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A Long Diatribe About Complaining and a Short Bit about Cambridge and Ely

Posted on 2007/12/10 22:53:00 (December 2007).

[Sunday 9th December]
I did something quite extraordinary this morning. I complained.

Considering the price I had paid for the hotel we stayed at in Cambridge, I'd really expected something a bit special. In fact it was one of the most expensive hotel rooms I'd ever paid for. I had really been banking on that to lift an otherwise awful anniversary weekend out of complete failure, and yet all too predictably it had turned out to be an utter disappointment. There wasn't anything significantly wrong with the room, it was just small, drab, a bit grubby around the edges, and just generally very mediocre. Had I only paid half of what I paid I'd have just accepted it and not really given it much thought, but given the actual price I was feeling like I'd been completely ripped off.

Yes, I was feeling very miffed indeed, as though I'd been completely conned by this hotel like I was some kind of idiot tourist. It had been bugging me all of the previous day, and I had gone to sleep seething. When I woke up I still couldn't think of anything else, and breakfast past in a haze of repressed fury at the UK hotel industry.

The day before we'd been browsing some "humorous postcards", a number of which were apparently observations by people from other countries of the more curious aspects of British culture. One in particular had a comic strip of a couple at a restaurant. The woman said her dish was cold and tasteless, the man said his meal was plain inedible. Then the waiter came to their table and asked them if their food was OK and they both said "lovely". I almost cried. No, not tears of laughter, genuine tears of sheer misery and despair. As customers, we must be the most pathetic and downtrodden of nations in the world. We get terrible food, terrible service, horrifically over charged, and yet, because we don't want to make a scene, we never complain.

Emboldened by this, when it came to the time for us to check out of our hotel, I thought I simply cannot let this go. Against all my pathetic British instincts to just go quietly and take one on the chin, I decided this was the time for me to take a stand, in the name of every tourist who has ever been ripped off by those unscrupulous and frankly subhuman hoteliers which blight this otherwise fair country of ours.

I had considered making a big scene in the lobby, but thought in the end it would be much better to call the duty manager, and take them on a little tour of our crappy and hideously overpriced room. I didn't want to be fobbed off by some lackey with no authority to do anything about it, and moreover I thought complaining about the room would be much easier if I could actually point to bits of it while I was moaning.

I was, of course, extremely polite about the whole thing, I didn't lose my temper or get personal about it, but nonetheless I was firm and very determined, and quite simply said that I thought the price they had charged me was completely unjustified, and I was very disappointed indeed.

I really wasn't sure how they'd take it. I was thoroughly expecting to just be fobbed off with some crap about it being "peak season" or "a prime location" and therefore it was basically tough luck. In actual fact though, without specifically saying it out loud, the manager basically seemed to agree with everything I said.

So when it actually came time to check out I was given a fairly sizeable refund. Whilst I guess it is no real skin off the hotel's nose - in terms of the previous evening's Christmas party bookings the amount they refunded me was probably a drop in the ocean - I still felt like I had won a sizeable victory. Not only had I got over my own fear of complaining, but I had sent a very clear message to this hotel that at least some of the paying public simply wasn't going to stand for being ripped off.

It was as though a curse had been lifted.

It wasn't really the actual money I was that bothered about - I'm not too badly off at the moment, thank you very much - but it was the feeling that I'd been conned somehow. I had felt like a complete mug, which had only gone to compound an already somewhat crappy anniversary. By actually having the guts to complain about it, having them acknowledge those complaints, and then getting a decent chunk of my money back, my self esteem had been restored, and we could then get on with trying to enjoy what was left of our weekend.

Part of the motivation for coming to Cambridge is that Chie had wanted to go somewhere we could be on a boat (having had a boat for our wedding reception a year ago, and all that). We'd not quite got round to hiring a punt the day before, so decided we ought to instead do that this morning, before leaving Cambridge.

The weather had actually looked quite good this morning to start with. In fact we even got so far as booking our punt whilst the skies were still relatively blue. However, in the intervening time between buying our tickets (by which point we were committed) and actually getting on the punt, the heavens opened and it absolutely tipped it down.

I guess it wasn't so bad for us - we hired a punt along with a guy to do the actual punting for us, so we were more or less able to shelter from the downpour under a collection of umbrellas. Our boatman, on the other hand, must have got absolutely drenched. Oh well - I left him a decent tip. We only had twenty minutes or so on our punt, but despite (or perhaps because of) the terrible weather it was actually very nice. You just can't get quite the same view of all the colleges by land, and seeing them for the first time like this was quite magical.

After finishing our little trip down the Cam, we decided it was probably a good time to quit while we were ahead, and say goodbye to Cambridge.

However, we didn't head straight back to London. I've had a bit of a fascination with nearby Ely for some time, almost entirely because of one of my favourite London pubs - Ye Olde Mitre. The pub was built as part of the London residence of the bishops of Ely, and given some bizarre legal loopholes was actually considered to be part of Cambridgeshire for some time. From this nugget alone I had formed an opinion that Ely must be quite special.

So we got on a little train from Cambridge bound for Ely, around 10 minutes away. When we arrived it was still pissing it down. We trudged somewhat wearily from the station into the town centre. The cathedral is pretty formidable from the outside, but it wasn't until we got inside (and therefore out of the rain) that I was really struck by it. The effect is heightened by the very modest little doors through which you enter the cathedral. Once inside though it is a vast, cavernous, jaw-drop-inducing expanse. As I've often discussed of late, the word "awesome" is horrendously overused (particularly in the US), but this is one situation where it is utterly appropriate. I'm not normally particularly into ecclesiastical architecture, but on this occasion I was quite literally filled with awe.

We enjoyed a very pleasant light lunch in the refectory there, after which we left Ely cathedral with a sense of deep satisfaction and contentment.

From Ely we wended our way back to London, by way of Cambridge again. We'd obviously picked a time of day to travel when the train system was having its afternoon nap, so we could only get a very slow train back to London, but I didn't mind too much. We wiled away the time reading the copy of the Observer, which we'd got from the hotel.

Back at home in the evening I made a vegetable stew for dinner (the sort of food that seems appropriate in cold, wet weather), and generally enjoyed the sensation of being warm, dry and indoors.

Comment 1

Good on you John !
Some serious complaining at last ..... I am proud that you were able to stick your consumer neck over the parapet ... there are a lot of other persecuted consumers out there with similar repressed fury (not healthy in itself) ... you did your bit for all of them.
Maybe following your lead this will be the start of a new consumer revolt against the mediocrity and cynicism of the British hotel and catering industry ... we have been ripped off long enough.
Remember CAMRA ..look what they won in their epic battle with the evil brewery barons.They did it of course primarily by celebrating and supporting excellence where they found it along with boycotting the mediocre.
So as well as being the time to 'name and shame' (in the hotel industry mostly the large chains) it also must be the time to 'celebrate the best' by supporting those who offer a good value for money product (mostly the independents).
Long live the consumer revolution ! You have nothing to lose but your 'chains' !?

Posted by Rev Nick at 2007/12/11 09:43:01.

Comment 2

Well done John! A healthy strike for "Decent Chaps" out there (here?).

The ability to do this sort of thing becomes easier with... age. One of the few advantages to getting older. After all, the average 19-year old has absolutely no "leverage" when it comes to complaining officially.

Yes, on my last trip to Cambridge (mentioned elsewhere briefly) Joc and I also went to Ely. For some reason, what sticks in my mind most about the cathedral was the free-range, friendly sparrows which took crumbs from our sandwiches...

Posted by Nigel at 2007/12/11 14:38:56.

Comment 3

Well we say "L'amore non bello se non litigarello" (love isn't nice if it isn't "fighty")... So in a way it's better to have a row every now and then than wake up a day and just split up. As for hotel manager you are now my personal hero.
I frankly hope that I'll never have to complain about something, but if that was to be the case I hope that I muster the strength to do what you did! :D

Posted by Lox at 2007/12/14 21:53:57.

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