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Metropolis now

Before the financial crisis, New York and London walked hand in hand as “the two greatest cities in

It is a warm May morning in London and Boris Johnson has just wandered into his mayoral press conference. He is surrounded by press officers, who appear to double as nannies. They lead him around and record his interviews with journalists, wary, perhaps, of his tendency to make gaffes. We are in the middle of a global recession, and Johnson is launching his economic development strategy for London. But despite the seriousness of the subject, there is a sense that the daily performance of being mayor - of shuttling around the city, opening things, riding trains and pontificating - is one long, wonderfully elaborate joke. A joke, crucially, that Johnson is in control of; the myth that he is a bumbling fool brilliantly disguises his political ambition. He plays the hapless clown, and has audiences following his every word, waiting for the punchline. As he takes to the stage, the crowd starts to laugh before he has spoken, like an audience at a comedy gig, expecting hilarity.

A few weeks later, in New York City, Michael Bloomberg walks into the room. We are in the basement of the Tweed Courthouse on Broadway - now home to the city's department of education. Mayor Bloomberg is flanked by security men and, as he enters, the band of noisy New York journalists falls silent, like an obedient class of schoolchildren. Bloomberg, the richest man in New York, with a personal fortune valued at $17.5bn, has a hushing effect. But he dismisses his intimidating wealth by saying: "I think the real answer is that if you have a good message, people are going to be responsive . . . It's not money, it's whether or not you have something of substance to say."

In London, Mayor Johnson's message begins, as always, with a joke: "I came here, of course, on my bicycle. I do that because unless you're completely insane, or devious, or a Liberal Democrat, there's no way you can fiddle your bike expenses." The audience erupts. He then extols the virtues of London's diversity - the prowess displayed in medical science, law and the creative industries. But it is a few days after the MPs' expenses scandal broke, and that's all anyone wants to talk about.

“I never claimed for a bath plug," Johnson says. "I never claimed for a moat." No longer an MP, he is able to distance himself from the news coming out of Westminster. "I find myself rather amazed by the whole thing."

Johnson stood down as the Conservative MP for Henley after he won the mayoral contest against Ken Livingstone in May 2008. The decision to run for mayor was, he said at the time, simple: "the opportunity is too great and the prize too wonderful to miss . . . the chance to represent London and speak for Londoners". Livingstone suggests that his motivations were more complex. "For Boris, this is just eight years he's got to get through without anything going wrong . . . It's always been about Boris: he's got his agenda, which is to be back in parliament in the middle of the next decade and succeed Cameron as prime minister."

At their respective press conferences, the two mayors fielded questions on an array of topics, but both were principally concerned with their city's economy. The recession, and the near-ruin of the global financial system, has clearly had a huge impact on London and New York. Wall Street and the Square Mile were the epicentres of the earthquake. Only months earlier, the two cities had seemed invincible. In May 2008, Bloomberg wrote: "We are - and here, please forgive the modesty of a New Yorker - the two greatest cities in the world . . . no two cities combine such staggeringly rich and diverse economic and cultural opportunities as New York and London."

Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September last year, the mayors have been forced to become defenders of their cities, fighting to restore their global pre-eminence. The question is how. Finance made London and New York great, but reliance on the banks also made them vulnerable when the system defaulted. In both cities, politics and money have always intertwined - a closeness that is played out in their geography. New York's City Hall, a grand, neoclassical building, is a short walk up Broadway from Wall Street. In London, the glassy barrel of City Hall squats on the south bank of the Thames, across the river from London's financial centre. From his office on the sixth floor, the mayor can see the gleaming towers of commerce - the old NatWest building, the Broadgate Tower, the Gherkin.

It isn't the first time that London and New York have been the settings for economic calamity. The Great Depression, provoked by the New York stock market crash in October 1929, led to soaring levels of unemployment in both cities (reaching 13.5 per cent in London by the early 1930s and 50 per cent in Harlem in 1932). In the 1970s, after years of strikes and civil unrest, New York was close to being bankrupt. A million people left the city to live in the gentler suburbs. London plunged in parallel, with unemployment reaching 400,000 in 1976. Mounds of rubbish filled the streets of both cities as refuse collectors went on strike.

Then, during the 1980s, the Thatcher-Reagan era of free-market fundamentalism, the cities changed again. According to the British historian Dominic Sandbrook, "You had the simultaneous growth of extreme wealth and extreme poverty", exemplified by "the grotesque contrast of Trump Tower going up in one part of Manhattan and people living out of cardboard boxes just a couple of streets away". Nowhere was this contrast more apparent, Sandbrook says, than in London and New York.

Tony Blair's government, elected in May 1997, wooed the City with even more fervour than the Thatcherites. London and New York grew exponentially, mostly as a result of the burgeoning success of their financial services. From 1999 to 2009, New York's financial services industry was responsible for roughly a quarter of the $1trn output of the regional economy, and generated 20 per cent of state income-tax revenues. Meanwhile, London's financial services grew to employ half a million people in the capital alone, contributing 11 per cent of the UK's total income tax. Financial institutions multiplied - the number of hedge funds, concentrated in London and New York, grew from 610 in 1990 to 9,462 in 2006.

By early 2007, the two cities had transformed into hubs of intense wealth, home to the growing ranks of multimillionaire financiers. Property prices had become grotesquely inflated: in London, luxury properties were selling at £18,000 a square metre; in New York, at £11,000 a square metre. The cities had responded relatively well to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and 7 July 2005. Their rivalry flourished, inflamed by the competition to host the 2012 Olympics. In March 2007, New York magazine depicted London and New York as figures wearing boxing gloves, battling it out for the global crown. Now, after the debilitating events of the past year, the terms of the battle are different. It will be up to the mayors to lead their cities in the race to recovery.

On 15 September 2008, the day that Lehman Brothers collapsed, Michael Bloomberg had been in office for six and a half years; Boris Johnson for just over four months. Bloomberg should have been coming to the end of his mayoral reign this year, but in October 2008 he amended New York's term limits law to allow him to run for a third term. The ballot is on 3 November.

The amendment was an audacious act of manoeuvring and Bloomberg is keen to ensure its success. He has spent $36m of his own money on his campaign so far this year. Asked in May if he felt his wealth in effect killed off the opposition, he said: "I don't know why it drowns out any honest debate . . . I'm spending my own money, so I'm not beholden to anybody." He has a point. Part of Bloomberg's appeal is the sense that he is self-made, able to pay himself a nominal $1 a year for the honour of doing the mayor's job. It also means he can distance himself from lobbyists and interest groups, focusing more on the pragmatic elements of the mayor's job than the political. Ken Livingstone, mayor of London from 2000 to 2008, worked closely with Bloomberg for six years. "He's only interested in what works. He's not an ideologist at all," he told me.

Johnson and Bloomberg first met as mayors on 9 May 2008 in London, a few days after Johnson had taken over at City Hall. Bloomberg presented Johnson with a Tiffany box containing a crystal apple; Johnson gave Bloomberg a shirt with the Tube map printed on it. Their styles are as different as their backgrounds. Johnson, although born in New York in 1964, with Turkish and German ancestry, comes across as aristocratically British, having been educated at Eton and Oxford. Bloomberg's beginnings were more modest. Born in 1942, he grew up in a Boston suburb in a middle-class Jewish family. He won a place to study electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, and paid his way by working as a parking attendant during the summers. In 1981, forced out of his bank job at Salomon Brothers after a merger, he started a financial information service, Bloomberg LP. He was "too pig-headed to go look" for a job, he has said, and thought it would be "fun to be an entrepreneur . . . I have an ego that tells me anything is possible if you work hard." The company now operates in 161 countries, has 275,000 subscribers and employs 10,000 people worldwide.

Where Bloomberg made his name and fortune from shrewd business, Johnson lasted a week at a management consultancy firm, LEK Consulting, before becoming a journalist at the Times, where he was sacked within a year for falsifying a quotation. After retreating to a local paper in Wolverhampton, he moved to the Daily Telegraph in 1987 and in 1999 became editor of the Spectator - a role he combined, sometimes erratically, with being an MP. Now, he writes a weekly column for the Telegraph, for which he is paid £250,000 a year (an amount he has described as "chicken feed"). Unlike Bloomberg, he has little chance of running a self-funded campaign for re-election; his original campaign was supported by hedge-fund managers and property developers.

For all their differences, the mayors are similarly upbeat about their recession-hit cities. In May, Bloomberg insisted that New York is “doing much better than people understand"; while Johnson said that parts of London's economy "are in credit-crunch denial". Both have engaged in "hamburger" economics - Johnson suggesting that, because of the weak pound, "hamburgers are cheaper in London than almost anywhere else on earth", and Bloomberg observing that people are ordering steaks again after slipping to burgers during the crunch. Both men try hard to sound as if they are in tune with the daily life of their cities. But they are also trying to sell. The mayors have to perform like political travel agents - relentlessly marketing the importance and vibrancy of the places they represent.

They also have to keep a sharp eye on each other. "We always say we're the financial capital of the world. London says that, too," Bloomberg said. "What we've got to do is worry about ourselves."

Johnson simply insisted: "We'll win!" But he was also happy to disparage his rival city: "I'm not going to draw invidious comparisons with New York's crime rate, but I merely point out that you have far less chance of being murdered on the streets of London than you do in New York." What both cities fear is a repeat of what happened in the 1970s: the mass exodus of a high-earning population, forced out by unemployment, leaving the cities to fester amid growing crime and poverty.

When it comes to policy, however, the cities appear to be going in very different directions. Two months after his economic strategy launch, Johnson was performing again, at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. He had gathered hundreds of business people and was
regaling them with jokes. But he was also sending out a message - namely, that a new EU draft directive on Alternative Investment Fund Management would gravely damage the private equity and hedge-fund industries in London (the directive seeks to limit the level of debt that these funds and firms can take on).

To those present, it was something of a revelation to hear a political leader explicitly defend firms that had become emblematic of an age of dangerous excess. Bob Wigley, former chairman of Merrill Lynch in Europe, said: "I think this is, in my memory, the first time the Mayor of London has taken a real, proactive interest in City affairs and the promotion of the City. That's a very important step."

Johnson made his allegiance to the City clear from the start of his term. As Anthony Browne, Johnson's director of policy, told me: "Boris doesn't need any prompting to defend financial services. He's not doing this out of any political convenience. In fact, if anything, it's politically inconvenient at this time, defending bankers."

A week after Lehman's collapsed, Johnson wrote a newspaper column defending the banks. The mayor acknowledged that some had been guilty of greed, but accused those critical of bankers as being propagators of "neo-socialist claptrap". He mentioned the "edge" London had gained over New York because of limited regulation. When I suggested to him that stricter regulation might be a necessary response to the crisis, he looked bemused. "You're saying regulation might be a good thing, and high tax might be a good thing and all the rest of it. You've got to be very, very careful that you don't try to solve the last problem by exacerbating or creating the next one. And that's very often what regulation does."

In January this year, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Johnson conceded that he had approached Bloomberg with an idea to form "an alliance against ill-thought [out] regulation". He was turned down. Yet it hasn't dampened his enthusiasm. Taxation and regulation may be under the control of central government, but Johnson sees it as his duty to lobby for London and to challenge government.

“You can jolly well make a fuss about it," he told me. "Nobody else is. Maybe the New Statesman can! Come on, Staggers! Come on, stick up for the people, for energy and enterprise!" And, quickly, we are joking again.

In New York, a more nuanced message emerged. I visited the deputy mayor, Robert Lieber, who is in charge of the city's economic development. "We're looking at other industries," he said. Straight-talking and energetic (he claimed never to use an alarm clock), Lieber worked at Lehman Brothers ("it was a great industry, a great firm; it's a tragedy what happened") before joining Bloomberg's team in 2007. He said he was determined to reduce New York's dependency on the financial sector: "I think the great thing about New York is that, while we're considered . . . a financial centre in the world, we do in fact have a diversified economy already."

Like Johnson, Lieber talked about tourism, fashion, medicine and academia - the city's various talents. But then he mentioned catching "the green bug". He estimates that through regulation and investment in green industries - construction, engineering, architecture - as many as 20,000 jobs will be created over the next few years. It is all part of a plan to make New York more liveable. “Crime rates are down to all-time low levels, [and] the streets are cleaner than they've ever been . . . We're making huge capital investments to improve schools so that people can choose to raise their families here, as opposed to moving out of the city."

