corridors of power

 

 

Copyright & Information

Corridors of Power

 

First published in 1964

© Philip Snow; House of Stratus 1964-2010

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

 

The right of C.P. Snow to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted.

 

This edition published in 2010 by House of Stratus, an imprint of

Stratus Books Ltd., Lisandra House, Fore Street, Looe,

Cornwall, PL13 1AD, UK.

 

Typeset by House of Stratus.

 

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library and the Library of Congress.

 

ISBN: 0755120086   EAN 9780755120086

 

 

 

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About the Author

 

C
harles Percy Snow was born in Leicester, on 15 October 1905. He was educated from age eleven at Alderman Newton’s School for boys where he excelled in most subjects, enjoying a reputation for an astounding memory and also developed a lifelong love of cricket. In 1923 he became an external student in science of London University, as the local college he attended in Leicester had no science department. At the same time he read widely and gained practical experience by working as a laboratory assistant at Newton’s to gain the necessary practical experience needed.

Having achieved a first class degree, followed by a Master of Science he won a studentship in 1928 which he used to research at the famous Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. There, he went on to become a Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1930 where he also served as a tutor, but his position became increasingly titular as he branched into other areas of activity. In 1934, he began to publish scientific articles in
Nature
, and then
The Spectator
before becoming editor of the journal
Discovery
in 1937. However, he was also writing fiction during this period, with his first novel
Death Under Sail
published in 1932, and in 1940
‘Strangers and Brothers’
was published. This was the first of eleven novels in the series and was later renamed
‘George Passant’
when
‘Strangers and Brothers’
was used to denote the series itself.

Discovery
became a casualty of the war, closing in 1940. However, by this time Snow was already involved with the Royal Society, who had organised a group to specifically use British scientific talent operating under the auspices of the Ministry of Labour. He served as the Ministry’s technical director from 1940 to 1944. After the war, he became a civil service commissioner responsible for recruiting scientists to work for the government. He also returned to writing, continuing the
Strangers and Brothers
series of novels.
‘The Light and the Dark’
was published in 1947, followed by
‘Time of Hope’
in 1949, and perhaps the most famous and popular of them all, ‘
The Masters’
, in 1951. He planned to finish the cycle within five years, but the final novel
‘Last Things’
wasn’t published until 1970.

He married the novelist Pamela Hansford Johnson in 1950 and they had one son, Philip, in 1952. Snow was knighted in 1957 and became a life peer in 1964, taking the title Baron Snow of the City Leicester. He also joined Harold Wilson’s first government as Parliamentary Secretary to the new Minister of Technology. When the department ceased to exist in 1966 he became a vociferous back-bencher in the House of Lords.

After finishing the
Strangers and Brothers
series, Snow continued writing both fiction and non-fiction. His last work of fiction was ‘
A Coat of Vanish’,
published in 1978. His non-fiction included a short life of
Trollope
published in 1974 and another, published posthumously in 1981, ‘
The Physicists
:
a Generation that Changed the World’
. He was also inundated with lecturing requests and offers of honorary doctorates. In 1961, he became Rector of St. Andrews University and for ten years also wrote influential weekly reviews for the
Financial Times.

In these later years, Snow suffered from poor health although he continued to travel and lecture. He also remained active as a writer and critic until hospitalized on 1 July 1980. He died later that day of a perforated ulcer.

 

 

‘Mr Snow has established himself, on his own chosen ground, in an eminent and conspicuous position among contemporary English novelists’ - New Statesman

 

 

Dedication

 

To

Humphrey Hare

 

 

Author’s Note

By some fluke, the title of this novel seems to have passed into circulation during the time the book itself was being written. I have watched the phenomenon with mild consternation. The phrase was first used, so far as I know, in
Homecomings
(1956). Mr Rayner Heppenstall noticed it, and adopted it as a title of an article about my work. If he had not done this, I doubt if I should have remembered the phrase myself; but when I saw it in Mr Heppenstall’s hands, so to speak, it seemed the appropriate name for this present novel, which was already in my mind. So I announced the title, and since have been stuck with it, while the phrase has kept swimming in print before my eyes about twice a week and four times on Sundays, and has, in fact, turned into a cliché. But I cannot help using it myself, without too much inconvenience. I console myself with the reflection that, if a man hasn’t the right to his own cliché, who has?

I would like to make one other point. This novel is about ‘high’ politics and like all novels on the subject, carries an unresolvable complication. This one is set in the period 1955–8, and in the year 1957 the Prime Minister has to be introduced. Now there was a real Prime Minister at the time. His name was Harold Macmillan. The Prime Minister in this novel is quite unlike Mr Harold Macmillan, as unlike as he could reasonably be. Short of introducing real personages as characters, there is no other way. None of my imaginary Ministers is connected with anyone in office during the Eden or Macmillan administrations, and I have deliberately used, as the major public issue in the novel, one which didn’t come openly into politics at that time.

Since I have had to mention Mr Harold Macmillan, I should like, out of gratitude, to mention something else. If it had not been for his intervention, in one of his less public phases, my books would not now be published under this present imprint.

During the writing of this book, I collected other debts of gratitude. Politicians on both sides of the House of Commons have given me their time and trouble: it would look too much like a roll-call to write down all the names. But I should not feel comfortable if I did not make two specific acknowledgements. One to Mr Maurice Macmillan, with whom I discussed aspects of the book long before a word was written: and the other to Mr Maurice Edelman, who – being both a novelist and a Member of Parliament – welcomed me on to his own proper territory and has been more generous and helpful than I can describe.

 

CPS

1964

 

 

Part One

The First Thing

 

 

 

1:   A London Dinner Party

 

I stopped the taxi at the corner of Lord North Street. My wife and I had the habit of being obsessively punctual, and that night we had, as usual, overdone it. There was a quarter of an hour to kill, so we dawdled down to the river. It was a pleasant evening, I said, conciliating the moment. The air was warm against the cheek, the trees in the Embankment garden stood bulky, leaves filling out although it was only March, against the incandescent skyline. The light above Big Ben shone beneath the cloud-cap: the House was sitting. We walked a few yards further, in the direction of Whitehall. Across Parliament Square, in the Treasury building, another light was shining. A room lit up on the third storey, someone working late.

There was nothing special about the evening, either for my wife or me. We had dined with the Quaifes several times before. Roger Quaife was a youngish Conservative member who was beginning to be talked about. I had met him through one of my official jobs, and thought him an interesting man.

It was the kind of friendly acquaintanceship, no more than that, which we all picked up, officials, politicians of both parties: not meeting often, but enough to make us feel at home in what they sometimes called ‘this part of London’.

Prompt to the last stroke of eight, we were back in Lord North Street. A maid took us upstairs to the drawing-room, bright with chandeliers, drink-trays, the dinner-shirts of the two men already standing there, the necklace of Caro Quaife glittering as she took our hands.

‘I expect you know everyone, don’t you?’ she said. ‘Of course you do!’

She was tall and pretty, in her middle thirties, just beginning, though she was still elegant, to thicken a little through the waist. Her voice was warm, full, and often disconcertingly loud. She gave out a sense of natural and exuberant happiness – as though it were within the power of everyone around her to be as happy as she was.

Other people had followed us up. They all knew one another, establishing Caro’s principle of mutual intimacy: Christian names flew about, so that, when the principle broke down, I didn’t know whom I was being introduced to. There was, in fact, only one man whom Margaret and I had met as often as the Quaifes. That was Monty Cave, who, according to the political talent spotters, was another coming star. He had a plump face, lemur-like eyes, a quiet, subtle, modulated voice.

As for the others, there appeared to be three couples, all the men Tory back-benchers, none of them older than forty, with wives to match, young, strapping matrons such as one saw in the Kensington streets at four in the afternoon, collecting their children from fashionable pre-preparatory schools. There was also an elderly woman called Mrs Henneker.

As we sat down and drank, Roger Quaife not yet present, they were all talking politics, but politics which any outsider – even one as near to it as I was – needed a glossary to follow. This was House of Commons gossip, as esoteric as theatre-gossip, as continuously enthralling to them as theatre-gossip was to actors. Who was in favour, who wasn’t. Who was going to finish up the debate next week. How Archie pulled a fast one with that question.

There was going to be an election soon, we all knew: this was the spring of 1955. They were swapping promises to speak for one another: one was bragging how two senior Ministers were ‘in the bag’ to speak for him. Roger was safe, someone said, he’d give a hand. What had the PM got in mind for Roger ‘when we come back?’ Monty Cave asked Caro. She shook her head, but she was pleased, and I thought she was touching wood.

The other men spoke of Roger as though he were the only one of them whose success was coming soon, or as though he were different from themselves. The gossip went on. The euphoria grew. Then the maid came in and announced, ‘Lady Caroline, Dr Rubin is here.’

It was not that Roger Quaife had a title – but his wife was the daughter of an earl, one of a rich aristocratic family who in the nineteenth century had been Whig grandees.

I looked round, as Caro stood up with cries of welcome. I was taken aback. Yes, it was the David Rubin I knew very well, the American physicist. He came in, very quiet and guarded, pearl cuff-links in his sleeves, his dinner jacket newer and more exquisite than any man’s there. He was, so my scientific friends said, one of the most distinguished of scientists: but unlike the rest of them, he was also something of a dandy.

Caro Quaife took him to my wife’s side. By this time the drawing-room was filling up, and Caro threw a cushion on the floor and sat by me. ‘You must be used to women sitting at your feet, mustn’t you?’ she said. She couldn’t understand, she went on, why Roger, the old devil, was so late. She spoke of him with the cheerfulness, the lack of anxiety, of a happy marriage. When she spoke to me directly, it was in a manner at once high-spirited, deferential and aggressive, eager to be impressed, used to speaking out and not thinking twice.

‘Hungry,’ said Mrs Henneker, in a trumpeting tone.

She had a fleshy, bulbous nose and eyes which stared out, a fine bright blue, with a disconcerting fixity.

‘Sorry. Have another drink,’ said Caro, without any sign of caring. In fact, it was not yet half-past eight, but it seemed late for a dinner-party in the ’fifties.

The conversation had switched. One of the members’ wives had started talking about a friend of theirs who was having ‘woman trouble’. Just for once, they had got away from the House of Commons. This friend was a banker: he had ‘got it badly’: his wife was worried.

‘What’s the woman like?’ Caro gave a loud, crowing chuckle.

I observed David Rubin’s sad face show signs of animation. He preferred this topic to the previous one.

‘Oh, madly glamorous.’

‘In that case,’ cried Caro, ‘I don’t believe Elsa’ (the wife) ‘has much to worry about. It isn’t the glamorous ones you ought to watch out for when the old man’s showing signs of absent-mindedness. It’s that little quiet grey mouse in the corner, who nobody’s ever noticed. If
she’s
got her claws into him, then the best thing is to call it a day and wonder how you’re going to explain it to the children.’

The other wives were laughing with her. She was not a beauty, I thought, she was too hearty for that. Just then her eyes lit up, and she scrambled off her cushion.

‘Here he is!’ she said. ‘And about time too!’

As Roger walked through the room from an inner door, he looked clumsy, a little comic, quite unselfconscious. He was a big man, heavy and strong; but neither his face nor his body seemed all of a piece. His head was smallish, for a man of his bulk, and well-shaped, his eyes grey and bright, pulled down a little at the outer corners. His nose was flattened at the bridge, his lower lip receded. It was not a handsome face, but it was pleasant. His colleagues in the room, except for Cave, were neat, organized, officer-like; by their side he was shambling and uncoordinated. When I first met him, he had brought back my impression of Pierre Bezukhov in
War and Peace
. Yet his manner, quite unlike Pierre’s, was briskly competent.

‘I’m so sorry,’ he said to his wife, ‘someone caught me on the phone–’

It was, it appeared, one of his constituents. He said it simply, as if it were a matter of tactics that she would understand.

He had considerable physical presence, though it was the opposite of an actor’s presence. He shook hands with Rubin and me. All he did and said was easy and direct.

For a moment he and his fellow members had edged away, and on the periphery of the group Mrs Henneker laid a substantial, ringed hand on my arm.

‘Office,’ she said.

I found her conversation hard to cope with.

‘What?’ I replied.

‘That young man is going to get office.’ By which she meant that he would be made a Minister if his party were returned again.

‘Will he?’ I said.

She asked, ‘Are you an idiot?’

She asked it with a dense, confident twinkle, as though I should love her for being rude.

‘I shouldn’t have thought so,’ I said.

‘I meant it in the Greek sense, Sir Leonard,’ she said, and then from a heavy aside, discovered from Caro that my name was Lewis Eliot. ‘Yes, I meant it in the Greek sense,’ she said, quite unabashed. ‘Not interested in politics, y’know.’

She was so proud of her scrap of learning. I wondered how often she had trotted it out, knowing as much Greek as she did Eskimo. There was something childlike about her self-satisfaction. She was sure that she was a privileged soul. She was sure that no one could think otherwise.

‘I am rather interested in politics,’ I said.

‘I don’t believe it,’ said Mrs Henneker triumphantly.

I tried to hush her, for I wanted to listen to Roger. His tone was different from that of his friends. I could not place his accent. But it was nothing like that of Eton and the Brigade; any of the others would have known, and Mrs Henneker might have said, that he did not come ‘out of the top drawer’. In fact, his father had been a design engineer, solid provincial middle-class. He wasn’t young, despite Mrs Henneker’s adjective. He was only five years younger than I was, which made him forty-five.

He had interested me from the beginning, though I couldn’t have said why. Listening to him that evening, as we sat round the dinner-table downstairs, I was disappointed. Yes, his mind was crisper than the others’, he was a good deal heavier-weight. But he too, just like the others, was talking about the chessboard of Parliament, the moves of their private game, as though nothing else existed under Heaven. I thought that, with David Rubin present, they were all being impolite. I became impatient. These people’s politics were not my politics. They didn’t know the world they were living in, much less the world that was going to come. I looked at Margaret, who had the eager, specially attentive look she always wore when she was bored, and wished that the evening were over.

All of a sudden, I wasn’t impatient any longer. The women had just gone back upstairs, and we were standing in the candlelight. ‘Come and sit by me,’ Roger said to Rubin, and snapped his fingers, not obtrusively, as if giving himself a signal of some kind. He put me on his other side. As he was pouring brandy into Rubin’s glass, he said, ‘I’m afraid we’ve been boring you stiff. You see, this election is rather on our minds.’ He looked up and broke into a wide, sarcastic grin. ‘But then, if you’ve been attending carefully, you may have gathered that.’

For the first time that evening, David Rubin began to take a part. ‘Mr Quaife, I’d like to ask you something,’ he said. ‘What, according to present thinking, is the result of this election going to be? Or is that asking you to stick your neck out?’

‘It’s fair enough,’ said Roger. ‘I’ll give you the limits. On one side, the worst that can happen to us’ (he meant the Conservative Party) ‘is a stalemate. It can’t be worse than that. At the other end, if we’re lucky we might have a minor landslide.’

Rubin nodded. One of the members said: ‘I’m betting on a hundred majority.’

‘I’d judge a good deal less,’ said Roger.

He was speaking like a real professional, I thought. But it was just afterwards that my attention sharpened. My neighbour’s cigar smoke was spiralling round the candle-flame: it might have been any well-to-do London party, the men alone for another quarter of an hour. Then Roger, relaxed and solid in his chair, turned half-right to David Rubin and said: ‘Now I’d like to ask you something, if I may.’

‘Surely,’ said Rubin.

‘If there are things you mustn’t say, then I hope you won’t feel embarrassed. First, I’d like to ask you – how much does what we’re doing about nuclear weapons make sense?’

Rubin’s face was more sombre, worn, and sensitive than those round him. He was no older than some of the other men, but among the fresh ruddy English skins his stood out dry, pallid, already lined, with great sepia pouches, like bruises, under his eyes. He seemed a finer-nerved, more delicate species of animal.

‘I don’t know that I’m following you,’ he said. ‘Do you mean what the UK is doing about your weapons? Or what we’re doing? Or do you mean the whole world?’

‘They all enter, don’t they?’ Everyone was looking at Roger as he asked the matter-of-fact question. ‘Anyway, would you start on the local position, that is, ours? We have a certain uncomfortable interest in it, you know. Would you tell us whether what this country’s doing makes sense?’

Rubin did not, in any case, find it easy to be as direct as Roger. He was an adviser to his own government; further, and more inhibiting, he was hyper-cautious about giving pain. So he did a lot of fencing. Was Roger talking about the bombs themselves, or the methods of delivery? He invoked me to help him out – as an official, I had heard these topics argued between the Americans and ourselves for years.

There were other considerations besides the scientific ones, beside military ones, said Rubin, back on his last line of defence, why the UK might want their own weapon.

‘It’s our job to worry about that, isn’t it?’ said Roger gently. ‘Tell us – look, you know this as well as anyone in the world – how significant, just in the crudest practical terms, are our weapons going to be?’

‘Well, if you must have it,’ Rubin answered, shrugging his shoulders, ‘anything you can do doesn’t count two per cent.’

‘I say, Professor Rubin,’ came a bass voice, ‘you’re kicking us downstairs pretty fast, aren’t you?’

Rubin said: ‘I wish I could tell you something different.’ His interlocutor was Mrs Henneker’s son-in-law, a man called Tom Wyndham. He confronted Rubin with a cheerful stare, full of the assurance of someone brought up in a ruling class, an assurance which did not exactly ignore changes in power, but shrugged them off. Rubin gave an apologetic smile. He was the most polite of men. He had been born in Brooklyn, his parents still spoke English as a foreign language. But he had his own kind of assurance: it did not surprise him to be told that he was the favourite for that year’s Nobel physics prize.

‘No,’ said Monty Cave, ‘Roger asked you to tell us.’ He gave a sharp grin. ‘He usually gets what he asks for.’

Roger smiled, as though they were friends as well as allies. For five years, since they entered the House, they had been leading their group of back-benchers.

‘Now David, if I may call you so,’ he said, ‘do you mind if I go one step further. About the United States – does your policy about the weapons make sense?’

‘I hope so.’

‘Doesn’t it depend upon the assumption that you’re going to have technical superiority for ever? Don’t some of our scientists think you’re under-estimating the Russians? Is that so, Lewis?’

I was thinking to myself, Roger had been well-briefed; for Francis Getliffe, Walter Luke and their colleagues had been pressing just that view.

‘We don’t know,’ said Rubin.

He was not at his most detached. And yet, I saw that he had respect for Roger as an intelligent man. He was a good judge of intelligence and, courteous though he was, respect did not come easily to him.

‘Well then,’ said Roger, ‘let us assume, as I should have thought for safety’s sake we ought to, that the West – which means you – and the Soviet Union may get into a nuclear arms race on something like equal terms. Then how long have we got to do anything reasonable?’

‘Not as long as I should like.’

‘How many years?’

‘Perhaps ten.’

There was a pause. The others, who had been listening soberly, did not want to argue. Roger said: ‘Does that suggest an idea to anyone?’

He said it with a sarcastic twist, dismissively. He was pushing his chair back, signalling that we were going back to the drawing-room.

Just as he was holding open the door, bells began to ring in the passage, up the stairs, in the room we were leaving. It was something like being on board ship, with the bells ringing for lifeboat-drill. Immediately Roger, who a minute before had seemed dignified – more than that, formidable – took on a sheepish smile. ‘Division bell,’ he explained to David Rubin, still wearing the smile, ashamed, curiously boyish, and at the same time gratified, which comes on men when they are taking part in a collective private ritual. ‘We shan’t be long!’ The members ran out of the house, like schoolboys frightened of being late, while David and I went upstairs alone.

‘They’ve gone off, have they? Time something broke you up.’ Caro greeted us robustly. ‘Whose reputations have you been doing in? Men ought to have–’ With lively hand, she exemplified cats’ whiskers sprouting.

I shook my head, and said that we had been talking about David’s expert subject, and the future. Margaret looked at me. But the division bell had quite smashed the mood. I no longer felt any eschatological sense, or even any responsibility. Instead, in the bright drawing-room, all seemed serene, anti-climactic, and slightly comic.

They had just started on what was becoming more and more a sacramental subject in such a drawing-room – schools for the children, or more exactly, how to get them in. One young wife, proud both of maternity and her educational acumen, with a son born three months before, announced that within an hour of his birth he had been ‘put down’ not only for Eton, but for his first boarding school – ‘And we’d have put him down for Balliol too,’ she went on, ‘only they won’t let you do that, nowadays.’

What had Caro arranged for her children? What was Margaret doing for ours? Across the room I watched David Rubin listening, with his beautiful, careful, considerate courtesy, to plans for buying places thirteen years ahead for children he had never seen, in a system which in his heart he thought fantastic. He just let it slip once that, though he was only forty-one, his eldest son was a sophomore at Harvard. Otherwise he listened, grave and attentive, and I felt a desire to give some instruction to Mrs Henneker, who was sitting beside me. I told her that American manners were the best in the world.

‘What’s that?’ she cried.

‘Russian manners are very good,’ I added, as an afterthought. ‘Ours are some of the worst.’

It was pleasing to have startled Mrs Henneker. It was true, I said, getting immersed in comparative sociology, that English lower-class manners were rather good, appreciably better than American; but once you approached and passed the mid-point of society, theirs got steadily better and ours got steadily worse. American professional or upper-class manners were out of comparison better. I proceeded to speculate as to why this should be.

I had a feeling that Mrs Henneker did not find this speculation profitable.

The men came pelting up the stairs, Roger in the rear. The division was over, the majority up to par. From then on, the party did not get going again and it was not later than half-past eleven when Margaret and I took David Rubin away. The taxi throbbed along the Embankment towards Chelsea, where he was staying. He and Margaret were talking about the evening, but as I gazed out of the window I did not join in much. I let myself drift into a kind of daydream.

When we had said good night to David, Margaret took my hand.

‘What are you thinking about?’ she said.

I couldn’t tell her. I was just staring out at the comfortable, familiar town. The Chelsea back-streets, which I used to know, the lights of Fulham Road: Kensington squares: the stretch of Queen’s Gate up towards the Park. All higgledy-piggledy, leafy, not pretty, nearer the ground than the other capital cities. I was not exactly remembering, although much had happened to me there; but I had a sense, not sharp, of joys hidden about the place, of love, of marriage, of miseries and elations, of coming out into the night air. The talk after dinner had not come back to my mind; it was one of many; we were used to them. And yet, I felt vulnerable, as if soft with tenderness towards the town itself, although in cold blood I should not have said that I liked it overmuch.

The dark road across the Park, the sheen of the Serpentine, the livid lamps of Bayswater Road – I was full of the kind of emotion which one cannot hide from oneself, and yet which is so unrespectable that one wants to deny it, as when a foreigner says a few words in praise of one’s country, and, after a lifetime’s training in detachment, one finds oneself on the edge of tears.

 

 

 

2:   The Old Hero

 

The election went according to plan, or rather, according to the plan of Roger’s friends. Their party came back with a majority of sixty; as prophesied by Mrs Henneker at that dinner-party in Lord North Street, Roger duly got office.

As soon as the appointment was announced, my civil service acquaintances started speculating. The rumour went around Whitehall that he was an ambitious man. It was not a malicious rumour; it was curiously impersonal, curiously certain, carried by people who had never met him, building up his official personality for good and all.

One summer afternoon, not long after the election, as I sat in his office with my chief, Sir Hector Rose – St James’s Park lay green beneath his windows and the sunlight edged across the desk – I was being politely cross-questioned. I had worked under him for sixteen years. We trusted each other as colleagues, and yet we were not much easier in each other’s company than we had been at the beginning. No, I did not know Roger Quaife well, I said – which, at the time, was true. I had a feeling, without much to support it, that he wasn’t a simple character.

Rose was not impressed by psychological guesses. He was occupied with something more businesslike. He assumed that Quaife was, as they said, ambitious. Rose did not find that matter for condemnation. But this job which Quaife had taken had been the end of other ambitious men. That was a genuine point. If he had had any choice, there must be something wrong with his judgement.

‘Which, of course, my dear Lewis,’ said Hector Rose, ‘suggests rather strongly that he wasn’t given any choice. In which case, some of our masters may conceivably not wish him all the good in the world. Fortunately, it’s not for us to inquire into these remarkable and no doubt well-intentioned calculations. He’s said to be a good chap. Which will be at least a temporary relief, so far as this department is concerned.’

The appointment had more than a conversational interest for Hector Rose. Since the war, what in our jargon we called ‘the coordination of defence’ had been split up. The greater part had gone to a new Ministry. It was this Ministry of which Roger had just been appointed Parliamentary Secretary. In the process, Rose had lost a slice of his responsibilities and powers. Very unfairly, I could not help admitting. When I first met him, he had been the youngest Permanent Secretary in the service. Now he was only three years from retirement, having been in the same rank, and at the same job, longer than any of his colleagues. They had given him the Grand Cross of the Bath, the sort of decoration he and his friends prized, but which no one else noticed. He still worked with the precision of a computer. Sometimes his politeness, so elaborate, which used to be as tireless as his competence, showed thin at the edges now. He continued to look strong, heavy-shouldered, thick; but his youthfulness, which had lasted into middle age, had vanished quite. His hair had whitened, there was a heavy line across his forehead. How deeply was he disappointed? To me, at least, he did not give so much as a hint. In his relations with the new super-department, of which he might reasonably have expected to be the permanent head, he did his duty, and a good deal more than his duty.

The new department was the civil servants’ despair. It was true what Rose had said: it had become a good place to send an enemy to. Not that the civil servants had any quarrel with the Government about general policy. Rose and his colleagues were conservatives almost to a man, and they had been as pleased about the election results as the Quaifes’ circle themselves.

The point was, the new department, like anything connected with modern war, spent money, but did not, in administrative terms, have anything to show for it. Rose and the other administrators had a feeling, the most disagreeable they could imagine, that things were slipping out of their control. No Minister had been any good. The present incumbent, Roger’s boss, Lord Gilbey, was the worst of any. Civil servants were used to Ministers who had to be persuaded or bullied into decisions. But they were at a loss when they came against one who, with extreme cordiality, would neither make a decision nor leave it to them.

I had seen something of this imbroglio at first hand. At some points, the business of our department interweaved with theirs, and often Rose needed an emissary. It had to be an emissary of some authority, and he cast me for the job. There were bits of the work that, because I had been doing them so long, I knew better than anyone else. I also had a faint moral advantage. I had made it clear that I wanted to get out of Whitehall and, perversely, this increased my usefulness. Or if not my usefulness, at least the attention they paid to me, rather like the superstitious veneration with which healthy people listen to someone known to be not long for this earth.

Thus I was frequently in and out of their offices, which were only a few hundred yards away from ours, at the corner of the Park. Like everyone else, I had become attached to Lord Gilbey. I was no better than anyone else, and in some ways worse, at getting him to make up his mind. A few days after that talk with Rose, I was making another attempt, in conjunction with Gilbey’s own Permanent Secretary, to do just that.

The Permanent Secretary was an old colleague of mine, Douglas Osbaldiston, who was being talked of now just as Rose had been, nearly twenty years before. He was the newest bright star, the man who, as they used to say about Rose, would be Head of the Civil Service before he finished.

On the surface, he was very different from Rose, simple, unpretentious, straightforward where Rose was oblique, humbly born while Rose was the son of an Archdeacon, and yet as cultivated as an old-fashioned civil servant, and exuding the old-fashioned amateur air. He was no more an amateur than Rose, and at least as clever. Once, when he had been working under Rose, I had thought he would not be tough enough for the top jobs. I could not have been more wrong.

He had studied Rose’s career with forethought, and was determined not to duplicate it. He wanted to get out of his present job as soon as he had cleaned it up a little – ‘This is a hiding to nothing,’ he said simply – and back to the Treasury.

He was long, thin, fresh-faced, still with the relics of an undergraduate air. He was quick-witted, unpompous, the easiest man to do business with. He was also affectionate, and he and I became friends as I could never have been with Hector Rose.

That morning, as we waited to go in to Gilbey, it did not take us five minutes to settle our tactics. First – we were both over-simplifying – there was a putative missile on which millions had been spent, and which had to be stopped: we had to persuade ‘the Old Hero’, as the civil servants called Lord Gilbey, to sign a Cabinet paper. Second, a new kind of delivery system for warheads was just being talked about. Osbaldiston, who trusted my nose for danger, agreed that, if we didn’t ‘look at it’ now, we should be under pressure. ‘If we can get the OH,’ said Osbaldiston, ‘to let the new boy take it over–’ By the new boy he meant Roger Quaife.

I asked Osbaldiston what he thought of him. Osbaldiston said that he was shaping better than anyone they had had there; which, because with Gilbey in the Lords Quaife would have to handle the department’s business in the Commons, was a consolation.

We set off down the corridor, empty except for a messenger, high and dark with the waste of space, the lavish clamminess, of nineteenth-century Whitehall. Two doors along, a rubric stood out from the tenebrous gloom: Parliamentary Secretary, Mr Roger Quaife. Osbaldiston jabbed his finger at it, harking back to our conversation about Roger, and remarked: ‘One piece of luck, he doesn’t get here too early in the morning.’

At the end of the corridor, the windows of Lord Gilbey’s room, like those of Hector Rose’s at the other corner of the building, gave on to the Park. In the murky light, the white-panelled walls gleamed spectrally, and Lord Gilbey stood between his desk and the window, surveying with equable disapproval the slashing rain, the lowering clouds, the seething summer trees.

‘It’s a brute,’ he said, as though at last reaching a considered judgement on the weather. ‘It’s a brute.’

His face was pleasant, small-featured, open with that particular openness which doesn’t tell one much. His figure was beautifully trim for a man in his sixties. He was affable and had no side. And yet our proposal, which had seemed modest enough in Osbaldiston’s room, began to take on an aura of mysterious difficulty.

‘Minister,’ said Osbaldiston, ‘I really think it’s time we got a Cabinet decision on the A—.’ He gave the codename of the missile.

‘On the A—?’ Gilbey repeated thoughtfully, in the manner of one hearing a new, original and probably unsound idea.

‘We’ve got as much agreement as we shall ever get.’

‘We oughtn’t to rush things, you know,’ Gilbey said reprovingly. ‘Do you think we ought to rush things?’

‘We got to a conclusion on paper eighteen months ago.’

‘Paper, my dear chap? I’m a great believer in taking people with you, on this kind of thing.’

‘Minister,’ said Osbaldiston, ‘that is precisely what we’ve been trying to do.’

‘Do you think we ought to weary in well-doing? Do you really, Sir Douglas?’

The ‘Sir Douglas’ was a sign of gentle reproof. Normally Gilbey would have called Osbaldiston by his Christian name alone. I caught a side-glance from my colleague, as from one who was being beaten over the head with very soft pillows. Once more he was discovering that the Old Hero was not only affable, but obstinate and vain. Osbaldiston knew only too well that immediately he was away from the office, Gilbey was likely to be ‘got at’ by business tycoons like Lord Lufkin, to whom the stopping of this project meant the loss of millions, or old service friends, who believed that any weapon was better than none.

That was true; the latter being an argument to Osbaldiston for not having a soldier in this job at all. It was not even that Gilbey had been a soldier so eminent that his juniors could not nobble him now. When they called him the Old Hero, it was not a jibe; he had been an abnormally brave fighting officer in both wars, and had commanded a division in the second. That had been his ceiling. If he had been even reasonably capable, the military in the clubs used to say, he couldn’t have helped but go right to the top, since it was hard for a man to be better connected. His peerage had come by birth, not as a military reward. So far as there were aristocrats in England, he was one.

‘Minister,’ said Osbaldiston, ‘if you think it’s wise to prove just how much agreement there is, we could easily run together an inter-departmental meeting, at your level. Or at mine. Or Ministers and officials together.’

‘Do you know,’ Gilbey said, ‘I’m not a great believer in meetings or committees. They don’t seem to result in action, don’t you know.’