A businessman pauses to check his phone outside the Bank of England. Photograph: Bloomberg
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The Age of Entitlement

The new super-rich have no allegiance, obligation or connection to wider society. They live in a mirror-lined bubble – and a legally entitled one. Can anything beyond another crash change things?

Nobody loved Bowater House in Knightsbridge. The demolition of this late-1950s, modernist mess in 2006 was greeted with general relief. Yet it did have one virtue. Through its core was cut a wide opening for a roadway that gave us all a view of Hyde Park and of a sinewy, thrilling Epstein sculpture of a family group, urged on by the god Pan and racing on to the green sward.

There is no such large opening in One Hyde Park, the building that replaced Bowater House. Instead, Pan has been relegated to the end of a much smaller public road that has been intimidatingly designed to look private. The great people’s invitation into the park has been lost. The public realm has not been abandoned altogether, however. At ground level there are shops, punctuated by some very limited planting. So, if the people care to struggle across the hellish confluence of roads that forms the heart of Knightsbridge, they can peer through the windows to see Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank, Rolex watches or McLaren cars. Things they cannot have.

One Hyde Park was developed by the Candy brothers and the Qataris and was designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners, the current incarnation of the once-idealistic Richard Rogers practice. The 86 flats start at £20m; a penthouse sold in 2010 for £140m. The building is an aesthetic, planning and social catastrophe. An inaccessible, menacing fortress looming over Knightsbridge, it symbolises the dark wealth of the entitled elite who have claimed the boroughs of Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea as their own. But it is just one big sign of a ruthless landgrab among many little ones.

Staff at the Kensington High Street branch of Carluccio’s – a pleasant, neighbourhood place – dread being sent over to South Ken. That’s banksterland. Mothers disrupt service with their giant baby buggies, the children are rude and even the toddlers snap their fingers at the waiters. Then there are the shops. In Knightsbridge’s “golden triangle” of streets and around Brompton Cross are all the “flagship stores” of the highest of high-end retailers. I used to like going there to watch and marvel at the very rich and to see the beauty that money could buy. Once in a while, feeling a bit flush, I might buy something. Not any longer.

Recently, in an idle moment, I wandered in - to the Ralph Lauren shop at Brompton Cross. I noticed a pair of shoes, quite nice, about £300, I reckoned, allowing for the location and the general flagshipness of the place. The shoes were £750, a price that bore no possible relation to either the cost of manufacture or the quality of the design. These people, I realised, don’t care about only fairly affluent me or my class any more. They’d rather I left, because they can sell all their stuff at any price, in effect, to the bonus boys and girls.

“Almost by definition, these things aren’t for you,” John Lanchester tells me on the phone. He is the author of Capital, the 2012 novel that defined the moral climate that led to the last financial crash. “The whole thing about luxury goods is that they’re an inter - national language. The prices don’t track the middle-class, aspirational market; they’re for the super-rich, who don’t really care what things cost. In fact, they want them to cost more, because the price signifies only that most people can’t afford them.” (Lanchester captured entitlement in the character of Arabella in Capital, a woman so ignorant, vain and greedy, she did not even understand the possibility of being unable to afford something. Now I see and hear Arabellas all around me when lunching in central London.)

Perhaps it was ever thus: the rich have always been different. But that’s not true. Some - thing big, something moral, has changed. Driving through Knightsbridge (occasionally one must) I noticed a huge, absurd, orange and, in London, practically undriveable Lamborghini illegally parked. Once, I would have been amused, but now I feel angry because I know – we all know – it was probably bought with stolen money.

“Shocking” is too soft a word to describe the crimes of the financial sector. They are almost thrilling in their creative abundance – laundering money for drugs cartels; defrauding old people, small businesses, investors and shareholders; rigging markets; sugarcoating dud loans to look like good ones; loading the world economy with ever greater levels of risk and throwing millions of people out of work. And so on. All the time, they were enriching nobody but themselves. The banks and their buddies have been on a crime spree that would have glazed over the eyes of Al Capone.

Yet here they still are, with their undriveable orange cars, their buggies, their dark fort - resses and their rancid sense of entitlement because, in short, they don’t get it. Apparently the bonus boys see “casino banking” as a flattering term rather than the insult intended. Furthermore, the use of vast sums taxpayers’ money to save the banks is seen as no more than their God-given right.

“I live near Wall Street,” the economist Jeffrey Sachs said at an event. “The sense of entitlement is beyond quantification. They could not figure out why anyone might be mad at them for having nearly destroyed the world economy, taken home $30bn a year of bonuses, gotten bailed out to the tune of another trillion dollars and then lobbied for no regulation afterwards . . . I don’t think they were kidding anyone except themselves. I think they don’t get it.”

But we get it and we don’t like the rich any more because they all seem tainted. Lanchester points out that real business people – those who do useful things – are as angry as we are, accusing the bankers of wrecking and discrediting capitalism. (I sympathise. I have always regarded myself as a conservative and still do, but these shenanigans have tainted even that gentle world. Like most true conservatives I know, I regard the failure forcibly to end these abuses as a disgrace and a grave threat to the social peace we crave.)

Certainly people’s attitudes to companies in general has changed. Energy suppliers, telcos, retailers are all treated with a grim, resigned mistrust. To be allowed to participate in the society of entitlement, you have to agree to be ripped off. In spite of this, globally, politicians have decided to ignore the insights and sense of justice of their electorates and shown no desire to restructure a failed and still dangerous system, not even to imprison the most egregious wrongdoers. So the Age of Entitlement endures. What does this mean for society as a whole?

First, it is necessary to understand the origins of this psychology of entitlement. Economically, it can be said to be neoliberalism, the cult of free markets and deregulation that swept the world from the 1970s onwards. In neoliberal thought, expressed most trenchantly by Milton Friedman, the job of a company was to obey the law and reward its shareholders; it was not obliged to take on the wider ethical and moral concerns of society. In the 1980s, this became “greed is good”, certainly not what Friedman meant. I witnessed the cult’s apotheosis at the World Economic Forum in Davos in the early 1990s – I sat in on a meeting at which sharky young businessmen more or less said they would trample on their grandmothers for the sake of the bottom line. Viciousness had been validated. That is the enduring view in the financial sector.

“There is no incentive in the financial world,” a very prominent insider told me, “to be moral.” The point is that society rewards company directors with the enormous blessing of limited liability and, in return, should expect them to behave not just technically within the law but responsibly as persons. Failing – or refusing – to understand this underpins the sense of entitlement. Because much of what they did was not tech - nically illegal, the bankers feel that they did nothing wrong. Yet, in our own lives, we know perfectly well that some of the worst things we can do are not illegal. The financiers’ defence is made even more hopeless by the banks having been anything but good neoliberal institutions. Far from believing in free markets, they acted like a cartel and did everything in their power to rig the markets in which they operated.

Coupled with this was a generational change, identified by Jean Twenge and W Keith Campbell in their book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. From the late 1970s onwards, they detected a rise in narcissism among the young. Unlike the generation of the 1960s and early 1970s, these young people did not identify their goals as social or political but solely as personal. “There was a big shift in the 1980s away from the 1960s and 1970s,” Twenge told me, “. . . making a lot of money was no longer suspect. In the 1960s and 1970s it was not cool, but that flipped around.”

So, in the 1990s, a socially and politically quietist, narcissistic and self-seeking generation was well prepared to take advantage of the progressive deregulation of the financial system, primarily orchestrated by the then chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, a card-carrying believer in the doctrines of the hyper-libertarian fruitcake Ayn Rand. After 1997, the British Labour Party drank disgracefully deeply of this toxic, superstitious cocktail. Peter Mandelson declared that he was “intensely relaxed” about people getting “filthy” rich. In the midst of what turned out to be one of the most lethal (and preventable) bubbles in financial history, this was one complacency too far.

Both psychologically and theoretically, therefore, the Age of Entitlement was firmly established by the mid-1990s; indeed, so firmly established was it that it was imper - vious even to the overwhelming evidence of its fragile foundations. The collapse of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management in 1998 nearly brought the US economy to its knees – even though it had Myron Scholes and Robert Merton, creators of the critical equations on which financial neoliberalism was based, on its board. The neolibs sailed on regardless.

And still they sail on. Throughout the crisis, the beneficiaries of the criminality and rigged markets into which neoliberalism had descended continued to enrich themselves. In 2012 the 100 richest people across the world grew $241bn richer, taking their total net wealth to $1.9trn. The poor and the middle classes, naturally, got poorer. Levels of inequality of a kind that threaten the social fabric – especially in the US and the UK – are one of the most alarming legacies of the Age of Entitlement. The crisis is not over; in fact, it may hardly have begun.

Part of the problem is the way the wealthy entitled have managed to make their world so easily selfsustaining. They are certainly good at outsmarting our elected leaders. “George Osborne and his friends go down to the City with some idea,” one hugely rich but very politically aware financier told me, “and the bankers blind them with science – saying, ‘Well, you could try that, but we wouldn’t be responsible for the consequences’ – so, nothing happens.”

The new entitled live in a mirror-lined bubble. Also a legally protected one. I was told of a hedge-fund boss so vile that investors withdrew their money but did not sue, because other hedge funds would then refuse to do business with them. On top of that, they are protected in Britain by libel laws and a tax system that, as John Lanchester points out, not only shields our own entitled from scrutiny but also encourages equally entitled foreigners to come here.

“You might as well say, ‘Bond villains, come and live here,’ ” he says. “Our libel laws don’t help. There are a lot of zillionaires about whom we are going to read the truth uncensored only when they are dead. It’s an astonishing situation, when we have such a proliferation of incredibly rich criminals.”

If that is the tragedy, the comedy is almost as alarming. Even the Financial Times last month was stunned to discover that bankers have been invited into schools to teach our children about money. The Royal Bank of Scotland, our most thoroughly disgraced financial institution, was, of course, represented. I can think of many people I could ask for advice about money. None of them is a banker.

Or there is the way the incontinent vanity of the newly entitled spills over into insults directed at their closest political allies. Towards the end of last year, Kevin Maguire reported in the New Statesman that members of the Bullingdon – the clownish club for the cream of Oxford society (the rich and thick) of which Cameron, Osborne and Boris Johnson were once members – had taken to burning £50 notes in front of beggars.

Most comical, but also most sad, are the attempts by the entitled to fit in with and compromise with the ordinary lives of others. In a remarkable piece for the Sunday Times Style magazine published in December, Kate Spicer interviewed members of the entitled generation that will reap the rewards of the wave of criminality that engulfed our financial system.

Goldman Sachs, Spicer reported, runs a course for partners on “how not to f*** up your kids” which encourages them to take the bewildered brats to the supermarket occasionally. (A friend of mine whom Goldman Sachs attempted to recruit in the 1990s was struck by the way, late at night, there were cars waiting to take the employees home, so that they need never see any street life.)

Unfortunately, the lesson “be nice, be normal” often fails to sink it. Spicer wrote of how Nell, the twentysomething daughter of the strikingly unpleasant former boss of Barclays Bob Diamond, defended her dad on Twitter by suggesting that Osborne and Ed Miliband should “go ahead and #hmd” – “hold my dick”.

Spicer also quoted Alexa, aged 17, who thought it “quite funny – people have no understanding, interest or involvement in something and then suddenly get all het up about it. I went on a drama course. I was one of very few private-school kids. This guy said, ‘Your dad f***** up the country,’ but he had a complete lack of understanding of the situation.”

Sorry, Alexa, but that guy was spot on.

The kids are worried about discrimination. Bankers’ brats now account for between 30 and 50 per cent of the intake of private schools, but they run into trouble when they have to talk to egalitarian-minded university interviewers and tell them that Mummy and Daddy paid for their gap-year adventures.

What is striking, reading Spicer’s interviews and copious other evidence, is that the narcissism Jean Twenge identified as having blossomed in the 1980s is still rampant. The children of the bankers do think they are better than the rest of us and that making money is what matters most.

“You commonly hear from companies now,” Twenge says, “that this generation really have new social goals, helping people and so on. Unfortunately, that is not backed up by the evidence from what the young people actually say. There is no resurgence in the idea that we really want companies to be responsible.”

One final feature of the Age of Entitlement must be mentioned. It is the viciously reductionist mindset behind what now happens in finance. In part, this derives from machines. Computers are like alcohol to Homer Simpson: the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems. Computers made the bubble possible and the 2007 crash (and the next one) inevitable. They created high-speed, mechanised trading and enabled the application of mathematics to the markets – bad maths, as it happened, given that the primary equations were derived from physics that dees not apply to human affairs.

But more important is the reductionism that was implicit in neoliberalism as it became in the hands of the entitled. Money, in this view, is the measure of all things. An angry and very serious financial player told me how he had spent 20 years helping build a company; then the private-equity people moved in and told him he wouldn’t get a penny because he had put no money in. “They were saying all you need to make money is money – you can forget about the decades of work that went in before they even joined the party. They were arrogant beyond belief.”

This reductionism is perhaps the most dangerous assumption of the Age of Entitlement. Money, as Bob Dylan sagely observed, doesn’t talk, it swears, and for this swearing to be effective it must be embodied in an ethical, moral, political and social realm that cannot, in and of itself, be reduced to money. That realm is being eroded rapidly, not only by the entitled, but also by the craven worship of cash that now suffuses the culture. It is this that is successfully disseminating the depraved idea that merely to be rich is to be entitled. To sample the idea, go to the Rich Kids of Instagram tumblr, a website of images of the young wealthy swigging from magnums of champagne and posing next to private jets. The site’s tagline is, “They have more money than you and this is what they do.”

Taxation cannot change this, as the French are learning. The next crash might and several hundred – or several thousand – bankers in prison would help, as would the demolition of One Hyde Park to give us all a view of the green sward. What would definitely change the climate of entitlement would be a dismantling of its psychological basis, the mindset that has created a super-rich class with no allegiance, obligation or connection to wider society. The ears of the entitled need to be unstopped so that we can whisper to them, ever so gently, “If you’re rich be grateful and, here’s another great idea, earn it.”

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap