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Revelations: How to Find God

Jon Ronson rather breezed through his sojourn among the spiritually eager

Revelations: How to Find God
Channel 4

There wasn’t anything particularly amazing about the script, or the direction, of Jon Ronson’s film about the evangelical Christian Alpha course (28 June, 7pm), but for his access alone he must receive ten house points from the school of television critics.

The Church of England arm of the franchise is surprisingly defensive about its most successful conversion tool, as Ronson found out when he approached it for access. The first 20 churches turned him down. Then he got lucky. The Anglican rector of the excessively happy-clappy St Aldates in Oxford, Charlie Cleverly, agreed to allow Ronson to follow one group of agnostics through an Alpha course, comprising ten Tuesday evenings and one weekend away. Among this group of the spiritually curious were Ed, an unemployed “freegan” whose hobby is trawling through supermarket dumpsters in search of dinner; Dave, an ale-loving Oxford psychology student; and Ian, a comedy writer.

As an explanation for why two million British people have signed up for an Alpha course so far, and why thousands are reputed to have become Christians as a result, Ronson’s film was pretty much a failure. Yes, we saw a few, like, really deep conversations between our “don’t knows” and our “absolutely certains”, a sickly married couple called Sharon and Rich whose job it was to lead group discussion after one of Cleverly’s grinning semi-sermons; but the latter were inordinately wimpy, not to mention severely lacking in clinching arguments.

According to Rich, God’s existence could be proven by the fact that He once “told” him that he didn’t need to give a talk he was a bit nervous about. I wondered about this. Is it God who tells me to call my hangover “food poisoning”? The agnostics felt similarly, but when they said so, Sharon turned pink and accused them of being patronising.

Ronson’s approach in this film was to stand back and watch the action rather than to, say, go off and tackle Nicky Gumbel, the man behind Alpha, about his marketing techniques. So the whole thing was rather shambling and mild, like a religious version of Springwatch: instead of wondering which egg was going to hatch first, we were invited to wonder which agnostic would find Jesus first. This is not to say that Ronson has entirely abandoned his satirical impulse; on the weekend away, the comedy was rich. Our group found itself sharing a conference centre with a bunch of Ford GT40 enthusiasts.

Now, Ford GT40s have extremely loud engines and, unfortunately for Cleverly, just as he’d got his agnostics all quiet and settled and ready to, er, speak in tongues, the car owners decided to roar off en masse into the Oxfordshire night. (Yes, you read that right; speaking in tongues is the “climax” of the Alpha course, apparently, and no wonder they want to keep that quiet, for what sane person would agree to go on such a mini-break if they knew this was its aim?) Needless to say, the mood was broken but, undaunted, Charlie decided to speak in baby language – sorry, I mean tongues – anyway, pour encourager les autres. “Oh, Father,” he said. “Balala, dilly doodle, boogy bala . . .” Or something. Amazingly, no one laughed. I think they were too stunned to laugh. Call me old-fashioned, but what is wrong with a firm recitation of the Lord’s Prayer? At least it makes sense.

Meanwhile, how were our potential converts doing? Ronson, to extend my Springwatch analogy, did his best to sit on them, mother hen-style, so he wouldn’t miss a second of their spiritual awakening. But they would keep disappearing!

Dave went off and let a lot of St Aldates lovelies pray for him. Result? Not a conversion, exactly, but he is going to do another Alpha course. Perhaps he had the hots for one of the lovelies. Ian was repulsed by the vicar’s ga-ga-gooing, and was off. Ed, the most sceptical of the three, had been taking Communion on the mini-break. Was he about to crack? No, he said. In fact, he was a bit embarrassed to have found himself in the line for the Host.

Off camera, Ronson asked: “Were you after a free bread roll?” At which point, freegan and film-maker laughed uproariously, like two doctors about to come off shift in a lunatic asylum.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide