Lovecraft peopled his mythical realms with slippery, palpitating cretaures to escape a worse prospect – a human world. Illustration by Sean Phillips
Show Hide image

Weird realism: John Gray on the moral universe of H P Lovecraft

The weird realism that runs through Lovecraft’s writings undermines any belief system – religious or humanist – in which the human mind is the centre of the universe.

The New Annotated H P Lovecraft
Edited by Leslie S Klinger
Liveright/W W Norton, 867pp, £25

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

In this opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu”, first published in the pulp fiction magazine Weird Tales in 1928, H P Lovecraft set out a view of things that animates pretty well everything he wrote thereafter: the human mind is an accident in the universe, which is indifferent to the welfare of the species. We can have no view of the scheme of things or our place in it, because there may be no such scheme. The final result of scientific inquiry could well be that the universe is a lawless chaos. Sometimes called “weird realism”, it is a disturbing vision with which Lovecraft would struggle throughout his life.

Born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was well acquainted with the fragility of the human mind. When Howard was three years old his father was confined in a psychiatric institution after a breakdown, probably linked to advancing syphilis, and died there five years later. Lovecraft’s early life was shaped by his grandfather, two maiden aunts and his mother, Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft, with whom he formed what may have been his most enduring relationship. A precocious, high-strung child, he was often unwell and suffered from attacks of nervous anxiety. After years of mental illness, Sarah spent time in the same hospital, where in May 1921 she also died.

At a meeting of would-be journalists in Boston that same year, Lovecraft met Sonia Haft Greene, a Russian-Jewish woman some years older than himself, whom he married in 1924. They seem not to have been unhappy but it was not long before they drifted apart. Financial insecurities must have had a part in the break-up, along with opposition to the marriage from Lovecraft’s aunts and his own intense dislike of New York. The two went on to separate lives, Sonia moving to California, remarrying and dying there in 1972. Lovecraft returned to Providence, where he lived with his aged aunts, in straitened circumstances and increasingly ill. He died from cancer in 1937 convinced that his work – which had received only slight recognition in his lifetime – would soon be forgotten entirely.

Lovecraft’s life was spent on the margins of society, eking out a small inheritance and scraping an uncertain living from journalism and amateur publishing. Some of his attitudes may have come from his experience of downward social mobility. His wealthy grandfather lost most of the family fortune in a business failure in 1900. For Lovecraft, his mother and his aunts, the years that followed were a long decline from what they liked to think had been an aristocratic lifestyle. The aunts’ opposition to his marriage to Sonia – at the time a successful milliner – may have been rooted as much in the family’s social snobbery as in the anti-Semitism that was rife in the US in the early decades of the 20th century. Despite his marriage, Lovecraft’s own animus ran more deeply. There can be no doubt of his racism, which underpinned his detestation of what the narrator in one of his stories described as “the polyglot abyss of New York’s underworld”. Some of his letters invoke explicitly racialist theories of cultural degeneration.

It has been suggested in Lovecraft’s defence that in later years his attitudes mellowed. It is true that, under the impact of his experience of the Great Depression, he expressed some sympathy with Roosevelt’s New Deal, mocking the right-wing American obsession with free markets and arguing that a measure of economic planning was needed in order to combat mass unemployment. That, however, does not make him any kind of liberal. Arguments of this kind were widely current, and not only in circles that would now be regarded as progressive.
Nazism and fascism were hostile to capitalism, at least in their rhetoric, precisely because many of their supporters believed that capitalism promoted liberal values. In the 1930s, racism and anti-capitalism often went together. For all his scorn for the age in which he lived, Lovecraft embodied some of its ugliest (and most commonplace) beliefs and attitudes.

Fortunately, the core of his work has nothing to do with his social and racial resentments. His real subject is the inhumanity of the cosmos. As he wrote:

. . . all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large . . . To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown – the shadow-haunted Outside – we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.

The American writer August Derleth, a friend and correspondent who played a pivotal role in collecting Lovecraft’s fiction and bringing his work to a larger public, suggested that Lovecraft viewed his stories as vehicles for a newly invented mythology. It is an astute observation. Throughout his adult life Lovecraft was an unwavering atheist and materialist. In a letter of 1918, he declared: “. . . the Judaeo-Christian mythology is NOT TRUE.” At the same time he had nothing but scorn for the rival mythology of his day, the belief that humankind – “the miserable denizens of a wretched little flyspeck on the back door of a microscopic universe”, as he described the species in the same letter – was at the forefront of cosmic evolution. For him the cosmos was a trap, and human beings the prey of blindly mechanical forces. His “Cthulhu Mythos” – a fictional alternate reality containing godlike minds far more powerful than those of human beings, and also utterly different from theirs – was a response to this vision.

Part mountain, part octopus or dragon, Cthulhu is portrayed as being beyond the reach of words: “The Thing cannot be des­cribed – there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order.” In “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, published in 1936, he depicts more fully the creatures of his “shadow-haunted Outside”: 

I think their predominant colour was a greyish-green, though they had white bellies. They were mostly shiny and slippery, but the ridges of their backs were scaly. Their forms vaguely suggested the anthropoid, while their heads were the heads of fish, with prodigious bulging eyes that never closed. At the side of their necks were palpitating gills . . .

 Whether they resemble worms, amoebae or bubbling slime, the creatures have one thing in common. None of them is remotely human. It’s as if Lovecraft invented these horrible phantoms in order to escape a worse horror – the human world itself.

The precise role of Lovecraft’s mythology is a continuing subject of controversy. In his erudite and witty foreword to The New Annotated H P Lovecraft, Leslie Klinger notes that Derleth saw the new myth as having at its centre a conflict between good and evil, while “Lovecraft did not see life as a struggle between good and evil or light and dark forces” – which is surely correct. Klinger goes too far, though, when he goes on to suggest that the “Cthulhu Mythos” exists only as Derleth’s invention. Certainly there is nothing to suggest that Lovecraft aimed to establish a fixed pantheon of imaginary deities. But the Lovecraft scholars S T Joshi and David E Schultz seem to me to get closer to the writer’s motivations when they describe the Cthulhu stories as forming a type of “anti-mythology”.

The paradox of Lovecraft’s writing is that although he believed myth existed in order to shield the human mind from reality, his own mythos seems to do the opposite: the “Outside” is more frightening than the world in which human beings live. The paradox is unlocked when we realise that this reality is what Lovecraft was trying to escape. In an essay on his own work, “Some Notes on a Nonentity” (1933), he wrote: 

The “punch” of a truly weird tale is simply some violation or transcending of fixed cosmic law – an imaginative escape from palling reality – hence phenomena rather than persons are the logical “heroes”. Horrors, I believe, should be original – the use of common myths and legends being a weakening influence.

 Since Derleth collected Lovecraft’s writings there have been many anthologies. Norton’s new volume must surely be the definitive collection. It is meticulously and imaginatively edited, beautifully illustrated and immaculately produced, with a thought-stirring introduction by the graphic novel writer Alan Moore. Along with all the canonical tales, there is copious additional material, including lists of the complete works and revisions by other writers and descriptions of his influence on popular culture. Coming not long before the 125th anniversary of his birth, this magnificent volume is a testimony to Lovecraft’s staying power, which would have surprised him as much as it would his many detractors.

Far from disappearing from view as he expected, Lovecraft has been repeatedly resurrected by successive generations. No one would now write of him as the critic Edmund Wilson did, in the New Yorker in 1945: “The only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad art.” The true horror was in fact that of judging Lovecraft by the standards of a defunct literary culture. In H P Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (1991) Michel Houllebecq, who has championed Lovecraft much as Baudelaire did Edgar
Allan Poe, noted that: “There is something not really literary about Lovecraft’s work.” Lovecraft’s distance from “literature” is one of the sources of his power as a writer.

That’s not to say he had no literary influences. At the Mountains of Madness, a novella describing an expedition to the Antarctic and the ancient species found there, shows affinities with Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, while “The Dunwich Horror”, a seminal tale of the “Cthulhu Mythos”, is heavily influenced by Arthur Machen, the Welsh writer of unsettling tales. Lovecraft acknowledged these debts, as well as his admiration for the work of Lord Dunsany, M R James and Walter de la Mare, among others.

Yet these influences only accentuate the singularity of Lovecraft’s vision. He discovered Poe when he read him as a young boy, and admired him ever after; but (despite superficial resemblances in subject matter) Poe exalted the human imagination over the natural world with a Romantic passion of which there is little trace in Lovecraft. In terms of philosophy, Machen and Lovecraft had little in common. De la Mare’s suspension of disbelief in everyday reality is far removed from Lovecraft’s unyielding materialism, while Dunsany’s wistful fairy tales lack his uncanniness. There may be a greater affinity with M R James, but there is nothing in Lovecraft of James’s nostalgia for the late-Victorian world.

Lovecraft was too much of an outsider to have any firm mentors. The world-view from which he fashioned his stories was distinctively his own. His atheism and materialism weren’t unusual in America at the time; H L Mencken, for one, held similar views. What is striking is what he made from this familiar philosophy.

The weird realism that runs through his writings undermines any belief system – religious or humanist – in which the human mind is the centre of the universe. There is a tendency nowadays to think of the world in which we live as an artefact of mind or language: a human construction. For Lovecraft, human beings are too feeble to shape a coherent view of the universe. Our minds are specks tossed about in the cosmic melee; though we look for secure foundations, we live in perpetual free fall. With its emphasis on the radical contingency of the human world, this is a refreshing alternative to the anthropocentric philosophies in which so many find intellectual reassurance. It may seem an unsettling view of things; but an inhuman cosmos need not be as horrific as Lovecraft seems to have found it.

He is often described as misanthropic, but this isn’t quite right – a true misanthrope would find the inhumanity of the universe liberating. There is no intrinsic reason why a universe in which people are marginal should be a horror-inducing place. A world vastly larger and stranger than any the human mind can contain could just as well evoke a sense of excitement or an acceptance of mystery.

Lovecraft’s anti-mythology of slimy, inhuman creatures reflected an unresolved struggle within himself. He firmly rejected religious mythologies that accorded humankind a special place in the scheme of things, but he could not accept the implication of his materialism, which is that human life has no cosmic value or meaning. Rejecting any belief in meaning beyond the human world, he also rejected the meanings human beings make for themselves. He had no interest in the lives of most people, and from his early years seems to have believed his own would count for very little. He was left without any sense of significance. So, obeying an all-too-human impulse, he fashioned a make-believe realm of dark forces as a shelter from the deadly light of universal indifference. 

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His next book, “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom”, will be published in spring 2015

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
Show Hide image

“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 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies