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30 reasons to celebrate in 2009

Good news has been in short supply in 2008, so we offer reasons for excitement and optimism in the n

1 The US administration

There is a scene early in Barack Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father, written when he was in his early thirties, in which he describes how as a boy he was taken by his mother, Ann, to live with her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, in Indonesia. There was something wrong in the marriage, and very soon Ann, suffering acutely from loneliness and fearing that she and her young son were a burden to her troubled husband, found a job teaching English at the American embassy in Jakarta. Many of the men employed at the embassy were, Obama writes, "caricatures of the ugly American".

The caricature of the ugly American: this would do as a description of George W Bush. No American president has done more to besmirch the international reputation of his great country than the man who, in January, will leave the White House, unmourned and unloved even by those who might once have counted themselves among his most loyal supporters.

The years of the Bush presidency have been a time of profound shame and disgrace for the United States. Bush was unfortunate that the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 happened when he was commander-in-chief. His presidency has been defined by those attacks and will be remembered for the way in which he and his closest allies and advisers, the neoconservative cabal led by Dick Cheney, responded to them, not with largeness of vision and Wilsonian multilateralism, but with dogma, violence and war. He will end his second term with the US deep in recession, with the banking system on life support, with US troops still an occupying force in Iraq, with the Guantanamo Bay detention camp still open, and so it goes on. No one should ever allow Bush to forget the horrors of Abu Ghraib Prison, or his intransigence on climate change, or how his social and religious conservatism perverted policy at home and abroad on a range of issues from a woman's right to abortion to the use of stem cells in scientific research.

How different things will be under President Obama. We all know that Obama presents as the candidate of change, the hyperarticulate outsider who comes from the margins to win control of the very centre. In reality, he is an arch-politician, a pragmatist; he believes strongly in continuity, hence the appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and the retention of the Republican Robert Gates as defence secretary. He is not the liberal idealist some of us would like him to be. But nor is he in any way the caricature of the ugly American.

In addition to the differences of tone and style from the Bush administration, the Obama presidency will be marked by significant policy shifts. For a start, he will lift the so-called global gag rule (more formally: the Mexico City Policy) that restricted US-funded organisations from promoting abortion in their aid work in the developing world. He will put a much greater emphasis on nuclear non-proliferation; in the Senate, one of his few accomplishments was a non-proliferation bill, with the Republican Dick Lugar (he has even spoken of "setting a goal of a world without nuclear weapons"). He will be multilateralist. Having appointed one of his most influential advisers, Susan Rice, to the role of ambassador to the United Nations, he is expected to take that institution more seriously than his predecessor, even if he has expressed scepticism about the limits of its effectiveness.

On climate change, he supports a cap-and-trade programme that would reduce emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. On social policy, he is obviously a religious moralist, as any serious politician must be in America to make progress, but he is not a religious conservative. He has said that he will lift the ban on federal funding for research on new embryonic stem-cell lines, thus ideally increasing the chances of groundbreaking therapies.

Above all, by his very presence as a black man in the White House, with a black wife and children, Obama is and will continue to be a symbol of hope and possibility to people of colour not only in America but in the world.

Jason Cowley


2 The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act

From October 2009, the British government will for the first time be committed to research unhampered by prejudice, which ultimately may help to deliver healthy lives for many, many people. In this country, 350,000 people live with Alzheimer's, one in every ten couples need fertility treatment and five children are born with cystic fibrosis each week. All of them could benefit from new research. There is no guarantee that research with stem cells and admixed embryos - containing human and animal material - will provide miracle cures, but with well-regulated experimentation we can test the boundaries. Science will progress, through either co-operation or competition, and humanity will benefit. We are indeed looking at a brave new world - and it's exciting.

Frank Furedi


3 The Convention on Cluster Munitions

Amazingly, 2009 will be the first year from which armies will face restrictions on the use of cluster bombs. A convention signed by 100 nations in December 2008 is due to be ratified in June 2009. It restricts the use, stockpiling and transfer of the weapons, and provides for clearing up unexploded munitions. The treaty is not a blanket ban, nor has every nation signed it; but it may still mark the beginning of the end for these cheap, vicious and inaccurate weapons.


4 Fourth-generation biofuels

At the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in February 2008, the geneticist Craig Venter told an audience including Al Gore and Larry Page, founder of Google, his modest ambition: "replacing the whole petrochemical industry". How did he plan to do it? By genetically re-engineering simple organisms to feed on CO2 and produce octane-based fuels as waste; he expected to be producing these fourth-generation biofuels "in about 18 months". Venter, who has made Time's list of the 100 most influential people two years running, is not someone whose predictions should be taken lightly. If he achieves this latest goal, energy will enter a new era in 2009.


5 The indictment of Omar el-Bashir

Early in 2009, the International Criminal Court is expected to issue an arrest warrant against Omar el-Bashir (below) for his role in the crimes committed by the Sudanese government and its allies in Darfur. It will be the ICC's first indictment of a head of state, and its first for genocide, sending a powerful message to leaders around the world.


6 The economy

Economically speaking, it is extraordinarily difficult to be optimistic about anything in 2009: even the buoyant Chinese economy looks to be suffering, with riots as factories close. However, new Labour has moved rapidly to try to ease the pain for pensioners and low-income families. We can be grateful that this is not the 1930s, that there is a strong welfare state in place and that, although we may yet see pictures of soup kitchens, they will be unreal and unnecessary distortions.

More people will find themselves out of work but the intellectual and commercial life of the nation goes on. Britain is still a highly innovative place, as two recent blockbuster drug breakthroughs illustrate: Crestor, from AstraZeneca, will keep the nation's hearts healthier; and Ceravix, the cervical cancer vaccination from GlaxoSmithKline, will provide protection for millions of young women. And ethical drug breakthroughs such as these will continue: GSK has one of the best late-stage testing pipelines for new medicines in the world.

With several banks under government control after 16 months of the credit crunch (which began in August 2007), mortgages and finance should begin to become available again. The really good news for people with tracker and variable-rate mortgages is that in 2009 we should see the lowest interest rates in modern times, with the bank rate falling as low as 1 per cent by the spring. The weaker pound should also be good for exporters over the longer haul - and all the strongest recoveries in the British economy in the post-Second World War era have followed substantial declines for the pound.

Alex Brummer


7 Antiretrovirals

I am looking forward to the outcome of something a bit off the wall: the first trials of pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV infection, which will investigate whether uninfected people can take antiretroviral medicines, then screw around without condoms and stay uninfected. If the trial results are "positive", they will raise interesting scientific possibilities and challenges, as well as a huge moral dilemma - and a potential political maelstrom.

Elizabeth Pisani


8 Mammoth cloning

Bringing back mammoths might not be the most obvious focus for human endeavour in 2009, but that doesn't make it any less exciting. The prospect of cloning long-extinct species reared its head thanks to two scientific discoveries in November. At the beginning of the month, Japanese scientists announced they had created clones of mice that had been frozen for 16 years; a couple of weeks later, an American-Russian research team announced it had pieced together most of the woolly mammoth genome, the essential building block for bringing the animals back from the dead.

As seismic as these discoveries are, the real-life Jurassic Park is a long way off. Science has plenty of questions to answer before that can happen, ranging from the vagaries of producing artificial chromosomes, to how to gestate a fertilised mammoth egg. Still, in 2009, it is likely there will be plenty of research into cloning, and perhaps also discoveries in more practical areas, such as the cloning of tissue from healthy organs for surgery. Who knows - an explanation may even be found for our fascination with the prospect of re-creating prehistoric animals.


9 Justice for the Gurkhas

In September 2008, the high court ruled that the immigration policy preventing from settling in the UK Gurkhas who had served in the British army, but retired before 1997, was unlawful. More than that, the judge, Mr Justice Blake, declared the policy "irrational". The case for a fairer ruling has been made even more compelling by a petition, presented to the government by Joanna Lumley in November, containing more than 200,000 signatures in support of the Gurkhas' cause. Gordon Brown has pledged to publish guidance in "the near future". The outcome of the Gurkhas' campaign is still uncertain, but 2009 will, at the very least, provide further publicity for their cause - and, with any luck, a ruling in their favour.


10 Paul Dirac's reputation

In January 2009 comes the publication of The Strangest Man, Graham Farmelo's biography of Paul Dirac (below). Barely remembered outside the scientific world, Dirac was one of Britain's greatest theoretical physicists, a figure of heroic international stature - and, as the book's title indicates, a very peculiar person. Farmelo has unearthed a great deal of new material. I hope this biography will not only make people think and talk about Dirac as the important 20th-century figure that he is, but also raise new questions about that curious phenomenon we know as genius.

Brian Cathcart


11 Climate change

The next 12 months will be critical in the battle against the biggest threat the planet faces: climate change. But there are many reasons to be optimistic about the progress that can be made both at home and abroad.

Here in the UK, the Climate Change Act has firmly established an important commitment dramatically to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by at least 80 per cent from 1990 levels by the middle of this century. It's a challenging target, but the nation's efforts should be aided by the scrutiny of the new, independent Committee on Climate Change. Already it has made a significant impact: its first report, at the beginning of December, recommended the intermediate "carbon budgets" that will be presented for the next 15 years.

With targets now set, we need to take the vital steps that will make our economy less dependent on fossil fuels, and begin investing in more low-carbon technologies and sectors. The approval of the Gwynt y Môr project, one of the world's largest offshore windfarms, off the Welsh coast, and the government's proposal to develop the technology and infrastructure to make electric and low-carbon cars a practical reality, are steps in the right direction.

In his pre-Budget report, the Chancellor presented a "green stimulus" package, which, by including measures to improve the energy efficiency of households, has made some advances towards a low-carbon future. However, the 2009 Budget, which will probably be the last major chance for a concerted fiscal response to the present economic crisis, should provide an even stronger impetus.

Along with the other members of the European Union, the UK should in 2009 reach agreement about how to realise its commitment to reduce emissions by at least 20 per cent by 2020, and to increase the share of energy consumption met from renewable sources to 20 per cent. In November, the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen will look to establish an ambitious global agreement to come into effect from 2012, when the first commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol expires. And the success of the Emissions Trading Scheme, which puts a price on carbon and caps emissions, should put the EU in a position to negotiate new international targets.

Barack Obama's positive statements on the need for domestic action and international co-operation to tackle climate change have opened up the possibility of re-establishing a sense of common purpose among the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Emerging economic powers with rapidly rising emissions, such as China, are also showing increased recognition of the need for all countries to participate in an equitable plan to make reductions worldwide.

Around the world, governments and businesses need to seize the clear opportunity that is offered by the current economic crisis to increase demand for low-carbon growth in a way that lays the foundations for the future. So let us hope that 2009 is a watershed year in the battle against climate change.

Nicholas Stern

Professor Lord Stern of Brentford is chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics


12 Balkan states heading for EU membership

If all goes well, most of the states of south-eastern Europe will be heading irrevocably towards EU membership by the end of 2009. Croatia, Turkey and Macedonia have been granted candidate status; the rest of the western Balkan countries have the EU's commitment to eventual membership. After more than a century and a half of violence, the ground is being prepared for an end to major conflict in this troubled region.


13 A neutral view of race

There is a real possibility that, by the middle of 2009, commentators around the world will no longer feel the need to describe Barack Obama as "the first black president of the United States". Certainly the election of a candidate with his racial characteristics was a cause for rejoicing. But we need to move on. In the 2009 which I hope to inhabit, Obama will be, or will become, a president who happens to be black, and none of us will regard that as being more worthy of comment than his status as the first president who has edited the Harvard Law Review. Commentators can begin the process by identifying other traits of Obama's that are as obvious as his colour. And that will allow them to make judgements. Race is, or ought to be, a neutral description.

Roy Hattersley


14 More safe water

In 2009, more people worldwide will gain access to safe water and sanitation, and take their first steps out of poverty.

Nonosoa is from Soavina Antokofana Ambohitrano, a remote Madagascan village that last year suffered outbreaks of bubonic plague. Her life has been transformed by a simple handpump. "I often used to get sick," she explains. "Everyone is healthy now. In future life will be better and health will keep improving."

Currently one in eight people lives without safe water and 2.5 billion have no safe, clean place to go to the toilet. About 5,000 children die every day from easily preventable water-related diseases. But progress is being made. Water and sanitation are now on the G8 agenda, in part thanks to WaterAid's advocacy work. "Water is life - let us act like we mean it," said the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, at the recent UN High-level Event on the Millennium Development Goals.

This year, WaterAid and its partners reached more than one million of the world's poorest and most marginalised people with safe water and brought sanitation to more than three million. Next year, we're aiming to reach millions more. For them, and for people like Nonosoa, 2009 marks the beginning of a brighter future.

Barbara Frost, chief executive of WaterAid


15 Political Parties and Elections Bill

In the wake of the Oleg Deripaska affair, this bill, which is going through parliament, should give the Electoral Commission greater powers to regulate and investigate donations to political parties and close loopholes, bringing into line the letter and the spirit of the law on donations. The chances that dodgy handouts will be entirely prevented are pretty slim - but at least the new legislation might save George Osborne from a repeat of one of the embarrassments he was afflicted by this year.


16 Broadband for East Africa

Towards the end of summer 2009, three huge new fibre-optic cables will bring broadband internet to East Africa, with particular benefits for Kenya and Tanzania. The cables will link Asia, South Africa and East Africa, and the benefits will be enormous and immediate. The internet will be cheaper, quicker and much more accessible for millions of Africans, with all the benefits that entails - not least encouraging foreign companies to outsource business to the region.


17 The Bristol Festival of Ideas book prize

For months, the judges of this major new book prize have been working their way through piles of fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose. "There are numerous book prizes, yet none specifically celebrates one of the best things non-fiction books give us: ideas," points out Julian Baggini, one of the judges. The winner will be announced in March - and awarded with £10,000 for his or her efforts.


18 The new face of opera

Skin Deep is a thoroughly modern opera: a satire on society's obsession with beauty, youth and wealth, sung in English, with a libretto by Armando Iannucci. Opening at Opera North in January, and playing in Salford, London and Newcastle later in the year, the darkly comic tale of Doktor Needlemeier, an overzealous plastic surgeon, will be a vicious sideswipe at celebrity culture and a rejuvenating shot in the arm for opera.


19 75 years of Liberty

At this exciting moment in world history, I believe that there is a real prospect of renewed commitment to human rights on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. The year 2009 marks the 75th anniversary of Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties), the domestic rights and freedoms campaign in the oldest unbroken democracy on earth. In recent months, in preparation for the new US presidency, we have been deepening our special relationship with the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and we will support its mission to end torture as a tool of US security policy. Closer to home, now that the successful Charge or Release campaign against 42-day pre-charge detention is behind us, we look forward to broadening the consensus around fundamental rights and freedoms. We plan to lay waste to the myths around the Human Rights Act, nail down the coffin of ID cards and promote the values that bind democratic people together: dignity, equality and fairness.

Shami Chakrabarti


20 Football 2010

I'm looking forward to England confirming their place at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. I couldn't bear to go through all that again: pretending it didn't matter, pretending we could always support the foreign players in the Prem because, really, they are one of us. If England don't make it this time, that's it, I'm taking up fretwork.

Hunter Davies


21 Hu Jia, Chinese activist

By awarding Hu Jia, one of China's leading activists, its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Parliament has sent out a strong message of disapproval to the Chinese government. Hu's campaigns have tackled China's civil rights record, its treatment of HIV sufferers, and its environmental concerns - with the result that, in April, he was convicted for inciting subversion and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. China has reacted angrily to European "interference", but Hans-Gert Pöttering, the parliament's president, has been unrepentant: "The European Parliament is sending out a signal of clear support to all those who support human rights in China."

Hu himself has said that he expects "big changes in the next five years" in China. Continued attention from the EU in 2009 can only help.


22 Better chances for cancer sufferers

More cancer patients are surviving for longer and that is sure to continue in 2009. As a result of recent announcements by the Health Secretary and Nice, almost all cancer patients will have access to effective new drugs. Improved radiotherapy, targeted to the individual patient, will be more accessible and we will be opening our Institute for Radiation Oncology and Biology at Oxford University to develop even better techniques.

In 2009 we will see legislation to ensure that all tobacco is sold in plain packaging and to make it illegal for under-18s to use sunbeds. Cancer Research UK will also be leading a joint initiative with the national cancer director to make symptom awareness and early diagnosis top priorities in the fight against cancer.

So although 2009 will be difficult economically, it will be more important than ever for people to continue supporting Cancer Research UK. Further improvements in cancer survival depend on the public's generosity.

Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK


23 The closure of Guantanamo Bay

Soon after 20 January 2009, Barack Obama will begin to close Guantanamo Bay. It will be a grand day for justice, for the prisoners held there, and for the reputation of the United States. At present, roughly 250 prisoners are held at Guantanamo. Of these, as many as 40 will be brought to the US for a trial of sorts; 160 will be sent home with expedition.

Yet the joy with which we bid farewell to this unpleasant legacy of George W Bush's administration must be tempered by the reality of what he has bequeathed us. The remaining 50 stateless refugees will need to be resettled, and we must hope that countries which resisted helping Bush out of his self-painted corner will offer asylum when Obama comes calling.

Despite its secretive qualities, Guantanamo is the public face of the Bush "secret prisons" programme. The men there constitute less than 1 per cent of 27,000 ghost prisoners - many in Iraq, others in Afghanistan, and in far-flung prisons in Bosnia, Diego Garcia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kosovo, as well as in Egypt, Jordan and Morocco - held by the US under worse conditions than their Guantanamo counterparts. What will become of this secret renditions programme? First, will anyone even admit it happened? There is already pressure on Obama not to dredge up all the terrible things that happened under the Bush administration. Yet until the truth is exposed, it is unlikely that we will learn the lessons necessary to avoid a repetition of this dark period in US history.

The second, self-interested motivation for silence comes from the perpetrators of these wrongs. The CIA is unlikely to lead the charge for revelations, given that its agents are those most likely to face indictment for the patent illegalities they committed. And there is a third reason to think that this process of rendition may not simply melt away with Bush. He was not its progenitor. That distinction went to Ronald Reagan, but Bill Clinton also joined the party. Obama will inherit plenty of US-sponsored violence around the world, with prisoners taken every day. What is happening to them? What will be done in the future?

Presidential policies are only as well formed as the facts that a president receives. Obama's information about those we deem "terrorist captives" will come from those who capture them - the Pentagon and the CIA, which have a vested interest in portraying them as dangerous jihadists, no matter what the true facts may be.

So hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners will remain divorced from their legal rights. As Guantanamo Bay closes, a swell of goodwill towards the new president will release the pressure to resolve this darker legacy. As economic stimulus packages monopolise the front pages, let us hope that in 2009 these prisoners are not wholly forgotten.

Clive Stafford Smith

Clive Stafford Smith is the director of Reprieve, the UK legal action charity that uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantanamo Bay. For more information, visit http://www.reprieve.org.uk, or contact: Reprieve, PO Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS. Tel: 020 7353 4640


24 UK Supreme Court

On 1 October 2009, the UK Supreme Court in Parliament Square will open its doors for the first time. It will take over from the House of Lords as the final court of appeal, and play a part in the development of UK law. Lisa Harker, of the Institute for Public Policy Research, commended the move: "It's a further step towards the separation of powers in the UK, with the House of Lords no longer the highest court in the land."


25 Picasso exhibition

From February 2009, the National Gallery will host the first major British exhibition of Picasso's work since 2002 - with the unusual aim of undermining its star's reputation. "Picasso: Challenging the Past" looks at some of the artist's most famous work in relation to the artists who came before him, including El Greco, Delacroix and Manet. Nicholas Penny, the gallery's director, has described Picasso as "a very great artist, but a very much more uneven one than many people realise". Works seldom seen in this country will be on show; and the debate about whether one of art's biggest names deserves his reputation for innovation and brilliance should be enjoyably contentious.


26 Stricter licences for lap-dancing clubs

Peter Stringfellow might scoff, but almost everyone else has reason to applaud the government's decision to license lap-dancing clubs as "sex encounter establishments". In 2009, it will be easier for councils to close clubs down - just one of the benefits, as Katherine Rake, director of the women's rights group the Fawcett Society, points out: "Local communities will have more say about what happens around them - and, hopefully, a bigger debate over the sexualisation of our society will be opened up."


27 Advances in nanomedicine

Nanomedicine - a suite of medical tools that measure or manipulate extremely tiny interactions - will be on the cusp of making it big in 2009. Interest in the technology has been building for some years, and a few simple tools are already in use. Now society seems ready for the more powerful possibilities.

Cancer patients will benefit hugely. Miniature capsules that deliver drugs exclusively to diseased cells enable patients to take toxic medicines that would otherwise be lethal, and make existing therapies far less unpleasant.

Nanotechnology also opens up the potential for new methods of diagnosis. The most dangerous cancer cells are much squishier than healthy cells; researchers have discovered that they can measure how rigid the cells' membranes are by using tiny cantilevers, rather like diving boards with a point on the end, to prod individual cells. This technique can pick out cancer cells that are otherwise undetectable. And molecule-sized cantilevers have also helped scientists at University College London to work out how some bacteria have become resistant to vancomycin, a common antibiotic.

Nanomedicine will have many more applications a little further down the road. Membranes with clever molecular architectures should improve dialysis, while "nanosuspensions" will allow for more soluble compounds. BioSante Pharmaceuticals, an American company, is investigating the possibility of producing insulin that diabetics can take as a pill.

Researchers at Tsinghua University in China say they have developed a nanomedical scaffold that delicately guides young bone cells to where they are needed, then gradually disintegrates as bones heal. This useful development should cut the cost of treatment, especially in developing countries, speeding recovery and reducing the need for repeat visits to hospital. That innovation probably won't be ready in 2009; but nanomedicine at large is poised to make its name outside the scientific world.

Anna Petherick


28 Change for Iraq

Finally, British troops are planning to quit Iraq in 2009, after a deployment lasting longer than the Second World War. The end in sight is not a precipitous pull-out but a sense of how stability may return to the country. The city of Basra provides a vision of that future.

Controlled for months by Iranian-backed Shia death squads that fought the British and terrorised the people, Basra is transformed. Friends just back say it is a place at last free from bomb blasts and intimidation.

But it took the arrival of US troops finally to make that change - helping the Iraqi army in April 2008 to overturn an "accommodation" by the British with the death squads. British soldiers ultimately joined the battle, but not quickly enough to erase the humiliation of being "bailed out", as history seems to require, by the Yanks.

The result is not a democracy. The city is ruled by the Iraqi army. Yet if martial law works and saves lives, we should celebrate and go.

In 2009, Basra may at last see "mission accomplished" - though not quite the mission the neoconservatives intended.

Stephen Grey


29 The voice of a real European electorate

In 2009, EU leaders are likely to ask Ireland to vote again on a new EU constitution, which cannot help but reopen the debate. There is - understandably - a lot of anger and resentment about the constitution, but I'm hopeful that people will find ways to come together and hold politicians to account both nationally and across borders, to begin to constitute a genuinely European public.

Dolan Cummings, Institute of Ideas


30 The Ashes

Australia return to these islands in the summer as England attempt to win back the Ashes over a five-Test series, starting in July. The 2005 series - one of those rare national occasions when nearly everyone you met, man or woman, seemed to be talking about the cricket - was the greatest contest of its kind in the modern era. It was a thrilling series, which England, having lost the first Test at Lord's, eventually won 2-1 against an Australian side then considered to be one of the best in the game ever.

England lost the return series in Australia 5-0. Now, they have a chance to regain the Ashes against an Australian team diminished by retirements.

A sporting contest not to be missed.

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

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 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special