Joan Smith: Free the plane-spotters or drink retsina? No contest

Tawdry Wessex tale
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The Independent Online

It worked for Nelson Mandela and the Birmingham Six. But "Free the Plane-spotter 12"? I'm sorry, but I can't get worked up over the fate of a bunch of idiots from Britain who have been languishing in Greek jails for the past month.

There are certain courses of action that have "trouble" written all over them and behaving suspiciously at a military airbase in a foreign country is near the top of the list. Even before 11 September, Greece had its own problems with terrorism; it has been the target of a series of attacks by the shadowy November 17 organisation, which claimed responsibility for the murder of a British defence attaché, Stephen Saunders, in June last year. None of this seems to have occurred to the relatives of the imprisoned Brits or indeed the Daily Mail, which has launched a shrill campaign to get our plane-spotters back.

The paper is urging its readers to boycott a long list of Greek goods and claims that the campaign is already having an effect. Sales of feta cheese are down! Greek yogurt is congealing, or whatever yogurt does when it's past its sell-by date, on supermarket shelves! We can all do our bit by refusing to buy Total Authentic Greek Taramasalata Fish Roe Dip until our boys (and one girl) are home.

There is a weary familiarity about this campaign, which is only the latest in which a group of foreigners or an entire country is singled out for denunciation. Swept away by sympathy for the imprisoned Brits, newspapers have caricatured Greece as a banana republic where the rule of law scarcely exists. We have heard a great deal about the terrible conditions in Greek prisons, as though the country is one of the world's most backward nations, run by an evil junta which habitually confines innocent people in chains in underground dungeons. You would not imagine, from the tone of the protests, that Greece is a modern democracy whose prisons almost certainly bear comparison with overcrowded British jails. I don't imagine the 11 men and one woman would be having a much better time if they were banged up in Brixton or Holloway, awaiting trial on serious charges.

There is a rank odour of xenophobia – a word of Greek origin, appropriately enough – about all this outrage, not to mention nostalgia for the good old days when Lord Palmerston was able to despatch a couple of gunboats to make Johnny Foreigner behave. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has been accused of not doing enough to help the 12, and some of the relatives seem to expect him not just to deliver official protests but interfere in the Greek judicial process. In that sense, the affair has brutally exposed latent colonial assumptions, not least the notion that the British are always in the right. Greece is close enough to the Arab world, without actually being in it, to bring out all sorts of Orientalist prejudices about duplicitous foreigners.

The Greeks are aware of this and offended by it, as well they might be. They cannot understand why adults would travel so far to write down the numbers of a few aircraft, incomprehension I share. I would have described plane-spotting as the most boring activity in the world, but in most parts of the world people have better things to do with their spare time. It's so dull that this group of enthusiasts decided to spice up their lives by travelling to the other side of Europe and risking arrest. What next? A group of stamp collectors announcing they are going to hold a nude swap in Trafalgar Square?

It's enough to make me hurry out and buy everything on the Mail's banned list, even though I don't much like Del Monte Tinned Peach Slices in Syrup. Supermarkets could help those of us who want to stage a counter-protest by assembling all their Greek produce in one place. Then we could all do our best to restore Anglo-Greek relations by rushing to Tesco or Sainsbury's and buying huge quantities of stuffed vine leaves, halva and retsina.

One of the reasons I am so cross about all this is that the world's jails are overflowing with genuine prisoners of conscience. At the International PEN congress in London a couple of weeks ago, I met several writers who had been imprisoned or tortured. Bei Ling, a dissident Chinese poet who lives in Boston, told me he had been arrested on a trip home to visit his parents. He was held for 15 days in a cramped cell with 23 other men and threatened with a 10-year prison sentence for "illegal publishing", until an international campaign persuaded the Chinese government to let him go.

Just before the conference started, I tried to deliver a letter of protest to the Uzbek embassy in Holland Park. Uzbekistan, one of our allies in the war against terrorism, is probably the nastiest regime on Afghanistan's northern border; opposition parties are banned and the government arrests, tortures and murders its opponents with impunity. About 50 members of PEN gathered on the pavement across the road from the embassy, holding up the names of imprisoned writers. The diplomats were so alarmed by our presence that they flatly refused to open the front door. In the end, an obliging policeman promised to hand over the letter, but only after we'd gone home. I've never heard of a London embassy being stormed by novelists, but one look at us was enough to convince the ambassador that the pen is mightier than the sword.

It's been a bad week for the Royal Family. Not that they have a lot of good ones these days, as an irreverent (good) and prurient (bad) press treats them like other celebs who regularly grace the pages of Hello! magazine. There was detailed coverage of an employment tribunal at which a former personal secretary of the Prince claimed she was racially abused by one of his valets five years ago. Although Elizabeth Burgess lost her case, in which she alleged race and sex discrimination, senior members of the Prince's staff had to turn up and give evidence at the hearing in Bristol. But the royal story that drove everything else off the front pages was the news that the Countess of Wessex had suffered an ectopic pregnancy. The fact that this intensely private loss was given precedence over events in Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine is a shaming example of tabloid values. It's true that the Wessexes have made themselves unpopular, but I suspect the real reason it was given such prominence is very simple. "Prince Edward isn't gay" was the unspoken subtext, which may not be much comfort to a couple who have just lost their first child.

On Tuesday evening, I turned up at the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, organised annually by the Literary Review, which offers an unparalleled opportunity to snigger over someone else's engorged prose. This year's entries included an overblown passage about leaping salmon, and an author who mysteriously compared his inamorata to a famous British explorer. But it was Jerry Hall, handing over the prize, who stole the show. "Tonight I have to present an award to someone for bad sex," she drawled. "I usually present them with divorce papers." It was the shortest speech I have ever heard, and possibly the most enthusiastically received.

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