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Why it’s not too late for baby boomers to open up about their postwar memories

An examination of people’s “unspoken” emotions is missing from recent British history.

John Maynard Keynes observed that by the time politicians achieve power, they tend to remain intellectually trapped in the assumptions and arguments they were exposed to in their formative period many years earlier. I’ve often thought about his remark – the equivalent of generals fighting the last war, not the present one – but it has only recently occurred to me that it might equally apply to historians of more mature years, including myself.

So, as a child of 1951, born when Clement Attlee was still in No 10 and King George VI still reigned, I think that three things mainly formed me as a historian. First, the counter­culture of the 1960s that lingered into the 1970s, at its best inducing a healthy scepticism about self-important elites, at its worst fostering a reluctance to enter fully into the adult world. Second, a strong reaction against the history I was taught at Oxford in the early 1970s, in particular the almost entire absence of social history. And third, the inspiring example of other historians: above all E P Thompson, rescuing forgotten and marginalised subjects from posterity’s enormous condescension; but also Raphael Samuel and the whole “history from below” movement.

Accordingly, when in 2002 I began sustained work on my postwar project, Tales of a New Jerusalem, I wanted to write a history that was inclusive, that was not predominantly top-down, and that got as close as possible to people’s everyday lives and concerns. In short, I wanted to write an intimate history of Britain in these years, the 1940s to the 1970s.

In terms of what I’ve so far produced, going up to 1962, I think I’ve succeeded, but only to an extent. Putting aside some obvious lacunae – for instance, in my regional treatment, or in my treatment of rural life – where I think I’ve fallen short is in what I might call the emotional-cum-psychological domain: that whole area of feeling, so often largely unspoken and therefore hard for others to retrieve or chart, as the emotionally driven and arguably irrational political earthquakes of 2016 revealed in abundance.

Here I’d like to quote a salutary passage by an American historian, Susan J Matt. In a 2011 essay entitled “Current Emotion Research in History: or Doing History from the Inside Out” – presumably in addition to history from the bottom up – she writes:

Today there are dozens of historians on both sides of the Atlantic working on the emotions, investigating topics as diverse as the history of lust and the changing experience of nostalgia. Together they are trying to recover the history of subjectivity, for in doing so they uncover intention, motivation and values that might be invisible if only external behaviours (the traditional subject of history) are traced. They are trying to write history from the inside out. The field has grown so much that some have suggested that history has taken an “emotional turn”.

It’s confession time. Perhaps because I’m not an academic and plough my own furrow, somewhat oblivious to what other historians are up to, I suspect that I more or less missed this “emotional turn”. Salutary also in Matt’s overview is her brief passage about class, the single theme that most dominates my own treatment. She writes: “Traditionally, historians and sociologists have discussed social class in terms of work, income, control (or lack thereof) of the means of production, family arrangements and consumption patterns. Emotional style, however, is also an important marker of class identity.” I’m sure she’s right; and though my treatment of class is not bereft of an emotional dimension, it’s far from as prominent as it might be. As for another crucial and related area, that of whether ordinary working people felt any real sense of empowerment over their lives, it’s almost entirely absent.

Now, if it is true that postwar Britain was a place where much that was emotionally and psychologically significant largely went unspoken, the methodological implications are daunting. But is it true? Certainly that would be my instinctive assumption, partly based on my memories, and I imagine it might well be yours, too. But to test that assumption, let me briefly give you the results of a bit of ferreting around.

***

I will start with J M Mogey, who in the mid-1950s examined St Ebbe’s, a working-class district near the centre of Oxford. “Adults,” he wrote, “put little emphasis on the ability to talk and the verbal expression of emotion is neither wished for nor possible.” Mogey went on: “In marriage both partners keep fairly rigidly to their household roles. Serious friction is handled by avoiding contact and by emphasising getting along together rather than any more positive harmony in the marriage relationship; a minor everyday friction is rarely allowed to rise to the level of conscious expression.”

Around the same time, Norman Dennis, Fernando Henriques and Clifford Slaughter found much the same in Coal Is Our Life, their classic study of the West Yorkshire mining town Featherstone: husbands and wives living their daily lives in almost entirely separate spheres and, accordingly, often having “little to talk about or to do together”.

Oral history has so far largely confirmed that marital picture. Elizabeth Roberts, based on her extensive interviews in the working-class north-west, finds little or no evidence of companionate marriages before the 1970s; while as for sex specifically, Kate Fisher writes this on the basis of her pioneering interviews with men and women born in the first quarter of the century:

Many couples did not talk openly about sexual matters, and issues of childbearing and family limitation skirted very close to these sensitive areas. Many women chose to keep discussion unspecific, leaving the nitty-gritty details of exactly what birth control was used and what method was chosen to their husbands. Only in cases where the urgency of restricting births increased was explicit planning or debate necessary.

Was there any greater communication between parents and children? Probably not. Examining a working-class district of Liverpool in the mid-1950s, Madeline Kerr found that the typical adolescent girl was “unable to speak to the parents about anything other than trivial matters, and therefore has a secret life of her own completely outside the parents’ knowledge”. More­over, “Sex training appears to be nil. Mothers express horror at the idea of telling their daughters even about menstruation.”

As for a mother informing her children that she is expecting again, Kerr quotes a Mrs K: “Disgusting. That’s disgusting…” Dennis and co found a similar lack of communication in Featherstone, and it was hardly any different in the middle-class parts of north London that Raymond Firth and others studied in the first half of the 1960s. “Common in our material,” they concluded, “was the expression on the part of a married son or daughter that relations with a parent were friendly but superficial; that he or she liked the parent but did not feel they could discuss intimate matters with him or her.”

Perhaps, among these stolid and reserved Britishers, it all came pouring out in the pub instead? Not according to Mogey, who in the taverns of St Ebbe’s overheard little “close inquiry into individual lives”, but instead conversation that was “largely escapist, about horse racing and football bets, about seaside holidays and coach trips”.

So, too, in Mass-Observation’s 1949 breakdown of what people talked about in pubs: sports and betting led the way in more than 40 per cent of conversations, followed by pubs and drinking in 18 per cent. As for the 15 per cent of conversations categorised as “personal-topographical”, these “included all kinds of personal gossip and reminiscing”, in which discussions often developed “from or into topographical arguments and discussion”.

Nevertheless, it is possible that the larger picture was starting to change. As early as the 1950s, Mogey noted that on a new housing estate on the outskirts of Oxford, rehoused families were exhibiting what he called “a heightened ability to communicate desires and wishes”; in the early 1960s, mothers in Nottingham spoke to the psychologists John and Elizabeth Newson of their wish to have a franker and more equal relationship with their children than they had known themselves with their parents; and by the 1970s, the mantra of agony aunts in women’s magazines had become the importance of open, two-way communication between husbands and wives.

Making things explicit was certainly the mantra of Margaret Wilkins, the mother in The Family, the BBC’s groundbreaking fly-on-the-wall TV series in 1974 about the working-class Wilkins family in Reading. But here it is worth quoting the gloss on Mrs Wilkins provided by Deborah Cohen in her marvellous book Family Secrets: “Hers was not an ideological position. She disdained feminism, but objected, too, to what she saw as the silences about family problems, the constraints of propriety that made people feel alone.”

Mrs Wilkins was, in other words, far from typical. And although this is not the occasion for a systematic analysis of British exceptionalism or otherwise, I’m tempted to fast-forward two decades and cross the Channel, in the company of Theodore Zeldin. His An Intimate History of Humanity, published in 1994, includes this testimony from Annette Martineau, a greengrocer’s wife living in Cognac in south-western France and who as a child was taught not to speak at the table:

My parents barely talked to each other. My friends say their husbands don’t talk either. It’s often like that. Husbands didn’t say much in the past, because everything was taboo, and because they had nothing to say. In our dinner parties, the conversation is either non-existent or aggressive… My husband gets up at 3am to do the buying. He is completely immersed in his work and is not a man to waste words. I warned my daughter: “You will enjoy life more if you’re with a man you can talk to.”

Zeldin, in a typically eclectic chapter devoted to conversation, takes the long view. It’s called “How Men and Women Have Slowly Learned to Have Interesting Conversations”, and he argues that, in terms of the span of human history, “conversation is still in its infancy”. He also notes that Finland is “reputed to be the least talkative country on Earth”, and he cites the Finnish proverb: “One word is enough to make a lot of trouble.”

***

So how, to return to postwar Britain, do we uncover the unspoken? What was really going on inside the heads – and, in turn, affecting the behavioural assumptions – of a people often so reluctant to express their emotions or engage in emotional dialogue? Think of that supreme moment in our island story, as Geoff Hurst lashed home England’s fourth goal at Wembley in the 1966 World Cup final against West Germany, and of how eyes turned to one figure, seated and impassive: Alf Ramsey, the team manager. “I’m a very emotional person but my feelings are always tied up inside,” this man of Suffolk via Dagenham later said. “Maybe it is a mistake to be like this but I cannot govern it.”

I also often think of my father. He was an army officer, and his daily habits were as regular and unchangeable as one might expect. He was also, again predictably, given his small-town Shropshire background, a man of few words. Yet on that July afternoon, as England neared the end of normal time and, hanging on at 2-1, missed a chance to clinch it, and the TV commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme remarked that it didn’t matter now, my father got up from his armchair, more or less shook his fist at the screen and said loudly: “Of course it fucking matters!” – prophetic words, as it turned out. But as to what, over the years, he thought about his family, or the world at large, or God, or what the novelist Anthony Powell would have called his personal myth – it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that I’m in the dark.

What, then, are the sources that more generally might help? Sociologists, in what was the golden age of British empirical sociology, were better at getting people to talk more freely about subjects – for instance, class – than they would normally have felt able to; the same intermittently applies to letters pages, especially in women’s magazines. Transcripts of radio programmes, particularly Woman’s Hour, can yield similar rewards, especially from the 1960s, when, like some TV programmes, they became more confessional.

But inevitably, for the real pay dirt, one has to go to private letters and diaries, especially the latter, whether located at the Mass-Observation Archive at the University of Sussex or elsewhere. My postwar sequence uses diaries extensively, and there are some wonderfully revealing quotations from them included in my books.

That said, they have significant limitations: not only because almost all the diarists were middle class (at a time when Britain was still predominantly a working-class society), but also because most of them were not particularly introspective and shied away from Rousseau- or Pepys-like frankness. Furthermore, as far as I can tell, they are quite limited in number, at least in terms of accessibility. Yet I wouldn’t be without them.

I also wouldn’t be without retrospective sources. These include what one might call Mass-Observation Mark II – the project that the archive’s Dorothy Sheridan initiated in the 1980s, and that continues, in which “participants write about their life experiences and emotional journeys from the vantage point of these more recent times”. That description is by the historian Claire Langhamer, whose 2013 survey The English in Love convincingly charts how, during the 20th century, the institution of marriage increasingly became less of a pragmatic transaction and more of a vehicle for – in aspiration, at least – romance and personal fulfilment.

Naturally, there are also published memoirs. And here it’s time for a second confession: I’ve found it difficult to bring myself to read the so-called misery memoirs, the genre of paperbacks that peaked in 2006, comprising in that year no fewer than 11 of the UK’s 100 top-selling titles. What’s my problem? Partly it’s that they seem formulaic; partly it’s their unattractive neediness; but, above all, instinctively I don’t quite trust them, a view not helped by their almost entire lack of dates.

Instead, I read with relish the flood of well-written and emotionally nuanced mainstream memoirs that have appeared over the past thirty years or so – for me, the right sort of confessional flood, one that arguably began in 1987 with Ian Jack’s superb Granta essay about his father, “Finished with Engines”. Margaret Forster’s Hidden Lives, Tim Lott’s The Scent of Dried Roses, Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood, Janet Street-Porter’s Baggage, Ferdinand Mount’s Cold Cream, Joan Bakewell’s The Centre of the Bed, Jeremy Harding’s Mother Country, Rupert Christiansen’s I Know You’re Going to Be Happy – these and many others undoubtedly constitute a golden period of British autobiography.

Yet inevitably, these books share two intrinsic drawbacks. First, they would probably not have been written, and almost certainly not published, if the authors had not already been established public figures and/or writers – which raises the serious issue of how representative they are. And second, these autobiographical writings give no opportunity for the historian to stop the flow and ask questions. What do you mean by that? Could you elaborate? Any hard examples? Would you go to the stake for the accuracy of that story? Are you quite sure you’re not exaggerating? And so on.

Happily, oral historians can ask such questions, albeit rather more politely, and indeed it’s to oral history that I’d now like to turn. Starting with a final confession: over the years, my relationship with oral history has been somewhat ambivalent. In the course of researching the last volume of my City of London history, plus half a dozen institutional histories – beginning with the Financial Times and, I suspect, ending with the Bank of England – I’ve conducted several hundred interviews, in which I’ve learned much that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to discover. Also for my City history I was grateful for the “City Lives” strand of the National Life Stories collection. Yet in practice, in all of those books, as well as in my postwar sequence, I have been quite sparing in using oral history material – for three reasons.

First, what I might call the “literary” motive. What I most enjoy as a writer is relating an unfolding narrative. The notion of a chronicle, a kind of passing national pageant, is somewhere near the heart of my concept of the New Jerusalem sequence. I’m trying to do other things as well, but that’s the spine. Crucially, for that to work in terms of providing a satisfying narrative, I rely more on contemporary than retrospective sources – in other words, on sources derived from politicians, or journalists, or diarists, or others who are living in the present and who, like characters in a play or a novel, have no knowledge of the future.

Second, while I am well aware of how sophisticated oral history techniques and procedures have become, there will always be the problem of unconscious bias. I’ve mentioned Anthony Powell’s concept of the personal myth, and an observation by the renowned oral historian Alistair Thomson puts the matter well: “Memories,” he writes, “are ‘significant pasts’ that we compose to make a more comfortable sense of our life over time, and in which past and present identities are brought more into line.”

To which I would add that there is an important additional factor in relation to oral history and postwar Britain. Historians and attentive readers may know otherwise, but I would guess that for most TV-watching people – in an era when the visual image dominates the written word – the 1950s remain in their mind’s eye still unshakeably repressive, the 1960s unshakeably swinging, the 1970s unshakeably crisis-ridden, the 1980s unshakeably materialistic. It is hard to banish these simplistic and in many ways misleading characterisations as one digs down into the unique memories of one’s own life.

And third – very mundane – I try to do most of the research myself, and as a non-academic with publishing deadlines to meet, inevitably there isn’t the time to listen to everything or, if in transcript form, read everything, however helpfully indexed. Especially in regard to my postwar history, I am conscious that because of this I have missed a lot. But I comfort myself with the thought that, as poor Mr Casaubon never quite learned, completism is not the way to go.

***

The National Life Stories project was established by the British Library’s national sound archive 30 years ago – Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, Ronald Reagan was the US president, the Berlin Wall still stood – and it represents a phenomenal achievement. The closing pages of the latest annual report list the work completed and still in train. “Artists’ Lives”, “City Lives”, “Legal Lives”, “Living Memory of the Jewish Community”, “Lives in the Oil Industry”, “An Oral History of British Science”, “Food: from Source to Salespoint” – I could go on. By my computation, some 2,460 interviews have been conducted, and no doubt there have been more since the report was published.

This is a body of testimony that will endure and be indispensable for future generations of historians. Even so, I suspect that relatively few of the interviews focus all that much on the interviewees’ private lives, and in particular those shadowy areas I’m calling “the unspoken”. My argument is that in our oral history – this marvellously flexible, access-all-areas instrument – we should be doing so rather more.

Baby boomers, now in their sixties and seventies, won’t be around for ever. There are many questions that they – we – are in a position to answer and, in this post-Diana confessional age, may be relaxed about answering even under rigorous, systematic questioning: not just about their upbringing, but about the main body of their lives, including the internal-cum-private dimension as well as – and conceivably even more than – the external-cum-public one.

Let me give some examples. What from our childhood and adolescence do we recall, even if we would prefer not to, about the charged and now highly topical matter of sexual abuse? More generally, what were the sexual norms – and, indeed, our relationship to sex itself – during and after the much-publicised 1960s?

On moving away from the family home and forming full-time autonomous friendships and friendship groups, were the boundaries between the spoken and the unspoken so much less rigid and inhibited than they had been at home? Among our peers, how was “success” defined, or did the very notion of success seemingly disappear? How, in our twenties and beyond, did our political and spiritual consciousness change? Did Thatcherism and its legacy, arguably creating the world we live in, challenge or entrench our assumptions? Similarly, what has been the impact of parenthood, even grandparenthood, on assumptions of, say, social liberalism?

As the shadows start to lengthen, though it’s not dark yet (as someone once sang), can we look back on our lives and attempt to estimate the extent to which the objective reality has matched our individual personal myth?

It wouldn’t be too difficult to come up with other pertinent questions, but you get my drift. Baby boomers are always hungry for attention. I may be wrong, but in this area I’m not sure that they’re getting it quite enough.

I would like to finish with an observation by a French historian, writing about world-weary other historians:

So many people go around despairing at every turn – there is, they say, nothing left to discover, or so it seems, in regions that have been too well explored. All they need to do is plunge into the darkness where psychology wrestles with history – they would soon get back their appetite for discovery.

The historian was Lucien Febvre, the date was 1941, and all those years ago he called it right: the time has come for dancing in the dark.

This is an edited version of David Kynaston’s recent National Life Stories Lecture 2017 at the British Library, “Uncovering the Unspoken: Memory and Postwar Britain”

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue

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 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue