Simeon and Sula’s First Day of School

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People have forgotten that. That was the result of British people taking Freddie Laker-type flights abroad. I only came to travel and adventure as an adult. A: I grew up in tropical Acton in West London. My adventures were restricted to riding my BMX and my grandmother's magical mystery tours.

Simeon and Sula’S First Day of School

She would take my brother and me in her car when we were very little to explore exotic, unknown places like Hounslow. Sometimes we even got as far as Chiswick!

I never stowed away on a plane. I never imagined I'd live the life I have today. My aspirations and dreams were very limited. A: I didn't get on with school. I spiralled down in a bad way and came quite close to deciding whether or not I would end it all. I was at a very low point. I flunked an exam, walked out and never went back. I left school with basically no qualifications.


A: I was on the dole for a long while. Then I got a few jobs. I ran some charity shops, but organising people of a certain age into a roster was a very tricky art. I worked in a jewellery shop for a day and at the Ministry of Defence for half a day. After I walked out, Special Branch came looking for me because I had worked in a secret department. I got turned down for a job as a white van driver, even though no one else applied for it. I was lost.

A: I got a job as a post boy on the Sunday Times, and my world began to open up. I owe my career to Andrew Neil - I'm sure you've rarely heard that sentence before! I was very lucky. His idea was to give the post boys an opportunity to have a crack at working on the paper. Everyone else on the paper was Oxbridge, and I was very London.

What was your favourite experience?

I was pretty unusual, but I was keen and eager and they gave me a chance. A: I was this pathetic kid suddenly thrown into an environment where people were doing very exciting things and working on serious investigations. I carved out my own niche - and that was the making of me. First I became an expert in fixing these vital big photocopying machines they had, so they couldn't sack me. Then I fell into investigating terrorism, as you do. I started researching the first attack on the World Trade Center in , and eventually wrote the first book on al Qaeda, which came out in Nobody read it. Then I wrote some other books and worked on hardcore investigations where I spent time undercover.

I'd written the only book in the world about the biggest story of the time. I also knew people who died as the Towers came down - I'd met them when I was researching my first book. I had my own hair and teeth, and TV being a shallow medium, producers were soon knocking on my door. A: The BBC wanted me to make a series for them.

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The first ideas were a bit daft. They included wanting me to infiltrate Al Qaeda. I didn't think that was a very good idea. In the end we settled on the idea of going on adventures in parts of the world that weren't often on the TV, and into which we would try and work light and shade, both adventure and issues.

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I loved it from the first day of filming. It was very well received, which was a surprise to me as the presenter. So the BBC had me back, and since then I've made more than programmes around the world. A: Well it's an extraordinary part of the planet. Nowadays we can go anywhere in the world, but sometimes we overlook what's closest to home. I'm just blown away by how extreme life around the Mediterranean can be.

We forget there are magical and horrific places close to our own doorstep. A: I don't think so.

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You can go almost anywhere. I've had extreme experiences that are unfiltered, upsetting and raw. But I don't think we need to shy away from them. We just have to approach them carefully and sensibly. You need to go in with your eyes open and keep your wits about you. It really is a very safe world, as long as you take some basic precautions. We have to get things in perspective. Remember we live in a country where thousands of people are hospitalised each year just putting on their trousers!

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You can travel almost anywhere, as long as you wear a seatbelt and avoid hotel salad buffets! A: I've eaten everything from penis soup in Madagascar to barbecued rat in Laos. That was so bad that even the scrawny dogs in the local market wouldn't touch it. I've even had a roasted sheep's eyeball, which was actually rather delicious. Food is obviously a real window into a culture. If you want to rack up some memories, I'm always pushing people to eat the craziest food.

Food is often where the most interesting experiences lie. Q: On your travels, you have done some extraordinary things, such as being arrested for spying by the KGB, electrocuted in a war-zone, protected by stoned Somali mercenaries and witnessed trench warfare in the Caucasus.

But what has been your most extraordinary experience? A: It's hard to pick just one. But In the city of San Pedro Sula in Honduras - the deadliest place in the world outside an active war zone - two colleagues and I went into a prison controlled by the inmates. It had thousands of men crammed into a very tiny space.

It housed some of the most dangerous people on earth, people who have skinned other gang members alive. It was a cross between Diagon Alley in Harry Potter and an 18th-century sweatshop. It had all sorts of shops like a barber's and a cafe, and people were making candles, clothes and wigs in their little cell factories. A: We thought of going in with special forces as our guards, but they would have been ripped apart, and the inmates would then have turned on us. So we went in with the very best bodyguard anyone could have in that situation: the Bishop of San Pedro Sula, wearing a very large crucifix.

He could look after us and stop the ludicrously dangerous gangs from holding us hostage or chopping off our heads. A: We met men with tattooed tears running down their cheeks, each one indicating a person they had killed. We met the leader of one of the most fearsome gangs in Central America, and all he wanted to talk about was this Nativity scene made out of recycled rubbish that he had been building in the prison yard. A panel was coming round the next day to judge all the prisoners' Nativity scenes.