Aldous Cotton, commonly known as Gus, a civil servant of dry and melancholy humour, stands observing the November dawn from his North London doorstep. His calm existence is about to be disrupted by two events: the invasion of that unloved piece of imperial territory on the other side of the world, known as the Selkirk Strip; and the arrival of his wife's mysterious cousin, Alan Breck Stewart, a survivor of mysterious pasts, unwitting provoker of destruction. While the entire country embarks on a patriotic binge, Alan Breck Stewart pursues his own peculiar path, leaving behind him a wake of sexual disaster and personal disintegration. Splenetic journalists, strong-willed women, tortuously bland civil servants and West Country Catholic gentry - all come under Ferdinand Mount's finely ground microscope in this tragi-comedy or manners and morals. And in Alan Breck Stewart he has created one of those extraordinary characters who burst from the page in embarrassing abandon.