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How I learned to stop worrying and love Amazon

The online retailer has reshaped bookselling since it entered the trade in 1995. But Amazon’s aggressive and “anti-competitive” tactics, especially for selling ebooks, are raising hackles in an industry under stress. What is the future of the book busines

Photo: Ralph D Fresco / Reuters

I have a confession. I like buying books online. From Amazon. Such an admission may seem unremarkable, indeed banal, to many book buyers, but offering it in the presence of book industry folk would be the equivalent of informing New Statesman readers that one admires Donald Rumsfeld or Rupert Murdoch. One cannot exaggerate the fear and loathing that Amazon inspires among publishers and rival booksellers. “I hate them,” one publisher who deals with Amazon regularly told me the other day, and many others have offered similar views – off the record, of course.

The story of contemporary publishing is largely that of what Amazon has done to it and of what it threatens – in publishers’ and booksellers’ nightmares – to do. It is the story of a huge contrast between the perceptions of readers, authors and Wall Street, and those of publishers and booksellers.

At first, in the 1990s, Amazon seemed cool – no doubt it still does to a good many people. There was romance in the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, typing a business plan while his wife drove him in a Chevy from Texas to Seattle, and in his setting up a web retailer in a garage where the computers were powered by extension leads from the house. He was a geeky guy, with a weird, explosive, humourless laugh, but nevertheless came across as more personable than most executives.

In the book world, which Bezos had selected as the ideal entry point for his planned giant operation, Amazon’s cool image lasted only until the first of his company executives took the floor at an industry conference and spouted what was to become a familiar litany of unilluminating corporate jargon. Amazon, we realised, was remote and secretive. In a friendly industry, it had no interest in being collegiate. It played hardball. Fail to grant it the discounts it wanted, and it launched a battery of unpleasant correctives, chillingly outlined in Brad Stone’s recent book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (Bantam Press). And, as we also learned, it was a tax avoider. (Amazon.co.uk accounts for its sales in Luxembourg.)

Worse, it appears to have ravaged the industry’s ecosystem. Because Bezos has so successfully trained investors to wait for returns, he has been able to offer loss-leading discounts beyond the scope of companies with the conventional imperatives of making profits. When Amazon arrived in the UK in October 1998, the leading specialist booksellers included the newly merged Waterstone’s (as it was then known) and Dillons (with 500 branches), Borders and Books Etc, Hammicks, James Thin and Ottakar’s. Now the only one left is Waterstones, with fewer than 300 branches – and recently it laid off 200 of its managers. There were 1,535 independent bookshops in the UK in 2008 and now there are 1,028. The rate of attrition in the United States has been similar.

The digital reading revolution, which Amazon kick-started by introducing the Kindle, has accelerated this process. Ebooks now account for a third of fiction sales in the UK, and by the end of 2014 the proportion will go up to half. These sales have mostly left terrestrial bookshops and gone to Amazon, whose Kindle has become the generic term for all e-reading devices. Furthermore, customers who have migrated to Amazon to buy ebooks there have bought more print books on the site, too. Amazon has at least 90 per cent of ebook sales in the UK. Overall, its UK book sales are worth roughly the same as the value of sales through all terrestrial bookshops put together.

Booksellers are crying foul. Tim Godfray, the chief executive of the Booksellers Association, has called for the Office of Fair Trading to re-examine Amazon’s dominance of the ebook market. Quoted in the Bookseller, he argued: “Booksellers are finding it impossible to compete against such a huge player that has such a stranglehold on the book market . . . Consumers are being left with a reduced choice of book suppliers and communities are losing their bookshops.”

To adapt the words of the sports commentator Chick Hearn, Godfray has two chances of getting what he wants: slim and none, and slim just left the building. It left when regulatory authorities on both sides of the Atlantic ruled against leading publishers in disputes over pricing policies that they had adopted, seemingly in an effort to curb Amazon’s discounting, following the opening of Apple’s iBookstore. All the evidence we have is that the authorities look benevolently on Amazon and its aggressive competitiveness over prices, and treat with hostility most attempts to blunt the retailer’s edge.

Digital publishing threatens to undermine their power. The first sign of danger, or confirmation of it, came when Amazon promoted its new Kindle device by pricing New York Times bestsellers at $9.99 – less, in most cases, than it was paying the publishers for each sale. Sure, Amazon was taking the hit; but what if it gained the power in the future to get publishers to lower their wholesale prices? At the same time, Amazon introduced Kindle Direct Publishing, encouraging many thousands of aspiring authors, by no means all of them talentless, to self-publish their work. Many did so at very low prices and some, trying to build an audience, gave their ebooks away.

It was horribly apparent to publishers that readers expected ebooks to be cheap. When the US publisher of a novel by Ken Follett tried to give the ebook roughly the same price as the hardback, readers bombarded Amazon with one-star reviews. Ebooks cost nothing to print and distribute, readers reckoned. Publishers would reply that most of their other costs remained the same, and that they had many additional costs, too: digitisation in various formats, software and hardware updates, constant monitoring of the internet for copyright infringements. Plus, they were still bringing out print editions. But this argument has not found a sympathetic audience.

The arrival of Apple as a seller of ebooks, following the launch of the iPad, seemed to offer a chance of alleviating the problem. Under the “wholesale model” by which publishers sold to Amazon, the US publisher of a potential New York Times bestseller put a price on the ebook of $25, sold it to Amazon for $12.50, and allowed Amazon to sell it for whatever price it liked.

However, Apple had sold everything on iTunes through an “agency model”: the manufacturer set the price, from which Apple took a 30 per cent cut. So now the publisher could ensure that the book sold at, say, $14.99, from which Apple took 30 per cent. Yes, the publisher, and the author – whom we shall discuss later – earned less (the publisher got $10.50), but it was worth taking the hit in order to preserve the perceived value of ebooks. Otherwise, Amazon would keep slashing prices until there was no publishing industry left. Publishers negotiated agency deals with Apple, and then some of them went to Amazon and insisted that Amazon switch to the agency model, too.

These deals looked highly suspicious to the US department of justice, which in 2012 sued five of the six biggest publishers in the country for collusion. The European Commission, too, investigated agency pricing in the European Economic Area. Offices were raided and computers seized. Unfortunately, the late Apple boss Steve Jobs aided the regulators’ case, telling his biographer Walter Isaacson in an unguarded moment: “We told the publishers, ‘We’ll go to the agency model, where you set the price, and we get our 30 per cent, and yes, the customer pays a little more, but that’s what you want anyway . . .’ They went to Amazon and said, ‘You’re going to sign an agency contract or we’re not going to give you the books.’”

This did not look good. In both the UK and the US, the big publishers – while furiously denying that they had done anything wrong – nevertheless reached settlements with the authorities, agreeing to renegotiate contracts; in the US, publishers have paid more than $160m (£98m) to consumers to make up for the higher prices charged while agency deals were in place. But Apple fought on, and lost. Passing judgment in July, Judge Denise Cote of the federal district court in Manhattan was scathing: “With Apple’s active encouragement and assistance, the Publisher Defendants agreed to work together to eliminate retail price competition and raise ebook prices, and again with Apple’s knowing and active participation, they brought their scheme to fruition . . . Through their conspiracy they forced Amazon (and other resellers) to relinquish retail pricing authority and then they raised retail ebook prices. Those higher prices were not the result of regular market forces but of a scheme in which Apple was a full participant.” Apple has lodged an appeal, bringing to mind again the phrase concerning slim and none.

Amazon, above the fray, was the victor in these cases, though in negotiating new contracts with publishers it does find itself landed with some restrictions on its ability to discount. While governments may amend the rules that allow Amazon to pay only minimal corporation tax, no authority is going to curb competitive aggression. The authorities are unconcerned about what share Amazon takes of the book market, provided book buyers continue to have choices. Those choices include bookstores at Apple and Google, which are unlikely to persuade anyone that they require protection from a predatory rival.

Of course, Tim Godfray was talking about protection not for the likes of Apple and Google, but for businesses that may achieve not even a six-figure turnover in a year. Independent bookshops were struggling before Amazon came along, however, in part because of their inability to compete with chains such as Waterstones, and in part because of trends – superstores, rates and rents, parking restrictions, and so on – which have been hostile to so many high-street businesses, and which prompted the government to call in the retail expert Mary Portas to see if she could conceive a plan to revitalise them. Chain booksellers were growing, but largely by opening branches and merging with each other. It was a bubble, and Amazon’s market share was still relatively modest when Waterstones and the book/stationery/enter­tainment retailer WHSmith became the only chains left standing.

The best bookshops have found ways to remain attractive. They stage readings and festivals. They incorporate coffee shops. They recommend distinctive titles that you don’t see on the front tables at Waterstones or Smith’s, or on the Amazon home page. Mr B’s in Bath offers “reading spas”: one-on-one chats in its “bibliotherapy room”. It has also commissioned bespoke editions of books. Daunt Books has its own small publishing operation, which has brought back into print the kinds of literature that a chain of shops in well-heeled areas of London can sell. In September, the Booksellers Association launched an initiative called Books Are My Bag, which consists of only a slogan and a supply of canvas bags, but which the BA hopes will gain enough currency – as “Go to work on an egg” once did – to promote the joys of browsing and buying in real bookshops.

That Amazon has taken business away from these shops – well, that’s competition, and, as we’ve seen, we are going to have to live with it. The other day, I decided I wanted to read John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen?. I looked on Amazon and I looked on the rival ebookseller Kobo; Amazon’s price was £4.63 and Kobo’s was £7.07. I bought the Amazon Kindle edition, with a single click; when I switched on my tablet, my book was there. My nearest bookshop, a Waterstones, is a 20-minute bus ride away, and it is not always guaranteed to have the book I want. If it does, it may be selling it at the recommended retail price – £8.99, in this case.

Price and convenience point me towards Amazon. I enjoy reading ebooks, and if the print equivalents are bulky and have small type, I prefer to read them on a lightweight device with adjustable fonts. I love browsing in bookshops, but I love browsing online, too, and get a small thrill every time I make an order that enables an instant download or a posted parcel. Furthermore, Amazon’s service is superb. Its website is the best, its Kindle Paperwhite is by reputation the best e-reading device of its kind, and its prices are usually the lowest.

My point is that this is what the overwhelming majority of Amazon’s customers feel about the company. Yes, we disapprove of its tax avoidance, but we have learned that every multinational will behave in this way, given the opportunity. It is for governments to sort out. But giving publishers a hard time? Why should we care about that? And if we felt that Amazon did not deserve to take business from the terrestrial bookshops, we would click on those Buy buttons less frequently.

The consolidation of power in retailing is in part responsible for a consolidation of power in publishing. Penguin and Random House confirmed their merger this summer, creating the largest publisher in the world; industry insiders expect there to be further mergers at the top – Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins are names that are often put together. Penguin Random House, which is home to a significant number of the most celebrated authors in the English language, has clawed back some of the negotiating power that Amazon had assumed. The company also believes that, thanks to “efficiencies” (cost-cutting) in its merged operations, it will have more resources to put into the acquisition and promotion of books and into “discoverability”, a buzzword that has become an obsession as book buyers have moved online. How do you ensure that people see your books? Publishers are desperate to be the facilitators of this process. They do not want Amazon to control it.

In addition to the power of Amazon, they have three significant fears. The first is piracy. Once, pirating a book involved printing it. Now, all you have to do is copy a computer file and you have an edition that is no different from the authorised version. The pirates have created jobs in the book industry: the leading publishers employ people whose sole responsibility is to trawl the internet searching for illegal editions. Fear of piracy is responsible for digital rights management, the annoying code that prevents you from reading an Amazon ebook, say, on anything other than a Kindle-enabled device. It also lies behind publishers’ wariness about allowing their ebooks to be lent through libraries.

The new wave of digital entrepreneurs is, on the whole, sceptical about copyright, in a bedrock of industries ranging from publishing to football (think of the importance to football of TV and image rights income). Google, which no government can ignore, scanned millions of in-copyright books without bothering to ask the rights-holders’ permission. The British government is planning to introduce copyright exceptions following a 2012 report into intellectual property by a panel under the leadership of Professor Ian Hargreaves; its draft proposals have alarmed bodies including the Society of Authors and the Publishers Association. “Fair dealing”, which Google cites in its defence, may be fair to the people who want to use the material, but is less fair to those who created it.

However, publishers could relax a little. People want to get things for free or cheaply, but they are also happy to pay what they see as fair prices. Getting most of my books free when I was young did not dissuade me from becoming a book buyer, and listening to pirated music did not prevent my purchasing records. My daughters, who no doubt consume illegally shared material, spend fortunes through iTunes. When I began reporting on the book industry, Delia Smith featured in ubiquitous ads for book clubs that were offering her Complete Cookery Course for a nugatory sum. Yet the same book, at full price, appeared in the bestseller list week after week. Free or cheap does not necessarily undermine paid-for. Imagining an ideal world in which every consumer would pay a recommended price for every cultural item is futile.

The second significant fear, though, is the lowering of the recommended prices that consumers are prepared to pay. The average price paid for an ebook in the UK is about £3. The average price paid for a bestselling paperback novel is about £4.20, and the average price paid for a bestselling hardback novel is about £11. As ebooks take a larger share of the market, will publishers suffer a decline in revenues, and will they find, as booksellers did in the 1990s, that the only way they can grow is through mergers? Penguin Random may be an early symptom of such a trend.

The third fear is of becoming irrelevant. The rise of the publishing conglomerates has not been as hostile to independent houses as many had feared, partly because distribution has become more egalitarian (smaller houses have more chance of getting their authors discovered now, through Amazon and other sites, than when their only way of selling was by begging booksellers’ support) and partly because there are so many successful titles that the conglomerates miss or never see. But all publishers must be aware that authors have what appears to be the increasingly viable choice of self-publishing. Since internet distribution has vastly reduced the cost and difficulty of getting a manuscript into book form, self-publishing has lost its reputation as exclusively the last resort of the hopeless and deluded. Every week, it seems, one reads a story of an unknown author who has sold tens of thousands of copies of his or her self-published books, particularly through Amazon. Amanda Hocking, an author of paranormal romances, earned $2.5m from Amazon sales in under two years; even more famously, E L James first published online the story that became the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.

Publishers hope that the self-publishing world can become a training ground for writers, and last year Penguin’s parent company bought Author Solutions, the world’s largest self-publishing service (which at that point had a mixed reputation). Hocking and James went on to sign conventional publishing deals. Yet some self-publishers have not, while others have signed print book deals but retained their ebook rights. Few authors can have failed to notice that self-publishing offers higher royalties. Kindle Direct Publishing can pay up to 70 per cent of the returns from sales, and offers at least 35 per cent. Until recently, publishers were distributing to authors just 15 per cent of the returns; only under pressure, and not universally, have they raised these royalty rates to 25 per cent.

While publishers may have good arguments to explain why their royalties should remain at this level, they have not succeeded in making their case to authors and agents. At present, most authors crave the imprimatur, the editorial expertise, the marketing and the distribution that established imprints can provide. But publishers’ claims that they “add value” to the publishing process – value that self-publishing services cannot replicate – are not as incontrovertible as they once seemed.

In the ways described, the disruption that Amazon has caused the book industry has been welcome for readers and authors. Culturally, the picture is more confused. Some authors who might never have seen their books in print a few years ago have thrived through self-publishing, but others – who enjoyed a brief period when advances rose, as the big publishers grew bigger and the book chains expanded – are in trouble. They can no longer afford to spend a year or longer writing books, because no one will pay them to do so. Fashions are changing quickly, and many authors who were under contract a few years ago can no longer get their manuscripts accepted.

It is a harsh world, but whether it is barbaric, as some disillusioned authors believe, is debatable. Pitifully low sales of literary fiction are not a new phenomenon: George Orwell’s early novels sold only a few hundred copies each. When one reads of the long exile from print of Barbara Pym in the 1960s and 1970s after Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape had decided that her novels were hopelessly old-fashioned, one recognises a story with contemporary resonances. It is very hard to determine whether an industry that produces more than 100,000 titles a year is lowering its standards. Regular reading of the literary pages, and scanning of book-prize shortlists, suggests that there remains plenty of quality about. I once heard someone say that Paul McCartney, an acquaintance of his, was “as nice as you’d expect him to be”. Amazon is certainly no nicer than you would expect a Wall Street-quoted giant with a market capitalisation of $135bn to be. But I don’t feel guilty about being its customer.

Nicholas Clee, a former editor of the Bookseller magazine, is the joint editor of BookBrunch, a book industry news service

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.
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.