Compelled by curiosity.
As one of TV’s most captivating travel presenters, Simon Reeve brings us face-to-face with the world’s most diverse places and people. We sat down with him to discover what they’ve taught him about community, the key to happiness, and the mindset of an explorer.
Q In your programmes, you seem to get a balance between experiencing the situation you’re in and also remaining conscious of the viewer. How do you navigate that?
SR I suppose I’m very aware of what the camera is doing and seeing, and that helps me shape my behaviour. It’s about knowing you have to connect with the viewers at home. There is a balance to be found between jumping straight into situations feet first, and stepping back to try to observe what’s going on as impartially as you can. For instance, if we turn up to film a ceremony welcoming a new tribal chief in a remote village, because we’re a TV crew and I’m a presenter, I often get pushed to accept the honoured position next to the chief, which would instantly mean I’m less of an observer. So, often in those situations – partly for shyness and partly because I think it’s right – I’ll say no, and instead stay in the crowd of people.
You get a completely different take on the experience; sometimes it’s a subtle difference and sometimes it’s a really profound one. We want to be involved, but generally that will mean me digging with a farmer, for example – getting properly involved with ‘ordinary’ people’s lives… And to be honest, I’m happier doing that. I’m always keen to get the perspective of the masses rather than the elite.
However, I do often use it as an excuse to avoid the one thing I really don’t want to do – dancing in public! I remember being at a wedding near Chechnya, and the people were trying to push me into doing the first dance. Can you imagine?
It takes quite a lot of willpower to stop yourself from being forced into doing that by a large group of people, especially when they’re probably heavily armed. But such is my terror of dancing that I insisted on just observing…!
When it works well,there is nothing more beautiful than living in close proximity to your fellow human beings.
Q What do you think makes an explorer's mindset?
SR I certainly think I’m a very curious person, probably in every sense of the word. I try to maintain and cultivate my own interest in the world. I don’t claim to have many skills – I certainly don’t have many specialisms – and I think that’s been a benefit to me because it’s made me interested in everything… I’m never going to think I know enough about the world! The job requires curiosity, but it also feeds it. In turn, it makes you open to being more empathetic as well: you have to care about the people you meet, their stories and situations.
I think curiosity is a muscle that needs to be exercised endlessly, but carefully. It isn’t everything of course, but it is the foundation on which other interests and skills develop from.
Q Would you say your extreme experiences have affected your outlook or approach to life?
SR Absolutely. I relish the idea that any experience changes us, not just travel. We’re all shaped and moulded by the adventures and encounters that we have. I’ve been deeply affected, moved, and transformed by my travels – and that’s how it should be. The privilege of the journeys I’ve had is that they’ve given me a different outlook on life, making me feel much more thankful for being a resident of our cold wet island! I know in my very core how lucky we are to live here and to be alive now, because I’ve seen what many of our brothers and sisters on this planet have to put up with.
It’s also made me more confident and less frightened of experiences that worry other people – the more experiences you have, the more you can say ‘what’s the worst that can happen’, and know that you’ll be able to connect with people.
Q Yes, you’re never going to be short of an anecdote...
SR Absolutely, to be honest I drive my son mad – the poor boy is just like: “Yeah, OK Dad, I don’t need to hear about that time you were in the Congo again.”
Q Have your travels revealed any common themes, in terms of what brings people together?
SR What unites us more than anything is a collective need for purpose and meaning. It’s maybe viewed as something quite old fashioned now, but I think it’s really profound. Most of us need a feeling of purpose that’s found in a passion, a hobby, or love, in a belief or an obsession even – they support us and guide us, and give us a reason to exist on this rock.
I still think we’re the luckiest humans that have ever lived, but the biggest thing we’ve lost is purpose and meaning – and we’re seeing that playing out in the bitterness of our current tribal politics. Spaces are the threads that help bind communities together through purpose: it’s the post office, the football club, the theatre, the church, the town centre that’s warm and welcoming. It’s all these different elements – and a thousand more – that contribute to people’s sense of identity, culture, and roots.
Q Your interactions on screen often include a joke or camaraderie – it seems humour is something that universally unites us…
SR I’m not sure anyone who knows me well would attribute me with an ability to crack a joke; I’ve got very dad-joke levels of humour! Luckily, the editing process makes me seem better at it than I actually am. But you’re absolutely right, most people on this planet delight in a warm encounter or a mutual joke shared with another human. It was something that staggered me from the very beginning of my journeys – that there’s almost nowhere in the world where you can’t find people who are warm and welcoming... and that’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.
Q Where are the happiest communities you’ve encountered, and what do you think facilitates that?
SR The happiest people are generally held to be the Danes. Denmark regularly comes top of the Global Happiness Index… The reasons are many, of course – some are complicated, some are boring, some are amusing – but ultimately it’s because they have a very equal society; a slim gap between rich and poor. Having met many of them, I’ve also realised that they often take the view that the sky might fall on their heads at any moment and when it doesn’t they’re delighted! What’s curious about this happiness though, is the fact that Denmark is a cold place in the winter where people don’t venture out – instead they’re snuggling up. But the benefits they get from that cosy feeling of literal warmth is similar to the more soulful warmth that, say, the Greeks get from a outdoor village celebration.
Actually, speaking of the Greeks, in terms of my personal encounters, I think the people in that area of the Med are some of the happiest societies in the world. I’ve travelled there a lot and, even in these times of economic hardship, they’re very good at maintaining local spaces that bring families and communities together.
Q What do you think more developed countries can learn from these close communities?
SR When it works well, there is nothing more beautiful than living in close proximity to your fellow human beings. I understand, for lots of people, it could become oppressive, but there are ways around that now in terms of the sensible construction of a community, like having private routes in and out of a space for instance. You don’t have to be living cheek by jowl. One thing I’ve also noticed in cities new and old is that there’s something really important about having organic spaces rather than grid construction – an area that flows into a central community heart is utterly essentially. The key is also to not just leave them blank – they need a purpose: the celebrations, the festivals, the youth clubs, the bands and choirs – they all make places that people love and want to stay in and maintain. I think these are the foundations of happy communities in a very literal sense.
Q It seems your travels have given you an insight into how the built environment can shape, or fail, societies?
SR I’ve spent a lot of time in shanty towns and slum areas around the world, and it’s interesting to see how some governments just let them sprawl out and don’t understand how to make the situation better. To alleviate and reduce the poverty many people are living with, the design and construction of the environment they live in is absolutely fundamental to their long-term development, health and wealth. It starts below ground; it starts with the sewers, the sanitation – the fundamentals. Nothing is more important for maintaining a society than putting in some bloody sewers! You get more return on your investment from building sewers in developing slums than from anything else. For every pound that’s invested in sanitation, you get at least ten pounds back in health savings in the long term. It’s not sexy, it’s not cool, it’s certainly not beautiful – but the sheer practicality of the situation has to be at the heart of any plan. It’s the groundworks that protect the community and enable more bearable spaces to emerge in the future.
Q What does home mean to you?
SR Home, to me, means the people rather than the place. I can survive being away from home a lot longer than I can being away from my family. But I’m starting to feel properly grounded in Dartmoor, Devon, where we moved to just over five years ago. I come from the city – I’m a London lad (although less of the lad and more middle aged now!) but my spirits really lift as I head home. It’s not just because it’s a beautiful environment, but because it feels like I’m heading back to the community I’m part of: it’s the place where my son goes to school, it’s where I walk my dog – and those are the things that matter to me.
There’s something really important about having organic spaces... areas that flow into a central community heart. I’ve found this to be the foundation of happy communities in a very literal sense.