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.
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