Simon Reeve

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 March, 2011, 12:00am

DAY OF THE JACKALS Before September 11, 2001, I was just an obscure person writing on an obscure subject. A lot of people questioned why on Earth I was spending so much of my time investigating the subject [terrorist groups in the Middle East] and writing about it, at huge financial loss to myself. The advance I got for the US edition of The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism [published in 1998] didn't even pay for my phone calls.

When 9/11 happened, I was suddenly thrust into some sort of limelight. My book was the only one available at the time that named bin Laden in the title and the international media wanted someone on their news programmes who could talk about him and al-Qaeda. I had Brazilian and Russian TV crews turn up at my flat. It was a very strange time for me in other aspects as well - my father had just died, a relationship had just ended and suddenly I'm near the centre of one of the biggest news stories of the time. It was an upsetting and fascinating period but it was through writing that book that I began talking to the BBC about other areas of the world I'd be interested in, and that has lead to the wonderful TV job I'm doing now.

LEARNING CURVEBALL I was born in 1972 and grew up in a very multicultural, multiethnic part of London. That aspect of it was wonderful. I wasn't a very imaginative child, or young man, even, but I was very interested in stories - of people, news and history. I preferred spending time with people in the neighbourhood and talking to my friends in class rather than paying attention to assignments. It's easy to blame the public-school system in the UK for any problems you might have. I just felt a little useless and helpless in the school system; it wasn't working for me and vice versa. I much preferred my part-time job when I was 15 or 16 at the local supermarket, working with other people, being part of a team. I knew when I left school without the qualifications to go to university that the sooner I started working, the better for me.

A NEW CHAPTER I found a job as a post-boy at The Sunday Times [newspaper] in London at 18. It does make for kind of a clich?: the kid in the mailroom with a big ambition. For the first time in my life I actually started to grasp opportunities with both hands. I knew who everybody was in the newsroom and what they did. The fact that I ordered the stationery and worked the photocopier made me absolutely essential. I was able to befriend experienced journalists and it was enormously helpful to me when I began researching my book.

When I left the newspaper to focus on the book, the people I was meeting were desperate to have someone listen to their concerns about this emerging terrorist group [al-Qaeda]. And even though I was just a kid, they were happy to talk to me. I was fortunate that way.

I'm pretty good at empathising with people and reading their reactions and body language. If they need someone who is overly positive and friendly, then I can provide that; if they want someone to get out of their personal space, I can do that as well. It's just a case of recognising the signals the person you are talking to is sending out. That can help us in friendships and relationships, and professionally, as well. I apply that skill wherever I am, whether I'm talking to a Bushman in the middle of the Kalahari desert or the head of the Pakistani FBI in a hotel room. We are all human after all.

ROUTES AND SHOOTS At the time I filmed Meet the Stans [in 2003], my first travel documentary for the BBC, I had not travel- led in Central Asia, and it remains one of the most exotic places I've ever been to. Back then, I was nervous about whether I would be cut to pieces by the editing process and made to look like a complete fool. But as I've become more of a television person, I recognise the importance of capturing spontaneous behaviour, whether it's me doing something stupid or being incredibly incisive and humorous. It's part of the job. We try really hard not to stage events; we rarely to a double take. We just get on with it and then edit the stories afterwards.

Occasionally, I still consult with security strategists. I'm usually called upon by people who haven't seen my travel programmes, probably because once you've started eat- ing zebu [bull] penis soup on television [in Madagascar; as part of Tropic of Capricorn, 2008], then people will struggle to take your views on al-Qaeda and Islamic militancy as seriously as if you were wearing a suit and tie.

My journeys in the past few years have been along the latitude of the tropics. We wanted to come to Hong Kong during the Tropic of Cancer [2010] series. Hong Kong is so close to the line. Unfortunately, we couldn't get permission from Beijing to come through southern China. So we went south to Laos and into Vietnam.

The beauty of this style of programme is you get to show people who normally wouldn't watch current affairs programmes subjects affecting the Philippines or Argentina - with a bit of a travelogue as well.

LOVE ON THE GO I didn't meet her through television but my wife works as a camerawoman. She consequently worked on two of the BBC series I hosted; the two of us were able to travel and work together. We actually got married halfway through Tropic of Capricorn, which was filmed over four one-month trips. We work well as a team.

With keeping in touch with the rest of the clan, it's e-mails and the wonders of Skype. [These trips] probably feel a lot longer for me than my family back home. We never stay more than one night in any location and, after a few days, it feels like a week, after a week it feels like a month and, after a month, you barely remember your nationality.

It's getting difficult now because my wife is pregnant and I've started a new series and she isn't able to join me because of her large bump. It's going to be tough because I really miss home and I'm very much a partner to my wife. We are just going to look forward to the end of the journey, when we can be properly together.

Simon Reeve and a team of BBC journalists appear in a four-part series, Explore, travelling through Argentina, Africa's Great Rift Valley, Turkey and the Philippines, on BBC Knowledge, starting next Sunday at 9.05pm.