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“I was killed when I was 27”: the curious afterlife of Terence Trent D’Arby

Terence Trent D’Arby’s 1987 debut album sold a million copies in three days. The music press went mad for him. Where was there to go but down?

Imagine this. You’re 25 years old and your debut album of perfectly polished soul-rock-pop-funk sells one million copies in the first three days of release. It delivers three Top Ten hits, winning you numerous platinum gongs and a Grammy Award, and parachutes you right into the arena of the 1980s megastars you idolise. You drive the music press into a frenzy: they say you combine the voice of Sam Cooke and the moves of James Brown with the louche beauty of Jimi Hendrix. You are mentored by Springsteen, Leonard Cohen and Pete Townshend; you spend hours on the phone with Prince and sing on Brian Wilson albums. You even meet your hero Muhammad Ali, whose attitude you’ve ingested, saying: “Tell people long enough and loud enough you’re the greatest and eventually they’ll believe you.” In case anyone is in any doubt about just how important you are, you draw a parallel between your destiny and that of Martin Luther King.

Early one morning, at the end of one of your six-hour, joss-stick-infused overnight interviews, a journalist asks you what happens if your follow-up album isn’t as successful as your first. For once, you are lost for words. “That’s like asking me what I would do if my dick fell off . . .”

The man who slips into the hotel lobby in Milan looks like a fashion district local – one scarf over his dreadlocks, another curled round his neck – but there’s an inward energy about him, like one of those fragile celebrities who doesn’t want to be noticed but cannot help it: it’s all there in the cut of the trousers and size of the blue-bottle shades.

I’ve been given instructions for my meeting with Sananda Maitreya. 1. Please don’t mention the name “Terence Trent D’Arby”, as it is painful for him. 2. Please don’t make any comparisons with Prince regarding his name change, which occurred in 1995 after a series of dreams. 3. Please don’t ask him things like, “What songs do you think would make a good single from your new album, Rise of the Zugebrian Time Lords?”

The hotel is next to Milan’s cathedral, the Duomo, where Maitreya (formerly Darby) proposed to his Italian wife, the architect and former television presenter Francesca Francone, some years ago ­during a Catholic Mass. We go to the sixth floor and find that nothing is quite right up there: the room is too hot; he orders a whiskey and Coke and can’t find a bottle opener; we find one and it doesn’t work. Finally, he takes a long, reassuring slug and declares, “I feel like I’m going on a date when I’ve been married 25 years. I don’t know how to do this any more.”

He says softly: “One thing about Italians is you can’t let them in your head. They’re inquisitive. The English and Germans are a dog tribe; the Italians are cats. They’re very helpful, but it’s in their own rhythm, their own way, and it can drive you crazy.”

It’s an odd start to an interview, but even as a young man Terence Trent D’Arby liked to discourse on a broad range of subjects. An American who rejected his homeland, D’Arby was living in Britain through what he refers to today as “the Thatcher Revolution”; he was a strange, exotic bird, dropped down in the streets of London, cruising around on a motorbike in the video for his hit song “Sign Your Name” and appearing frequently on the Channel 4 show The Tube (he had a year-long affair with its host, Paula Yates). Today, his accent is New York, but back then it was English; the apostrophe he adopted was a mark of his rapid self-elevation. He was all things to all people, and once began a Q Magazine interview deconstructing the defeat of Neil Kinnock in the 1987 election.

“Oh my God, I can’t believe you thought I was a socialist,” he says now. “I was nothing more than an opportunist. Any socialist tendencies I may have had were cured when I got my first tax bill. All artists are socialists until they see another artist with a bigger house than theirs.”

D’Arby had cut his teeth in a German funk band while stationed in Frankfurt with Elvis Presley’s old regiment; and like that other army boy, Hendrix, he came to fame in a London that wanted his music more than the country he came from. The producer Martyn Ware – a founder member of Heaven 17 and the Human League – worked with him on his debut LP, Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby, which also included the hit songs “Wishing Well” and “If You Let Me Stay”. He describes D’Arby as “a box of fireworks going off in every direction. I have never met anyone so driven.” Ware would arrive at the studio in the morning and find D’Arby already sitting there in the dark, analysing live recordings of Sam Cooke: “It was like he was studying at university to be a classic soul singer.”

Out in the world, his preternatural confidence was magnetic. “He was the world’s most beautiful man,” Ware says. “I used to walk around Soho with him and women would literally stop and stare – he looked like a god because he’s got that boxer’s body, and he was a bit androgynous, too. Even the men fancied him.” (D’Arby once said he had sex more often than he washed his hair.)

To the music press, he posed a dilemma. As a pop star he was so perfect, Charles Shaar Murray wrote in 1988, he was “like something invented by three rock critics on the ’phone”. They called him two things: a genius, and a wanker. To make things more confusing, the very same people calling him a genius were the people calling him a wanker. Worse still, D’Arby worshipped these people. While living in Germany he had devoured the NME and Melody Maker. “I had an intellectual crush on Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray and Julie,” he says today – “Julie Burchill. But she is so reactionary now.” He knew that British rock hacks thought American artists were boring to interview so he set out to be different.

***

Terence Trent D’Arby’s follow-up album, 1989’s Neither Fish Nor Flesh, was not the triumph he had predicted. It was an experimental psych-soul project featuring tribal drums, surf rock guitar and cosmic libretto: “To an outside world I will not be defined!” Early in its inception, D’Arby’s old team received a Dear John letter saying that he felt like this was his moment: he wanted to produce, master and engineer the project himself. He is credited as playing, among other things, kazoo, saxophone, sitar and timpani on the record. He invited Martyn Ware to hear the album when it was finished (in another darkened studio session, which D’Arby himself did not attend). “And although I thought it was very brave,” Ware tells me, “I just couldn’t hear the singles.” The album stiffed – spectacularly, for its time – selling just 300,000 copies (the debut sold over nine million). It brought about a downfall straight out of a Greek tragedy. In music lore, its creator disappeared from the face of the earth on 23 October 1989, the moment the record was released. The truth is slightly different: he soldiered on valiantly for a few years, did a naked cover shoot for Q in 1993 and his third album, Symphony Or Damn, produced four top 20 singles in the UK, among them “Delicate” and “Let Her Down Easy”. But all this is irrelevant, because no one believes that Terence Trent D’Arby died in 1989 more than Terence Trent D’Arby himself.

“It felt like I was going to join the 27 Club,” he says quietly, referring to the rock’n’roll heaven inhabited by Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and all the others who died at that unfortunate age. “And psychologically I did, because that is exactly the age I was when I was killed.”

His speech has an automatic quality and there is very little eye contact. You don’t interact with him, you lob questions over the top of what he’s saying and hope that he might catch them.

“The bottom line is, we’re all pretty much sleepwalking,” he says. “The most difficult thing artists have to deal with is the crushing difference between what they know they can do with their dream being supported, and the reality they have to navigate with the business.”

Over the years he has blamed his former record company, Sony, for the failure of his career, saying it refused to promote Neither Fish Nor Flesh. He drew parallels with George Michael, who fought a long battle with Sony in the same era, claiming it wished to keep him in a situation of “creative slavery” when he wanted to branch out with his sound. But George Michael is still with us. I’m curious to know whether, with hindsight and a change of identity, Sananda Maitreya finds that his feelings about the causes of his career failure have changed. “The good news is, most record company people are motivated by the same reason most of us are: greed,” he says. “So, no, when you look back at it, it didn’t make much sense for management not to want my second record to succeed.”

The alternative reasons he gives are a surprise. “I came around at a time when myself, Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna and George Michael, we were considered kind of dangerous,” he says. “To the system, to the establishment, you become a rival politician.”

The establishment’s urge to end his career was so great, he says, that there were debates about him in the House of Lords. His real nemesis was not the Thatcher administration, but “the 800lb gorilla in the room, Michael, Master Jackson”, who saw him as a threat and, having bought up the Beatles catalogue in 1985, held “more power than the Pope” within the industry.

Every few minutes in our long conversation, Maitreya cuts away from dark realms of government plots and talks more candidly about the business. “It’s only a matter of time before a cheaper model of you comes along,” he explains. “Record companies say, ‘Hey, if you like this asshole, you’re going to like this asshole – plus we’re making a higher margin on this asshole.’ They don’t tell you that while you’re getting smarter, commanding more for yourself, you’re putting an egg-timer on your career.”

As a young man he once observed, “This industry doesn’t like too many black faces around at one time. If someone puts me on the cover of a magazine, they ain’t going to be putting another black face on the cover for a while because it wouldn’t make commercial sense and that’s the way of the world.” Already selling millions to a white yuppie audience, D’Arby could afford to be philosophical about genre pigeonholing but the digs at his rivals abounded. He claimed that black artists before him – Lionel Richie, Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson – had emasculated themselves to get into the charts. He would be Jerry Lee Lewis, he once declared, rather wonderfully: “the embodiment of the white man gone bad”.

Today he does not name the new, cheaper-to-run assholes who came up when the industry had “successfully killed my primary image”, so I draw his attention to a poem on his website, from 2002.

For Lenny K

Fear not, Your girls are safe!

I’ve got an italian girlfriend now

And my leash is pretty short

Ps Also let me say to you now
how

proud I am of you.

You took care of the tribes necessary

business and moved it forward

And kept the light on.

I know it wasn’t easy. Bless you!

I ask him whether this poem was dedicated to Lenny Kravitz, who achieved success the year Terence died and was also, like him, a sexy black rock star who’d grown up listening to the Stones.

He says he can’t remember writing the poem, but then concedes: “At one point I thought they would give Lenny my social security number as well. I think my greatest envy of him was that he actually did have a tremendous amount of support from his record company while I was always fucking arguing with mine.

“Much of what I wanted to do was moved over to him while I was going through my mortification period.”

In August, at a festival in Sweden, Kravitz’s leather trousers split on stage and the unfortunate incident went viral. He was
revealed to be wearing no underpants, and a cock ring. I ask Maitreya whether he saw the internet clip.

“No,” he says, and for the first time a spark dances in his eye. “Choreographed for sure. The only thing I could think to do with a cock ring now is keep my house keys on it.”

In hindsight, it’s impossible to imagine a Game of Thrones playing out in the late 1980s and early 1990s between a handful of black male rock stars – D’Arby, Kravitz, Seal, Michael Jackson and Prince. Yet Jackson, paranoid about everyone, indeed felt threatened by D’Arby; he was upset when his lawyer, John Branca, took D’Arby on as a client, and urged him to drop him.

“The hero factory is there to produce pop idols,” Maitreya says. “We’re fools, we wear the fools’ hats. Our job is to be publicly flogged and beaten when it’s time to do that. The price of fame is: when we need to crucify you, you need to be available to us. We’ll give you a good burial, make some nice T-shirts. Each of them pays their own price. You don’t just come through unscathed.”

Did he hold on to his publishing rights? Does he still get royalties?

“Yeah. I wasn’t a total idiot.”

***

In January 2009 Lady Gaga told the world, “. . . I’ve always been famous, you just didn’t know it.” The press enjoyed her nuclear sense of self-belief and the postmodern, almost academic way she talked about her music, borrowing a limb from all her heroes and setting herself alongside them. Five years later, Gaga was declared dead by various publications – but not before she had rendered Madonna irrelevant. In 1988, Terence Trent D’Arby declared he’d be as big as Madge, too. “The worst thing she could possibly do is not to have died young like Marilyn,” he says. “How considerate of Marilyn to have died, so we didn’t have to deal with the reality of the fact that even our goddesses get older.”

In the afterglow of his first album’s success, he declared he would finally break America – and shortly afterwards he turned up on the cover of Rolling Stone. But every long profile of him began with enthusiastic speculation about his inevitable fall. “He created this monster,” Ware says. “It started off as a giggle, an ironic thing. He understood the business of star-building, and he became his own experiment. Then he fell out with journalists who were extremely eager to pull him down.”

Before he joined the army, D’Arby studied journalism for a year at the University of Florida. He records our interview and emails me afterwards. I’m half expecting him to retract some of the things he has said, but he’s just improving a few of his quotes. The old self-belief is still there but these days it is shot through with pain. Where does it come from? Can he explain, now Terence is dead and buried?

He has never told anyone this, he says, but on the night of 8 December 1980 he dreamed that he met John Lennon on the street in New York and extended his hand, and felt Lennon “basically walk into” him. When he awoke he heard that Lennon had been killed. “From the age of 18 onwards, I had a different confidence about what was meant to happen to my life. I can only say this with all relative humility: I saw myself as a Beatle.”

***

A few years ago, Sananda Mait­reya’s wife told him his attitude was that of a typical New Yorker. “I thought about it, and I said, ‘Actually, that’s right, you know,’ because New Yorkers have a chip on their shoulder, too.”

He was born in Manhattan in 1962 to a gospel singer and counsellor, Frances Howard, and raised by her and the man he now refers to as his stepfather, Bishop James Benjamin Darby. Pop music was banned from the household: hearing Michael Jackson’s voice floating from a neighbour’s yard was “like my first kiss”. The family moved from New York to DeLand in northern Florida, where his stepfather became pastor of the city’s Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ and chairman of the Pentecostal international board of evangelists. Terry Darby, as he was known, was a successful pupil – he became managing editor of the school paper and sang in a student chorus called the Sound of the Seventies – but he got into fights. He had problems with black kids and with white kids (“Fuck the both of you – I’m green,” is how he once put it) and suffered his first fall from grace when, during one scuffle, he stabbed someone with his afro hair pick. Boxing was an outlet for his anger – he won the prestigious Golden Gloves prize in Orlando at 17 and caught the attention of army coaches. His parents persuaded him to go to university instead but he was frustrated there, particularly by his lack of success with women. He dropped out and joined the army but soon got fed up of taking instructions from people he considered less intelligent. After amassing a number of reprimands he was discharged at 21.

Maitreya tells me today that he was an illegitimate child, raised with five legitimate children. “The circumstances of my birth were very embarrassing to my mother,” he says. “My biological father was a married man, so basically, in any event, it was already a messy situation.”

I ask him if this biological father was white (he has often drawn attention to his light skin). “. . . or an alien, or both. Point is, I came into the world in a very compromising situation, and because of my mother’s religious upbringing abortion was out of the question.”

He tells me that his mother “made it very, very clear that Jesus was the most important thing in her life, and she did what she could not to project the fact that I was an embarrassment to her. I spent most of my life unconsciously competing with Jesus for my mother’s attention. Which is kind of tough, because first of all, I couldn’t see him, except for pictures, and second of all he wasn’t really there, and it’s tough to compete with somebody who’s invisible.”

Does he still talk to her? She can be seen on YouTube, singing gospel under the name Mother Frances Darby.

“I’m not sure she’s even the same woman,” he says, vaguely. And then, as he has been given to doing throughout his career, he pulls his experience – and probably that of many other pop stars – into focus for a moment. “If you have a chip on your shoulder, use it,” he says. “In Latin, fame means hunger, and I’m hungry. Not a hundred people in my generation could have done what I did, and the difference between us is that they got from their environment what they needed. There was no need for them to mount some huge, fucking life-destroying campaign to show the world, ‘Look, I am worthy of my mother’s attention.’”

Did he have a nervous breakdown?

“Of course I had a breakdown,” he says. “It was clearly a breakdown, and all you can do is surrender and try to not put too many pills into your body. You could say, clearly this guy had some sort of bipolar crisis.”

And where was he when this breakdown happened?

“I was living in great fabulous fucking mansions in Sunset Boulevard on my own,” he says, sounding suddenly weary, and tapping my tape recorder. “Are you sure this thing is on?”

Maitreya says he has inherited “a degree of family madness, some male schizophrenia issues”, from his Scots-Irish bloodline. He talks about the connection between madness and creativity, comparing the management of demons to the delicate power balance involved in a man having successful dominance over a wolf. Yet the cast of characters in attendance during his breakdown – which occurred after he moved Los Angeles in the mid-1990s, feeling alienated by the British press – appears to have been more mundane.

“I can remember getting up in the middle of the night and sleepwalking to the bathroom, taking a piss, and having a quiet inner voice saying, ‘Don’t worry. Some day, you’re going to change both the music and the business,’” he says. “I do believe that Master Lennon, being an angel of the Lord, is available to a lot of people in inspiring ­circumstances. I believe the same about Elvis, the same with Master Michael, even though he was a huge nemesis in that lifetime. Since his death, he definitely knows he owes me some karma.”

It was angels who named him Sananda, he says, in dreams during his depression. “Then, later, I realised I think I need a second name, because I didn’t want to piss ­Madonna off, you know!”

***

The singular ambition that burned Neither Fish Nor Flesh to cinders has only intensified over time. Sananda Maitreya puts out a new album every two years on his independent label, Treehouse. They usually feature two dozen compositions; his puntastic titles include Nigor Mortis and “Neutered and Spade”. Each project is the fruit of finally having the space to “completely regurgitate all the stuff that went into my becoming an artist in the first place”. For several years there has been talk of a film about his life, he says, but he is struggling to get involved because he can see three or four different ways of telling the story.

The new project, Rise of the Zugebrian Time Lords, is a retro-futuristic concept album spread over two discs of “bipolar” excess. Maitreya’s decision to start with a Beatles song, “You’re Going To Lose That Girl”, should come as no surprise. The energy of the project is almost exhausting. Instruments – he plays them all – form a noisy zoo of woodwind, blues guitar and a loose, jangly piano spooked by the spirit of Carole King. What is this record? A Broadway musical for one? A fantastic exercise in rock’n’roll hubris? An aural exploration of mental health issues?

Surprisingly, he doesn’t want to talk about it. I press him about the lyrics to “Giraffe”, a likeable, child-friendly melody that contains the lines: “Giraffe/can I have your autograph?/Please sign it to Sananda”. When I suggest that it sounds like a song from Sesame Street he brightens. For the past five years he has been listening almost exclusively to children’s music with his two sons, aged three and five. Joe Raposo, who wrote many of the programme’s best-loved songs, including “It’s Not Easy Being Green”, is one of his favourite composers. His husky voice swells into a perfect,
sparkly croon: Can you tell me how to get – how to get to Sesame Street! “You know,” he says, “I think Elvis Costello was also influenced by some of Raposo’s stuff. You’re not supposed to say that, as an angry young writer, ‘Oh yeah, I listen to Sesame Street,’ but I can hear certain devices of his that sound like that whole Electric Company style of songwriting.”

His boys love “Giraffe”, but he can’t be around while they are listening to it; his wife later tells me she has to wait until he’s out of  the house to play it to them. He talks touchingly about love being “something you have to work on – it doesn’t just come to you”. As a young man, he scythed his way through women, partly because of his mother issues, he thinks: then one day he decided to stop, “because you’re only going to wind up looking for the same thing anyway”.

He can’t listen to anyone else’s pop music these days. His only comfortable relationship is with “Master Beethoven”, who presumably is dead enough not to offer any painful competition. But clearly the man who makes a double album and then can’t play it again is living daily with bigger enemies than “Lenny Cockring Kravitz” (as he calls him in his follow-up email) or the ghost of Master Jackson. Across the record there are hints of the cinnamon-voiced psychedelic wonders that could emerge from the pen of Sananda Maitreya, were he to allow a producer or A&R team to get their hands on his work. “His voice is even better than it was at the time,” says Martyn Ware, who still receives each new project in the post from his old charge. “But he has no sub-editor.”

“Tell me about your new album” is usually the most boring prompt in the rock’n’roll interview. The second – “How has being a father changed you?” (Maitreya also has a grown daughter from a previous relationship) – yields similarly surprising results. “Anything else at this point in life is a bonus, because I’ve already done the most important thing, simply to have passed my genes on to some other bitches,” Maitreya says, showing me a picture of two small boys who look just like him, only with blond, curly hair and blue eyes.

“I’m very confident that my first son is my biological father and it gives me the chance to have finally a relationship with him. My first son is also a continuation of the life that I left behind.”

His first son might be Terence Trent D’Arby? Does that not worry him?

“Preferably they’ll both want to follow their mother and be architects,” he says.

As the afternoon draws to a close he talks again of bloodlines. Originally all the world was black, he tells me: “Bitches looked like me! Didn’t look like you!” His own white, “land-owning, slave-owning blood” is another reason Providence gave him his assignment, he says.

And once we’re back on to that, something clicks down in him again. We’re on to Jonah and the Whale, “being spat out unceremoniously after three days”, and thence, without pause, to vampires. For a moment, he becomes agitated when he realises that the brown cotton scarf that was covering his dreads has disappeared. It’s true enough: one minute I was looking at it and the next it wasn’t there. So much magic has been talked in this room today that I think, for a moment, that Sananda Maitreya’s headscarf might have vanished into thin air and I’ll have to tell someone about it afterwards. We search and find it down the back of his seat.

“What was I saying?”

I want to tell him not to re-join his mystical thread. He was so much happier talking about Elvis Costello. But we’re back to the industry, and death. The irony is, the industry he was raised in is dead and buried, too.

“And in killing the messengers they killed a whole generation,” Maitreya says. “Like Maestro Thom Yorke: they alienated him, and he was providing the answers they needed.”

Surely the point is that you’re free now?

“Yeah, well, free is relative,” he says. “The moment we’re met with too much freedom, we shit our pants.”

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis

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 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis