Simon Reeve: “We are too connected as people now to ignore the rest of the world”
The globetrotting author and travel journalist Simon Reeve talks to Exposed about the insights gleaned from visiting over 120 countries and what to expect from his upcoming live show.
You grew up in Acton, West London – obviously not the most outdoorsy of places. Where do you think the initial interest with exploration came from?
I think it stemmed from realising the experiences and emotions you can enjoy as a result of getting outside and going on a bit of a journey; it was by actually doing it that I really learnt to love it. I’d been on holidays before my first travel programme, but I hadn’t been on adventures quite like that, and it was really from the very start, from day one of the first ten series that I did, that I found it fascinating and exciting. I didn’t come from a wealthy, travelling family; I didn’t get on a plane until I started working as an adult, even though many assume that I’m a public school boy who went to a big university. No, my background is very different.
Not a big Geography or History buff at school, then? Boy Scouts at least?
No, I wasn’t really into anything! I was a kid who really struggled, had a really tough time in my early to mid-teens, and I was a very naughty lad who got involved with a gang. I carried a knife and got into quite a lot of trouble.
Do you ever reflect on why you might have gone down that path?
Well, it wasn’t really like an active choice. I didn’t come to a crossroads or anything. It was just lots of little life events that can turn and shape your existence, and I think we often imagine that kids who end up on the wrong side of the law have made some fundamental choice, but it wasn’t like that for me. It was just that I didn’t get caught and grew up in a tricky area at a tricky time and lots of people were carrying a blade and that was because we were all scared, frankly, and, you know, I was mugged and beaten up and all sorts of stuff happened.
It’s a pertinent topic with rising knife crime levels in London and across the UK today. You’ve got a bit of personal insight into how easy it can be to get dragged into that world.
I think it’s difficult for or it’s dangerous for a middle-aged television presenter to start droning on about what he thinks young people today are doing, but I think the issues have been around forever. Kids look for identity, they look for meaning. Although people think childhood is a safe time, I actually think if you slap on a school uniform and you walk through urban streets every day, then you can become a right target for kids from other schools and other gangs, especially in difficult areas. There are lots of issues involved, but in my case I had a tricky time, a lot of mental health problems, and I guess it gives me a little bit of an insight into the issues affecting kids today. However, I think more than anything, I have been very lucky in life and I feel that too many people imagine where they are today is just the result of their incredible talent and hard work and they can’t recognise the sheer bloody fortune in coming from a particular set of circumstances and basically being lucky. I’ve travelled this planet and met people who are far cleverer and funnier than I am and yet they live in a village in the middle of bloody nowhere and may never escape that set of surroundings. They’re condemned by a bit of bad luck whereas I’m privileged; I come from what is still one of the best countries in the world to be born in, at one of the best times in the history of our species.
Can you tell us how you got into making your first travel programme, Meet the Stans, which first aired back in 2003.
I got into working on the telly as a result of writing books; I wrote a number of books on dark and depressing issues about terrorism and biological warfare and organised crime and that led to discussions with the BBC about making TV programmes. For Meet the Stans I went on a journey around Central Asia, the area to the north of Afghanistan, and visited Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, with the idea of blending adventure with social issues. So I would go on very genuine journeys but I was working on these stories of culture, conflict, poverty, whatever is affecting the people in the place we’d been to – and many years later, we’re still making the same programmes.
I’d imagine one difficulty with travel journalism is trying to condense a country’s culture or story into a 45-minute programme. What in your opinion are the most challenging aspects of what you do?
I think you’re right, as you can’t hope to try and condense Russia, for example, into three one-hour programmes. It’s completely mad but that’s just part if television: it’s not a book, it’s not a PhD dissertation, and in TV we often have to make some bigger compromises. But that said, we are broadcasting to a healthy chunk of people watching in Britain and 60+ other countries around the world to help them get interested in a place and hopefully that will help them to learn a bit about it and love our whole world a little bit more as a result. The biggest issue for me, though, on a professional level, is trying to fairly and accurately show the consequences of what 7 billion human beings on this planet are doing to our world, trying to give a sense of the scale of the changes that are underway at the moment. Another difficult aspect personally is meeting somebody, listening to them share a difficult life story with us, and then we get up and leave them. It is inevitably the nature of the job we do, but it means I have to leave feeling like a parasite.
I guess you try to rationalise that with shining a light on their story, which can help raise awareness of a subject or issue, but there’s still a bit of guilt upon seeing people and their most vulnerable and leaving?
Yes. It is true that there is value in shining a light and sharing somebody’s story from another part of the world with viewers elsewhere, but I still feel it’s not a part of the process that I’m proud of. I often wish we could take people with us or radically change their life.
The biggest issue for me, though, on a professional level, is trying to fairly and accurately sho the consequences of what 7 billion human beings on this planet are doing to our world
How important in the current political climate is it that people, if they can, take the opportunity to travel and learn about other cultures? Is there a sense that your job has taken on a greater level of importance from light entertainment to educating against an “Us vs Them” mentality?
I think it’s a really good question about whether it’s more important now, as I think it’s always been important, but I think it’s a more complicated world now in many ways than it has been, simply because there are a lot more of us moving at a faster pace. I think tracking and trying to stop and explain those changes is really vital and I think – I hope – that we have a very tiny role to play in doing that. People are watching at home who do give a damn and do care about it. I think there is an attempt by some to turn inward, and not just by putting up borders outside, but by focusing on the country within. I can understand that desire, but we are too connected as people now to ignore the rest of the world. Whatever you think about the mass movement of people around our planet, we definitely need to know about the stories and situations where other people live because it completely, dramatically, affects us in ways it might’ve not have done in the past.
Looking at the blurb for the live shows there are mentions of various escapades but there are three that stand out: being chased by pirates, hounded by the mafia, and bombed by Colombian barons. Out of that trio which was the worst?
I think the scariest – and the most annoying, in a way – was being bombed by Colombian barons. There was one specific moment when a car bomb went off outside a place where myself and the film team were having dinner and we’d left our cameras behind so couldn’t document any of it once we got up from under the tables. I do talk about some absurd and dangerous situations I’ve been on during my journey in the theatre show, but I also talk about some inspiring people that I’ve met; I also talk about why I think travel is still such a wonderful thing to do, as it is an ongoing, daily education to be travelling. I learn something every single day, and that is one a hell of a privilege.
An Audience with Simon Reeve comes to Sheffield City Hall on 17 October. Head to sheffieldcityhall.co.uk for more info.