Is there nothing we don't grumble about?

A whole industry has grown up around the new compulsion to complain
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The Independent Online

When our new friends from an enlarged Europe approach these shores in search of a brighter future, they might become aware of a low, mildly distracting hum in the air. Compared to other sounds - traffic, the scream of aircraft overhead, the chatter of radios - the hum hardly registers on the ear and, within a few weeks, most newcomers become as habituated to it as residents are. Yet it is there almost all the time, that unmistakeable rumble of the British complaining about something.

When our new friends from an enlarged Europe approach these shores in search of a brighter future, they might become aware of a low, mildly distracting hum in the air. Compared to other sounds - traffic, the scream of aircraft overhead, the chatter of radios - the hum hardly registers on the ear and, within a few weeks, most newcomers become as habituated to it as residents are. Yet it is there almost all the time, that unmistakeable rumble of the British complaining about something.

In this golden age of discontentment, there is simply no limit to the number of things that cause us to feel disgruntled. Politicians, transport, the health service, the young - the list, growing ever longer, is familiar to us all. We seem to have developed a sort of socialised misery-addiction, a craving for dissatisfaction which afflicts this nation more seriously than most. Always happy to tap into new areas of mild psychological dysfunction, TV executives have found in it a new formula to add to the list of bog-standard ideas recycled for viewers. Beside series about property or CCTV specials involving neighbours from hell, there is now to be found the moan-in.

Following the depressing success of a programme called Grumpy Old Men, in which mini-celebs were invited to fulminate in the mock-huffy manner popularised by Jeremy Clarkson, the BBC is now unveiling Brassed Off Britain. Here, a series of drearily familiar targets, from estate agents to mobile phones and junk mail, is scrutinised. Viewers will be given the chance to vote for the subject that annoys them most.

Meanwhile a whole industry has grown up around the new compulsion to complain, with a vast pack of whimpering watchdogs sniffing about in search of new sources of outrage. This week, for example, it is important for us all to become very angry about the Post Office and letter deliveries. Sixty million letters are lost every year. Sixty per cent of those are the result of postmen being unable to take a letter to the right address. One in 20 consumers who receive a misdelivered letter, throws it in the bin rather than re-posting it. The whole situation - bosses, postmen, people - is quite ghastly, according to the relevant watchdog Postwatch. We should all be complaining about it.

Must we, really? If we happen to receive someone else's letter, is it really so important to register our disapproval? Surely it is at least possible that whatever small benefit may accrue to postal efficiency by this concerted moan-in will be outweighed by the personal waste of time and psychic energy that it involves.

It may be a terrible professional flaw, columnists being cheerleaders when it comes to grumpiness, but I have discovered I am suffering from complaint fatigue. Summer is approaching, the cowslips are in bloom, swifts are mating on the wing, and I am coming to terms with my inner Martyn Lewis. Like the famous newsreader who once campaigned for more happy news to be broadcast, I am tired of the negative, of being annoyed by everyday life.

Moaning, or its more respectable cousin, protest, may have a part to play in the life of a responsible citizen but it is surely also true that complaint is a progressive disease that feeds upon itself. While there are true causes for concern - the Post Office's decision to undermine local communities by closing down 300 local branches while sidling into bed with the supermarkets, for example - there are also issues which, to avoid seeing the world through a fog of paranoia and biliousness, we should leave to those who are professionally involved.

In fact, there might even be a case for setting up the ultimate consumer protection service, Whingewatch, an organisation whose brief would be to blow the whistle on excessive alarmism from other watchdogs.

Quite often the best response to a setback or disappointment is precisely not to complain about it. The nearest post office to my house has recently suffered a rather more acute problem than a few wrongly delivered letters. In the early hours of a morning last week, three youths rammed the front of the shop in a stolen four-by-four vehicle. They failed to find any money but the front wall of the small shop was completely destroyed and its contents buried under rubble.

By the time I called by, soon after eight, the owners, Bob and Sue, were selling the morning's deliveries, newspapers and milk, out of the back of a van. By the next day, the walls had been replaced by hardboard sheeting and the shop was back in business. Even before the boys from Thetford had decided to pay a visit, Bob and Sue might have had a few grievances against the world - an invasion of supermarkets in the area, the need to stay open until 10 every night to keep going - but there was a steely chirpiness to the way they resumed their business without complaint.

Once upon a time, their attitude might have been described as typically British but now it seems distinctly unusual. Their very determination not to whinge or blub is why their shop and post office is, in spite of the efforts of Safeway and Somerfield, a huge success, providing an uplifting Martyn Lewis moment for the whole area.

terblacker@aol.com

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