the opening:

‘Beauty’ (I thought): ‘beauty-beauty-beauty; there’s nothing else to say. A million varicoloured points tumbling without forethought into one design. As if a gas-main exploding under a kitchen produced – from the racket of copper pans bashing their way through brick walls – order. Calm, symphonic harmony. Every random semiquaver settling into massive chords. Beauty!’

I’ve never known St James’s Park look as wonderful as it did that bright late afternoon in early October, gazing at it from the top floor of the Foreign Office. And I’ve never known Benjy, the Foreign Secretary, sound more like the twelve-year-old he was when I first came across him at school, snivelling behind the gym.

But then, who’s ever lived up to the Foreign Office? It’s a porphyry palace for Greek gods: not exactly beautiful, in fact ghastly, but so swaggering that your littleness is crushed out of you. You’ve no choice but to exult in the coarse strength of those coffered ceilings. The gilt staircases seem built just for you, addressed to you: in each niche an out-sized mid-Victorian nude gesticulates, waving fist or torch or sword as if to say ‘Bah! foreigners!’ And your soul (you can’t help it) shouts back ‘Pah! Let ’em try, that’s all!’ You find yourself, as you ascend the giant polychrome marbles, eager to tear out and chew an enemy’s kidneys, to fling yourself on the Mad Mahdi’s Dervishes, to charge massed Russkies, bayonet adazzle, smoking with gore in the snowy air. By the time you reach the uppermost floor you long to trample Germans or sepoys under your hooves, to fire off a Trident for the mere fun of the thing, to – but here a severe private-personal-secretary, tautly buttoned into her severe grey suit, subdues you with a look. Miss Litherland’s hand pauses on the golden knob of the high door shielding the innermost sanctum. She knows that after those stairs visitors are inclined to bound in roaring ‘Blood! blood!’ Therefore she pauses; and you enter hushed, prepared to murmur wisely with the Great Man.

Only to be spun head-over-heels, as by an unexpected wave of surf. For over the shoulder of Benjy Wedgwood, advancing diffidently, mournfully, over the carpet (‘Hallo Felix’) is the view.

St James’s Park, which isn’t large, manages to be mysterious. Its sinuous waters bend under their exotic bridge as if Asia opened on the far bank. There’s a rich confusion of domes, spires, obelisks against the soft English vault, so that however much you tell yourself It’s only ugly old Buckingham Palace or That’s the roof of my club, your imagination prances, as if Trebizond or Karakorum were twinkling out there beyond the candle-blooming chestnuts....