Rowan Williams in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images
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Between church and state

As Rowan Williams prepares to step down after nearly ten years as Archbishop of Canterbury, a former aide ponders the challenges confronting his successor.

Politicians are accustomed to the media distorting whatever they have to say for dramatic effect – every discussion is a row, every initiative a push for power. So it is with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Anglican apparatchiks have been busy playing down the suggestion that their Church is planning to appoint a “global president” to relieve the next archbishop of some of the workload. The line is that Dr Rowan Williams, in a valedictory interview in the Daily Telegraph, merely said that the job was too big for one person. The Telegraph thought otherwise.

But the story stirred some emotions, not least relief that Tony Blair had converted to Roman Catholicism and so would not be available for the job. And it drew attention to just how political is the role of archbishop of Canterbury. Not only is Williams presented as a more virulent opposition to the present government than the Labour Party, but what he has to say is presented in the media about as sympathetically as Boris Johnson’s denials that he wants to be prime minister.

Lambeth Palace is treated as another chamber of parliament on the south bank of the Thames. It follows that the next archbishop, due to be announced shortly, walks into a highly political job. But should it be so? Should the archbishop want it to be so?

In Faith in the Public Square, his last book as archbishop, Williams calls the Church a “political seminar . . . God transforms society and not just human individuals”. This theme characterised his decade in office. Last year, while I was working for him, I heard him say in one of the speeches included in the book that “it’s not a matter of the Church binding its vision to the agenda of this or that party, not a matter of the Church creating a political party to embody its vision and its priorities. Much more, it’s a matter of the Christian gospel motivating a grass-roots politics and activism of generosity and mutuality.”

We start, therefore, with a paradox – the Church of England is deeply rooted in British political life, yet it transcends party politics. Williams has managed this difficult relationship with the nation’s politics remarkably well. With carefully chosen interventions, the outrage of politicians and in some quarters of the media may be seen to have demonstrated that he has got this aspect of his job bang on.

When he suggested in 2008 that our legislature might recognise aspects of sharia in our civil law, some of the more excitable newspaper commentators ranted about tongues being cut out and adulterers being stoned to death. It was left to the Conservative MP Peter Bottomley calmly to point out on BBC radio that, among a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim in the UK, only one person is prevented from marrying according to the rites of his or her own culture – and that this is inequitable.

Since then, Williams may have been more measured in his contributions but he’s hardly been less of a political animal. He has spoken out frequently against welfare cuts, successfully fronted the campaign to prevent the government selling off our national forestry to its mates as tax dodges, quietly held David Cameron’s feet to the fire over his “big society” rhetoric, criticised our policies on Europe and, of course, caused a minor storm in Westminster with a leader comment on the quality of our political life when he guest-edited the New Statesman in June last year.

It’s a tough act to follow. Whoever succeeds him in the early days of 2013 will need to maintain the momentum that Williams has established, without being taken hostage by any parliamentary faction. It’s a prospect complicated by the politically atypical nature of the Christian world-view. If one is to generalise, Christian politics are often economically progressive and socially conservative. As Andy Flannagan, director of the Christian Socialist Movement, puts it: “The reality is that the group of passionate believers working with Citizens UK on a living wage campaign are also campaigning for a financial transaction tax, while also running a drug rehab centre and also campaigning for the definition of marriage to remain the same. Where do you fit those folks into your broadsheet?”

I very much doubt that the next archbishop of Canterbury knows that he is archbishop yet. More to the point, I rather doubt that the sometimes leaky Crown Nominations Commission, which is meant to come up with a name for the Prime Minister to carry to the Queen, knows either, though I hear that the odd bishop’s summer holidays have been interrupted by these grandest of headhunters.

All we do know is that, to maintain the political momentum, it will need to be someone of personality and guts. In Cameron’s summer reveries, he must have wished to be presented with a candidate who has neither. Or one who has plenty of both but would happily wave the Prime Minister’s pet proposals for gay marriage through General Synod. Yet there are precious few of those and it might be a tad overambitious to suggest that Dr Jeffrey John, the openly gay Dean of St Albans, was denied the bishoprics of Reading and Southwark under the current incumbent of the See of Canterbury in order to be fast-tracked to become his successor.

So, it will come down to the usual, orthodox suspects. The price on the former bookies’ favourite John Sentamu of York has lengthened as it’s dawned on observers that his principal qualifications for the job are being evangelical and black. The short-odds favourite spot has been filled by Christopher Cocksworth of Coventry, who is young enough to be favourite next time, too. Richard Chartres of  London, unkindly called “the Prince of Wales in drag” because of his closeness to the heir to the throne since they were undergraduates together at Cambridge, could still be the leader who ushers in women bishops while keeping traditionalists (like himself) on board. Graham James of Norwich showed well in the hard going of a report on homosexuality. Then there are dark horses such as John Inge of Worcester and Nick Baines of Bradford.

To be honest, they all seem wearied by the whole Canterbury candidacy gig and only one of them – best left nameless –would still kick fingers away to get the job, such are the obvious political pressures of the role. By contrast, the mood in the Church’s superstructure remains rather buoyant. Far from sharing the illiterate media view that Williams is a weirdy-beardy, the Church of England’s civil servants have been close enough to his political and social contributions during the past decade to want the next archbishop to keep up the parliamentary pace.

“The office can’t help but be thought of as political,” a very senior Church official told me recently. “Nor can its incumbent operate in a space hermetically sealed from the world of regular politics – precisely because the heart of the archbishop’s calling is to articulate the teachings of the gospel about how we as individuals form societies that work together for the common good. Salvation doesn’t come in isolation.

“It’s the worst kind of secularising instinct that presumes that a religious leader with a prominent position in public life can be a true advocate for and exemplar of the Christian message by confining himself to being part superadministrator of the Church’s business and part constitutional ornament, wheeled out on grand state occasions.”

That echoes Turbulent Priests?, a pamphlet written by Daniel Gover and published last year by the think tank Theos. It assessed the political contributions of the three archbishops of Canterbury since 1980: “[Archbishops’] participation in political debate helps lift that debate, however briefly, above the short-term and partisan, and (changing metaphors) ground it in more substantial (and often more accessible) ethical considerations.”

But the voice of Mandy Rice-Davies echoes down the decades: they would say that, wouldn’t they? And what of those who aren’t in the Christian tent? An irony is that the Church of England, established in law, is our state church, with the monarch both its supreme governor and head of state, but that our national religion is at its best when it’s a thorn in the side of that state. It follows that an archbishop of Canterbury would more usually be a friend of Her Majesty’s Opposition than of her government. So, at present, there is a knuckle-dragging faction on the Tory back benches which would happily see the Archbishop butt out of what it considers its sovereign territory. “The Church should get back to its prime business of praising the Almighty, saving souls and considering its own diminishing position in this society,” Brian Binley, the MP for Northampton South, has said.

We might surmise that the last bit of that statement is somewhat bold, coming at a time when the diminution of his own party’s position in society is accelerating so quickly. But it is also very odd – first, because Tories such as Binley are among the first, along with the rightwing press, to demand the voice of the bishops when issues such as marriage, abortion and euthanasia are on the agenda. These, I presume, they consider matters of personal morality, as if morality were absent from other areas such as taxation, unemployment, immigration and asylum, the running of the economy, or, for that matter, European policy. Perhaps Binley believes they are amoral issues, but I rather doubt he’d say that publicly.

The Archbishop occupies a seat in the upper chamber of the legislature, and as long as he does so, he has a duty, not a choice, to participate. The other side of this is that his is arguably the most powerful unaccountable political job in the realm. Even the monarch gets to sit in the House of Lords only once a year – and then she can’t vote. The Archbishop is there all year round, voting away on behalf of a mixture of his own conscience and that of his congregants. And third and most importantly, he honours the gospel imperative to serve the poor – not just the economically poor, but anyone who is vulnerable, marginalised or weak.

Is Christianity essentially socialist? The new archbishop will be enthroned in Augustine’s seat in a failing economy with a hardline, Conservative-led government (and, after this month’s reshuffle, who doubts that that is what we have?). As a Church, we are drawn inexorably towards the question of where today our faith is rooted, economically and politically. In short, the new archbishop will be examined to establish whether he is Labour or Conservative.

Williams’s successor will, inevitably, avoid the question, taking refuge in that line about transcending party politics. But frankly it is hard to construct a case for the interests of the poor being best served by concurrently cutting welfare payments and the top rate of income tax, by making those who are already suffering most pay the price of the economic collapse while protecting the financial elite who precipitated it, and by continuing to pretend that wealth creation is of itself serving the common good by virtue of mystical trickle-down benefits, when events since 2008 demonstrate that trickle-down hasn’t worked. The rich have run off with the money.

The smug refrain, from parliamentarians and some clerics alike, is very often a quotation from Jesus: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” This is a neat little demarcation that apparently sorts the relationship between Christianity and secular authority. It certainly conforms Brian Binley’s world-view: the big boys will manage the money, while the church makes jam for the fete. The trouble is the passage in Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t say that at all.

Leo Tolstoy pointed out that Christ “not only does not encourage any obedience to power but, on the contrary, points out that in everything which belongs to God it is not right to obey Caesar”. That may stand as the pithiest brief for the next archbishop of Canterbury as he faces the little Caesars across the Thames from Lambeth Palace.

The question arises of how many in Westminster can work with the new archbishop if he chooses to heed Tolstoy’s words. To do so, the common ground they must find is working for the common good. In truth, that has been an idea successfully annexed by the political left since Margaret Thatcher championed individualism over collectivism in the 1980s and consequently froze out a Church of England that had historically been characterised as “the Tory party at prayer”. (Relations between the Church and the Thatcher government weren’t helped by the publication, in 1985, of Faith in the City, a report into urban poverty and a “call for action by Church and nation”  commissioned by the then archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. Stung by the Church’s insubordination under Runcie, Thatcher hand-picked his successor, George Carey, who proved to be altogether more emollient.)

Cameron at least nodded in the direction of a notion of the common good with his talk of the “big society”, even if his faith in it faded in and out with his Christian faith, a religious conviction like radio reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns, as he put it in a phrase borrowed from Boris Johnson. And it was telling that Tim Montgomerie, the Christian editor of the influential ConservativeHome website who is a proponent of Tory “modernisation” on issues of social justice, should have reacted so intemperately to Williams’s guest-editorship of the New Statesman. As he saw it, his party was being accused of what he hoped it had left behind.

As for the Labour Party, like the Church of England, it is working out its future relationship with the archbishop by examining the one that is passing. “What Rowan Williams has achieved is to continuously restate the importance of compassion in the public realm and the emphasis on the common life that we all share, one that reaches beyond the transactional elements of orthodox economics,” Jon Cruddas, the MP for Dagenham and Rainham and head of the party’s policy review, told me. “These types of intervention will be ever more important as the character of the country shifts through the process of austerity, where the poor are increasingly demonised and the weak pick up the tab for a financial crisis that is not of their making. We will need such alternative voices all the more in the future.”

Stephen Timms, the MP for East Ham, who is a former chief secretary to the Treasury (and a Christian), sets the bar even higher for the new archbishop. “It seems to me that, with Rowan as Archbishop, there has been a new intellectual self-confidence about the Church of England. In a period when the question ‘Where do our values come from?’ has been a pressing one, his has been a distinctive, compelling and authoritative voice. He has managed to be pretty fearless in speaking up for the vulnerable and marginalised, taking a lot of flak at times for doing so, without being partisan or gratuitously giving offence.”

No pressure, then. If that isn’t a big enough challenge for the new archbishop, there are two other mighty obstacles to effective political engagement. The first is those troublesome folk in the media. As the Christian Socialist Flannagan puts it: “Rowan’s voice has challenged vested interests in the financial and corporate sector who have multimillion-pound PR departments to speak for them. His successor will have the challenge of articulating the incredible breadth of what is going on in and through all the different strands of the Church in the UK, be that debt advice centres, youth work or homeless shelters. But he will be doing that into a media milieu that increasingly doesn’t want complexity in its reporting of the Church. It wants boxes. It wants the UK to be like the US. It wants liberals and conservatives, or liberals and evangelicals. It wants ‘nice Christians’and ‘nasty Christians’.”

The other political stumbling block is the Church’s own executive. When in early 2011 Williams signed a petition against the government’s proposed forestry sell-off, I was told in no uncertain terms that “the Archbishop doesn’t sign other people’s letters”. I replied that, on the contrary, he just had. This self-important panjandrum looked pained and asked me unsmilingly where I thought we’d be if we allowed the Archbishop to do what he wanted. Sir Humphrey Appleby would find today’s Church of England his natural habitat.

The Crown Nominations Commission must come up with a candidate who can cope with the politics not just of Westminster, but of his Church. What does that candidate look like? Flannagan is in no doubt: “Rowan led with the nuance necessary, rather than retreating to the safety of a tribe. I pray for another like him.”

George Pitcher was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s secretary for public affairs from 2010-2011. “Faith in the Public Square” is published by Bloomsbury (£20).

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

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 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?