Book review: Step by Step: The Life in my Journeys by Simon Reeve

(cover image courtesy Hodder & Stoughton)

One of life’s great joys is watching or listening to someone who is not only passionate about the thing or things they love, but who can talk about them in ways that inform, move and inspire you.

That’s why watching any of British presenter Simon Reeve’s documentary series is such an unmitigated joy; he is not only supremely, energisingly passionate and enthusiastically curious about the places he visits in his travels for the BBC but he is able to put into words why we’re he is matters to him, or why it’s important in the grander scheme of things.

It adds real depth to his shows which include Places That Don’t Exist (2005) Equator (2006), Indian Ocean (2012) and Russia with Simon Reeve (2017), elevating them beyond light diversions into an real warts-and-all look at the country or region he is in.

Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with a presenter tripping merrily around a particular locale but after a while the attraction pales since there’s only so many light and fluffy explorations of a place you can take without wishing they’d venture a little deeper into the place that is usually being presented as some sort of flawless wonderland.

After all, the world isn’t unblemished and while there may be a perfectly delightful beach or piece of rainforest in view, what you’re not seeing is what’s happening to the people who live near it, or the logging trucks rumbling along just out of view.

Simon Reeve though believes in the concept of “light and shade”, about presenting somewhere as it really is, in all flawed glory, rather than acting as if it some sort untarnished museum piece.

“There will always be elements of creation and structuring in making a TV programme, but I was keen to make shows that are as natural as possible, and to knock on someone’s door, church or caravan, meet someone on camera for the first time and capture a genuine moment of surprise, as they wipe their hands on a tea towel or something, and then launch naturally into conversation. I craved that sort of authentic moment and interaction, and I have been incredibly lucky to work with cameramen and crews who have been prepared to film in that style.” (P. 151)

Life isn’t, of course, that tidy or clean cut, something Reeve is all too aware of as he shares in Step by Step: The Life in my Journeys – the title tagline alone points to the kind of wide-eyed passion and enthusiasm he brings to his work – about his time growing up which was marked by low level juvenile delinquent behaviour, clashes with his father and later by a near-suicidal sense that he had no idea whether life had anything to offer him.

Watching him on TV now, you could be forgiven for wondering if life ever really troubled him at all.

Reeve’s is handsome, boy-next-door excitable, intelligent and insightful, with a loving wife and son at home, the very picture of someone who knows what want and who is living it large in the kind of carpe diem way of which Robin Williams circa Dead Poets Society would approve.

But as Reeve points out with disarming honesty and a strong sense of gratitude that he was able to learn from these early missteps, he is all too well acquainted with the way the image and the reality diverge.

Naturally, what we see now is the man post all these troubles, who has moved beyond the listlessness and pointlessness of his youth to find real purpose and passion, so comparing the two is like comparing night and day.

(image courtesy official Twitter account)

Even so, as Reeve writes about his youth and the turning point for him which was an internship at The Sunday Times which led to his current media career, you get a strong sense of why investigating light and shade in any scenario is so important to him.

He has, after all, lived it, in profound, life-changing ways and he is more aware than most than no person or place is ever simply what comes into view.

He certainly isn’t, and nor are the many exotic and out of the way places he visited which come with their fair share of good and bad points, all of which Reeve is able to dissect, sometimes and deservedly critically but often simply from the point of view of wanting to be honest about the world in which he and we live.

Take Madagascar for instance.

If you were to watch most wildlife documentaries about the island nation rich in unique animals such as lemurs found nowhere else, you would get the impression that the country is an untouched paradise for wildlife when the reality is much of its forest cover has been stripped away and much of its wildlife is in peril.

Reeve doesn’t approach his light and shade mission in any kin of militant or combative way; instead he takes his time to talk to people, to understand what’s going on and then presents as it is.

“Getting off the beaten track and learning more about the places we visit — both the light and the shade — always makes for a more interesting experience, a more rounded adventure. I don’t think travellers need to ignore darkness. I haven’t been anywhere where people won’t talk about issues or problems. For most people, it’s cathartic to share with outsiders.

Other travellers might not be mad keen to copy some of my hairier journeys, but I still think many could benefit from injecting a few elements into their next holiday. Apart from exploring the light and the shade, my trips have been memorable, for me at least, because they combine adventure with a clear plan and destination.” (P. 292-293)

It may good, it may bad, or more likely both, but you can be certain that what you see and hear from Reeves, who is passionately committed to exploring the many contrary aspects of our less than perfect world, will be an unvarnished look at an issue, a group of people or a place told with the urgency and passion of someone who believes such well-rounded portrayals matter.

Part of the immense charm of Step by Step: The Life in my Journeys, quite apart from the unputdownable style of the writing which feels like an intensely enthusiastic and honest conversation with a passionate friend, is reading about why this kind of real storytelling matters so much to Reeve.

He isn’t simply some documentary gun for hire; he has invested much of his life into going to weird and beguiling far flung places, talking about where they are succeeding and where they are not, glorying in their oddities, joys and quirks, and genuinely loving the experience.

The journey matters to him, the destination matters to him as do wider issues like climate change, refugees, poverty, war and inequality – he is a man who appreciates what he has because at one time he didn’t have it and he clearly is appalled that others don’t the same opportunities he did – and he is not ashamed to talk about them.

That he does so in a way that is never thoughtlessly condemning, not condescending and always inquisitive and genuine, not only invests his robustly substantial travel documentaries with a real veracity but also a compassion and insightfulness that many other presenters don’t come close to matching.

Step by Step: The Life in my Journeys affords a brilliantly, truthful look at the man that is Simon Reeve who, while he clearly hasn’t laid everything out on the table, has revealed such an honestly and garrulously-told amount that you are rewarded with a three-dimensional, conversational sense of the man behind the persona to the extent that you quickly come to appreciate he is the real deal and that his wholly unique and honest outlook on the world is reflected in every last frame of his always immersively fascinating and rewarding documentaries.

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