Great excitement was aroused in the spokespeople of the nation's secularists by last week's release of detailed statistics from the 2011 census. These showed that the number of Christians in England and Wales now stood at 33 million, representing a decline of 12 percentage points over the past 10 years. The British Humanist Association – whose membership must clock in at a minute fraction of this total – acclaimed a decisive shift in values, while the even more precipitous slump in religious belief in Wales prompted Professor Richard Dawkins to congratulate the principality's agnostic falange on its newly-found enlightenment.
It was even worse in my home city of Norwich, which has now been rated the most irreligious population centre south of the Tweed. According to the figures, 59,513 of us are Christians (44.9 per cent) and 2,612 Muslims, while 42.5 per cent of respondents admitted to no religious belief at all. There were also 783 people classifying themselves as Jedi Knights and 65 worshippers at the shrine of "heavy metal", whose opinions – and I am not being in the least judgemental here – may perhaps be discounted. The Bishop of Norwich, when questioned by the local newspaper, declared himself "doubtful" of the reliability of these results, and drew attention to the city's above-average rates of churchgoing.
But however accurate the figures, it takes only a glance around the local terrain to establish the continuing impact of Christianity on city life. The landscape is dominated by two religious landmarks – the Anglican cathedral to the north and the Roman Catholic edifice to the south. Not only is the place crammed with churches (in varying degrees of repair and usage) but a growing percentage of the work done among the homeless and the alcoholically and pharmaceutically dependent comes courtesy of Christian agencies. Even at the level of organised sport, my 12-year-old and his friends turn out on Saturday mornings under the auspices of the Norfolk Christian Football League.
None of this, naturally, is evidence of spiritual belief – a state which, in any case, is rarely quantifiable via the agency of a tick-box. But it would be difficult to deny that, first, the church is still making its presence felt here in the Great Eastern Land, and, second, were you take it out of Norwich, or any other similarly sized city, you would create a gaping hole that no government agency – and certainly not the British Humanist Association – would ever be able to fill.
As a keen supporter of home-grown popular music, I was alarmed to read reports of the reunited Girls Aloud's performance at the Jingle Bell Ball held at the O2 Arena. Dressed in vertiginous heels that prevented them from dancing round the stage, and figure-hugging clothes that seemed to inhibit their breathing, the girls were, according to one critic, forced to parade in circles "like pedigree poodles". Estimates of the vocal talent on display varied from "lacklustre" to "unenergetic". All this half-heartedness was put firmly in its place by the American chanteuse Pink, who at one point donned a harness and propelled herself upside down over the audience's heads.
The odd thing about this kind of concert-bill tourney is how often it ends in a victory for the transatlantic contender. As a teenager, one watched the likes of the Nolan Sisters or, a bit later, Bananarama, lolloping around the Top of the Pops studio while betraying a fatal inability to lip-synch, secure in the knowledge that they were about to be blown off stage by some tightly-choreographed American girl group such as Sister Sledge, whose members displayed the unusual talent of being able to move their limbs in unison.
Further evidence of this geographical fissure was offered by last week's Spice Girls reunion, which sparked the memory that only two of the five (Scary and Ginger) would have lasted more than 10 minutes on an inter-war era variety hall stage. Neither is this entertainment-world parable confined to girl groups. Wise-cracking American cross-talk comedians of the 1930s had the same kind of edge over domestic competition. A distrust of remorseless, finicking professionalism is one of the great beacons of our national life. On the other hand, the gap between the amateur spirit and straightforward amateurishness can sometimes seem uncomfortably wide.
To read the obituaries of the distinguished American musician Charles Rosen, who died last week, was to be waved into the presence of a very common cultural phenomenon: the artist who is convinced that his, or her, professional life peaked almost before it began. By the age of 23, Rosen had completed a PhD, given his first recital and made his debut recording, after which, as he ruefully put it, it was "downhill all the way".
Literature, too, turns out to be full of these despairing prodigies. Cyril Connolly, possibly the most celebrated English literary critic of the mid-20th century, often complained that after his election to Pop – the Eton Society – and his Brackenbury scholarship to Balliol, all that was left to him was quiet consolidation. Happily there are a number of psychological props available to shore up these afflictions. As Connolly's chum Brian Howard, a serial non-achiever whose biography was entitled Portrait of a Failure, once crossly assured a critic: "At least I'm a has-been. That's something you can never be."Reuse content