In which my mother wins the deodorant jackpot.

Printed 13/11/08

Wow. Do we really live in a country where 30,000 people can be bothered to complain about a radio prank only two of them even heard in the first place? Are these the same people who sign petitions against wind farms and have feuds with neighbours over seven inches of garden hedge? I’ve always regarded complaining as something of a national sport (this is probably, I realised, because it’s the only sport where I have a hope in hell of getting picked for the team without having to do the captain’s history homework for them first), but this is an abuse of its good name.

Complaining is an art form. It’s finely honed through daily practice, by standing in queues, eating Fray Bentos pie-in-a-tin and seeing films with Adam Sandler in them. And if we practice hard enough, with enough commitment, some day we might qualify for the ultimate honour, the complaining Olympics: Points of View.

What other country would have a whole half hour of their weekly programming schedule dedicated to complaining about how bad the rest of the programming schedule is? Even the chirpy scatting theme tune and dulcet tones of Terry Wogan can’t detract from the fact that it’s just a great big massive moanfest for people who will sit angrily through a whole hour’s gratuitous nudity just to check they’re definitely, definitely offended. I love it. What I love even more is that of all the tiny, irrelevant, niggly details that the great viewing public will find to complain about, it’s never the funny fake actor voices their letters are being read out in (“Why, oh why, oh why… has Auntie Beeb decided to make me a 65 yr old Welsh woman when I clearly signed the letter Alan McAllister?”).

My flatmate has just read this over my shoulder and told me that I’m wrong. “British people never complain. They should complain more, nothing ever gets better because we just stay silent.” But aha, you see, that’s the cunning trick. When we sit quietly by as a waiter sneezes on our lasagne, or overtip a hairdresser who’s made us look like Anne Widdecombe, the stiff upper lip is just holding in the torrent of first-class über-complaining we’re going to do all the way home. We’re cowards, but we’re complaining cowards.

Or maybe she’s right, and what we do isn’t complaining at all. Complaining, I suppose, is a structured activity. It has rules. It’s official. It involves making phone calls and writing letters and using terms like ‘completely unacceptable’. What most of us do do, or what I do anyway, is grumble. Moan. Gripe. Nothing that involves as much effort, or as many forms, as complaining. Though of course it should be noted that forms are a wonderful thing to complain, moan, grumble or gripe about. Or at least, they are if my mum’s anything to go by when she’s filling out mine for me.

Incidentally my mother – conveniently, as it’s been a while since she’s had a mention and her fans are getting restless – has in recent months become one of these professional complainers. I mean ‘professional’ quite literally, as she’s actually being paid for her time in soup vouchers and free deodorants.

It all began several months back, when she opened a Baxter’s soup can to find the wrong soup inside. “Jackpot!,” the more laid back among us might think – “what a wonderful soupy surprise! I shall enjoy this soup more than the originally planned soup, because the secret ingredient is mystery.” Not so Mother Bravo, who instead took it upon herself to ring up Mrs Baxter and inform her of the mishap. “My son’s very disappointed. It was his favourite soup,” she told the nice Scottish helpline lady in her best wounded tone. Of course, the son in question is 18, but that’s by the by in the world of the serial complainer.

The reason these complainers carry on with gusto, while us moaners, gripers and grumblers get distracted by something shiny and lose interest, is that complainers get payoff. In this case it was a whole £4-worth of soup vouchers, enough to keep her in possibly defective soup for three weeks, and in complaining for the foreseeable future. Next up was a deodorant she couldn’t get the cap off. Nor could my father, nor the neighbours, nor the neighbour’s cousin’s parakeet, which meant complain-o’clock for mummy. The big prize was an apologetic letter containing a ‘fault report’ from the ‘chief packaging technician’ (two pages of bullet points to explain the ever-complex process of ‘some glue got on the lid’), and four free deodorants. Now if she can just find a faulty Aston Martin and a jar of caviar with a toenail in it, we’ll be set for life.

Unfortunately it seems that while moaning, grumbling and griping are hobbies, complaining is a way of life. “The trouble with the free deodorants, though,” she calls to tell me several days later, “is that they’re all the pink scent. And I really rather prefer the blue.”