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A 21st century workhouse or a second chance? My life as an Emmaus Companion

Homelessness charity Emmaus takes in the desperate. But does it show them a way out again? 

In the summer of 2013, towards the end of my final year at university, I found myself homeless. Before I had started my studies, I lived and worked in Oldham. As I was a care leaver, I was receiving support from the council’s vulnerable adults team. When I started my degree, however, I moved to Mossley in the neighbouring borough of Tameside. The rent was cheaper and the flat was closer to my family. But with the move, I lost the support from Oldham Council. At the time, this didn't cause me great concern. I thought: "I don’t need to be babysat anymore." I was wrong.

I wasn’t ready to look after myself. During my finals, I fell into heavy arrears with my landlord, I was living alone, and White Storm and Scrumpy Jack had taken over from my support workers. I first became aware of Emmaus during this time, when I befriended residents of the Mossley community at their evening drinking haunt, the “Beach”, a sandy bank on the River Tame situated behind a derelict factory.

They told me how they were all formerly homeless and that Emmaus had provided them with sanctuary in return for 40 hours’ work a week. After our meeting on the Beach I didn’t really think about the charity again – until I found myself living on a campsite a few months later.

“Somewhere I can recover my self respect”

“If you are suffering, whoever you are, come in, eat, sleep, and regain hope. Here you are loved.” Abbé Pierre’s words are at the heart of what Emmaus claims to offer Britain’s homeless. Pierre, a Catholic priest and former member of the French Resistance, founded Emmaus in 1949. He began by taking homeless people off the streets in Paris and had them recycle old rags to earn their keep. The Emmaus model in the UK is not too far removed from the one that Pierre founded, only now Emmaus is a secular organisation, and predominantly trades in second-hand furniture.

Emmaus communities in the UK accept people who have experienced homelessness and social exclusion. Those who are accepted are referred to as Companions. They receive accommodation, food, clothing, and a small weekly allowance in exchange for 40 hours of work in the Emmaus social enterprise. But for Companions to earn “love”, they must adhere to a strict set of rules. They must not bring non-prescription drugs or alcohol onto the premises. They must relinquish all claims to state benefits apart from housing benefit, which is claimed on their behalf. They do not have employment or conventional renting rights. Legislation has specifically excluded them from receiving the minimum wage, and they are not allowed to receive any extra income apart from the weekly subsistence allowance.

Emmaus came to the UK 40 years after it had been established throughout France. The first community in the UK was opened by a Cambridge businessman, Selwyn Image, who reportedly drew inspiration to start Emmaus from a conversation with a homeless man at a soup and sandwich shelter.

The man told Image what he wanted was “somewhere where I can work, where I feel I belong, and where I can recover my self-respect”. Later, he recalled work experience he had done at an Emmaus community in Paris. He reached out to Abbé Pierre and received his blessing to open the first Emmaus community in Cambridge in 1991.

Today Emmaus UK is the largest movement outside France, with 29 communities spread across the country. Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, is a patron, and the president is the former assistant to an Archbishop of Canterbury, Terry Waite.

The aims of the organisation have fit in snugly with conservative ideas of community and volunteerism. In 2011, shortly after the Conservative-led coalition government took power, a House of Commons select committee report stated: “We regard the challenge to government presented by charities such as Emmaus as a litmus test of the government’s Big Society project.”

“You are walking on eggshells”

When I entered Emmaus Mossley, I felt relieved that some structure and stability was being reintroduced into my life. After a while I began to feel normal again. I was working in a regular job, and I fell asleep in the same place every night. But as I spent more time with the charity, my feelings changed. Many of the Companions I was with had lived there for a long time, and even though they routinely complained about the community they had nowhere else to go. They were trapped.

I also began to notice that I was doing full-time manual labour for no pay, with no basic rights protecting me. I lived at Emmaus in two different communities for just over a year, but I never felt the “love” Pierre spoke of. Instead by the time I left the community I felt exploited, demoralised and angry. I felt like I was no more to them than a cog in a machine.

I left Emmaus Mossley in late 2013, but after some complicated housing issues I returned, this time to the St Albans community. There I met Leon Webster, 37, an electrical engineer who came to Emmaus after struggles with drugs caused him to lose his job.

Leon’s first impressions of the charity were similar to my own: he welcomed the sanctuary the community provided. But after a few months, his views changed too. He witnessed Companions being frequently expelled from the community: “You don't have a home, you live in this community but you don't have any rights as a tenant. You could wake up in a bad mood one morning, tell someone to fuck off or do something equally stupid, and that’s it you're back homeless again even if you’ve been in there for four or five years. You are walking on eggshells; if you cause trouble, you're out.”

He claimed that the rules were applied inconsistently in the community: "I think a lot of it is if your face fits, and if the staff like you.”

Dominic Smith, 22, another former Companion at Emmaus St Albans who now works as a magician, shared Leon’s fears of being thrown out of the community: “You could get ejected quite easily; people were kicked out left, right, and centre. It is quite daunting to think that if you lose your job you also lose your home. Usually those things are separate.”

Dominic described one incident involving an expulsion: “This guy was kicked out for drinking in his room. Then he started living at the back of the garden near the fence.” Dominic said he took pity on him, and brought him food in the evening: “They asked me why I was giving him food. I was given a verbal warning for doing that. They didn’t explain what rule I had broken.”

In response to Dominic’s claims, Emmaus said: “It is not unusual for companions to provide food for people living outside of the community and it is not something they would be reprimanded for. There is no record of any kind of warning being given to Dominic for passing on food.” 

The perception that the rules were not fairly applied was shared by a group of former Companions I encountered using a homeless relief centre in Deptford. They described a similar atmosphere at Emmaus Lambeth, in central London. Some of them had received short-term bans and were hoping to re-enter the community as they had nowhere else to go. Because of this, only Conor, a young man in his early twenties, agreed to be interviewed on the record. Conor said he didn’t feel valued in Emmaus and that the charity is run more like a business: “It was alright at the start, I kept my head down but trouble always seemed to follow me in there. They’ve got their own little cliques, and their favourites.”

I witnessed the inconsistent application of Emmaus’s rules first hand. During one particularly frightening evening at Emmaus St Albans I got into a confrontation with another Companion. After a brief scuffle, this person produced a knife. Before things got really serious, two other Companions broke it up.

The next morning, I had a very difficult time convincing staff to act appropriately to the situation; I told them that I was not prepared to live in the same community with someone who threatens people with knives. Eventually they banned this Companion from the community, but despite my vociferous protests they allowed him to return a month later while I was still living there. The Emmaus handbook stipulates a much longer ban for violent behaviour.

Emmaus said: “No companion should feel they need to 'walk on eggshells' and we work hard to ensure we are consistent with people. As a charity we do work with people with complex and varied needs, and it is important we ensure we can be adaptable to these needs wherever possible."

With regards to the knife incident, the spokeswoman said: "In this particular situation, which was witnessed by a number of people, a companion had been backed into a corner when he pulled a pen knife he had been carrying for work that day, from his pocket. When the altercation was broken up, he admitted he shouldn’t have reached for the knife, and left the community.

"When, at a later date, he applied to return to the community, Danny was consulted to see how he would feel about him living there again. While he did raise some concerns, Danny did agree that this individual should have a second chance and be allowed to return to the community."

In fact, I was never happy about him coming back, but I was worried about my own position in the community.

“You do become institutionalised”

In his book Socialism and the Third Way, Bill Jordan, a professor in social work, compares Emmaus to the Victorian workhouse: “At one level an Emmaus community in the UK could be seen as a privatised form of indoor poor relief – a workhouse, operated according to strict rules, with informal systems of surveillance amounting almost to a blood and guts panopticon.”

The same comparison struck me when I was living in the community. In the Victorian workhouse, paupers were admitted on the proviso that they worked for basic subsistence, and their behaviour was closely monitored; in Emmaus, homeless people must work in exchange for accommodation, food, and a small weekly allowance, and their behaviour is similarly controlled. But there are other parallels, too.

In the Victorian workhouse, some inmates stayed for up to 60 years. An 1861 parliamentary report found that “nation-wide, over 20 percent of inmates had been in the workhouse for more than five years.”

A similar institutionalisation is evident among Emmaus Companions. While most stay for no longer than two years, some have lived in Emmaus for more than 20 years and see the community as an end in itself, either because they are comfortable with the regime or they see no other way out of it.

One Companion I spoke to, who had been with Emmaus for a number of years, told me since the government was not helping her, Emmaus was "a godsend". She emphasised that the community had improved her confidence, gave her a routine, and offered her the support she needed. However, she also expressed her desire to have a place of her own: “This is great but this is not normal life," she said. "You can become almost institutionalised living here, because you don’t have to worry about everyday stuff. It’s like a giant big brother with all the stuff going on. You know little things blow up massively, and you can’t breathe without someone knowing about it.”

Another said that the support workers at Emmaus were “fantastic”, but his views about the future were nuanced: “I would like to move on, but I’ll be 61 in March and I’m coming up to retirement. It’s an odd one, when you get to my age you don’t know what to do. I probably would take my own flat and a job. You do become institutionalised in a way. After a while I think, is it worth going anywhere else or should I just stay here?”

Although Companions can be banned from Emmaus, the organisation does believe in second chances. In today's welfare system, it is quite common for a Companion to leave or be forced out, but to later request a return. 

But Leon, the electrician, thinks it is not just a case of individuals unable to find other options. He argues the allowance is not enough to help Companions make a quick transition to independence: “They pay you £35 and put £10 away for you. That £10 is supposed to be for a deposit. How long would it take you to get a deposit in somewhere like St Albans where you need a grand for the rent, and another grand for the deposit?”

Emmaus does allow Companions to live in the community for up to three months if they find a job, and can help furnish their new accommodation with donated furniture from its charity shops. 

The spokeswoman said Emmaus took "great pride" in not forcing anyone to leave before they were ready: "Those who are looking to move on are given support to do so."

“It's about regaining self-esteem”

I travelled to Birmingham in May this year, to interview Simon Grainge, chief executive of Emmaus UK, in his offices at the city’s refurbished Custard Factory. Grainge didn’t recognise the similarities between the charity and the workhouse: “I think that kind of thing very often comes around where people’s perception of Emmaus is not complete, shall we say, and I think that’s where people dip into it and they don’t fully understand it.”

He went on to describe how Emmaus provides people with a sense of purpose and belonging: “It’s about people regaining their self-esteem by being able to work and support themselves, rather than being in receipt of charity.”

Historian Simon Fowler agrees that there is a fundamental distinction between Emmaus and a workhouse: “I’d say the big differences are psychological, how the workhouse staff and managers treated the inmates. They humiliated and did their best to dehumanise them. Often it was deliberate ie putting family members into different wards and making them wear special cheap and nasty uniform. Sometimes it was subtler, that is the boredom that most inmates endured – there was little stimulus, particularly on Sundays.”

Thanks to electricity, central heating, modern medicine, and the Human Rights Act, the living conditions in Emmaus very different from the hostile environment that Oliver Twist found himself in. Companions still have to adhere to a strict regime, but their working uniforms are much more attractive, and there is no oakum-picking or stone-breaking. Companions have access to televisions and games consoles, they enjoy four weeks' holiday a year, and there’s more than meagre slops of porridge on the menu.

But even though Companions do not experience the kind of draconian treatment that Fowler describes, some do suffer distress. The lack of guarantees that Companions have mean that even those who have lived and worked in Emmaus communities for up to 20 years do not have assured tenancies or employment rights. They can be dismissed from the community at the drop of a hat, or more often, as Professor Jordan observed, “a can of lager”.

“It was the hardest job I've had”

The work that Companions do is obligatory, so there is a strong argument that they should they be considered employees, and have the rights that come with that status.

The test on whether someone is an employee is broad-ranging, but key elements are “control” and “mutuality of obligation,” says Paul Johnson, a solicitor from the Oldham Law Centre who has practiced employment law for more than 30 years. “It appears to me that Emmaus have total control over when, where and how the Companions work."

There is also a mutuality of obligation – Companions are obliged to work 40 hours, and Emmaus must provide subsistence in return. Johnson says that this does not mean that a Companion would necessarily win if they took a claim to an employment tribunal, but says the “prospects of winning seem good”.

It is also possible that Companions should in fact be considered tenants, and therefore have the rights that come with that status, too. 

Companions sign a Right to Occupy agreement when they enter Emmaus, and they are told this is under a licence. A licence can be terminated on giving reasonable notice and does not confer the protections against eviction provided under the Housing Acts (formerly the Rent Acts).

Johnson says that even if an agreement says it is a licence, it doesn't necessarily mean it is one. In the leading case on this subject (Street v Mountford) the Right to Occupy agreement said that it was a licence, but the House of Lords decided that it was a tenancy and that the Rent Acts did apply.

Johnson adds: “On the basis of the decision in Street, it could be argued that Companions have exclusive possession of their rooms, even though Emmaus has reserved a right to enter, and therefore the Companions are tenants.” This argument, too, has yet to be tested in court.

Grainge rejects the idea that Companions are more vulnerable to unfair treatment due to their lack of legal protections. He argues that it is appropriate for Companions to not have these rights, as he does not think the charity could function if they were given employment contracts. He also does not believe that Companions should have tenancy rights because Emmaus is no different than any other hostel where people don’t have assured tenancies. “When people come into our communities they are very vulnerable,” he explains. “They have drug, alcohol, addiction issues; mental health issues."

Grainge also argues that the comparison with a typical worker is incorrect, as many Companions would not actually be able to work as an employee: "I’ve seen that with many Companions who have actually moved on from communities and gone to work for an employer, and it hasn’t worked for them.”

He says “huge allowances” are made for Companions that ordinary employees wouldn’t enjoy, such as time off for routine appointments at the doctors and probation services: “What kind of employer do you think would accept 20 to 30 fag breaks during the day, and the ability to say, ‘I’m not functioning today I need to go to my room’. All that sort of stuff goes on, on a regular basis in communities.”

The work at Emmaus can be very labour-intensive. One of the key roles is portering furniture, which involves a lot of heavy lifting, often up and down several flights of stairs. When I put this to Grainge he said: “It is exactly the kind of labour that many other people are expected to do on the minimum wage,” and then reiterated that the “huge allowances” made for Companions means that they are not ordinary employees.

Of the Companions I spoke to, all of them without exception agreed that the work is hard. Dominic, one of those who left Emmaus, said: “Everyone took their work very seriously, if you didn’t work you were asked to leave. Every job I’ve had after Emmaus was easier; it was the hardest job I’ve had.”

Even if Companions were to win status as employees, they would still not be entitled to a wage, however. A amendment to the National Minimum Wage Regulations in 1999 exempts charities and other institutions from paying workers, if prior to entering a work scheme they were homeless or living in a hostel.

It seems this amendment was passed with Emmaus in mind. During a debate in the House of Lords in 1999, The Lord Bishop of Ely cited Emmaus UK as an intentional community that is “a modern off-shoot of the monasteries which are very much a feature of our culture. They are places where men and women practise an extremely modest way of life as a vocation in order to benefit their fellow human beings.”

One could argue that Companions do receive remuneration in exchange for their labour in the form of accommodation, food, and their allowance. However, Companions do not work in exchange for their accommodation as this is covered by housing benefit. In St Albans, the amount someone living in shared accommodation can claim in housing benefit is £78.50 per week. But this cap does not apply to claimants living in supported accommodation, and before I left the St Albans community in 2016 I was receiving £182 per week in housing benefit. 

This cost to the taxpayer is addressed in a 2008 economic evaluation undertaken by the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research, which is often cited in Emmaus’s promotional material. The evaluation, which used the Village Carlton Community as a case study, claimed that the hypothetical annual saving to the taxpayer from housing 27 Companions in Emmaus rather than in alternative accommodation is £557,362.

The reporting mechanisms used, however, can be questioned. The figure is based on interviews with just 11 Companions in one week of the year. 

“Emmaus was there for me when I was at my lowest”

I was eventually evicted from Emmaus St Albans in January 2016, for reasons that were entirely justified. Emmaus communities are insular places where every move you make is under close scrutiny, and after six months I felt as if the walls were closing in on me. I was at odds with the staff, not only for allowing the Companion who threatened me with a knife to return, but for the inconsistent way they treated other Companions too.

One day, I was delivering furniture with a Companion that I didn’t get on with. I can’t recall what the argument was that day, but it ended with me demanding that he pull the van over so I could get out and walk home. Before I got out I punched the windscreen, shattering it. The day after the incident I was told by the support manager that I was banned from the community for 28 days, and was given a week to find alternative accommodation.

Emmaus did not work for me, but it does work for others. Many Companions adjust well to the structures in Emmaus, in part because their existence prior to moving in were so austere and the state-run alternatives can be very bleak.

The Companions who suffered the most outside of Emmaus are the most enthusiastic about the charity. One I spoke to came to the UK to escape persecution in his country of origin. Before he was accepted into Emmaus he described himself as being mentally and physically broken.

“I was almost finished before I came here,” he says. “This is a wonderful place for people who temporarily cannot manage their lives. Doing work is much better than sitting idle, as it makes you ill.” He acknowledges that “voluntary work is compulsory to stay here”, but says he is “very happy, as it's good for my health and social wellbeing. And I’m satisfied that I’m doing something for people like me.”

Many more Companions see Emmaus as their home, and fully support the ethos of the charity. Gary, a Companion who I met while at Emmaus Mossley, told the Emmaus website that life in the community had given him the opportunity to do things he couldn’t have done on his own: “Emmaus was there for me when I was at my lowest, and has helped me to rebuild my confidence and my life. I can say with all sincerity that I honestly don’t know where I would be without Emmaus, it really doesn’t bear thinking about.”

And then there are people like Michael Leadbetter. Michael was from Hull, and had lived in the Mossley Community for six years when I met him there in 2013. He was from a generation of working-class hippies who – hypnotised by Pink Floyd and Sixties psychedelia – dropped out, and never quite managed to drop back in.

Michael was found dead earlier this year in the River Tame near Mossley. His death shouldn't have surprised me; I'd witnessed him – paralytic on black lager and co-codamol – fall over walls, into the canal, down steps, and over his shoelaces on many occasions. I can recall people telling him that if he ever fell into the canal on his own he'd be in dire straits.

Michael was a hopeless drunk, and an incredibly warm and intelligent man. Even after three litres of White Storm he would still humiliate me on the chess board. He was also fond of taunting me at every opportunity. At Emmaus Mossley our rooms were next to each other, and Mick would blast out Bonzo's Dog Band's "Slush" every morning, as he knew that the maniacal laughter that loops throughout the track really freaked me out. He also enjoyed preying on my lack of work experience by asking me to fetch a long stand, tartan paint, or a left-handed screwdriver.

Many Companions like Mick are far better off within Emmaus's walls than left to their own devices. But the fact that formerly homeless people have seen a material improvement in their circumstances does not alter the fact that many Companions have had negative experiences. I am not the only one to have left feeling unsupported, unappreciated, and exploited by being forced to do unpaid labour just because I was unfortunate enough to end up homeless.

Just like the Victorians with their workhouses, we in the 21st century still behave as if homelessness was the result of an individual's moral deficiencies, rather than the result of political choices and social ills.  

The homeless are the only members of our society who can be forced by poverty to work for no pay. It is surely wrong that, even if a charity like Emmaus works for some, so many vulnerable people have no choice but to submit to being institutionalised, stuck doing voluntary work that is compulsory for decades in a “community” from which they could be expelled at any time.

I would often chat with Mick after work about Emmaus. He understood my criticisms, he said, but maintained that the charity had saved his life. Mick said he was very proud of the work he did there, and felt like he was contributing to the wider community. He told me he intended to spend the rest of his life with the charity – and in the end, he did.

*Some names have been changed

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.