Folk memories of ancient battles are still a crucial element of Serbian national identity. Photograph: Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum
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The Belgrade train

A journey to the troubled heart of the Balkans.

At Cortanovci in November, the Belgrade train enters the wet woodland of the Danube shore. Egrets stand at ease by poplars. Warblers scatter as the train passes. This Serbian district of hills and orchards is known as the Fruška Gora, or “fruitful hills”. It is also a national park, though there’s nothing at Cortanovci to announce the fact. I’ve glimpsed the crossing-keeper only once in all the years I’ve taken the train: a woman in a stripy headscarf, she sat on a plastic chair in the sunlight among chickens and buckets, knitting.

The express trains no longer stop here, but if you follow the woodland track downhill from the platform you come across traces of an old beauty spot. A stream flows over stones that have been patched together like home-made cobbles. Old man’s beard loops between the trees. Near the water, signs of human activity appear: here a pile of firewood, there a hut made from branches and parts of an old car. Moss has climbed the car-door windows like a stain. On the bank, overgrown concrete plinths suggest the cafés that used to line the shore. Only one remains. Inside its cabin, a portable TV blinks from a high bracket. You can sit on the remains of a terrace and drink a brown sludge of coffee, probably made with river water.

The proprietor smokes at a polite distance. For once, in this talkative country, there’s nothing to say. The river holds his attention and yours. Sleek tenant of some of the most contested land in Europe, the Danube is not Serbian, any more than it is Austrian or Slovak or Romanian. Here it is a working waterway, navigable by immense barges loaded with shipping containers. They glide past, engines chuntering. Deliveries from downriver and even the Black Sea head for the industrial quarter of Novi Sad, inconceivable among the trees of this riverbank but no more than 20 kilometres upstream.

The Macedonian novelist and essayist Aleksandar – Sasha – Prokopiev and I found ourselves drinking coffee in the quiet of Cortanovacka Obala one evening in September 2001. We had escaped from a conference being held by the new, post-nationalist new Serbian Writers’ Association in a former local government holiday villa on the scarp above us. Elsewhere the western world convulsed and panicked. Here the late air was muggy under the trees, bright over the water. Clouds of midges caught the light. After a while, two young guys appeared, carrying an assortment of rods and tools. They had a couple of big fish each: carp, probably, or the bottom-feeding fleshy fish the people in these parts call cpaπ. Before we saw them we heard them, calling their dogs: Ide Goran, ide Zoran. The moment they noticed us they started hustling: beautiful fish, you can eat them here. They were dressed in the odds and ends the poor wear everywhere. One had an old shirt and trousers coloured with oil, the other was in a T-shirt and Chelsea strip tracksuit bottoms. They stared at us cheerfully, even as we declined in a fluster of excuses. Finally, Zivot, good health, they shouted like a kind of shrug, parting, and Zivoti, Sasha answered, bouncing a little in his seat and raising his cup.

I found myself wondering what they had done in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s: they must have been in their twenties already by the time the conflict ended, and it’s the poor and uneducated everywhere who are first recruited to fight. Often, here, I’m grateful for the way people keep what they’ve seen unspoken; yet those secrets are frightening just because they exist. This is true even of the people I’m closest to. I couldn’t, for instance, mention my unease to Sasha. That evening his country (its official name, at Greek insistence, is now the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or “Fyrom”) was still at war. It was something he couldn’t bear to speak about. As in its north-westerly neighbour Kosovo, a fault line had been reopened between the mainly Orthodox Christian, ethnic Slav population and the indigenous Muslim communities, known as Albanians, largely concentrated then, as today, in the region close to Kosovo and Albania. Even as I thought about this, the evening news on the café TV switched to pictures of his home town: the capital, Skopje, in its river basin ringed by mountains, among them the highlands around Tetovo, scene of one of the last offensives of the war. Sasha smiled and shook his head and looked away.

The fishermen were archetypes, doing what countrymen have done everywhere through the centuries. They could have been taken from the foreground of some 18th-century engraving. The Fruška Gora is a habitable idyll, the kind of landscape that humans have imagined in their search for paradise since before the Torah became the Bible. Eden, after all, was an orchard. But this evening its beauty was a kind of con. The overgrown waterfront made it clear that no one was holidaying in paradise. The tapping and knocking sounds of building in the orchards behind us was a sign not of prosperity, but unemployment. Local people were out of work not only due to the loss of tourist income, but because of Nato’s bombing of local industrial plants and the disappearance of a pan-Yugoslav market for Novi Sad’s manufactured goods. Men were fixing up their houses because there was nothing else to do – and because there were refugees to be accommodated.

For Serbs, the war had ended only two years earlier; their dictator Slobodan Milosevic had been gone for less than a year. The beautiful river we sat by, the water table that feeds the Fruška Gora’s orchards, had been polluted by the depleted uranium Nato used in its bombs. The fishermen’s catch, the fruit, even the water in our coffee could have been conta minated. Who knows? Perhaps it was here and now, on this peaceful evening by the Danube, that Sasha ingested, and I did not, the trace of contamination that would lodge in his thyroid and flower as tumours around his face and neck in the decade to come.

“It has been estimated that one-millionth of a gram accumulation in a person’s body would be fatal. There are no known methods of treatment for such a casualty” – this according to a memo written on 30 October 1943 by physicists working on the US nuclear project. Since Nato’s bombing campaign, leukaemia rates among newborn babies in the former Yugoslavia are said to have risen from one per 1,000 to between ten and 15 per 1,000. Recently Sasha told me, once again evading my eyes, about an epidemic of men with prostate and thyroid cancers in Skopje. Even his friend Mickey the mafioso, with whom we danced and drank at Sveti Naum one August Sunday, has gone into the clinic Sasha knows too well, and never come out.

Now the railway line breaks out of the woods and on to the rolling plain of the Banat, the breadbasket of the Balkans. The last of the Fruška Gora is a bald arable ridge sinking into the great level that most characterises Vojvodina, this ethnically mixed northern region of Serbia. It makes a fine contour, subtle and sensuous like the landscapes painted between the world wars by Sava Šumanovic, a Serb artist from nearby Šid, murdered in 1942. I keep a postcard of Šumanovic’s Autumn Viewon my desk, and its cream and gold remind me of the time we visited the little Austro-Hungarian border town, really more of a village. It was in Šid’s Art Klub, over another coffee, that Nenad Velickovic – novelist, youth worker and an ethnic Serb who remained to endure the siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996 – lectured me on the presumption of the foreign NGOs that had flooded into his home town: the outsider never truly understands.

The first time I travelled across the Banat, just after the fall of Milosevic in October 2000, the whiteness stretching on all sides dazzled me. This was my first encounter with the openness of the south-east European plain. It’s Pannonia, the site of a huge lost inland sea, Raša, a translator for the UN peacekeeping forces, told me, lifting a hand from the steering wheel to gesture. Pannonia, he explained, stretches from Vienna to Belgrade and from Zagreb to the north-western corner of Romania, and though centred on the Hungarian steppes it encompasses Vojvodina, central Croatia, western Transylvania and corners of several other countries where they fall between the mountain ranges of the Alps, the Carpathians, the Adriatic Dinarides and the Balkan Mountains in the east.

Raša’s wool collar was stylishly turned up; an expensive scarf covered his chin. Yet despite his smart white four-wheel drive with its UNHCR number plates he was a typical Yugoslav mixture, with a Serb surname, a Muslim first name and, as I was discovering, a very Balkan fatalism. We were speeding north from Skopje to Novi Sad along the most inappropriate motorway I have ever travelled. Single-track in each direction, it had a single, shared central overtaking lane: the worst kind of temptation for drivers of a nation renowned for machismo, and which had recently lost a war. Everyone played chicken. Cars raced towards us, and we towards them, until disaster seemed inevitable – averted only by some sudden swerve.

Apparently unconcerned, Raša continued to explain the identity of this central Balkan region. If Vojvodina is a breadbasket, its handles are gripped by Hungary in the north, Romania in the east, the Serbian capital to the south – and Croatia to the west. That northwestern border between Serbia and Croatia around Vukovar suffered the worst of the conflict between those countries in 1991; yet Vojvodina, and the fertile plain of the Banat in particular, is historically anti-nationalist, a region proud of its ethnic diversity.

In 2002, there were still a quarter of a million Hungarians here and at least three million people from other minority groups: Slovaks, Croats, Montenegrins, Romanians and Roma, but also Bunjevci, Germans, Slovenes and Muslims. The regional capital, the liberal university town of Novi Sad, was known for its desire to distance itself from Milosevic; but later in the war the bombing of its bridges and factories hardened local anti-western feeling.

At the southern tip of the Banat, beyond Nova Pazova, the proximity of the capital announces itself with a strip development of new villas, built in red clay breeze blocks. But who would settle here, in one of these tall new houses, their small grassed yards unfit for the village fruit, flowers and chickens? Without shops, without the comfort of longterm neighbours, this is no village, but an echo of city life in the middle of nowhere.

In its own way it represents a more radical social reconfiguration than the tower blocks of the communist era; and it has become home to those who live nowhere. The builders and owners of these houses are the uprooted, the transplanted: the diasporans who come back each summer and dream of returning for good. A man leans his belly on a balcony rail to watch us pass. Between him and the railway line is dusty common land, full of weeds and criss-crossed with tracks. A goat pulls on a long tether. A ditch is clogged with rusting cars, fridges and bin bags of detritus.

The every-man-for-himself straggle of Nova Pazova is nothing like the planned, communist-era new town of Novi Beograd, where the train soon pulls up at a concrete platform of unmistakably 1970s design. New Belgrade’s bug-eyed concrete tower blocks are the symbols of this dormitory district, built across the river from the old capital. It’s densely populated, and a stop here takes time and is full of noise and emotion. The dreamlike sensation of a long journey is over. Families are reunited. The unfeasible baggage of returnees – huge suitcases, crates and sacks – is unloaded, a cue for shouts and laughter. Meanwhile a couple of youths with gelled hair and sharp jackets, up for a night in town, slip into the seats behind you. No one’s going to check their tickets now.

Finally the train begins to move. The platform slides away. You look down on to the Roma settlement that occupies the wasteland beneath the viaduct. This isn’t a couple of caravans and a van parked up in the English style. Instead, streets of shacks have been put together from the materials that shackbuilders everywhere have to hand: plywood, corrugated iron, cardboard, branches, tarpaulin and rags. To the western eye it looks like apartheid. Shouldn’t Roma people live clean, comfortable lives as they keep their culture and freedom of movement? But no state is going to look after them as well as it does its taxpaying voters. The shanty town signals impasse: the failure of utilitarian solutions to address minority needs.

There have been Roma in Serbia since at least the 14th century. They were here before the Turks, who named and rebuilt the great fortress that dominates the Belgrade city scarp. Kalemegdan stands above the confluence of the Danube and the Sava, the river the train must cross to arrive in the capital. Wide brick walls, fortified with turrets, loop around the edge of a rock and face most impressively east and north, towards us. Like the fortress at Petrovaradin, upstream in Novi Sad, Kalemegdan secured the river routes that helped the administration and prosperity of the Habsburg empire. Now its castle walls enclose lawns, trees and kiosks where you can buy cola and pumpkin seeds and sometimes, for your girl or a child, a keyring with a fluffy toy attached. Old men play chess on park benches, ringed by bystanders. And lovers, of whom Belgrade always has plenty, occupy the seats in the shadiest corners, or sit together on the broken walls. When the wind carries, you can hear the zoo animals yowling at the eastern end of the park.

At Belgrade, the Danube is enormous, easily incorporating the thickly wooded Great War Island that floats just below the citadel. But it is chiefly the Sava that Belgraders proper live on and with. Wider here at its final point than the Thames is at Westminster Bridge, or the Danube under the Chain Bridge in Budapest, the Sava is a Yugoslav river. Named for Saint Sava, the princely archbishop who founded the Serbian Orthodox Church and drafted the first Serbian constitution in 1219, it starts as a racing, turquoise stream in the Julian Alps of Slovenia. After passing through Ljubljana and then Zagreb, it serves as the border between Croatia and Bosnia for 200 kilometres until it reaches Sremska Mitrovica, the town whose prison was appropriated by the Serbian army during the wars of the 1990s.

In her third-floor apartment on a corner block near the Belgrade mouth of the Sava, Marianne, a literary translator who had married into the life of the city, once gave me a glimpse of the kind of bourgeois good life envisioned by the 1930s architect of her block. Her flat was all oak and glass, a circlet of rooms that opened into each other and, repeatedly, on to views of the street and river. Although the original fittings and the bigblocked parquet floors were looking a little tired, the flat continued to model the good life, its interlocking rooms suggesting the interlocking dialogue of family life.

Further west, though, the riverbank ceases to be residential and becomes utilitarian. Here, a train arriving from the south must shunt through a series of sidings below the city rock. Warehouses turn anonymous gable-ends to the tracks where workers amble. Sleepingcars are parked up seemingly at random; curtains flap at their open windows. Beyond lie the trade fair grounds, then suburbs that quickly turn away from the river, leaving its banks to birds and fishermen.

The Sava is also where the pleasure-barges anchor. Nightclubs, restaurants, brothels – in the years after communism they were powered by mafia money and turbo-folk. The aesthetic is bling and glitz; girls with straining corsets, huge eyelashes, fake tans, and enormous voices. Turbo-folk has great tunes (it is derived from folk material, after all), great emotion and a limited palette of topics: lament, passion, nationalist longing. It makes the folk-rock giants of the British 1970s look like mincing antiquarians. Turbofolk isn’t exactly dumbed down – the emotion it works up can be almost complex, at times genuinely sweet-and-sour – but it is amped up. It’s music for drunken parties, music to make the room sway and young women pump their right arm in the air, first finger extended, as they mark the sweet spots where, deliberately breaking her voice, the singer maxes out the emotion.

Turbo-folk is playing at every wedding party you stumble upon. It’s what binds the room together when everyone is already sodden with sentiment and slivovitz. It is grandiose and unsubtle, and a quarter-century ago you could have enjoyed or ironised the vulgar sentiment and thought no more about it. But in the wars of the 1990s the music became nationalist ammunition. The new aristocracy of the time were the mafia warlords and their turbo-folk molls.

Early 1995 brought the marriage of the most famous couple from that world, the mafia warlord Arkan (real name: Željko Ražnatovic) and the turbo-folk star Ceca. Arkan, who had graduated from organised crime and football hooliganism – he was the leader of Red Star Belgrade’s notorious followers, the Delije – wore a faux-military costume. Five years later he was dead, murdered in the lobby of Belgrade’s InterContinental Hotel. Two years after that, when I stayed in the less glittering Hotel Taš, there was still a “No Firearms” sign over the door of the breakfast room, which served nightly as a casino; but the morning eggs were irreproachable. The wars, and their turbo-folk soundtrack, had a tremendous kitsch momentum, although it’s disgusting to use this term in relation to the horrors inflicted on the civilian populations of former Yugoslavia. Still, both violence and music showed detached, postmodern Europe the potency of the lowest common denominator: what happens when thousands surrender their individual judgement to vulgarised emotion.

Balkan folk songs have form as a repository of warlike memory. Perhaps the bestknown of all is “The Field of Blackbirds”, which turns a story of defeat by the Ottoman imperial forces at Kosovo Polje in 1389 into a call to arms for Serbian nationalism. An oral peasant culture, such as still survives in the Balkan countryside, is a fertile context for the transmission of history and ideas through ballad and song. This is not so different from “When Adam Delved and Eve Span”, which we’ve inherited from our 14th-century Peasants’ Revolt, or the protest ballads sung by the wives of striking miners in the 1980s.

The difference, however, lies in the degree of surrender of better judgement, of individual responsibility, that turbo-folk evokes. “History is now and England,” T S Eliot wrote, though we don’t believe him. Turbofolk singers urge us to believe that history is now and Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo. They position the listener inside the song, telling him that he is part of the story it narrates. They do this through both the words and the music, which doesn’t settle for being tuneful, or even good to dance to. Perhaps it’s easiest to think of it as something akin to soul music: a mix of the evocative national pull of folk music, the “belonging” repertory of regimental or Northern Irish marching bands and the meaningful tug of gospel. It’s music to make a lump rise in your throat against your better judgement.

Yet Belgrade also has a vibrant countertradition. Radio B92, still broadcasting today, confirmed its anti-nationalist stance during the war years not only through its news and commentary but by broadcasting western pop and rock music. In a way that got lost in the west in the 1970s, such music remains politicised here as the sound of idealism and rebellion. There is also a history of indigenous rock as critique. In the 1980s, Idoli, a Belgrade new-wave band with members from across Yugoslavia, issued songs of sardonic social commentary. In 1980 their “Retko te viðam sa devojkama” (“I rarely see you with girls”) was a pioneering gay statement in mainstream culture.

During the war years, B92 playlists moved from Prince and REM to Tricky and Super Furry Animals. Later, the radio station felt a responsibility to sanitise folk music because of the role turbo-folk had played in the war. It did so in part by issuing Srbija: Sounds Global compilations, featuring indisputably ethnographic artists.

The Belgrade train grinds across the steel railway bridge above pleasureboats still moored on either side of the Sava. Squint to the right along the northern bank and you can see a bare patch of ground, something like a building site, where the headquarters of Mirjana Markovic’s JUL party, the old communist left, was destroyed by a Nato bomb in 1999. At the time Markovic, who is still involved in Serbian politics today, was married to Slobodan Milosevic. Nato also bombed RTS, the city’s equivalent of Broadcasting House, as well as a large, army-run building out on the Pancevo road, which turned out to be not a military headquarters, but a hospital. For more than a dozen years, the ruins have been left exposed to the weather as a huge, open-air protest.

As the train arrives on the east bank of the Sava, the White City is grey with dust and petrol fumes, and dusk is settling over the scarp. Soon, it will be too dark to see the remarkable Jugendstil buildings downtown, the Austro-Hungarian villas of the embassy district, or of Knez Mihailova. On that wide pedestrian boulevard the Roma kids will be packing away their fiddles and money caps; suited men will be filling the tables of Snežana: Srpski restoran; and where the American Cultural Centre used to be before it was torched, girls in skintight jeans with tousled hair will scream with laughter down the cement arcade.

At the southern end of Knez Mihailova, where it meets the roaring traffic of the arterial Terazije, stands Hotel Moskva, the best in the city, its newly renovated green tiled roof and gilded art nouveau wall panels gleaming. The Moscow’s marble tearoom becomes a piano bar in the evenings, but the menu never changes. If you don’t want to drink you can still have a thimbleful of thick coffee and a not-quite-fully-thawed cream cake.

Below the hotel the city tips downwards, back to the Sava. Facing it is the Hotel Balkan, where in 1996 the Hungarian writer Péter Zilahy, then a young rebel taking part in the failed anti-Milosevic uprising, photographed government troops waiting under the hotel sign, symbol of the collapse of regional hospitality. Below the Balkan and the Moskva, Balkanska – Balkan Street – winds down to the railway station. You can probably see me there, toiling uphill.

Here’s the stop for the night bus to Skopje. Here’s the small leather-goods shop where I bought a most useful belt. The baklava shop. “Zlater” on the jewellers’ fascia board. The internet café. And ahead of me, huddled on its eccentric corner site, is the Hotel Prag, our usual place.  

Fiona Sampson is a poet. Her latest collection is “Coleshill” (Chatto & Windus, £10)

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once