If you’re considering reading all of this post, you may want to put an hour or two aside…and make sure you’ve got painkillers in the house.
It all started off so innocently.
On Friday 28th September, 2012, I sent the following short email to Tesco’s faceless, far-away Customer Service team. If writing it made me feel about a hundred-years-old, hitting Send made me feel absolutely ancient, almost as if I’d become the decrepit maths teacher from my childhood who I thoroughly despised. Agh:
I really like shopping at Tesco’s but sadly I have a complaint about your own-brand herring fillets in oil. Would it be possible for you to tell me how to complain? I have a longer letter which I’d like to send you.
Hope you can help me. Thanks,
…and, amazingly, hideously early on monday morning (today, as I publish this blog, in fact) my mobile rang with one of those mysterious unknown numbers that I never dare to answer. I was lying in bed asleep at the time, dreaming something bizarre, feeling pretty bloody awful with a sore-throat and cold, wondering who the hell had the sheer audacity to ring me in the middle of the night (it turned out it wasn’t the middle of the night, it was actually 10am). It was only when I woke up later that I found I had a message from a dedicated Tesco Customer Service employee called Tony, saying he wanted to discuss my complaint in more detail. More…detail? I was shell-shocked. Dumbfounded, you might say: you hear about people complaining and no response ever coming back. I’d never anticipated that my email would even be read, let alone considered important enough to return a call.
Things didn’t stop there. Once I’d dragged myself out of bed and worked out which was the right end of my toothbrush, I found this automated email in my Inbox:
Thank you for contacting Tesco Customer Service.
One of our team will be in touch with a personal response to your query shortly, however if you have told us that you do not need a response, we will ensure that we take appropriate action on your request.
Tesco Customer Service Team
Tony was real! Here it was:proof that I hadn’t imagined it after all…Tesco really did take complaints seriously, and they wanted to help me with mine. I couldn’t believe my luck. Which was good, because I’d already written my letter of complaint and hopefully soon I’d have somewhere to send it to.
For a while, I forgot all about Tony and his wanting to chat with me about my complaint. I got on with all the usual work stuff. Until, at around mid-day, my phone rang again. Unknown number. I picked it up and it was Tony.
Tony was extravagantly Welsh and made no attempt to disguise it. I liked that. It hit me instantly…I saw visions of people moving out of his way, slightly fearful and admiring of just how Welsh he was. As is usual for me, entering into a conversation with a total stranger, there then came that slightly awkward sparring as we both spoke at the same time. Soon, though, Tony was asking me to explain my complaint in more detail and anxiously awaiting my response. I considered the letter I had written the day before and just how long it was, then I told Tony that I couldn’t talk because I had a sore throat — I really did — and asked him if I could email the letter to him instead. He said Yes. He also said that it wouldn’t be a waste of time. He’d do his best to help me out, and if I could send the tin then that’d be very useful, because he’d be able to use that to track-down the people who made it (I couldn’t, sadly, because I’d chucked it out. Who keeps fish tins? Er, yes..probably someone who complains about fish tins…).
The main thing was, I’d got Tony on my side!
What follows is my complaint, in full. It started out as a serious complaint, but I can never stay serious for very long, so it quickly became something else. And when I said longer letter in my first email, I actually meant 7 pages of letter…
Dear Tesco Customer Service Representative (or Tony, who kindly called me back to discuss my complaint – good work, I definitely didn’t expect that so soon. Actually, let’s be honest: I didn’t expect it at all. No offense, it’s just I didn’t think a complaint about own-brand herring fillets would be exactly top-of-the-list…),
Life, eh? One minute you’re writing about sharks and the strangest sex toys money can buy – I’m a freelance writer, and believe it or not but this is one of the less strange things I’ve had to write about – and the next you’re writing to a Tesco Customer Service Representative to make a complaint. Mental!
Now I’ve had a bit of time, I think I’m ready to really start this email. At first I thought: I suppose I could just launch into a massive angry rant about the nightmare that unfolded this evening as a result of Tesco’s supreme fish-related incompetence [more on the specifics of that soon] but I think I’ve decided against that. I mean…you’ve seen all that before, and really, what would be the point? I’m sure you’ve had enough of them. So instead, I have decided to tell you the story of the event that took place. By doing that, I hope that I’ll take you on a journey into the heart of darkness. I know it sounds dramatic, but if you like fish as much as I do, I’m sure you’ll know what I mean.
My nan always used to say “you only have to touch fish and you stink of it!” and to be honest, she’s right. Fish is always a risky eating-option, and my nan, with her keen sense of smell and understanding of right-and-wrong, has always known that fact. And tins of fish are even worse, aren’t they? The way the lid flicks up and sprays fishy juices everywhere?…I mean, you never hear of people taking a bath for charity in fish-oil or fish-brine, do you? No. Never. Because even saving hundreds or thousands of lives isn’t worth the consequence of doing that. Let’s avoid exactly what that consequence might be and move on instead. I’m not trying to make you feel sick, honest.
The complaint I refer to is made about the incident that took place in my kitchen today, this evening, just a couple of hours ago: September 29th, 2012. A day like any other – actually it wasn’t but I’m on a roll and I can’t be arsed to delete that last sentence. It was not a day like any other, as my pregnant sister Natalie arrived this morning, and we only see her every so often. And it’s OK, don’t worry, I’m not going to try and make you feel guilty about the company you work ruining my evening. In truth, the company you work for only ruined about half of my evening. Usually it’s The One Show or someone calling up to talk about solar panels, so at least it makes a nice change.
Picture the scene: I’m in my kitchen (it’s fairly modern, with a fancy, black, very shiny oven-and-hobs thing that looks like what Michael Knight from old-but-legendary US TV series Knightrider might have had in his kitchen) and in my head my thoughts go I quite fancy herrings! OK, so the exclamation mark probably didn’t happen, but half-exclamation-marks don’t exist, do they? So I can hardly use one of them. (I checked. I’m pretty sure I have my facts straight here.) The point is still the same, though: I was reasonably excited about opening the tin. Not nearly as excited as a hyperactive rollercoaster-loving teenager on his way to Alton Towers, of course – or somewhere else really full of rollercoasters, if you like – but excited all the same. I know this specifically because if I’d just been content then I’d have walked into the kitchen normally, and nobody would have known what was running through my mind. Instead, I walked through the kitchen and passed my dog and my dog, Jojo, gave me a certain kind of glance…I know that glance well, I’ll tell you. It said There’s something a bit different about the way you’re moving. (I was going to make out just then that my dog is clever enough to know when I am excited about eating tinned-fish purely through mind-reading alone, but then I decided against it, as I thought it’d make me look ridiculous.)
Now picture this: it’s a bearded, 31-year-old man arriving at his pantry, and the folding-door is closed (actually it’s his parents’ pantry, as this bearded 31-year-old-man is, sadly, one of the economically-challenged generation and at this juncture in his life it makes sense to save his money for a bit before he totally chucks it all away in a kind of yes-I-have-my-independence-back! kind of a way). Now, as if you’re a really high-quality camera that can move any way it pleases, a bit like that alien-camera-snake thing that appears in that terrible remake of War of the Worlds featuring Tom Cruise of Top Gun fame, you see me open the folding pantry doors and turn slightly to the left. It’s a small pantry, so don’t turn me too much or you’ll make me knock loads of stuff of the shelves, or bang my head.
This is fun, isn’t it? Being an impossibly-intelligent-alien-camera thing? Get used to it, buddy! It’s now that you see my eyes sort of light-up, as I catch sight of something on the shelf. I’ve always thought that that’s an absolutely terrible way to describe someone being excited, but in this case I’m making an exception (I always said I wouldn’t, but then…I said the same about wasting my life away writing a letter of complaint that I was sure would almost certainly never be answered and possibly even read!). Yes, you see my eyes light-up…and as I take the TESCO HERRING FILLETS in Oil off the shelf, something else happens. Use your imagination, if you like. You’ve seen Harry Potter, haven’t you? I haven’t, but I assume there’s loads of magic in it, and stuff. So imagine that. Imagine this is what Dizzy Rascal might describe as a mad-special-moment. Not that I can see Dizzy Rascal ever rapping about TESCO HERRING FILLETS in Oil, but you never know, right? I mean, David Cameron got into government and I once managed to go an entire year without being poo’d-on by a pigeon, so anything can happen. And Mitt Romney somehow ended up with the opportunity to become the next US President, so let’s be honest, it probably will.
How cool, Dizzy Rascal rapping about tinned-fish! Ah…that’s making me feel all optimistic…
But enough of that. I need to get a grip, and hard. Optimism, right now, is my enemy. I’m going to be as nice as I can about making this complaint to you, but I simply can’t be holding back on how unsettling the whole event was. And to be honest, that’d be doing Tesco no favours. Or you, for that matter. If we ever want Tesco to produce tins of TESCO HERRING FILLETS in Oil that people can properly open without needing to sit and write an email that gives them a dead-arse and threatens bum-sores, then we need to work together on this thing. Come on, please, just keep reading, and I’ll do my best to let you go home soon. If you’re still feeling downtrodden, consider this: If you find yourself wanting to throw yourself out of the window, or something equally drastic, just to get away from this email, then just imagine Dizzy Rascal rapping about tinned-fish. Just don’t let Mitt Romney anywhere near that vision…he’d probably try and sell your own day-dream back to you or something, which really would create a long-term, haunting, debilitating nightmare! Like Nike never said, just don’t do it.
Now it’s time to get away from the pantry. At this point in the journey, let’s move on in time by ten-minutes. It’s not important what I got up to in those ten minutes – if you really want to know I was putting some tea-tree cream on the top of my dog’s paw, which she turned her nose up at, as she hates me for doing it because she doesn’t like the taste of the cream and she wants to get at the raw wound beneath it which we’re trying to speed-up healing so we don’t have to take her to the vet, where we will be ripped-off – all you need to know is that I am now at the sink and I’m trying to open my tin of TESCO HERRING FILLETS in Oil (see photo 1, attached).
And you’d really think it’d be easy. As a race we’ve been to the Moon, apparently – I don’t believe that, but to each his/her own – and we’ve managed to make oven chips that are nowhere near as good as chip-shop chips, but they’re acceptable, just about. OK, so pedal-bins never work and the world is in big trouble, but we’ve conquered most of the easy things. What I am trying to say is this: we’ve basically done quite well as a race. We could do better by not ruining the planet, but come on now, let’s give credit where credit’s due and remember things like The Crystal Maze and Toblerone.
Woops. Sorry for mentioning Toblerone…I’m assuming that’s probably not too helpful if you’re a big fan of chocolate and the nearest one is a mile away.
Now, where was I…
Ah, here: I said most of the easy things. One thing Tesco really haven’t conquered is making tins of fish that you can actually open without very nearly seriously hurting yourself. Allow me to explain in detail…
You may have guessed this was coming, but this, sadly, is not the first time I’ve been forced to enter into a surreal and ludicrous duel with a small tin of impenetrable fish (the tin was impenetrable. Once I finally got it open I found the fish perfectly penetrable…please don’t take that sentence out of context and bandy it round the office, thus both nullifying my complaint and making me out to be some kind of fish-based-pervert). I say forced because once I start something, I like to finish it – however high the stakes or easier it would be to just not bother and admit defeat instead. For example, just yesterday my friends and I sat in a pub where there was a crab-apple tree. Looking for something to do and feeling a bit creative, we got the great idea of spending ages trying to crush the small apple with our hands, purely for the hell of it. It was much more fun and worthwhile than it may sound and not at all sad, I assure you. It was also surprisingly addictive – not to mention almost impossible and so frustrating that it soon had all of us angrily trying any way we could to smash the thing open (the only rule was you couldn’t use your nails or stamp on it with your feet). Try it. You’ll find that you can’t allow yourself to be beaten by a miniature apple, I guarantee! Actually don’t try it. It’s ridiculously addictive, and it really makes your hands hurt. To be honest, I can still feel some pain in my left arm, although I like that, as it’s a nice reminder of all my effort.
So the point is, I just wasn’t having this. Being beaten by a tin of fish. As if! There I stood at the sink, desperately pulling and prodding at the ring, which threatened to cut into my finger. In my mind, there was a war of common-sense taking place and I was powerless to stop it. The adult part of me said that this was highly dangerous – I could slip and cut myself wide-open on the tin, and I could even bleed to death, which would, frankly, be embarrassing – but the testosterone-fuelled teenager in me said Balls to this, I’m doing it. If I have to kill myself getting this nasty little bastard open, then that’s exactly what I’ll have to do!
Like always – except when doing adult things which would be a disaster if my teenage-self took over – the teenage part of me won. So on I went, with all my might. Or as much might as I had remaining, which I estimate at by now around 96%. Not one part of me doubted that I could achieve it. Not one part of me told me to turn back and head towards safety.
Until I reached the tinned-fish-wall. When I hit that, I knew about it, I’ll tell you. It happened fast, before I even had time to register the change. One moment I’d never been more sure of myself…the next, I was giving in. Broken. Not accepting defeat gracefully, but fighting it like an old dying man, too weak to put his hands up, too sad to be bothered to press the emergency button around his neck, the only thing standing between him and certain death…
My, that was depressing! Let’s get back on track.
The feeling of sadness and sorrow didn’t last long: soon I had moved onto a new feeling…a hollow pissed-off one of bewilderment and tragedy. Shakespearian tragedy, or maybe Downton Abbey tragedy, but who knows, I don’t, I can’t stand bloody period dramas. And unbelievably, this sensation of impending doom and failure was somehow worse. I thought I’d be better off, now I was in control again, but in fact, the stakes just seemed to be rising. It was the hunger driving me, I knew, and it would not stop.
Fortunately, I believe I’m a man of tactics and strategy. You may not think that to look at my bedroom – or my desk on a Monday morning, agh! – but I am. And so it was that I formed one. Damn you, fish tin, I thought. I am not done yet! To the draw beneath the cutlery I went, where I removed the tin-opening tool and took it to the offending tin of fish. I was going to have the last laugh…not only that, either. I was going to mutilate that tin in the process!
To start with, I thought I was going great-guns, as granddad sometimes says. But this great-guns-confidence was quickly shattered. I soon found myself fighting a continued losing battle (see pictures 2 and 3)…the tool slipping on the surface of the metal…the little metal wheel going round and round while the device went absolutely nowhere. That gruesome fish-juice stuff I mentioned before? It now served as the perfect lubricant to prevent me from maintaining a decent grip.
This was when it hit me again.
For a few seconds I almost did it: contemplated chucking the tin out and just having sardines instead. Then I came to my senses. Balls to that! I thought, before managing to calm myself and consider something new. It’s sad, I’m ashamed to admit it, but I really did think Chris, blue sky thinking, think outside the box.
If I was a less optimistic person, I’d say “kill me now.”
Life is full of twists and turns, isn’t it? Well, such is the case, a new twist came now. This new tactic was a good one. Ohhhhh, it was gooood. Spurred on by the previous evening’s crab-apple overthrowing – we finally managed to crush it to death after all 5 of us had had about three good-goes each, and my goodness was there a celebration to be had – I knew that there was strength in numbers. “Dad,” I called through, into the lounge, and unsurprisingly he didn’t immediately look up as he’s a big antiques-TV-show-dork and one of these awful shows was in full throw on the TV, “I need your help. I’ve got a situation in here.”
He still didn’t look up. There was no time to waste. I entered the lounge and touched him gently on the shoulder, so as not to shock him out of his antique-viewing-trance. “Dad,” I said. “Come and help me with this. I really need to eat!”
Upon hearing this, I witnessed dad’s consciousness first rouse and then shake itself from the things of old and David Dickinson’s terrible tan (actually this man just looked a lot like David – I have no idea who he was). Up he got, asking me what I needed his help for, and so it was that we entered the kitchen.
In that kitchen, on that day, we were two men, and everything else went out the window: two men with a common cause. Two men possessed by justice for fish lovers. This wasn’t just about my situation, oh no: this was about something that presumably many thousands of us had had to deal with and would be tortured by in the future, too. I think you’ll agree that global suffering is not too big a word for it. And my dad doesn’t even really like fish…how about that? This was how important opening that damn tin quickly became to the pair of us. It had to be done, and we would not stop until we achieved it (though to begin with dad wasn’t aware of the seriousness or gravity of the situation. He just thought, rather naively, that we were trying to open a tin of fish).
A single tin of unassuming fish. You’d think that two grown men – one of them a sprightly 31-year-old, the other almost a pensioner, sorry dad but it’s true – could overcome any kind of obstacle a tin of fish might throw at them. Yet with two of us going at it, events unexpectedly took a turn for the worst: as dad held on tight to the left-hand-side (see picture 4), and I struggled once more to turn the wheel thing and force the stubborn device along the edge of the tin, progress was frustratingly slow. It was almost as if some supernatural power – the ghost of a poltergeist who despised fish-lovers, as logic insists – wanted the tin to remain closed. Forever.
Dad and I, mid-total-nightmare
Well, hell to the supernatural force, I thought, although I didn’t say it, as I didn’t want to throw dad’s concentration off, just in case something miraculous might happen and the bloody tin-opener might actually start to work now, it can’t end like this. There must be another way.
For the next few seconds, I considered every possibility under the sun. I thought about somehow tying the tin-lid to dad’s car via a rope, him driving away, tearing it free…I thought about using a chisel and a hammer and just forcing the damn thing open (I decided against that. I knew I’d go at it too hard and the fish would go flying everywhere and our dog, Jojo, would come along right at the time I was about to pick it up and scoff it selfishly). Out of pure and simple desperation, I even thought about somehow using Jojo’s powerful sharp teeth to gnaw through the lid. The vision seemed so simple and easy: Jojo with her mouth wide-open, knowing what had to be done, me crouched down, turning the tin as she expertly executed the manoeuvre, her dog-ish brain – actually she’s a bitch, but bitch-ish just sounds weird – not even thinking for a moment about wanting to devour the fish.
Except as logic and reason – and those TV documentaries about people being arrested for cruelty to dogs – would permit, this last idea wasn’t the best course of action. Also, I’d have to put Jojo into a kind of chemically-induced trance before she’d be docile enough to cooperate. Quickly, then, knowing that the longer this went on, the less chance there was we’d make it – like scaling Everest before the storm comes, I suppose – dad and I got back to the task in-hand. Off we went again, with renewed vigour and intense determination.
This time things were different. Just like watching a crap film sober and then watching that exact same crap film totally hammered – not that I’d know, as I have a medical condition which means I can’t drink alcohol, and no, I am not a recovering alcoholic! – this time, things seemed much better. It was like being in another dimension…one where you can actually open a tin of TESCO HERRING FILLETS in Oil without having to later sit for 3 hours and write an excruciatingly long letter of complaint to a Tesco Customer Service Representative who almost certainly has now stopped reading and, if he or she is still reading, is probably either a) falling asleep or b) so looking forward to home-time that they by now do not give a monkey’s about anything else.
The tin was opening.
The tin was opening.
I repeat: the bloody tin was actually opening!
It felt like leaving virginity behind, or punching a bully in the face! (I never did that, punched a bully, I mean, but I imagined it enough times as a youth that I surely had a reasonable idea of how it must feel.)
Dad and I, we were doing it: he was clutching the tin for dear life and there was me, forcing the tin-opener round, really throwing my weight into it. As the climax happened – the both of us wanting it so badly over, but at the same time, me not quite wanting it over because it had been such a journey – and the fish juice went flying everywhere, the lid finally started to begrudgingly lift away (see pictures 5 & 6). And it was then, with one last wrestle (see picture 7) that the tin gave way and for the first time in half-an-hour, I saw fish without obstruction, or metal. Plain naked herrings, begging to be eaten…
Fish-hell, finally defeated!
After that life quickly returned to a much less surreal way of being. Happy and content with my big plate of fish – I hope you won’t be offended if you’re a fish-lover, but I also opened a tin of sardines and put them on top of the herrings, a tin which was a billion-times more easy to open, I might add (see picture 9) – I seasoned it with salt and pepper, sat down in front of the TV, and finally enjoyed my meal. The really sad part of it is that it was over in less than five-minutes. I felt like I had both honoured my herrings and insulted them by scoffing them like some kind of bearded, fish-obsessed monster.
There, it’s done. I have said it – all I could ever need to say. Or at least all I can bring myself to write tonight without becoming that fish-obsessed monster I just mentioned (the rest of it must stay with me, inside). This letter is almost over. I sense my work is nearly done.
What am I hoping will come out of me sending you this letter? A free supply of herrings in oil that I can actually open for the rest of all time? Maybe, maybe…I won’t lie, the very thought is brutal in its attraction. Or perhaps something else…global fame as the man who finally made herrings easy to eat like the way the man who invented Cat’s Eyes made billions of people crash into each other much less? I can’t say that isn’t one hell of a thought. But really, of this question I’m not entirely sure – this was only meant to be a quick note, yet here I am, having written this gigantic seven-page essay, and still needing to write a little more. I suppose I am hoping you will consider what you think is best, dear Tesco Customer Service Representative, or Tony – after all, surely we have now somehow…bonded? The very least, I suppose, is that you can find it in your heart to take this letter as far up the chain of management as you feel capable of doing without losing your job or becoming the laughing-stock of the entire store. That you’ll take this to someone who can genuinely help to change the ways of the TESCO HERRING FILLETS in Oil tin (see picture 8 for the remains of the tin, which should aid you in your quest). That in the future, because of my actions and your actions too, all our actions, all of us, together, thousands of people of all origins and creeds and colours won’t have to suffer like so many people so surely have.
Thank you for reading my letter of complaint, dear Tesco Customer Service Representative, or Tony. May all go well for you. And remember: I am but a man who loves his fish, and all I seek is the justice we all deserve.
Ps after writing this letter, I emailed Tesco Customer Service to get things moving. I’m pleased to say that the very next day, a nice bloke by the name of Tony – maybe you’re reading this, Tony? – called me very early in the morning to discuss my issue and see if he could help. Actually it wasn’t very early in the morning, it just felt like it, as I felt dreadful with a cold and was still asleep at 10am. Tony listened to my herring woes with interest, and I wish I could have explained more but it was hurting my throat, so I asked him if I could send an email instead (this is it). He said I could reply to the email he had sent me. This was very satisfying – as I explained before, I’d never expected things to move this fast! If you have a Compliments Department, please let me know the address and I’ll send another letter through. I’d be happy to.
Note: you (Tony) asked me if I could send the offending tin back to you, so you could trace the supplier who manufactured it…except the only thing is, I’ve gone and thrown it out, haven’t I? So I can’t, is the thing. Hopefully the photos will give you a clue instead.
More soon, if Tesco can be bothered to get back to me…