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The lost country

Two decades after the fall of the wall in 1989, life in the German capital’s hinterland continues re

The first interchange on the long autobahn that heads south towards Bavaria from the Berliner Ring, the city's orbital answer to the M25, is signposted for Beelitz Heilstätten. The slip road leads deep into the forest until, at last, you come to a huge hospital complex. Only a small portion of it is still in use, caring for patients with neurological illnesses. It is a retreat for fractured minds, a ghetto for the traumatised, often people for whom life lost all meaning when the country they had loyally served was discredited with German unification in October 1990.

When the sanatorium first opened more than a hundred years ago, pulmonary patients from Berlin were packed off to Beelitz on the assumption that the fresh forest air would alleviate the symptoms of tuberculosis. But Beelitz was not to become a northern rival to Mediterranean Menton; in winter the region was bitterly cold, in summer it was afflicted by midges and ticks, some of which carried a particularly nasty viral encephalitis. Asparagus has replaced bacilli and bad lungs as the mainstay of the local economy; the area east of the sanatorium has found a niche with its pale white variety. But between tuberculosis and today's vegetable crop, Beelitz was home to the largest Russian military hospital outside the Soviet Union.

The Russians were not the first to appropriate the sanatorium for military medicine. During the First World War, thousands of troops wounded in the Battle of the Somme were sent to Beelitz for treatment and recuperation - among them a young Austrian soldier called Adolf Hitler. From the late 1940s until the withdrawal of the last Russian forces in 1995, Beelitz Heilstätten was a no-go area for ordinary East Germans. The Russians have gone, but the iconography of another age still embellishes the abandoned parts of the site. Red stars, hammers and sickles, fraternal slogans about service and sacrifice are now slowly being covered by ivy. Damp wallpaper peels from the crumbling walls to reveal Moscow newspapers, used as lining paper. One piece of newsprint records the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982; another shows scenes from the Soviet leader's elaborate funeral.

In a cellar at the corner of one of the abandoned sanatorium buildings, an old man with broken fingernails and dirty hands has a few blankets and a cheap bottle of schnapps. "I don't live here the whole time," he explains. "But it's a good place to escape to." He boasts that his part-time home has had many illustrious residents: "Erich and Margot Honecker lived just up there." The ousted leader of East Germany and his wife, who served for 26 years as the country's minister for education, were admitted into the seclusion of the old military hospital in 1990, and spent many months there while plotting a route out of the country.

A property development company from West Germany bought the entire hospital complex in the great post-unification sell-off. Russians out, West German investors in - a pattern repeated across East Germany. There were grand plans to develop a huge medical park at Beelitz Heilstätten, with promises of more than a thousand jobs. Although the neurological clinic was completed, the greater part of the site remains a deserted wasteland in the forest. As so often since unification, West German investors looking for quick pickings in the east found they had bitten off more than they could chew. The company that bought the complex went bankrupt, the forest began to take over the old Russian military hospital, and the locals turned to asparagus. The latest vision for the site is that it might host a huge garden festival in summer 2013. No one is wagering much money on the plan coming to fruition.

Just before flying out of Germany in March 1991, the Honeckers spent their last hours in the country closeted in the small terminal building at the Sperenberg military airfield. Today, Sperenberg is as derelict as Beelitz. For a while, the old airfield looked set to become a ­gigantic theme park called Euroworld. Proponents of the plan claimed that Euroworld would generate 36,000 jobs in rural Brandenburg, the sparsely populated state that surrounds Berlin. In the end, it created none, the scheme collapsing amid recriminations of financial mismanagement.

Out of sight, out of mind

While Berlin is the focus of the world's media this month, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall, the communities around the capital that played bit-part roles in the events of late 1989 and immediately after have slipped into obscurity, the ghosts of a country that abruptly disappeared. Along with Beelitz and Sperenberg, few now remember Lobetal, the small village north-east of Berlin where the Honeckers were found lodging with a Lutheran pastor for some weeks before fleeing to Beelitz.

In these places, the local people's views on unification are often negative. Unemployment and uncertainty about the future dog the lives of many of those who, until 1990, had steady and secure jobs. Twenty years ago, this was a region full of promise. New ideas from Russia, notably demokratizatsiya and perestroika, gave authority to the quiet revolution that was developing on the streets of East Germany, as people debated possible futures for their country. Then came West Germany's conservative chancellor Helmut Kohl and his promises of "blossoming landscapes".

“Don't talk to me about blossoming landscapes," says Brigitte, whose mobile hairdressing business relies on a cohort of ageing customers living in small villages. "These are places where the factories, shops and train station were all closed soon after West Germany took over. Yes, the government has built new roads and invested in fast new rail routes. They carry sleek expresses non-stop from Berlin to western Germany. That does nothing for us in rural Brandenburg." Brigitte adds: "Our country just disappeared far too quickly. There was not even time to mourn its passing."

Lauchhammer, Trebbin, Beeskow, Luckau - one by one, they have all been bypassed by the new main roads on which BMWs and Mercedes cruise past. Driving through the countryside south of Berlin today, you see plenty of new industrial estates, with their platoons of low-slung sheds pushing out over green fields. The decaying town centres are out of sight, out of mind. Their fading façades and businesses on the brink of closure are nowhere to be seen in the glossy brochures put out by the marketing men whose job it is to sell Berlin's hinterland to potential investors.

The state planners are based in Brandenburg's capital city, Potsdam, 20 miles south-west of Berlin. They talk of logistics, biotechnology, R&D and industrial parks, and wield their red pens on maps to designate areas of forest and heathland that are to become new freight villages - a euphemism for giant container parks. But off the smooth tarmac, down rutted cobbled streets, is another kind of Germany: abandoned housing estates, boarded-up shops, and even the occasional Trabbi - the car that became an East German icon - still spluttering through the landscape of memory. East Germany was full of small communities that clustered around factories which, for four decades, gave a decent living to local inhabitants. Most of those factories were closed soon after unification in the name of efficiency.

Almost 20 years on, many communities in eastern Germany are still awaiting Kohl's nirvana. True, new names now populate the economic wilderness left by the state-owned companies of the German Democratic Republic. But the incomers - multinationals such as Oracle, eBay, DHL, Mercedes-Benz, Rolls-Royce Aerospace, Pratt & Whitney, Bombardier and Daimler AG - are attracted by greenfield opportunities. They like concrete and glass offices rimmed by virgin forest. Or aluminium sheds in green meadows. In the move to Brandenburg's business corridor, many companies have pocketed fiscal incentives from a government that claims not to have the resources to attend to the dereliction of the region's towns.

Covering over the cracks

Lichterfeld is another small Brandenburg village that lies off the main road. In the days of the GDR, it had an opencast mine where lignite was quarried. Locals worked at the mine, in a nearby power station or at the glassworks. Over the past 20 years, unemployment has soared and the younger generation have forsaken their roots, moving west in search of jobs. Men who mined now gather mushrooms in the forest. The local mayor hopes that a relic of local mining history, a huge excavator abandoned at the edge of the village, might become a tourist attraction.

In a similar spirit, a few miles away at Plessa, Hans-Joachim Schubert is restoring an old power station abandoned in 1992. "We have a history of which we should be proud. It is not something to be ashamed of," he says. It is a view echoed by Carola Werner in nearby Lauchhammer. For her, the towers of the town's old coking plant are part of the roots of those who lived and worked here in the coal industry. "If you pull out your roots, life stops," she says. "These towers simply must be kept for future generations."

Berlin, too, is covering over the cracks of 1989. Some even suggest rebuilding short stretches of the wall, the German capital's principal visitor attraction, to appease the tourists who come in search of cold-war history. Visitors also flock to the DDR Museum, to catch a glimpse of what life was once like in eastern Germany. They queue at the museum to sit in a Trabbi, or watch films about everyday life in small communities in the Berlin hinterland. There are shots of the slow train pausing at a country station, returning dozens of workers home after a day shift at the factory.
The museum was the brainchild of investors from western Germany who thought there might be money to be made out of the experiences of Ossies, the Germans who had lived in the east. What the visitors don't realise, as they queue at the museum, is that, just a few miles away in rural Brandenburg, life continues relatively unchanged from 1989. The only difference is that the slow train no longer stops. It was axed a few months after East and West Germany merged.

Nicky Gardner lives in Berlin. She is editor of hidden europe

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End

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 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End