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Mumbai massacre

India has suffered what many are calling its 9/11. Here one of the country's leading journalists int

In the summer of 2005, I moved with my family to live and work in Mumbai, the capital city of Maharashtra State. I came after living for several years in Kolkata, in the east of India, a city that, after decades of genteel dwindling and gradual reconciliation with its diminished sense of itself, was beginning to look up. As I settled down, I found Mumbai to be all the things that Kolkata was not.

If Kolkata was bashfully apologetic and self-deprecating, wry and ironical, Mumbai was brash and self-congratulatory. It was chest-thumpingly aware of its own importance and its position at the heart of India's rapid growth and change. The nation was being transformed by an economic miracle that had implications far beyond the Arabian Sea on whose edge the sprawling city of 19 million people was perched.

We found a flat in Bandra, a western suburb on the seafront. It was once predominantly a Christian locality, with many churches, and dotted with quaint cottages hugged by creepers. This was a neighbourhood in which, as Amit Chaudhuri wrote in his novel Afternoon Raag, the "Portuguese names - Pedro, DiSilva, Gonsalves - twang in the air like plucked, silvery guitar strings".

All that has changed over the past decade. Although it is only ten miles away, Bandra once seemed so far removed from the city's downtown (the area in which terrorists unleashed their audacious, murderous attacks) as to seem a place where you bought a weekend home. But now it is right in the heart of things.

Because outrageous property prices were pushing people ever further outward from the city's southern downtown tip (the business hub and centre of old money and aristocracy), Bandra had become the new midtown: nouveau riche, prohibitively expensive and fashionable in an edgy sort of way. The old cottages were being ripped apart, replaced by often ugly - but always lavish - towers of apartment blocks.

And now the soundtrack to our lives in Bandra, as in so much of Mumbai, is the relentless noise of old buildings being demolished and new ones going up: the clang of the hammer, the whine of the drill, the rumble of the bulldozer. Bandra is an embodiment of what Mumbai is now all about: wealth and social climbing, the need ostentatiously to proclaim that you have arrived.

The main Hindi film studios are not far from this neighbourhood, and most of the stars of the industry have moved out to Bandra, weary of the daily travel from downtown (where they once used to live) to the western suburbs (where they go to work). It isn't merely them. Anyone who wants to be in Bollywood is trying to move into Bandra as well, living far beyond their means in one-roomed flats little bigger than ten square feet. It is as though being in Bandra, close to the stars, takes away some of the sense of remoteness from their aspirations. Here they are, in the city of dreams, still dreaming.

In his novel Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra captured something of this feeling when he portrayed Mumbai as a city of magical possibilities: "It could happen. It did happen, and that's why people kept trying. It did happen. That was the dream, the big dream of Bombay."

Living in Bandra offers a sort of a start. If you can live here - and it is hard - who knows, you might soon find a role in a movie, a role that would put you on the billboards, like the stars you so admire but whose success you also resent. Bandra is Beverly Hills with terrible roads. Everywhere you go in the neighbourhood, there are reminders of the movie stars' presence.

Mumbai is in love with its own self-image and the awe it inspires in others; it has no patience with those in whom it does not inspire a sense of wonder. This is a city that exemplifies the new India: keen to inspire envy, in a hurry to get ahead, revelling in its importance and never shy of parading its not inconsiderable wealth.

Every week in the newspapers, there are reports of how Mumbai pays the most tax in India; how it has more billionaires than any other city; how its rentals and home prices are among the highest in the world; how it is getting richer and richer by the day. The business of making serious money drives Mumbai.

That business never lets up, even in the face of calamity. Mumbai is no stranger to catastrophe. In 1992, there were communal riots that threatened to rip apart for ever the secular fabric of this most cosmopolitan of Indian cities. In 1993, serial blasts tore through Mumbai, an event that has become the material for dozens of Hindi movies. In 2005, a month after I moved here, 934mm of rain fell in a 24-hour per iod, a world record. The deluge unleashed the worst floods in the city's history, killing hundreds and destroying thousands of homes and livelihoods. In 2006, bombs went off on the city's suburban train network, killing more than 200 people.

Mumbai has been repeatedly brought to its knees, and repeatedly it has picked itself up, and got on with life. There is a phrase that has become not so much a commonplace as a vulgar truism, one that people reach for as a shorthand to describe the city's indomitable nature: the spirit of Mumbai.

But something is different now. These latest attacks have truly shaken the spirit of the city.

This is what we know so far. The terrorists came by sea from Karachi, Pakistan. They were armed with enough guns, ammunition and explosives, and were sufficiently ruthless and well trained to be able to hold out for 62 hours against India's elite commandos and army. The terrorists held hostage two luxury hotels, the Taj Mahal and the Oberoi-Trident; the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the city's main railway station; a cafe called Leopold's, popular with tourists and backpackers; and a five-storey residential building that housed the city headquarters of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group. All the locations were in south Mumbai.

The strikes were timed to play out on worldwide daytime television. As the story of the attacks began to unfold from the night of 26 November in India, it coincided with Thanksgiving in the US. The terrorists were specifically looking for visitors with British or American passports. And at the end of the three-day killing spree and pitched gun battles, 173 people had been murdered. (That was merely the official count; the actual estimate of those killed is much higher.) Twenty of the dead were foreigners.

This year, many hundreds of people have been killed in terrorist attacks across India, in Jaipur, Hyderabad and Delhi. High-profile terrorism in cities (70 blasts and attacks) has killed 400 people in India over the past seven months alone. But the November assault on Mumbai suggested something not hitherto evident: that India was now firmly on the deadly map drawn up for attack by global jihadists.

After each of the previous attacks on Mumbai, people could begin to guess why they had happened. In this instance, there was obviously shock but there was also profound bewilderment and confusion. How exactly? And why?

India has been quick to insinuate that Pakistan is linked to the strikes. The one terrorist who has been caught and interrogated has told investi gators that he was trained by Lashkar-e-Toiba, a jihadist group based in Pakistan.

For ordinary people, however, there are no clear answers or explanations. No one can tell why this happened or when something similar might happen again. Stumbling and groping, Mumbai has had its sense of security and confidence eroded. Never before has the city so acutely felt its own fragility.

Of the five locations, it was the attack on the Taj Mahal hotel near the Gateway of India that was, in terms of symbolism, the most resonant. Mumbai's monuments are secular, and the 105-year-old Taj, built by a Parsi businessman because he was turned away from a hotel for being Indian, is the picture-postcard emblem of the city. It is to Mumbai what the Empire State Building is to New York and the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. It is Mumbai.

As pictures of the smoking hotel - flames leaping out of windows, panes shattering, crows taking off in the foreground at the sound of gunfire against the plumes of smoke that darkened the afternoon sky - flashed up on live television, and later, as the Taj Mahal closed down for repair on Monday, Mumbai saw the attack on its signature hotel as a violation unlike any other.

On Sunday 30 November, a groundswell of protests against the attacks began in Mumbai. There were candlelit vigils, marches and peaceful demonstrations with eloquent placards. The resentment, for the moment, seems to be directed at the perceived failure of the intelligence services and at politicians. In a nationwide survey conducted by the Hindustan Times, one of the country's best-known and most influential English-language broadsheet dailies, 84 per cent of the respondents felt that the government was not doing enough to fight terrorism.

With general elections due in 2009, the ruling coalition headed by the Congress Party bore the brunt of the anger. Shivraj Patil, India's home minister, stepped down on Sunday. By Monday morning, Maharashtra's home minister, R R Patil, had quit as well. The indications are that Vilasrao Deshmukh, the chief minister of Maharashtra, is on his way out, too.

How India will react to the attacks will shape the events of months and years to come. Already, the peace process with Pakistan is in jeopardy. And with India's dismal history of strife between Hindus and Muslims (in 2002, the main opposition party, the BJP, was accused of the biggest anti-Muslim pogrom in modern Indian history), the country will do well to be particularly vigilant against communal conflict.

Time and again over the past week, commentators have referred to the attacks on Mumbai as "India's 9/11" - a world-historic moment of change after which nothing can be the same again. That is indeed the most convenient analogy to use. But if one were to assume that it is so, that assumption brings its own complexities.

As the novelist Amitav Ghosh wrote in an essay published in the Hindustan Times: "If India can react with dispassionate but determined resolve, then 2008 may yet be remembered as a moment when the tide turned in a long, long battle . . . Defeat or victory is not determined by the success of the strike itself. It is determined by the response."

And what, now, of Mumbai? How will this city withstand these ravages and go about its business? How resilient can the city prove it- self to be?

Mumbai is the glittering exemplar of the new India and the national success story, yet it is also a city of dichotomies. Nowhere in India (perhaps even in the world) is the gulf between the affluent urban elite and those who live beneath the poverty line as pronounced as it is in Mumbai. Nowhere, perhaps, is the urge to cross over from the side of the underprivileged to the other as deeply consuming.

The degree to which these attacks have scarred Mumbai, and the extent of the damage they have inflicted, was symbolically represented on Thursday 27 November when the Bombay Stock Exchange did not open for trading. The business of making money might drive Mumbai, but the shock of being violated had stalled it.

The following Monday morning, still numbed, the city was returning to its frenetic self. Children went back to school. Hotels had been turned into fortresses. Offices were open, and the roads were filling up with the sort of traffic which is usually so dense that you can hear the conversation in the car alongside yours when you stop at traffic lights. Money was being made – and lost – on the stock exchange, as usual. Markets were doing business. And in homes, cremations or burials over, hundreds were beginning the process of grieving and reconciliation.

Mumbai, hurt and angry, was still grappling with how to come to terms with what had happened but it was also beginning to get on with the business of getting along, of going on.

In a way, this is the story of India, the world's largest democracy: learning to carry on after assaults on its pluralist democracy, and being, in the end, able to do so.

In his book India After Gandhi: the History of the World's Largest Democracy, Ramachandra Guha argues persuasively that it is no small triumph that India, as well as its democracy, not merely exists at all but continues to thrive. "India will go on," Guha quotes the novelist R K Nara yan telling V S Naipaul in the 1960s.

In its darkest hour, that is Mumbai's triumph, too. Mumbai will go on. As India will.

Soumya Bhattacharya is the editor of the Hindustan Times in Mumbai and author of the memoir "You Must Like Cricket?", published by Yellow Jersey Press (£12)

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror

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 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror