Another trip to Borisopolis, world capital of financial malpractice. The destination is the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (henceforth, the FCO), open to the great unwashed for just two precious days by virtue of the Open House London annual event. It’s big, but not huge – it’s not Versailles, it’s not the Winter Palace. The internal spaces are scaled-up to make an impression but not so large as to overwhelm. William Hague has recorded a comforting video welcome in his much-imitated South Yorkshire vowel sounds, assuring us that the FCO will keep us safe in a hostile world and stands ready to assist when we do stupid things abroad.
The reception rooms and ceremonial spaces are lavishly decorated – it’s easy to imagine the teams of highly skilled craft-workers applying paint, plaster and gold leaf, reminding us that this is part of a world that exists outside our normal experience or comprehension. The decorative schemes belong to a distant era but their painstaking preservation is indicative of the quality of permanence to which all national institutions aspire. These over-sized opulent salons with their profusion of exotic decor form the natural habitat of a higher order of species – the well-bred products of ancient families and exclusive seats of learning, instinctively at home in these surroundings where the rest of us are likely to become self-conscious mutes.
To enjoy the spectacle we must set aside these dissonant elements and just look at the stuff. The staircases are really special, designed to literally and metaphorically, raise the visitor to a higher level. Ceilings come alive with dazzling white plaster goddesses of plenty or head-spinning paintings and the visiting dignitary must maintain composure while navigating thickly carpeted steps with marble handrails and floors of polished stone and mosaic tile-work. Illustrious predecessors peer down from their stone-cold plinths and in the background murals (by Sigismund Goetze) celebrate Britain’s civilising influence on an often ungrateful world.
The beautifully proportioned façades of the Durbar Court in the former India Office remind us of the extraordinary extent to which the image of India haunted the Victorian imagination. Its enormous space groans under the weight of colonial associations and iconography. Embedded in the classical detailing are portrait busts of eminent colonials alternating with decorative, swagged tablets inscribed with the names of Indian cities and provinces together with full length figures of the great and good and smaller relief carvings of episodes from the Anglo-Indian narrative.
There was a plan to demolish the FCO in 1963 and a display of vintage photographs illustrated the state of decrepitude into which it had fallen by the early 1980s when a decision to renovate was taken. Somehow the images of peeling paint and collapsing ceilings come perilously close to inducing nostalgia for the days when British diplomats were either raffish Denholm Elliot-like characters, scripted by Graham Greene or pin-striped buffoons as portrayed by Richard Wattis. It would be comforting to conclude that a renovated FCO would lead to improved international relations but xenophobia remains undiminished as the nation’s default position.
Not to be churlish, the extent to which the public could wander was generous, the bag-searching was courteous and the security was present but unobtrusive. Those who worked there took a genuine pride in their surroundings and seemed pleased to be sharing it with the public. It’s important to acknowledge this because one day, a hawk-eyed accountant, perhaps as yet unborn, will question whether, as a nation, we can continue to ask the hard-working taxpayer on a low income to contribute towards this sort of event catering to the curiosity of an arty and pretentious minority. After all, by declining to support this year’s Open House London, the London Borough of Bromley has saved the princely sum of £5,000 from a budget of £209 million in 2013-14. To put this in context, this is equivalent to someone earning £20,900 per annum trimming 50p off their annual expenditure. Depressingly, Barnet, Harrow and Kingston-on-Thames have done likewise.