There is no party like Carole Stone's Christmas party

A pirate, a pioneer, a punk princess

She has 9,500 phone numbers on file and they are there because she's addicted to people. She is not rich, she is not famous, she was not born to power, but she is London's political hostess beyond compare. And tonight is her party night. Martin McSheen will be there.

Tonight, in an imposing old dollop of architectural confection not far from the Houses of Parliament, one of the year's great parties will take place.

There will be, on past form, a bewildering array of politicians, judges, showbiz types, media folk and authors. Labour left-wingers will rub shoulders with Tory peers. Newsreaders will fight over the peanuts with Tony Blair's Whitehall top guns. Trade union leaders will gossip with playwrights.

And the event? Merely the umpteenth annual Christmas do of a woman who has risen from a BBC copy typist in Southampton to be the last great political hostess in Britain, a unique networker and party-flinger. Carole Stone, now 55, is a phenomenon. There is no one remotely like her in the capital; and without her, the capital would be a duller place.

Her most prominent job was as producer for Any Questions? for most of the time from 1977 to 1989, having worked her way up through the BBC in Southampton and Bristol.

It was a big break, and she spent months reading Vacher's Parliamentary Companion each night before going to bed, until she could recognise every MP; even now, Stone is probably on friendly terms with more powerful people from all sides and professions than any single other person.

She always wanted to end up as Britain's answer to Oprah Winfrey, but, she says, despite a well-regarded pilot show in 1990, and some talk shows: ``I never got a live audience, and never really had the magic to be a success.''

She picked herself up and, encouraged by her partner Richard Lindley, a reporter for ITN's News at Ten special reports, began feeding her ``insatiable appetite'' for people by holding private lunches in a Covent Garden flat, entirely based on the only thing she could ``cook'' - tuna salad - at which a wide variety of people, such as John Birt, Tony Blair, Esther Rantzen and John Prescott, would meet. Now, she has moved on to evening ``salons''.

And, of course, her annual parties. She now has 9,500 people's addresses and telephone numbers on her personal contacts database (she has long outgrown a diary). This year it took her 10 days of constant slog to reduce the party list, first to 3,500, then to 2,500, and finally to around 1,800.

You get the picture? A rich, rather snobbish networker, a latter-day Lady Londonderry, in the pay of shadowy lobbyists ... But you would be wrong on every count.

Carole Stone is neither posh nor snobbish. She's a south-coast, working- class girl. The parties began as a means of introducing her beloved mum, Kathleen, now dead, to her friends. Tonight's one will include, along with numerous senior politicians and glittery TV people, her newsagent, her cleaner, aunts, uncles, friends from school, and so on. As Richard Lindley says, ``the principle is that it's all types and conditions of women and men.''

What about the money needed to finance these events? True, Carole Stone organises some lunches for a few company clients, but that's small potatoes; and despite offers to sponsor the drink and other costs of her famous parties, she refuses. One year, when she was a relative newcomer in London, the party cost her exactly pounds 500 more than her annual salary. Now, she reckons to spend the same sum on a once-a-year, two-hour party that other people spend on their holidays. Even her strict rules, including buying the second-cheapest-available wine, in order to afford the maximum number of bottles, mean that the parties are a big personal extravagance.

So, in short - why?

``I'm just addicted to people. I can't bear to let people go,'' she says. ``When the list got to 400, I thought, what do I do? But I wouldn't want to leave anybody off, and I can't bear not inviting nice new people - I always think, Oh shit, I haven't invited them; and I haven't invited them ... and so it just growed and growed.''

It growed beyond the confines of the Reform Club, which put a limit of 250 on the party, and eventually called a halt when she was packing 650 in. Among the events that may have influenced them was an altercation involving a completely drunk journalist, and the gentle ejection of an even drunker newspaper editor, who had fallen over while pursuing a couple of waiters and split his trousers. Affairs have started at Stone parties, and ended there too. ``One chap said he'd met six of his ex-lovers one year,'' Carole says happily.

Mostly, though, the pleasures of the Stone parties are like her lunches and salons. They are the gentler ones of the mingling of people from different worlds - John Major and Tony Benn, Peter Sissons and Bill Morris, Lynda La Plante and Bruce Kent - on friendly, neutral territory.

Carole Stone has never played Oprah. But - sans sofa, sans lights, sans camera - tonight she has a more dazzling audience than any chat show host can dream of. And a cheerier one, as well.

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