How we rub along together: Mehdi Hasan on immigration

When my father arrived in England in the Sixties, he was welcomed with dog mess through his letter box.

My father arrived in this country from India in January 1965, with a second-hand London A-Z stuffed in his jacket pocket and £3 in his wallet. A child of empire, he was born in Hyderabad in 1938 and came to Britain to study and work. His first few days in London were absorbed in news of Winston Churchill's death on 24 January; he was one of the more than 320,000 people who filed past the catafalque in Westminster Hall during the three days that the former prime minister's body lay in state.

It was not long before my father became a proud British citizen of Indian origin; he has since had two British children and a British grandchild. He arrived, however, in a country struggling to accommodate and integrate its burgeoning immigrant communities. Racial and cultural discrimination was rife; bedsits and hostels prominently displayed signs saying: "No dogs, no blacks, no Irish." My father had dog mess posted through his letter box.

The previous year, Peter Griffiths had been elected to parliament as Tory MP for Smethwick with the support of the infamous slogan "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour". Three years later, Enoch Powell delivered his "Rivers of Blood" speech in Birmingham.

But in May 1966, 16 months after my father's arrival, the then home secretary, Roy Jenkins, gave perhaps the most significant speech of all on the subject of integration to the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants in London. Jenkins defined integration not as "a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance". It was a turning point for relations between majority and minority communities.

Britain has come a long way from the nativist and assimilationist 1960s, from Enoch Powell and racist hoteliers. Opinion polls suggest this is a nation at relative ease with its racial, religious and cultural diversity in all walks of life.

Yet, in recent months, multiculturalism has come under sustained assault from our political and media elite prompted by a headline-grabbing intervention by the Prime Minister.

“Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and themainstream," Cameron said at a security conference in Munich on 5 February. "We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values . . . Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism." But his deputy, Nick Clegg, took a different view in a speech in Luton on 3 March, in which he praised multiculturalism as "a means by which we can communicate with each other, seek to reach understanding of each other, share a similar set of values".

Over the past decade, public figures have queued up to deliver the last rites for multiculturalism, the condemnation cutting across party and ideological lines. In 2005 Trevor Phillips, then chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality (and now of the Equality and Human Rights Commission), warned that multicultural Britain was "sleepwalking to segregation". His analysis was shared by the Archbishop of York - Ugandan-born John Sentamu - and the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, among others.

In January 2007, before he became prime minister, Gordon Brown similarly claimed that multiculturalism had "become an excuse for justifying separateness". He preferred to talk of "Britishness" and a "stronger sense of pat­riotic purpose".

One thing links these criticisms: they lack a settled and accepted definition of "multiculturalism". "The doctrine of state multiculturalism" has a certain ring to it, but what does it mean? The Prime Minister did not bother to elaborate. In truth, over the years, Cameron, Blair, Brown, Phillips and the rest have constructed a mythical version of multiculturalism - a "cardboard cut-out", to use Clegg's phrase - and held it responsible for a raft of sins, from segregation and separateness to extremism and terrorism.

“There is no definition in this debate," says the Labour MP Jon Cruddas, one of his party's more provocative thinkers on race and identity. "Its very elusiveness allows people to reinterpret the whole idea in a shrill and sour language." So, how would Cruddas define multiculturalism. "It's how we all learned to rub along together," he says. "Simple as that."

Out of many, one

For Tariq Modood, director of the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol, multiculturalism is "the political accommodation of difference". But it is also about "integrating new identities into the overarching, collective identity of being British". There is no contradiction between the two; nor does the need to accommodate and recognise difference outweigh the need for, or the importance of, a national identity.

As an academic, Modood is frustrated at the mischaracterisation of multicultural theory by both politicians and journalists. "The three key thinkers of multiculturalism are Will Kymlicka, Bhikhu Parekh and Charles Taylor," he says. "All of them emphasise the importance not just of difference but of common identities, common citizenship and the importance of dialogue across different communities."

“The term itself can be problematic," agrees Parekh, author of Rethinking Multiculturalism and political philosopher. He distinguishes between what he calls "multi-culturalism" and "multicultural-ism". The first sees "each culture as a world unto itself, a self-contained universe that cannot be criticised from the outside; there are no universal or intercultural norms and values". The second - which Parekh supports - sees "no culture as perfect; each captures one particular vision of human life and highlights one set of capacities. Such an approach sees each culture as valuable but also incomplete; it therefore needs to engage in dialogue with other cultures, to access those treasures that they possess, but it does not." Therefore, he argues, diversity on the latter model "enriches our society".

From a more sceptical standpoint, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has reached a similar conclusion. In his book Identity and Violence, published in 2006, he distinguishes between multiculturalism, which revolves around a tolerance of diversity and crucially allows for "cultural freedom" (including the freedom as an individual to move away from traditional ways of life), and what he calls "plural monoculturalism". The latter is characterised by "a diversity of cultures, which might pass one another like ships in the night . . . as if the distinct cultures must somehow remain in secluded boxes".

It is this deliberate distortion of multiculturalism that Sen finds so egregious - and that Cameron, like so many critics of multiculturalism, set up as his straw man in Munich.

“The vocal defence of multiculturalism that we frequently hear these days is very often nothing more than a plea for plural monoculturalism," writes Sen. "If a young girl in a conservative immigrant family wants to go out on a date with an English boy, that would certainly be a multicultural initiative. In contrast, the attempt by her guardians to stop her from doing this . . . is hardly a multicultural move, since it seeks to keep the cultures separate."

Separateness is at the heart of the recent critiques of multiculturalism. There is much talk of "cultural ghettos" in Britain and of "ethnic enclaves"; of "parallel lives" in "parallel communities". There is, however, little empirical evidence. Three of the country's most prominent social geographers, Ceri Peach at Oxford, Ludi Simpson at Manchester, and Danny Dorling at Sheffield, were quick in 2005 to question Phillips's claim that the nation was sleepwalking into segregation. Their research suggests that segregation is either stable or in decline.

Then there is "white flight" from the urban centres. If segregation is indeed on the rise, as those who criticise multiculturalism maintain, the trend whereby white families desert inner cities as local ethnic-minority populations increase is at least as much to blame as so-called self-ghettoisation. In Modood's words: "Ghettos are created by those who move out."

Above all else, it is disingenuous for Cameron and his media cheerleaders to pretend that they have instigated a much-needed debate about segregation when they have so little to say about the structural barriers to integration. Racial discrimination - in the job market, for instance - is seldom acknowledged; despite the wealth of evidence to the contrary, both conservative and liberal critics of multiculturalism bizarrely assume that Britain is a post-racial society. Yet the unemployment rate among Afro-Caribbean people in the UK has risen twice as fast as that of white people since the start of the economic downturn.

False logic

Socio-economic factors that block integration are also overlooked and ignored in the rush to denounce "voluntary apartheid". Patterns of ethnic segregation in housing are attributed not to decisions by postwar governments, nor to the consequences of urban decline, but to an imagined, undefined and unsubstantiated "doctrine of state multiculturalism". Yet separate or segregated communities are direct consequences of "public policy rather than cultural isolationism", says Cruddas, who has had to combat the myths around housing scarcity on his own patch in east London. Since 1980, half of the council housing stock in his borough of Barking and Dagenham has been sold off - but it is the Tory policy of "right to buy" that is to blame, rather than immigration or multiculturalism.

Cruddas sees the present anxiety over multiculturalism and diversity through the lens of growing economic insecurity. "Cameron is reframing 'state multiculturalism' as 'muscular liberalism' to swerve around the failure of the neoliberal economic settlement," he says. "He is capitalising on a sense of hopelessness and lack of belonging associated with the economic shakedown we're living through, and is reinterpreting it through a cultural rather than a material prism. Labour has to confront the problem through a more material approach to prevent people being distracted by culture wars."

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of Cam­eron's speech was the way he associated multiculturalism not just with segregation and separateness, but with extremism and terrorism. To be fair, he wasn't the first to make the link. In August 2005, six weeks after the 7 July terrorist attacks in London, Le Monde published an essay entitled "The British Multicultural Model in Crisis". That same month, the French scholar of Islamism Gilles Kepel claimed that the London bombers "were the children of Britain's own multicultural society". Their attack, he said, had "smashed" the "consensus" behind multiculturalism in Britain "to smithereens".

It also exacerbated the (Labour) government's tendency to view British Muslim communities exclusively through the prism of security and counterterrorism. Problems of integration and community cohesion became wrapped up in the discourse of the "war on terror".

It was a poor strategy. For a start, by any conventional criteria, the London bombers were integrated - their ringleader, Mohammad Sid­ique Khan, was a well-known and well-liked teaching assistant who eschewed an arranged marriage; Shehzad Tanweer, who detonated the Aldgate bomb, was an outstanding sportsman who had studied sports science in Leeds, and worked part-time at his father's fish-and-chip shop in the city. All four bombers spoke fluent English.

There is, too, the observable fact that extremism is not confined to multicultural societies such as Britain; how else can we explain the terrorist violence in monocultural Saudi Arabia?

“Multiculturalism used to be bound up with immigration. It was a cover for talking about immigrants," Parekh says. "In the past ten years, it's become a code word for anxieties about Muslims and terrorism."

Much of the anxiety about the alleged lack of Muslim integration in Britain is misplaced and misinformed; it tends to be driven by alarmist and often Islamophobic press coverage. Contrary to popular opinion, most Muslims in this country are patriotic, loyal and integrated, by most definitions of these contested terms. According to a Gallup poll published in May 2009, British Muslims are more likely than non-Muslim Britons to say they identify strongly with the United Kingdom (77 per cent for the former, compared to 50 per cent for the latter). British Muslims are also more likely than non-Muslim Britons to want to live in mixed areas, among people of different backgrounds (67 per cent, against 58 per cent).

Perhaps the Prime Minister should spend less time abroad denouncing multiculturalism and more time at home working to combat prejudice. He could use his bully pulpit to help foster greater tolerance as well as equality of opportunity. Integration, as even he wrote in an Observer article in 2007, is a "two-way street". Or, as Modood put it to me: "It's about ensuring that the burdens of managing difference should be shared by minorities and majorities alike."

Granted, in some cases multiculturalism has been exploited by self-appointed leaders of minority groups to claim special privileges or exemptions from the law. But it isn't to blame for a perceived lack of national identity or common purpose; nor is it the cause of supposed segregation, let alone extremism. On the contrary, by recognising, respecting and accommodating difference, multiculturalism helps communities come together. Supporters would argue that it is the only viable basis for shared citizenship in a culturally diverse society.

This is 2011, not 1965 - the year in which my father arrived in London. In this age of globalisation and devolution, Britain cannot return to some fantasy of a halcyon monocultural past. In the 21st century, identity isn't finite; loyalties do not have to compete. Those of us who are comfortable with our multiple, non-competing identities remain bewildered by the confrontational tone of Cameron et al.

Minority communities must have the freedom to nurture and celebrate their racial, religious and cultural heritage within the law and, as Roy Jenkins put it, "in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance". The truth is that a truly liberal society isn't muscular, it's multicultural.

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the New Statesman

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who are the English?

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
Show Hide image

"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 04 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who are the English?