Brown's new world order

The Inside Track with Jonathan Freedland plus Kev

The Inside Track with Jonathan Freedland plus Kevin Maguire, Martin Bright, Peter Wilby plus Tara Hamilton-Miller

It's only an academic question, but it has suddenly acquired more force, now that he's about to become prime minister. Could Gordon Brown have stopped the Iraq war?

Say Brown had joined Robin Cook in resigning on principle in March 2003. Tony Blair would have had only two options: to quit or to back down to save his government. He would have had to phone George W Bush and tell him that British troops would not, after all, be joining the US military in Operation Iraqi Freedom. We know from all the insider accounts that Bush was determined not to go to war alone. Indeed, he was prepared to go to inordinate lengths to keep his British ally on board. The president could not allow his war to seem like an act of American caprice, rather than the action of the international community. Bush would have had to delay the invasion, thereby giving the UN arms inspectors more time - perhaps enough to discover that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction after all. The chain of logic is clear. No Brown, no Britain. No Britain, no war.

Brown never did take that decisive step. He kept well out of what was the defining battle of the Blair years, declaring his view only during the 2005 general election campaign when asked point-blank if he would have handled Iraq the same way as Blair. "Yes," Brown said - and said no more.

From now on, enigmatic distance from key foreign policy issues will not be an option. Brown will have to lead and decide. There can be no delegation of international affairs, the way Blair delegated the economy to his Chancellor. Foreign policy is close to the essence of the prime minister's role. And, as predecessors from Churchill through Eden to Thatcher would surely testify, it's what can make or break you.

Brown will arrive at No 10 with only the sketchiest record in foreign affairs. That is partly thanks to the division of labour entailed by the Granita accord: Gordon got domestic, Tony got the rest of the world. If that was the bargain, Brown stuck to it faithfully, never once cutting across Blair's international turf. That's the charitable reading. Brown's critics have a harsher gloss. For them, his silence on Iraq was motivated by his Macavity-like habit, identified by the former mandarin Lord Turnbull, of vanishing at the first sign of trouble. Either way, Brown's experience in the diplomatic arena is thin. One über-Blairite warns that, when the first international crisis strikes, Brown is not going to know what has hit him. "If Iran invades southern Iraq, you can't commission Derek Wanless to do an 18-month review. You have to decide what to do now. Today."

And foreign policy is notoriously unpredictable. It is often barely a policy at all, less a predetermined strategy than a series of reactions to unforeseen events. After all, who knew in 1997 that Blair would emerge as a muscular neoconservative? Brown could end up surprising us just as much.

It is not only outsiders who are in the dark about his intentions. I asked one pro-Brown cabinet minister what his new boss planned to do internationally and received a candid reply: "I don't know." Incredibly, the man who will be prime minister next month has no full-time foreign policy adviser.

So we're left looking for clues, in his speeches and in his past record. One conclusion emerges straight away: when Brown looks for a way into an international problem, he heads for the door marked "Economics". The most obvious example is the Israel-Palestine conflict. In 2005, Brown deployed his trusted lieutenant Ed Balls, along with a Treasury official, Jon Cunliffe - whom some tip to move over to No 10 to advise on foreign affairs - to study, on behalf of the G8, prospects for "supporting the Middle East peace process through economic development". The idea was to replicate for Israelis and Palestinians what had worked so well in Northern Ireland: ensuring a flow of investment and jobs into a former war zone, giving the next generation a stake in peace. If today an 18-year-old Catholic lad in Belfast would rather get a job in some plush corporate HQ than become an IRA volunteer, why couldn't the same be true of young Palestinians of the future, choosing a career with an internet start-up over "martyrdom" with Hamas?

Something to lose

It's not just the Middle East conflict: ask Brown about Afghanistan, and his first answer is that the Afghans need an alternative crop to the poppy. He speaks about the need for investment in Iraq, too. Peace will hold, he believes, when people have something financial to lose. This economist's approach to foreign affairs might just be a function of Brown's CV: until now, economics was the only way he was allowed on to the world stage without treading on Blair's toes. But it goes deeper than that, revealing something of what Brown genuinely believes. There are flaws in the approach, to be sure. On Israel-Palestine, it's clear that investment will be vital after the two sides have signed a peace agreement. But the politics surely has to come first (just as investment in Ulster could come only after a meaningful ceasefire). To talk about industrial parks and apprenticeships now, while Hamas is firing rockets at Israel, Israel is shelling Gaza, and Fatah and Hamas are killing each other, risks looking idealistic, if not irrelevant.

There are other important pointers. Brown's championing of help for the developing world is well known, from his leading role in the campaign to cut debt to his invention of the International Finance Facility, designed to increase development aid with money from the bond markets. In both cases, Brown chivvied other governments to do their bit, even bringing a Republican US Treasury secretary, John Snow, on board for debt relief. That could be a precedent, a sign that coalition-building is not beyond him. It has also won him a strong reputation among NGOs and church groups.

What does this belief in development aid, typified by his tripling of the Department for International Development's budget, tell us about Brown? Admirers say it demonstrates his core belief that poverty is a scourge that governments have to tackle, at home and abroad. This, they say, is the legacy of his upbringing in the manse, the tangible evidence of his sotto voce brand of Christian socialism. Yet it would be a mistake to read Brown's belief in development as entirely abstract and ethical. Rather, it illuminates what might be a funda mentally different approach to the hard-headed, real-world questions thrown up by the "war on terror" - fundamentally different, that is, from the policy pursued by Blair.

If expressed in a soundbite, this would be "tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism". Brown is too canny to say anything that could be understood as justifying terrorist murder, but privately he argues that there are conditions in which violent extremism can flourish. These include states that break down through desperate poverty and disease.

Blair hangover

Of course, that doesn't explain the 19 hijackers of 9/11, most of them from comfortable Saudi backgrounds. But Brown is looking ahead to the failing states of Africa, worried that they could fall prey to al-Qaeda. In a speech in April to Labour Friends of Israel, he spoke at length about finding partners in Africa. His belief is that helping those countries - say, by funding education for those 120 million of the world's children who don't go to school - is both a moral good in itself and pragmatically smart, preventing jihadism winning more recruits. Brown talks often of the postwar Marshall Plan, which spent US money on European and other countries, in part to prevent them falling into the pro-Soviet column. He may well see aid to Africa the same way, with jihadism the new global menace to be defeated.

As for Iraq itself, a move is expected early, if only to draw a line under the hangover of the Blair era. The likeliest would be an accelerated troop withdrawal. But Brown would be wary of spinning that as a repudiation of Blair's war: after all, he knows that we know that he voted for it, and saw the raw anger for himself as an anti-war heckler was ejected from a hustings meeting he addressed on 20 May.

What's more, Brown still privately defends the decision to invade. He argues the case not on the grounds of weapons of mass destruction or Saddam being a vile dictator, but that Iraq's serial defiance of repeated UN resolutions could not go unpunished. Critics of the war will say that Saddam could hardly have been defying UN resolutions when, as we now know for sure, he had indeed disarmed.

Brown might want to couple any withdrawal from Iraq with another gesture, perhaps in the opposite direction. He might, for example, boost the British presence in Afghan istan, as if to allay any fears in Washington that Britain under him was going soft. But any desire to prove his hard power credentials is unlikely to include signing up for a military solution to one of the most pressing questions waiting for him in the Downing Street in-tray: Iran's apparent desire to acquire nuclear weapons. On 13 May, Brown said he did not anticipate any attack on Iran, because the process of multilateral engagement and negotiation is working. Indeed, he even spoke of a "new multilateralism", in which disputes will increasingly be settled through international institutions and dialogue. It may be too hopeful, but it suggests at least a different starting point from Blair, who sent British troops into combat five times in his first six years.

Then comes the crucial relationship, the one with the US. Of all Brown's diplomatic moves, this is the one that will be watched most intensely. There won't be the love-in that Blair struck up with Bush, if only because Brown knows how dearly that cost his predecessor, but it might be more complex than some hope. Brown is a known Americanophile - much more than was the French-speaking, Tuscany-visiting Blair. He reads American books and, famously, used to holiday annually in Cape Cod. His friendships range from Ted Kennedy to Alan Greenspan, the former head of the Federal Reserve. Brown will certainly be able to do business in Washington.

Aberrational fantasies

Brown also has the equipment to be more discerning than Blair ever was. Blair was powered by an undifferentiated belief that he had to be close to the White House, whoever was in it, whatever they did. Brown will be better able to distinguish enduring American interests from aberrational, neoconservative fantasies, siding with the US for the former and keeping his distance from the latter. He will be an enthusiastic, loyal ally of the US - but his support will not be unconditional. And if, once Bush goes in January 2009, the president is replaced by a Democrat, from the party with which Brown has good, personal links, so much the better.

On Europe, we have had several glimpses of the shape of things to come. Brown's impatience at finance ministers' meetings, and his derailment of British membership of the euro, suggest a sceptic. He loathes the Common Agricultural Policy, a piece of protectionism that cannot be defended in an era of global free trade. With the French and the Germans now talking of resuscitating the corpse of an EU constitution, reclothing it as a treaty, a collision seems likely. Brown would not want to rouse the ire of the Eurosceptic press by driving such a treaty through parliament; but nor could he risk submitting it to a referendum that he could lose. Expect some trademark footwork to get this booted into the long grass.

Where Brown would like to set a lead, rather than just react, is on the aid and trade agenda he has made his own (his only beef with the Make Poverty History campaign is that he thinks it should be pushing governments, including his, harder), and also on climate change. He wants to outman oeuvre the Tories on this territory not by matching David Cameron wind turbine for wind turbine, but by coming up with the kind of large-scale breakthrough that would make Cameron look like a lightweight. He speaks of plans for the reforestation of the Congo, of recasting the beleaguered World Bank as a new Environment Bank, of establishing a carbon market in London. This is the level he wants to operate on; he'll leave the organic broccoli to Cameron.

These, then, are the instincts that should steer Gordon Brown when he enters the international arena as leader of what is still one of the world's most powerful nations. How much will they determine what he does in office? The lesson of recent history is that they may be no guide at all. As Tony Blair discovered one September morning in 2001, everything can change when a single event comes out of a clear blue sky.

Jonathan Freedland writes for the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: The jailed state

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 28 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: The jailed state