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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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.



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.’

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