KALPESH LATHIGRA
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Charlotte Church: "We underestimated how angry white men are"

The singer on Donald Trump, grass-roots rebellion and why Jeremy Corbyn can't win.

This interview is from the New Statesman's Christmas issue. Take advantage of our special offers and get a subscription for yourself or a loved one this Christmas.

In London’s Roundhouse in October, at a concert by the Chicago singer Ezra Furman and his band the Boy-Friends, punters got a strange support act. Charlotte Church in a kaftan, surrounded by a sprawling troupe of musicians, singing a full-throated version of R Kelly’s vintage make-out anthem “Bump n’ Grind”. Then she did “Killing in the Name”, the anti-racist rap-metal assault by Rage Against the Machine. Then “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails: “I want to f*** you like an animal”.

When these colourful tunes were released in the early 1990s, Church was wearing an Alice band and singing “Pie Jesu” for the Pope. Between kissing the venerable ring, having her phone hacked and appearing on Blue Peter and its equivalents around the world, there wasn’t much time for R Kelly, which is perhaps why she’s doing it now. Despite the ecstatic reaction, the act – which she does at festivals and in late-night cabaret slots – remains defiantly fringe.

“It is dramatic, it is nonsensical, and it is engineered to be as much fun as is humanly possible,” she says. “Which in the modern world is becoming far more necessary.”

We meet in Dinas Powys, the village just outside Cardiff where Church lives, at a small delicatessen with scaffolding on the front. She has a big navy-blue wraparound coat and a stretchy dress underneath, which she adjusts now and then with a snap. There’s a copy of this paper on the table with an artist’s impression of Donald Trump on the cover, and she will jab at it intermittently throughout the interview, in a wordless gesture that says: This has changed everything.

As someone whose political opinions have developed in the public eye, Church takes interviews seriously. Her brain fires off in several directions at once but her words are carefully chosen. Occasionally, she thinks she’s got herself down a theoretical cul-de-sac (“Brain! Come on!”), stops for a second and backs out again. She has a rare habit of admitting she has changed her mind about things. At the same time, she is fearless. During a trip to New York in 2001, aged 15, she said that the heroism attached to the firemen who were on duty during the 9/11 attacks was distasteful: “They went from here in society to celebrities. They are even invited here to present television awards, which I just don’t agree with.” At 17 she hosted Have I Got News for You, successfully rebuffing digs about her fortune, with some youthful gaffes thrown in – she didn’t feel she should have to pay 40 per cent tax to a government she hadn’t been able to vote for.

Have I Got News for You is a piece of piss compared to Question Time!” she cries. “Question Time is horrendous. I don’t think I’ll do it again. The last time was right here in Cardiff, two years ago and the audience was completely right-wing.”

Before doing the programme, she says, “I squirrel myself away for a week and jam-pack all the knowledge I possibly can – just interesting things I didn’t know before.” One of those things was a report in the US scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which drew links between the civil unrest in Syria and climate change: a five-year drought had pushed rural communities into the cities, compounding the existing refugee crisis and pushing up food prices.

“I thought it was important to bring up because all these things have connections, and we’re going to start seeing that more and more,” she says. “And I got absolutely annihilated for it afterwards! Then a couple of weeks later, Prince Charles said something about it, then Nasa – and then of course it was OK.”

After her Syria comments, the Sun ran six pages under the headline “Voice of an Angel, brain like an Angel Delight”. It was a continuation of an old narrative that leaves Church – who turned 30 this year – with one foot in another, grimier era: that of a press which sent bugged wreaths to Freddie Mercury’s funeral and tapped the phones of missing schoolgirls. For the tabloids, Church’s trajectory from angelic child star to pent-up teenager was too good to ignore.

In 1999, when she was 13 years old, she was invited to sing at Rupert Murdoch’s wedding to Wendi Deng on his yacht in New York Harbour. Church and her mother, Maria, were offered a choice: £100,000 for the gig, or favourable press for the next few years. Mother and daughter wanted to take the money: her manager at the time, Jonathan Shalit, went for the second option. The favourable press, she tells me, lasted “precisely two years”.

The News of the World ran 33 stories on her from hacked voicemails alone. Her pregnancy was announced after a call with a doctor was intercepted. Her relationship with the rugby player Gavin Henson, the father of her two children, was scrutinised. Her mother got wind of a piece in the News of the World alleging that her husband had had an affair – and she attempted suicide. Church appeared at the Leveson inquiry in 2011, which is where she traces the start of her political engagement. She went on Question Time in Swansea ­afterwards. An elderly woman in the audience suggested that a person stronger than her mother might have been able to handle the limelight.

 

***

 

Church clearly bears the scars from those days, and says that she has always attracted abuse for being outspoken, wealthy and, more recently, for being Welsh. She notes that since the Brexit vote, some of her Twitter trolls have relinquished their anonymity: the little “eggs” that appear in place of profile pictures have been replaced by photographs and names.

A couple of years after Leveson, Church was asked to do a BBC John Peel Lecture on women in pop, at a time when Miley Cyrus’s twerking butt was driving much of the world’s news. She identified the figure of Miley as an “untouchable sex-bot”, saying that there was no clear career trajectory for the teenage female pop star coming into adulthood, short of removing her clothes. Her own inevitable transition from Opera Charlotte to Sex Charlotte came in the form of her 2005 hit “Crazy Chick”: “Won’t you lay me on your leather couch/I got a lot I need to talk about”. It seems innocent now.

She talks nostalgically of the women singers she listened to as a teenager – Erykah Badu, India Arie, Jill Scott, Sugababes, TLC, All Saints, Alicia Keys. There was an understated toughness to their image, naturally boyish and relatively non-sexualised. If a girl band turned up dressed in combat trousers today there would be countless dissections of their “message” online.

“The rise of identity politics has fed in to all of this nonsense,” she says, “and I’m not saying that identity politics is a bad thing; it exists because there are factions within society which are still struggling. But in another way, it is divisive. You might all believe in the baseline thing – feminism, for example – but when so many types of feminism are pitted against each other it becomes segregated, and it can cause disunity even though everybody really wants the same thing.

“Those acts back in the day got through to all girls, and all boys, in primary schools – without any analysis of the fact that the girls in TLC were actually quite strong, and not over-vulnerable. Now, a band like that would elicit so much analysis, and loads of people find it impenetrable.”

High-level identity politics is hopeless, she thinks, when trying to counter a right-wing message that is clear and brutal.

“They say it’s the voice of the liberal elite – but call a spade a spade: a lot of the time, it’s just academic writing. What the right wing managed to do, both here and in America, was get beyond all of that, put things into simple messaging. A lot of the time it was bullshit, but apparently now that doesn’t matter.” She jabs at the picture of Trump again.

“Obviously we underestimated how angry white men are,” she says. “All forms of bigotry – whether it’s homophobia, miso­gyny, racism – are about fear of being in the minority. And if you hold the majority position – ie, white males throughout his­tory – you fear losing control. We need to find ways to make people feel like they aren’t losing control.”

Then, on a roll, she expounds a theory she says may be “mad”.

“The alt right in America, they’ve made themselves victims,” she says. “And some of this victim stuff might be to do with the over-sexualisation of women. When you think about porn, and advertising, you’ve constantly got these dudes feeling urges all over the shop, and a lot of the time, for whatever reason – maybe they’re socially awkward – they are not attaining those levels of women, and that’s making them embittered and frustrated.

“I don’t want to excuse these people, but what’s the root cause? We really need to start thinking about things in a far more psychological, human way. If you can’t ­control consumerism, then have the same the other way round: I’d rather not have page three, but if we’re going to, let’s have page two – do you know what I mean? An attractive, scantily clad dude.”

Church first came to the public eye sitting in an armchair at the age of 11, opposite Jonathan Ross on ITV’s Big Big Talent Show – and introducing her auntie Caroline Cooper, a wannabe singer with a voice a bit like Beverley Craven’s. Church had sung “Pie Jesu” down the phone to Richard and Judy a few weeks earlier. Ross got her to do a few bars. She hit high Cs without batting an eyelid. Her aunt, she says, was furious.

Her parents had been planning to put her through music college before the TV shows and record deal came. She sang love duets with 60-year-old opera singers, performed at George W Bush’s inauguration and sat a GCSE at the White House. “By the time I was 16, I said, ‘Eugh, I’m dead, I hate this, I want to go home.’”

As a child, remarkably self-possessed, she would say that she was a pretty normal kid, and everything was fine. “And it sort of was . . .” she says. “But I just wanted to be with my friends, to hang out on street corners and drink vodka and go to underage nightclubs. That’s what I wanted to do.”

She got what she wanted – quit classical music, ended a six-album deal at 20 and started releasing pop stuff, with limited critical success. But you sense there have been many milestones missed because of the accelerated course of her early life. A few years ago she talked about wanting to study quantum mechanics at university, but today she says: “I did want to, but then life gets in the way, doesn’t it?”

The funny thing about watching old clips of Church on television is that the audience doesn’t break into rapturous applause within six seconds of her opening breath as listeners would today. She was the prototype of the reality-TV pop star but she missed the whole X Factor thing by half a dozen years. She tells me that she’d probably have done it, “because I love singing and I think I’m really good at it”. She guffaws. But she is not a fan of the show.

“They’re completely immoral, the way that they treat people on there. The deals these people go into afterwards are scandalous. They sign their life away for three years, and even if you don’t win, you’re not allowed to release anything . . . It exploits people, and it’s incredibly formulaic, and there’s no real artistry. The initial sparks you see in people are completely homogenised out of them by the time they’re doing the live shows.”

Church has assembled these strong opinions because she was asked to be an X Factor judge. “I went for the meeting because I was curious. I asked how much artistic control I could have over my artists, and they basically said none.”

Her plan was to infiltrate the X Factor system in an ironic way, “make a shed tonne of money and do some good at the same time”. She would use her technical know-how to give direction – “rather than saying some inane shit which doesn’t mean anything. I’m a vocalist, I’ve trained for years; I know what to say to somebody about their tone, if they’re sharp or flat. If you don’t say stuff like that, it’s not helpful, and it’s not helpful to the wider public. These people are supposed to be experts. So, I thought I’d go in and bring something to it that was a bit kinder, a bit nicer, but also a bit more informative. But I couldn’t. I found that out from just one meeting.”

The idea of a grass-roots overthrow of the TV talent shows seems appropriate to the 2016 Church, who says that this year, there are bigger things to be angry about than party politics. She was an outspoken critic of David Cameron (“gross”) but when I ask her what she thinks of Theresa May, she says, “Well, she’s not saying anything, is she? This is an authoritarian government, essentially, that’s what it’s turning into. Philip Hammond says he’s going to abolish the Autumn Statement – he’s just not going to do it any more? They’re using Brexit as an excuse to say they can’t show their hand because they’re in the middle of negotiations. Meanwhile you’ve got every EU politician saying, ‘There is no deal, there are no negotiations.’ I’m pretty opposed to May on everything. She is not democratic and she’s keeping the country in the dark.”

 

***

 

On 21 November at the Cornwall pub in Grangetown, south Cardiff, just near the football ground, Church hosted the inaugural night in a series called Charlotte Church’s Pub Politics, tickets priced at £2.75. The series was inspired by Brexit: Cardiff voted 60 per cent Remain, while 52.5 per cent of Wales overall was Leave.

“We need to try and understand the psychology of why people are feeling the way they are,” she says. “I want to find ways in which people can express themselves in situations like a pub, where they feel comfortable, and have their opinions challenged, but not in a super-duper academic way, because people then feel diminished by that, and then will go on the defensive.

“Cardiff is a pretty left-wing city, and the crowd at Pub Politics included a lot of left-wingers and some centrists. But there was one guy there, probably in his early sixties, that’s his local, and as soon as the conversation turned to anything about minorities, he had a lot to say, and loudly.

“And so much of it, as with this dude [jabs Trump], is schoolroom stuff. How easily offended he is, and how volatile. How do you deal with a child who is angry?”

She has never met the president-elect: says she hopes she would have declined to do so “because he is such a tool. Mind you, I sang at George Bush’s inauguration . . .”

I ask her why people find it so much easier to believe that immigrants are responsible for their financial hardship, rather than austerity. “Because austerity’s far more complicated, and all this has been engineered: It’s his fault, he’s come over here, he’s taken your job, and there’s all those mosques going up round here, and where’s the churches, even though you don’t go to church . . . It’s mania, hysteria. But it’s good these things had come to the surface. It’s very common to be mildly racist. We need to help people with those fears.”

One of the questions raised by the pub politics panel was: do we want our politicians to play dirty?

“Is that Corbyn’s problem?” she asks me. “That he’s not willing to play dirty like everybody else?” In summer 2015 she threw her support behind him, shared a platform with him at anti-austerity marches and spoke alongside Owen Jones and the CWU union general secretary. She said there was something inherently virtuous about JC, the anti-Farage: “One of the few modern politicians who doesn’t seem to have been trained in neurolinguistic programming.” Then in the Welsh Assembly election in May she voted for Plaid Cymru rather than Labour’s Carwyn Jones. “I still also support Corbyn,” she tweeted, with irritation. “Razzzzzz people.”

Today, six months later, she tells me: “I think he can’t win. The best thing for him to do is to train somebody up under him, who can be a new fresh face but who has the same politics that have always been Labour’s. Because there is another option – to neoliberalism, and to being right-wing. That option is the one your fathers and mothers took before you. They didn’t vote this way. They were for the trade unions, and workers’ rights, and you can see it all unfolding in front of you.”

Why can’t Jeremy Corbyn win?

“I don’t think it’s anything to do with him. I think it’s everything that the press has created. You hear something more than seven times and then you believe it – that’s how advertising works. He’s a relic, he’s a nutter, he’s a left-wing lunatic.

“I just think that there needs to be somebody there who is not Jeremy Corbyn. It’s gone too far, and they’re not going to stop. They’ve made up their minds, they have their narrative, and that will always be. Just as they made my narrative: brain of an Angel Delight.”

Education is still a big concern for Church. She is home-schooling her children, seven-year-old Dexter and nine-year-old Ruby, with a group of other parents. She tries various unconventional tools for learning, including virtual reality. “I have failed at lots of things in my career and in my life in general, but I’ve kept going, because as soon as you’re stuck on one thing – whether it’s your political beliefs, the party that you support – you stagnate,” she says.

“I’m not going to go around for Plaid Cymru or for Labour, door to door, telling people how they should vote. I’m going to go and try and speak to people in different ways. I’m trying to understand why people are feeling the way they are. Because it feels good, that’s why. It feels really good.”

She plans to record an album of her bombastic underground music, too. It will be called V, she says, and will feature dozens of collaborators. As we stand up to leave the café with the scaffolding, Church tells me she is also planning to take up martial arts. The other day in Cardiff town centre she saw a man verbally intimidating a beggar. As she approached to see what was going on, he changed his line, saying, “Do you want to come and get a drink, mate?” The beggar left with the man. “If I knew how to defend him, and myself, I would have followed them round the corner, and if the guy had tried anything I’d have been able to help,” she says.

“As I’m getting older, I’m starting to realise just how wilful I am. I never used to think I was – but whatever I want to do, I do, which puts me in an incredibly lucky position. I’ve got a real bob on myself. But I think it’s really important to, because the world is harsh. I’ve always given myself a pat on the back. I just think, if I set my mind to it, I can do anything.”

Apart from standing for Labour in Cardiff. “Because I will never do what I’m told,” she says. “Besides, I get to work in the creative arts. Which, considering most jobs are going to be automated one day – maybe even in parliament – is where I’m staying.”

Charlotte Church performs her Late Night Pop Dungeon at the Tramshed in Cardiff on Tuesday 20 December

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

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

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 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016