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Christopher Hitchens: the New Statesman years

Friends and colleagues recall how Christopher Hitchens bagged his dream job as a staff writer at the

When I interviewed Christopher Hitchens for the New Statesman in May 2010, just a month before he was diagnosed with cancer, I asked what he would have done had he not become a writer. "Have been someone else," he replied, "because writing is all I ever wanted to do. It's what I am, rather than what I do." More than any other title, it was the NS that Hitchens longed to write for as a young man. "I considered myself to be miles to the 'left' of it, of course, but still in awe of the review on which I had cut my teeth as a schoolboy," he wrote in his memoir, Hitch-22. Unlike his friend Martin Amis, however, Hitchens did not enjoy an uncomplicated ascent.

He was sacked from the Times Higher Education Supplement for displaying "a distinct lack of interest in higher education" and then became a lowly researcher on ITV's Weekend World. It was only in 1973, three years after he had graduated from Oxford, that he was offered a job as a staff writer by the then NS editor, Anthony Howard. His university friend James Fenton, who helped him wangle the post, was already on the staff and Hitchens began contributing leaders and articles.

In an early piece, written under a joint byline with Fenton (and which Hitchens said "still gives me great pride in retrospect"), he reported from Belfast where, ill-advisedly venturing down the Falls Road, he narrowly avoided being shot by British troops. As he recalled: "I found myself slammed against the wall by a squad of soldiers with blackened faces, and asked various urgent questions . . . Managing a brief statement in my cut-glass Oxford tones, I was abruptly recognised as non-threatening, brusquely advised to fuck off, and off I duly and promptly fucked."

When I spoke to Howard last year, before his death at the age of 76, he praised Hitchens as a "first-rate" leader writer but remarked that he was surprised by how successful he became. "To me, James Fenton was a much more interesting figure. Fenton was a genuine poet; he had much more body to him than Hitch." More damningly, he told me that Hitchens "didn't always seem to see the difference between truth and falsehood. He said he'd been at meetings he hadn't been at, that sort of thing."

Others from the period are more complimentary. Claire Tomalin, then the NS's literary editor, told me: "He was extremely impressive, he really was, the amount of work he could take on and the way he could write." In her words, "he set out to charm everybody, and succeeded".

Hitchens had a prodigious memory. As Ian McEwan later observed: "It all seems instantly, neurologically available: everything he's ever read, everyone he's ever met, every story he's ever heard."

His ability to write at a speed at which most people talk allowed him to combine a life of writing with a life of hedonism. The Friday lunch set - Amis, Hitchens, Fenton, McEwan, Julian Barnes, Clive James - used to play a game in which members came up with the sentence least likely to be uttered by one of their number. Hitchens's was: "I don't care how rich you are, I'm not coming to your party." His lifestyle resembled Oscar Wilde's more closely than that of the ascetic George Orwell: it was Wilde who contended that the problem with socialism "is that it takes up too many spare evenings".

It was in November 1973, shortly after joining the NS, that Hitchens suffered what he called a "lacerating, howling moment in my life". His mother had been found dead in an Athens hotel room after an apparent suicide pact with her lover, a defrocked priest who had become a devotee of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He travelled from London to reclaim the body.

Assailed by grief, he threw himself into reporting the political situation in Greece. The leader of the military junta, Georgios Papadopoulos, had been overthrown by the still more reactionary Dimitrios Ioannidis, who exploited the disorder that followed the student up­rising. Hitchens was proud of the article that resulted ("The Greek lesson", 14 December 1973, reprinted on the following pages), the longest he had written. The junta fell the following year and his optimistic conclusion proved prescient: "In Greek, the word syntag­ma means both 'constitution' and 'regiment'. After a seven-year sleep, it now seems to more and more people that the two words need no longer be interchangeable." He later reflected: "People said to me, how could you write a story, and I thought, how could you not?"

And yet, set against the literary pyrotechnics of Amis, Hitchens's prose often seemed leaden and clichéd. Another piece from the same year ("The Manx fat cats", 10 August 1973) opens: "The Isle of Man Parliament met in Tynwald on Tuesday morning, and business fell into four parts." Casting a critical eye over his son's friends, Kingsley Amis described Hitchens as "the one who can talk but can't write". Acknowledging as much, Hitchens told me that it was Simon Hoggart, now the Guardian's political sketchwriter, who improved his style.

“I think it was at dinner at his house, some time in the late Seventies, I'd written a piece in the New Statesman and Hoggart said, 'Good piece, I agree with you, you've made a strong case this week. But I thought it was a bit dull.' And I bridled, 'What do you mean, dull? I was making a strong argument for the cause of the labour movement. Dullness doesn't come into it.' He replied: 'No, the thing is it's not as amusing to read you as it is to have a conversation with you. Why don't you try and write more as you talk?' That insight stayed with me."

Pedant and scorekeeper

He became "less suspicious of the personal pronoun" and consequently evolved a more distinctive style. Here he is, writing from the 1976 Conservative party conference in Brighton:

Hitchens's Law states that a politician who allows his policies to seem as if they are dictated by those of another party will fail with his own (cf Jenkins, Prentice, Nutting, Boyle). What really did for Edward Heath was the feeling that Tories could not say what they thought about Labour and the unions, but always had to have "responsible" concordats with them.

Perhaps because of his early struggles, Hitchens was always supportive of young journalists starting out. With characteristic generosity, he continued to reply to my emails even as the cancer ravaged him. "Hope you thrive," his final message ended.

Ever the wandering internationalist, he began to write more foreign reportage, filing despatches for the NS from Libya ("Gaddafi's reverence for Nasser is exceeded by nothing but his reverence for himself") and pre-Saddam Iraq in 1976 ("As the situation grows more complicated Saddam Hussein will rise more clearly to the top. Make a note of the name"). Two other pieces from this period proved particularly significant for Hitchens. The first, a long report from Beirut, prompted a rare phone call from his father, a stern military type known affectionately as "the Commander". He told Hitchens that he had been impressed by the report and said that he thought it had been "rather brave" of him to go there. For Hitchens, who always thought that he had disappointed his father by "failing as a sportsman", it felt like vindication. The second, a piece about the US-backed dictatorships of what he called "the southern cone", caught the attention of Victor Navasky, the new editor of the radical US magazine the Nation, in 1978. He invited Hitchens to start contributing to the paper.

When I asked Hitchens why he didn't write more in his memoir about his time at the NS, he said that he "didn't think it would be particularly interesting". However, in a piece published on the website Slate the day after Hitchens's death, Fenton hinted at another motive. "Christopher said he didn't write more about that [the NS years] because he hadn't been happy and didn't enjoy recollecting it. That surprised me, but it was true that he ended on a sour note a relationship with the editor, Anthony Howard, who gave Christopher so many opportunities. They ended by disliking each other."

Indeed, Hitchens later denounced Howard in print as "a pedant and a scorekeeper". The journalist and pollster Peter Kellner, who co-wrote a quick-fire biography of the then Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, with Hitchens in 1976 (Callaghan: the Road to No 10), perceptively suggested to me that Hitchens no longer wanted to be edited by someone he considered an inferior writer. "Tony's editing style, originally a huge help to Hitch, had become a hindrance," he said.

In 1977, Hitchens defected to the Daily Express (prompting Amis to attack his friend for "taking the rich man's shilling"), where he became a foreign correspondent. But he returned to the NS only two years later as foreign editor, under Bruce Page. Hitchens was disappointed when Page became editor, chiefly because one of the other candidates for the role was Fenton. He told me that, had it not been for the opposition of Richard Hoggart, the then chairman of the NS board, his old Trotskyist comrade (Hitchens and Fenton were both members of the International Socialists) would have got the job. By his own account, he had "a lot of disagreements" with Page, but he recalled one redeeming moment.

“I brought to the office Edward Thompson's manifesto against nuclear weapons, Protest and Survive, which I feared was much too long for the NS. I gave it to Bruce Page, with whom I often quarrelled, he went into his office, shut the door and came out afterwards and said: 'No, we have no problem with running every word of that.' And I thought: 'Ah, so sometimes the right thing does happen.' We put Edward Thompson back into the public domain when he'd been excluded for a long time. That was good."

Page also hosted a memorable engagement party for Hitchens and his fiancée Eleni Meleagrou, whom Hitchens met while on assignment in Cyprus in 1977. Kellner told me that Hitchens began his speech by thanking Page "for giving me this party on my engagement to my first wife" - a quip that prompted gasps from the guests. True to his word, he divorced Meleagrou in 1989 and married the Californian screenwriter Carol Blue, with whom he remained until his death.

Coming to America

By the end of the Seventies, Hitchens had grown weary of British politics ("Weimar without the sex", was his verdict on the Callaghan era) and was starting to feel "the strong gravitational pull of the great American planet". "Christopher had to get out of Britain to be free," Amis told New York magazine in 1999. "There were too many depressing memories and connections."

Yet shortly before leaving for the US, Hitchens asked Peter Wilby, then the Sunday Times's education correspondent and later editor of the NS, to help him get a job on the paper. Hitchens was standing in as editor of the Atticus gossip column and was keen to take on the role permanently. Wilby told me: "I think I may have been father of the chapel and he seemed to think I could get him a job, which seemed to me a misunderstanding of the role of a trade union representative."

Towards the end of my interview, I asked Hitchens again about what he thought of when remembering the New Statesman. He went over to the window, lit a cigarette and replied: "Of Great Turnstile, at the corner of Lincoln Inn's Fields, a wonderful place for it to be, just opposite the LSE, founded by the same people. Of lunches in the boardroom at the top floor, which had all the old cartoons by Vicky and Low from the Twenties and Thirties, which made the Statesman famous. Of greats coming in to the literary department; V S Pritchett, for example, you could meet on the stairs. The day we decided to publish Gabriel García Márquez's essay on the murder of Allende, Márquez was then hardly known outside the Spanish world. And cricket matches with Tribune."

For a transitory moment, the young, restless man who said that all he'd "ever wanted to be" was a writer on the Statesman was back in the room with me.

George Eaton is a staff writer for the New Statesman

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...

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 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...