I don’t know about you but I am no good at all at complaining at least not in person. Being British means that it is generally better to be polite and unhappy than complain and be happy or even more worryingly, be perceived by everyone else to be a complainer.
I don’t think I’ve ever complained in person about anything. Mostly its because 99% of times there is nothing to complain about and even if there is a legitimate complaint well I kind of expect things to go wrong. That being said, I have always been an awesome complainer by letter. The chance to make a valid argument bit by bit without any interruptions or worries about not going too far or indeed not going far enough with the complaint is something I have always thought is an art-form.
Though I don’t set out to with any end-goal in mind it is amazing the results I’ve had. The first time I remember was when I was 16 and a bus driver wouldn’t accept my fare because it was in small change so I was left in the snow one morning. I wrote and complained and put them to shame. I got a refund, compensation, a letter of apology and most satisfyingly the bus driver was fired from his job. This might sound harsh but he was always a bad person to be public facing, angry, miserable and rude.
I’ve written to companies and organisations mostly and always get a much better response than if I just complained in person. At work, I was well-known for writing funny but devastating complaints to management overseas about various issues. Weeks later people would come round to me and whisper… “shhh could you forward me that email you wrote about such and such”.
However, none of mine quite match the letter of complaint below if only because I never sent mine to the Daily Telegraph newspaper. We’ve all had bad experiences when travelling, heck I wrote a book on mine (shameless plug alert Planes, Trains and Sinking Boats) but the letter below is something special. I always think that using humour can be much more effective than being threatening of confrontational but the letter below is something special. Stuck on a flight from Mumbai to London, the least you might expect is a slightly dodgy meal with plastic cutlery that isn’t sharp enough to cut butter but Oliver Beale suffered more than most and took it like a man!
Dear Mr Branson
REF: Mumbai to Heathrow 7th December 2008
I love the Virgin brand, I really do which is why I continue to use it despite a series of unfortunate incidents over the last few years. This latest incident takes the biscuit.
Ironically, by the end of the flight I would have gladly paid over a thousand rupees for a single biscuit following the culinary journey of hell I was subjected to at the hands of your corporation.
Look at this Richard. Just look at it:
I imagine the same questions are racing through your brilliant mind as were racing through mine on that fateful day. What is this? Why have I been given it? What have I done to deserve this? And, which one is the starter, which one is the desert?
You don’t get to a position like yours Richard with anything less than a generous sprinkling of observational power so I KNOW you will have spotted the tomato next to the two yellow shafts of sponge on the left. Yes, it’s next to the sponge shaft without the green paste. That’s got to be the clue hasn’t it. No sane person would serve a desert with a tomato would they. Well answer me this Richard, what sort of animal would serve a desert with peas in:
I know it looks like a bhaji but it’s in custard Richard, custard. It must be the pudding. Well you’ll be fascinated to hear that it wasn’t custard. It was a sour gel with a clear oil on top. It’s only redeeming feature was that it managed to be so alien to my palette that it took away the taste of the curry emanating from our miscellaneous central cuboid of beige matter. Perhaps the meal on the left might be the desert after all.
Anyway, this is all irrelevant at the moment. I was raised strictly but neatly by my parents and if they knew I had started desert before the main course, a sponge shaft would be the least of my worries. So lets peel back the tin-foil on the main dish and see what’s on offer.
I’ll try and explain how this felt. Imagine being a twelve year old boy Richard. Now imagine it’s Christmas morning and you’re sat their with your final present to open. It’s a big one, and you know what it is. It’s that Goodmans stereo you picked out the catalogue and wrote to Santa about.
Only you open the present and it’s not in there. It’s your hamster Richard. It’s your hamster in the box and it’s not breathing. That’s how I felt when I peeled back the foil and saw this:
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it’s more of that Bhaji custard. I admit I thought the same too, but no. It’s mustard Richard. MUSTARD. More mustard than any man could consume in a month. On the left we have a piece of broccoli and some peppers in a brown glue-like oil and on the right the chef had prepared some mashed potato. The potato masher had obviously broken and so it was decided the next best thing would be to pass the potatoes through the digestive tract of a bird.
Once it was regurgitated it was clearly then blended and mixed with a bit of mustard. Everybody likes a bit of mustard Richard.
By now I was actually starting to feel a little hypoglycaemic. I needed a sugar hit. Luckily there was a small cookie provided. It had caught my eye earlier due to it’s baffling presentation:
It appears to be in an evidence bag from the scene of a crime. A CRIME AGAINST BLOODY COOKING. Either that or some sort of back-street underground cookie, purchased off a gun-toting maniac high on his own supply of yeast. You certainly wouldn’t want to be caught carrying one of these through customs. Imagine biting into a piece of brass Richard. That would be softer on the teeth than the specimen above.
I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was relax but obviously I had to sit with that mess in front of me for half an hour. I swear the sponge shafts moved at one point.
Once cleared, I decided to relax with a bit of your world-famous on-board entertainment. I switched it on:
I apologise for the quality of the photo, it’s just it was incredibly hard to capture Boris Johnson’s face through the flickering white lines running up and down the screen. Perhaps it would be better on another channel:
Is that Ray Liotta? A question I found myself asking over and over again throughout the gruelling half-hour I attempted to watch the film like this. After that I switched off. I’d had enough. I was the hungriest I’d been in my adult life and I had a splitting headache from squinting at a crackling screen.
My only option was to simply stare at the seat in front and wait for either food, or sleep. Neither came for an incredibly long time. But when it did it surpassed my wildest expectations:
Yes! It’s another crime-scene cookie. Only this time you dunk it in the white stuff.
Richard…. What is that white stuff? It looked like it was going to be yoghurt. It finally dawned on me what it was after staring at it. It was a mixture between the Bhaji custard and the Mustard sauce. It reminded me of my first week at university. I had overheard that you could make a drink by mixing vodka and refreshers. I lied to my new friends and told them I’d done it loads of times. When I attempted to make the drink in a big bowl it formed a cheese Richard, a cheese. That cheese looked a lot like your bhaji-mustard.
So that was that Richard. I didn’t eat a bloody thing. My only question is: How can you live like this? I can’t imagine what dinner round your house is like, it must be like something out of a nature documentary.
As I said at the start I love your brand, I really do. It’s just a shame such a simple thing could bring it crashing to it’s knees and begging for sustenance.
It’s rumoured that Sir Richard Branson offered Oliver Beale a job solely on the strength of this letter which Branson apparently enjoyed immensely despite its critique of the award-winning food of Virgin Airlines. It has also been said by rivals that the whole letter is a clever marketing device though everyone in involved denies this.
I have read this letter dozens of times over the years and each time it makes me laugh so I hope if you haven’t seen this before that you enjoy it as much as I have. If you enjoyed this post you might like my book 101 Most Horrible Tortures in History which has a tongue in cheek take on punishments and tortures and available in paperback as well as through Amazon, iBooks/iTunes and Kobo worldwide.