Johnson, by contrast, is behind on the matter of greening his city. Browne admitted to me that "other cities have been making waves on this before us". As mayor, Johnson has launched tree-planting and cycling initiatives and, most recently, an initiative to boost local energy schemes through London boroughs. On 14 October, he said that he wanted "to position London as the world's leading low-carbon economy". Yet, before running for office, he was openly sceptical of the dangers of climate change. In 2006, he poked fun at the "growing world creed of global warming" - a position
he had to contradict in a speech to the Environment Agency in November 2008, when he described himself as "someone who used to write caustic articles about the religion of climate change". As Jenny Jones, a London Assembly member for the Green Party, said: "Climate change is a bit of a new idea for this mayor - he hasn't yet grasped how urgent it is."

Jones describes Johnson's record on green issues in office as "utterly shabby . . . I think he has rolled back the green agenda in London by probably a decade in some of the decisions that he's made." She is most concerned about transport - such as the decision to abandon the congestion charge expansion and the recent announcement that Tube and rail fares would rise again. But she also points out that he has lost ground on green industries. "Johnson took over an administration that was actually doing quite a lot. We were a world leader on adaptation and mitigation of climate change. He's just not picked up the reins on this. He doesn't get it."

Livingstone agrees, describing Johnson's lax approach to the environment as a "catastrophic mistake for our long-term economic interests". The former mayor worked with Bloomberg to set up the C40, a mechanism that brought together the leaders of the world's largest cities to tackle climate change. The first meeting took place in London in 2005, followed by another in New York in 2007. As the driving force behind the initiative, London held the chair. But that changed when Johnson became mayor. Of the 40 cities involved, only two (New York and London) were prepared to vote for him - the others had "read his writings", Livingstone explained to me. Johnson was quickly demoted to "honorary vice-chair", with the mayor of Toronto taking over the leadership. It was a terrible loss, Livingstone believes, both of status and of London's competitive advantage.

Johnson now says his administration is making progress on the environment. One plan is to create a "green enterprise district" in the Thames Gateway. But there seem to be inconsistencies. A concurrent idea is to build a new airport in the Thames Estuary. I asked his policy director how comfortably the green enterprise district would sit beside a new airport, imagining meetings on low-carbon technologies as planes power overhead (killing millions of birds in the process, campaigners claim). Browne scratched his stomach. "It's accepting reality that aviation is an environmental detriment, but it's almost certainly going to carry on increasing," he said. "We'd much prefer that it doesn't carry on increasing inside a west London suburb where lots of people live." A west London suburb - covering Richmond, Twickenham, Hammersmith and Fulham on the way to Heathrow - where a lot of Johnson's most vocal Tory voters live.

Exactly a year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Bloomberg and Johnson met again in New York. They gave a talk at Columbia University: "New York and London: Heading Back to the Top". There was the usual hilarity - Bloomberg gave Johnson a revenge gift of a hat, umbrella and tie
decorated with the New York subway map. Johnson taunted Bloomberg yet again about losing the Olympics. But he also took the opportunity to warn once more of the dangers of over-regulation, "however great our rage at the bankers may be". The purpose of the meeting was to present a united front ("We are in this together," said Bloomberg) but, in reality, the cities seem to be pulling apart.

One consequence of the financial crisis is the opportunity it offered London and New York to reinvent themselves. Their leaders could seek to re-create the booming, finance-dependent cities of the past decade, or imagine a new kind of city shaped by different priorities. Johnson has publicly made his choice, taking his strongest stand so far (apart from his war on bendy buses) in defence of hedge funds. His administration attempts to absolve the industry.

“It had nothing to do with them," Browne said, even though, for many, the collapse of three Paribas funds in August 2007 and Bear Stearns in March 2008 signalled the start of the financial crisis. In his Tory party conference speech on 5 October, Johnson, ever loyal, once again attacked the "banker bashers" who sought to undermine the City of London.

Bloomberg and Lieber seem to be on a more progressive path. After all, as Lieber said, they want to diversify so they are not as dependent on financial services. They believe that their city can grow in a new way, and it can remain a world leader through reinvention. Johnson, on the other hand, would prefer London to revert to its former so-called glory - a city with less regulation and a new airport. Given the past, it seems a strange kind of future.

Sophie Elmhirst is a contributing writer at the New Statesman

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London

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 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London