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 regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear

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Game of Stones: The power struggle at the heart of British curling

Dynasties, scandal and “the curse” behind the scenes of the only Olympic sport you can play while eating pizza.

At the 1980 annual Canadian men’s curling championship, the Calgary competitor Paul Gowsell ordered a pizza mid-play. With tangled red hair down to his shoulders, a thick beard and in his signature plaid trousers, Gowsell – or “Pizza Paul” – had become a cult curling figure in the late Seventies.

“The rebel of the curling world” was known for his drinking and partying on the curling circuit, and rocking up to tournaments – or “bonspiels”, to give them their proper name – in his battered VW van.

Legend has it that a stray olive from his pizza on the ice lost his opponents the game that day.

Since Gowsell’s heyday, curling has professionalised. It became an official Winter Olympics sport in 1998 (the previous and only time it had this status was in 1924), but remains one of the most peculiar competitions of the season.

“We do get made fun of a lot” 

The brooms, frantic brushing, screaming from the “skip” (the captain of the team in charge of strategy), gliding on one knee, and even the equipment itself – 44-pound lumps of granite known as “stones”, which look a bit like old-fashioned irons – make for bizarre watching, as competitors release their stones before the “hogline” in an attempt to reach the “house”: the target at the end of the rink.

The etiquette is to shake hands before a game, and say “good curling”.

Its quirks are not lost on curlers, who appear to embrace the gentle mockery of their sport. The array of outlandish patterned trousers worn by the Norwegian men’s team brought a goofy humour to Pyeongchang (pink hearts for Valentine’s Day were a particular hit), inspiring an entire Facebook page of half a million Likes dedicated to their legwear. Meanwhile, the moustachioed and red-hatted US curler Matt Hamilton has been memed as Mario by his own team.


A veteran curling commentator I speak to, who does not want to be named because he remains closely involved in the sport and wishes to speak frankly, says comedic takes on curling – like the 2010 episode of The Simpsons “Boy Meets Curl”, in which Homer and Marge accidentally discover their innate talent for the game – “generally help promote the sport”.

“People definitely make fun of it! There are a lot of awesome personalities in curling and I think part of it is because we do get made fun of a lot. You kind of have to have a really good sense of humour to curl,” says John Cullen, a 32-year-old Canadian comedian and competitive curler in the world-ranked Team Joanaisse.

Every time the Winter Olympics come along, curling manages to entrance audiences. It’s one of the few sports to be played for the entirety of the Games because of its “round robin” structure (where each country has to play the other, at least once).

Curling benefits from a lot of airtime. Matches can last three hours, and there are mixed doubles as well as separate men’s and women’s tournaments.

But it also captures our imagination because, unlike figure skating or alpine skiing, we feel like anyone could have a go. Curlers don’t all look like athletes. The dedicated viewer can watch them chatting, see their anguished facial expressions – and hear them swear when they mess up.

“You still have people who make the Olympics who’ve got a bit of a belly”

“It has a big appeal for people because it seems – even though it’s not – like a game you could play, if you’re just a regular person watching the Olympics,” says Cullen, who has curled for 20 years. “Every Olympics, people think to themselves, ‘OK, if I started curling tomorrow, I could be in the next Olympics’.”

A bit like darts, he adds: “Curling is a lot more physically demanding than darts, but when you watch darts on TV, you think ‘oh these guys are drinking, they’re not in shape’.

“It seems accessible in a way other sports don’t… Curlers now are more fit than ever, but you still have people who make the Olympics who, yeah, they’ve got a bit of a belly, or they don’t really look like they spend that much time in the gym. They just kind of look like regular people.”

Adding to curling’s relatability, there are two real-life couples in the mixed doubles this year, and you can watch them bicker as they play. Norway’s girlfriend-and-boyfriend outfit Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten admit to having heated arguments on the ice (she never sweeps for him, as far as I can tell from watching one of their games – you go, sister), whereas Russia’s wife-and-husband duo Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii have had their bronze medal tarnished by the latter’s suspected doping.

When a doping scandal reaches your sport, you know it’s made it.

***

Traced back to 16th-century Scotland, the sport nicknamed the “Roaring Game” – because of the sound of rolling across ice – was played socially with stones on frozen ponds and lochs by farmers in winter, when no farming could be done.

Competitions between neighbouring communities began in the 18th century, when Rabbie Burns would play and even wrote some poetry about it, and Scots took the game across the country with the arrival of the railways. They later exported it to places as far as North America and New Zealand.

But it took until 2002 for the general public to notice curling in Britain. The Great British women curlers’ unexpected gold at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City transformed attitudes towards the sport – it was the first time Britain had won gold at the Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean’s Bolero ice dance in 1984 at Sarajevo.

 “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms”

An audience of 5.7 million people watched the tense final live on the BBC, when five previously unknown women from Scotland beat Switzerland with the final throw – since dubbed the “Stone of Destiny” – played by the skip, Rhona Martin.

“It definitely put curling on the map. We used to get wee write-ups in the back of the paper and that was it,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Ayrshire. “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms, and curling your hair, whereas now people see it as a sport because they’re more knowledgeable about the game.”


Rhona Martin delivering the Stone of Destiny. Photo: Getty

A flag-waving crowd greeted her team when they landed in Heathrow – adoration they hadn’t been expecting. They received a congratulatory message from then Prime Minister Tony Blair (“You have captured the imagination of the whole of the UK”), appeared on everything from Lorraine Kelly’s sofa to Ready Steady Cook, were put up at Claridge’s and received MBEs from the Queen, and sat in the royal box at Wimbledon.

Curling fever didn’t last long, however. The women returned to full-time work or being full-time mothers. Talk of a Hollywood movie about their victory died. Two of the five endured intrusive news reports about their marriages breaking down, and Martin (now Howie after a subsequent marriage) was at one point a “single mother living on benefits”, as put by one of her agents.

This became known as the “Curse of the Curlers”, according to the Guardian. Indeed, Howie’s gold medal was stolen from the Dumfries Museum four years ago, never to be recovered.

***

Has the curse on British curling finally been lifted?

Two dynasties of curling champions dominate Team GB this year: the Muirheads and the Smiths. Both are Scottish farming families from Perthshire, both have two or more siblings on the Olympic curling teams, and all the competitors are children of world champions: they grew up on farms about 40 miles apart, and were regulars at their local rink.

“We’re all super-competitive”

The only member of the men’s team who is neither Muirhead nor Smith, Kyle Waddell, comes from another Scottish curling dynasty: his grandfather Jimmy was European curling champion in 1979.

Eve Muirhead, skip of the women’s team, is the current queen of the dominant Muirhead dynasty. The three-time world medallist, now 27, was the youngest ever skip to win a Winter Olympic medal, when her team took bronze at Sochi in 2014. Her brothers Tom and Glen on the men’s team are making their Olympic debut.

The Muirheads’ father Gordon, a sheep farmer, is a world champion who competed at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Eve was inspired to begin curling at the age of nine.


The Muirhead siblings on their farm. Photo: Getty

Kyle Smith, the skip of the men’s team, is head of the curling house of Smith. His younger brother Cammy is on the same team. Their father David, a dairy and potato farmer, was a world champion skip in 1991, and their uncle Peter (known as “Pistol Pete” in the curling world, for his sharp-shooter-like accuracy) represented Team GB at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Known as Team Muirhead and Team Smith, they still help out with their respective families’ farming duties. While training for the Olympics, Kyle Smith fed the calves before going to the gym in the morning or milking at weekends, and the Muirhead brothers combine their sheep farming duties with training (they’re missing the lambing season to be at the Olympics). But Eve – who also plays golf and the bagpipes – prioritises curling practice.


The Smiths and Muirheads playing together. Photo: Getty

The Smiths are trailing the Muirheads medal-wise and see themselves as “the underdogs”, but there’s more rivalry between siblings than between the two families, who often play on the same team.

“I know we’re all super-competitive,” Eve tells me down the line from Pyeongchang. “We all support each other to the bitter end. To have my two brothers here is really special, I guess it makes this Olympics a little bit more special than the other ones.”

Just last season, the Muirhead brothers were on different teams and went head-to-head, competing for the same Olympic spot, which made working together on the farm temporarily tough. They had to check up on each other’s flocks while the other was training to beat them.

“Our local rink has unfortunately now closed down”

“I have learned how to wind him up over the last year so I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Thomas, the younger Muirhead, quipped at the time. All the Muirhead siblings are so competitive that no board games were allowed at home.

Curling isn’t seen as a “posh” sport, like skiing (although curling clubs have been linked to freemasonry in the past), and it’s likely that such a small pool of talent is down to the sport’s decline rather than a privileged elite.

Eve Muirhead tells me that her “local rink at Pitlochry” – where she played as a child – has “unfortunately now closed down”, and this is part of a trend in Scotland. At curling’s peak in 1993, Scotland had 31 ice rinks which offered curling. The number is now down to 22.

The veteran curling commentator I speak to says the Olympics have benefited the sport’s image, but the money spent on elite competitive curling “to ‘buy’ GB medals” in this country “hasn’t helped grassroots curling much; only a few curlers benefit”.

It’s even starker in countries with no curling legacy. China has just two curling clubs for a population of 1.4 billion and still sends teams to the Olympics. Cullen confirms this, from his experience of international play. “Once curling got us [Canada] in the Olympics, a lot of countries recognised this as an opportunity to get a medal,” he says. “So what they’ve done in some of those cases in China, Japan, Korea, is they’ve found athletes from other sports and converted them into curlers.”

***

But this doesn’t mean curling is easy; it just makes it a more competitive sport. With my only background in curling being an episode of Pingu I watched as a child (he sweeps with his foot, the innovator), I rounded up some colleagues and went to the Sliders Social Fun and Games Club at Queens ice rink in West London to try it out for myself.

The banging beats, disco ball, and giant projected episode of Pointless on a rink-side screen didn’t exactly scream 16th century loch, but we pulled on our studded grippy rubber soles and took to the ice.

While one colleague discovered that she was “actually sick” (her words) at curling, most of us found the stones impossibly heavy and rolled them nowhere near the target.




New Statesman staff curl

The author attempts to curl

After a few failed attempts, I tried a double-handed curl, but that didn’t work at all. One bolder team member developed a special “one-knee thrust” move, which worked quite well.

Even the brushing was quite tough, because you fear falling over at any moment. Some men on the neighbouring rink told us we were “rubbish”.

Essentially, curling is really hard. A lesson that adds to its status as history’s most misunderstood sport. But its players remain dedicated, and audiences engrossed. As Rhona Howie, the master of the “Stone of Destiny”, tells me: “Never, ever give up, and keep fighting, one stone at a time.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear