Margaret Thatcher leaves Downing Street for the last time. Photo: Getty Images.
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Where were you when she left Downing St?

Piers Morgan, Tony Benn, Billy Bragg and others tell us where they were on 22 November 1990.

Malcolm Rifkind

The day before she went she had a meeting individually with each member of her cabinet. We knew as a result of that discussion that she was considering stepping down before the second ballot, but I only knew her decision the following morning.

We had gathered in the anteroom outside the Cabinet Room for a cabinet meeting as we normally would, and at that point we still did not know if she was going to stand for the second ballot. She arrived in the anteroom and then went through to the Cabinet Room, and we followed. Normally the cabinet meeting would start with the formal business, but on this occasion she said she had a statement that she'd like to share with us, and that's when she announced that she was stepping down.

In making that statement she actually broke down – just for a couple of seconds, and I think it was Willie Whitelaw who passed her her glass of water and she collected herself and then carried on. She was really remarkable. Having made her statement, she began the cabinet meeting as normal, and for the next hour or hour and a half, it was as if she didn't have a care in the world.

At the end of formal business, we would normally have gathered our papers and left immediately, but because it was the final occasion, we sat around chatting informally.

I was one of those who – I didn't say, "You should step down," but that was the thrust of what I was saying. She asked, "If I stand again, will you support me?" I had voted for her in the secret ballot in the first round. But I said to her, "I can promise that I will never vote against you," meaning that I would abstain. She says in her memoirs that what I said was "some small comfort", rather sardonically.

Like many people, I had mixed feelings about her resignation. I feel she was the best peacetime prime minister of the 20th century, and at most times I'd have gone to the ends of the earth for her. But she was sometimes very difficult, and towards the end, in those later years, those times became more frequent. So I think the decision to step down was the right one.

Paddy Ashdown

I was walking through Glasgow Airport when it was announced over the Tannoy. The entire airport burst into spontaneous applause; it went on for about five minutes. There was real heart in this. It wasn't only clapping, but shouts of joy as well. People were hugging one another and shaking each other's hand. It was as if the city had collectively won the FA Cup.

Helena Kennedy

I was at the Old Bailey, acting for a gangland boss in a series of armed robberies. At lunchtime someone came into the Bar mess and announced that Mrs T had resigned. There was wild jubilation, a cheer went up and wigs were tossed in the air. Even Conservative lawyers felt she had finally lost her purchase on reality and had to go. I was exhilarated. She had become such a hate figure.

Even police and prison officers were expressing pleasure to see the back of her. But there was my client, sitting with his head in his hands. "I'm gutted, sheer gutted. That woman put the Great back into Britain. She was tough. You 'ave to be. She didn't put up with all them slackers and wasters on the dole. Them immigrants. She loved this country, just like Churchill did. They've stabbed her in the back, that shower of nonces in the cabinet. You have to watch yer back when yer at the top."

He ranted on about the absence of testosterone in male Tories and the size of Mrs Thatcher's balls until we were called back to court. "'Elena, always remember to watch yer back. It's yer mates that always do for you in the end."

Roy Hattersley

All I can remember is that I did not believe it. I was driving into the House of Commons and a television journalist, complete with camera, seemed to shout, "She's gone." Who could she mean? Not Margaret Thatcher – or at least not gone permanently. I had seen her on television, the night before, saying she was staying. Surely her going to Brussels, Washington or Grantham would not be worth the fuss. I assumed the journalist had got it wrong. It sometimes happens. Then, in Neil Kinnock's office, one of his people told me it was true. I rejoiced – which was a mistake. Had Margaret Thatcher (and the poll tax) remained, Labour would have won the 1992 general election.

Piers Morgan

I was running the Sun's Bizarre show-business column at the time, and the newsroom was absolutely explosive all day long. Kelvin MacKenzie was the editor, and always loved Margaret Thatcher, as did his boss Rupert Murdoch, so there was a real sense of sadness and anger. I felt curiously disengaged from the whole thing. My professional world was gripped by far more important things, like whether Bros were going to break up or not. But, on a personal level, I felt sorry for her that she was leaving in such demeaning and treacherous circumstances. I think she later went slightly power-mad and bonkers, but that should not negate the good things she did, the real sense of pride she brought back to the stamp "Made in Britain".

David Owen, from Time to Declare, 1991

Margaret Thatcher . . . had been brought down over the European Community, not the poll tax. She had beaten me in the 1987 election and there is from the vanquished to the victor a certain gallantry due, and in my case genuinely felt. I sensed at times we were partners in the counter-revolution and I shared some of her convictions. Nevertheless, I did not share her attitude to a whole range of social and civil liberty issues.

Margaret Thatcher's downfall was due to hubris. Her excessive self-confidence was by then being flaunted day by day in the face of friend or foe alike. The tragedy that the Greeks identified followed: Nemesis.

A N Wilson

I was working as a journalist on the London Evening Standard when Margaret Thatcher fell, so I was able to get into the House of Commons gallery and watch the drama of her final Commons appearance before she left office. I had never voted for her, but she struck me as truly magnificent on a human level. Her qualities of personal greatness outshone what you might think of her "policies".

Peregrine Worsthorne

My immediate reaction to the news – which I heard while sitting at the editor's desk in the Sunday Telegraph – was to write a piece saying that this act of modern "regicide" would rightly put the Tory party out of office for a generation. Almost certainly she would have lost the next election, but that would have done much less long-term damage to the party than the horrible spectacle of her treacherous colleagues, one by one, stabbing her in the back.

As it happened, I think I may have been the last person – outside of her family and staff – to visit her on her final night. It was a painful experience. Normally it was she who brought the proceedings to a close. Not on that night. I thought the long silences would never end. Finally, walking down the grand staircase after a farewell photograph, I ran into Carol coming up, carrying a string bag, which, she said, contained "Mum's cold chicken supper". The servants, it seemed, had already decamped.

Will Self

Sorry, can't remember – it was during the lost years (mine and hers).

Tony Benn

I was in London. My diary describes the occasion as follows:

"I was in the middle of an interview about the war in the Gulf for Dispatches on Channel 4 when my secretary burst in to say Margaret Thatcher had resigned. Absolutely dazzling news and it was quite impossible to keep my mind on the interview after that.

"To the House, which was in turmoil. We had the censure debate, and Kinnock's speech was flamboyant and insubstantial. Thatcher was brilliant. She always has her ideology to fall back on; she rolled off statistics, looked happy and joked. I spoke myself but the House was empty."

Lady Carla Powell

I was not very surprised when Margaret Thatcher resigned – Charles had been with her in Paris when the news came through that she had failed to get the majority she needed in the Conservative Party leadership election. The night before her resignation Charles came home from No 10 well after midnight and told me he thought it was all over, although she was going to sleep on her decision. He went in at 6am the next morning and rang to tell me she had made up her mind to go. He was pretty emotional about it for a normally buttoned-up Englishman.

I found it hard to believe that someone who had towered over British politics for so long could so easily be toppled by a cabal of frightened Lilliputians. It taught me that politics is as much of a dirty business in Britain as in any other country.

A L Kennedy

When Margaret Thatcher finally fell off her perch – or rather was pushed – I was out of the loop. At that time I was working as a writer with groups in hospitals and prisons and various types of centre, or visiting isolated writers with disabilities in their homes, so every day I saw people being ignored, bewildered, defrauded, bullied and humiliated by the benefit system, failed by what was left of the NHS and the welfare state.

I was helping people to write – which allowed them to vent, claw back a little dignity, maybe start making more demands, maybe have the satisfaction of creation – but it also woke them up and made them more aware of their grim situations. The days were long. And badly paid. And I had the least of the problems in any given day.

On the day she went I was getting a lift home through Glasgow and I noticed that people on the pavements were all smiling – laughing – folk were, in fact, dancing. They were making a point of dancing in the street. Literally. With strangers. Angry, on-your-grave dancing. Still here and you're not dancing. And in the car we turned on the radio and heard the news. Those people were still dancing, even in the early evening. And it did make me feel happy, but not that happy. I didn't think anything would be different in the morning . . . and it wasn't.

James Naughtie

I was in the editorial meeting for The World At One. Just after 9.30, someone noticed a strange piece of copy on the Reuters financial wire, of all places, and tentatively interrupted the meeting to say that the prime minister seemed to have resigned. Panic, excitement, adrenalin rushes . . . and then the ruling that Radio 4 couldn't mount a special programme at 10am because we wouldn't have enough to go on! So the news bulletin told listeners that the Thatcher era was over, and they then listened to a programme about birds until we were allowed to hit the airwaves at 10.30.

Looking back, it still seems inexplicable, and would strike producers today as utterly barmy. Even then it was bizarre, though we soon got into our stride, decamping to the green off Parliament Square and rolling interviews that went on all day, it seemed. But I still remember not getting on the air quickly enough . . .

Kitty Ussher

I was at my desk in my tiny little room, in my first year of university. I was trying to read something very complicated when a friend burst in shouting: "She's gone, she's gone!" I had Radio 1 on and there was a terrible 20 seconds, trying to find Radio 4.

After that we went out on to the streets in Oxford, normally a very reserved place, but that day there were just gaggles of people standing on the street talking to each other and celebrating.

All the day in the TV room we watched the news unfold. Someone placed a Thatcher Spitting Image candle on top of the TV and as the day wore on it just melted all the way down. We all had a great day, except one of my Tory friends who just stayed in her room and cried all night.

Iain Dale

I remember having had rows the night before the resignation with two Tory MPs who owed their seats to Margaret Thatcher, yet intended to switch their votes away from her in the second ballot. I went home to my dingy flat in Walthamstow feeling angry and let down – almost tearful.

The next morning, I was at my desk in Grosvenor Gardens (I had just set up a lobbying company) when I heard the news on the radio. The world stood still for a moment. I wasn't surprised that she had stepped down, but it was still a shock. Only a few days before, my three-year-old niece, Emma, had asked: "Uncle Iain, is it possible for a man to be prime minister?" We were about to find out.

Peter Preston

I was standing in the Guardian newsroom when John Cole told me she was out. I thought that the long Downing Street deep freeze could finally be over for the paper. I'd been inside No 10 only twice through the Thatcher years, once because the president of Italy, an ex-journalist, wanted to meet me, once because Bill Deedes got to choose who went to his farewell dinner. Now, maybe, normal relations might be back on the menu. That would make an immense difference to what we wrote, and how we thought – because, simply, we'd have to stop to listen more.

She'd only been to my office once, too, as it happened, a staff conference meeting while she was still opposition leader. "This room could do with an element of defenestration," she'd announced, bafflingly. It turned out to mean she was too hot and wanted a window open.

Simon Heffer

I was in Brisbane awaiting the start of the first Test match between Australia and England of the 1990-91 tour. With great foresight, my then editor had decreed that nothing much would happen in politics that winter and that I could spend part of it, therefore, writing about cricket.

I recall eating a room service dinner (I was trying to write a preview of the Test match) in a state of shock, watching on television film of Wapping, the miners' strike and the poll tax riots. I knew the rest of the Tory party, and I knew what was coming. I was not disappointed. The Australians I met were in disbelief, and mostly asked if she could have a retirement job running Australia.

England were thrashed in the Test match. I arrived home on the morning she left Downing Street in tears, and the man we now call Sir John Major left No 11 for the Palace.

Lynsey Hanley

I was in a history lesson at secondary school. Our teacher, Mrs Green, came in and said: "I don't know if anybody's interested, but Mrs Thatcher's just resigned." And the whole place just erupted. It felt like the end of this huge oppression, which sounds ridiculous – we were only 14. But it really was this massive feeling of relief, as big as when the Berlin Wall came down. The funny thing was, a lot of the parents loved Mrs Thatcher, because they were able to buy their council houses.

Michael Portillo

I was in the thick of things and I think my recollections might be worth something, so I think I will save them. Sorry!

Charles Kennedy

I was relaxing in the bath at my London flat when the newsflash announced the dramatic news. Before I'd had time to digest the enormity of what had happened, the phone rang. It was one of my closest friends – an ardent Scottish Nationalist – who was happy enough, but amazed by the perfidy of the Tories. We speculated about who would now emerge as her successor, agreeing that this would probably be an Alec Douglas-Home moment. So, step forward Douglas Hurd. That chat, looking back, was proof positive of how many of us Scots have never really understood the Tory party.

I had resigned as editor of the NS and saw the television news pictures at home after shopping. I actually felt sorry for Mrs Thatcher, watching the stricken old woman scuttling into the large black car, her power apparently over. So I was not sorry to miss Charter 88's impromptu celebratory party that night, I didn't even know about it.

Stuart Weir

I was teaching at a primary school in Kilburn. One of the teachers ran into the staffroom waving the Evening Standard with the headline that Thatcher had resigned. I suddenly noticed smiles on faces that I had never seen smiles on before. I rejoiced, too, just to stay in the vibe, but I had mixed feelings. To my mind – and I still feel this way – Thatcher should have faced the people, not be dragged offstage by a bunch of guys trying to hang on to power. Like her or loathe her, Mrs T gave Britain its groove.

Bonnie Greer

I remember coming up out of Westminster Tube station holding the Evening Standard, and it was the front-page story. I was looking at the back page and holding it out in front of me, and this group of women was looking at the front of it – a group of grannies from the north of England down for a day trip, as it turned out.

One of them came running up to me and said, oh, is it true, is it true? And I said yes it is. They were all whooping and beaming. Then at that moment a black car went past, and in it was the Queen Mum. So they went from whooping about Thatcher to whooping about that – I think it must have been the best day of their bloody lives. Then I was doing something on parliament green, and it was like a television studio, with cameras everywhere and MPs popping up to give their tuppence worth.

How did I feel about it? Wonderful! Not quick enough, in my view.

Peter York

Newsnight had convened a round table of the usual suspects to give their thoughts on the lady's political passing. I composed what I thought was a rather good conceit. Thatcher wanted a revolution within a revolution; she was always saying, "Let's redo this, let's not rest on our laurels." So I said, "Mrs T was a Maoist" – the kind of sarcastic soundbite I prided myself on.

Back in the green room, musing on what a clever chap I was, I was set upon by a rather attractive, clearly very right-wing American woman. She berated me for my sarcasm and told me, in a roundabout way, that I wasn't fit to lick the hem of the Great Lady's robe. Throughout this she was supported by a stern woman who looked to me like a classic north London left-winger.

It turns out that the "American" lady was the very Canadian Barbara Amiel – not yet Lady Black – and the stern north Londoner was Melanie Phillips. Shamefully, I can't remember who else was on the panel. But I do remember those two women and how the rest of the panel were entirely obliterated by their force field. Fitting, when you think about the circumstances.

Niall Ferguson

In 1990 I was a fellow of Peterhouse – one of the few bastions of Thatcherism in British academic life. The night she resigned the mood at High Table was despondent. Rather a large amount of Château Batailley was consumed and then I and John Adamson sat slumped in my rooms and listened to every single recording we could find of the "Siegfried Funeral March" from Götterdämmerung. As far as I was concerned, that was the night that Britain gave up any hope of seriously reforming its postwar institutions.

Stephen Pollard

I was in a tiny room with three members of the then shadow cabinet (I was a researcher for a Labour MP at the time), watching a tiny black-and-white TV. They were ecstatic, as if a dictator had been overthrown – although one had the perspicacity to say a few moments later that the next election was no longer in the bag.

My own view was less exultant. Far from hating Mrs Thatcher, I always felt that she had been a blessing for the country: a leader who had done exactly what was necessary, and which no patrician Tory or, even less, Labour PM would ever have been capable of.

Billy Bragg

I was in bed in a hotel in Dublin called Blooms. A friend of mine rang from England and said, "Switch on the telly," so I leaned over and switched it on. And there she was, tearfully resigning. And I must say that cheered me up no end. So I got out of bed and went round the corner for a celebratory fry-up, a full English – or a full Irish, I suppose.

The best thing was that I had a gig that night in Belfast. I came on stage holding the Belfast Telegraph above my head, and said, "She's resigned" – and the place just went mad. The adrenalin running through me, I think I could have done ten rounds with Mike Tyson if he'd been in the dressing room.

Belfast was a great place to be that night – people were literally dancing in the streets. It had an incredible vibe; I just don't think a gig in London would have been the same.

David Lammy

I was at SOAS, reading the first year of my law degree. I remember coming out of a lecture, when a real buzz started going around. A huge group of us ran down to a room with a TV to a really powerful scene: friends of mine, students and professors, crying tears of joy.

I had grown up in Tottenham just a street away from the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985, and had been involved in campaigns against the miscarriages of justice that convicted the Tottenham Three. By the time Maggie resigned, my friends and I at SOAS had been marching against the poll tax, campaigned for retrials for the Birmingham Six, had gone to the Court of Appeal when the Guildford Four were released. When Thatcher vowed to "fight on and fight to win" we thought we might never be rid of her – which is why we were so emotional when she finally went.

Anthony Seldon

I was teaching a lesson on Hitler when it happened. Somebody burst into the room and said: "Thatcher is gone." Everyone was completely silent, even though we knew it was on the cards. I said something pathetic like: "You'll remember this moment for the rest of your lives." I felt strangely moved – I thought she was beginning to get it right, beginning to cut free from many of the people around her and beginning to articulate what she truly believed in.

David Peace

I was a student at Manchester Polytechnic and I was living in Rusholme, in Manchester. I am pretty sure we went to the Hacienda and I am pretty sure Dave Haslam played "Bye Bye Badman" by the Stone Roses and "Margaret on the Guillotine" by Morrissey, and I am pretty sure we cheered and danced and partied like 1979 had never happened. And perhaps there will be similar scenes when she dies.

I did not mourn her resignation and I will not mourn her death, but nor will I celebrate and cheer in blame and hate. For it is much too late now and, to quote Chateaubriand, one should only use contempt with economy, because of the large number of people who deserve it. So I reserve my contempt for those who came after, for those who should have known better.

Roger Scruton

I learned of Margaret Thatcher's resignation in the same way as most: from the news. I was in England at the time, just beginning a new way of life which involved leaving the university and branching out as a self-employed writer and jack of all trades. Mrs Thatcher had not a little to do with this since, as one of her vocal supporters, I had in effect ruined my university career, and as a result of her policies I had discovered how to live outside the university in any case.

I was naturally upset by her resignation, but it convinced me that the old farts who ran the Conservative Party were just as chronically self-interested and anti-patriotic as the yuppies who were wrestling for control of the Labour Party. It was a great time to say "A plague on both your houses", and to recycle the Thatcher idea as a cherished memory rather than a pious hope.

Bel Mooney

I'd just got back from a meeting at my daughter's school when my then husband, Jonathan Dimbleby, rang to say Mrs Thatcher had resigned. It would be false to say it came as a total shock. We knew of rumblings.

I remember feeling first that it was time she went and that to resign was the right thing. A brave thing. But I never shared the visceral hatred of her which poisoned rational political discourse, so I did not share the mood of vicious glee on the liberal left.

As a feminist, I could not help but admire her. I could feel compassion for this woman who had outlived her time and pushed loyalty too far. Not everything that went wrong could possibly have been her fault.

John Harris

I was a 21-year-old undergraduate and part-time music journalist at the now-defunct weekly Sounds. What I most clearly remember is Cathi and Trish, the paper's two in-house Goths, giggling maniacally and singing, "Ding dong, the witch is dead." I was a bit less thrilled. My hope had been to see Thatcher – and Thatcherism – beaten in an election, and this end to the story made me quietly feel cheated.

Brian Walden

I was nowhere exciting, unfortunately, I was just at home. I switched on the television news and there she was. I wasn't surprised by that stage, although in a sense it was extraordinary – she'd stood for three elections and won them all. But by then there was growing hubris, and of course the poll tax, and she'd just become so unpopular. It wasn't anything to do with Europe, which is often cited as the reason. The Tory party wanted to win the election, which is why they got rid of her.

My overwhelming feeling was that there was bitter civil war within the Tory party. And that went on for a long time afterwards, for about 15 years – and that's a high price to pay. Less so now, but it's taken a long time to put out the fire. And that's because Cameron is going to win: the prospect of victory puts a stop to civil war, doesn't it?

Lady Annabel Goldsmith

I found out that Margaret Thatcher had resigned when I came home from walking the dogs and switched on the news. I was deeply upset for three reasons. First, she was an inspirational leader who was driven by ideals and her unshakeable determination. Second, I knew her personally through my husband, Jimmy Goldsmith, and beneath the armour was a kind and decent human being. Third, it made me so angry to see a strong woman brought down by a bunch of scheming, second-rate men.

David Aaronovitch

In the autumn of 1990 I was the BBC's head of political news, shuffling between the news centre in White City and the Westminster operation. So I was in a Tube train carriage when my pager went off with a loud buzz, and supplied me with the two words "Thatcher resigns".

I couldn't just sit there and say nothing. "She's gone," I told the seven or eight people sitting round me. A young black woman opposite looked serious, and then asked, shyly: "She can't come back, can she?" "No," I told her. Only then did she allow herself a smile.

Roger Law

I was at work at Spitting Image, on the modelling bench. I had a phone call from my producer Geoffrey Perkins, who is sadly now dead. He said: "We finally got rid of her. She's finally stepped down."

It was a kind of relief because everybody was sick to death of her. But you knew that she'd dismantled the whole fucking lot. I grew up in a mixed economy, where you paid higher taxes in return for services, and she just dismantled the whole fucking thing. It's abundantly clear that you can't just have expansion for ever.

To celebrate when she'd gone, we had an exhibition at the Barbican called "Cutting Edge". We had a tableau based on Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, and we had all the cabinet members there who'd brought her down. We had all the puppets. And Denis Thatcher was there, drunk under the table.

The irony is that all the shit we're in now started with Reagan and Thatcher – and now she can't remember a fucking thing.

Interviews by Kate Ferguson, Alyssa McDonald and David Patrikarakos.

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Thatcher: 30 years on, the final verdict

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 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Thatcher: 30 years on, the final verdict