Matthew Bell: The <i>IoS</i> Diary

Asking those really awkward questions
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The Independent Online

Never mind the banking crisis – Nick Clegg has more pressing matters to attend to. The Lib Dem leader has found time to take part in the latest narcissistic Facebook craze, "25 random things", which is, as you might expect, a game in which you compile a list of 25 random things about yourself. It starts off well – we learn that the weirdest thing he has eaten is fried bees in China (crazy!), that he wrote a novel – "it was terrible" – and that he used to do transcendental meditation. But by the 15th pearl we wonder whether anyone is still reading – "I have a biscuit tin and a fruit bowl in my office, and I always eat the biscuits first." We all admire truthfulness, but a kernel of imagination is occasionally welcome.

It was during a surprise visit to Basra just before Christmas that Gordon Brown confirmed all troops would be out by July. It was a moment of unusual, and welcome, decisiveness. So how did he come to make it, we wonder. Could he have been helped by a somewhat frank exchange with one of the soldiers during the trip? I'm told the BBC was preparing "the usual Christmas package" of soldiers enjoying a traditional Christmas lunch, when in came the PM for a morale-boosting chat. "Hello, everyone. Will you be here for Christmas?" he inquired. "Yes, Prime Minister," came the reply. "That'll be fun," said the PM. "No, Prime Minister, it'll be shit," said the CO. They told him, he listened.

So Jake Parkinson-Smith, friend of Princes William and Harry, has been caught possessing cocaine. The

31-year-old is the general manager of Boujis, the turbo posh nightclub favoured by the princes, and is the grandson of the late society photographer Norman Parkinson. It was the 'Daily Mail' who broke the story yesterday, but what they omitted to mention is that he also happens to be the nephew of Veronica Wadley, who until two weeks ago was the editor of the 'Evening Standard', erstwhile stable mate of the 'Mail'. If only Auntie V could have had a quiet word in someone's ear.

Who had ever heard of Sir Brian "on a" Bender, the Whitehall mandarin, before news of his 52 junkets-a-year habit emerged? Journalists are hardly best placed to pass judgement on the morality of freebies, but that didn't stop several weighing in. Among them was Michael White of 'The Guardian', a brilliant journalist but perhaps not the most savage lobby hack in Westminster. Indeed his finger-wagging soon tired as he was forced to admit he's not averse to the odd hand-out himself, having recently pocketed a couple of overseas weekends, one in Santiago de Compostela on an Anglo-Spanish conference, and more than one in Venice for "an Anglo-Italian bash – never a hardship, Venice". Nothing's too good for Whitey!

To Aberystwyth, where a previously unseen bundle of letters by Richard Burton goes on display later this month at the National Library of Wales. The brooding Welsh actor remained in correspondence with his childhood friend Dennis Burgess long after leaving Port Talbot, where they grew up, and would send updates of his developing career and marriages to Elizabeth Taylor. The letters reveal he helped Burgess leave his job as a drama teacher in the local comprehensive by arranging an audition for him; Burgess later appeared alongside Burton in the film 'Bluebeard'. The library bought the letters at auction recently – a spokesman says it will be added to their growing collection of Burtonalia.

Liverpool's year as the "capital of culture" already seems like a long way away. Back then over £20m was found to fund various arts projects of questionable merit. But last Monday the local Labour-dominated council in nearby Wirral decided it couldn't even afford to keep its libraries open, and voted unanimously to close 11 in the area, despite strong opposition. Shadow arts minister Ed Vaizey is particularly outraged. He says: "I don't think there will be many Labour or Lib Dem councillors left in Wirral by 2010 if they do not change their minds."