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The façade cracks

David Cameron is widely accepted as a “moderniser” and as having heralded a new kind of Conservatism. But are these changes quite so deep as he would have us believe?

When, in August, Peter Mandelson found himself at the same restaurant – the Taverna Agni, on the Greek island of Corfu – as the shadow chancellor George Osborne, the unlikely meeting was “by chance, not by choice”. Contrary to reports, the dinner, with 20 others, did not involve Mandelson “pouring poison” about Gordon Brown into Osborne’s ear (though Osborne attacked certain senior Tories, according to some of those present). Instead, the two politicians, who had spent little time together before, discussed approaches to effecting and managing change in their respective parties.

Unlike Osborne, who has spoken to several journalists about the dinner since then, Mandelson is reluctant to reveal the substance of what he considers to be a private conversation. But in his interview with the New Statesman last week he did give a hint of his verdict. “[The Tories] have managed to change their image rather quickly . . . but I don’t think they have done the equivalent major changes [as we did] and I don’t think they have carried the party entirely with them.”

Suddenly, at the end of the party conference season and following a dramatic reshuffle in which, against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis in living memory, Gordon Brown has partially re-established his authority, it is the Conservatives rather than Labour who are under pressure for the first time in more than a year. “The tide may be turning,” one senior Tory conceded this week. “I used to think we were definitely going to win; now it is less clear.”

Osborne has long been keen to portray himself as a moderniser within the Conservative Party, in the image of the young Mandelson. Yet he has always maintained, along with David Cameron, that the Tories do not need “a Clause Four moment” comparable to when Tony Blair symbolically abolished Labour’s commitment to nationalisation to prove to the electorate the party had changed and was ready to govern. Instead, the Tory leadership appears to believe, as Labour’s did through much of the 1980s, that the voters were wrong but will eventually come round to the party’s way of thinking.

The lasting reluctance of the media properly to scrutinise the opposition means that Cameron will almost certainly go into the next election having failed to take on his party on any single major issue. Two years ago, he called for “significantly less” immigration, abandoning any short-lived attempt to dampen rhetoric on that issue. And in April this year he used an article in the Sun to denounce the government for lying over “uncontrolled immigration”. In the same month, he ordered a return to the party’s “core vote strategy”, a focus on traditional issues such as immigration and Europe, issues so unsuccessfully pursued by his close ally William Hague, and Michael Howard and Iain Duncan Smith before him.

He presides over the most anti-European parliamentary party in Conservative history, having based part of his leadership campaign on the party’s withdrawal from membership of the centrist conservative grouping in Brussels. In the midst of a series of expenses scandals involving the Tory MP Derek Conway and three Tory MEPs, Cameron pushed hard, again in the Sun, for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. He said that having a referendum would help to “clean up politics”, but this was a distraction.

On last year’s messy education row, in which Cameron attempted to halt the creation of more grammar schools, he subsequently retreated, under pressure from the right, and went out of his way to emphasise that this was “not a Clause Four moment”. He said: “I don’t go round picking fights [with my party].”

More generally, Cameron’s talk of a “social revolution” – his desire to heal our “broken society” – simply amounts in practice to little more than a hardening of support for the traditional family: tax breaks for mothers to stay at home and for married couples. Even global warming and the environment are no longer priorities. In May, Cameron failed to mention the words “environment” or “climate change” in a 1,200-word statement about his priorities for government, and his adviser Zac Goldsmith has been sidelined.

Before the conference season, Cameron appeared firm in his belief that Labour would very soon erupt into full-scale civil war; and he himself had otherwise just to remain calm and patient and the election would be his to win. But if the cliché is true that oppositions don’t win elections; government’s lose them, as many Tories believe, then the question might be asked: why did Mandelson, Blair, Brown and Alastair Campbell work so assiduously to create new Labour?

Conservative MPs on the pro-European left of the party are concerned about its fundamental policy direction. They say that the prospect of genuine – including fiscal – change was killed off at the crucial moment when Cameron audaciously entered the leadership contest against Kenneth Clarke in 2005, and, on the advice of the Tory MP and Times writer Michael Gove, now the shadow secretary of state for children, schools and families, adopted Michael Portillo’s socially liberal agenda. Portillo, about whom Gove wrote a biography, had also refused to back Clarke for the leadership in 2001.

So, instead of the wholesale, root and branch change that Clarke embodied – as with Neil Kinnock with Militant in the 1980s, and Blair with Clause Four in the 1990s – the Tories remained committed to a right-wing fiscal policy, especially cutting inheritance tax for the rich.

Some of the more thoughtful Tories privately worry that it is an ideological commitment to free-market fundamentalism that leaves the party open to Labour’s attacks over, for example, the shadow chancellor’s comment that “people make loads of money out of the misery of others”, as well as expose the Tories’ short-sighted failure last month to condemn the practice of “short-selling” shares in the City.

On the right of the party, meanwhile, the disaffected David Davis is increasingly emerging as the focal point for dissent. Davis, who fell out with the neoconservatives in the shadow cabinet, led by Gove and Osborne, and whom Osborne is known privately to attack, is keeping his head down after his crusading by-election victory. Early this week, he was ona fact-finding mission in Kabul. But at Westminster someof his allies say there is nothing “modern” about the way in which some members of the shadow cabinet privately support the government on 42-day detention and ID cards, but without either the confidence or the integrity to say so publicly.

At the same time, on the left, Clarke, who also opposed ID cards, would have made the totemic commitment to tax and spending cuts. Further, he would not have made the risky commitment to sharing the proceeds of growth that enables Brown to portray the Tories as cutters of investment in hospitals and schools. And it is unlikely that the former chancellor would have allowed the Tories to be as exposed as they now are by the international financial crisis.

ILLUSTRATION BY DAN MURRELL

***

This week, with Labour more united than it has been for nearly a year, there are the first signs of panic and discord inside Conservative Central Office, as well as a return to what Mandelson calls “Tory dirty tricks”. The most obvious dirty trick was the leaking to the Sunday Times that Mandelson had criticised Brown over dinner in Corfu. This is not true.

The second, less noticed, dirty trick concerns the role of Michael Ashcroft, who is back in Central Office as deputy chairman. On 29 September, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary, Cameron’s Money Men, one of the revelations of which was that Ashcroft was using Bearwood Corporate Services, a subsidiary of one of his companies in Belize, as a conduit through which to funnel funds into the Tory party in an apparent violation of the spirit, if not the essence, of electoral law. Sir Alistair Graham, the former standards committee chair, told the programme that the almost £3m donation should be investigated by the Electoral Commission and returned by the Conservatives.

In the process of making the film, Dartmouth, the production company, had a researcher donate money (two instalments of £167) to the Conservatives. Central Office found out about this and leaked the story about the researcher to the papers to distract from the larger issue of Ashcroft. Iain Dale, the influential but partisan Tory blogger, wrote about the researcher earlier this month, and the Mail on Sunday followed up, tracking down the researcher to her home. Labour sources blame Cameron’s press office for what happened and for the persecution of the researcher. “How did the papers get hold of her address and a private letter written by her to the treasurer of the Tory party?” asks one Labour figure. “Do the Tories, and David Cameron personally, who is quoted in the piece attacking Channel 4, feel comfortable with aiding photographers using long lenses to secretly photograph a 24-year-old woman who hasn’t broken any law outside her private home address?”

Channel 4 sources asked, too, why Central Office is so exercised about a £300 donation via a third party, but is failing to investigate the alleged £3m donation via a third party which they received from their own deputy chairman, on whose residency and tax status Cameron continues to remain silent.

***

Early in Cameron’s leadership, there was a fascinating moment during a little-watched interview on Sky News during which, unusually, he was asked questions “from the left” as opposed to “from the right”, a process rarely, if ever, repeated since.

The interviewer quoted the new leader as saying that he wakes up every morning and asks himself: “How can I change the Conservative Party today?” So how would he change the party, he was asked. It was a question Tony Blair would have relished. But Cameron faltered and – showing one of those occasional flashes of rage – sought to terminate the interview.

Cameron, who does not suffer from a lack of self-confidence, would do well to remember that there are those who oppose him in the Conservative Party and who are not convinced by his inconsistent and often opportunistic leadership. On the left, Clarke remains the true hero. On the right, Davis lurks dangerously on the back benches, as he did when he was an effective public accounts committee chairman under William Hague.

The role of Boris Johnson should not be forgotten, nor should his carefully planned denunciation as “piffle” the Tory leader’s claim that Britain is a “broken society”. Johnson’s unilateral sacking of Sir Ian Blair as Metropolitan Police Commissioner, his rallying call at the party conference against Labour for seeking to “punish the capitalists and to bring in new regulations to fetter the banks”, are further indication of his ambition and a reminder that his position as Mayor of London makes him the most powerful Conservative in the country. In the autumn last year, as Gordon Brown led by 10 per cent in the polls, the former Conservative Party chairman Michael Ancram was among those publicly to criticise the Cameron leadership. He broke cover with an “alternative manifesto”, espousing a return to traditional, hard-right Tory values. Cameron suddenly looked vulnerable. But Brown was undermined by equivocation over when to call an election, the 10p tax fiasco and a series of blunders – not all of which were his fault. Cameron, so jittery for a period, recovered his composure, aided by a media-friendly conference performance.

But as Mandelson said last week: “What goes down can come up”; and whatever they say in public, shadow cabinet members accept that the return of Mandelson, as well as Alastair Campbell, is a cause for anxiety in the Tory ranks. “The Tory revolution has taken a puncture. It is by no means wrecked but there is certainly more of a contest than there was a month ago,” says Peter Hitchens of the Mail on Sunday.

The battle lines are now drawn between the experience of Brown and other senior ministers, and a callow Conservative leadership that has won over the media but not changed the party as extensively, or fundamentally, as it would like many of us to believe. Ultimately, the electorate will decide. But in aweek in which George Howarth has called for an end to hostilities within the Labour Party, senior Conservatives from both the right and left in the party are beginning to accept that, far from being won, what will be an especially hard-fought general election campaign has not yet even begun.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks

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 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks