were represented as more masculine than their middle-class counterparts who “spoke properly”. Working- class characters in books had, in the past, been described solely in terms of social economy, while middle-class characters were endowed with psychological depth. William Fisher and Vic Brown were given complex moral interiors; Billy constructed his own reality, while for all his banter about sex, it is love that Vic is looking for.

The 1960s was the decade of angry young men, lecherous young men, chancers, Jack the Lad figures and blokes. Gone were the effete, over-educated southerners such as Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, who had dominated the pre-war literary scene. So macho was the atmosphere that women such as Winifred Holtby, who had helped to shape the landscape, might be forgotten. Snootily described by Virginia Woolf as a Yorkshire farmer’s daughter who learned to read while feeding the pigs, Holtby was a socialist feminist who lectured for the League of Nations.

Her novel South Riding, later adapted for television by Stan Barstow (South Riding is a fictionalisation of Holtby’s native East Riding), was published in 1936, a year after her early death. A state-of-the-nation romance, the plot might be described as Jane Eyre uncovers local government corruption. Sarah Burton, an idealistic young headmistress, takes over a school in Kiplington (an amalgam of Hornsey and Withernsea) and gets involved in council politics; her nemesis, the conservative Robert Carne, proprietor of the dessicated Maythorpe Hall, eventually wins her heart.

Holtby was well aware that the accessibility of her writing was out of sync with the ethos of the Bloomsbury set. In her critical study of Virginia Woolf (which was published in 1932) – the first such book on Woolf to appear – Holtby weighed up the benefits of modernist and traditional fiction and found herself preferring literary democracy over elitism, the values of the north over those of the south.

If we follow a female line, Holtby is succeeded by Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge and Jeanette Winterson, who are rooted, respectively, in Yorkshire, Liverpool and Lancashire. She is preceded by the Knutsfordraised Elizabeth Gaskell, whose North and South (1855) appeared at around the same period as Dickens’s Hard Times. Both Gaskell and Dickens set their stories in Manchester, which Dickens called Coketown and Gaskell called Milton. While Dickens wrote from the position of a Londoner, Mrs Gaskell, who now lived in the great Cottonopolis, understood, as Charlotte Brontë said, “the genius of the north”.

A tale of two Englands, North and South describes the transformation of Margaret Hale from stuck-up southerner to informed observer of the Industrial Revolution. Her family moves from the tranquil Helstone, a place of thatched cottages and owls in hollow trees, to the smog-ridden Milton, a place of dust and tuberculosis. Their arrival coincides with a series of strikes at the local mill. Sympathising with the impoverished workers, Margaret clashes with the factory owner, the wrong but romantic John Thornton. By the close of the novel, she has learned to love not only the cotton mills but Thornton, too.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), written as a homage to her friend after her death, fuelled the myth of the elemental northern writer. The book begins in wailing wind, with a description of the Leeds and Bradford railway running through “a deep valley of the Aire”; Gaskell arrives in Haworth on a “dull, drizzly, Indian-inky day”.

The Brontë family is described as carved out of the landscape – as Ted Hughes, raised on the Pennine moorland would also seem – and Charlotte’s story is told as though she were a character from one of her novels. Yet the Brontës had already constructed their own mythology.

In a letter to Wordsworth, Branwell Brontë had said that he, like the poet, lived in “wild seclusion”, with only rocks and stones and trees for company. Haworth Parsonage was on the edge of the moor but it was not secluded; there was a village attached. Four miles away was Keighley, which, as Gaskell points out, with its “great worsted factories” and “rows of workmen’s houses”, could “hardly be called ‘country’”.

Simone Signoret and Laurence Harvey in the
1959 adaptation of "Room at the Top"
Photo: Rex/Courtesy of Everett Collection

The Brontës’ model of the Romantic life came from the biographical sketches of Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy by Thomas De Quincey, a Mancunian – a scandalous series of articles written for Blackwood’s Magazine in 1837. Today, Wordsworth is largely presented as the asexual spokesman of leech-gatherers and idiot boys but De Quincey described the poet, who was bourgeois to his marrow, as barely civilised and semi-incestuous. With his teeth bared and his eyes flashing, Wordsworth was fuelled by “animal appetites”. Dorothy, who her brother would kiss on the mouth, was also “beyond any person I have known in this world . . . the creature of impulse”.

Emily Brontë, who read Blackwood’s Magazine, surely based her tale of barely civilised and semi-incestuous siblings on this account of the Wordsworths. When I read Wuthering Heights, I am reminded of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere journals, in which she describes the two and half years that she lived alone with her brother in Dove Cottage, before he married and was transformed from a wild, Heathcliff- like figure to a gentleman resembling the priggish Edgar Linton. The nature of Dorothy’s love for William, which is hard for us to understand, is replicated in Cathy’s well-known des cription of her love for Heathcliff. Less a pleasure than a necessity, it is like “the eternal rocks beneath”.

“We are all, at heart, Wordsworthians,” writes J B Priestley of his fellow northerners in English Journey (1934). He has reached the point of his tour at which he is heading home. The hills have become “solidly black, their edges very sharp against the last faint silver of the day”; they are beginning to take on “that Wordsworthian quality which belongs to the north”.

Native northerners, Priestley writes, “have to make an effort to appreciate a poet like Shelley, with his rather gassy enthusiasm and his bright Italian colouring; but we have Wordsworth in our very legs”. (Wordsworth’s legs, according to De Quincey, were not his best feature; short and stocky, they were suited only for contemplating nature. It was a pity that he did not have a spare pair for “evening dress parties”.)

It is one of the peculiarities of the Lake District that, apart from its effect on Wordsworth, the sublimity of the landscape stems the flow of creativity. Wordsworth’s aim in the Lyrical Ballads was to write in “the very language of men” (he rhymed “water” with “matter”) but the writers who followed him to Grasmere found themselves tongue-tied.

Wordsworth country quickly became, as Michael Neve has put it, a country called Wordsworth: he is the only poet able to grow in its soil. The poet in Coleridge died when he moved from the coombs of the Quantocks to the crags of the lakes. De Quincey, Wordsworth’s first fan, lived in Dove Cottage for over 20 years but – like Ted Hughes – did his best writing down south.

De Quincey set his store by poetry but produced not a line of his own verse; his autobiography Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, mentions the country called Wordsworth – now his own turf – only from a safe distance.

The young De Quincey, who has run away from Manchester Grammar School, finds himself homeless and hungry on Oxford Street in London, a copy of Lyrical Ballads in his pocket. It is Wordsworth he wants to meet and Words worth’s rural idyll that he wants to inhabit. Like Branwell Brontë, he has written to the poet to prove his Romantic credentials. It is a cold night and he looks “up every avenue in succession which pierces through the heart of Marylebone to the fields and the woods; for that, said I, travelling with my eyes up the long vistas which lay part in light and part in shade, ‘That is the road to the north, and therefore to [Wordsworth], and if I had the wings of a dove, that way I would fly for comfort.’”

This was Thomas De Quincey’s version of writing home.

***

Martin Amis v The Provinces

By Philip Maughan

The Arctic Monkeys knew what they were doing when they chose the title for their debut album. Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, a line from Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, perfectly captures the brooding, self-defeating energies that power northern fiction.

Billy Fisher, the protagonist in Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 novel Billy Liar, dreams of a life as a writer in London. But when the opportunity to begin a new life in the south presents itself, he opts not to get on the train. Likewise, Sillitoe’s lonely long-distance runner Colin Smith is a highly cognisant thief, who, at the point when he is about to win a competition and delight his borstal masters, stops running. The barrier to “success” is not his incapacity, or want of personal volition. It is the realisation that he is competing in someone else’s race.

In 1957, John Braine, the author of Room at the Top, wrote an affectionate yet satirical essay entitled “Portrait of a Provincial Intellectual” for the NS. The narrator mocks his own pretensions (freshly ground coffee, no more tea) and the local scene (“the Little Theatre and the Arts Group”) and ends with a familiar refrain: “The next time the London job was offered, he wouldn’t say no.”

Eighteen years later, Martin Amis scorned Braine’s sole literary triumph: “One wonders what sort of shape the late-1950s imagination must have been in to get itself captured by such a modest and unsophisticated book,” he wrote. All sympathy for the thwarted outsider had drained away, partly due to Braine’s shift to the political right and partly due to Amis’s snotty metropolitanism. He recently told an audience at the RSA: “England is a one-city nation. I get the horrors when I go to provincial England. The sort of trundling, pottering English – I can’t be doing with that.”

The genius of the angry young men was to build vivid fictions from the soiled matter of everyday life. They expanded the boundaries of British fiction. Today’s northern writers – Sarah Hall, David Peace, Jon McGregor, Sunjeev Sahota – concern themselves with epic themes: nature, violence, landscape, multiculturalism. They are among the most inventive stylists in contemporary fiction and draw no end of blood from trundling, pottering life.

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

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.