I wrote about Turkey’s failed coup for the Guardian – thoughts 4 months on



Four months ago today, an attempted coup devastated Turkey. It was one of the scariest and most bizarre nights of my life, my tweets about the fear, the explosions and passing F-16s were retweeted thousands of times resulting in constant phone calls from international press agencies and a very late night (and slightly drunken) appearance on Radio 5 Live. Later came international TV appearances, and being interviewed by George Galloway (of all people) for his show on RT, something I’ve still not been able to bring myself to watch. The coup was, thankfully, prevented but since then President Erdogan’s autocracy has gone from strength to strength and hardly a week goes past without the country taking a further dive into darkness in the name of weeding out enemies of the ‘state’. 

Almost a million people have been affected by widespread arrests and purges from state institutions. In the last few weeks alone, 370 NGOs have been shut down, more journalists arrested, a further 15 media organisations closed and the leaders of the pro-Kurdish opposition party were arrested, removing the only democratically elected voice that represented minorities as well as sought for greater moves towards womens’ and LGBTQI+ equality. Removing this voice will no doubt lead to more violence since the collapse of a ceasefire with the PKK last summer, violence that will play right into Erdogan’s hands as excuse enough for government forces to continue their operations in the southeast, razing cities to the floor in the name of counter-terror. And all the while the supposedly ceremonial president edges ever closer to securing the support he needs to rewrite the constitution, finally securing his ‘definitely-not-a-dictatorship’ new presidential system extending his grip on power. Needless to say, Turkey is not in a good place.

While accidentally finding yourself near-on in the epicentre of a coup that is going badly wrong is incredibly frightening, what scared me more was the nationalist frenzy it enabled. Nationalism so powerful, people laid down their lives to protect their country – a feeling that leaves people all too easily controlled and manipulated. I wrote about it for the Guardian, yet little did I know that by the time I would get around to posting it here, we would be living in a post-Trump, post-Brexit world. Despite mentioning both in my article, the West’s capacity to screw itself over, to also be blinded by whipped up nationalism, has taken me by surprise. Nationalism is now a global sickness, and in trouble too is the very nature of democracy. We are now bitterly, and in some cases irreconcilably divided. While it is common to look down on Turkey as somehow backwards, as trying to catch up, the post-truth politics and pointed insults of both the Brexit and the Trump campaigns looked very much like Erdogan tactics to me. It is the nationalism that has been unleashed everywhere that frightens me now. 

You can read the published version here, or the unedited version below. 


I was at a BBQ in the garden of the British embassy bar in Ankara on Friday night when F16s started roaring overhead. We soon heard the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul had been blocked off, too, and began hearing talk from various off-duty officials of an attempt at a military coup, but it seemed so unlikely at first.

A friend in Istanbul called and said state media institutions had been taken over by army and jandarma officers calling themselves a peace council and that the broadcaster TRT was showing endless weather reports. Then the explosions started and we were told we had to leave – we were turned out on to uncertain streets by an institution we thought was safe.

Some who were there had been informed by their places of work to go home immediately so we sheltered nearby at a friend’s place, close to the Prime Minister’s palace – ‘we’ were a Belgian, an Italian, a Syrian-born Jordanian and three Brits. I had been tweeting what was going on and was talking to various news agencies – before my phone battery predictably died – as the jets continued to fly low overhead. I heard an unfamiliar noise and stuck my head out of the window to see a stream of tanks going past. It seemed pretty serious at that point.

As the night crept on into Saturday morning, the gunshots drew close, it felt like they were metres away, and the bangs, too – a mix of bombs, aircraft fire and sonic booms that are not always easy to distinguish from one another. Some of the explosions were so close the vibrations shook in my chest. My friends were crying and regularly running for shelter in the hall and the TV blanked out. There were frantic messages to loved ones. “This is much worse than it was in Damascus,” the Syrian-born friend kept saying. I even tweeted “I love you mum!”.

“I am calling you into the streets,” president Erdogan texted everyone with a Turkish number at some point in the early hours. He wanted everyone to “stand up” for democracy and peace against the junta. I was disgusted to see on social media later what that meant – boys barely old enough to vote pulled from tanks and beaten, whipped with belts, people posing for pictures with their thumbs up next to the bodies of dead soldiers. The police looked on. What sort of democracy was this?

Much has been said about ‘democracy’ – it was fired out by the government as a motivational buzzword to mobilize people. The quashing of the coup was touted as a ‘victory for democracy’, but democrats don’t burn down the homes of Syrian migrants, they don’t threaten to rape the children of their enemies. The army claimed to be acting in the interests of democracy too. Yet they killed civilians in the street, civilians who should never have been there in the first place. These people were not motivated by democracy, on either side, but nationalism and sense of honour.

Erdogan was Turkey’s first democratically elected president, but what he represents is not democracy. There is little understanding, it seems, among his supporters of the difference between the presence of elections and a true democracy. Democracy is instead used in Turkey as an empty term to legitimise any mob mentality that works in the government’s favour.

For two days and nights, many got no sleep because the mosques regularly called for people to take to the streets. On Saturday, nationalist protests swelled in celebration of what they called democracy – there were flags everywhere, guns, chants of “Allahu Akbar” and nationalist songs. They were out again yesterday and it continued well into this morning. The gray wolf salute of those affiliated with the ultranationalist, arguably racist, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) were everywhere. My clothing has been disapproved of by passers by, something I have honestly not experienced much of in Turkey. This sort of nationalism scares me and Erdogan has asked for people to remain mobilised like this for a week.

While nationalism has become a global sickness – from Brexit to Donald Trump – as deglobulisation kicks in, Turkish society is crumbling under the weight of this growing tumour. Now an already polarized country will be further polarised and many silenced with the label of ‘traitor’. Erdogan and his party are whipping people into a nationalist frenzy to further their support and consolidate even more power.

While an impressive display of people power prevented the armed coup, it will likely now result in unleashing a further crackdown on dissent. Aside from thousands of arrests, many press outlets have already had their websites blocked. Friday’s events may well grant the government free rein to purge enemies while claiming they are the enemies of democracy – even the push to reinstate the death penalty is being touted as a democratic necessity.

When I finally got home on Saturday, I saw cars on my road squashed flat by tanks like they were little more than a Coke can in the name of democracy. I really hope Turkey’s democratic future won’t now suffer the same fate.

I wrote for the Guardian about Britain and Turkey as Europe’s fringe nations


Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 15.52.35

The Guardian asked me to write something about Turkey and Brexit in the event of Brexit, and of course I though that was never going to happen. Eugh. But I was very happy to get to write something after all so I wrote about Britain and Turkey as two fringe nations on opposite sides of Europe – in more ways than one… 

Unedited version below or the final version here.

So, it happened. Brexit is upon us. The politics of fear won the day – the Turks are no longer coming. As we come to terms with the idea that the long EU divorce process is about to get going, Turkey – the country whose people we are apparently petrified of – is still plodding on with the longest engagement in history.  

Despite all the bile spewed about the country during the Leave campaign, it turns out Britain and Turkey are not so different after all. Like Britain, Turkey blames the EU for many of its ills. The slow speed with which their accession into the union has progressed is often seen as a deliberate move by the British, the US and the EU itself to undermine Turkish power. It is frequently referred to as a Christian expansion project, a union that exists to assert Christian ideals and dominance over the world. “Europe, you don’t want us because the majority of our population are Muslim,” President Erdoğan said at a graduation ceremony in Istanbul on the eve of the Brexit vote.

He also suggested holding a referendum on the country leaving the EU before they’ve even joined – TRexit, of course. “We can stand up and ask the people just like the British are doing,” Erdoğan said. With Frexit – France – also mentioned, and Nexit – the Netherlands – this may be the beginning of a worrying trend.

Also like Britain, Turkey sees itself as a country whose ideals are constantly under threat from outside forces. Turkey would be the world super power, if it wasn’t for those pesky Americans, Russians, Europeans… everyone. The idea that British secret service plots work to constrain Turkey is common. “It might sometimes look like it is Russia or the USA that is behind things. But they are all controlled by the British secret state,” Adnan Oktar, also known as Harun Yahya, a televangelist and leader of an Islamist sex cult – that really is a thingonce tweeted. To which British Ambassador to Turkey Richard Moore amusingly responded, “So now you know…”.

UK ambassador tweet

Yet, despite all this, Turkey’s EU talks have been championed by Britain. Jack Straw led the negotiations in 2005 when Turkey’s membership talks were officially given the go ahead. He even hugged then Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül in celebration, and was later awarded the Order of the Republic – the highest honor a foreign national can be awarded. Many British politicians have championed their bid. Cameron said in 2012 it was unfair that Turkey was being asked to “guard camp, but not allowed to sit in the tent”. It’s no wonder then, Turkey felt betrayed at being used as an excuse for Brexit.

