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“I didn’t go into politics to be a hero to the Mail"

When Maurice Glasman called for a freeze on immigration, his fellow Blue Labour supporters distanc

Until very recently, I would not have believed that I would share with Rupert Murdoch the need to make a public apology. But though I would not go so far as to say that this is the most humble day in my life, it does rank with the worst of them.

There are rules that you learn in community organising that inform effective action. "Relationships precede action" is an important one and "Don't allow the position to move ahead of the relationships" is another. A third might be "Don't engage in theoretical speculation in the Fabian Review". I have been punished, and rightly so, for forgetting rules I used to teach and it has felt quite wretched. There is a saying in Italian that there are two kinds of idiot, and the bigger idiot is the one who didn't mean it.

Being described as the "voice of reason" by the Daily Mail is not, as David Cameron says of the cuts, "what I went into politics for". The worst part of it is that Blue Labour is a form of collegial politics, the work of many hands with varied opinions. It was just beginning to find its common themes - about relationships, power and action, democratic resistance to the exploitative pressure of capitalism, broad-based coalitions in support of the common good that defy power elites, and the radical potential of tradition - when the Fabian Review piece was republished in the Daily Telegraph on 18 July. Then it was suddenly all about immigration.

I am sorry for the crassness and thoughtlessness with which my views on immigration were expressed. I made a few mistakes early on and should have learned the lessons. It did not cross my mind that anyone could think that I support the English Defence League (EDL), which I consider a thuggish and violent organisation. When I said in an interview with Progress magazine in April that we should listen to supporters of the EDL, I was arguing that the best way to defeat fascist organisations is to engage with their supporters in a politics of the common good that addresses issues of family housing and safer streets, the living wage and a cap on interest rates.

These are policies that defy market distributions and strengthen the form of common life that we call democratic politics. In the Progress interview, I was making the point that these were not really features of New Labour and that there is a relationship between disconnected elites and right-wing populism. I thought it was an internal discussion with eight Labour Party members and one who couldn't decide whether to renew. But it ended up in the Sun. If I had known that would happen, I would not have used the term "EDL" or said Labour had "lied" about the extent of immigration.

This was a big mistake on my part, as Labour's tradition has always been defined by building relationships between those who are divided: immigrants and local people, atheists and believers, men and women. I knew that the biggest danger was that this would be mistaken for right-wing populism, because the language of Blue Labour is vivid and emotional. It is patriotic, and tries to honour what is honoured by people and work with that. It was a mistake, but I thought I could be forgiven because it was the first time and I had to learn. I vowed to stress in future that this was an anti-fascist, broad-based, democratic and relational politics.

My argument is that Labour was robust in defeating fascism and communism precisely because it had the faithful support of a working class that was loyal to its own form of radical traditionalism. There is a battle with a nationalist politics going on in England and, to win it, we need to work with people whom we have lost; people who feel abandoned and betrayed. Our elite institutions, the City, parliament, the police and the media, are all corrupted in the eyes of the people.

That is the root of fascism: a rage against invisible power and the will to destroy the hold that the elite have over honest, hard-working people. It is also the source of the Labour tra­dition, which emerged from the limits of liberalism and Marxism and argued for ­organised resistance to the rule of the rich through the democratic renewal of ancient ­institutions. This was to be achieved through broad-based organising
between estranged communities: Catholic and Protestant, the skilled and the unskilled.

Labour represents a sublime tradition that I am only just beginning to appreciate. We defeated fascism in Britain with ease, and were not undermined by Stalinists or Trotskyites. For a large part of its history, Labour worked with the idea of a democratic constitution within firms, so that workers would be treated with respect and have power in their working lives. The honouring of work, and its degradation by capitalism, were the common experiences that brought people together and around which Labour organised. There is still exploitation at work; and there are still issues of corporate governance and vocational training and standards that can form the basis of a Labour politics of the common good. That is the point I wanted to make, but it didn't come out that way.

My conversation with the Fabians has been crucial in developing my arguments. So when they asked for an interview I felt honour-bound; and I respect the interviewer, Mary Riddell, whom I find intelligent and fair-minded. I still do. She came to my flat and we spoke on my kitchen balcony. The conversation was wide-ranging and enjoyable. The only problem was that I forgot it was an interview and when I remembered, I thought, it's the Fabians, they'll understand. It ended up on the front page of the Telegraph and then in the Daily Express.

In the part of the conversation about immigration, I was pursuing an argument about democratic politics, not stating a position. Mary asked what I would do about it when there was nothing anyone could do because of European Union law. The first response should have been to say that we need to reimagine the EU. It began as a partnership between Germany and France to resist the commodification of land. The German social market economy, with its vocational training, city parliaments, worker representation on boards and regional banks, is a huge inspiration for me and for others involved in Blue Labour. It has proved more successful than our financially driven, transferrable skills economy. I wrote my PhD on the German social market economy (published as a book, Unnecessary Suffering, in 1996). German ordoliberalism and the social and Christian democratic traditions have all provided important insights, which I have drawn upon in my own thinking. The German social market economy has also proved superior to its rivals in terms of innovation and change. This is a big deal.

The European Union should be about strong city democracy and pro­tection of vocational institutions that preserve knowledge, trust and ethics. Instead, we've got the free movement of capital and people, an EU built around bank takeovers. A crucial part of the Blue Labour agenda is reimagining the EU and returning it to its original principles, which were about strengthening the democratic resistance to a free market in labour and land, in human beings and nature.

I think Labour should take the lead in building democratic alliances across Europe to reassert both democratic politics and international solidarity. I have good relationships with academics and politicians all over Europe who are thinking the same thing - people who are, like me, disappointed with the EU and who wish to see it change.

The cornerstone of my approach to internationalism is my total commitment to free and democratic trade unions in China. The workers there are being exploited without being able to organise resistance to their degradation. We need to support free and democratic trade unions all over the world and renew our organisational solidarity. No one benefits from a low-wage economy other than bosses and tyrants. This is part of the renewal of Labour as a force for democracy and liberty.

Instead of saying all that, I made the argument that a free and democratic people are capable of making their own decisions about immigration and that "we are not an outpost of the UN". That included stopping immigration. What I did not say was that, in the debate, we must be sympathetic to both the immigrant and local populations. They can do harm to each other, or they can build a common life together in which differences and common interests are recognised.

The most important consideration concerns the conditions of poor workers: they should not be played off against each other and nor should newcomers be used to implement a de facto incomes policy that undermines working arrangements, both tacit and formal. This does not lead to economic efficiency or innovation, but to a low-wage, high-churn economy that guarantees neither status nor security for the workers.

For the past decade I have worked through London Citizens with faith communities, many of them immigrant churches and mosques. This has been transformative for me. I have learned that many immigrants put great emphasis on their faith and that this is to be respected. It is precisely because it is necessary to build a common life with new neighbours that we should try to understand their conception of the good and work together on what can be agreed.

The Living Wage Campaign was created and driven by faith communities as a common expression of their conception of the good. In an exploitative system driven by the creation of insatiable desires, we need all the good we can get. The renewal in the years ahead of the common life of our cities, from a combination of new materials, the creation of novel forms of civic life and relational solidarity, is an in­spiring prospect.

What I have learned, above all, is that the present political economy leads to the exploitation of both local and immigrant. If I had been talking about this with Mary seriously, and not casually, I would have mentioned my support for the regularisation of illegal immigrants and my work with the Strangers Into Citizens campaign. I would have spoken more considerately about how hard it is to generate solidarity among people who do not know each other. I would have said that the levels of immigration over the past years have been unprecedented in our history, and how important it is to recognise both the challenge and the possibilities that flow from this. As it was, I talked about what it was possible for a democratic polity to do in principle.

It was a failed action that generated the wrong reaction. It generated not debate, but denunciation; it did not improve relationships but threatened them. It was bad political craftsmanship, and that is unforgivable. There is great energy and beauty in Blue Labour when it strives towards the common good by building alliances and relationships between estranged positions. There is much wrong, however, when it stumbles into an ugly position without honouring the complexity of the ethics and human concerns. Agitation ought to be for a purpose, and this was conversational arrogance. If you mess up, you "eat crow", as they say in the US. That's a golden rule, and I have had to eat loads, and will have to eat more before the true position can be heard once more.

Ed Miliband has opened up great possibilities with his handling of the Murdoch affair. There are now dreams to dream: about the BBC as a regional force for the public interest and for local accountability, vocational training and broadcasting of music; of a renewed local press funded by local banks and owned by local people; of introducing a balance of interest within every institution, in every sector; of a bold Labour politics that brings hope and energy to the people and is worthy of their renewed ­respect and trust.

It ill be a relief to many that I intend to take a vow of silence for the summer. I will reflect on what I have done right and what I have done wrong. And I shall learn from my experience. I will ask how I can help Labour generate a winning agenda by bringing politics and power to people who are alone and bereft, and a vocation and childcare to those without assets. For the vices of arrogance, vanity and carelessness, I am sorry.

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and director of the Faith and Citizenship Programme at London Metropolitan University

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and director of the faith and citizenship programme at London Metropolitan University

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right

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 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right