The Feral Beast: Sir Magnus calls in the removers

On the prowl in Edinburgh

As he is one of Edinburgh's grandest residents, it's fitting that Sir Magnus Linklater should live in Georgian splendour in the New Town. The former editor of The Scotsman and chairman of the Scottish Arts Council shares an A-listed pile with his Liberal Democrat peer wife, Veronica, where they give famously smart parties. So tongues are wagging over why the couple are now selling up: I'm told they have put their corner property on the market, and are looking for something smaller. Six years ago, they suffered a blow after putting real candles on their Christmas tree, only for it to catch fire. The blaze destroyed their drawing room and thousands of pounds' worth of paintings and antiquarian books, including works by the artists Samuel Peploe and William MacTaggart. Their three children have all left home, and their eldest, Alexander, is married to the actress Kerry Fox. So, are the Linklaters leaving Edinburgh? "It's true, we are selling up," Sir Magnus told me at a party at last week's Edinburgh Book Festival. "But we're staying in town." And then he rushed off to speak to a multimillionaire.

Every cloud...

Noam Chomsky said the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were "among the most unspeakable crimes in history". But Antony Beevor was in much more robust mood when asked for his view at the Edinburgh Book Festival, going so far as to describe the massacre as "the best thing that could have happened to the Japanese". Any fears in the room that the historian had temporarily mislaid his moral compass were soothed by the considered explanation that followed: the Allies were doing the Japanese people a service, he said, because the Japanese army would never surrender. "Only the shock of the explosion of the second bomb prompted the emperor to insist, over the heads of the military, to stop fighting. Millions more would have died had the war gone on into 1946. It was the right thing to do, even from the Japanese point of view." Never one to shy from controversy.

Is this a blagger I see before me?

Ian McEwan's new novel Sweet Tooth is set in the shadowy world of spy recruitment at Cambridge University in the early Seventies. But, as the author of 13 novels has recently revealed, he was turned down for a scholarship at King's College, Cambridge for claiming to have read something he hadn't. Now, he has revealed that the book in question was not a minor Iris Murdoch novel, but something rather more mainstream. Speaking about his rejection to an Edinburgh audience, he said: "I pretended to have read something I hadn't. It was... Shakespeare's Macbeth! I have read it several times since. I could have spoken fluently about 16 other Shakespeare plays. They asked, 'Have you actually read Macbeth, Mr McEwan?' And I had to say 'No.'"

McEwan ascribed his prodigious work ethic to his working-class father, a "ferocious drinker" who nevertheless got up at six every morning to work. He also admits to making mistakes, such as the time he described a couple arguing in Venice in summer under the star of Orion. "A reader wrote sweetly that you can't see Orion in the northern hemisphere in summer. So why not Scorpio? Otherwise you'd have to take your characters to New Zealand."

McEwan's career wasn't too seriously damaged by his rejection from Cambridge, and he went to Sussex instead. "I never received a hand on the shoulder myself," he adds. "Not many spies came from Sussex."

Pussy riot

Publicity-shy sociologist Catherine Hakim is getting lots of attention for a book that says having affairs is the key to a happy marriage. Among media appearances was a stint on ITV chat show Lorraine, where she debated her thesis with political columnist Julia Hartley-Brewer. As a married woman who writes for a mid-market family newspaper, Hartley-Brewer was, needless to say, opposed to Hakim's views. Still, they managed a civilised debate, and waited for the make-up removers to do their work before really letting rip. At this point, Hartley-Brewer took to Twitter to say: "After meeting Catherine Hakim… I've changed my mind. If I was married to her, I'd definitely stray!" Meow!

Clean sheets

Happy birthday to Howard Jacobson, who turned 70 yesterday. The Booker-winning author of The Finkler Question and Independent columnist has revealed how he made it as a novelist. "The best advice I heard was on the radio, listening to the late Kingsley Amis. One: as soon as you have finished a novel, start another. Two: if your manuscript is rejected, always retype the first page. It doesn't do to have coffee stains on it when you submit it elsewhere."

Speed-sleeping

Taking the sleeper train to Edinburgh, you never know who you might share a cabin with. So the writer and agony aunt Virginia Ironside, also an Independent columnist, whose one-woman fringe show, Growing Old Disgracefully, ends this weekend, was naturally apprehensive when the door swung open as she lay in her bunk. Who should come in but Libby Purves, Times theatre critic and presenter of Radio 4's Midweek? Sighs of relief all round, and after swapping festival tips, Purves climbed into the top bunk and they both slept soundly all the way.

Fun Spice

One of the stars of this year's Edinburgh fringe festival was Freddy Syborn, a modest 24-year-old playwright who drew glowing reviews for a double bill of plays. Though his two shows dwelled on serious subjects, Syborn is the writing partner of comedian Jack Whitehall, having worked with the Big Brother presenter and stand-up on his acts since they were at school together. Now, he has been commissioned to write a sitcom for BBC3, which will star ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. One of his Edinburgh plays, Crypted, was a powerful telling of the story of Alan Turing, the code-breaker who cracked Enigma but was prosecuted for his homosexuality. The other, Excess, told the story of a young man who decides to have a sex change. Who knows what he might cast Ginger Spice as?

Courtly dance

Earlier this year, I wondered if the Queen would attend the premiere of her Master of the Queen's Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's 9th Symphony, written for her Diamond Jubilee. But come Thursday's Prom, despite having her own box at the Royal Albert Hall, she was not in the audience, preferring to stay in Scotland. The composer, however, took his seat, and was given a rapturous reception. He even stayed on to hear Shostakovich's confrontational 10th, which he clearly enjoyed. Inspiration for his own 10th?

Special delivery for Drew

Drew Barrymore, heavily pregnant with her first baby, is still out and about in Hollywood. At Whole Foods last week, the ET star insisted on carrying her groceries to the car herself. More diva-ishly, she also demanded to use checkout number seven, apparently because it's her lucky number. "She says she's not usually the superstitious type," says my man at the checkout. "But in this case, the thought of being caught short in Hollywood was too horrendous to contemplate. She doesn't want to go into labour while paying for her bananas."

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