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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THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 34

Me: 12st 4.2lbs (total loss in 34 days: 10lbs)

I’m really proud of myself today as I talked myself out of bingeing last night!

John: 14st 3.5lbs (total loss in 34 days: 4lbs)

The iPhone filter ‘Silvertone’ is making these photos look all romantic!

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Peter Weilgony, Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon. 

Rewards start from just $1 a month, which is 85p in real money and gets you access to my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but EVEN BETTER!

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!

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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!

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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.)

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

DAY 31

Me: 12st 5.4lbs (total loss in 31 days: 8.8lbs)

It’s really frustrating to have dieted really hard the previous day, eating nothing but protein, veg and fruit, and still be the same weight. Hopefully I’ll see a change on the scales soon.

John: 14st 3.75lbs (total loss in 31 days: 3.75lbs)

I have put a filter on so John’s fungal toenails (and political leanings) aren’t so obvious!

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon. 

Rewards start from just $1 a month, which is 85p in real money and gets you access to my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but EVEN BETTER!

My friendship with the Atheist Bus Campaign font creator

My friend Graham is a wonderful man – kind, funny and endlessly patient. But when he was younger, he had one flaw, which was using other people’s work without permission or payment. He once got in trouble with Getty Images for taking one of their photos from Google Images and using it for his company’s website. And when he came to design the Atheist Bus Campaign posters, he used the font without paying for it.

And so, one day in 2009, I got a message from an American man from Denver, Colorado called S. John Ross. He had created the font we’d used, Dirty Headline, and told me ‘The font was free for private use only. The side of a bus is not very private!’

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Now, approximately 75% of Americans are religious. I could have had the misfortune to have unknowingly misused the font of a Christian fundamentalist, and been sued for a pretty penny as a result – after all, this font had been used in campaigns in 13 different countries around the world, as well as being plastered all over the national and international press and endless Atheist Bus Campaign merchandise!

Luckily, S. John Ross was a very reasonable and generous man, and described himself as an ‘agnostic humanist’. I was skint as I’d been editing a charity book called The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas for free for six months. At my request, the publisher HarperCollins (who were using the font on the front of the book) paid S. John £500 for the privilege. I remember his invoice to them featuring the Bill and Ted quote ‘Be excellent to each other.’

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S. John and I kept emailing, giant six-page-long emails (if emails had pages), and soon became firm friends. He told me how much he loved his wife, Sandra, and I told him I wished I could find someone who would feel the same way about me as he did for her. We wrote about all kinds of things, one of which was my fear of flying, as the Sunday Times wanted me to go up in a tiny two-seater Cessna to cure my fear of planes.

I told S. John that Anaïs Nin once said, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage”, and that this quote was helping me. In response, he wrote me a wonderful email which used another Anaïs Nin quote: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” He then added: ‘That’s a day to seek out, to strive for.’

So when I was asked to take part in a photography project, holding a quote that meant a lot to me, I used S. John’s. I also went up in the Cessna, clutching a sweaty printout of S. John’s email, and had my article about the experience published in the Sunday Times’ Travel section a few weeks later. It was my first ever article for them.

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Sadly, S. John and I stopped writing around six months later. It was my fault: I was having a major nervous breakdown and just stopped emailing him without any warning or explanation. He was very hurt, but I hope he knows now that my mental illness was the true reason and not an excuse.

These days, we keep up with each other on Twitter. He’s at @SJohnRoss and is a super-smart and talented guy – as well as creating numerous fonts (which is no mean feat) he also makes role-playing games for a living.

I feel lucky to count him as a friend – and Sandra is a very lucky lady.

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THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 30

Me: 12st 5.4lbs (total loss in 30 days: 8.8lbs)

I am truly plateauing.

John: 14st 4.5lbs (total loss in 30 days: 3lbs)

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon. 

Rewards start from just $1 a month, which is 85p in real money and gets you access to my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but EVEN BETTER!

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!

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[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.

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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.

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THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 19

Me: 12st 8.2lbs (total loss in 19 days: 6lbs)

Boom! 2lbs off in one day. That’s how to do it!

John: 14st 1.5lbs (total loss in 19 days): 6lbs

We are neck and neck!

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Ricky Steer, Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon. 

Rewards start from just $1 a month, which is 85p in real money and gets you access to my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but EVEN BETTER!

 

A Sunday Times travel trip, and a shocking revelation

No word from Richard Dawkins about yesterday’s blog, despite my tagging him on Twitter. I suspect he has muted me and is presently sticking pins in a voodoo doll of my image. Anyhow, on to today’s true story…

One sunny day in June 2010, I was on my way to Geneva, on my third travel trip for the Sunday Times. It was a walking holiday in the French Alps, and I wasn’t much of a walker. I was also having a full-scale nervous breakdown, permanently trembling and worrying about being killed, thanks to running the Atheist Bus Campaign and receiving an Inbox full of hate mail. Two months later, my mental state would grow so dark that I would no longer be able to continue working, and would start frequenting suicide forums instead. But until that point, I struggled on.

That day, in addition to my acute anxiety, I was also worrying about flying. I hate flying, and even though the Sunday Times had sent me on a fear of flying course the previous September and I desperately wanted to travel, I couldn’t quite rid myself of my irrational fear of planes. (Read my quite fun piece on flying here, or just the quite fun first paragraph if you can’t get past the paywall.)

My boyfriend at the time, who I was deeply in love with, accompanied me to Gatwick, and I sat nervously with him in the airport. Suddenly, he started crying big tears. ‘Oh baby!’ I said, stroking his face, full of emotion, ‘I don’t want to leave you either!’

‘No, it’s not that,’ he replied.

‘What is it then?’ I asked, confused.

‘I’m thinking about my ex,’ he replied, dabbing at his eyes. ‘I dropped her off here a few years ago when she went away for a long time.’

So that was nice.

But I had bigger problems: I had a whole world of fear and depression in my head, and had to get on the plane. It was only a short flight to Geneva – less than two hours’ duration – but I was still terrified.

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[An easyJet plane. I didn’t find flying in it so easy.]

Eventually I boarded the small easyJet aircraft, and settled into an aisle seat halfway down, next to a middle-aged man. Hoping to distract myself from the prospect of my impending death in a fireball, I tentatively struck up a conversation with him.

He was lovely and happy to chat: I remember that he reassured me about the safety of the plane, and showed me pictures of his kids. I showed him a picture of my boyfriend and told him how much I loved him (my boyfriend, not the middle-aged man. That would have been a bit forward).

‘Why are you going to Geneva?’ he asked.

‘I’m covering a walking holiday for the Travel section of the Sunday Times,’ I told him.

‘Oh wow,’ he answered. ‘That’s very cool. I’ll look out for your write-up.’

‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘How about you? Why are you going to Geneva?’

‘I’m on my way to a conference for work,’ he replied. So far, so dull.

‘What do you do?’ I asked.

‘I’m in armament sales,’ he said breezily.

Armament sales? This lovely man was an arms dealer!

I gulped, and tried to recover my composure. ‘And are you going to the conference alone?’

‘Oh no,’ he said matter-of-factly. ‘Pretty much everyone else on this plane is going, except you!’

I WAS ON A PLANE FULL OF ARMS DEALERS! I started freaking out even more inside, thinking the plane might be a target (for whom exactly, peace activists? I hadn’t really thought this through) but thankfully my fears were unfounded.

I made it to Geneva in one piece, and was met at the airport and driven to the location by the organiser of the trip. However, I was so sick with anxiety the whole time I was there, I failed to do any walking. Feeling guilty and unprofessional, I wrote the piece as though I had, but I actually spent all my time in the chalet shaking and crying.

On my last day, the organiser drove me up a hill and took some photos of me pretending to walk.

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[Me in the Alps. I am smiling for the photograph. Inside, I was dying.]

The Sunday Times never ran the piece, though I’m not sure why. They said they were very happy with it; it was slated to run, and they accepted a pitch for a further piece, but sometimes features just don’t make it into print. I haven’t written for them since, though I’d like to.

I left the boyfriend two years later (he was still in love with his ex, and probably is to this day) and never really got over my fear of flying.

I also never met another arms dealer, to my knowledge – though if they’re all as nice as the bloke on the plane, I wouldn’t mind.

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 7

Me: 12st 9.2lbs (total loss in seven days: 5lbs. Not bad for one week!)

If you’re wondering how I’m doing it, I’m mainly following Slimming World’s SP plan (protein and vegetables, no starchy carbs).

John: 14st 7.75lbs (total gain in seven days: 0.25lbs. Ahem!)

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He is an amazing friend though, not least because he’s making my diet look like a comparative success.

Also: I bring you the exciting news that I have some cheap-but-excellent new scales! They only measure in lbs or kg, so I’m not using them for weight for this blog – but just look at what else they can do!

I’m going to hit the gym even harder and see if I can get my body fat down to 22% and my visceral fat way, way down. My muscle mass is very good for a woman of my age though, thanks to strength training. I’m practically Arnold Schwarzenegger!


This post has been made possible by an arms dealer AND my awesome Patreon supporters: Ricky Steer, Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon.

Rewards start from just $1 a month, and yesterday a wonderful man called Mark pledged $5 to take me up to $100 a month! I’m hoping to reach $200 by the end of the year. Can you help? For $5, you get excerpts of my secret fiction, photos of me I’ve never uploaded before, and my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but even better!

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Bet he wouldn’t be too impressed by how much I’ve blobbed out since!

I’ve been invited to see him present an award to Ricky Gervais in September, so maybe we can bury the hatchet then – if he recognises me in my current hefty form, that is. 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.

 

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 6

Me: 12st 9.4 (total loss: – 4.8lbs in six days).

I ate 1,200 calories yesterday, and apparently that’s too many for me to lose weight.

John: 14st 8.25lbs (total: + 0.75lbs)

He went to a swanky all-day lunch yesterday and has paid the price – he weighs more today than when we started this contest! Of the lunch, he says: ‘I don’t even want to imagine the calories.

‘Two tables; probably around 20 dishes or more of rotating stuff plus a strawberry cream dessert thing atop about 5 inches of cake with pink stuff in it.

‘Don’t ask further.’

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Ricky Steer, Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon.

Rewards start from just $1 a month, and I’m only one $5 pledge away from making $100 a month! Could you take me into triple figures? (For $5, you get excerpts of my secret fiction, photos of me I’ve never uploaded before, and my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but even better!)

 

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.

 

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Apologies in advance for our manky feet. We can’t reach them, you see.

Day 2

Me: 12st 11.6lbs (total loss: 2.6lbs in two days)

IMG_2270

John: 14st 5lbs (total loss: 2.5lbs in two days)

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I am winning by a fraction!

This post has been made possible by my Patreon supporters Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon.