Depression and a light in the darkness

It could have been December 2010, January 2011, February 2011. I don’t know. All the days, weeks and months blurred into one as I lay in bed crying and shaking, the baby girl inside me fluttering and kicking in my belly. I had tried desperately to get pregnant, thinking the dark forces at work that hated me and my atheist activism would at least spare my life if I were growing another life inside me. But no: now I was convinced that it would make no difference to them. I was going to die, and it would be best if I committed suicide.

I was ill, so ill, and I had been doing so well: a columnist for the Guardian, a travel writer for the Sunday Times, an author with HarperCollins. I had met and fallen for the love of my life, and was carrying his tiny baby – the daughter I had always wanted. It could all have been so beautiful, so luminous. I should have been radiant and thriving. Yet I was certain that I was going to be killed, and so I took the 10mg of antipsychotics that knocked me out for 16 hours a day, and spent the remaining eight hours on suicide forums, desperately trying to find someone who would help me end my life.

I wanted to die via the helium method, because apparently it was painless. The only problem was that, if you ripped off the mask in panic, you could end up paralysed, and that would be even worse than being dead. So it was essential that I did it properly, and that meant finding someone to help me. I started writing to a boy I’ll call Matt, a 22-year-old who was depressed and planning to kill himself the same way. He had procured most of the necessary equipment, including a helium canister.

Though we never met up, I found solace in his emails: here was someone who understood the hell I was going through. He was also incredibly kind, writing to me: ‘You sound to me like a remarkably intelligent, articulate individual who has fallen on hard times. I think there’s every possibility you will give birth to a beautiful healthy baby and that alone will inspire you to want to pass on your wisdom to your child.’ I hope I was kind to him too.

I had another friend, a girl I’d met on a pregnancy forum, whom I’ll call Sarah. She was depressed too. Our due dates were five days apart, and we were both expecting girls. ‘I want to kill myself,’ I told her. She replied: ‘Sometimes I also think my baby would be better off without me.’ She counselled me: ‘Wait until you give birth, and if you still feel like this, see a doctor.’ In the event, I would be assigned a psychiatrist after the birth, and he would give me drugs that would return me to 60% normality. But back then, I didn’t believe there was any drug that could help me. I was trapped in this state of fear and sadness for life.

Sarah was unemployed but used to work in a care home. She was blunt and funny and caring. I liked being with her, as it didn’t make me feel like a failure. Everyone else I knew was a successful and functional journalist or writer, enjoying being in the media, revelling in their regular moments in the spotlight.

I wanted to be like them again, so much. I was watching my career crumble before my eyes with every email opportunity I turned down, every television and radio show I refused to be on. I didn’t tell the producers I was scared of being killed, as I didn’t want anyone to know. I told them I was pregnant and in no fit state to appear on their show, which was true. I’d long since cancelled the Guardian video series I’d been scripting and presenting, refused to keep writing for the paper, and turned down a starring role in a Canon advertising campaign. Everything I’d worked so hard for all these years was coming to fruition, and I was too terrified to take advantage. That meant no national newspapers, no telly, no radio. The only thing I didn’t cancel was writing a short quarterly column for Scottish Humanists magazine, as I had convinced myself no one likely to harm me would read that.

When my daughter’s aunt (her father’s sister), a journalist, sent me an opportunity saying ‘You should do this’, I immediately moved to turn it down. It was a photo shoot in Mother & Baby magazine, accompanying an article where I would thank a pregnant friend for being there for me during my pregnancy. We would both receive £100. It occurred to me that I could thank Sarah for helping me with my dark thoughts, though I would have to downplay those as basic anxiety. It might also mollify my daughter’s father, another journalist, who kept insisting that I should carry on with journalism. I worried about it for hours: were the people who wanted to kill me really likely to read Mother & Baby? I called Sarah and suggested it to her. She was incredibly excited: “Oh my God babe, would we have to pose naked?!” She wanted to do it, and I didn’t want to let her down – or my sister-in-law. So, for the first and only time in my pregnancy, I said yes to an opportunity.

And then immediately regretted it. What the fuck was I doing? There were people out there who wanted to end my life, and I was playing into their hands. I shouldn’t even be leaving the house. I burst into tears. The phone interview for the magazine was a nightmare: I affected an upbeat tone, my voice wobbling, and talked blandly about my anxiety, saying nothing of interest. I was choosing my words so carefully, desperate not to attract more attention than necessary. I can’t even remember what I said, and never saw the magazine when it came out.

The day of the photo shoot rolled around – was it February 2011? I don’t know. Sarah was so excited. I was incredibly anxious and tearful, completely regretting my decision to appear in the magazine. We got a taxi to the location of the shoot, a pretty Victorian house in Central London. It was a hive of activity, with makeup artists buzzing around lots of pregnant women. I sat still and said nothing, lost in my desperate thoughts. I knew women were chatting about their pregnancies, making friends with each other, swapping due dates and telephone numbers. I watched them silently, thinking: I wish I could enjoy my pregnancy. It’s meant to be the most beautiful thing in the world. I had to end my first pregnancy when my ex-boyfriend violently attacked me. Now, with my second, I’m too ill to work, too ill to take any notice of my baby, too ill to engage with or relate to anyone who doesn’t have depression.

I only have one solitary photo of me when I was pregnant. It is the photo in Mother & Baby magazine, which they sent to me on CD. My mouth is smiling, but my eyes aren’t: I look tense and worried. Sarah’s arm is around me, mine is around her. I don’t want to be there. I am miles away, thinking of myself with a helium mask on, drifting into oblivion. I am wishing more than anything that there were a button I could press to take me from alive to dead. I would press that button in a heartbeat.

Age 30

Anyone who saw the piece in Mother & Baby might have thought I was a happy pregnant woman with a touch of anxiety. In fact, I spent my pregnancy dying inside. My relationship with my daughter’s father had long since fallen apart. We were technically together, but he didn’t want to be with me anymore, and I can hardly blame him. I was in the throes of mental illness, and it’s impossible to have a normal relationship with someone who thinks MI5 or the government are trying to kill them.

I wanted to write this piece for Mental Health Awareness Week, to illustrate that you never know what people are going through. As far as most people were concerned, I was just taking it easy during my pregnancy and having a rest. In fact, I was actively suicidal for the whole nine months. Depressives can be very good at hiding our true feelings. As Ian Maclaren said, ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’

I never met up with Matt. He sent his last email saying: ‘If I drop off the radar then please just assume the obvious.’  Years later, I would write to him and thank him for being a light in my darkest hour. He never wrote back.

Making my peace with an old enemy

I went to see a film called Blinded By the Light on its opening night on Friday. I was keen to see it, as I like director Gurinder Chadha’s work, and really enjoyed the trailer (below).

It’s the story, set in 1987 in Luton, of a British Asian boy who grows up in conflict with his father. He wants to be a writer and finds solace in the music of Bruce Springsteen. If you’ve read my Duran Duran story, you’ll know that there are more than a few parallels between our lives.

It’s based on a true story: that of Sarfraz Manzoor. Who, you might ask, is Sarfraz Manzoor? Well, funnily enough, he’s a journalist who used to moan about me in his Guardian columns!

In 2009, Sarfraz blamed the Atheist Bus Campaign for making him feel sad about death:

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That same February, I wrote a very lighthearted column about Valentine’s Day for the Graun, suggesting that it wasn’t all bad being single. Sarfraz was not happy, and called me out by name.

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I didn’t really mind, though twice in two weeks was a bit much! But writers need stuff to write about, and I’m glad I was consistently giving him material.

Anyhow, I really enjoyed Blinded By the Light – it was very warmhearted and funny as well as poignant. And it’s weird thinking that this guy I’d pissed off with my columns and atheism had so much in common with me, and I never knew. We could have been friends, bonding over the way music can affect everything in your life and change it for the better, if you let it.

Do go and see the film if you can – it’s brilliant. But don’t just take my word for it – it has a score of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Here’s Sarfraz with The Boss:


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What it’s really like appearing on the radio

After I blogged about what it’s like doing live telly, lovely Twitter follower @mrjacktanner asked if doing live radio is different:

So here’s the answer: in my view, doing live radio is far easier than doing live telly, because no one can see you. You could literally be scratching your arse throughout the whole segment and no one would know. Of course, as it’s live, there’s always the chance that you’ll inadvertently say something stupid, which can give rise to nerves.

If I’m at the end of a phone line or alone in a separate studio (and not actually in the studio with the presenter), I generally get around this fear by writing down exactly what I’m going to say – or, at least, having a few pages of notes in front of me, because you can never predict exactly what questions you’re going to be asked. If I’m in the studio with the presenter, then I don’t take in the notes – I just prepare and rehearse beforehand and hope what I’m saying makes sense.

There’s not really much in the way of rigmarole when it comes to doing radio – you enter the studio quietly, making sure your phone is on silent, sit down at the desk, put your bag underneath it, put the headphones on and come close to the mic. Make sure you have some water nearby in case you have a coughing fit. If it’s before the show or the adverts are on or some music, the presenter will greet you; if not and they’re talking, they’ll just nod and smile at you. Your view of them can be blocked by monitors or mics, but you should be able to wheel your chair around for a better view.

I’ve done lots of radio in my pants on the end of a phone line (LBC in particular have lots of phone-in guests) and have also done radio in a studio by myself. It’s much more fun and glamorous when you’re in the studio with the presenter though. The last time was a couple of weeks ago on BBC Asian Network with Mobeen, talking about my experiences of cyberflashing and what we can do about it. It was the hottest day of the year and the New Broadcasting House studio was air-conditioned, which was very pleasant indeed!


Generally, radio is a lot more low-stakes because of the lack of visuals and the lack of budgets. At my level, you rarely get paid for radio appearances, and nor do you get taxis. (It’s ironic that the more successful you are and the more money you have, the more you get!). During the Atheist Bus Campaign, I was asked to appear on a popular radio station halfway across town, and a celebrity friend suggested I ask the producer for a taxi. So I did, and was met with the coldly-asked question: ‘Do you have mobility issues?’ That put me in my place!

Another time, I was asked to do a few drafts of a page-long radio script and then come into a central London studio and read it out – so a day’s work, in effect. The princely sum I received? £66!

At the same time, radio can be a lot of fun. One of my favourite memories is appearing on Talk Radio’s The Ian Collins Show back in summer 2009, which basically entailed two hours of on-air flirting with Ian. I managed to relax, and the result was lots of witty repartee. We actually met up a few weeks after that, but by then I was dating Lily’s dad (though she was only a twinkle in his eye at that stage).

I was also interviewed about the Atheist Bus Campaign by George Galloway on Talk Radio in 2009. He was quite nice, despite not hiding the fact that he was a believer, and finished the interview by saying in his Scottish lilt, ‘Ariane, I hope you see the light very soon!’. I was going to make a quip about there being a lamp post outside, but I didn’t.

My most starry radio appearance was on Radio 4’s Loose Ends last October, where I promoted Talk Yourself Better. The show was presented by the wonderful Arthur Smith and Clive Anderson, both of whom I managed to convince to be in my next book, How to Live to 100. As a telling sign of a great show, there were pastries galore in the green room!


I was on that episode of Loose Ends with lovely Hollywood actress Andrea Riseborough (who starred in the brilliant but terrifying Black Mirror episode ‘Crocodile’) as well as Northern Irish actor Colin Morgan and US million-selling author Michael Connelly – and music from British rapper Kojey Radical. It’s fair to say I was definitely the smallest fish in that pond! We all sat around the table together (except for Kojey, who was performing) and went for pizza afterwards, and Andrea emailed me a free download link to her new film Nancy. You can listen to the show here.

Lastly: in early 2009, I got to make radio history by giving Radio 4’s first atheist ‘Thought for the Afternoon’ on the iPM programme. It was considered such a big deal that it got its own Guardian news story, though they did describe the Atheist Bus Campaign as ‘controversial’. What is the world coming to when ‘There’s probably no God’ is seen as controversial in the UK, where at least 52% of the population is non-religious?!

You can hear my Thought for the Afternoon below. (They describe the campaign as controversial too, but then R4 are more old school.)


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What it’s really like doing live telly

Every so often, a producer phones me up and asks if I’ll appear on live telly to talk about a particular issue (generally something to do with atheism). I don’t know why I fear this as much as I do – every telly appearance I’ve done bar one (The Alan Titchmarsh Show, which ironically wasn’t live) has been absolutely fine.

The thing is, I know that appearing on TV raises my profile slightly and I’ll meet interesting people and get a small fee (typically £50 or £100) – so I usually bite down my nerves and agree to go on. Then I dread it until it’s over. But I’ve done around two dozen live TV appearances now, and despite a few panic attacks when I was starting out, I’m beginning to get used to appearing.

So what happens when you go on live telly? Well, first you have to appear on the radar of a show’s producer for some reason. The Atheist Bus Campaign tends to be the way they find me, even ten years on. I reckon I’m now on some sort of atheist telly watch list!

Then they email, generally, and ask if I’d be willing to appear on their show the next day. I say yes if I can, for the reasons above. They then phone and chat to me about the topic in question, to check I’m articulate and can put across a strong point of view. Though obviously not too strong (‘they should all be killed!’ doesn’t tend to go down well).

During this conversation, I force myself to ask the producer what the fee is. I always worry that by bringing up money, I’ll rule myself out, and instead they’ll choose someone who isn’t as mercenary as me. But seriously: you don’t ask, you don’t get – and even if the fee is only £50, it covers any necessary travel and the time taken out of your day to appear.

If you don’t get a fee, you’re effectively paying to go on the show, which is ridiculous as it wouldn’t be a show without any guests – plus most of these shows have big budgets (you can bet the presenters are being paid several thousand pounds per episode).

[I wore this green Dorothy Perkins dress for several TV appearances.]

Sometimes the producer will book you a taxi to the studio – this always used to be the case – but lately I’ve noticed that, as I live in London, they often say ‘It’s probably quickest if you just jump on the Tube’.

It’s not really, as I live 20 minutes’ walk from the Tube station and  it takes £10 out of my fee, but I don’t want to be labelled difficult. Plus I often get car sick, though I’d deal with that this summer for a luxury air-conditioned ride!

I’ll spend the evening before the appearance deciding what to wear. It will largely depend on the colour of the sofa I’m going to be sitting in front of – you need to wear a contrasting colour so as not to blend in!

Then I’ll iron the outfit and put every part of it out ready to wear in the morning. I’ll spend that night tossing and turning in bed, feeling nervous, going over and over my argument for the show in my head, unable to sleep. But back to generalities…

When you get to the studio, you give the receptionist your name and the name of the show you’re appearing on, and they call the runner to come and collect you. They also print out a pass for you, which you’re not meant to wear. At the BBC, your bag gets X-rayed, which is reassuring as long as it doesn’t contain a sex toy. Then the runner collects you and takes you down in the lift to the green room.

The green room is a kind of hotel suite with more armchairs instead of a bed, where all the guests hang out before and during the show. It always has a telly so you can watch the show before you go on, and facilities for making tea and coffee, and sometimes if you’re lucky there’s a tray full of pastries.

You can chat to the other guests – I always do, though sometimes they’re not very friendly, especially if they’re taking the opposing side of a debate to you. One girl who I shan’t name looked me up and down like I was a piece of muck, then asked disdainfully, ‘Where did they find you, then?!’

Sometimes you’re taken into makeup in a separate room, where a woman tries to make you look more aesthetically pleasing; sometimes the makeup lady just pops her head round the green room door and says ‘You’re fine’ or powders your nose.

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Then, before you know it, it’s showtime! You’re taken up to the studio with the other guests. The presenters generally say hi then, and you’re seated in a specific place. The studio is always quiet with no windows, and sometimes you can see yourself on the screens and/or the autocue on the camera.

When the presenter starts talking to you, time speeds up. You try and put your point across succinctly and articulately, without interrupting anyone, but it’s all a bit of a blur. If you’re lucky, you can see the questions she’s going to ask on the autocue or her clipboard, so have a few seconds to think about the answer. Usually if I get nervous, I sip the water they put out for guests on the table.

However, almost as soon as you start, the segment’s over and you’re being escorted back to the green room to collect your bag. These days, I check Twitter as soon as I get back to my phone, to see what the reaction to my appearance is. Then, if you’re lucky, you get a taxi home and speak to your friends, who have watched you on live TV.

So to finish, here I am on BBC Breakfast ten years ago, talking about Fawlty Towers while wearing my favourite green dress. I didn’t realise the camera could see me sitting on my leg!


This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Peter Weilgony, Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Sammy and Jelly, Charlie Brooker, Mary and Tim Fowler, Steve Richards, Alan Brookland, Mark Ormandy, Oliver Vass, Keith Bell, John Fleming, Mark Bailey, Rebekah Bennetch, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Aragorn Strider, Lucy Spencer, Dave Nattriss,, Mark White, Dave Cross, Graham Nunn, David Conrad, Rob Turner, Shane Jarvis, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

If you enjoyed this blog, please check out my songs at and support me on Patreon from just £1 a month, and you’ll get to read a lot more of my writing.

Why my atheist parents brought me up Christian

I was a mixed-up mixed race kid. My mum was Parsi – a kind of Indian that originates from Iran – although she was born in East Africa and came to Britain when she was 16. My dad was American, but retained his US citizenship and never became British despite living in Britain for the last 45 years of his life.

13.jpg[Me, aged three. There’s a photo of me somewhere aged 14 where I look just the same.]

In terms of religion, my mum was technically Zoroastrian and my dad was a Unitarian Universalist (a wishy-washy, pluralistic kind of Christian) but both were non-practising. And, I later discovered, though they didn’t identify as such, they both held atheist beliefs – which makes sense, as they were highly-educated academics. So why the hell did they send me to church and Sunday school until I was 8?

It all goes back to Auntie Dolly.

I was middle-named after my Asian grandmother, Shirin (there are half a dozen different spellings of Sherine, including Shirin, Shireen, Shereen and Sherin). Anyhow, Nana Shirin had five siblings – two female, two male – with the unusual names of Dolly, Bapsy, Temi and Ferdoon. I think she drew the long straw with Shirin!

[Me and my tiny little Asian Nan, Shirin, in 2009. I hope I look as good as her when I’m old! She’s 94 now and doesn’t look any different.]

Auntie Dolly was a Jehovah’s Witness. She would go door-to-door trying to convert non-believers. Before she died ten years ago, she would call Nan daily to tell her the End Times were coming, and that she had to become a JW if she didn’t want to go to hell. Poor Nan was very gullible, and this frightened her. My mum would then have to go round and de-program Nan, telling her Auntie Dolly was talking nonsense!

Anyhow, my mum was determined that I shouldn’t grow up and become a born-again Christian or Jehovah’s Witness like Auntie D. She always insisted I was ‘C of E’ – which, for years, I thought was one word (‘seervee’). My mum thought that by sending me and my brother to church and Sunday school, she would ‘inoculate’ us against religion, as we’d realise how boring it was. All I can say is, in my case, it worked better than she could have hoped!

But not initially. I grew up believing in God. I got a load of God at school, too – our ‘broadly Christian’ assemblies were full of hymns and prayers – though, ever the joker, I used to bellow the hymns loudly in a very strong Indian accent, making all the other kids laugh. My teacher Miss Buckley would be furious, and snap, ‘Sing in your normal voice!’ And I would say back in my Indian voice, with a head wobble: ‘But I am Indian!’ She was so angry, but couldn’t really send a note home to my Indian mum saying ‘Your daughter is singing in an Indian accent!’

At school, we studied all the world religions in Religious Studies, but never atheism or humanism. Until quite late, I don’t even remember knowing there was a name for people who didn’t believe in God.

Just because I had faith, though, it didn’t mean I wasn’t skeptical. It never seemed fair that my mum was going to hell for being the ‘wrong’ religion – or, if Zoroastrianism were ‘right’, then me and my brother and dad were. At times, that made me feel like rejecting the whole thing.

I also asked my mum, ‘Is there really a God?’ In response, she told me about Pascal’s Wager: that you had nothing to lose by believing in God, but if you didn’t and He existed, you were in trouble.

Even though my faith wavered at times, I ticked ‘C of E’ on the 2001 census. I remember a guy at university saying he was an atheist. I was shocked, and told him ‘You’re a blasphemer!’ To his credit, he was fairly unfazed by my rather melodramatic assertion.


I was also very pro-life – life was sacred, right? I used to say primly, ‘Other women can do what they want, but would never have an abortion.’ Ironically, I knew nothing at all about abortion until I was 24 and was put in the horrendous situation of my boyfriend turning violent while I was pregnant.

When I googled ‘abortion’, I was faced with pages and pages of Catholic propaganda: hugely enlarged pictures of foetuses sucking their thumbs in the womb, and websites that said if I had a termination I would become infertile, get breast cancer and go to hell.

Because of my pro-life principles, I agonised for three weeks about what to do, as the baby inside me grew and grew. In the end, I was too late to take the abortion pills on the NHS, and had to go private to terminate the pregnancy I so desperately wanted to keep. Directly after the abortion, I told my mother I wanted to visit the vicar down the road and ask for his forgiveness.

She scoffed at me: ‘Don’t be so stupid!’

After the abortion, I was too scared to fall asleep in case I died in my sleep and went to hell. I was incredibly depressed and anxious.

Six months later, I started dating a lovely atheist and he told me there was no evidence for God’s existence. I started reading up on science and religion, and eventually concluded he was right. I became really angry about the Catholic propaganda I’d been confronted with at the most vulnerable time of my life.

These days, of course, I’m a resolutely pro-choice atheist – but it’s sad that it took experiencing how pernicious religion could be to change my views.

I don’t blame my mum for sending me to church and Sunday school. She was right that they were very boring – and, of course, I never became a Jehovah’s Witness. But indoctrinating kids with lies is wrong – and in my case, it led to a lot of pain and suffering before I finally emerged an atheist.


This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Peter Weilgony, Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Sammy and Jelly, Charlie Brooker, Mary and Tim Fowler, Steve Richards, Alan Brookland, Mark Ormandy, Oliver Vass, Keith Bell, John Fleming, Mark Bailey, Rebekah Bennetch, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Aragorn Strider, Lucy Spencer, Dave Nattriss,, Mark White, Dave Cross, Graham Nunn, David Conrad, Rob Turner, Shane Jarvis, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

If you enjoyed this blog, please check out my songs at and support me on Patreon from just £1 a month, and you’ll get to read a lot more of my writing.

The time Richard Dawkins almost burnt my house down

A few people disapproved of yesterday’s photo and thought it was, I quote, ‘a bit racy’, so here is a photo of me looking like a prim Tory wife. I hope this neutralises any previous suggestiveness and restores the equilibrium of propriety.


Anyhow, you asked for more atheist stories, so here’s an anecdote I told in 2009 at TAM London. It’s a shame this is a blog post with no audio, as I do an uncanny impression of Richard Dawkins!

First, let’s talk about the glass Russell Hobbs toaster I used to own. Lauded by an ex-boyfriend as ‘the most chi-chi toaster I’ve ever seen’, it was truly a thing of beauty.

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The picture honestly doesn’t do it justice. I’m an interior design aficionado and love beautiful homewares, and this was one of my favourite purchases. Sadly though, it was a triumph of form over function, and had a short shelf-life – I had to replace it fairly soon after buying it. I was upset about this, so wrote a pun-filled letter to Russell Hobbs when my original purchase broke, saying ‘I’m afraid it’s now toast’ and asking them if they could ‘Russell up’ a new one for me for free. (They didn’t. Boooo!)

Now, when I was planning the Atheist Bus Campaign in October 2008, a fellow journalist helpfully gave me Richard Dawkins’ personal email address. Being a staunch admirer, having been deconverted by The God Delusion, and knowing that his involvement would help the campaign and motivate others to donate, I wrote him an email asking if he would give me a quote and donate to the campaign himself.


I actually wrote him a super-complimentary fangirl-type email first, which he ignored. I then wrote him a very brusque email, which he replied to immediately! Christopher Hitchens would do exactly the same thing to me six months later. Apparently the Four Horsemen don’t appreciate flattery.

