Paul Bellamy has an almost supernatural knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This has provided a rich supply of material for his book Backpackers – Fear on a Shoestring, but often
put him in awkward situations that he is quite phlegmatic about.
“I’ve had guns stuck in my face in Nigeria and the Central African Republic, been accused of being a mercenary in Cameroon, been held up at militia checkpoints in the Philippines and Libya and almost sunk in the middle of the Atlantic but I was most scared for my life working in the Thornton Heath Job Centre when dealing with a dissatisfied job-seeker” he says.
Bellamy’s unorthodox route to an MBE awarded at Buckingham Palace began with an unremarkable school career in south London. Bored and disinterested, he bailed out of his education, worked a couple of years to raise some cash, and began a decade of independent travel around the world.
While Britain was convulsing through the 80s with Thatcherism, the City Big Bang and the Miner’s Strike, the list of jobs he took up reads like a Cook’s Tour of low-paid work: greenhouse labourer in Holland; decorator in Australia; film extra in Hong Kong; dishwasher on a Greek island and toilet cleaner in the Falkland Islands, to name a few.
Travelling through 94 countries (so far), he has often managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (although he’d argue that it was the right time) such as Tiananmen Square during the student protests of May 1989, or Kashmir at the time of the assassination of Pakistan’s President Zia.
Bellamy’s job centre post - “I signed on for a few weeks after Asia and they gave me a job instead’’ - marked the beginning of his life as a British civil servant. His familiarity with dangerous situations is a possible explanation why the Foreign Office are happy to send him on occasion to British Embassies in the more turbulent locations around the world, such as Islamabad, Tripoli and Tehran.
Ejected from Tehran in 2009 as part of a “tit-for-tat” diplomatic expulsion row, sparked by political protests in Iran, Bellamy’s career seemed over, but it’s still going strong.
“It can be a dangerous world out there” he says, from his unassuming, suburban home in West Wickham, Kent, “and there are no trusted support networks when you get into trouble far from home.
“So I wrote Backpackers, partly for the fun of it but also because I wanted to scare the bejesus out of backpackers and their parents and, hopefully, persuade them to take much more care of their safety when abroad than they often do. “The fact is that the type of incidents that occur in the book do happen in real life to the unsuspecting.’’ You have been warned.