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Class war zone

Aggressive and disruptive behaviour blights many state schools, and the only remedy - excluding pupi

Mohammed was only 13 years old and wasn't especially tall or powerful, yet I was terrified of him. "I'll fucking kill you. Do you get what I mean, geezer? I'll fucking deck you!" he screamed at me as I asked him to leave my classroom. He had hit a boy over the head and spent much of the lesson swearing. By this time, I was trembling with rage and fear, and was relieved when he finally left the room.

Soon afterwards Mohammed was excluded from the school and I gave up teaching. It was 1997 and the chaos he had caused had sapped my confidence. Because the school was not a stereotypical inner-city comprehensive, but located in a prosperous London suburb, I felt doubly deflated; I felt that I had become horribly soft. In fact, the school did have discipline problems, with a significant rump of children from troubled backgrounds, but few teachers there were trained to cope with the more challenging ones such as Mohammed. Rowdy classes became riotous, lessons became war zones.

Several years later, with my spirits refreshed and missing the buzz and excitement of the classroom, I returned to full-time teaching, quickly becoming a head of department at a school in Havering, outer London. In this new position of responsibility I had to teach several children who had been excluded from other schools or had been passed on to me by more junior teachers. By this time, I had become a more tolerant pedagogue, less obsessed with results, more adept at handling disruption. I was calmer and more consistent in my approach. Some of my pupils were potentially just as aggressive as Mohammed had been, but I was able to cope with them; I'd learned to "give and take", to negotiate, to form good relationships with difficult children.

One child, John, had been permanently excluded from another school but had settled well at my new school and ultimately succeeded in attaining eight good GCSEs. I recently spoke to John about his life now and was delighted that everything was going well for him. He had trained to be an electrician and was set, he said, on earning better wages than me. "What I liked about it in your school," he told me, "was that my mates and some of the teachers taught me how to deal with my anger. Sometimes I used to get so mad, I would just punch anyone who was around me, but then I learned to walk away from rucks. And I think that helped me concentrate more. The school stuck with me even though I was out of order sometimes. They didn't kick me out. That counts for a lot."

Talking to John, I began to think about Mohammed, who had been jailed soon after being permanently excluded from school. I recalled how there were times when he had been keen on learning, had even shown interest in Shakespeare and reading. He had wanted to succeed, but I, and many other teachers at the school, had been preoccupied only by what was wrong with him, meting out punishments and threats that had caused a vicious downward spiral. During my investigations in trying to find out what had happened to him, I learned from another former pupil at the school that Mohammed was still "up to no good"; he had become a drug dealer and had cut some heroin with washing powder and nearly killed a user.

Had I contributed to Mohammed's troubles? Had my old school failed him? If extra resources had been available to give him proper care and attention, would we have spared society huge amounts of money and distress in the long term?

Mohammed fitted the typical profile of an excluded child. He was male, of mixed race, had special educational needs and was in foster care. He was permanently excluded in 1997, exactly at the point when the new Labour administration swept to power promising to address the problems presented by children like him. Tony Blair's mantra, "Education, education, education", was as much about sorting out the Moh ammeds of this world, about being "tough on the causes of crime", as it was about improving results.

In spite of the government's best efforts to massage the figures, exclusion rates have remained more or less steady for a decade; on average, roughly 9,000 children or more are permanently excluded from school every year and nearly 400,000 children given "fixed-term" exclusions, according to the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Eighty per cent of them are boys. Government figures show that Roma children are three and a half times more likely to be excluded than other children, and those from black or mixed ethnic backgrounds are twice as likely to be excluded as whites. Children in care are eight times as likely to be excluded, and those with special educational needs are three times more likely to be ordered to leave their school.

After 11 years of a Labour government, school exclusions continue to affect the underprivileged.

In 2007, as many as 140,000 pupils who were excluded for short periods from school were eligible for free meals, accounting for a third of such exclusions, even though these children make up only 12 per cent of the school population. But if schools were better equipped and staff better trained to deal with the persistent disruption exhibited by children from dysfunctional and deprived households, would exclusion rates be drastically reduced?

Meanwhile, society as a whole is paying an increasing cost. Significant research by the charity New Philanthropy Capital, which offers advice on giving, reveals that the average excluded child costs society more than £63,851 a year. This figure includes the future lost earnings of the child resulting from poor qualifications, and also costs to society in terms of crime, health and social services. In total, this amounts to £650m a year. This is probably a gross underestimate, since many excluded children are not accounted for in the figures.

The human cost of failing to deal with the problem is incalculable: carrying a knife is the most common offence among children excluded from school, and 50 per cent of men in prison were excluded. "Research shows that at the root of school exclusions, and much crime, is the inability of young people to communicate properly," says Lord Ramsbotham, former chief inspector of prisons. "If we addressed these problems in the classroom, many of our problems with antisocial behaviour would disappear.

"At the moment, what happens is that these young people, having been alienated from their families at an early age, are then excluded from school and turn to crime: drug-taking and dealing, knife crime and, in extreme but increasing cases, murder. Research shows that while poor parenting and low socio-economic status are major factors, school exclusion plays a significant environmental role in helping shape the criminals of tomorrow. The government needs to appoint a minister for inclusion to begin to address these issues."

Ofsted, in its report, Reducing Exclusions of Black Pupils from Secondary Schools: Examples of Good Practice, identified three interrelated features that significantly reduce exclusions: "Respect for the individual in school and a systematic, caring and consistent approach to behaviour and personal development, the courage and willingness to discuss difficult issues, a focus on helping pupils to take more control of their lives by providing them with strategies to communicate well and look after each other."

I know from my own experience that good mentoring really helps; the best schools allocate both "academic" and "professional" mentors to troubled pupils. The academic mentor will set clear, achievable targets twice a week which are then closely monitored, while professional mentors, usually drawn from the world of work, will show pupils opportunities beyond the classroom.

Frequently, these pupils have tailor-made numeracy and literacy lessons, and work in small groups with tutors to engage with the curriculum. Furthermore, pupils with particular psychological needs will have relevant lessons such as "anger management" classes or counselling sessions. While this may sound expensive, it needn't be: some schools have met the costs easily by getting rid of expensive management posts and reallocating the resources into buying in mentors and academic tutors. The alternative of the pupil referral unit is far more expensive; with staff ratios of one teacher to six pupils, the units mean thousands more pounds are spent per pupil than in a mainstream school.

Studies show that targeted early intervention can significantly reduce the problems caused by school exclusions. Take the case of Abby, a child who at the age of 12 was in foster care and regularly in trouble at school in south London. She was confrontational; she fought with other children and abused teachers. But she was also on the autistic spectrum, a condition that was not dealt with properly at school. Frequently, she would misinterpret the teachers' instructions, literally pulling her socks up in response to this metaphorical order. A series of fights and slanging matches with teachers led to her being permanently excluded before she could take any GCSEs. Once out of school, she quickly turned to petty crime such as shoplifting. Fortunately, her case was taken up by the National Teaching and Advisory Service (NT&AS), and some trained professionals were assigned to her who would supervise both her academic and social needs. Much to the astonishment of her former school, she attained seven GCSEs and is now at college.

"The link between youth offending and educational failure has of course been known about for years. But successive governments have failed to do much about it, although this government has undoubtedly done more than the others," says Tim Walker, the chief executive at NT&AS. "Organisations like mine can make a big difference if we intervene at the right point; we can put troubled children on the path to success."

One small but significant step to making exclusions a more constructive experience would be to grant children the right to appeal against their own exclusions, being assigned a trained "advocate" to represent them. A scheme like this has already been piloted in ten boroughs between 2005 and 2008 by Save the Children with its three-year EAR to Listen project, which gave excluded children an independent advocate to speak for them at exclusion panels and liaise between home and school generally.

That the project had an 80 per cent success rate in supporting children and young people to remain, re-enter and re- engage with education, but there is little political impetus behind spreading its good practice throughout the country. "The government has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which gives children the right to be heard and taken seriously in all matters affecting them, but we are nowhere near granting this to our excluded pupils," says Tom Burke, a spokesperson for the Children's Rights Alliance for England. Since September 2007, schools have been obliged by law to promote pupil well-being. "We would hope that new guidance on the duty, which the government will require schools to implement next year, will add further weight to exclusion panels to considering a child's rights when making exclusion decisions."

At the root of the social chaos caused by exclusions is a chronic lack of consistency. Some schools are eager to exclude disruptive pupils, while others are extremely reluctant to do so, even for serious offences. Schools anxious not to have their figures sullied by too many exclusions are choosing to operate a system of "internal" exclusions - locking pupils up in rooms with no windows, keeping them away from lessons in separate buildings, quietly telling them not to come to school at opportune moments such as when the inspectors are there. But this only creates worse problems for society in the long run; alienated and uneducated children, who are neglected by their schools and families, are left unsupervised to cause havoc.

It is only by being "consistently caring" towards these vulnerable children that we will clean up the mess. But no one in any of the three main political parties has had the courage to argue publicly that we should provide advocates for disruptive children on exclusion panels, insist on their having the right to appeal against their own exclusions, or that we should keep them in mainstream classes, if at all possible. Projects such as Save the Children's EAR to Listen, which provide excluded children with the proper support to stay in school, have been proven to be by far the cheapest and most effective way of solving the problem. Save the Children estimates that providing advocates for our most vulnerable children should cost no more than £8.5m, compared with the £650m that taxpayers are currently paying to cover all the harm exclusions cause.

I spoke to Michael Gove, shadow secretary of state for children, schools and families, about the Tories' attitudes towards exclusions. The Conservatives have pledged to scrap independent appeal panels, the only form of outside scrutiny that schools currently have when they exclude pupils, and Gove confirmed that the party aims to make this a manifesto commitment. "We want to introduce a number of measures within schools that will stop exclusions, such as early intervention strategies that will mean pupils will be dealt with effectively before the drastic step of excluding them is taken," he told me.

"We want to give headteachers the power to exclude pupils without being overruled by outside bodies so that they are secure that their authority won't be challenged or, as is often the case at the moment, undermined."

How would he ensure consistency on exclusions? Home-school contracts, he said, would be clear about what behaviour was acceptable and what was not. This is not a new idea: Labour has attempted and failed to make home-school contracts work. In fact, such contracts are simply a list of rules for parents that have been drawn up by the school, and these can vary from place to place.

Gove was clear that the Tories would not accept the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its insistence on a child's right to appeal his or her exclusion, but would allow individual schools to adopt this procedure if they felt it appropriate. This would give schools the chance to experiment in the ways in which they grapple with the issue of exclusion. "Our priority will be to stop exclusions in the first place," he said. "We believe our reading programme in primary school should have a big impact in this sense; the overwhelming majority of excluded children can't read properly. If we ensure that all children can read by the time they are seven, we will have cut down greatly upon the causes of exclusion.

"If we stop the causes of exclusions, we won't be kicking out kids on to the streets to cause mayhem. Our plans for improving pupil referral units will mean that all difficult children will be catered for in a supportive learning environment."

Overall, his plans seemed contradictory; and while he is sincere, I and many people in the system do not share his faith in the judgement of headteachers, on which so many of his plans rely. The Tories' plans will increase the inconsistency in the processes by which children are excluded, giving them no redress whatsoever. They will create an even angrier generation of rejects than we have now. His plans for referral units will be costly, without ever getting to the root of the problem.

Labour, anxious about being labelled "soft", has not even attempted to argue with Gove's proposals. The party prefers, instead, to sneak in guidance and legislation that bolsters children's rights in a piecemeal and inchoate fashion. The media is partly responsible for this: for all the column inches devoted to antisocial behaviour and crime perpetrated by children, there is seldom any serious attempt to look at some of the mundane root causes. Pointing out the inconsistency in schools' approaches towards exclusions and the need for proper, uniform disciplinary procedures, doesn't make good copy. Screaming about the need to expel thugs and yobs from school does. As a result, the public is never properly informed about the issues and the debate remains banal.

There are straightforward, successful and cheap measures that could drastically reduce school exclusions tomorrow. But the political and educational will to implement them doesn't exist. And so we are condemning our society to an ever rising tide of lawlessness.

Francis Gilbert's "Parent Power: the Complete Guide to Getting the Best Education for Your Child" is published by Piatkus (£9.99) http://www.francisgilbert.co.uk

Exclusion by numbers

  • 30% of permanent exclusions are for persistent disruptive behaviour (2007 figures)
  • 27% are for physical assaults on staff
  • 17% are for assaults on pupils
  • 11% are for verbal abuse against an adult
  • 5% are for verbal abuse against a pupil
  • 3% for bullying, racist abuse and damage
  • 2% are for sexual misconduct
  • 8,680: number of permanent exclusions from primary, secondary and special schools in 2006/2007
  • 363,270: fixed-term exclusions from state secondary schools
  • 45,730: fixed-term exclusions from primary schools
  • 20: number of times more likely that excluded children will end up in prison, compared to the general population

Source: Department for Children, Schools and Families

What is exclusion?

Source: Department for Children, Schools and Families

  • Headteachers have the right to remove a child from school for serious misbehaviour
  • "Fixed-term exclusion" is when the child is excluded temporarily (from one half-day to a maximum of 45 days in one school year). The school sets work for the period, which the child's guardian is expected to supervise
  • "Permanent exclusion" is when the child is ordered to leave the school permanently. The child may then have a "managed move" to another school, or go to a "pupil referral unit", to be taught in very small classes. Some may drop out of education altogether

Portraits by Natalie Pecht

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks

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 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks