James meets Mark and his glamorous set at Oxford University.
First settled in Saxon times, the city of Oxford boasts fine examples of architecture from every period thereafter. The medieval period saw the construction of the first Oxford colleges: Balliol, Merton and University College all date from the thirteenth century. The colleges were financed by the Church in the hope that they would find a way to reconcile the newly rediscovered philosophy of the Ancient world, particularly that of Aristotle, with Christian doctrine. Over the centuries, the university has extended its remit to most other areas of learning. Oxford's long list of illustrious alumni includes 26 British Prime Ministers, more than 30 international heads of state, 12 saints, 50 Olympians and many writers and philosophers.
The city played an important part in the English Civil War, when it sheltered King Charles following his flight from London, leading to the Siege of Oxford in 1646. By the twentieth century the city had begun to expand, and it now supports a population of 165,000. Aside from the university, its main commercial activities lie in information and scientific technology, car manufacturing, and publishing.
After graduating from Oxford, James and his friends move to London.
London is the capital of the UK and home to almost eight million people, making it the largest city in Europe in terms of population.
The city dates back to Roman times, when it was called Londonium. It began life in a square mile of land near where St Paul's Cathedral now stands; this area, known as the City, is now London's financial centre.
Over the centuries London has spread far beyond its original square mile, stretching out from both sides of the river Thames until it has come to occupy some 611 square miles. The centre of government is located in Westminster, where the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey stand. Buckingham Palace, the official residence of the monarch, is nearby. The Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as are Kew Gardens and Greenwich, the site of the Prime Meridian. The city's other famous sights include St Paul's Cathedral, the British Museum, Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus.
London has suffered great damage twice during its history: once in 1666, when the Great Fire of London destroyed many of its medieval wooden buildings; and then during the Second World War, when the Blitz obliterated much of the city.
Mark and James retreat from the world to a villa outside the fictional Italian town of San Ceterino.
According to the author, the town is located between Pescara and Andria in south-east Italy. This places it in Apulia (or Puglia), a dry agricultural region with a wealth of ports linking Italy with Greece and the eastern Mediterranean.