It was Cameron saying that Turkey will join the bloc “in about the year 3000” that really stung – pro-government journalists scrambled to write things along the lines of, ‘see, told you everyone hates us’. Speaking on Newsnight via video link on Tuesday, Erdoğan’s chief advisor İlnur Çevik, said, “The French said we don’t want you. Many countries said this. But the way Mr Cameron put it we feel really, really taken in,” adding, “That kind of attitude really is deeply hurting the Turks”.

“Why should we be flooding Britain?” he said, on the much touted, but largely mythical, imminent invasion of Turkish migrants to the UK. “There’s no reason. Whatever exists in Britain also exists in Turkey. We’re not going to go there just because you produce Cadbury’s chocolates and Maltesers, for god’s sake”.

Turkey didn’t want Britain to leave, but our exit may well dent their EU ambitions enough for them to give up all together. “The fragmentation process of the EU has started. Britain was the first to abandon ship,” Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli said on Twitter. This all plays right into the hands Erdoğan, who seems to have gone off the EU and instead dreams of building a neo-Ottoman style Muslim union with him at its helm. “The people in Greece, Romania, Bulgaria are saying, ‘Forget about the EU, what could be the new scenario with Turkey?’” another of his advisors, Yiğit Bulut, said earlier this month. “Maybe the governments cannot speak about it because of the German government’s oppression, but people … have started to talk about how they will be ruled from Istanbul”.

Having been shunned by Germany and France in the past, held back by Austria, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to say that Turkey might change direction, or that the EU mıght not well give up on Turkey, too. Far right leaders across Europe are rejoicing at Brexit as a victory for “freedom”, which doesn’t bode well for Turkey.

Ironically to all those who wanted to keep Britain as far apart from Turkey as possible, Brexit could in fact improve relations between the two countries. Britain and Turkey as two fringe nations on opposite sides of Europe, in more ways than one. Both are united by growing romantic nationalism. Perhaps Turkey could even pick up some of the trade slack when we do eventually pull out – investment and exports between the two countries are already high.

If nothing else, Brexit may at least fight claims of the EU being an elitist Christian club. Turkish nationalists understand arguments of sovereignty and have backed the campaign. But with nationalists also threatening the freedoms of Turks who don’t fit their plan – LGBT people and Radiohead fans, to name but a few – is that really a side we want to be on?

I wrote for the Guardian about the silly demonisation of Turkey by Brexiteers

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 16.34.31

I was truly ashamed to be British in the run up to the Brexit vote. Living in Turkey, watching the Turkish people be used as a reason to leave the EU was, well, just really embarrassing. I wanted to show Britain how ridiculous it sounded, and incidentally soon after the vote it was admitted that most of the claims (including the Express headline) were false (shocker). The comments on this piece were also predictably awful (never look below the line!), xenophobic, nasty, but the guy who insisted on believing I was Polly Toynbee – as pointed out by several of my friends – did give me a chuckle. 

The unedited version is below or the shinyer finished product here.


The Brexit debate has become an all too real version of the time a woman turned a pro-EU leaflet into a game of Cards Against Humanity, accept every single one of Vote Leave’s answer cards say ‘Turkey’. What happens if we stay? Turkey. What is the biggest threat to the UK? Turkey. I drink to forget…? Turkey.

 While Turkey has had more than its fair share of troubles of late and has a long way to go, the vast majority of the ire from leave campaigners has been pointed directly at the Turkish people. The entire of Turkey’s 78 million population, who are mostly criminals, terrorists and gangsters, are preparing to relocate to the UK on the off chance we’ll stay and they will, by some miracle, achieve accession sometime soon. This is quite something considering fears of a Cyprus veto and when only 10% of the population even own a passport.

Turkey’s high birth rate will mean four million extra Turks by 2020 say Vote Leave, and “we can expect to see an additional million people added to the UK population from Turkey alone within eight years.” Within ten years this will cost maternity wards £400m they say, offering no clue as to their workings out. A statistic from a Vote Leave survey warned that 16% of Turks “would consider” moving to the UK on EU accession, but what that means is a whopping 84% wouldn’t even entertain the idea – that’s quite embarrassing when you think about it.

With Turkey considering its own feelings about the EU, imagine if they talked about the threat of us staying in the same way?

“Considering the rate at which Britain’s population is ageing,” they might say, “and based on the 2.5 million Brits who holidayed in Turkey last year, we expect to see our coastal regions destroyed by swarms of Britain’s elderly escaping their chronic bad weather problem. Since the EU will no doubt force us to join the European Health Insurance Card scheme, the strain on our free healthcare alone will be unbearable.

“A life of microwave meals and alcohol abuse means liver problems our health infrastructure just doesn’t have the resources to cope with. Within a year they’ll have eaten all of our biscuits. Are we really going to allow one of the fattest nations on earth have free reign of our hospitals? Their fat teenagers attend our free universities? Already some five million Brits live abroad and as anyone who’s ever been to the Costa del Sol will tell you, the problem is they just don’t assimilate.”

And who could blame them? A predominantly Christian Britain will bring forced Christmas with them. Our Islamphobia will, of course, push Turkey’s young people to becoming radicalised. Let’s not even get started on the threat of troubles starting up again with northern Ireland — if that flares up again, how do they know the 1.8 million residents won’s use it as an excuse to move to Turkey?

“Violent crime is up,” the newspapers might cry, “and they don’t have enough spaces for prisoners so they could ship them all here – they did it to AUSTRALIA.

“They will flock here, force women to wear high heels to work, if they wear anything at all, and the vast majority will expect wages so high they will force hardworking Turks out of the job market.

“We are talking about a people who not just eat pork, but whose prime minister engages in sexual activities with it. A country whose most famous entertainers are allowed to touch children. Whose royal family… who have a royal family.

“There is nothing but a ‘pourous’ ocean between them and the US – how can they protect us?

“They are rude, their men like to get drunk, put on dresses and fight each other. They will never speak the language.

“If the UK remain in Europe, there will simply be no Turkey left to enjoy the benefits the EU will bring.”

As someone who lives in Turkey and has been welcomed, even as that most threatening of all migrants: an economic one, I am ashamed. Brexit really has brought out the worst of British. Get over yourselves! During the eight months or so I taught English, I asked my students if they’d like to live in the UK. Without exception they said no — it’s expensive and racist.

Turkish people are not symbols of an approaching migrant apocalypse. Politicians, government figures from superior, everyone-wants-to-live-there Britain vilifying a whole people for political gain? Sounds like you have more in common with our Ottoman brethren than you thought.

I wrote about Erdogan’s use of Europe’s lese-majeste laws for the Guardian

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 16.09.34

Again, still catching up on updates. I wrote in March about how the Turkish Prez was using outdated and often largely forgotten about lèse-majesté laws in order to silence critics in Europe, but how it was actually backfiring. It prompted several countries to rush through changes and abolishments of the laws, therefore actually scoring an accidental victory for freedom of speech. You can read the published version here or the unedited one below.


It seems as though hardly a day goes by without Turkey’s President Recep Tayipp Erdoğan and his sense-of-humour free Justice and Development Party (AKP) government having a go at someone. Over the past few weeks, their spectacular ability to take offence and ping out accusations of ‘spy!’ and ‘terrorist!’ at anyone within reach has grown such momentum that the renowned Do-Not-Insultan has now turned his thin-skinned, pointy-finger towards free speech in Europe.

Since Angela Merkel’s decision to approve a prosecution request for comedian – although admittedly, not a very funny one – Jan Boehermann for his ‘insulting’ song Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdoğan, the Turkish president has been capitalising on his success. It seems he is actively targeting other European countries that, like Germany, still have outdated, and often near forgotten about, lèse-majesté laws.

Similar to Turkey’s Article 229, which concerns defamation of the president, these ‘injured majesty’ laws make it a crime to insult rulers or heads of state. They often include other ‘friendly’ leaders, too – a probe under section 103 of Germany’s criminal code prohibits “insulting organs or representatives of foreign states”.

Turkey recently attempted to utilize the Dutch version of the law, requesting that Turks working in The Netherlands snitch on each other. A leaked email from Rotterdam’s Turkish Consulate General to Turkish organisations operating in the country appeared to ask them – although the consulate insists it was all just a misunderstanding – to report back on anyone who had insulted either the Turkish president or the Turkish state.

Dutch-Turkish journalist Ebra Umar was then arrested on holiday in Turkey after someone reported her for tweeting sections of a column she’d written for the Dutch Metro criticizing the email. She compared it to practices used by the Dutch arm of the Nazi Party during WWII, which probably hit a nerve after the media furore that surrounded a speech from Erdoğan in January that appeared – another misunderstanding – to cite Hitler’s Germany as an example of effective government.

Dutch comedian Hans Teeuwen could be prosecuted, too. When asked about the Boehermann case in an interview he claimed that Erdoğan used to be a “boywhore” in an Istanbul brothel and that the leader still owes him a blowjob.

Switzerland has a lèse-majesté law and the Turkish government this week demanded the removal of a photo of a boy from an exhibition in Geneva that associated Erdoğan with his death – he was killed by a tear gas canister fired by police during the 2013 Gezi Park anti-government protests. The Swiss government rejected the demand, but if you live in Italy, Spain, Denmark or Norway, you might want to watch your back.

Erdoğan’s attempts to silence his critics often have the opposite result – there are few better instances of the Streisand-effect (when an attempt to hide something actually results in far more publicity) than the time Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson waded into the debate over whether a Turkish doctor had shared a meme that compared Erdoğan to Gollum, for which he faced prosecution, or far friendlier Sméagol. It resulted in the little-seen images being shared by news outlets across the globe. Attempts by the Tall Man – a nickname used by the president’s supporters, and with a well-concealed snigger, his detractors – to flex his muscles beyond Turkey’s borders and have a go at freedom of speech in Europe have also backfired.

Outrage at the use of laws that were, until now, rarely used outside of Thailand, has caused European countries to scramble to rid themselves of the lèse-majesté. On Thursday, Germany’s Justice Ministry completed a draft to abolish its version. Chancellor Merkel had previously promised the law would be removed by 2018 as a result of the embarrassing Boehermann affair and the furious debate over freedom of speech that followed, but it’s been fast tracked. The draft included the statement: “the idea that foreign state representatives need special protection against insults does not accord with the era.”

The Dutch government, too, has said it will reform its old law. Just last year there were calls for it to be removed after an activist faced prosecution under the lèse-majesté for saying “fuck the king” when he was arrested for protesting. Erdoğan’s current taste for the law, however, has prompted Dutch MPs to push for a removal, and quickly. The justice minister said the constitution should not be a “museum for out-of-date articles”.

In Switzerland, repeal of the law has been called for by politicians from both sides of the political spectrum in the wake of the Böhmermann case. Former cabinet minister Jean-Christophe Schwaab said: “The fact that you can be prosecuted for insulting a foreign head of state here in Switzerland reminds me of the Middle Ages”.

I wrote for the Guardian about the lack of sympathy for terror attacks in Turkey


Screen Shot 2016-07-19 at 15.50.15

OK…. I haven’t updated anything for ages. I wrote this for the Guardian in March following the bombing of the central square in Ankara after a spate of horrible attacks here. I was very affected by this bomb and unfortunately things don’t seem be getting much better. Turkey is going through a very dark period.

I was chuffed to see the piece got so much attention and so much support was offered to those affected. I was saddened to see the nasty and vitriolic comments that went below the line and on social media – people who cannot separate the difference between individuals and the state. Many of those who died were barely old enough to vote, yet people who seemingly have very little understanding of Turkey (but believe they know it all after reading a couple of news stories) decided the victims somehow deserved what happened to them because the commenters don’t like Turkey’s president. They talked as though the dead had some responsibility to carry for the actions of their government. Logic and humanity were absent.

It is no surprise really that Turkey later became a major excuse given for Brexit, that the Turkish people were dehumanised in order to scare Brits into a vote. This was yet another example of a mass failure of logic.

You can read the final piece here or the unedited piece bellow. 


On Sunday evening, a bomb exploded near a bus stop at a busy transport hub in central Ankara. At least 37 people died and many more were injured, innocent people who were just trying to get home had their lives literally blown apart. It’s the third high-fatality attack on the Turkish capital since October, meaning that in five months this welcoming – if often a little boring – city has seen more blood spilled by terror than many cities do in a lifetime. Yet where was our ‘Je suis…’ moment?

After the Paris attack last November, some Turkish schools had mourning ceremonies that lasted a full day. Buildings sported the Tricolor flag, people lit candles in solidarity with the victims and hung pictures in condemnation of the senseless violence. This was despite the fact that, when a similar number of people were killed at a peace rally in Ankara the month before, the ripples were hardly felt by the rest of Europe. No BBC reporters broke down in tears. No Facebook app was launched to convert profile pictures into Turkish flags.

While the circumstances of the various attacks in the two cities were very different – Ankara has been subjected to three suicide bomb attacks while Paris’s attacks in January and November last year were largely carried out by gunmen – it’s hard to say that this alone could cause such widely different shows of support. If Sunday’s bomb had instead been in Piccadilly Circus, the closest London equivalent to Kizilay in Ankara, or New York, Berlin, the world would be talking of nothing else. So why not Ankara?

“Is it because you just don’t realise that Ankara is no different from any of these cities?”; a friend (of a friend) James Taylor wrote in a Facebook post that went viral. “Is it because you think that Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, like Syria, like Iraq…?”

Britain has a love-hate relationship with Turkey. In tourist polls of the most popular destinations, sights, people, it often paradoxically appears as both one of the most and one of the least liked places. It continues to teeter on the line between East and West, making it hard to understand – a muslim country with increasingly conservative values that also has its sights set on the EU. Yet geographically, Turkey is Europe’s neighbour and politically Turkey has long been an ally, of sorts, to the West. It is not the only place to have seen its tragedies paid little attention by the rest of the world, but it feels like the most Western.

“Contrary to what many people think, Turkey is not the Middle East. Ankara is not a war zone, it is a normal modern bustling city, just like any other European capital,” said Taylor. The fact that violence in Turkey has been on the rise since the cease-fire between state forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) came to an abrupt end is undeniable. So is its proximity to Syria. Yet despite the heavy presence of armed police, Ankara is not a war zone, there are no tanks on the streets or barrel bombs being dropped.

Perhaps the lack of sympathy for the city comes from pure ignorance. When I first moved to Ankara 18 months ago I was asked by friends and acquaintances if “they have chairs in Ankara, or does everyone sit on cushions on the floor?” and if I would be “allowed to walk down the street on your own as a woman?” Most frustrating, and common of all, was “Are you sure Ankara is the capital, because I’m pretty certain it’s Istanbul?”

More people have been killed in the three attacks on Ankara than were in the multiple attacks on Paris. Many of the people killed may have been muslims. They may not have been from one of Europe’s sexiest cities, but their killing at the hands of terrorists still deserves our solidarity. As Taylor asks, “You were Charlie, you were Paris. Will you be Ankara?”

I interviewed trainers from TV show Dogs Might Fly for the Guardian

Dog with plane joystick

I interviewed the trainers from Dogs Might Fly, a TV show that aims to show how lovely rescue dogs can be with the right care and attention while, yeah, also teaching them TO FLY A PLANE, for the Guardian. Read it here or unedited version below.


Can a dog fly a plane? And, if it could, would you go as far as to, say, get in a plane that a dog was piloting? Probably not. However, Victoria Stilwell, one of eight dog experts on new six-part SKY 1 show Dogs Might Fly, would. Despite being a nervous flyer she can “confidently, 100% say yes.”

The show, presented by Jamie Theakston, will see 12 rescue dogs, handpicked from shelters across the country put through their paces in a series of challenges designed to highlight their extraordinary abilities before three luckily finalists graduate to doggy flight school.

So how in the name of dog do you attempt to train a canine for aviation? “A dog is a ground-based quadruped, so they’re not designed for flying – as humans aren’t,” understated Mark Vette, an animal psychologist on the show. Dogs “don’t have arms and hands – they’ve got four legs – so there were some issues with dexterity: how would they manipulate the yoke and the controls, and how they would sit up comfortably?”

“We went through some pretty challenging experimentation… The [Civil Aviation Authority] were adamant that we minimise changes to the plane. A big challenge was set, and that’s what the series is about.”

Although tight-lipped about the details of the process, the trainers did reveal the key attributes they looked for – confidence, a strong ability to read human signals and a dog who is, as Stilwell puts it in language more normally associated with City headhunters, “willing to go the extra mile, to problem solve and to investigate how to work something out for themselves – that’s the kind of dog you want flying a plane.” The muttley crew include Shadow, a Staffordshire bull terrier who was just hours away from being put down by the council when the team discovered him. He was, according to Stilwell, “really good at unlocking [doors] and then pretending he hadn’t done anything wrong.” He was such a top notch Houndini that during his audition he escaped twice before auditionbombing the other hopefuls.

“The crew were chanting ‘who let the dogs out’,” said Charlotte Wilde, a trainer who has supplied animals for Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean. “Shadow also found love at the airfield – hopefully you’ll see in episode six – and has already taken a small part in a shoot… Hollywood here he comes!”

Then there’s Wilf, a 22-month old collie cross, who Stilwell, star of dog behavioural show It’s Me or The Dog, said: “Loved eating water”. “He loved his paddling pool and would dive in trying to eat the water instead of drinking it.” Spike, a terrier-mix, was “brilliant at not doing any of the challenges set for him and instead was really intent on licking everybody’s faces, all the crew. You’re trying to get the shot and he’s just in your face having a fabulous time.” And, when working with dogs, there’s always one that “takes a dump somewhere right in the middle of the beautiful set.”

Challenges include an aviation-themed theatrical show with puppets (yes, really, really, really) – the dogs operated puppets through a series of specially designed platforms. We can also look forward to the “rock performance of a lifetime”.

“You’ve got to make sure that the dogs don’t mind sound,” said Stilwell. “You do these tests to see if the dog can be around a drum kit.” The dogs are rewarded for touching markers with their paws and noses before moving onto important things such as drum pedals. Not every dog, however, has the skills to be the next Ginger Barker or a Phil Collie. One of Stilwell’s favourites, Spot, a “wonderful” Beagle-mix, is “the funniest dog you’ll ever meet.” “She wasn’t that adept at playing the instruments so she was a backing vocalist. You teach the dog to sway, one paw to the other. It’s so cute.”

The dogs also had time to chill out in their luxury Sussex countryside pad, The Dog House, where it was no dog’s life. “As well as their very own Dog Studio,” said Wilde, “there were sofas and comfy dog beds. Although the dogs didn’t learn how to operate the Aga unfortunately. Or the bathroom.”

“They were treated like royalty,” added Stilwell. “They had the highest quality food, delicious treats, their own groomer and 24 hour vet care.” Bar the odd scuffle, the housemates got on too, which is refreshing for reality TV.

We’ve seen a pooch in space and now, just 59 years later, are we about to see the world’s first dog pilot? “I can’t tell you because I think it might be quite surprising,” said Stilwell. “Watch the show and you’ll see and you’ll go ‘wow’.”

– Dogs Might Fly goes out on Sky 1 at 19:00 on Sunday 28th February

– All of the dogs featured on the show have since found permanent loving homes.

I was shortlisted for The Columnist writing competition


Back in September I was extremely chuffed to be shortlisted for The Columnist, a competition that used to be run by the much-missed arts charity IdeasTap but has now migrated to Hiive (a great network for creative professionals). I made the last ten, and seen as there were 490 entrants I was smiling for ages. This was my entry:



This is the last message I sent to my best friend before she turned into a ghost. She didn’t die, but our friendship did and now I wish I’d said something more meaningful.

Ghosting is when someone cuts you off dead – the ultimate silent treatment. Your calls are ignored, your texts left unread and, if you’re as unbearable as me, you might even find yourself full-on digitally blocked (even Linked in – I’m not going to late-night stalk your endorsements). Like the dad who goes out for cigarettes and never returns, my friend went full Houdini on me – poof, and she was gone.

There are times when disappearing into the ether is the only way to deal with a ghoul, I get that. Who could blame Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for pulling an Irish goodbye on Humbert Humbert? It doesn’t get much more creepy than a 36-year old man who obsesses over a 12-year old girl, even before he starts bribing her for sexual favours.

Lolita escapes Humbert’s ever tightening-grip by doing a jib from a hospital and it worked, for a couple of years at least. Today, she’d probably instead have to delete her Snapchat and get damn busy with her location settings, but still, this is an extreme case. Most of us – and thankfully, I include myself in this – are not paedophile sex pests.

Bff or worst-date-ever, most people deserve a bit of explanation. Yet 11% of Americans admitted to ghosting someone they were dating in a YouGov survey last year. There is a sense that, through an illusion of exclusivity, ghosting is not just about ducking out quietly, but in fact a kind of self-elevation.

In Ali Smith’s book There But For The, reluctant dinner party guest Miles Garth slopes off upstairs between the main course and dessert. He locks himself in a spare room and refuses to come out. Ever. In doing so he becomes not just a source of desperate intrigue to the remaining guests, who gather around the door trying to find out what they can about Miles, but to the whole country. He becomes a minor celebrity, not just conspicuous in his absence, but tantalising in his mystery.

In short, unless someone poses you a serious threat, ghosting is all a bit look-at-me, don’t-look-at-me juvenile. How far can people-erasing go anyway? You can’t delete people from the real world or your brain. We’ve seen it in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in Black Mirror, even Red Dwarf, and it never ends well.

I was a good friend (honest) – the sort that always remembered to hold the tomato in sandwiches and to put wine in the fridge. Yet now I’m left picking over every word, every time I mentioned a day of the week, and wondering how it could’ve been taken the wrong way. Besides, there are few greater pleasures in life than calling an arsehole an arsehole. If we ghost everyone who pisses us off, what joy will be left?

I wrote about no platforming in UK universities (and why it sucks) for the Huffington Post

No platforming, Huffington Post

I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about no platforming in UK universities because in real life, students, you can’t just unfriend people who annoy you. It’s an update of an old blog post that you can read here, or the published version here

I started university when I was 24, almost 25. Having left school at 15 with no qualifications, I knew nothing about education and wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I had expected to be challenged. Not just academically, but politically. I had this notion – fuelled, no doubt, by various on-screen depictions of the political fervour of uni campuses of yore – that university was this feisty environment populated by politically passionate folk in whacky clothes, where radical debate and experimentation were high on the agenda.

What it turned out to be, however, was a place of wet sensitivity where girls – and boys – in Ugg(ly) boots experimented with baking. To put it frankly, after years of pining for higher-education my fellow students were boring and the only controversial debate that took place was about which canteen to buy lunch from.

It didn’t surprise me then, to see my university, Bath Spa, in the red-zone in Spiked magazine’s Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR). Spiked examined the policies and actions of British universities and students’ unions, ranking them on their commitment to free speech using a traffic-light system: red for universities or unions that have banned and actively censored ideas on campus, amber for “chilled free speech through intervention”, and green for institutes that have a hands-off approach.

 Just to preempt any snarky comments about ‘rubbishy’ universities, let me point out that Oxford was red too, and Cambridge amber. In fact, only one in five universities were ranked as green, meaning that they embrace an open approach to free speech, whereas more than double that figure were ranked as red. In red universities, the idea of “safe space” is deemed more important than freedom of speech.

Germaine Greer has found herself falling short of safe space policy, again, as a recent petition called for her to be banned from a women’s rights lecture at Cardiff University because of her views on transgender women. It’s the latest in a string of incidents banning outspoken people with controversial views from events. In February, comedian Kate Smurthwaite also ran into trouble at Goldsmiths University when her show, Lefty Cockwomble – which, ironically, was about free speech – was cancelled. Why? Because Smurthwaite believes in the Nordic model of legislation on sex work, which criminalises buying rather than selling sex. Goldsmiths’ feminist society is, however, “‘for’ [the full legalisation of] sex working”. Her show had nothing to do with prostitution.

The theory of safe space is that people of all identities and backgrounds have the freedom to express themselves in an environment that is tolerant – great. However, the current, rigorous enforcement of the concept is beginning to sound a lot like censorship. A set of ‘if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’ rules, it’s as though the Facebook generation can’t handle the analogue world unless it meets their community standards.

I don’t agree with Greer’s view that trans women are “not women”, and I don’t think that all opinions deserve a platform. I do believe, however, that in real life, you can’t just block people you don’t get on with. There is no ‘hide this content’ button. There is no network of sky-geeks, ready to remove material that violates life’s code of conduct. Learning to communicate with people who hold different views from your own is one of life’s biggest lessons and one that university plays a vital role in. It is there, after all, to prepare you for the world, not shield you from it.

It’s good to see students, who are increasingly known for their apathy, show some guts in their refusal to have their views challenged, at least. Is shying away from real debate the new radical though, or is it just a symptom of a world that seeks to shut down opinions that differ from mainstream, community approved thought?

It seems to me that building a community of like-minded people might give students the freedom of tolerance, but it doesn’t necessarily teach them to tolerate. Little value is placed, for instance, in the views of students that don’t match the ideal – what about their safe space? Just like Facebook, increasingly at universities you are only really expected to ‘like’, agree, or shut up. No wonder my peers preferred baking.