Britain extends warm welcome

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The Independent Online
The heat! The heat! Giant stinging jellyfish on British beaches! Mosquito invasion! Underwear that catches fire in the supermarket! Not to mention the storm. Tempers have been frayed, nowhere more so than at Gatwick Airport where the pilot of a Sicily-bound plane off-loaded his 187 passengers after "riotous behaviour" on board. The standing on seats and screaming on board Sabre Airways is not to be confused with high spirits of the British holidaymaker kind. These were 150 "excitable and angry" Italians. As the Times pointed out, the chartering company specialised in cheap seats for "Italian waiters" returning home for the summer.

No wonder the pilot and crew were terrified, and thank goodness for the calming presence of the Sussex police who, having separated passengers from crew (for their own safety) told the London Evening Standard that their intervention "ensured that the situation did not deteriorate further".

In fact the situation deteriorated quite a lot further from the passengers' point of view. Picture the scene (feel the temperature - 31C): 187 passengers, including "35 apparently innocent Britons" (the Times again) get themselves to Gatwick at 5.30am for a 7.35am plane to Catania. After hours of delay, some of it on the rapidly heating tarmac, they are finally given a 10.40am take-off slot, at which point the captain announces that in fact he is going only to Palermo where a coach will take the weary travellers the remaining 100-odd miles to Catania. The protesting passengers are then removed from the plane, introduced to British justice, kept in a waiting room till evening without food, refused overnight accommodation finally departing 40-51 (accounts differ) hours later.

ALL this did not go down well in Italy. "Sicilian students kidnapped in London: they treated us like terrorists" said the Repubblica headline on Wednesday. According to that paper, only the intervention of the Italian consul in London ensured a flight back for the "young people", including "two pregnant women and several babies", trapped in Gatwick. Nor was Repubblica amused by the Express cartoon depicting mafiosi among the passengers.

IT COULD have soured the last week of that Tuscan holiday. But, shamingly for the British, the Italian press continues its benign tolerance of the "English" premier and his family, and this despite the fact that the Italian resident chef of the Blair holiday villa has been ousted by the Downing Street cook. It was the ousted Italian chef, apparently, who coached the Blair team for the seven-a-side football match which occupied half the front page of Thursday's Times. Admission to the match (Blair, sons, and British security men against Italian police) was on a need-to-know basis but the excluded press were later informed of a diplomatic 7-7 draw. And maybe there was a slight lack of cordiality in Repubblica's much smaller commentary which concluded: "At the end, the first lady, Cherie, distributed little presents to the participants: black pens engraved with the name Tony Blair, probably left over from her husband's election campaign."

THE Telegraph must have been waiting all summer to use the headline "National Trust fights Germans on the beaches". Its opportunity came not because the legendary early-risers draped their towels on the loungers first but when a group of Christian evangelists chose a National Trust beach in Cornwall as a place to pray. Difficult to see precisely what so upset the National Trust and local police that they built trenches and barricades to prevent the 30 or so Germans reaching their chosen spot, but the Telegraph gave a detailed report of the military campaign. Like all good enemies the Christians (who breached the defences three times) were determined, spoke a foreign language, and answered questions only by imparting their beliefs. "It's a new and slightly disturbing experience for us. We don't fully understand what's driving them," said the National Trust. Which was a bit disingenuous since the German Evangelists were quite clear what was "driving them". God.

AND the flaming underwear? This is a mystery story which delighted the Sun and Mirror. Supermarket worker Melanie Thompson was sitting at her checkout when she felt as if her Marks & Spencer knickers were on fire. Which indeed they were. Melanie escaped with minor burns and M&S has expressed bewilderment. The Mail is on the case, though, on Friday offering six possible scientific explanations and a seventh more engaging one - Spontaneous Human Combustion of the kind that saw off Mr Krook in Dickens' Bleak House. My own research reveals that over the past 400 years there has been, on average, one incidence of Spontaneous Human Combustion every two years. I bet they were all in August.

Barbara Gunnell