Richard asked if he could phone me, so I gave him my landline number (yes, I still had a landline in 2008 – the phone was in my bedroom and was stuck to the wall). He took a while to call though, and I hadn’t had breakfast yet – so in the meantime, I made myself some toast.


The phone rang, and I forgot about the toast and ran to answer it. It was The Dawk, with his distinctive soft and posh voice. He cut straight to the chase (like many academics, he doesn’t do small talk or pleasantries): he was concerned about the inclusion of the word ‘probably’ in the slogan. Could we change it to ‘almost certainly’?

I was halfway through explaining that the ‘probably’ was a reference to Carlsberg’s massive ad campaign (‘Probably the best beer in the world’) when my smoke alarm went off. The toast had burnt, despite the toaster being on the standard setting. ‘So sorry Richard!’ I apologised. ‘My smoke alarm’s beeping. I’ll be right back!’

So I rushed to the kitchen and waved a tea towel frantically at the smoke alarm until it stopped. Then I ran back to the phone. ‘Sorry, where were we?’

Richard grudgingly agreed to accept the slogan, and gave me a quote: ‘This campaign to put alternative slogans on London buses will make people think – and thinking is anathema to religion.’

I thanked him, and asked if he could make a donation. He paused, and very cleverly asked, ‘What if I agreed to match donations up to a certain threshold?’ (See the donation page below – I bet he’s glad he put that threshold in now!)

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I was just saying ‘That would be wonderful’, when the smoke alarm went off again. ‘So sorry,’ I repeated. ‘I’ll just go and stop the alarm.’ Richard sighed, and I sprinted off to wave the tea towel frantically once more, cursing my bad luck. I was on the cusp of convincing the behemoth of all celebrity atheists to support my campaign, but my chances could be scuppered thanks to my stupid toaster!

Richard was remarkably patient throughout all of this. We agreed that he’d match donations up to £5,500 – and that there would therefore be a second phase of the campaign. Thanks to his endorsement, we smashed through the target in the first few hours, and by the end of four days we’d raised £100,000 – not just enough for 30 London buses, but for 800 buses all over the UK, as well as cards in Tube trains. Richard’s involvement had made the UK campaign go stratospheric, and I was very grateful. Every UK newspaper reported on the amazing development.

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Then the Atheist Bus Campaign went global, running in 13 countries around the world. And oh my word, the ding-dongs I had with Richard over the second phase of the UK campaign, which ran in late 2009! But that’s a story for another time. I’ve had my differences with him since, on Twitter, but I will always have a soft spot for him for getting involved with the campaign, and for writing a funny Jeeves and Wooster story for the subsequent charity book I edited, The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas. Plus he once left me the most complimentary Guardian comment ever, after getting annoyed with this photo of himself on an article about the book:

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I’ve been invited to see him present an award to Ricky Gervais in September, so maybe we can bury the hatchet then. I owe a lot to him, because the Atheist Bus Campaign catapulted me momentarily to a kind of cult semi-stardom.

Before having a nervous breakdown thanks to all the hate mail, and scuppering all my opportunities, I was offered: a contract at the Guardian by then-comment editor Toby Manhire (I stopped writing six months into it as I was so ill); a Guardian video series (I stopped filming four videos in for the same reason); the starring role in a series of Canon commercials (I was too ill to accept); a column in a glossy magazine (ditto); and a two-book publishing deal with HarperCollins (the second book was meant to be called The Atheist’s Guide to Life, but I was too paranoid, anxious and depressed to write it).

So I would probably be wildly successful by now, or at least far closer to it, if mental illness hadn’t ended my career for three-and-a-half years.

On the plus side, at TAM 2009, I got to do my pitch-perfect Richard Dawkins impression on stage in front of thousands of people, which is the best reward, I’m sure you’ll agree.

And of course, I amassed a great collection of anecdotes, including the story in this blog. The funny thing is, whenever I tell it, I get messages from religious people saying ‘The smoke alarm was a sign that you’re going to burn in hell!’

I knew God moved in mysterious ways, but didn’t realise it was through a frosted glass Russell Hobbs toaster.

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Peter Weilgony, Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Sammy and Jelly, Charlie Brooker, Mary and Tim Fowler, Steve Richards, Alan Brookland, Mark Ormandy, Oliver Vass, Keith Bell, John Fleming, Mark Bailey, Rebekah Bennetch, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Aragorn Strider, Lucy Spencer, Dave Nattriss,, Mark White, Dave Cross, Graham Nunn, David Conrad, Rob Turner, Shane Jarvis, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

If you enjoyed this blog, please check out my songs at and support me on Patreon from just £1 a month, and you’ll get to read a lot more of my writing.


Calling the devil at Radio 4

In 2008, I created the Atheist Bus Campaign – an atheist advertising campaign running on British public transport with the slogan ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ The UK campaign was only meant to raise £5,500 over six months, but such was the strength of feeling among atheists, it raised £100,000 in four days. It then went global, running in 13 countries around the world, from the US to Germany to Australia.

Because of all this, the press wanted to interview me a lot. One of the keenest outlets was BBC Radio 4, home of regular religious morning slot Thought for the Day. As I wasn’t religious, I wasn’t allowed to do a proper Thought for the Day, but gave the first atheist Thought for the Afternoon instead a few months later. Soon after the bus campaign launch, I was also asked to chat to Edward Stourton on the regular Radio 4 weekend programme Sunday.

Ironically, I was very bad at taking public transport at the time, as I had experienced severe claustrophobia since being violently attacked and suffocated during pregnancy in 2005. If I was ever trapped somewhere I felt air was restricted, and I couldn’t escape, I would quickly start hyperventilating and have a full-on panic attack. This happened most often when Tube trains stopped in a tunnel underground, but it also happened in TV and radio studios, which either have no windows, or windows that don’t open.

The interview on Sunday was arranged for late October 2008. It was to take place remotely in a BBC studio in Weston House in Great Portland Street, London. I was shown into the studio and was told to wait there on my own for a phone call from Edward Stourton. I set my bag down, put the headphones on and waited. And then it occurred to me that I was in an airless studio with the door shut.

So I took the headphones off and ran over to the door, expecting to be able to open it easily – but it wouldn’t budge. I tugged it hard, but it was so heavy that my brain decided it was locked. And then I started to panic. I was going to die there with no air. I yelled as loudly as I could, but the security guard who had let me in was gone, and there was no one in sight. Why had they locked the door? Maybe they wanted me to die there. I started screaming and crying and shaking.

Then I called my friend Charlie Brooker, and told him what was happening. ‘I’m locked in a studio and am going to die!’

He was very calm and said ‘You’re not going to die. The BBC is the safest place in the world. Calm down. Slow your breathing down. Breathe with me – in – out. In – out.’

I breathed along with him, and slowly felt myself relax. Then I noticed there was an emergency number by a landline phone on the studio desk. I told Charlie I was going to call for help, and phoned the number on the desk. ‘I’m trapped in the studio!’ I told the man who answered. ‘Please can you come and let me out?’

The security guard came quickly and opened the door. It wasn’t locked, he told me – it was just very heavy and stiff, in order that the room would be soundproof. I asked him if he could come and sit in the studio while I did the interview, so that I would be able to get out afterwards. He agreed, and I relaxed and took part in the interview. Edward Stourton was very nice and reassuring, and was kindly and avuncular towards me, despite being a staunch Catholic.

In fact, except for my claustrophobia and the heaviness of the studio door, there was only one unsettling thing about the whole experience of doing an interview on atheism: the BBC emergency telephone number I’d had to dial in order to get rescued…

It was 666.

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Peter Weilgony, Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Sammy and Jelly, Charlie Brooker, Mary and Tim Fowler, Steve Richards, Alan Brookland, Mark Ormandy, Oliver Vass, Keith Bell, John Fleming, Mark Bailey, Rebekah Bennetch, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Aragorn Strider, Lucy Spencer, Dave Nattriss,, Mark White, Dave Cross, Graham Nunn, David Conrad, Rob Turner, Shane Jarvis, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

If you enjoyed this blog, please check out my songs at and support me on Patreon from just £1 a month, and you’ll get to read a lot more of my writing.