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Gun threats in Africa no match for Thornton Heath job centre fear

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A man who dropped out of school in Croydon, went backpacking for a decade, joined the Home Office and then got kicked out of Iran in a diplomatic dispute before receiving an MBE, has written a novel inspired by his unorthodox life.

Paul Bellamy, now 54, is back working for the Home Office in Croydon, after years in Nigeria, Iran, India and Pakistan as an immigration officer.

"I left school after my O levels and just went travelling for about ten years," he explained.

"I went all over the place. My favourite anecdote was from when I was 23 in 1983, hitch-hiking across the Sahara desert.

"We were in a truck which broke down, and it turned out not to have any water at all.

"We all thought we were in a lot of danger and then this Land Rover came past and turned out to be a classmate of one of the friends I was travelling with.

"He got out of the car and said 'My God, it's Caroline Brown!' He then rescued us by going to get some help – extraordinary things like that happen when travelling."

Mr Bellamy returned to the UK in 1990 and signed on at the Thornton Heath job centre, where he was given a job within a week.

"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 said.

"It was a pretty horrible job and could be quite violent."

Then, about 12 years ago, the Home Office hired handfuls of employees from Croydon's job centres which kick-started Mr Bellamy's career as a visa officer.

"After two years I was sent to Abuja, in Nigeria, for six months and then was posted in Tehran, in Iran, for four-and-a-half years, until they kicked me out.

"It's by far my favourite country in the world. I love the people, every city is completely different and it's beautiful."

However, the seasoned traveller then found himself at the centre of front-page news when Iran expelled him and another officer following a fall-out during the 2009 Iranian elections, something he was later awarded an MBE for.

"The elections were pretty crooked and there were huge protests at the time.

"Iran was just looking for someone to blame for all the violence."

In a tit-for-tat response to Mr Bellamy being unceremoniously thrown out of the country, Gordon Brown – the UK's prime minister at the time – ordered the expulsion of two Iranian diplomats from London.

After being posted in India and Pakistan for a couple more years, Mr Bellamy returned to his home town in December last year and has published his book, Backpackers – Fear on a Shoestring.

"It's a novel, so it is not based on my life, but many of the things I have experienced have inspired what happens in it and I have met a couple of the characters."

The book, about a backpacking couple caught up with a smuggler, is from www.amazon.co.uk and www.hive.co.uk

Gun threats in Africa no match for Thornton Heath job centre fear


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