Out of my comfort zone
Adventurer Simon Reeve goes live in Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds
Vodka terrorism sounds like a bar in Magaluf. Simon Reeve calls it an occupational hazard. “I’ve been held up by nut jobs, gangs and terrorists, but I’ve experienced a lot of situations where people force booze down your throat,” says the best-selling author and broadcaster, who recalls a particular visit to the president of Moldova.
Expecting a stiff chat with a bloke behind a desk, he wasn’t looking forward to it. Instead, Simon found himself learning how to fish on the little lake behind the president’s humble villa. Then out came the Moldovan cognac.
“He was convinced it had a huge future internationally. He started cracking open bottles in the kitchen and he really got me and the team quite properly hammered. He was quite insistent, he was the president of Moldova for God’s sake, you’ve got to go with it.
“He was pouring glass after glass. He only let us go because his wife came back from the supermarket carrying shopping bags and scolding him for not being at work, and teasing the poor foreign TV crew. That’s the most enjoyable threatening situation I’ve been in.” Simon’s had more than his fair share of misadventures on his travels to the most remote and extreme corners of the planet these past 15 plus years. Not bad for somebody who’s biggest ambition on leaving school at 17, with no real qualifications, was to be a van driver. “I couldn’t even get a job doing that, I was completely hopeless. I still have the feelings and fears I often had when I was a mucked up lad. I was in a right old state and had no idea what I was going to do with my life,” says the presenter, whose BBC series have been broadcast in more than 60 countries.
After a list of short-term jobs – working in a supermarket, a jewellery shop and a charity shop – he sorted mail for a national newspaper, and began researching and writing in his spare time. After finding two foreign terrorists on the run in the UK, he began investigating subjects like arms-dealing and nuclear smuggling, terrorism and organised crime. By the age of 19 he was one of the paper’s youngest staff writers.
A landmark moment in his early career was his first book, The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism, which predicted the rise of a then unknown Al Qaeda. Nobody took notice at first. Then September 11 happened and he found himself pushed onto TV, which eventually led to discussions about making series for the BBC.
“There was bucket loads of luck involved in the career I’ve had since, being almost 30 and having my own hair and teeth helped,” he says selfdeprecatingly. He plays down his success often during our chat, praising the incredible work of everybody behind the scenes for making even a “muppet” like
him look professional. “TV’s entertainment, it’s all a bit shallow. There was a lot of hard work as well and seizing opportunities when they arose. If I look at the lad I was it’s extraordinary. I can’t really reconcile it.”
Growing up, money was tight. His dad taught at a London comprehensive school and his mum worked part time at a local hospital. Holidays were spent at the same place in Dorset every year, which he describes as beautiful, cozy, classic British seaside fare.
“We didn’t travel aboard when I was a kid. I went on one camping holiday in France but that was it. I didn’t get on a plane until I started working. I’ve travelled to something like 120 countries now. The young me would be astonished that I’d get anything like this sort of job. The old me is still pretty amazed. Everything you do helps guide and shape you.
“I had a deeply unimpressive background and I’m the least educated person on TV, I would’ve thought. I didn’t go to some sort of telly presenters school, I’d been working for a long time before the telly came knocking at my door. Hopefully it gives a bit of hope to anyone else who left their teens without any qualifications that if you apply yourself, and with a prevailing wind, you can get places in life.”
Now a renowned adventurer, he admits he’s “slightly” addicted to travel. “I’ve got an itch I enjoy scratching. I love the thrill of experiencing somewhere new, the people, the sights, smells, sounds and tastes, it’s all intoxicating.” He’s laughing, even though ‘travel’ has necessitated eating everything from zebu penis soup, to grilled squirrel.
“I like to think the enthusiasm I have for going on these long, tiring but incredible journeys has really helped in the years since because they’ve had me back for repeat gigs. I’ve made something like 120 programmes for the BBC alone, so I feel really blessed.” Simon is also a WWF ambassador, and winner of a One World Broadcasting Trust award for outstanding contribution to greater world understanding, and the Royal Geographical Society’s prestigious Ness Award.
He admits taking risks, going to extremes to show us what’s happening around the world, its beauty and its ugliness, never its beigeness. He’s not foolhardy or an adrenalin junkie though. “Nobody who knows me would ever say I’m the bravest person. I’ve got into some very weird situations before I started working on the TV. Maybe I’m a bit crazy for memories, the experiences we bank from travel.”
He thinks there’s the risk we talk ourselves out of having adventures, tuning into the voice of doom in the media. The world is a much more welcoming and safer place than he ever imagined before he started travelling extensively. Trust your instincts, take sensible precautions or you’re not living the richest life you can. “We live in a country where thousands of people are hospitalised every year putting their trousers on in the morning. We’ve just got to get things into perspective. Yes, there are risks going on a journey but there’s also a risk of just rotting or stagnating at home.” Simon is now embarking on a live tour, sharing his adventures with audiences throughout the UK, including in Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds. For all his strange and wonderful experiences, he says you’d have to be mad to not find standing in front of a live audience, seeing the whites of their eyes, intimidating. “I’ve done quite a lot of talks over the years but there’s still something quite terrifying about the idea of doing my first theatre tour. But I like being pushed out of my comfort zone, experiences where my heart has a little bit more of a tick, so I’ve got to man up to this challenge,” says Simon, who’ll be sharing inspirational, funny and shocking anecdotes and tales.
“I’m going to be backed up by some behind the scenes footage I’ve been shooting and no doubt there’ll be some photographs wheeled out that will be humiliating for me, but I can live with it. It can’t be worse than going into a prison in Honduras guarded just by a bishop, can it?”
‘Maybe I’m a bit crazy for memories, the experiences we bank from travel’
NSee An Audience with Simon Reeve at the Ipswich Regent, September 29; Southend’s Westcliff Palace, September 30; The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, November 7 and King’s Lynn Corn Exchange, November 20.
Simon Reeve in Mogadishu
ABOVE: Simon Reeve with guards in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, one of the most dangerous places in the world. Somalia is still largely controlled by warlords, but is recognised as an official country by the rest of the world.