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An American suicide

There was no subject about which David Foster Wallace could not write brilliantly, from politics to

On the evening of 20 October this year a memorial service was held at Amherst College, Massachusetts, for the writer David Foster Wallace. Wallace, who graduated from Amherst in 1985, had hanged himself the previous month at his home in California. He was 46.

Since the publication of his voluminous and extravagantly ambitious second novel, Infinite Jest, Wallace had been widely acknowledged as the finest American writer of his generation. When Infinite Jest came out, in 1996, New York magazine's Walter Kirn declared that the competition had been "obliterated". It was, he wrote, "as though Paul Bunyan had joined the NFL, or Wittgenstein had gone on Jeopardy!". More or less instantly, Infinite Jest became the benchmark against which any ambitious and intellectually curious young novelist would measure himself. And so, when Wallace died, American fiction lost its lodestar. His suicide was a kind of Kurt Cobain moment, a profound generational shock. (Cobain, frontman of the rock band Nirvana, shot himself at home in Seattle in 1994. He was 27.)

Wallace had begun to write fiction while at Amherst, and his first novel, the antic and exuberant The Broom of the System, published when he was 24, was based on his senior English thesis. One of his professors, Andrew Parker, told the congregation at the Amherst service at Johnson Chapel how Wallace had insisted on writing a thesis in the philosophy department at the same time, and had still managed to graduate summa cum laude in both subjects. Sue Dickman, an Amherst alumna, remembered the year Wallace spent there as an instructor after an abortive attempt to start a PhD at Harvard; she recalled how he would come to class with a tennis racket and let his students take breaks so he could smoke.

The mourners also heard from Mark Costello, Wallace's college room-mate in the early 1980s, who implored them not to forget "how painful Dave's day-to-day life was". Wallace had suffered from depression since adolescence, and was hospitalised during his sophomore year at Amherst. Later, he briefly shared an apartment with Costello in Somerville, near Boston. Wallace was drinking heavily and experimenting enthusiastically with drugs, and eventually ended up in McLean Hospital, a psychiatric institution that had previously counted the poets Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell among its patients. The "power of death", Costello said, was his constant companion, and "eventually it cornered him and killed him".

While he was at McLean, Wallace was prescribed Nardil, a powerful antidepressant that he would take for most of the next 20 years. By the summer of 2007, however, the drug had begun to have unpleasant side effects, and it was decided that he would come off it. Doing so had catastrophic results. "Severe depression came back," Wallace's father, James, told the online magazine Salon. "They tried all kinds of things. He was hospitalised twice . . . and had a series of electroconvulsive therapy treatments, which just really left him very shaky and very fragile and unable to sleep."

By this summer, Wallace hadn't written anything for more than a year. He had been granted medical leave from his teaching job at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and had stopped going to the gym with his friend and colleague John Seery, where they had been the only "skinny-ass egghead types" in the place.

When, in mid-August, his wife, Karen Green, had to go away on family business, Wallace's parents came to stay with him in Claremont. "He was very emotional," his mother, Sally, said. "He was just terrified of so much. We would just try to hold him. He did tell me that he was glad I was his mom." James and Sally Wallace flew back home to Illinois at the end of the month. A fortnight later, Karen came home from a shopping trip to find her husband dead.

News of Wallace's suicide first broke on the Twitter page of the Brooklyn-based writer Edward Champion. By the time the mainstream media picked up the story, Champion was already gathering tributes and testimonials from the "literary community" on his blog, the comments box of which was soon filling up with expressions of shock and anguish from Wallace's fans. The confession of one devotee that "I haven't really cried over the death of someone I haven't met since Kurt Cobain" was typical.

Within a couple of days, Dave Eggers's McSweeney's ope ration had a virtual book of condolence up on its website, and people were posting reminiscences of meeting "DFW" at readings in out-of-the-way branches of Barnes & Noble, of taking writing classes with him and, in one case, of playing tennis against him in fifth grade. (Wallace had been an adolescent tennis prodigy, playing the junior circuit in the Midwest in the mid-Seventies. The first piece of extended narrative journalism he wrote, for Harper's magazine, was about summers spent "being driven through dawns to tournaments all over Illinois, Indiana and Iowa"; and Infinite Jest is, among other things, probably the finest, and certainly the longest, work of fiction about tennis ever written.)

The internet is a uniquely effective mechanism for processing public grief, of course, but there was something striking nevertheless about the sheer copiousness of the reaction to Wallace's death. This was partly because he was the kind of writer who attracts acolytes as well as admirers. The esoteric, self-enclosed quality of much of Wallace's fiction, not least the great thousand-odd-page slab of Infinite Jest itself, tended to inspire unusually fierce allegiance in many of his fans - the sort of obsessive who can tell you the likely effects of putting your head in a microwave (this being how the father of one of the central characters kills himself) because they've checked with a "med-school acquaintance", and who posts elaborate theories about arcane plot points online ("It sounds far-fetched, but check this out . . .").

Just as striking, and much more significant, however, was the reaction of other writers, Wallace's peers. There was spontaneous, unanimous agreement that he had been the best of them. Jonathan Franzen described Wallace as a "huge talent, our strongest rhetorical writer". In Zadie Smith's view, he had no "equal among living writers. He was an actual genius". He was also, everyone agreed, an unusually generous man: as "sweet a person" as Franzen had ever known, "meticulous about putting people at their ease", according to Smith.

Eggers posted a series of anecdotes about Wallace on the McSweeney's website. In one, he recalled the first time they met, in the mid-Nineties, at a diner in New York. While Wallace chewed tobacco, using a teacup in his lap as a spittoon (a habit he would never give up), he and Eggers "talked about how he'd grown up in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and how I'd gone to college there, how his father taught there, about the pleasures and quirks of east-central Illinois. There's something very strange and uniquely powerful about meeting a guy whose writing you find world-changing but who also comes from your part of the world."

Who else could have written a story about a marketing executive who plans to inject deadly cultures into a snack he’s testing with focus groups?

Wallace was, by his own description, an “infantile transplant” to Illinois from upstate New York: his father had done his PhD at Cornell University and had come west to teach philosophy at the University of Illinois in Champaign. His mother taught English at a local community college. Wallace described the atmosphere of the family home in an essay he wrote for Harper's: “Suppers often involved a game: if one of us children [Wallace had a sister, Amy] made a usage error, Mom would pretend to have a coughing fit that would go on and on until the relevant child had identified the relevant error and corrected it. It was all very self-ironic and light-hearted; but still, looking back, it seems a bit excessive to pretend that your small child is actually denying you oxygen by speaking incorrectly.”

Being raised as an "extreme usage fanatic" by a teacher of composition certainly left its mark on the mature Wallace's prose style. In another of his McSweeney's posts, Eggers remembered the time Wallace sent him a story, "Mister Squishy", together with a note asking that if it was to run in his magazine, it should do so under the pseudonym "Elizabeth Klemm". Eggers agreed ("we were so proud to publish it"), but the subterfuge didn't last long: Wallace was simply "too recognisable to hide, too singular to fool anyone". Who else could have written a 60-page story about a marketing executive who hatches a plan to inject deadly cultures into the "snack cakes" he is testing with a focus group? And all this in sentences of improbable length and fiendish complexity.

Take the passage in which the protagonist fantasises, while briefing his focus group, about how much ricin or botulinus it would take to bring the entire corporate snack industry to its knees. As he is doing so, he is struck by his ability to entertain such fantasies in "total subjective private" and then by the thought that half the people in the room with him are doing the same:

. . . Schmidt had a quick vision of them all in the conference room as like icebergs and/or floes, only the sharp caps showing, unknowing and -knowable to one another, and he imagined that it was only in marriage (and a good marriage, not the decorous dance of loneliness he'd watched his mother and father do for seventeen years but rather true conjugal intimacy) that partners allowed each other to see below the berg's cap's public mask and consented to be truly known, maybe even to the extent of not only letting the partner see the repulsive nest of moles under their left arm or the way after any sort of cold or viral infection the toenails on both feet turned a weird deep yellow for several weeks but even perhaps every once in a while sobbing in each other's arms late at night and pouring out the most ghastly private fears and thoughts of failure and impotence and terrible and thoroughgoing smallness . . .

This is writing of extraordinary syntactic control, and it is characteristic of what Eggers describes as Wallace's "dense, discursive, and insanely detailed style". The sentence continues for almost another page; the paragraph in which it occurs runs over four pages. Eggers says that he asked Wallace to consider breaking up some of the paragraphs before the story was published: "It was as if he were visiting the notion . . . for the first time. He was that kind of genius, whose understanding of the workings of his own fiction was, I think, largely separate from ideas of audience."

Actually, Eggers is missing something here, because Wallace thought more deeply about questions of audience and address than any other American writer of his generation. All that "insane" detail, and the formal strategies he borrowed from postmodernism (authorial intrusions, digressions, footnotes, flash-cutting between scenes and so on), were meant in fact to serve the rather traditional end of saying something about "what it is to be a fucking human being".

Wallace believed that each of us is "sort of marooned" inside our own skull, and that it is fiction's job to "aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people". It was the estranging apparatus of his style - the postmodern rhetorical devices, the hyperextended sentences - that was meant to do the aggravating.

That, at least, was the theory. However, Wallace was tormented by the thought that the “antagonistic elements” in his fiction might in fact just be manifestations of a pathological exhibitionism. He deplored his own “grossly sentimental affection for gags” and weakness for “formal stunt-pilotry” that served no narrative purpose. But he also understood that this predicament was not his exclusively; it was that of an entire generation of writers who, in a sense, had come too late – who had arrived, that is, just as the bold innovations of postmodern novelists such as John Barth, William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon were being absorbed and neutered by the culture.

Wallace believed that each of us is “sort of marooned” inside our own skull and that it is fiction’s job to “aggravate this sense of entrapment”

This highly developed generational self-consciousness is one reason Wallace was held in such esteem by his peers: he held up a mirror to their own anxieties, and articulated them more clearly and honestly than they ever dared.

Infinite Jest bears the scars of Wallace's parricidal struggle with his influences. He insisted that he had wanted it to be an "extraordinarily sad" book about loneliness and addiction, rather than a postmodern one. And to this end, the novel's two principal settings are a tennis academy, which Wallace depicts as a kind of laboratory of obsession (he writes with considerable feeling about the psychic costs exacted by endless early-morning tennis drills), and a halfway house for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. However, it is also crammed with set-ups and gags that could have come straight out of the fiction of Thomas Pynchon: a geopolitical agglomeration with the acronym ONAN; a gang of wheelchair-bound Québécois separatists; and a film so entertaining that it paralyses anyone who watches it.

At times it seems as if the novel is conducting an argument with itself - for instance, in a long scene in which Don Gately, a former drug addict who is now a live-in staffer at the half way house, goes to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Boston. One of the residents in Gately's care is there, too, and complains about the "psychobabbly dialect" that's de rigueur at events like this. Gately admits that the "seminal little mini-epiphanies" routinely experienced by new inductees into AA come embalmed in language of "polyesterish" banality. Then someone else says they also find the sentimental argot hard to stomach - especially the habit the speakers have of saying they are "here but for the grace of God", which phrase, she points out, is "literally senseless", and should be used only when introducing a conditional clause. Wallace is flattering his hip and savvy readers here, inviting them to identify with this sophisticated cynicism. But it is also clear that we are meant at the same time to find something ridiculous and overwrought about someone who is driven to want to "put her head in a Radarange" by a home-spun solecism or two. Indeed, Wallace said later that the scene was designed to get his readers - privileged, educated Americans, most of them - to "confront stuff about spirituality and values", stuff "our generation needs to feel".

Infinite Jest turned out to be Wallace's last novel. He didn't stop writing fiction - there were two further collections of stories, the second of which, Oblivion, contains some of his finest work - but, as Mark Costello observed in his Amherst encomium, something changed: "If you sit down and read his prose from the early Nineties to later, you'll hear the music changing. You'll hear sentences getting longer and longer, with these wonderfully balanced dependent clauses."

According to the novelist and journalist Tom Bissell, who knew Wallace, this was also a shift in "world-view". Bissell told me: "I think the man who wrote Oblivion would not have been satisfied with the cross-dressing leader of a Québécois separatist group whose primary mode of transport is wheelchairs, or with the political acronym ONAN, both of which are kind of silly in the way Pynchon is silly, but not in the way the world ever feels silly. I believe he escaped the anxiety of his influence."

Wallace's deepening ambivalence about the moral as well as aesthetic legacy of postmodernism is especially noticeable in the non-fiction he wrote in the last decade of his life. In many of his essays, whether the brief was to write about Caribbean cruises or the Maine Lobster Festival, he can be seen grappling obsessively with all that "stuff about spirituality and values".

A good example is a piece he wrote after Harper's sent him back to Illinois to attend the state fair, and to gorge on corn dogs while watching the rural Midwest at play. "Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All" derives all its considerable force from the tension between Wallace's self-acknowledged "East Coast cynicism" and his yearning for a kind of authenticity.

He describes coming across a small hillock that, for some reason, has been covered in artificial grass: "a quick look under the edge of the fake-grass mat reveals the real grass underneath, flattened and already yellowing". Now, the postmodernist debunker in him would have been content to leave that image to stand for the emptiness and shoddiness of the state fair as a whole. But Wallace doesn't settle for simply unmasking the event as a sham; and this is partly because, for all his protestations that he is no longer "spiritually Midwestern", he remains of the place he is describing.

He understands that to be Midwestern is to be "marooned in a space whose emptiness is both physical and spiritual", and that what the state fair provides is a kind of temporary communal respite from that condition. As Bissell, himself from the Midwest, puts it, "in terms of literary persona, [Wallace] was temperamentally speaking a rural Midwesterner, intellectually speaking a high-wire postmodernist, and emotionally speaking an artist-as-priest type. I'm not sure anyone else has really managed to combine those qualities."

Wallace’s best essays are artefacts of this multifarious literary personality, dramatisations of its internal conflicts. Nowhere is this drama more powerfully performed than in the 15,000-word article he wrote for Rolling Stone about a week he spent following John McCain during his Republican primary battle, in 2000, with George W Bush. (The article was turned into a short book this year to coincide with McCain’s second run at the presidency.)

It is unsettling reading the piece now - after a Republican campaign this year conducted mostly from the sewer - to recall that eight years ago McCain represented to many the last, best hope for decency and truth in American politics. Even the most jaded hacks aboard McCain's bus, the Straight Talk Express, were wondering if "humanity and politics, shrewdness and decency" really could coexist. And Wallace finds himself as inspired as anyone: "It's difficult not to feel enthused and to really like this man and want to support him in just about any sort of feasible way you can think of."

Underpinning McCain's promise in 2000, of course, was "something riveting and unspinnable and true": that the candidate had been imprisoned and tortured during the Vietnam War, and spent five years in a box-sized cell at the "Hanoi Hilton". But whatever it was in his character that sustained McCain during those five years was shut away in that box, too. This, for Wallace, was the essential "paradox" of his campaign: the fact that the "box that makes McCain 'real' is, by definition, locked. Impenetrable." Which meant that it was up to the voter to decide whether McCain was "truly 'for real'".

What the essay is really about, therefore, is the "interior war" inside Wallace's own head between the need to believe in something larger than himself and his anxiety that the need to believe might be a sham or a fraud. And "fraud", Mark Costello reminded the mourners at Amherst, "was one of the worst words in his personal vocabulary".

In the end, Wallace took his own life. Perhaps the struggle to believe in something was too great; he had suffered too much. He was the ultimate victim of his own interior war.

Jonathan Derbyshire is a writer and philosopher

The best of David Foster Wallace

1987: The Broom of the System

The metafictional game-playing and sheer verbal inventiveness of Wallace's first novel established him as a successor to American postmodernists such as John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. It is set in the near future in Cleveland, which now stands on the border of the Great Ohio Desert (or GOD), a vast tract of land filled with black sand.

1989: Girl With Curious Hair

The centrepiece of this first collection of stories is "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way", a 150-page novella set in a creative writing workshop. Wallace said the story was "written in the margins" of Barth's Lost in the Funhouse - the professor running the workshop is the author of a famous story also called "Lost in the Funhouse".

1996: Infinite Jest

The gargantuan novel that sealed Wallace's reputation as the most exciting and ambitious American novelist of his generation. The plot motor of Infinite Jest, which is over a thousand pages long and weighed down with more than a hundred pages of endnotes, is a movie of the same name which paralyses anyone who watches it.

1997: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

Wallace's first collection of extended non-fiction contains some of his most celebrated essays: the titular record of a comically awful Caribbean cruise; a paean to the genius of David Lynch; and "E Unibus Pluram", his account of the way the "rebellious irony" of postmodernism was co-opted by television.

1999: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

In the title story of this second collection of shorter fiction, several unidentified men describe their sexual proclivities - including one who can't help shouting "Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!" when he is on the point of ejaculating. Another story, "The Depressed Person", with its extravagantly long sentences, footnotes and abundant psychotherapeutic jargon, is typical of Wallace's later fictional style.

2004: Oblivion

Oblivion has several of Wallace's finest stories, notably "Good Old Neon" and "The Suffering Channel". The former is narrated from beyond the grave by a high school acquaintance of "David Wallace". In the latter, a journalist on a hip New York style magazine travels to Indiana to profile a man who developed an ability to shit perfectly rendered sculptures while on latrine duty during the first Gulf War.

2005: Consider the Lobster

When Gourmet magazine sent Wallace to the Maine Lobster Festival, he came back with the title essay of this collection, in which he asks whether it is morally acceptable to boil sentient creatures alive (short answer: no).

2008: McCain's promise

This short book about John McCain was published this year to coincide with the US presidential election. Originally published as a long narrative report in Rolling Stone magazine under the title "Up, Simba!", it is an account of a week spent following the McCain's campaign during the 2000 Republican primaries. Wallace admired McCain the man, if not the politician, and was fascinated by his years in prison in Vietnam. He did not live long enough to see the outcome of this year's presidential election.

the death of Kurt Cobain

Whatever the cultural significance of Kurt Cobain's suicide, his reasons, as with David Foster Wallace, were first and foremost personal. Struggling with heroin addiction, various medical problems and facing an impending separation from his wife, Courtney Love, the lead singer of Nirvana shot himself at home in April 1994. Yet when news broke, the public outpouring of grief among teenage fans in his home city of Seattle resonated around the world.

To many, his death represented a clash between conflicting value systems: the counterculture from which Nirvana had emerged, and the corporate world of MTV and major record labels that transformed them into global rock stars just months after the release of their 1991 album, Nevermind. Cobain's suicide seemed like an admission that these two worlds could not be reconciled. "The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I'm having 100 per cent fun," he declared in his suicide note. The irony is that this exit only pushed Cobain deeper into music-industry mythology.

But it is a mistake to see his death as an artistic gesture. Cobain had come adrift in his life, which is something he shared with the increasing numbers of young men who kill themselves every year. In England and Wales, for example, suicide remains the second most common cause of death for men under the age of 35. If you really want to know something about the hopes and fears of a generation, understanding these everyday tragedies is as important as unpicking the famous ones.

Daniel Trilling

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?

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 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?