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We could be heroes: the world according to The Road to Character

David Brooks’s moral handbook, out in paperback, offers a vision of the good life. But in focusing on individuals he misses the bigger picture.

“Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes,” says the hero of Bertolt Brecht’s play Galileo. ­Increasingly, this sounds a jarring note: we are more conscious than we were a couple of decades ago that we have alarmingly few resources for thinking about what a good human life looks like in terms other than material prosperity. There are more and more books, research projects and worried op-ed pieces about the need to recover the language of virtue or honour – just as there are more discussions about the nature of human happiness. In sharp contrast to most earlier societies (and to most non-Western societies today), we in the north Atlantic world apparently don’t know how to boil an egg, as far as defining the good life is concerned. Brecht’s dictum could be read a little differently: our sense of a lack of “heroes” points up just what an unhappy or unfortunate ­society we are.

One way of responding is to do what the New York Times’s in-house conservative David Brooks does in this brisk and readable book, received with enthusiasm on both sides of the Atlantic when it was first published in 2015. Now out in paperback, The Road to Character feels particularly pertinent to some immediate issues right now: the level of public cynicism about ­politicians and “experts”, witnessed in the catastrophic EU referendum, or the bland managerialism that is replacing discussion about the core values of our educational system. He identifies the fundamental problem as the erosion of “character”, understood as the capacity to draw on inner reserves of strength to deal with conflict, failure and frustration.

Brooks sets up a contrast between what he calls “Adam I” and “Adam II” – the self that is preoccupied with the stock exchange of reputation, approval and material success, and the self that is focused on “moral joys”, putting moral growth and stability above prestige, laying down a firm foundation of self-scrutiny as the only basis for self-respect. The book offers a series of ­appropriately old-fashioned stories about heroes – “Great Lives” ranging from St Augustine to Dr Johnson, from the civil rights activist Bayard Rustin to the soldier and strategist George Marshall (of Marshall Plan fame) and the Catholic pacifist Dorothy Day. Each chapter takes one or two central figures and outlines their story, examining what conditions and habits enabled them to survive the struggles they faced in living out their calling, and picking out a central characteristic (“Self-Mastery”, “Ordered Love”) that they exemplify.

A final chapter elaborates on the development of what Brooks calls the “Big Me” culture that has grown up, not just (as is often supposed) in the baby-boomer generation, but ever since the Second World War. The origin of the problem, he argues, is in the great exhalation and the release of tension that the end of war brought about, with its expectations of ease and lack of challenge, so successfully exploited through an explosion in availability of consumer goods.

Fifteen principles or guidelines are listed to help us recover the perspectives we have lost. We need humility, for example; we also need the sense that we are moulded and strengthened by struggle and so should not avoid it. We need help from outside – the prosaic human outside of communities and institutions and the larger outside of “grace”, the unexpected arrival of strength from unknown sources. We need to know (that is to say, we need to acknowledge) what we don’t know. We need to learn the grain of human nature so that what we do has a chance of surviving for the long term. We need to think of ourselves as made for “holiness” not happiness, for a settled and comprehensive integrity.

Brooks is not unaware of the irony of writing a book that offers this sort of tabulated advice while railing against the ­self-help culture that tells us all how wonderful we really are. But the irony is still mordant: it is as if, in order to recover the unselfconscious moral or spiritual nourishment of an older culture, we have to deploy just the type of fussy self-probing that sets us most clearly apart from that environment.

The trouble with the principles he so painstakingly lists is that neither any one of them nor the ensemble will work if we are thinking about them. The lives he narrates are what they are because someone has been unselfconsciously possessed by a vision of life that compels and draws the focus away from the self. People become “holy” (a word to which I shall come back) as a by-product of attending to something drastically other than themselves. It is no use looking for a philosophy of life that will make you holy; that would be to instrumentalise the vision rather than surrender to it. The humility, the “moral realism”, the sense of limitation, the willingness to be surprised by grace or joy – these are various ways of describing the decentring of the self that ­results from being overtaken by a consciousness of what is demanded of you, either by a vision of the world or by a wholly trusted institution.

And there lies the problem for contemporary culture. We have learned to be wary of comprehensive visions and grand narratives, and we have developed an unprecedentedly corrosive scepticism about institutions. David Jenkins, the former bishop of Durham, observed about forty years ago that we were entering a “dark night of our institutions” – a period in which the integrity and meaningfulness of organised corporate work within a carefully conserved tradition of behaviour was no longer taken for granted. That institutions become self-serving and defensive is beyond question; but the situation was undoubtedly made more intense by the cultural climate of the 1980s and afterwards, in which a narrow definition of “value for money”, cynicism about public service and a deep and resentful assumption that all professional bodies would automatically be closed shops combined to subject many old institutions to externally imposed norms and expectations.

Brooks specifically writes about the importance of institutions for his version of the good life, but does not provide much analysis of why this kind of support is so much weaker than it was. An obsessively close focus on performance and profit or economy in the short term will not generate the sense of mutual expectation and long-term fidelity that can inspire selflessness. And, as has been remarked frequently since the 2008 financial crisis, institutions that are encouraged to be ruthless or cavalier in their relations with employees should not be surprised if there is a deficit in corporate morale and corporate morality, let alone ordinary professional loyalty.

But this is not quite all. The institutions Brooks cites as producing “character” are very diverse, from the Catholic Church to the armed forces, and even the more nebulous “institution” of old-style journalism. The diversity poses its own question. Not all such institutions are manifestly working with inner integrity or justice. It is possible for basically unhealthy institutions to produce “character” simply by providing clear structure and discipline; but do we then say that the SS is a school for character? Not easy to answer: an institution of this sort might produce a kind of selflessness, a sense of meaning detached from the individual’s agenda. But we should also – surely – want to say that it was serving a deformed and corrupt idea of human identity, and thus a deformed and corrupt idea of the self. To abandon the self to an institutional identity of this kind is not to be delivered from the ambivalence of self-will but to identify with a poisonous self-will of another kind: the corporate egotism of racial violence and mass terror directed against the Other.

Which suggests that we need to fill out the notion of character a bit more fully. The language of character usually has a great deal to do with what we could call the “formal” requirements of good behaviour – habits of self-questioning, devotion to something more than one’s gratification, the sense of limit and mortality, and so on. But we need to add substantive elements: habits of mind and heart that tend to the well-being of others without reserve, an openness to feel or at least register the weight of another’s (any other’s) pain, an acceptance of solidarity.

Several of Brooks’s figures certainly exemplify this – as in the cases of Frances Perkins (an architect of Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal), Dorothy Day (who founded a Catholic anarchist network ministering to the homeless and destitute) and Bayard Rustin (whose leading role in the civil rights struggle prompted controversy) – but the distinctiveness of their work is slightly obscured by placing them next to others such as George Marshall, or even George Eliot. The ambitious word “holiness” feels awkward applied to Marshall and Eliot, whatever we might say about their wholly admirable lives. There is a passion to let something else “come through” that characterises Day and Perkins; a level of radicality in serving a vision that goes beyond plain integrity and courage. It is not a matter of confessional religiousness (Rustin’s religious identity was a complex affair), but it is definitely to do with a belief that things (and people) are the way they are, that their sheer existence makes uncompromising moral demands on us, and that no transient system of worldly power can redefine these demands.

A good institution builds some of the habits we need to resist that institution when it is tempted to complacent or self-serving behaviour. It doesn’t just create institutional virtues or disciplines, but does something to embody the kind of ­“humility” Brooks commends: the sceptical but also generous realism that keeps our individual and collective self-satisfaction under scrutiny.

What do we have to learn from a book like this? One obvious lesson relates to what we think about institutions. There are some sorts of political radicalism that are slow or reluctant to think through what healthy, middle-level institutions look and feel like, and so have yielded the field to an easy cynicism about public service and corporate loyalty. It would not hurt the left to give more attention to the Good Institution. What makes a well-functioning business, a company that people are proud to belong to, a school or hospital or professional body that provides a solid orientation towards the wider well-being of the community? Even in an age of fragmenting work patterns, these questions are not empty; indeed, they become all the more urgent when fluidity and insecurity in the job market allow some employers and organisations to get away with unjust practices. Some critics of Brooks have accused him of “smugness” because he fails to spell out the negative impact on “character” of sheer economic instability and social inequality. This is not wholly fair; yet all he says needs supplementing with some harder thinking in these areas.

Moreover, as has already been said, it is essential to keep the focus on character not so much as a style of living that accepts limits and deferrals, as on the kind of vision that makes sense of limits and deferrals, that would make struggle and frustration worthwhile. This entails a hard look at a public educational philosophy that has become largely functionalist and reductive, and has lost sight of any idea that a good education is properly aimed at kindling the imagination with a sense of what might be worth suffering and struggling for. I read Brooks’s book at the same time as wrestling with the Dalek-inflected prose of the latest UK white paper on higher education (incomprehensibly subtitled Success as a Knowledge Economy), looking in vain for any mention of intelligence, enjoyment or inspiration as connected in any way with quality of teaching. It should not be surprising that there is a deficit in all the areas Brooks notes if the ethos of institutions of education at every level is dominated by the language of “performance” and marketable outcomes, rather than evoking the possibility of generating joy in a vision of the world.

Simone Weil famously said that most of our human ills needed cure by the imagination rather than the will. Brooks seems to see this; but the register of his discussion slips back irresistibly to an individual and private framing of the problem. “Character” without solidarity, and so without compassion and a principled universal perspective on human dignity, can be yet another stalking horse for self-regard and self-protection. If we need heroes – and I think Brooks is right that we do, and that most of his ­chosen subjects should be among them – they should have more to them than this. 

The Road to Character by David Brooks is published by Penguin (320pp, £9.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies

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 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies