The Journal of Lynton Charles, Fiduciary Secretary to the Treasury

Saturday I am in the bath, soaking up a ten-quid bath-oil full of herbs that guarantee relaxation and refreshment, when Cheryl shouts up and tells me that there's a phone call. I dry my hands, and take it on the bathroom cordless receiver. It's Mr Brown.

"Um, Lynton, what do you know about Russia?" the deep voice asks.

This seems a strange moment to test my knowledge of that enigma wrapped in a bundle, folded in a mystery, or whatever that bloody quote from Churchill is. I recall that Boris Yeltsin is no more, that everything is run by the mafia, that there has just been a nasty little war, which may be over because there haven't been any TV reports for ages, and there was some kind of economic crisis a while ago. I relate all this to Mr Brown.

"It's most reassuring", he says, while - with my free hand - I lather my nether regions, "to have ministers who keep such a keen eye on international events. What is that splashing noise?"

Before I can explain, he continues: "And what do you make of Vladimir Putin?" He pronounces it in such a way that it sounds like a sport in which you try and throw a vladimir as far as it will go. But this is no time for levity. Once more I jump through the hoop and reply that Putin is a thin man of about my own age, with thin lips and a history in the KGB. And that otherwise he is a mystery, wrapped in a blanket, surrounded by enigmatic cushions.

Mr Brown grunts. "You will be glad to know, given your expertise, that there is a vacancy on the government team to go to Moscow, and I want you to be the Treasury representative, and our Russia man after that. Frankly, everyone else is too busy. You leave on Monday."

All of a sudden, those herbs don't seem to have relaxed or refreshed me.

Sunday I spend all day mugging up on Russia. Late in the evening, an urbane woman's voice calls me from Russia. She is Petronella McClure, the economic attache at the embassy in Moscow, looking forward, she tells me, to meeting me tomorrow. Is there any help she can give me in the meantime?

Yes, there is, I tell her. Can she, by any chance, give me even the faintest clue about anything even remotely useful that I can accomplish in Russia? I mean, how much trade do we do with the former superpower? Is it a sleeping giant?

Petronella laughs a throaty, attractive laugh. "Russia's economy is roughly the same size as Belgium's," she informs me. "And we do almost no trade whatsoever there. In terms of our straightforward economic interests, the place doesn't compute. It's not worth going to. But one day, all that might change, and in the meantime the place still has nuclear weapons and weird politicians. It's a matter of maintaining contact, and I guess you've been chosen because that's your talent."

She's right, of course. I have often felt that I might have had a career in the diplomatic service. I begin to look forward to the journey.

Monday The Mezhdunarodni Hotel, Moscow

Here I am, in a smart if featureless hotel room, with a view over a grey city. We have just arrived, and Petronella, a quite beautiful and clever woman with high cheek-bones and a Dr Zhivago fur hat, is waiting for me downstairs in the lobby, among the leather-jacketed gangsters and their molls.

I was disappointed not to be on the same plane as The Master. Apparently, slightly different schedules meant that three planes had to be used: one for Cookie, one for The Master and one for the odds and ends. Of which I am one.

Today, I am at the finance ministry. Tonight, a banquet. It's good to get out now and again.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Englishness: who cares?