Water into urine

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I'd only had one glass, so you can't blame the drink. Jeremy Paxman's voice introduced Thursday's Newsnight over familiar live pictures of bored, ill-dressed men and women shuffling around a large gymnasium. It was the evening of the Hemsworth by-election. Later, some cub reporter would appear telling us that Labour were "looking happy" (had won handsomely), or the Tories seemed "relaxed" (had saved their deposit).

There they were, Britain's Most Boring Canvassers, awaiting a result that everyone already knew. Some bloke was being grilled - I temporarily lost the thread.

It was only when Jeremy interrupted the fat chap on screen with "a man's just fallen down behind you, now what's that about?" that I woke up. Who had gone down? Had the new MP died already? (Was this a record?) Had someone set fire to the Liberal Democrat?

Then I twigged. We weren't in Hemsworth at all, we were in Telford. The scene was an evangelical service. And the interviewee wasn't the editor of the Hemsworth Argus filling empty airtime, but an American pastor defending millennarian religious practice (speaking in tongues, barking like dogs, throwing away other people's crutches), against attack from the mainstream church.

So those in shot were Christ's New Vanguard, experiencing ecstasy. Only they were experiencing it extremely undramatically. True, looking closely at the crowd behind the corpulent priest I glimpsed an old dear going down on one knee and making a face. Then getting up again. If the Spirit was entering her, I thought, it had come out the other side very quickly.

It wasn't the first time I had witnessed the dire spectacle of white English people carried away by spirituality. I'd seen other pictures of evangelicalsvisited by the Lord. They shook a bit, sat down suddenly and got up again, shut their eyes andnervously shouted, "I'm here, Lord." Everything they did possessed the same dignity and physical grace that you see when people fall off buses, or get trapped in revolving doors.

Surely if God wanted to reveal himself to us he would make a better, more beautiful show of it? The singing would be sublime, the body would seem electric, the eyes would shine with fervour and inspiration. It would have to seem miraculous. But the Toronto Blessing as seen in Telford is not miraculous. Instead of turning water into wine, the English faithful manage the unastonishing trick of transforming water into urine. Anybody can do it, but only the damaged insist on telling everyone.

Contrast this wobbling and yelping with the services inside black Pentecostal churches. Magnificent singing, rhythmic clapping and smart clothes. You can be completely irreligious and feel something inside you respond. So why is this?

No - I'm not falling for even the mildest form of "they've got natural rhythm". I see the same phenomenon in other walks of life. At English football matches most of the singing is off-key. Many fans even chant out of tune, fizzling out mid-expletive. Contrast this with, say, Brazilian supporters and their terrace sambas.

Or, to take a topical example, examine Mr Scargill's new radical party, Socialist Labour. Where were the red banners, the six-foot high portraits of Karl, Vladimir and Arthur? Was the founding marked by a 10,000-strong rally, addressed by fraternal delegates from the struggling masses of 10 continents? Did Agitprop theatre transform the icy streets of Hemsworth into a peripatetic celebration of working-class political action? No. Arthur and Brenda, his candidate, sat all day in an old shop phoning people up. That was it.

I know the culprit. What is at work here is that damned English self- consciousness. It is that fear of ridicule, of looking silly, which leads to an incapacity to throw oneself into the song, the dance, the party or the politics. Unless you are completely drunk, in which case there is absolution. In England it is not just the best who lack all conviction. Even the worst do.