Robert Chalmers doesn't like... Complaining


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The Independent Online

His victims could come from anywhere, but Pascual always said the English were the best. It would usually take place in the late morning, at his cafe in Barcelona, where he and his friends would be at the end of the bar, gambling on poker dice.

From the point of view of the customer, and I know because it happened to me, it happened like this. You approached the bar and ordered something like an Estrella beer, in your best (but atrocious) Spanish or Catalan. After a short wait, Pascual would reappear with a bowl of squid in ink sauce, bark a swift "Servidor" ("You're welcome") then scuttle back to his dice game.

The combination of the owner's abrupt disappearance and the client's limited command of the language was a powerful one. There was no option. You had to eat it.

"You ordered that drink perfectly," Pascual would say, taking away the plate and offering an Estrella on the house. "But I bet them [a wave towards his fellow poker players] €50 that if I gave you squid, you'd eat it."

Complaining about food just doesn't come easily to the English. The French, self-proclaimed emperors of cuisine, are also the unchallenged world champions of whingeing about food when abroad. But the difficulties of seeking redress don't stop in the kitchen.

In the late 1950s, long before Trigger Happy TV and even before the UK version of Candid Camera, the legendary broadcaster Jonathan Routh was presenting a Radio Luxembourg show called Candid Mike. In one of its more excruciating episodes, Routh, wired for sound, and posing as a Savile Row tailor's assistant, presents a client with a suit whose trousers are eight inches longer than specified. "When you've got the shoes on, they'll be perfect," he promises the bemused customer. "They're no good," says the client.

"The problem is the shoes," Routh responds, in his sternest Oxbridge voice. "You need new shoes."

"They're too long."

"No. It's you. Your legs have got smaller. Have you been standing in the rain? This is the new look for men."

"I don't want the new look for men."

"You've got extra cloth covering your feet," Routh persists, "that we are not charging for. You won't have to bother with socks. Think of the saving. Jump in it and see how comfortable it is."

"I ..."

"Just try jumping."

Routh, who died in 2008, was a master at exploiting the reluctant complainant's worst nightmare: the recalcitrant vendor.

Why is it so hard to kick up a fuss? The one consolation about buying a house is that, while it may leak, fall down or bankrupt you, at least you complete the deal secure in the knowledge that you'll never have to return it. In the last few months, I've had curtains poorly re-hung for a fee of £200 by a well-known store on London's Oxford Street. (They'd used the wrong rails in the first place, but that was ten years ago, so it seemed a bit unfair to mention it.) This time the curtain fitters arrived without enough hooks. "You can get them," one of them told me, as he was leaving, "at B&Q."

I've sold a £350 bar football table to a friend for a tenth of its real value. He took it away and was going to come round with the cash "tomorrow" [still waiting].

Only last week, in New York, I fled a friend's bed-bug-ridden room in South Brooklyn to the Intercontinental on 44th Street because I didn't want to offend my host.

"Is an inability to complain one of those things commonly described as 'a male problem?' " I asked my friend, the writer Janey Preger.

"You should see women's hairdressers," she said. "I was in one the other day. I heard this young woman say, 'Not too short ...' The man starting hacking away. I could see panic in her expression. "How is it?" he said. There were tears forming in her eyes. "Lovely," she said. She gave him a tip."

A very posh friend of a friend, bored with waiting for a plate at a restaurant in the Strand, emptied his dinner on to the tablecloth and ate it with a spoon. Diffidence in complaining is closely associated with class which is perhaps why, as Pascual observed, it's a problem that especially afflicts the English.

"Is there any area of life," I once asked a concierge at a large London hotel, "where the English are the best at complaining?"

She thought for a moment, then pointed to the taxi rank outside, where a line of City traders was waiting in the drizzle. "You go out there" she said, "and try jumping that queue."