How to whinge like a winner

The British are useless at complaining and we suffer bad service with a stiff upper lip. But one man claims that a sense of humour and the courage to make a stand for what you want can bring just rewards. By Kate Watson-Smyth
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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHEN John McEnroe flung his racket down on the hallowed lawns of Wimbledon and complained about the linesmen, the umpire, the ballboys and sometimes - just for the hell of it - the weather, a frisson would ripple round the court.

Some of the, mainly British, crowd would gasp in admiration at his audacity and long for the courage to turn to a manager, waiter or shop assistant and complain with such conviction. The others would sniff with disapproval and smile kindly in the direction of Bjorn Borg, whose stoicism and long- suffering gained him the lasting respect of the nation.

Those mighty tennis battles between the two players encapsulate the British attitude to complaining - something at which we have never excelled.

Faced with adversity, we prefer simply to mutter among ourselves, swear never to go there again even if you pay us and stomp off in a huff. As a result, we have to put up with bad service, shoddy workmanship and bullying from our neighbours, all of which gives us more to whinge about.

But whinging is not the same as complaining. Complaining means actually doing something constructive about a problem and, put simply, the British are no good at it.

This, according to Jasper Griegson, a man who has made a career out of complaining, is because of the War. "The British are desperately proud of the Dunkirk spirit," he says. "By spending enormous amounts of time `grinning and bearing it', the British have come to associate expressions of dissatisfaction with sissiness.

"The manly response to adversity is the proverbial stiff upper lip, which is all very well if you are squatting in an air-raid shelter waiting for a doodle-bug to drop on you, but not much help if a chocolate machine has swallowed your pound coin."

So, in the spirit of altruism and an effort to initiate his fellow countrymen into the benefits of making a fuss, Griegson has compiled a book, The Joys of Complaining, which he hopes will inspire the nation to put pen to paper when faced with life's little irritations.

As well as general observations on the nature of complaining and how different nationalities approach it, the book consists of complaining letters - often outrageously cheeky, but always charming - to various top-name companies and their replies. Some are from Griegson himself, others written on behalf of friends, but all the correspondence is totally genuine.

But Griegson warns that McEnroe's approach is not necessarily the best way to achieve a result "Abusive complaining doesn't work. I've tried it," he says, recalling the time he sent a sick bag (albeit an empty one) to the Alitalia airline to complain about their business-class cuisine.

"We enclose by way of service (you will not know what that means) the following documents," he wrote. "It is quite dreadful to think that even at this very moment hundreds of passengers are being force-fed like battery hens with plastic trays full of the remarkable offal you apparently deem fit for consumption."

Not surprisingly his final paragraph, asking for a "substantial gesture of goodwill" did not meet with the required response.

The "unduly impolite and offensive" letter was returned with the curt suggestion that only a formal complaint would be considered.

Nowadays, Griegson writes with his tongue firmly in his cheek and says he has much better results. "If you can make the person dealing with the complaint laugh then they will be more likely to help you out."

In a letter to the managing director of Selfridges, he complained about a defective coffee machine. "For many eons I have been a great fan of your store. This faith was sadly shattered when I spent pounds 220 on a cappuccino machine... the knob has dropped off as a result of a defective spring.

"In all the circumstances there is only one way for this to be rectified and that is for you to supply me with a new knob as soon as possible.

"Unless I receive the same within three working days, I intend to commit suicide by putting the steamer pipe from the machine (if I can make it work) into my mouth."

The reply, by return of post, began: "Don't do it. As you might imagine I now feel personally accountable for your serious complaint and concerned for your continued good health!!"

He was sent a new knob and a complementary pack of coffee "which I trust will help ease the trauma. Please let me know when you have the machine working satisfactorily again as I am going to worry about this for the rest of the week. In the meantime, thank you quite seriously for your letter and for bringing a touch of humour into our pressured existence."

But despite his skill at writing the perfect letter of complaint, Griegson is an invention. His alter ego, who will not reveal his real identity beyond the fact that he is a family man with a "very dull job in the city" claims he never complains about anything. "But when I become Jasper I take on a new persona which enables me to complain better," he says.

The turning point for Griegson came at Dublin airport in 1986 when he faced a four-hour flight delay. A loud American in checked trousers made a huge fuss and demanded that he be taken to the best restaurant for lunch. Griegson joined in, somewhat sheepishly at first and was pleasantly surprised to find that both he and the American had their way - unlike the rest of the passengers, who suffered in silence. "Since then, I've never let anything go," he says.

In fact, he was so good at his job as complainer for Woman's Realm magazine that he was sacked. Tongue firmly in cheek, he wrote to the "personnel manager" at the Conservative Party's Central Office complaining about the poor quality of candidates in the 1995 Tory leadership contest.

Modestly offering his own services, he wrote: "My readers and I, concerned that UK Plc is rudderless, feel that a strong, bold and strident leader is needed. Although I have not been directly involved in politics, I was a school prefect at Oakthorpe Junior School in 1969-71."

Central Office failed to see the joke and telephoned the chairman of IPC magazines demanding that he be sacked forthwith. He was. "I have a sneaking admiration for that because they were just following my example and complaining about things and it worked," said Griegson.

However, Kathy Watson, editor of the magazine, claims Griegson resigned. "The letter was sent back to IPC with a covering note from someone senior in the Tory party and when I rang Jasper to ask him about it, he said it was a joke and resigned.

"There are no hard feelings, but I was glad he resigned because we had employed him to write letters of complaint on behalf of our readers and if he wanted to write a jokey letter he should have done it under his own steam and not as an employee of Woman's Realm," she complained.

Griegson's robust missives have inspired the rest of his family and friends. His young daughter, Zoe, recently wrote to Waddingtons complaining about a game which had fallen apart. "I have lots of apprentices and my family are getting very good at it," he says. "After all, complaining is the most fulfilling activity which any human being can perform."

He may have a point. After all, McEnroe's force of personality has now earned him a successful broadcasting career. Perhaps if Borg had taken up complaining he would have ended up with more than a swimwear company using his name to market their underwear.

`The Joys of Complaining' is published this week by Robson Books, price pounds 8.99.

To: Paul Walden, joint managing director, The Flying Music Group, London W11.

Last night my wife and I went to see the Monkees 30th anniversary concert at Wembley Arena. Our tickets cost pounds 46 and we were deeply disappointed. As a prelude to the Monkees arrival on stage a video was shown featuring the famous song "Hey, Hey, We're the Monkees". This number included the following words: "We're the young generation, and we've got something to say". I hate to be pernickety, but the young generation they were not. The boys had been well preserved with a blast of embalming fluid, but to describe them as the young generation was a gross and fraudulent misrepresentation. I would be grateful if you could arrange for each member of the group to provide my wife and I with a written apology, cheque for 46 quid and an assurance that the two offending words will in future be replaced with something like "old geriatrics".

Dear Mr Griegson

Thank you for you letter. As all of the matters that you mention require direct input from the group themselves, I will pass on your letter for response.

Yours sincerely, Paul Walden

PS Due to their advancing years and the speed that they are able to function these days, it may be some time before you receive the benefit of a reply.

To: Terry Leahy, Managing Director, Tesco Stores

I am a vegetarian and a monkey. It therefore follows as a matter of axiomatic logic that I like to indulge in bananas. I enclose for your attention what appear to be examples of Tesco's finest. As you will see, however, one of these bananas is more than just a fruit. It appears to be home to an animal. Given my anti-carnivore inclinations, I am less than happy to discover such high meat content in what, on any view, would normally be regarded as a non-meat product.

Dear Mr Griegson,

I have now received the report concerning your bananas. The specimen was described as a "silk-encased foreign body". This has subsequently been examined by an entomologist who reports as follows: "The specimen was identified as the remains of a pupa and cocoon of the moth species Antichloris. This is a harmless tropical moth whose larvae feed on the leaves of the banana palm. The occurrence of these on imported bananas is reasonably commonplace." I have told our technologist, who will make sure it is fully investigated. As a gesture of goodwill, I enclose Tesco vouchers to the value of pounds 15.

Yours sincerely, Frances Hickling, Customer Services Executive to the Board

To: Marco Pierre White, The Criterion, London W1

A few weeks ago my wife and I treated ourselves and six friends to an excellent meal at your restaurant. The atmosphere was both congenial and vibrant. The food was succulent, fragrant and yet at the same time deliciously sophisticated. The service capped it all: the waiters managed to combine unobtrusiveness with efficiency. However, the occasion was married by a detail I can only imagine will horrify you. When it came to coffee on of the items on the menu described itself as expresso. As a lover of all things Italian, I am fairly sure that the correct spelling is espresso. Doubtless you will want to take a quick butchers at the menu to double- check my observation.

Dear Mr Griegson

Thank you for your letter. I read your comments with interest. We have now acted on your recommendation and rectified the situation.

Marco Pierre White