The Feral Beast: Battle of Trafalgar rages on

Too close for comfort

Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery, has set himself on a collision course with the modern art world by demanding Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth be filled once and for all. He has rounded on the avant-garde works temporarily displayed there, calling them "antagonistic to the architectural character of the square", in which his gallery stands. The three other plinths at the corners of London's much-loved square have statues of generals on horses, but insufficient funds meant the fourth one was never filled back in the 1840s. Since the 1990s, it has housed works by Marc Quinn, Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread. Now, in an interview with The Art Newspaper, Penny says the temporary exhibits turn the plinth into "a stage, which can be used ironically, farcically [and] inappropriately". He also expresses his "grave concerns" about the square as a whole, particularly the "tawdry tents and hoardings for advertising" that regularly "conceal" the gallery from view. But he's not averse to modern art per se: his proposal would be to move the equestrian statue of George IV on the opposite corner to a central spot, and place two "well-matched contemporary works" on the empty plinths. Something tells me this debate has a long way to go.

Cartoon caper

Maria Miller has wasted no time in her new role as Minister for Women and Equalities, a job she took on at the same time as becoming Culture Secretary in the September reshuffle. She and several female MPs have fired off a letter to The Sunday Times, complaining about a "deeply offensive" Gerald Scarfe cartoon, which depicted a half-naked Angela Merkel with Spain and Greece suckling on each breast. "We understand that political cartoons have a long and noble history, holding politicians to account and poking fun at their foibles and indiscretions," they say. "However, this picture went too far in its graphic physical portrayal of a semi-naked chancellor … If this was a male political leader would he have been depicted in such a way? What would be the male equivalent of a woman offering her breasts for consumption? We don't know, because we have never seen it – and nor do we wish to." Intriguingly, one of the letter's signatories is Amber Rudd, the Tory MP for Hastings. In a previous life, she was married to A A Gill, the Sunday Times writer who called Clare Balding a "dyke on a bike" and said Mary Beard was "too ugly for television". In his restaurant reviews, Amber was called The Silver Spoon.

Still in the dark

Labour MP Denis MacShane invents a fake persona to sign off expense payments to himself worth thousands, and yet the police won't be prosecuting. A parliamentary committee ruled on Friday that the 19 false claims were "plainly intended to deceive", but only then did MacShane resign as an MP. Now, Craig Murray, the former ambassador to Uzbekistan, has offered to give £100 to anyone "who can provide a convincing reason why Denis MacShane's expense fiddling, involving his creating false invoices, was not a criminal offence". He is calling it the Denis MacShane Prize, and says: "This competition specifically is open to employees of the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service; we would love to know their reasoning. It baffles me. I confess I can think of no single circumstance in this case that would prevent MacShane being convicted for theft and fraud. What is the answer?" Does anybody know?

Buying power

Silvio Berlusconi has made a couple of curious additions to his property portfolio, paying well over the odds for two modest apartments in towns either side of Rome. The owners? Silvio's own guitarist and pianist, both of whom – in happy coincidence! – testified at his bunga-bunga trial that nothing untoward happened at the parties. An Italian newspaper notes that the €300,000 paid for the flat in Cecchina is much more than the average price of similar properties in the town. If only there were a British legal expert who could explain the significance of such peculiar financial transactions....

Ooh la la, James

Sam Mendes's crack at a James Bond film, Skyfall, has gone down well in France, where it's been noted that this is the seventh in the franchise to feature a French Bond girl, the actress Bérénice Marlohe. Paris Match calls it "the best 007 film ever", and indeed Skyfall has demolished the latest Astérix movie at the box office. But while in Britain, fans say they like the fact it isn't as daft as previous 007 movies, over there there's still some incredulity in the air. Says my source: "Skyfall is still about as fantastical as a Harry Potter film, as no Englishman in history has ever managed to seduce seven French women." Sacre bleu!

A woman's place

Josie Rourke has won plaudits for putting more women on stage since becoming director of the Donmar Warehouse in January: an all-woman production of Julius Caesar opens later this month. But behind the scenes, it's quite a different story. She has done away with the services of Kate Morley, the Donmar's long-standing PR woman, and replaced her with a much bigger company called Cornershop. I understand Morley is taking it well, but when I call to find out the details, she puts me on to a man at Cornershop who insists "there's no story here" – invariably a sign that there is. Still, I'm sure the Donmar is in capable hands: Cornershop has an impressive list of clients, notable among them being Madagascar Live! and Shrek: The Musical.

Barber closer than most

Some people say Lynn Barber's style of interviewing, which has earned her the nickname The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is too harsh on the interviewee. Jake and Dinos Chapman have threatened to kill her if they ever see her again. But Barber has been vindicated by her interview with Jimmy Savile, published in this newspaper in 1990. In it, she asked if it was true that he liked little girls, and even pointed out how odd it was that he kept beds in Stoke Mandeville, Broadmoor and Leeds Infirmary. Touring the wards at Stoke Mandeville with him, she says: "When he coos over a young woman paraplegic: 'Aha, now I can have my way with you, my dear!' one can only pray that she appreciates the joke." When I ran into Barber at the launch of Rachel Johnson's novel Winter Games, Barber said she had been widely castigated for her Savile interview. "I was told off for it at the time, and I'm being told off for it again now, as people say, 'Well if you knew, why didn't you expose him?'" In fact, of any journalist, Barber was the bravest.

A butterfly likes to keep its wings dry

A rare opportunity has arisen to acquire Britain's largest thatched house, the weird and wonderful Happisburgh Manor in Norfolk. Created by the Arts and Crafts architect Detmar Blow in 1900, it's thought to be the first example of a "butterfly" plan house, with four wings jutting off a central core, for maximum light. Despite being fully renovated, the house has struggled to find a new owner, even with a price cut from £975,000 to £800,000. One problem may be its proximity to the sea, and the risk of coastal erosion. Buyers should hurry, and enjoy it while they can....

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