Osama bin Laden gave Simon Reeve his big break. In 1998, while working as an investigative reporter, Reeve published The New Jackals, a book about ‘the future of terrorism’. It went largely unnoticed until 2001, when Reeve suddenly found himself in demand as the world’s foremost Al-Qaeda expert.
The BBC contacted him about working on a documentary. It wanted Reeve to infiltrate the terrorist network; instead he wrote and presented Meet the Stans, in which he travelled from Kazakhstan to Afghanistan. Over 20 series exploring lesser-trod parts of the globe followed, making unflappable Reeve, as fearlessly adventurous as he is engaging, one of the BBC’s most prolific presenters. But his career did not take a traditional path.
“I didn’t go to university; I left school and went on the dole,” he says. “I was in quite a bad way in my late teens and I was very close to ending it all. It took a lot to pull me out of that and to rebuild my life.
“People say things like, ‘Visualise where you want to be in five years’ time’ – screw you! I could barely visualise where I wanted to be by the evening. Taking things day by day, setting small challenges – could I get myself out of bed, could I get myself to the newsagents – simple things like that gradually pulled me out of a dark place and set me on the road to work. It started to give me purpose and meaning in life, which I think is what many of us really need and crave, and is often absent from people’s working life now.”
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
Reeve’s father had encouraged him to apply for a post boy position at The Sunday Times, and the 19-year-old stood out in a newsroom of Oxbridge graduates. Then-editor Andrew Neil took a chance on him, and reporting on the 1993 World Trade Center bombing started a weird, completely unpredictable journey, leading to the high-flying life he lives today.
Having travelled to more than 120 countries, Reeve has hunted with the Bushmen of the Kalahari, been hunted by the KGB, and detained on suspicion of spying in the secretive Soviet enclave of Transnistria.
“I happened to turn on the telly last night and I was confronted with Michael Portillo relaxing in a bath looking out over the Taj Mahal,” he says. “He was doing Great Indian Railway Journeys, covered in rose petals, drinking champagne. I thought, my God I’ve got the wrong gig here.”
Reeve is currently filming a new series on the Mediterranean. “I’ve told a couple of people and they say, oh that sounds pretty boring compared to what you’ve done before. But the Med is a completely mad part of the world.”
It is an area of extremes, Reeve says. Beyond the beaches of the European Med, the same sea is shared by Israel, Gaza and northern African nations that have proved hesitant to allow access to a BBC film crew. Brits feel at home in countries like Spain and Italy – really only a few hundred miles from lands of great poverty and conflict. Geographical distances are small, but political and cultural ones are enormous.
“It is completely incredible that you can get unbelievable extremes existing still on the planet,” Reeve says. “You get disaster and glory within quite close confines. It’s been an incredible shock to me how you can go from mayhem to normality just by crossing a border. We really take what we have for granted.”
Reeve begins a UK tour this month visiting theatres to explain why, where and how people should travel, and encouraging everyone to look for adventure even if it is closer to home.
“We are hardwired to go further, to want to know what’s over the hill to see what lies beyond, but the islands we live in are very beautiful, packed with human stories, eccentric characters. One of the great things to do is get a map of your area, upend a glass centred over where you live, draw a circle around the rim and then explore that area. Make sure you know the back of your hand before you go further around the world.”
And at the centre of Reeve’s map would be his greatest discovery and a reminder of how far he has come from the uncertain days of his youth.
“I’m fairly happy now,” he says. “I’ve got someone who calls me dad and that’s the best thing in the world.”
An Audience With Simon Reeve tours from September 17. See shootandscribble.com for dates. Step By Step by Simon Reeve is out now (Hodder & Stoughton, £20)