Sarah Todd: Subtlety’s now gone from noble art of complaining

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“MUSTN’T grumble,” used to run through us Britons like the name of a seaside town in a stick of rock.

We were reluctant to pass comment; reticent to give our opinion in case it might cause offence or hurt another human being’s feelings.

Of course, if something really ruffled our feathers we’d reach for the Basildon Bond and write a formal letter of complaint. More lately, perhaps, pick up the telephone and give the person on the other end a piece of our mind. Maybe even, if we were pushed for time, rattle off a sharply-worded email.

But things have changed. Something happened in the recent school holiday that has made me wonder whether the subtle art of complaining has been lost forever? The word “subtle” is used deliberately. Even as a red-head; the social niceties of complaining have always tempered – forgive the pun – letting off steam about a grievance. Say something light and pleasant and then – bang – get to the nitty gritty of whatever’s rattled your cage. Finish back on a lighter note; so they don’t just think you are a miserable nutter and never reply. Easy. And usually effective.

But back to what happened in the holidays. We were at a little horse show and didn’t think the judge had quite got it right. It was almost as if there had been some confusion and she hadn’t had it explained properly what was expected in each class. We had a bit of a grumble with the other competitors at the ringside, just passing the time of day really, but then told our young jockey to “get over it” as there is always another day.

“Come and look at this...” shouted our teenage daughter the morning after the show. She had gone on Facebook and there was comment after comment about the judging at the show. It felt somehow wrong to even glance at it. The computer’s “off” button was pressed before we got through them all. The judge was of a senior age and had doubtless given her time for free. It was uncalled for. Intrinsically wrong; whatever happened to old-fashioned respect and the rule that the judge’s decision is always final?

We never saw anybody storm off to the secretary’s tent and formally complain at the time. Somehow, venting such spleen after an event on the internet seems very cowardly. It was also such a shame for the organisers of the show – all voluntary – who had done their best. Got off their backsides and put an event on. After this eye-opener via the internet it’s a wonder anybody bothers.

A day or two later we were off again; this time with the dog to a country fair. The lady that pipped us in our class came over – how fabulous – to shake our hand and congratulate us on how well our lurcher looks for his nine years. She occasionally judged but talked about what a nightmare it is with everybody giving their opinion – and criticising – from the safety of their computer keyboards afterwards. All such a revelation. We had no idea this went on. Suppose it’s easy enough to imagine a bit of online argy-bargy about the winners of television talent (less) shows but a dog show in a roped-off corner of a freezing field?

Mind you, come to think of it, there was an inkling about this below-stairs bellyaching last summer. We have a small campsite and hadn’t realised that the club we are registered with has online reviews. When we stumbled upon the website it was all very heartening; lovely views, warm welcome … But then, what’s this? Somebody going on about finding a spider in a – guess what? – outside lavatory. Well, how shocking. One spider. Likewise, we have some farmer friends with similar sites and they have had the most vicious of reviews about everything from the proximity of cows – on a farm? – to the sound of tractors working in the nearby fields.

Apparently, pubs and restaurants run the same gauntlet every day of the week. People smiling and paying their bill and then scuttling off like the snakes in the grass they are to pick places to pieces.

When our village pub was given a facelift it has to be said there was a fair bit of grumbling from yours truly, always back in the safety of our own sitting room, about its lack of atmosphere. But, the opportunity to complain came around soon enough.

They had a steak night with a bottle of wine included in the price. My dining partner was sticking to the beer – “beautiful, fruity, creamy…” was the glowing on-the-spot review he gave to anybody who would listen. About three-quarters way through the bottle the manager enquired how everything was. He was told that the food was lovely – though a bit pricey – and that he needed to get the fire lit. What use are dried flowers in a grate?

Next day, there was a roaring log fire. The warm glow it gave was about so much more than heat.