Inverness: the new Shangri-La?

It's the fastest-growing city in western Europe - a dazzling beacon of new opportunity and enterpris

"Vibrant, exciting and cosmopolitan. Fabulous mountain scenery. A very low crime rate, and the schools are excellent. Without doubt a great place to live and work . . ." Stuart Black, area director at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, sounds genuinely excited, as well he might. Inverness, the unofficial capital of the Highlands, is now the fastest-growing city in western Europe. Scotland's new Shangri-La is expanding at a dizzying pace.

The A9, the longest and most dangerous road in Scotland, stretches from the central belt to the Highlands, taking you through some of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring scenery imaginable - gnarled mountain ranges, pine forests, castles. Beyond Perth is a desolate and sparsely inhabited world until, roughly 120 miles further north, the road climbs steadily, curves to the right and there, somewhat out of the blue, is Inverness.

In 2001, the population was 51,000. In the six years since, it has climbed to more than 60,000, and there are plans to double it over the next three decades. In many ways, it is an extra ordinary success story in an area where depopulation is the norm. Two new towns, a huge business park and a new university campus are planned; a £20m culture and conference redevelopment is nearing completion; numerous cultural festivals are taking place; major golf courses are being designed; the airport is on course to reach its target of a million passengers a year. The city has a booming healthcare industry, boasting one of the world's leading centres for diabetes research.

You would expect a director of Highlands development to paint it as a picture of paradise, but there are many others who agree with him, es pecially the large number of "downshifters" and retirees who have swapped life in the south-east of England for the far north of Scotland.

On the outskirts of Inverness, plush Wisteria Lane-style housing developments have appeared. Spacious three- and four-bedroomed detached homes, which would cost millions in the south-east, are being snapped up for between £250,000 and £300,000.

Stuart and Alayna Robins moved to Inverness three years ago after 20 years in London working in the City and the civil service, respectively. They were able to sell up and, with the proceeds, buy a much bigger property, start a schoolwear clothing company and still have cash left over. "We got sick of the rat race," says Stuart, 42. "We got sick of the long hours, the constant commuting, not being able to drive anywhere, constantly being stuck in traffic jams."

Alayna, who is two years younger, loves the different pace of life. "I regularly go down to London to see friends and I can't wait to come back. My friends are all stressed out and depressed. Here you get the best of both worlds. It has the economy of a city, but maintains the feel of a town."

Indeed, the cobblestoned city centre is quaint, compact and, apart from some awful 1960s town-centre development, a singularly attractive place. The waterfront on the broad and silvery River Ness is undergoing a major revamp. The west bank is lined with a host of stylish restaurants, which might not seem at all out of the ordinary, until you remember that, until recently, the concept of "dining out" in Inverness amounted to little more than eating a fish supper on a bench after a night in the pub.

The new inhabitants

So change has come, but it is not just those from south of the border that regard this as their utopia. Although English incomers account for a significant proportion of the new inhabitants, the vast bulk of the influx is made up of im migrants from eastern Europe, mainly Poland. At least 5,000 (some say as many as 8,000) have flocked to these parts since 2004, when the Scottish Executive launched an aggressive marketing campaign.

Many of them are qualified professionals: teachers, engineers, social workers. The unemployment rate in Poland, however, is running at just under 20 per cent, and white-collar workers who manage to find work there earn only about £120 a month. Highly skilled Poles can earn more in a week at a Highland fish factory, on a building site or as a cleaner than they do in a month in schools and offices back home. And, despite their qualifications, that is exactly the sort of work that many are doing. The majority are here for the short term, earning as much as they can before they return home.

There are exceptions. Monika Gajda and Gab riela Cabaj, both 28 and both graduates, are employed by Orion Engineering, one of the world's leading oil-industry recruitment agencies. They are planning to settle long term in Inverness. Monika says the quality of life is far higher here. "I sometimes miss big-city life and the weather could be better, but here we don't have to worry about having enough money to pay bills and buy food."

Gabriela joined her husband, who is also from Poland, in Inverness two years ago. "I wouldn't like to live anywhere else," she says. "Life in general is much easier here than in Poland. It's a very nice and pretty area and Scottish people treat foreigners very well."

But naturally one person's heaven is another's hell. There are many native Invernessians who lament the loss of their old way of life. There is no doubt that the population boom has brought problems and there is, at least among a minority, a simmering resentment towards those who have relocated here.

Local people call this "Tescotown", such is the dominance of the retailer. With no competition from Asda or Sainsbury's, 51 pence out of every £1 spent on food shopping in the High-land region goes into a Tesco till. There are three superstores already in the city, and only after fierce protest have planners refused permission for a fourth.

This is the kind of place where people go home for lunch, resulting in the previously unknown problem of gridlock four times a day. The roads are often seething with traffic and the infrastructure is urgently in need of investment and modernisation. Road and rail links to Glasgow and Edinburgh are appalling, and with only one main road through the city, a journey that used to take five minutes can now take an hour.

Drugs and homelessness

Crime has also increased. For the first time, the police are threatening to use dispersal orders to tackle the growing antisocial behaviour problem in some of the more run-down parts of the city. Homelessness is another issue. Figures released in February showed a 200 per cent increase in the number of people living on the street. Although the council has a policy that requires 25 per cent of any new housing development to be made available for social and affordable accommodation, there is a sense that this is too little, too late. The manager of one housing association told me that, for the 11 new flats he had just been given, he had a waiting list of 400.

Drugs are another problem. Dealers from northern England, aware that Scotland's main cities are saturated, see the Highlands as an area of huge potential. Rarely a day passes with out news of a drugs bust at the bus station or on the A9.

There is also concern over the influx of Poles. Zosia Wierzbowicz-Fraser is a teacher at a secondary school in the city and the founder of the Inverness Polish Association. She is dismayed at what she sees as the gross exploitation, in many cases, of young Polish workers and feels many have been lured to the Highlands under false pretences.

She recounts horror stories of Poles sleeping in the bus station, under bushes, and five or six to a caravan, and claims there are unscrupulous landlords charging ex orbitant rents for dorm-style accommodation. "Some of these young Poles," she says, "are living like pigs."

Wierzbowicz-Fraser also says many highly qualified Poles who thought their skills would be put to good use have ended up doing menial jobs. "Poles will do the jobs that no one else wants to do," she says wearily. "They are excellent workers and they are so desperate for money, for a better standard of living, that they will never complain.

"They work the extra hours, the long hours, because, even at the minimum wage here, it is 37 per cent higher than in Poland."

There are, she says, some excellent employers who provide accommodation and language assistance for staff, but they are few and she fears that unless urgent action is taken to address this it will become a big issue.

But perhaps the biggest problem for Inver-ness and the Highlands as a whole is one that is rarely talked about: the stubbornly high and rising suicide rate among men. Young and middle-aged men in this area are three times more likely to take their own lives than their coun terparts in London. New Scottish Executive figures, published at the beginning of this month, showed that the male suicide rate across Scotland as a whole had risen by 22 per cent over a 15-year period, with the Highlands and the Western Isles suffering a disproportionately high rate.

End of a way of life

The researchers blame isolation, alcohol and drug abuse. Other experts have suggested the death of the old Highland way of life. Not long ago, women here raised the children while men supported their families as farmers or fishermen. Such traditional industries have all but disappeared, however, and it is often women who support the family, working in seasonal service industries, while men struggle to find employment and spend long periods on the dole.

There is also the fact that Highland men are notoriously proud and self-reliant. They would never dream of visiting their GP if they were feeling anxious or lonely, and it is still seen as a sign of weakness for a man to talk about emotional difficulties or to say he needs a helping hand.

Drugs and alcohol are undoubtedly another huge factor. Much of Highland life centres on drink, and there is a well-known local say- ing about man's relationship with the bottle: You've got an alcohol problem only if you're drinking two bottles a day instead of one. The most recent figures show that there were 50 suicides last year, and many more attempts.

John Burnside is the reluctant founder of the Inverness Suicide Awareness Group. A former psychiatric nurse-turned-publican, he lost his son, Richard, who was 36, to suicide three years ago. In the three months leading up to his death, two of Richard's closest friends, Ivor Robertson, who was 35, and Mark Thow, who was 40, had taken their own lives.

All three had known each other since primary school and had played for a local pub football team since 1998. They lived within walking distance of each other in Hilton, a housing estate on the outskirts of the city. Their deaths stunned Inverness. At Mark's funeral, Richard turned to his father and gave him some unexpected words of reassurance.

"Dad," he said, "I know I've caused you and Mum a lot of problems over the years, but that is one thing you don't have to worry about - because I would never dream of doing that. I couldn't."

Burnside put a comforting arm around his son and thought, "Thank God", because he didn't believe that he or his wife, Edna, would be able to cope. Three months later Richard, too, had hanged himself. Like Mark and Ivor, he left no note, so those left behind have had to fathom their own explanations.

His father says: "'Why' is the hardest question to answer. Richard had had long spells of unemployment and a painful relationship break-up. Drink was also a problem, but you never expect this."

These days, Burnside devotes his time to raising funds for suicide awareness and support. "Inverness used to be this lovely royal burgh where everyone knew everyone else and always had time to talk," he says. "That has gone. Everyone's rushing about trying to keep up with each other and feeling like a failure if they don't have the big house, the big car and all the material trappings.

"That is the story I'm hearing more and more often - our young men and women feeling like failures."

As the editor of the Inverness Courier told me: "This is no longer Brigadoon." To some, that is a blessing. To others, it is a curse.

Lorna Martin is Scotland editor of the Observer

See also What does Scotland mean to you? - a selection of interviews with Scottish personalities.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
Show Hide image

“I teach dirty tricks”: the explosives expert who shows armies how to deal with terrorists

Sidney Alford used to blow things up in his garage. Now his expertise is helping save lives.

“I’ll fetch the hammer,” says Sidney Alford, leaving me in a laboratory filled with mysteriously named drawers and small bottles with skulls on their labels. When he has fetched it – “it’s a jeweller’s hammer, given to me in Paris by a friend of Salvador Dali” – the 82-year-old plans to tap gently on a small mound of white powder called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, better known as the explosive favoured by Isis in their suicide belts and homemade bombs. Because of its instability and destructive power, its nickname is “Mother of Satan”.

Tapping it with a hammer is enough to make it go bang.

Directing me to stand by the door, he searches for ear plugs before stuffing some paper in his ears – “I’m quite deaf, you know,” were almost his first words to me that morning – and begins to tap the Mother of Satan. On the fourth tap, it explodes in a genteel fashion with a flash and a pop. Its sensitivity to percussion is one of the reasons that jihadi bomb-makers suffer so many workplace accidents. “See,” Alford says. “You’d be OK walking, just don’t fall over or get shot.”

I have wanted to meet Sidney Alford ever since I heard about him from the investigative journalist Meirion Jones, who once uncovered a British man who sold £50m-worth of fake bomb detectors in Iraq and other countries. (The fraudster, James McCormick, was jailed for ten years in 2013.)

Giving a presentation to students, Jones mentioned that he could prove the gadgets were useless – just black boxes with radio aerials sticking out of them – because he had taken them “to a guy the BBC uses for explosives, who has a quarry in Somerset where he blows things up”. I decided then and there that I was very interested in being in a quarry in Somerset where someone blew things up. Maybe I would even get to press the button.

There was a less childish reason for visiting, too. Sidney Alford’s life story is interwoven with one of the technologies that defines the modern world: explosives. We fear explosives – suicide bombs, car bombs, bombs on aircraft – but we also need them, for everything from realistic film scenes to demolition. (Alford has a letter from Stanley Kubrick thanking him for his help on Full Metal Jacket.) Surprisingly, the best way to defuse an explosive is often with another explosive, something that Sidney’s company, Alford Technologies, has pioneered.

In other words, if you want to make something go bang – or, just as importantly, stop something going bang – he is the man to talk to. Quite loudly.

***

The first explosive materials Alford ever saw were fragments of bombs and V2 rockets left over from the German shelling of London. Born in 1935 in the suburb of Ilford, he moved with his family to Bournemouth when the Second World War broke out. When he returned, he found rich pickings in his battered neighbourhood in the form of magnesium incendiary bombs, which he filed down and turned into fireworks.

I ask him if, like my own father, he ever frightened his teachers with nitrogen triiodide, an unstable explosive compound that schoolchildren used to make themselves and set off in lessons to terrify unwary members of staff in the era before health and safety. “Oh yes,” he says. “I put it under my French teacher’s chair.” A pause. “He’d been in the army, so he didn’t make a fuss.”

Alford went to a grammar school, where he was an undistinguished pupil, angry that the headmaster wouldn’t let him learn German (rather than Latin) so he could speak to the Jewish child refugees he knew. But he was always interested in chemistry, and “by the fifth form, I’d recruit classmates to make bigger bangs”.

A chemistry degree came next, followed by a series of odd jobs, including diet research and studying the brain, an MSc in the science of environmental pollution, and two business associations with men he now characterises as “bad sorts”, who ripped him off.

By this time, he had moved to Ham, in west London, and had begun to take his chemistry experiments more seriously. It was the early 1970s, and the IRA’s bombing campaign had come to England. How could these weapons be neutralised, Alford wondered? Was it better to encase suspect packages in “blast containers”, or use shaped charges – typically, small cones that focus explosive energy into a point – to disrupt their ability to go off?

A brief digression on explosives is necessary here. When you think of something going bang in a spectacular fashion, that’s a detonation. “Detonare,” says Alford at one point during my tour of the quarry, relishing the Latin. “Like thunder.”

High explosives such as TNT, nitroglycerin or Semtex can be detonated by administering a violent shock to the main charge using a small amount of relatively sensitive and violent material in a metal capsule. This creates a hot shock wave, which sweeps through the substance faster than the speed of sound.

Old-fashioned gunpowder, house fires and your car’s internal combustion engine go through a different process, known as “deflagration”, where the chemical reaction moves through the molecules much more slowly. This burning is usually less dramatic and easier to manage. (Alford hates the term “controlled explosion”, reasoning that an expert should always control their explosions. If they fail, it’s a cock-up.)

The theory goes, then, that if you attack a munition just hard enough to ignite its contents but without causing a violent shock wave, it will deflagrate but, on a good day, it will not detonate. “Yes, it might make a massive fireball, but I’ve done it in jungles under a tree,” says Alford. “[With deflagration] the tree may lose most of its leaves, but with detonation, there is no tree.”

In the 1970s, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his suburban garage. There, he would experiment with making explosive charges, using measured quantities of material in different casings. He would leave his car engine running so any bangs could be plausibly written off as backfiring.

This cover story clearly didn’t wash with the neighbours, though, as first the police and then MI5 – “the most gentlemanly man” – came round to see why exactly a chemistry graduate they had never heard of was blowing stuff up in his suburban garage. When he explained himself to the security services, they put him in touch with the Ministry of Defence, and he was offered a contract.

***

Alford Technologies has a slogan: “For when you can’t afford to fail”. It also has an office in a business park outside Trowbridge in Wiltshire, but the real action happens at its testing ground, a former quarry amid the rolling hills of the Mendips, not far outside Bath. It feels like a cross between a scrapyard and a building site. “Here’s the bottom half of a Soviet mine, which we use as a brazier,” says Alford at one point, prodding it with a toecap.

Soldiers from various armies come here to learn about explosives and how to render them harmless. It’s vital work: last year in Iraq and Syria there were dozens of car bombs, with a single one in Baghdad claiming 250 lives. In Manchester this year an Isis-inspired jihadi killed 22 concert-goers and injured 250 with a backpack bomb apparently built from instructions found on the internet.

Learning to counter such threats means understanding them; jihadists and other terrorists might have access only to basic materials, but many also display great ingenuity. When I ask why Alford has a packet of Tampax in his lab, he says the tampons can be dipped in liquid explosives and turned into cartridges: “I teach dirty tricks so they don’t get caught out by them.”

Sidney Alford’s contributions to the world of explosives rest on an unlikely substance: water. When he first began tinkering in his garage in the 1970s, engineers had already worked out a rough-and-ready way of disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They used a gun barrel loaded with a blank cartridge to fire a jet of water that broke through the explosive’s casing and disrupted it. However, a sufficiently strong casing – say, one made of steel – could defeat this method.

In a low outbuilding in the quarry, Alford shows me his answer to this problem. Within a shaped charge, the force of a small explosion collapses a metal cone, turning it inside out and extruding it into a long, thin rod that shoots out at high velocity, about five times faster than a bullet.

The young chemist had an idea: why not combine the water from the older gun-barrel method with the accuracy and force of the metal jet in a shaped charge? In Alford inventions such as the Vulcan and the Pluton, the explosive charge shoots a targeted jet of water at high speed and with incredible accuracy.

Ho ho, you’re thinking. Water! Very scary. This is broadly what I thought until I saw one of Alford’s smaller shaped charges in action. After the demonstration with the hammer, he put on a pair of sturdy boots instead of brogues and we hopped into a small four-by-four to get to the base of the quarry. “Should I take my safety glasses?” I asked, even though we would be inside an old reinforced lookout hut salvaged from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. “Oh no,” replied Alford. “If it goes wrong, it will kill you. No need to waste a perfectly good pair of glasses.”

The Vulcan is about six-inches long, with a case of grey plastic, and loaded with 30g of plastic explosives with a cone of water held in front of it. The explosive is “about two toasts’ worth of butter,” said Alford’s project manager, Matt Eades, who served in the Royal Engineers for 25 years.

Alford placed the charge above a 10mm-thick steel plate using the aluminium-wire legs as a tripod, inserted an electric detonator into the Vulcan, and we retired to the hut, whose thick, double-glazed windows gave a good, if smeary, view of the sandpit. “If you write a nice, ingratiating article about me you can press the button,” said Alford.

I pressed the button.

There was a significant bang, making me glad of my ear defenders, but the plume went straight upwards. When we ventured out to the sandpit, Alford practically skipped up the side and fished out the metal plate, now with a clean-edged circular hole punched straight through it.

This practical demonstration had followed a whirlwind tour of the various Alford Technologies products and a brisk explanation of the theory of explosives. Alford clearly enjoys naming his creations: the Vulcan sits in his display alongside the Krakatoa and the Vesuvius, which can also be used for bomb disposal and demolition. The BootBanger is so called because “it bangs car boots” while the Van Trepan cuts a neat, round hole in the top of a larger vehicle. The Bottler is not only shaped like a bottle, but named for the Australian slang “that’s a bottler”, which Alford translates as “the cat’s whiskers”.

Even the Dioplex, a linear charge that creates a chopping blade, has a story attached: “I thought it was a do-it-yourself device, but I thought ‘do it oneself’ sounded better. So: ‘Do It Oneself Plastic Explosive’.”

One of the things a trip to the quarry teaches me is that the ways in which humans try to kill and maim each other are nothing if not inventive. The company sells a version of a Bangalore torpedo, an old invention used by Alford’s own father when he fought in the First World War. This is a modular tube you can push underneath barbed wire, blowing it apart to clear a path for infantry. A stronger version was needed, Alford says, because of the advent of razor wire. “Barbed wire was soft steel, designed to keep in cows. Razor wire was designed to cut you.” The new Alford Bangalore Blade torpedoes through the wire coils, severing them using four aluminium cutters and creating an unobstructed 10m route through.

The Breacher’s Boot is a door-shaped panel filled with water, used to punch through walls in hostage situations. “It gives a ‘kick’ to the wall, so bits of it will fall down. You don’t want to use shaped charges then,” he says. “If there’s a person on the other side of the wall, you’d cut them in half. And if you simply used a mass of high explosive, the concrete would fly almost horizontally.”

A similar idea lies behind the Alford Strip, a sticky rope of explosives and tamping material used in terror arrests, where the police would once have used a sledgehammer to open a door, but are now much more worried about booby traps. You run the 25mm- or 42mm-long plastic extrusion down a door, window or wall and then lay a length of det cord far enough away from it to put service personnel at a safer distance.

Down in the quarry, having punched through one square steel plate, we now try ten taped together versus a 40g load of explosives and a copper cone. The result: a 2m-high flash and the same clean hole – although the jet doesn’t make it through all ten plates. It stops at seven.

This isn’t an error: the shaped charges can use copper, water, aluminium or magnesium, depending on the force and space needed. Magnesium is incendiary; water and aluminium might be chosen because they lose velocity very quickly. You cut through what you want to cut through, without damaging either the structural integrity of the object surrounding it or innocent bystanders.

This precision is particularly important in demolition work. Last year, Alford Technologies took over the contract to break up Didcot Power Station, slicing through steel beams to dismantle the decommissioned building. It was called in after a terrible accident on 23 February 2016, when four workers employed by a respected firm, Coleman and Company, were killed while trying to lay charges inside the structure. “There was this crash – I looked over my shoulder and saw the boiler coming down,” one of the survivors, Mathew Mowat, told the Birmingham Mail. “We ran in self-preservation – then there was a loud bang and a massive cloud of dust, we couldn’t see much for a few minutes.”

It took months to recover the bodies of all four missing men, who had to be identified from dental records and tattoos.

***

Over an Eccles cake in the main office, Alford tells me about some of his other jobs, including cutting up sunken ships in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” of the mid-1980s, between Iran and Iraq, and joining a mission to retrieve £40m in gold bars from HMS Edinburgh, which sank in 1942 off the coast of Norway. (It was carrying 4,570kg of Russian bullion destined for the western allies.) The ship had been designated a war grave to stop it being plundered, and an air of mystery hung over the whole salvage project. Alford was told not to mention that he was an explosives expert.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work – and his anti-authoritarian streak – has caused conflict. “I’m doing things government departments ought to be doing,” he tells me in the car on the way to the quarry. “I’m in the anomalous position of someone who is quite admired, but also quite despised. Civil servants hate my guts.” When he was 40, he says, he asked for a formal job working with the department of defence, “and was told I was too old to have new ideas”. He set up Alford Technologies in 1985, and it now employs six people. The latest set of accounts at Companies House value the firm’s net worth at £2.3m.

Although Alford is scrupulously careful when handling explosives, he loathes health-and-safety culture. As we tramp round the quarry, he indicates a sign next to a pond, reading “Deep Water”, and tuts theatrically. He voted for Brexit to give the establishment a kick, not thinking it would actually happen.

It is a source of great chagrin that the government breathes down his neck, regulating what compounds he can keep and how he can keep them. “You have to have a licence for every substance,” he tells me in the car. “I’ve got them all. Well, it might be different if I wanted to go nuclear.”

 In 1996, he decided to make a stand against the pettifogging bureaucracy that, as he saw it, interfered with his work. Spooked by the thought of Irish republican terrorism, the regulators had insisted that he had to put a lock on his explosives store. “I told them that if the IRA really wanted to get my explosives, they would kidnap one of my family.” (He has two sons with his Japanese-born wife, Itsuko; the elder, 46-year-old Roland, now runs the business.) Besides which, he didn’t see why he should put an alarm on his few kilos of various explosives when the farmer next door had tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, a key ingredient in the IRA’s bomb-making.

The stand-off broke when his request to renew his explosives licence was turned down; soon after, the police came to raid his stores. He had tipped off a friendly journalist, however, and the visit was captured on camera and written up first in the local paper and then the Daily Mail, where Christopher Booker took up the cause of a Englishman’s inalienable right to keep high explosives in his shed. “I felt morally obliged to be prosecuted,” he says now.

The court case, documented in the newspaper clippings, sounds like a mixture of deadening legal procedure and high farce. At the magistrates’ court, Alford and a friend pursued and rearrested the next defendant, who tried to do a runner; when his case was kicked upwards to Swindon Crown Court, he turned up in an armoured Daimler Ferret, posing for photographs with his head poking out of the top, white hair tucked into a helmet. He was eventually charged with possessing explosives without a licence and fined £750, with £250 costs. The judge ordered the police to give him his licence back, but ticked him off for using the court system for political purposes.

Listening to this story, it becomes clearer why Alford never ended up in the warm embrace of an official government role. He offered his ideas to the Ministry of Defence, but he shows me a letter from April 1977, where an unlucky official reveals that he is “regarding your correspondence with diminishing enthusiasm”. Still, he is sanguine. “Most of my enemies have now gone to the laboratory in the sky, or retired,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t work for them. Would I have fitted in? Probably not.” In any case, he has had some official recognition, receiving an OBE in 2015.

***

Alford’s work is used in war zones including Afghanistan, but also places like Cambodia, which are still riddled with unexploded ordnance from previous ground wars. Over the years, he has visited that country and Laos several times to practise new ways of dealing with old bombs. (The company produces a more affordable version of the Vulcan for non-military use.) He first went to Vietnam during the war; the last person, he says, to get a Japanese tourist visa into the country in the 1950s. The company’s brochures show smiling locals posing next to the sleeping monsters they have had to live alongside for decades.

But Iraq, too, is in dire need of methods to deal with cheap, homemade explosives. After Matt the Ex-Army Guy and Alford have demonstrated how to blow a door off its hinges, cut through a 50mm steel bar, and turn a fire extinguisher inside out – “that is unzipped in all known directions, it is a former IED,” says Alford, Pythonesquely – they show me the Bottler and the BootBanger.

They drag beer kegs into the boot of an old blue Nissan Almera, explaining that these were a favoured IRA device: who questions a few beer kegs in the street? First, they stick a Bottler between the front seats, showing how you would disrupt any electronics without setting the vehicle on fire – which would destroy forensic evidence. “They’d usually use a robot,” explains Matt. “And the robot usually leaves [the area], because they’re expensive.” A six-wheeler bomb disposal robot costs around £750,000.

We retreat again to the hut. I must be looking increasingly nervous, because Alford tries to reassure me about the building’s structural integrity: “If it tips over, it will take two weeks to get you out. But they’ll know where to find your body.”

As promised, the explosion is focused – and controlled, in the Alford-approved sense of the word. The windscreen is peeled back, lying on the roof, but the fuel tank didn’t ignite and the back windows are intact. “I know it might look like a mess,” says Matt, “but this would be classified as a result. You use a smaller bit of explosive to get rid of a larger one.”

Finally, it’s time for the big one. Matt slides the BootBanger, shaped like a suitcase, under the back end of the car. It has a curved sheet of 400g of plastic explosive through the middle, sandwiched by water on both sides and encased in nondescript grey plastic.

Now this is a bigger bang. I suddenly see the point of all those “Blasting!” warning signs that surround the quarry. If you drove past and heard this, you’d think the Russians had invaded. As an orange-red flame flashes and a deep, throaty boom fills the quarry, the beer kegs are fired out of the back of the car, pinwheeling 20 feet in the air and coming to rest yards away. Debris rains down on the roof of the hut. I swear I can hear the plinking sound of metal cooling. The car is now missing its back windscreen, and is, it’s fair to say, probably never going to pass another MOT. Nevertheless, it is still recognisably car-shaped; the skeleton is undisturbed.

Unfazed, Alford hurries to the car, and plucks a piece of paper from the boot, clearly left there by a previous owner. It is undamaged.

And then it’s time to rejoin the real world. As he drives me back to Bath, I ask Alford what it feels like to do what he does. He has saved possibly hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. “Yes, but in an already over-populated world,” he sighs.

I know he doesn’t mean it callously; he just doesn’t want credit for what, in his eyes, is barely a job at all. The schoolboy who wanted to make a bigger bang got his wish. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?