It used to be a private admission to a priest within the sanctity of the church. But now it is fashionable to go public with your ...
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My friend Sullivan is giving up drink for Lent. Before lunch yesterday he had already publicly rehearsed the virtues of alcohol in modern life: the un-winder after work, the impossibility of eating pasta without red wine, the long, cool beer at the end of a long, hot summer's day ...

Hang on, this is Lent. Forty days from Ash Wednesday, which was yesterday, hardly takes us into the realms of the long, hot summer. If we are lucky, spring might just have arrived by Easter (that is, at the end of Lent, for the secularised among you).

Clearly, Sullivan has already lost his grip on reality, a characteristic commonly associated with the mystics and ascetics who, throughout history, have been most keen on fasting and abstinence in a big way.

He is not a noticeable boozer, it has to be said. He does not usually drink much before breakfast, if at all, let alone talk endlessly about it. The suspicion around the office is that this is just an outbreak of alcoholic remorse, prompted by a bout of moderate over-indulgence the night before. But clearly he is now going to become obsessive and his immediate colleagues are in for 39 long days of detailed accounts about his steely abstinence.

That is probably why the rest of us go out of our way to lay temptation before those who have publicly declared such puritanical reserve. (He is coming round for supper on Saturday and I have a particularly seductive amarone - sultry, heady and intense, as the wine buffs would say - to lay on with the tagliatelle ai porcini.)

It is not, as the evangelically minded might have it, the the demonic impulse that rises within us all when confronted by an attempt at self- sanctification by one of our peers. It is not even that we feel threatened by this contrast with our own lack of willpower. It is just that we somehow resent being roped into the exercise.

Let those who want to abstain do so. But in private. Why do they have to draw the rest of us into their public confession of intent?

Nowadays confession has become a public business. Once it was an activity wholesomely associated with Catholic guilt which took place in the privacy of the darkened confessional box But post the-liberated Sixties and me-generation Seventies, people stopped going.

They have not, however, ceased to perform the functions of confession: to acknowledge their sins, proclaim their firm purpose of amendment and make recompense by reformed conduct. They just lay it all on the rest of us.

Ordinary folk have to be content with broadcasting around the office or writing letters to Virginia Ironside. But the famous can go global. One of the newspapers reported yesterday that the Princess of Wales is now talking about going on Oprah Winfrey's television show. Even the 21 million who watched her Panorama performance were not enough, it appears, to slake her thirst for public prostration

The key is, of course, that what was once a penance is now an exercise in self-justification. What was once a vice is now a virtue, which is why Hugh Grant was last year able to turn his on-screen admissions of sexual misconduct into a public relations opportunity, and why the shares of listed companies sometimes actually rise when they admit to their own failure in management practices by writing off large amounts of bad debt. Sackcloth and ashes are now, it seems, designer gear.

As for me, I am not giving anything up. And if I was, I certainly would not be telling you.