Come together: an aerial view of Nairobi's outskirts and suburbs. As the city's population swells, unemployment has risen to 60 per cent. Image: Frederic Courtbet/Corbis
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Petropolis now: Are cities getting too big?

As we confront the challenge of urbanisation, we can deploy technology with two different intentions.

Imagine if you lived in a place where                                
the cool breeze caresses your face as                               
you stare at the lush green landscape,                               
where birds sing as you walk by,                               
where you can fish by the lake,                               
where your neighbours share your lifestyle dreams,                               
where your kids can play outdoors safely . . .                               

Where is this idyll? Migaa – a 20-minute drive from the rubble of the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi, Kenya – is a new development complete with a private hospital, conference centre, “shop till you drop” mall facilities and a 200-acre executive golf course. Natasha, a sales rep, talks me through the mid-range Tamarind Tree residences – fully serviced apartments with a lift and a concierge, high-speed internet, a roof terrace with a solar-heated pool and a bar.

“We also have a wall,” she tells me. Patrolled by armed security guards, it is a 12- kilometre-long electrified stone wall around the perimeter of the compound.

Migaa is one of several “premier gated cities” springing up around Nairobi, from the $14.5bn Konza Techno City to Tatu City, with its helipad and biometric ID system, unveiled last year by the Moscow-based Renaissance Partners in Cannes, France. Nairobi is not the only place this is happening: a pan-African trend to upgrade to the “smart city” of the future is emerging. Uganda’s capital, Kampala, has Kakungulu eco-city, with two malls, a 50,000-seater stadium and a golf course with seeds for the greens flown in from Florida. Accra, Ghana, has Appolonia. Lagos, Nigeria, has Eko Atlantic, “rising like Aphrodite from the foam of the Atlantic”. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, not to be outdone, has la Cité du Fleuve, emerging, like a “water lily”, on reclaimed land in the middle of the Congo River near the capital, Kinshasa. The mansion designs on offer include “palace-style Arabe” and “Mediterranean villa”. Elsewhere, there’s Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, Norman Foster’s eco-oasis in the desert, coming in with an estimated $20bn price tag for 40,000 inhabitants.

In South Korea, Songdo is already open for business. Described by Cisco as a “model for future cities”, Songdo has smart water, smart garbage (pneumatically sucked out of sight), smart parking with cars guided to empty lots, centralised blood pressure monitoring consoles, elevators you can order from your television screen and ubiquitous 52- inch plasma screens for high-definition video conferencing. Plus, a green space modelled on New York’s Central Park and a canal system inspired by Venice.

Then there are the ambitions of China. After a decade of rolling out the infrastructure equivalent of Rome every two months, China, according to the news agency Xinhua, now aims to step up the pace, with 100 model cities, 200 model counties, 1,000 model districts and 10,000 model towns by 2015. It’s Grand Designs on steroids. Yet will these urban dreamscapes work in reality?

If urbanisation is the defining trend of the 21st century, with 4.9 billion people predicted to be living in African and Asian cities by 2030 (the population of the world as recently as the mid-1980s), are we up to the task? Or is this the next real estate bubble, not sub-prime but super-prime, dressed up in the mushy atmospherics of eco-bling? There are three potential problems.

The first is the demand for jobs. Around the world, some 200,000 people a day leave the countryside – crops failing, the agricultural model broken – in a pattern of distressed migration that takes them to the slums. Nairobi’s population has swollen to around 3.4 million. The figures are unreliable but some 60 per cent of its population is estimated to be slum-dwelling, concentrated in just 5 per cent of the city’s space.

The challenges are patent. Nairobi is bursting. Its streets are jammed (the city recently rose to fourth in the world in IBM’s Commuter Pain Index), its services are crumbling. Business, in a vicious circle accelerated by the terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping centre, is leaving the city. As it leaves, it reduces still further the flow of tax revenue that, from roads to health to education, could transform public services.

Unemployment is at 60 per cent, with only 9 per cent (according to some estimates) in formal-sector unemployment. More than 500,000 new unemployed young people join the labour force every year; 90 per cent of the unemployed have no skills or formal training beyond primary education.

