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Sunday 17 December 2006

Crucified by tabloids for being in high spirits

THERE are three important pieces of information that all attendees at Irish Embassy functions in London should know and that - sadly - the unfortunate Bishop of Southwark clearly didn't.

Firstly, be aware that although the invitation may say 6pm-8pm, the latter time is purely aspirational: guests will still be there in abundance well after nine. I've been at an embassy party on a mainly Irish night when, in desperation, the hosts resorted to turning the lights on and off in an attempt to steer the hordes towards the splendid curved staircase before they were so drunk they were likely to fall down it. These days, I'm invited to the mainly British parties, where it is thought impolite to overstay by more than two hours.

Secondly, whatever you drink, don't drink wine, because your glass will be filled up again and again and again and again without you even noticing.

Thirdly, even if you intend to have dinner later, stuff yourself with the excellent canapés.

The smart moves are: a) to arrive with a cast-iron reason to leave after an hour, or to get there after the time it's supposed to be over; and b) if you want alcohol, refuse the wine or strong measures of gin or whiskey offered as you get through the door and fetch yourself a small measure of a different and well-diluted spirit from one of the two bars; having to break off from conversation to push through a crowd to a bar is a prophylactic against over-indulgence.

Now I'm not seeking to blame the Irish Embassy for the behaviour of its guests: its hospitality budget should be sacrosanct. One of the reasons we're popular abroad is because we give good parties.

When years ago I was researching a book on the British Foreign Office, the single most frequent wail from their diplomats was how they hated having to attend national day parties, many of which are dry and almost all of which are boring. Irish parties were frequently mentioned as the exception, not just because of the generosity with drink and food, but because of the eclecticism of the guest list and the warmth and informality of the hosts.

The excellent embassy Press Party on December 5 was graced inter alia by Sir Hugh Orde of the PSNI, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller of MI5, Lord Trimble (as he now is), assorted politicians, innumerable hacks (including me) and Bishop Tom Butler, a popular and liberal voice on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day. The bishop left after 9pm in a state that a kindly English friend describes as "somewhat over-refreshed".

Although his diocese covers a vast area of London and the South-east and contains 309 parishes, the Church of England pays low stipends and encourages modesty and frugality, so the bishop headed off to the tube rather than take a taxi home.

The following morning he awoke to find himself with a black eye, cuts and bruises and a lump on his head so painful that he couldn't wear his mitre later that day at a ceremony in south London.

As he explained to the congregation, he had apparently been mugged on the way home and robbed of his mobile phone, briefcase and spectacles.

According to the Evening Standard's 'Bishop hurt in mugging yards from his own front door' report on Friday, "he was unable to give police a full description of his assailant and can remember little of the attack".

Press sympathy had turned to glee by Saturday. '"Steaming drunk" bishop shame' was the Sun headline, over a story from Paul and Nicola Sumpter. On Tuesday evening, they had been in a pub a long way away from the bishop's home - though close to his cathedral, in yes, honestly, Crucifix Lane - when the alarm on their Mercedes had gone off and Paul had rushed out to find a man in the back throwing their baby's toys around. Allegedly, on being asked if he had been drinking, he replied, "I am the Bishop of Southwark. It's what I do."

Her husband added, "He was absolutely steaming drunk. He looked like Father Jack."

Having been pulled out of the car, the bishop fell over, hit his head, refused to wait for an ambulance and staggered off into the night. His spokesman was quoted as having "admitted he could not remember what had happened". It was a story the press - no strangers to drink themselves, but shameless hypocrites - fell upon, with the Mirror winning the prize with the headline 'Bished as a newt'.

The Sunday papers were full of it, along with quotes from the sanctimonious demanding his resignation, and the Sun prolonged the agony with a story on Monday: 'Sun gives bash Bish bag back', which explained that they had given him back the cross, personal organiser, brolly and papers (which included a letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury) that the Sumpters had found on the back seat a few days after their exciting encounter.

"The bag was handed to the Sun and yesterday we returned it. The bishop said: 'I am delighted.' His spokesman added: 'He'd clearly had a glass of wine but does not recall being drunk as a skunk.'"

The poor old bish must be going through hell. He was absent but not forgotten at the BBC party I was at on Tuesday, where the Bishop of Oxford had to endure many a joke about watching his intake.

If there's any justice, poor old Southwark should survive. His congregation and his listeners like him, most ordinary people feel sympathetic and the Archbishop of Canterbury is backing him. Since abject apologies are now fashionable, he'll have to abase himself and promise to sin no more; his Thought for the Day this week is his big chance. All attendees at the fateful Press Party should be saying, "There for the grace of God go I."

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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