Matthew Bell: The IoS Diary

Like 'Question Time', but without the squirming


Much excitement in the hills around Parma in northern Italy. Word reaches me that George Clooney was spotted at the luxurious retreat of Tabiano Castello. The talk is that Clooney is looking to snap up a little place of his own, after visiting the idyllic hilltop hotel. Sandwiched between the Apennine mountains and the Po valley, the 11th century castle – which has just been refurbished and is not thought to be for sale – would make an ideal retreat for the actor. His current squeeze, Elisabetta Canalis, lives only an hour away in Milan, and rumours of Clooney's house-hunting are fuelling speculation that the elusive bachelor may have found in "La Betty" a woman to get serious with. Clooney has a villa on the banks of Lake Como, and has spearheaded a trend for Hollywood actors to buy homes in Italy. Tom Cruise was reportedly thinking of buying a castle in Lazio last year.

Claims in a new authorised history of MI5 that Roger Hollis, the agency's former head, was not a Soviet spy are flawed, says the man who first suggested he might be. According to spookwatcher Harry Chapman Pincher, 95, Christopher Andrew's book does little to quell the suspicion that arose after he revealed in his own book, Their Trade Is Treachery, that Hollis had been recalled from retirement to be questioned by MI5 over his Soviet connections. "Christopher's book leans over backwards to destroy the case against Hollis just by saying 'it's not true'," he tells me. Hollis was investigated by a committee codenamed Fluency, after suspicions from other agents that there was a mole among them. According to Chapman Pincher, 300,000 files were destroyed by MI5, which may have included Hollis's evidence to the committee, never published.

Bookish types attending the British Academy's Literature Week were especially looking forward to Thursday's seminar, Contemporary Poetry in the Theatre. Speakers were to include Josephine Hart, Grey Gowrie, Frank McGuinness and Derek Walcott. But the Nobel Prize-winning poet pulled out, citing poor health. It would have been the first time Walcott would have appeared in public in the UK since he withdrew from the running to be Oxford Professor of Poetry in May, after a smear campaign against him. Earlier this month he withdrew from a Nobel conference in the US, also citing medical reasons. We wish him a speedy recovery.

Labour MP Paul Farrelly should be hailed as a hero of free speech after he highlighted the threat posed by super-injunctions, such as the one slapped on the reporting of his question in the Commons about Trafigura. But it seems his smuggling of that toxic question on to the order paper hasn't gone down at all well. Farrelly, formerly a journalist on this newspaper, now finds every question he tables is being pored over by senior figures, who are apparently at pains to find fault with them. How churlish.

It was standing-room only at the launch of Best Seat in the House, a collection of Frank Johnson's articles, at Christie's last week, attended by grandees including Lord Tebbit, George Osborne, Tessa Keswick and Michael Howard. Lady Antonia Fraser had the best seat, a dark green sofa due to be auctioned this week which was, in theory, out of bounds. Few guests were aware that the furniture was the estate of millionaire Spaniard Juan March, who was Franco's banker for many years. A biography of the shadowy figure recently revealed he received millions of dollars in bribes from Churchill, which were distributed to Franco's generals to persuade them not to side with Hitler. No doubt some of the money helped to fund March's taste for expensive furniture.

MPs have returned from the summer recess to find the House of Commons infested with mice. When SNP MP John Mason recently caught one in his office, he got on the phone to the Commons authorities to ask them to take it away. So imagine his surprise when they said they were unable to help, as they have no system for the removal of unwanted vermin from the building. Presumably they have to wait for an election.

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