Why do the rural poor come to the city? For a woman such as Mama Felix, the owner of the Pink Lady hairdressing salon in the slum of Mathare, there’s a central answer – because that’s where the hope is. Braid by braid, customer by customer, she is working her way towards getting back the savings she lost to a loan shark. She has no running water and no lights. Half the money she earns goes out to relatives in the countryside. But she has some scissors, a mirror, an electric dryer and, above all, a market for her skills.

For all the “flying toilets”, Mungiki street gangs and illegal changaa breweries, Nairobi’s sprawling slums of Mathare, Kibera and Korogocho are concentrators not just of poverty but of opportunity. If the businesses move out to the new satellite city – if you move the engine that’s creating 45 per cent of Kenya’s GDP and economic opportunity 15 miles away – the migrants will follow and set up camp. You haven’t solved the underlying problem with a new city: you have just moved it on down the road. These new “smart” cities aren’t going to look like the architect’s model. They are going to have a lot of people camping in and around them, looking for jobs.

The second problem is the supply of jobs. Just how many will the smart city manage to offer? As part of its cultural life, Migaa, which is built on over 700 acres of a coffee plantation, will celebrate the rich heritage of that industry with the Coffee Museum, complete with digital displays and a café: a site for agricultural production transformed into a site for consumption and for the deployment of the development strategy known as “pacification by cappuccino”. As Slavoj Žižek notes in The Year of Dreaming Dangerously: “There is a wonderful expression in Persian, war nam nihadan, which means, ‘To murder somebody, bury his body, then grow flowers over the body to conceal it.’”

From its IT systems to the merchandise in its malls, the smart city risks being an import city, closed to local skills and goods, with a reduced capacity to develop or integrate local expertise in the supply chain. As a result, there’s the danger that it will become something close to an iPad city, a mesh of topdown, closed systems, both vulnerable and interdependent, with a deskilled local labour force that’s unable to repair or maintain it.

The smart city becomes a city that is only as good as its software, built for obsolescence. The impact of new cities such as Angola’s Kilamba, or China’s deserted Tianducheng (with its 108-metre-high “Eiffel Tower” and replica Champs-Élysées), is to create the throwaway city.

The third problem is what J K Galbraith called “the massive onslaught of circumstance”. Food price rises, which have already resulted in events from the tortilla riots in Mexico to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, have been shown to have a direct link to civic unrest. As Henk- Jan Brinkman and Cullen S Hendrix wrote in a report for the World Food Programme: “Food insecurity, especially when caused by higher food prices, heightens the risk of democratic breakdown, civil conflict, protest, rioting and communal conflict.”

If the predictions of climate-change-driven drought and impacts on crop prices across eastern and central Africa hold true, the new smart city is facing a complex external environment, with several specific threats to the boundary wall: more people with more mouths to feed, facing higher food prices, with fewer jobs to help them afford it.

As a point of reference, it was in the Lower Shabelle area of Somalia – where drought struck and brought child mortality of 10 per cent – that the Islamist terrorist group al- Shabaab gained control. Resilience, the capacity to adapt and heal, not the opposite, is what the 21st-century city will need.

Done right, the smart city has the potential to provide affordable housing and construction jobs and help incubate a next generation of start-ups. Done badly, it’s a different story and has the potential to leave us with three problems: a broken countryside, swamped megacities and non-resilient new satellite cities.

In 2011, there were 23 urban agglomerations that qualified as megacities, which means that they had populations exceeding ten million inhabitants. By 2025, there are expected to be as many as 37 megacities. The challenge for Nairobi and all of these cities is a defining challenge for societal well-being in the years to 2050.

Is there another option, beyond the smart city, that might work? In Erik Hersman’s photograph, taken 60 kilometres outside Nairobi in the Savannah at the construction site for Konza, the contours of two potentially dystopian cities of the future can be seen. The first, implied in the deserted fields, is the decreasingly resilient megacity, the swamped “petropolis” of Nairobi. The second city, Konza, advertised on the billboard, is what is currently on track to be its replacement, the new smart city, “cyburbia”, the gleaming citadel, censored and sensored. This is the eco-city as escapist urbanism.

I s there a third city, beyond the dyad of old Nairobi and its glimmering cyburb of Konza? Is there a city where technology helps us not escape but address the looming crisis of rural African poverty? Is there a city where we could thrive?

“The fields,” said the poet Ben Okri, “are sprouting strange new mushrooms.”

The group standing in front of the perimeter gate are members of Nairobi’s iHub, part of a network of self-organising groups that now run 16 innovation spaces across the city. From the iHub to M:Lab, Nailab and 88mph, an alternative approach is forming, deploying technology not to escape the problems of distressed migration but to tackle the root causes.

M-Kopa, the brainchild of Nick Hughes, one of the founders of the mobile money transfer system M-Pesa, is an example. Across the globe, there are as many as 1.5 billion people without access to power, spending 40 to 70 per cent of their income on kerosene and firewood, with two million deaths a year from smoke inhalation and 150 million tonnes of carbon released annually.

M-Kopa set out to address these three problems by making solar home-lighting systems affordable and accessible to low-income consumers. In October 2012, M-Kopa partnered with Safaricom to launch the first ever “pay-as-you-go solar solution” using mobile money. M-Kopa takes the d.Light mobile solar light and puts a mobile chip in it. This has a big impact for users. Instead of having to buy the light outright, at a cost far beyond their range, Kenya’s cash-strapped poor can make an initial deposit of $30, then lease it, just like a mobile phone, for around 50 cents a day: less than they would be spending on kerosene or firewood.

Using M-Pesa, the mobile money transfer system, they pay instalments of 40 Kenyan shillings a day for 12 months, about 30 shillings less than the cost of paraffin and charging. In return, they get the M-Kopa system, comprising a base station with a solar panel, three lamps and a charging kit for phones.

And they don’t just get power. Using the chip, they can get micro-insurance, buy fertiliser and make micro-payments for productive equipment such as the KickStart agricultural hand pump, which, at the cost of $34, gives access to the underground water table, tripling the number of crops that local farmers can plant.

They get the basic needs that make it possible to stay out of the slums and succeed as a rural farmer. The essence of the approach is to use technology not to accelerate consumption but, as Ford did with the Model T, to transform productivity within a new group of the population. In one study, exam pass rates went up from 68 to 82 per cent and incomes per head from $160 a year to $1,600. For Mama Felix, it means more hours in the shop, lights for her family, phone-charging and mobile money transfers. It means the chance to move slowly out of poverty.

Does it make business sense? The poorest of the poor spend $36bn a year on kerosene alone. The market for M-Kopa is believed to be $1bn a year in Kenya. It is a market that is the opposite of the sub-prime. It is big, growing and, when you serve it, by raising user productivity and income, you expand it.

M-Kopa is part of a growing movement to use technology for development. Another Kenyan innovation, iCow, is a voice-based application for small-scale dairy farmers. It helps farmers trace the oestrogen cycles of their cows and also gives technical advice on animal nutrition, milk production and gestation. Users of the application have reported an increase in income of 42 per cent, with milk retention increased by 56 per cent. Meanwhile, MFarm, a Kenyan agribusiness company, has partnered with Samsung to launch a new tool that allows subscribing farmers to obtain real-time price information, buy farm inputs and find buyers for their produce.

The MFarm tool was founded by three Kenyan women who met through the iHub in Nairobi. Their idea, facilitated by a group called Akirachix, a community of over 200 tech women, was developed at the M:Lab incubator at Nairobi’s iHub and launched after they won a 48-hour boot-camp event and €10, 000 of investment.

It is early days but a pattern is emerging. “Technology,” says Kentaro Toyama, “is not the answer. It is the amplifier of intent.” As we confront the challenge of urbanisation, we can deploy technology with two different intentions. One is vertical, isolating ourselves in gated smart cities from the crises affecting the poor. The other is horizontal, harnessing technology to empower smart citizens, with the goal of making both the rural and the urban work.

Leo Johnson is the co-author, with Michael Blowfield, of “Turnaround Challenge: Business and the City of the Future” (Oxford University Press, £20). For more information, visit: turnaroundchallenge.org

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.