The Journal of Lynton Charles, Chancellor of the Duchy of Durham

Tuesday "Pssssttt!" When you are walking down a gloomy and apparently deserted corridor in your place of work, this is not a noise that reassures.

"Psssttt! Lynton!" is hardly better. "Over here!" doesn't help much. There is a lamp on a small table, whose drawer cannot accommodate a large rat, let alone something sentient enough to hiss my name. Apart from that, as I cast around, my heart thumping, there is only the pompous full-size picture of Horace Walpole, whose . . . whose eyes are moving. The picture's eyes and mine meet. They know me, and I know them.

"Lynton! Thank goodness. It's me!" says the now recognisable whisper. "There must be a catch your side. Probably on the underside of the frame, near the centre. Pull it to the left!"

I get down on my hands and knees, hoping that Boss Hilary (who has been giving me funny looks ever since the Marsden incident) will not come along and find me groping the bottom of an old picture. My fingers locate a small protrusion and, as I press, the whole of the picture begins to open out from one corner. And M steps through, dusting the cobwebs off a charcoal suit.

"Quick! My office!" I tell him, and we cover the ten yards to my door in no time.

Once inside, M explains all. "Oh dear Lynton. I am sorry to have scared you, but your face was a picture!" Hardly an appropriate witticism coming from someone of whom this cliche was, just a few seconds ago, literally true. "I took a wrong turn somewhere under the Treasury. I'd swear there was some disruption of the earth's magnetic core coming out of that place. I'm just on my way to render what tiny service I can to The Master in the matter of the conduct of the Great War on Terror."

He makes himself comfortable in the guest armchair, and his voice takes on a faraway tone. "It's the Arabs I feel that I can help with. Somehow I sense that there's an affinity there. Did you ever see Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia? Those flowing white robes, 'El Orens!' and all that? Who created the civilisation of Granada? Who wrote the Rubaiyat of Thingummyjig? So romantic and so political!" He returns to earth.

"The Master (may Allah preserve him) is too English to comprehend the Arab mind. Did you know that in the past few weeks I have been to Oman, to Qatar, to Lebanon, to Syria (Bashir! Such a sweet boy!) and to Jordan? Of course you didn't! No one does."

I am astonished, and I admit it. I tell him that our attention today is not on the gilded domes of the Orient, but on the row involving the parliamentary commissioner, Elizabeth Filkin. By all accounts she's furious, and letting it be known that among those she holds responsible for doing her down are the Speaker, girt John Reid, Cookie and M himself.

M wrinkles his nose. "Filkin!" he says with contempt. "The name should be a verb. Because that's what she was doing, always filkin' about. She was supposed to be appointed to stop corrupt Tories taking baksheesh, and yet she's spent all her time having a filk here and a filk there into who has been to what gym three times gratis, or who has an unremarkable mortgage from which perfectly reputable building society. And she's just encouraged a generation of filkers and counter-filkers to spend their time in similar trivialities. She's been a great disappointment, and that's all there is to it. I cannot feel any sympathy. And now, Lynton dearest," - he rises - "I must go. I think I have worked out which was the wrong fork. And I never make the same mistake twice."

He is out of the door before I can remind him that making the same mistake twice is, in fact, what he is best known for.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The great Koran con trick