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Planet Overload

The world’s population is 6.8 billion. That figure will rise to 9.2 billion by 2050. Meanwhile, clim

If you write about the environment you become used to a measure of unfriendly criticism. In the main, it’s pretty innocuous stuff – charges of miserabilism and so on. But since concentrating on the issue of human population growth, I have found the criticism noticeably darkening. The other week, after helping to launch a campaign encouraging couples to “stop at two” (children, that is), I received an email accusing me of “real, hard-hitting fascism” and adding: “The Nazis . . . would be proud of you!” This was nothing, however, compared t0 the hate mail I received when the organisation of which I am a part, the Optimum Population Trust, published a report arguing that, as human beings were the agents of climate change, one way of combating climate change would be to produce fewer new humans.

Population can arouse violent feelings. Much of the hate mail originated from religious groups in the United States. But the more recent message came from an academic address at Oxford. Personally, I find it hard to conceive that an intelligent, acquisitive, expansive, territorial, aggressive and physically large species such as Homo sapiens could increase in numbers from 2.5 billion to 6.8 billion since 1950 and not cause an environmental crisis. Moreover, I cannot see how, on top of the existing 6.8 billion, we can accommodate another 2.4 billion people over the next 40 years (which is what the United Nations says we can expect) without something to go seriously wrong on the earth.

Such views were once widespread but have become less so. After making much of the running on population in the 1960s and early 1970s, green groups, for instance, have become wary of the issue. The UK’s best-known environmentalist, Jonathon Porritt (see page 27), a keen advocate of stopping at two, is among those critical of the green lobby’s neglect of the population growth issue, describing it as gutless, wilfully ignorant and “less than honest”.

There are many who regard the silence of the greens on population as a shameful episode in the history of a movement that has done an enormous amount to change the world for the better. One might cite a number of factors in mitigation, however. The rise of the religious right, particularly in the US, has added to the ranks of those who believe that birth control infringes religious or political liberties – and in the process forged an unlikely holy alliance with Catholicism and Islam. The excesses of state birth control programmes in India and China have left a residue of suspicion – although China’s one-child policy has prevented the addition of 400 million to a population already facing environmental nightmare. The burgeoning human rights agenda has, meanwhile, made all exercises of judgement over the lives of others potentially suspect. So, aid-givers have lapsed into silence on population for fear of being labelled white imperialists.

To an extent, seeing, and experiencing, is believing. In the UK, concern about population was at a peak in the postwar baby-boom decades, when family size was well above the replacement level of 2.1 and the effects of growth were plainly visible. Domestically at least, a quieter demographic era then dawned: below-replacement family sizes, the expectation that the UK population would peak early this century and thereafter decline. This comfortable vision of Britain is now history.

Under the impact of an upward twist in birth rates and record levels of immigration, which now accounts for over two-thirds of population increase, numbers are rising at rates not seen since the baby-boom days. Government statisticians tell us that the UK’s population, six or seven million in 1750, 50 million in 1950 and 61 million today, will reach 85 million in 2081, with no sign of levelling off. And why should it, when we live in a globalised and globally warmed world with potentially millions of environmental refugees heading our way – making the British Isles, as the environmental guru James Lovelock puts it, one of the planet’s lifeboats?

Against this background, it is hardly surprising that the population issue has been reignited, at least at grass-roots level, as millions of us, particularly in the south-east of England, experience crowding and congestion every day and read in our newspapers, as we strap-hang on some packed commuter train, that it is going to get worse. Last September, England was confirmed as the most densely populated of all the larger countries in the EU: only Malta is more crowded. It is also not surprising that, among the political classes, the immigration component of population growth has led to silence on the issue as a whole – after all, who wants to be accused of racism? But never underestimate the power of cognitive dissonance: that human facility, only too familiar in matters of a green nature, to think one thing but do the opposite. In this respect the Daily Mail, which fulminates against higher den­sities, but describes those in favour of limiting family size as green zealots, may be all too representative of Middle England.

Yet if the silence on population has lately begun to crumble somewhat under pressure from below, a larger question lies behind it. How do we know that the world is overpopulated? Common sense might argue there must be a causal link between the loading of an extra four billion people into the biosphere in the second half of the 20th century and the contemporaneous appearance of severe ecological ills. But common sense also argues that there is lots of land left in the world – think Canada, Siberia.

The contemporary environmentalist, meanwhile, will defend his silence on population by arguing that it is not human numbers that are the problem; it is more about how those human beings live. This employs the

I = P x A x T formula popularised by the population ecologist Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 classic The Population Bomb. IPAT says human beings’ impact is a product of their population numbers, multiplied by their affluence and their technology. In other words, the more stuff you own and do, the more burdensome you are to Planet Earth.

The Guardian columnist George Monbiot recently argued that as global economic growth, before the credit crunch, was 3.8 per cent and population growth was 1.2 per cent, the affluence or consumption half of the equation bore twice [sic] as much responsibility for environmental damage as the population half.

The truth is far more complex – partly because the figures assume an exact equivalence between economic growth and human impact at variance with the facts. Some of the ingredients of economic growth (oil, mining) have a great deal of environmental impact; some (financial services) have much less. Many human activities do not register in gross national product at all. If I go for a walk in the park – or, for that matter, cut down a wild tree to use as firewood – I will be contributing to impact but not to economic growth.

This is more than scholasticism, however, because we are making value judgements about future human numbers all the time – whether we acknowledge it or not. Faced with sub-replacement birth rates in many countries in the developed world and with talk of a “birth dearth”, for instance, many governments have begun to promote the economic benefit of women having more babies or of higher immigration as a means of paying for our pensions. You hear less of this in the UK since the idea was rubbished by the Pensions Commission, but it is a remarkably durable piece of mythology that carries startling demographic implications. Since new arrivals grow old and then require pensions themselves, you need an ever-growing population to keep the “support ratio” between workers and non-workers the same. To maintain the present support ratio in the UK, for example, would demand a national population of 136 million in 2050 – more than double the current number.

Is that too many? Most of us would think so – including, apparently, the new immigration minister, Phil Woolas, who said last year that Britain required a population policy, and that the government wouldn’t “allow” the population to reach 70 million (we’re on target to hit that in 2028). But explaining why it might be too many is a different matter. It is not easy to determine the “carrying capacity” of a place – whether it be the United Kingdom or the planet. The American population scientist Joel Cohen asked, in his 1995 book of the same title: how many people can the earth support? But he could not answer his own question, though he noted that the carrying capacity of the number of human beings the earth could support had ranged over the past three centuries from half a billion to more than a thousand billion.

Ecological footprinting

Since the publication of Cohen’s book, however, a new methodology – “ecological footprinting” – has emerged and this is providing a higher level of consistency. Ecological footprinting measures national and global biological productive capacity (the stuff we live off) against human demand (the “footprint”). The resulting data takes both population and consumption into account and provides what many regard as the best guide yet to measuring sustainability. It has been reported that, at the current rates of consumption, the world can support only five billion people. This means the planet is already overpopulated by nearly two billion.

Given that the new science of ecological footprinting has borne out what common sense was suggesting as far back as the 1960s, it’s probably a good job we haven’t all waited for proof. In 2007, 69 out of 195 countries had policies to lower population growth, compared with 39 in the mid-1970s.

This included 70 per cent of the less developed countries: 34 out of 53 African states, for example. And there have been some remarkable, and unexpected, success stories – not least Iran, which decided after a census in 1987 that population growth was holding back development and, between 1988 and 2000, reduced its fertility rate from 5.2 children per family to a below-replacement level of two. Thailand cut fertility rates from 6.3 in 1967 to 1.7 in 2003. Many other states have reduced their birth rates at a speed comparable to China but without coercion. They include Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Morocco, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Tunisia, Vietnam and India (the southern states).

Half a century after the first population and family planning programmes began, the ingredients of success are well established: strong government support, often through explicit population policies; partnership with NGOs; an emphasis on women’s status, rights and education; education on sex and relationships; and, above all, the ready availability of contraceptives – supplied in Iran, for example, by a nationwide network of “health houses”.

Yet more than 200 million women worldwide lack access to contraception, and international spending on family planning – partly because of anti-abortion policies adopted by the Bush administration in the US – has recently been in steep decline. Given that even the UN middle-range world population projection of 9.2 billion by 2050 assumes a further drop in birth rates of up to 46 per cent, this is worrying indeed. Without reductions in fertility, the UN says, we could be nearing 12 billion in 2050.

How to make a difference

Oddly, in a world of large populations, small decisions do make a difference. If every woman had half a child less than currently projected, for example, the world population would be 7.8 billion in 2050 – 1.4 billion fewer people, or roughly one China less. In the UK, meanwhile, if the 26 per cent of women currently expected to have three or more children were to limit themselves to two, our mid-century population would be cut by an estimated seven million – enough to return an area the size of Wales back to nature or food production.

Would that be a good thing? If you are concerned about other species or that nebulous but powerful grouping of ideas we label “the wild”, yes. But even from a brutally anthropocentric standpoint, it has a certain logic. Footprint data suggests that, based on current lifestyles, the sustainable population of the UK – the number of people we could feed, fuel and support from our own biological capacity – is about 18 million. There are thus 43 million “too many” of us, all reliant on the outside world for sustenance. In an era of impending shortages – of food, oil, gas, water – does that not seem a little risky?

The UK has no population policy – despite ranking in the top 20 of the most overpopulated countries, judging by the standard above. If we had such a policy, it would need to address immigration as well as birth rates – a good enough reason, cynics might think, for politicians to forget the whole idea. It would also need to address a further vexed issue – what numbers are sustainable and what are desirable?

Environmental orthodoxy treats population and consumption as two factors in an equation, and thus accepts, by implication, that both are important, but concentrates on one (consumption) while ignoring the other (population). This not only compounds errors in analysis with errors of logic: it has had intangible but far-reaching effects, not least in giving environmentalists a reputation as killjoys, forever telling us what not to consume and making calculations of sustainability seem dour technical exercises in survivalism. Both tendencies have damaged the wider green mission. But there is another way of looking at the numbers question, one that goes beyond sustainability and perhaps bears more directly on what it is to be human.

Consider two Planet Earths – one of nine billion people with x amount of “consumption”, the other of one billion with 9x consumption. Bear in mind that the world of nine billion may be more inventive, but also more pressured and stressful, less spacious. Bear in mind particularly that often, by “consumption”, we mean activities which for many people, laudably or not, make life worth living – holidays, hobbies, travel, freedom to choose. In the modern environmentalist’s formulation, both worlds are the same. In practice, they are not; there are choices to be made. Shouldn’t we be making them, and urgently?

www.optimumpopulation.org

Click here for statements from the three main political parties in Britain on population and immigration

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload

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 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload