Now it gets really dirty

In the wake of Super Tuesday, Andrew Stephen predicts the gloves will now come off in the race for t

So we lost the 2008 US presidential election. The world, I mean. Whether it is to be President McCain or Obama or Clinton - or any of the couple of other Republicans just about still standing after Super Tuesday - US foreign policy, at the very least, will remain much the same.

True, Obama and Clinton are both committed to trying to end the war in Iraq, while McCain says that it could easily go on for, well, at least another 100 years.

But otherwise things will tick on much as before; no less an authority than the Washington Post, for example, scrupulously went through the respective foreign policies of Barack Obama and McCain’s Republican rival, Mitt Romney, and concluded there was very little difference between the two.

Had America’s voters wanted a significant change in US foreign policy, in fact, they would have voted for Republican Congressman Ron Paul - the likeable Libertarian who, at 72, is too old to care what people think and freely lambasts the US for ruining both the world and the country itself by its “imperialism” and insistence on having an “empire”. Needless to say, Paul scraped together just about four per cent of the vote in the Republican caucuses and primaries last Tuesday.

Should Iraq not flare up again between now and November - and, either way, that could help McCain and the man who may have earned the Republican vice-presidential candidature last Tuesday, Mike Huckabee - the last remaining battle is between a 60-year-old woman and a 46-year-old bi-racial man, fighting to be the Democratic nominee who will oppose a 72-year-old Republican for the White House.

I wrote last week how Karl Rove and his fellow warlocks and witches had brewed their pot in 2000 and ‘04 and come up with the “v-word” (values) as the Republicans’ highly successful mantra. This year, Obama’s very own Rove - David Axelrod, senior partner of AKP Message & Media, the Chicago company which is masterminding Obama’s campaign - has come up with a brand-new, albeit just as meaningless, word.

This time, it is the “c-word” - change - that has now become Obama’s mantra. Indeed, exit polls last Tuesday showed that Democratic voters now consider “change” to be the most important issue in the election this year. “Change is coming to America,” roared Obama in his victory speech in Chicago last Tuesday night. “This fall...we have to choose between change and more of the same. We have to choose between looking backwards and looking forwards.” Hillary Clinton, he went on, will not be able to say he voted for the war in Iraq in 2003. Er, no, she won’t: but then Obama wasn’t in the Senate to vote either way, was he?

I suspect the gloves will really now come off between Obama and Clinton until the Democratic nomination is settled - which, just conceivably, might not be until the Denver convention in August. Super Tuesday was so massive that it drained both candidates of funds, but last month alone Obama raised $37m; Goldman Sachs, which made $6bn profit from devalued mortgage security in the first nine months of last year, is Obama’s biggest corporate contributor. Exit polls, too, confirmed that Obama is the candidate of the yuppies: practically every voter earning less than $50,000 voted for Clinton rather than Obama, and those in the $150-200,000 range plumped for Obama.

The ageist and sexist cards, too, are working well so far for Obama. Exit polls showed that 51 per cent of voters between 18 and 44 voted for Obama, compared with 46.5 per cent for Clinton; by contrast, a majority of the rest of the electorate went for Clinton. Just 37 per cent of Democrats over 60 voted for Obama, in fact, compared with 53 per cent for Clinton.

Possibly more crucial, though, is that the Latino vote - currently the fastest growing bloc of the electorate, with 17 per cent in McCain’s state of Arizona and 23 per cent in California - went overwhelmingly for Clinton, by 74-25 in New York. All of which suggests that the Democrats are heading for a bruising and, quite possibly, vicious battle. Hillary Clinton has already challenged Obama to four more debates, which he will now find practically impossible to reject; the wind is currently behind Obama, but that could easily change in this era of YouTube when one wrong word can instantly smash a political career to smithereens.

McCain, for one, has a notorious hot temper that could boil over any time between now and election day on 4 November. He will have other troubles, too. “Maverick” is such a cliché to describe McCain that I’m almost embarrassed to do so, but it captures him perfectly because it explains his cross-party appeal as well as opposition within the Republicans.

He can sound frighteningly like Dr Strangelove yet, having himself been tortured by the Vietcong as a POW in Vietnam, is 100 per cent opposed to American torture of prisoners and wants to close Guantanamo - though we can surely rely on the military and CIA to dream up new, hitherto unthought-of forms of torture - but he also wants to step up the military onslaught on Iraq and “win” the quintessentially unwinnable war.

A President McCain would also keep George W Bush’s ludicrous tax cuts for the very rich, but is one of the few Republicans ready to act on climate change. Heaven knows how he would justify his fiscal promises should he be president in the looming domestic recession.

So far it has been self-promoting right-wing clowns like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter who have openly opposed McCain - last Monday, Rushbaugh devoted an entire programme to anti-McCainism - but that disaffection is now likely to spread, albeit more surreptitiously, throughout the party’s Establishment. Coulter even says that if McCain is the candidate and Hillary her opponent, she would rather vote for Clinton.

That would be one more woman’s vote for Hillary, who - extrapolating from last Tuesday’s results - has the Democratic working-class, Latino and women’s votes sewn up. Obama will now be playing the youth and c-word cards for all they’re worth, though.

It took me aback on voting day when I realised that an 18-year-old I know who was voting for the first time was just one when Bill and Hillary Clinton entered the White House in 1992; if Hillary wins two terms in the White House, 40 per cent of Americans will have known only presidents called Bush or Clinton. Nature also helps Obama, too: he looks much younger but will will be 47 on election day, four years older than JFK was when he became president.

Just as McCain has benefited from a wildly supportive media - the Project for Excellence in Journalism says that he won twice as much favourable publicity as either Huckabee or Romney - so, too, Obama has received overwhelmingly positive coverage from a press that has yet to lay a finger on him - probably, I suspect, because most reporters fear they will be labelled racist if they query his qualifications or suitability for the White House. Instead, the media has torn into Bill Clinton; it’s gone down in political lore, possibly forever, that Bill Clinton began a poisonous injection of racism into the Democratic contest on behalf of his wife.

Yet ironically, if there is one good thing you can say about Clinton, it is that he is not a racist; he was actually brought up in rank poverty surrounded by African-Americans, while Obama spent his formative years surfing in Hawaii. Yet Obama is constantly described as an “African-American,” a term used in the US to describe a black person whose ancestors were imported to be slaves from Africa. By that definition, Obama is not an African-American - but it has all been part of Obama’s cleverly crafted strategy to present himself as both black and white whenever it suits him most.

This became obvious in his first post-election victory speech at Iowa on 3 January, which he described as “this defining moment in history” and said, “you know, they said this day would never come”. That a man in suit-and-tie would win a caucus in Iowa? Or because he was bi-racial? He has since used those same words in letters appealing for funds, one of which fluttered through my letterbox the other day - but not one reporter, to the best of my knowledge, has dared asked him why his victory was so historic.

Then he preached at Martin Luther King’s church in Atlanta about how “my daddy left me when I was two years old...and I was raised by a single-parent mother ... and I needed hope” - true if you discount his Indonesian step-father and then his well-off white grandparents in Hawaii, who effectively became his parents when he was 10.

Last month I described Obama’s cleverly choreographed media events in Kenya, when an old lady widely described as his grandmother was produced. A few days ago, it was time for more photo-opportunities in El Dorado, in the heart of the frozen plains of Kansas, where his white maternal grandfather was born.

“Thank you for welcoming me back to the place my family called home,” he roared, failing to mention that he had never once been to that place before. Tavis Smiley, the legendary black broadcaster, says that blacks are sceptical of Obama because he does “not have a long-standing relationship with the black community.”

Professor Cornel West of Princeton, likewise, criticises Obama for beginning his campaign in Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield, Illinois, rather than a symbolic place of racial healing like Martin Luther King’s church. The evil legacy of slavery is seared so deeply into the American consciousness, though, that last Tuesday the African-American vote nonetheless went almost entirely to Obama.

So what next? Despite Obama’s record fund-raising last month, the Clinton campaign still has more cash in hand ($50.5m) than Obama’s ($36.1m). Conventional wisdom is that Obama’s impetus will now give him the edge in forthcoming caucuses and primaries, but a painstaking analysis by the Washington Post concluded that Clinton will benefit most. There was something for both sides in last Tuesday’s votes, after all: Obama won the most states, but Hillary won hundreds of thousands more votes.

Super Tuesday II comes on 4 March, when the delegate-rich states of Texas and Ohio go to the polls. Then comes Pennsylvania on 22 April, and such is electoral fever that it’s already too late to book a room in Harrisburg for that date. Should no clear winner have emerged by then, the Clintonistas will start furiously arguing that votes by Democrats in Florida and Michigan should count, which party rules currently forbid - or that the states should go back to the polls, which this time would be within the rules. The fun, my friends - as John McCain would say - has hardly started.

Election 2008

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Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty

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 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty