Interview: Alan Johnson

The one-time postman became the Labour darling of the Tory press as he contemplated the top job. But

Alan Johnson greets me with a broad smile. It is not a fixed smile, one that denotes discomfort, but nor is it natural. It is a professional smile. We chat mischievously about the prospects of the other candidates, wondering out loud about which of the other four runners will get the required number of nominations to stand.

Tape on, I go straight into the issue of the moment - the treatment and behaviour of the nation's youth, following a Unicef report com paring the UK unfavourably with other nations, and the spate of gang killings in our inner cities. Johnson enters the caveat that some of the report's findings are based on old statistics. Fair enough, perhaps, but I still invite him to discuss the various concerns. Instead, he offers this: "What the report shows is the damage you can do with 18 years in power from the right, and what good you can do with long periods in office from a government that's determined to tackle it." Blame it all on Thatcher? "Theirs [the Tories'] is a disgraceful record," he retorts. "It would be really strange if we were suddenly to shut up about it when such a report is released."

Johnson talks passionately about the achievements of Sure Start children's centres. "All the things we're doing in education, from Sure Start to higher education and through to adult skills, is about closing the social class gap," he says. "Closing that gap has to start at a very young age because most analysis shows that usually it's at the age of 22 months that a bright kid from a working-class background starts declining vis- à-vis a less bright kid from a more affluent background." He cites data showing that literacy and num eracy standards have risen more rapidly at schools in deprived areas than elsewhere. "In terms of absolute poverty, 700,000 children have been lifted out of poverty. On relative poverty, it's much more difficult when everyone's income is rising . . . It's clear we're getting to the disadvantaged. Are we getting to the most disadvantaged? We need to do more work there."

It riles Johnson that the Conservatives are now talking about quality-of-life issues, with the ind ulgence of the media. He calls David Cameron's agenda "synthetic": only an Eton-educated Tory leader would see the world in this way. People on incapacity benefit and single mothers, Johnson says, "are almost knocking down our door to say, 'We want to get back into work.' I know it's become a mantra, but it's true that the best form of welfare is a job. Christ, we campaigned on that for donkey's years, from the foundation of the party through the Jarrow marches - the dignity of work and the obscenity of people being cast on the scrap heap."

We move on to drugs. Given the links bet ween gangs and drugs, should the approach change? "I don't know what more we can do on drugs policy," he replies. "I suppose we could stop a few party leaders smoking cannabis."

It might seem strange that a man who has a visceral loathing for the Conservatives looks chuffed when I remind him how right-wing newspapers wrote fawning pieces about him last autumn as the most likely "anyone-but-Gordon" candidate. It took Johnson a good two months, following the tension surrounding the so-called Brownite "coup" of September, to decide to stand only for the number-two job, thus removing the Blairites' last hopes of finding a credible rival to the Chancellor. I wondered if he had been in no hurry to disappoint them. "Why should I? I was getting some good coverage, lots of profiles, and nobody really knew what was going to come out of it anyway." Before the party conference, "there were all kinds of people throwing their hats in. I might have wanted to throw my hat in as well."

Why he is different

So what now is his pitch? What makes him different from the other candidates? Johnson says he likes them all. I suggest he ought not to be so bashful. "Modesty comes naturally to the working classes," he insists, and then says: "I could complement the leader; I've got experience; I could help us continue to win elections; I've got links in the trade-union movement; I've been in five different constituencies in my 35 years of party membership and I've been in government for eight years."

He plans an overhaul of party structures if he does win, and says he is setting up a commission led by the MP Shahid Malik. This will report back, before the official launch of the campaign, on a number of matters: the recruitment of new members, particularly wo m en and people from ethnic minorities; a strategy for marginal seats; a new structure, including the role of the party chair; an improved policy-making process; and strengthening links with the trade unions to ensure that the ties are as much emotional, social and to do with policy as they are financial. "We should use the leadership elections to renew the party and make sure it is in the best state possible to fight the next general election. I've got my own ideas, but I also want to listen to ordinary members to get their thoughts."

What about policies? Which areas are ripe for change? "I think we have a very good record. We have an excellent record." No mistakes at all? "Well, I don't think there have been any huge mistakes. By and large, we've played it well, over the past ten years." I suggest that voters, and Labour members, have moved on from 1997 and politicians reading from scripts. They tend nowadays to appreciate a little openness, and perhaps the lack of it is harming the party's performance at the polls. "I think we're in very good nick in the polls," he says. This is on the eve of one survey putting Labour support at a 14-year low.

Undeterred, he suggests that public displays of candour are not in the party's best interests. "If you're going to have an election as leader, then it's the opportunity for your political enemies - as we found out when Charles [Clarke] said the things he said about Gordon - to mark down what candidates say about each other. You have to be absolutely sure that there is an appetite for this and I don't think there is an appetite for a contest. You certainly don't have a contest for the sake of it. There's nothing wrong with coronations."

He launches a swipe at Peter Hain and others. "You can go for the cheers and applause of your members, and even your ex-members, but the British public are watching. It's totally different if your party is in government, so there's no case for picking over the past ten years, where we went right and where we went wrong." Really? "Well, we could have this debate. What difference would this debate make to somebody on a good income, in a good career? Probably it doesn't make any difference to some of your readers. It doesn't make any difference to you, probably. It makes an awful lot of difference to the people I represent. It makes an awful lot of difference to people from my kind of background."

Middle-class lefties, in other words, indulge in criticising Labour because ultimately, they do not care if it loses. That, one might say, is a moot point. As newspaper clippings love to point out, Johnson was orphaned at the age of 12 and was then raised by his elder sister. He married at 17 and by the time he was 20 he had three children. He left school with no qualifications and became a postman. "I raised three kids on a council estate in Slough. My foreground, my background, my hinterland, are all working-class. I'm not on the dinner-party circuit in Islington."

Money talks

Johnson was one of new Labour's first modernisers, and the only senior trade-union leader to back Blair's scrapping of Clause Four in 1994. One of the party's achievements, he says, has been to combine the needs of "aspirants" with the less advantaged. He recalls canvassing in the 1983 election in his home area of Slough. "The people on this estate felt that Thatcher had given them an opportunity to buy their own council houses. And we were still in theoretical discussions endlessly about Nicaragua and Cuba."

It is only when we talk about City bonuses and other business practices that Johnson concedes that all might not be perfect in the new Labour garden. Last year, the private equity company Permira bought Unilever's UK and European frozen-food business. A few days later, it cut the pension provision for workers at the Birds Eye plant in Johnson's Hull constituency, and promptly closed the factory down. The GMB has been mounting a vocal campaign against Permira to draw attention to its "asset stripping".

Johnson is keen to support the union. "I don't know what you can do to deter this, but it's good that there's a focus on this. It's also good that the GMB is focusing on what's happening with hedge funds and what's happening with private equity companies: that's absolutely right. It ought to be a subject for debate."

He concedes that Unilever "probably would have closed the plant anyway" if it had remained the owner, but talks of a duty of care to employees, which costs money. "You were dealing with an employer that had a feel for the community and that had good employment relations and dealt properly with its trade unions. One of the reasons they [Permira] sold Birds Eye off was because they couldn't face up to the decisions they needed to take. They ducked out of them." Johnson says politicians should exercise caution. "If you get it wrong you just find the same things are happening but you've damaged an important part of the economy." Still, by backing the GMB campaign, he is hoping to change the mood in the country, and put pressure on such companies. "It's public opinion that changed people's attitudes to treating employees properly."

As Johnson lets himself be a little more candid, impressions of him improve. My colleague Martin Bright and I have now seen all five declared candidates. (We are waiting for Hazel Blears to declare.) Some have used the opportunity for grandstanding and headline-grabbing. Others exercised caution and were defensive. Dispiritingly absent so far has been vigorous debate on the way ahead. There is still time. But if a party in government for a decade closes in on itself during its deputy leadership contest, and avoids a meaningful contest for leader, it will have only itself to blame for reverses in the polls.

Alan Johnson: the CV

Born 17 May 1950, London
1962 Orphaned at 12, he is raised by his elder sister in a council flat
1968 Becomes a postman. Joins Union of Communication Workers. The following year, moves to Slough
1992 Aged 41, becomes youngest general secretary in history of the UCW
1994 Only senior union leader to back abolition of Clause Four
May 1997 Elected MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle. Becomes parliamentary private secretary to Dawn Primarolo at the Treasury
July 1999 Appointed minister for competitiveness, Department of Trade and Industry
2000 His proudest achievement: Trawlermen's Compensation Scheme, providing £46m for those who lost their jobs after the cod wars
June 2001 Minister of state for employment and the regions
June 2003 Minister for higher and further education
September 2004 Joins cabinet as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
May 2005 Appointed Trade and Industry Secretary
May 2006 Reshuffled again, becomes Education Secretary
June 2006 Says the idea of him becoming prime minister is like "putting the Beagle on to Mars - a nice idea but doomed to failure"
November 2006 Launches deputy leadership campaign
Research by Sophie Pearce

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.