Illustration by Nick Hayes for the New Statesman.
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What David Cameron can learn from Abraham Lincoln

Wearing the Union blue.

Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 is one of the noblest statements ever delivered, and forcing the abolition bill through a reluctant Congress, as Steven Spielberg’s masterful Oscarnominated film attests, was a monumental achievement. But Lincoln’s principal contribution to American history was to save the Union, as those from the Southern states are quick to tell you. In the former Confederacy, the civil war is still called “the War Between the States”.

Lincoln confided his thoughts about secession and slavery in a letter of 1862. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that,” he wrote. “What I do about slavery, and the coloured race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

His proclamation did not, in fact, free the slaves in the North, nor was he in a position to free slaves in the Confederate South, but, under his powers as commander-in-chief in wartime, he issued an executive order that freed all slaves in the Southern states as soon as they were occupied by the Union army.

It may at first seem a little far-fetched, but there are poignant similarities between the conundrum that Lincoln encountered 150 years ago and the dilemma David Cameron faces today. They are both confronted with threats to the very existence of the nations they govern. While Lincoln was obliged to respond to a fait accompli, a group of slave states that had decided before his election to wrest themselves from the Union, by force of arms if necessary, Cameron finds himself under siege on all sides. But while Lincoln was presented with the simple option of whether to take up arms to defend the Union or watch as his country split in two, Cam eron has no such easy choice.

In Scotland, the Scottish National Party has finally achieved what it has been dreaming of for 80 years. It has a mandate to demand from Westminster a referendum on whether, after three centuries united with England and Wales, Scotland should become a free nation again. The Union came about as a result of the Union of the Crowns, when the Scottish king James VI, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, acceded to the throne of England following the death of the childless Elizabeth I in 1603. It took a full century before the English and Scottish parliaments combined in the Acts of Union of 1707. Lincoln was obliged to defend a union barely 90 years old; Cameron must protect a union that has lasted more than 300 years.

In Ireland, Cameron presides over the latest skirmish in a bloody struggle that has lasted much longer. The colonisation of Ireland was messy and brutal from the start, and the independence wrested from Britain in 1922 left the northern, overwhelmingly Protestant and unionist part of the island in British hands. A border had to be drawn somewhere, leaving many who would prefer to live in the republic stranded in a British province. The continuing troubles offer a challenge to Cameron to find a permanent peace. No less than in Scotland, British sovereignty and British lives are severely at risk.

Then there is the European Union. Those with a sense of history will remember that joining Europe was always predominantly a Conservative project. It was Harold Macmillan, with Edward Heath at his side, who first flirted with the continentals in 1961 and had his overture rudely rebuffed by Charles de Gaulle’s “Non!”. Heath the eternal bachelor then made it his life’s mission to make a marriage with the Europeans and the lasting legacy of his otherwise awkward, chilly and ultimately tragic premiership was British entry into the European Economic Community in 1973. As Cameron must be all too aware, the principled Heath condemned the referendum that Harold Wilson called on European membership two years later as a shabby gimmick, designed to appease internal Labour divisions over the Common Market.

Since the moment when Heath’s successor Margaret Thatcher – who had campaigned in favour of remaining in Europe in 1975 – began arguing, as prime minister after 1979, against closer European union, the Conservatives have been profoundly and openly divided on the matter. The rupture over Europe, even more than Thatcher’s unpopular poll tax, led to her defenestration by cabinet colleagues in 1990. John Major’s leadership of the Tories was blighted by the question of Europe; and the election of three Eurosceptic leaders in a row – William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard – did not settle the matter.

Cameron’s inheritance is a party facing both ways on Europe, and his inability to reconcile the opposing forces has given rise to a challenge for the affections of his patriotic electoral base from the anti-European Ukip. Although Ukip’s leader, Nigel Farage, along with every other Ukip candidate, failed to win a Commons seat in 2010 (Farage was beaten by a candidate dressed as a dolphin), his party stole enough votes from the Conservatives to deprive Cameron of a parliamentary majority.

When he dreamed of leading his party, Cameron could never have imagined that Britain’s existence would be subject to a three-pronged attack. But he finds himself in the same position as today’s Republican leadership in America, under assault from angry rank and file who feel they are being ignored and betrayed by their leaders. The Republicans, once the proud “party of Lincoln”, have evolved into a testy vehicle for insurgent mavericks and malcontents.

To add insult to indignity, the “Grand Old Party”, which once bravely saved the Union, is the home of a new secessionist movement. Having failed to devolve substantial powers from the federal government to the states, many are demanding independence. At present, eight states, all from the defeated Confederacy, have petitioned the White House to be allowed to secede: Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama and South Carolina. The muddled, ahistorical thinking behind the treacherous talk is evident in the argument proffered by the libertarian Ron Paul: “It’s very American to talk about secession. That’s how we came into being.”

On a personal level, there are as few similarities between Cameron and Lincoln as between Jacob and Esau. Lincoln was brought up in a sparsely furnished log cabin and, much to his ignorant father’s despair, taught himself to read and write, eventually emerging as a jobbing country lawyer in Illinois. Cameron, as we know, was the son of high privilege. Everyone who met Lincoln commented on his rough looks and his even rougher clothes. Cameron’s smooth, unlined face betrays an easy, affluent, well-fed life.

Both men, however, could be described more accurately as Whigs than Conservatives, in their commitment to parliament or Congress over absolute powers held by the monarch or president. Indeed, Lincoln was an old American Whig before he joined the Republicans over the issue of abolition. Allied to their commitment to rewarding individual effort, irrespective of background, is a strong, Protestant sense that their good fortune entails paying something back. Despite his comfortable circumstances, Cameron has argued that “it’s where you are going to, not where you have come from, that matters”. In a decisive break from the philosophy of heroic individualism that inspired Thatcher, he believes “there is such a thing as society”.

As well as soaring ambition, the two men share other similarities. Both are most eloquent when they do not refer to notes. Although stiff and wooden at first, Lincoln’s speeches gathered pace and by the peroration he would be ripping off his necktie, loosening his starched collar and throwing his arms around like a deranged windmill. “His pronunciation is bad, his manners uncouth and his general appearance anything but prepossessing,” is how one eyewitness described his platform presence.

Cameron’s delivery is calm, ordered and deliberate. His speech to the Tory party conference in 2005, delivered without notes, may not have been as powerful and inspirational as the 268 words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of 1863, which would be a tall order for anyone except, perhaps, Winston Churchill. But the performance at Blackpool, in its carefully pitched content tailored to the party faithful and the confidence of its delivery, ensured his election as leader.

Lincoln took into his administration the big beasts of the Republican Party whom he had beaten to the Republican nomination: William H Seward, Salmon P Chase and Edward Bates. And Cameron, too, assembled a team of former rivals. To become Tory leader, he saw off David Davis, Liam Fox and Kenneth Clarke, all of whom he invited into his shadow cabinet. Like Lincoln, Cameron leads his disparate colleagues with the minimum of friction. But there the favourable comparisons between the two leaders start to run out.

Lincoln was always a man of principle rather than pragmatism. He could be rash, failing to hold his tongue in the presence of those he knew disagreed with him, and found it difficult to compromise even when it was in his best interest to do so. Nowhere was this more obvious and powerful than when he spelled out, years before running for the White House, what he felt about race.

He declared that when the Founding Fathers wrote, “We hold these truths to be selfevident: that all men are created equal,” they meant “the whole great family of man” and not merely those with white faces. Lincoln said the founders knew enough about human nature to imagine that, “in the distant future”, people would emerge who would “set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. But he was certain that racism could never have been in the founders’ minds and he would have none of it.

In comparison to this eloquent statement of principle, just one among dozens that Lincoln crisply articulated in his short life, Cam - eron emerges as a dissembler, always alert for a way to delay taking a stand, ever ready with the smudgy phrase and the tactical retreat. Let us give him a pass on Ireland. Few have got it right and it may well be insoluble so long as a vociferous minority in Northern Ireland demands the impossible and the intractable majority insists on being British. In Scotland, however, when the SNP obtained a majority in the Scottish Parliament and claimed a mandate to call a referendum on independence, Cameron readily ignored Lincoln’s example to resist the dissolution of the Union and readily agreed to Alex Salmond’s demands.

In calling an all-or-nothing, in-out referendum on independence next year in Scotland only, David William Donald Cameron, to give him his full, Scots-derived name, failed to question the legality of one half of the nation being able to secede from the other on its own cognisance. Instead, he conceded the principle that if the referendum records a majority of Scots in favour of secession, that is enough to grant a divorce, as if England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Scots living in the rest of Britain, were not entitled to a say in the dissolution of the United Kingdom. “I’m not going to stand here and suggest Scotland couldn’t make a go of being on its own, if that’s what people decide,” Cameron said. “There are plenty of small, independent nation states of a similar size or even smaller. Scotland could make its way in the world alongside countries like those.”

Lincoln would never have yielded on such a fundamental principle. As he put it, “If we do not make common cause to save the good old ship of the Union on this voyage, nobody will have a chance to pilot her on another voyage.”

When Cameron conceded the principle that one part of the United Kingdom may constitutionally break from the rest, he also declared himself “ready for the fight for our country’s life”. He appears to be in favour of two incompatible principles, the right of Britain to remain a nation and the right of Scotland to secede. He then adopts the principle that gives Scotland the moral right to secede to inform his party’s demand that Britain be allowed to renegotiate a looser union with our European partners. What, then, is Cameron’s guiding principle when dealing with Scotland and the European Union? There is none. Both are craven acts of political expedience. His promise of a referendum on British membership of the EU is largely an attempt to save the Conservatives from being driven from office by Ukip.

Cameron’s answer to the Ukip threat to the renewal of his Downing Street lease is to avoid saying exactly what the relationship between Britain and the EU should be, because plainly he doesn’t know where the line should be drawn. Instead he abrogates the responsibility of a true leader and, in the hope of being re-elected, promises an in-out referendum on EU membership, so long as he is re-elected. As Lincoln asked, “What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried?”

Cameron is less a conservative than a trimmer, less a Heath than a Wilson, less a That - cher than a Blair.

When Lincoln confronted the break-up of the United States, he borrowed from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” To avoid the consequences of the Conservatives’ deeply divided house, Cameron is willing to risk the dissolution of the United Kingdom and British withdrawal from the European Union. Both are too high a price to pay for trying to bridge the irrevocable schism in the Tory ranks.

Nicholas Wapshott’s most recent book is “Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics” (W W Norton, £12.99)

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone