This week's piece is based on a news story from 2006 that you can read about or re-familiarise yourself with here. This is the first and last time an article of mine will require any background reading, this much I can promise.
Ten years ago this month, my favourite story of all time took place. It had all the makings of a perfect British news item: a man of the cloth, too much alcohol and a literal fall from grace. I was gripped by it in 2006 and I remain gripped by it now.
Like The Beatles, Withnail And I, Taylor Swift and Tabasco - you’re either completely obsessed with this story or you’re not. The world is divided into three camps: those who haven’t read the story, those who have read the story and found it faintly amusing and those who have read the story and thought of little else for every waking hour since. I find myself extremely drawn to the latter group of people.
Me and my friend and fellow journalist Helen have been talking about how we mark the anniversary of The Bishop of Southwark’s Big Night Out since last spring and ultimately decided the only way we could do it justice was by recreating the evening itself, by piecing together the snippets of information we have about the night. And so, earlier this week, we turned Helen and her boyfriend Ross’ flat into The Irish Embassy and we drank Guinness while wearing cassocks and mitres.
At one point, in what Helen now calls a “real Road to Damascus moment”, we had to explain to a guest - who had no idea about the theme other than being told to it was essential to bring Portuguese wine - the whole Bishop of Southwark thing from start to finish. I was left wondering: what is it about this story specifically that I can’t let go of? Why, for example, did I love it so much aged 18 I changed my pouty Facebook profile photo to one of Tom Butler with a black eye for a full month? Why has my obsession grown even deeper with age? Why do Helen and Ross love it too? Why do so many people know exactly what I am referring to when I say “it’s what I do”?
I think I finally realised the poignant appeal of this tale when I was discussing costumes prior to the anniversary party with Helen.
“Who do we all come as?” I asked her in a panic. “We can’t ALL come as bishops, that doesn’t make any sense. We could find out who else was there that night?”
“No, I think it’s perfect,” she said. “I think the message is, at some point in our lives, we are ALL the Bishop of Southwark.”
And that’s exactly it - the various accounts of The Most Reverend Tom Butler’s behaviour that night is the most recognisable reflection of my own drunkenness I have ever seen in a public sphere. Drinking too much because the wine is free and it’s Christmas; repeating myself incessantly; overstepping conversational boundaries; raising myself up with embarrassing boasts that I think are subtle. In Hollywood movies, drunk people sing into a hairbrush or dramatically tell someone they are in love with them or make a truthful, affecting speech to a captivated audience. But in real life, getting rip-roaring drunk is less about showing everyone how great you are and more about convincing everyone, including yourself, that you’re perhaps not completely awful. Which is why each and everyone one of us, at some point, have been or will be The Bishop of Southwark.
The Bishop of Southwark is the person in the pub lecturing everyone on various conspiracy theories involving The Notorious B.I.G, calamari in chain restaurants or Prince Philip.
The Bishop of Southwark is that feeling when you check your emails the morning after a night out and receive five “thank you for traveling with Uber” emails one after the other between the hours of one and five AM.
The Bishop of Southwark is the person who says: "I've got a game, why don’t we all go round and say our favourite and least favourite thing about each other?” at a dinner party.
The Bishop of Southwark is a misspelt sext you read the next morning in which you talk about wanting to “duck” and “kick” the genitals of an indifferent recipient.
The Bishop of Southwark is the most sacred and solemn secret in your family which you tell to the new woman from accounts in the smoking area of a pub to make her feel more relaxed.
The Bishop of Southwark is the party goer who gets so drunk they make up completely unimpressive claims that they then have to defend; filling in the narrative holes of brags such as: “my dad owns a dairy farm near Fife” or “I played county badminton as a teenager” or “I’ve never drunk a cup of tea in my entire life”.
The Bishop of Southwark is the man who commandeers the Spotify and speakers at a house party to play Beenie Man, telling everyone else they have “shit taste in music” and that none of them are being “real with each other”. He is the man who cites a childhood spent in a mews house in Notting Hill as the source for his passion for Dance Hall and reggae.
The Bishop of Southwark is the woman who has lost weight and tells every barman and fellow patron exactly how much to the pound, then demonstrates why everyone is squatting incorrectly.
The Bishop of Southwark demands you leave one bar to go to another then gets to the new bar and says the vibe isn’t right and you should’ve stayed in the previous bar.
The Bishop of Southwark stops the party to ask everyone to help him look for his phone or his credit card in the dark then finds it in his coat pocket two hours later.
The Bishop of Southwark is the woman who wants attention from her boyfriend so she tells the pub landlord who looks like Bruce Forsyth in the heyday of Play Your Cards Right that he looks like Bruce Willis in Armageddon.
The Bishop of Southwark is the man who wants attention from his girlfriend so, in front of her, announces to a group of friends that he’s decided he doesn’t really believe in monogamy anymore.
The Bishop of Southwark is the 10.30 AM Dominos Pizza order you place when you wake up with a brain-frying hangover, because you know that it will be at your door at the stroke of noon.
The Bishop of Southwark is human fallibility; he is the knot in a piece of wood and the Imperfect Stitch in a Persian rug. He is the grit in an oyster and the Isle of Wight shaped birthmark on a lower back. He is you and me. And we are more than our gravest mistakes and soaring triumphs. We are the way we tie our shoelaces and the song we sing in the shower. We are how we take our tea and the side of the bed we sleep on. We are a million fragments of light and dark and big and small pulled together with the best of intentions. We are all The Bishop of Southwark. It's what we do.