Show Hide image

Sadiq Khan interview: “London can’t have somebody stuck in the 1980s or 1990s”

The Labour London mayoral candidate on why he is the "modern" figure the city needs, Tessa Jowell's "control freakery", and Islamist extremism. 

"You’ve brought the sun out!" says Sadiq Khan as he greets me on the rooftop of Boxpark in Shoreditch, east London. I quickly slake my thirst with the water provided by his aide but Khan does not. The Tooting MP and devout Muslim has begun fasting for Ramadan, abstaining from food and drink for 19 hours a day.

If Khan, who is 44, is low on energy it does not show. The former shadow justice secretary speaks fluently and passionately about his bid to become Labour’s London mayoral candidate and his vision for the capital.

He reveals his intention, if he wins, to establish the Bazalgette Award, named in honour of Joseph Bazalgette, the Victorian creator of the city's sewer network. "We know London's got huge problems in relation to infrastructure, in relation to environmental concerns, in relation to simple things like not having air conditioning on the tube ... 150 years ago London also had problems and people with foresight designed sewers, for example, fit not just for the 19th century but still working in the 21st century ...

"What it will be is an award for innovation, for solutions, so I’ll be saying to Londoners and those around the world, 'Look, here are some of our problems, if you come up with a solution not only will you get an award, not only will you get reward money, we’ll spend money to do feasibility studies, we’ll spend money to consult, we’ll spend money to make sure that your ideas bear fruit.'" 

He also vows to introduce "Skills for Londoners" - a partnership between business, the mayoralty and educational institutions, modelled on programmes such as New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s Jobs for New Yorkers and Tech Talent Pipeline. Khan promises to "train Londoners for the skills of tomorrow: tech, creative industries, low carbon, manufacturing". He notes that Tech City, where we are sitting, "now rivals the finance sector in relation to what it contributes to our country” and asks “What about the next Tech City? I’m going to be the mayor who thinks about tomorrow’s jobs."

Khan continues: "London’s a modern city and it needs a modern mayor ... What I think we can’t have as a city is somebody stuck in the 1980s or 1990s, we need somebody who’s thinking about the 2020s." His words are a coded attack on rival candidates Diane Abbott, the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington since 1987, and Tessa Jowell, who served in Tony Blair’s cabinet. "Tessa and Diane have been in politics since I was at school and I’ve got a huge amount of respect for them, it’s on their shoulders that many of us stand,” he tells me. “I don’t think [Jowell’s] got the answers for the 2020s, the future business, we’re a modern city, we’re young, we’re diverse." I ask if he is suggesting that Jowell, who is 67, is simply too old to be mayor. "For me, it’s not about age, it’s about asking the right questions, it’s about understanding tomorrow’s problems," the 44-year-old replies.

It is the former Olympics minister who is Khan’s main opponent in the Labour nomination contest. A recent YouGov poll found that he had narrowed her lead among party supporters (who will select the candidate in a primary) from 15 points to just three and several bookmakers have installed him as the favourite. But Jowell’s allies eagerly cite a survey putting her 14 points ahead of the most likely Conservative candidate, Zac Goldsmith (57-43), with Khan merely tied (50-50). "Two weeks after launching my campaign I’m neck-and-neck," he says when I reference the poll. "I’m confident that over the next few weeks and months I’ll show that I’m not only the only candidate that can win, I’m winning for a purpose."

One of Jowell’s biggest hindrances is her association with Tony Blair, who she once declared she would “jump in front of a bus to save”. Jowell recently denied making the remark only to be contradicted by a 2009 video in which she affirmed her pledge. When I mention the imbroglio to Khan he laughs and says “It’s no secret how close Tessa and Tony Blair are. It’s for Tessa to answer that question. I was surprised when I read the tweet in which she said that she hadn’t said that. It’s for Tessa to explain her local difficulty.” He goes on to accuse her of New Labour "control freakery" - "When your supporters turn up to a hustings to cheer you on, that’s just so 1990s. [In fact, Ed Miliband's supporters did the same for him at the 2010 New Statesman Labour leadership hustings.] The idea you have people turning up to a CLP [Constituency Labour Party] meeting, organising so other candidates are nominated, that’s just so 1990s. My criticism is not her age, it’s the way that sort of politics is done, I think it’s past its sell-by date." 

But what does Khan say to those who brand him "the union candidate" and "the Ed Miliband candidate"? "The fact that other people who are running to be mayor are being negative speaks volumes for them," he says. "I’m really proud that nurses, bus drivers and lollipop ladies are supporting me in my candidature to be mayor of London," he adds in reference to his trade union endorsements. "I’m also really proud, by the way, that chief executives, business owners and entrepreneurs are supporting me as well. I’m really proud that Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews and Christians are supporting me."

He says that Miliband, who appointed him as shadow London minister in 2013 and whose leadership campaign he managed, should remain an MP for the next five years.

"One of the first things I said to Ed after the results was what you cannot do is step down from parliament, you’ve got a lot to offer. He’s 45-years-old, he’s got a huge amount to offer and it’s really important that he does so." But he adds: "The important thing for me though is I’m my own man, I’m Sadiq Khan. Ed and others will offer ideas, some of them I’ll take on, some of them I won’t and I’ve got to be allowed to be my own man. What's been great about the last few weeks is I’ve been able to get people to know me."

Sadiq Khan was the first British Asian and the first Muslim to attend cabinet. He speaks with justifiable pride of his background. "As the son of a bus driver, as somebody who’s the son of immigrants, as somebody who was raised on a council estate, as somebody who slept on a bunk bed when he was 24, I get aspiration," he says in reference to the political word du jour. He criticises those in Labour who "give the impression that only those who shop in Waitrose have aspiration".

He reflects on how London has changed since his father arrived as an immigrant from Pakistan. "When my dad first came here there were signs up literally saying 'No blacks, no Irish, no dogs.' Thirty years on, my dad would have to pinch himself and my mum still does, that their son is on the cusp of being elected as mayor. And their pride isn’t in me, their pride is in London, their pride is in Tooting for electing their son MP, their pride is in London for being on the cusp of choosing their son to be the mayor of this great city."

On the day that I meet Khan, David Cameron has argued that some Muslim communities have "quietly condoned" Islamist extremism. "You’ve got to be very careful with language, you don’t want to inadvertently help others do the job for them," says Khan, adding that he believes "Cameron’s intentions are noble". His message to "anybody thinking about going to Syria or Iraq" is that "you can do far more good for the people of Syria and Iraq, getting involved in a mainstream charity, giving money to good causes, helping us try and influence foreign policy, helping us reach a resolution to the problems of the Middle East, you can do far more as an active citizen here than going to Syria and Iraq, especially if you’re a woman."

He continues: "I say this as the father of two daughters who’s worried about what goes on the internet. It is the case that in many Muslim majority countries women don’t have equality ... I say this to my daughter: you’ve got far more chance of fulfilling your potential here than in Syria and Iraq. That’s why it’s so important for someone like me to be the mayor of this great city, to send a message, to be a beacon."

Khan has announced policies including a new "London living rent", a four-year freeze on Tube and bus fares, and opposition to a third runway at Heathrow. He supports far greater devolution to the capital. "I want to be in charge of skills, I want to be in charge of back-to-work, Londoners should be much more in charge of housing. I think Londoners should be in charge of infrastructure, I think Londoners should be in charge of the NHS in London, we’re already in charge of public health. The more power London’s got over its own destiny, the better we’ll do and the better the country will do as well." 

When I mention that another rival candidate, David Lammy, has accused him of opportunism over his stance on Heathrow ("If the facts change, I change my mind," Khan tells me), he replies: "David Lammy, Diane Abbott and Tessa Jowell all may be saying beastly things about me, I take that as a badge of pride. If they’re rattled that’s for them to be rattled. I’m really not taking an interest in what they’re saying about me that’s negative. I want to have a positive campaign, I want to have an open campaign, I want to have a campaign that’s very much fraternal." 

And should he fall short, will he seek to return to the shadow cabinet? "I’m an optimist. I’m in this to win this and I’m confident that I’ll be selected as Labour’s candidate and I’m confident that I’ll be mayor of London after 5 May."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
Show Hide image

"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 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2