Cristina Odone asks why illicit affairs go unnoticed

Why illicit affairs can take place under our noses without our realising it

The most intriguing feature of the Currie-Major saga is how they could conduct a rampant, four-year affair without their colleagues guessing. How did they get away with it? Simple: we never notice affairs taking place under our very nose. Take your office: can you spot the two colleagues whose "we're off to lunch" is actually code for "we're off to shag"? Can you see which corporate "dream team" is at it, hammer and tongs, every morning when her husband has left the house and his wife thinks he is already at work?

Spotting romance was once easy. Men and women were segregated at school and at work, and a strict code of conduct allowed very few points of legitimate contact. This made for complete transparency: when you caught a man and a woman coming out of a restaurant at 10pm, you knew they had not been discussing the latest Footsie index.

No longer. Between the sexes, confusion reigns: a man and a woman - both married to other people - could spend the best part of a night in a hotel room working on a proposal for next morning's meeting without raising eyebrows.

This confusion is all the greater at Westminster. Politicians have to counterfeit emotions so often - look at the camera and grin as if you're winning; look at the beggar and act as if you care he's troubled - that their expressions, body language, tone of voice, which can betray the non-politician's feelings, are open to all manner of interpretation. Edwina might have looked longingly at John, but a colleague would have thought she was a calculating minx who saw young Major as a step on the ladder of advancement. By contrast, John might have been caught with his paw on Edwina's, but everyone knows that flesh-pressing is essential for a politico.

In the end, though, it is envy that saves illicit lovers from exposure. We don't really want to know about other people's affairs because, deep down, we don't like to admit that another man/woman is enjoying amazing success with the opposite sex. The Howes and Lamonts and Howards who competed with Major for the top job would have hated to know that the Brixton boy was riding high in the House and the bedroom both.

In truth, we can forgive the Edwinas and Johns of this world their adultery, the betrayal of their followers and loved ones, far more readily than the knowledge that they're having a whale of a time right under our noses.

This article first appeared in the 14 October 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Why George no longer loves Tony