Webb essay winner: Goodbye to all that

The workhouse is gone, but child poverty demands attention.

Over one hundred years ago Beatrice Webb headed the group that published the Minority Report. Webb claimed that the purpose of the report was 'to secure a national minimum of civilised life open to all alike, of both sexes and all classes', by which she meant 'sufficient nourishment and training when young, a living wage when able-bodied, treatment when sick, and modest but secure livelihood when disabled or aged' . The report represented one of the first attempts to determine and tackle the root causes of poverty. Unfortunately Webb's innovative claims went widely ignored at the time of their publication. The majority consensus remained that poverty was due to a weakness of individual character. Webb was a strong believer in the claim that poverty is a result of systemic factors. She believed that if the systemic factors were addressed then poverty could be ended. Time has allowed for major reforms and today Webb's ideas raise some important questions about what constitutes poverty and how it can be measured within the UK.

Modern day measures of poverty tend to focus on the number of people who earn below 60% of the median income. Income is important and should be considered when addressing poverty, however the individual causes and components of poverty deserve a greater appreciation. As a starting point it is worth using the most popular living standards index that exists today. The Human Development Index (HDI) is very well-known mainly due to its simplicity. It exemplifies how any good index should be easy to understand if it is going to be practical. The HDI has many qualities which suggest that Webb would have used it as a poverty index. The use of literacy rates and gross enrolment ratios are good indicators of 'training when young'. Life expectancy from birth is an all-encompassing indicator as it says something about whether there is 'sufficient nourishment', 'treatment when sick' and a 'modest ... livelihood' being provided within a society. Additionally the income index within the HDI acts as an indicator for the 'living wage when able bodied'.

However one problem with the HDI is that it does not take into account the inequalities that may exist within a seemingly well-functioning society. This means that the HDI does a bad job of addressing Webb's point of any national minimum being 'open to all alike, of both sexes and all classes'. A promising alternative is a disaggregated index. A widely cited example of a disaggregated index is the Gender-related Development Index (GDI). However Webb described her beliefs about wages with the phrase, 'Equal Pay for work of Equal Value in Quantity and Quality'. She stated that her main concern was for the 'national minimum' to be open to men and women alike, rather than men and women necessarily earning the same . However Webb did recognise that the phrase 'Equal Pay for Equal Work' had been used in her time to unfairly prohibit women.

If Webb were alive today she would more likely have preferred a disaggregated HDI that calculates different indexes for different income groups in society . Income inequality is arguably the bigger factor affecting UK poverty today as a citizen's disposable income is what has a greater effect on their ability to take part in social activities and buy necessities for daily life. The disaggregated HDI for the lowest quintile income group would therefore be a good poverty index keeping Webb's beliefs at heart. This type of HDI would identify whether a 'national minimum of civilised life' is being achieved in the UK.

On the other hand there is the question as to whether the equal weighting given to life expectancy and GDP per capita by the HDI is reflective of Webb's views. As life expectancy is such an all-encompassing factor it is only fair that it has greater weight placed on it. Not only that but GDP per capita is also the indicator that most suffers from using a disaggregated HDI. This is because GDP growth is simply an increase in output by a nation. If a nation increases its output in weaponry then this will do little to help the living standards of the poorest fifth of the UK . More specific to Webb is the fact that GDP per capita doesn't say anything about the income for the unemployed, the sick and the elderly. Therefore a better indicator is required.

The indicator that should replace GDP per capita should be one that is more appropriate to poverty. Considering Webb's initial desire for the more helpless members of society to be given support she would probably feel heartened by the claim that she needn't worry about the livelihood of the aged. Recent data suggests that this claim is accurate, going so far as to say that it is less likely for pensioners to live in low-income households than non-pensioners . This is of course something that should be monitored regularly to ensure its validity, but at the moment a UK poverty index doesn't have to make as many allowances for the income of elderly citizens. This conclusion may actually be considered an example of Webb's triumph in impacting modern policy as her consideration for the elderly helped to signal the foundations of pension schemes today.

The outlook is not as bright for the ill and the unemployed though; the original victims of the workhouse. In fact long-term unemployment and illness go hand in hand in some parts of the UK. Statistics have suggested that approximately three quarters of working age people who have been receiving out-of-work benefits for two years or more are either sick or disabled . One of the problems with long-term unemployment as a result of a sickness or disability is that it may lead to a vicious circle whereby the person is never able to fully recover due to their time spent away from professional or social activity. Unemployment in itself is not totally deplorable though. In fact short-term unemployment may actually be viewed as an opportunity for people to find better jobs for themselves. For people in this position there is a Job Seekers Allowance ensuring them a 'living wage' at all times.

However it is long-term unemployment that can contribute to poverty and lower living standards. To some extent even Webb appreciated the Majority's sentiment towards poverty when she advocated 'detention colonies...for able-bodied people who refused either work or training' . This suggests that Webb's desire was for sickly or disabled citizens to be preparing themselves for after treatment when they would be able to get back into work. The onset of citizens defrauding benefit services in modern times makes this an issue that needs addressing.

Therefore the indicator replacing GDP per capita is the percentage by which long-term benefit recipients' increases or decreases over the period of one year. To create an indicator for long-term benefit recipients there should be maximum values of increase and decrease specified which can be used appropriately to create a new component of the poverty index. Similar to the way one creates an index with GDP per capita data to compile the HDI. The only difference is that an increase in the number of long-term benefits recipients pushes the index down whereas an increase in GDP per capita pushes the HDI up.

Webb's use of the phrase 'living-wage' is also important here and is embedded within the motivation to reduce long term benefits recipients. The minimum wage exists in order to mark a level of subsistence that is sufficient for all citizens. This means that getting people working means getting people earning, at the very least, the 'living-wage'.

On the other hand Webb specified the importance of treatment for those who are sick. The current index appears to have more of a focus on ensuring people are working rather than actually improving in health. Fortunately this issue is implicitly dealt with in two ways. The first way is through the fact that the UK has a universal healthcare system which means that treatment is accessible for all regardless of income. The second is the realisation that the long-term benefits recipients' indicator indirectly takes into account the quality of healthcare provision in the UK. If the healthcare system was to deteriorate and patient waiting lists grew longer, rendering more citizens incapable of working, then this would contribute to an increase in the number of long-term benefits recipients.

The final, and possibly most important, issue that the index should address is 'sufficient nourishment ... when young'. The UK has seen a vast increase in the level of child poverty over the years and it is suggested that almost a third of all children in the UK are living in poverty . This means that the UK has a proportionally greater number of children in poverty than many other developed countries. The issue is serious enough to be given an individual indicator within any UK poverty index.

However there is a difficulty that arises in indexing child poverty. One might choose to use an indicator that focuses on the number of children in child poverty, or alternatively one could use an indicator that measures a major cause of child poverty. The latter type of indicator seems more appropriate when one considers Webb's tactic of approaching poverty by looking at structural causes.

The difficulty then arises in determining what causes are sufficiently worthy of being measured. There are numerous causes of child poverty within the UK. The main causes are often the same as the causes of most types of poverty; low income possibly caused by unemployment, lack of institutional support and social division. However there are also causes that are unique to child poverty such as higher divorce rates and greater numbers of teen pregnancies. The proposed index already considers long term unemployment and education levels within the UK which goes some way in raising public awareness about some of the main causes of child poverty.

However the final indicator will focus on causes specific to child poverty. To identify these causes within the realm of Webb's thinking the key word that needs to be recognised is 'nourishment'. Nourishment can refer to physical or emotional factors and when taken in a modern day context it refers to a good standard of living for the young. The indicator will therefore focus on factors that inhibit nourishment. The first factor to be included in the child poverty indicator is the number of underage pregnancies that result in actual births. It is being used because, naturally, young mothers find it extremely difficult to nourish their children in the same way as an older, more settled woman would.

The second factor used is the concentration of poor children in the UK. It is sometimes the case that poverty breeds more poverty. In an area with highly concentrated child poverty the poor children only see other poor children; effectively depriving them of social nourishment. Currently half of the children in the UK who are eligible for free school meals are concentrated in a fifth of the schools . The proposed way of indexing this is by using a technique very similar to the one used when calculating the Gini coefficient. A line of absolute equality is formed which is based on all schools having an even proportion of children on free school meals and then the actual data is plotted. The ratio of the areas between these lines can then be used to create a concentration coefficient.

The third and final factor is the number of lone parents within the UK. Recent data suggests that 46% of children in lone parent households are living in poverty whereas within two-parent families the figure is 22% . The number of lone parents and the number of underage pregnancies that result in actual births would both be indexed in similar ways. The percentage increase or decrease each year is expressed as a fraction of some maximum; similar to the way in which the long-term benefit recipients' indicator is indexed.

These four components can be used in an effective way to increase awareness of poverty. The first component is education and looks at gross enrolment ratios and literacy rates. The second component is living standards and uses the indicator of life expectancy. The third component is unemployment and is considered by the number of long-term benefits recipients. The fourth component is child poverty and uses the number of underage pregnancies that result in birth, the number of lone parents in the UK and the concentration of poor children. The four components are all weighted equally. The three indicators for child poverty are also weighted equally within their respective component.

Additionally the components of education and living standards are disaggregated and only focus on the poorest fifth of the UK; stemming from Webb's intention for a national minimum. After all if the index suggests that the UK's poorest citizens are living longer and learning more then the level of prosperity for the whole UK is either at the level suggested by the index or, more likely, even higher. The remaining components of the index are not disaggregated as they are not as directly affected by income.

The issue of poverty can be promoted by this index in the same way as the HDI. The minimum value possible is 0 and the maximum is 1. If the number given by the index increases one year then poverty, as defined by the components that make up the index, has decreased. Politicians hoping to increase the index number could only do so by increasing how long we live for, getting people back into work, improving access to education or tackling the causes of child poverty.

To conclude, this poverty index is designed with Beatrice Webb's initial vision. However it also recognises that she worked at a time when poverty in the UK was of an absolute nature. Her insight into the UK system with the Minority Report helped to recognise that the poverty people were experiencing was structural and it was up to the state to change it. She helped create the ideas that were behind the welfare state and the universal healthcare system. In doing this she achieved the structural change she had intended and it is because of her efforts that the index suggested in this essay is so particular to the UK. Not many countries can boast being a welfare state, having universal healthcare and a minimum wage. If Webb were alive today to compile her own poverty index for the UK she would probably smile at how UK citizens can keep out of the workhouse and not worry about the Poor Laws, that is, before turning her attention to the problems of child poverty and social cohesion.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...

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 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...