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Dear Marks & Spencer,


Today I visited your Exeter High Street store to buy a few pairs of jeans. Due to an on-going relationship with a brand of Czech lager I have a developing girth issue, so needed to try the jeans for size. I entered the men’s changing room where I was met by two gentlemen (also with evident girth issues) and their female companions.


I was somewhat concern by this situation but soldiered on regardless, trying on the jeans and emerging from the cubicle to check fit etc while the women lurked and made disparaging comments to their menfolk on the colour of the cardigans they had chosen to try on.


My concern was nothing compared to the womens’ as I removed the first pair of jeans and tried on the next without closing the cubicle door. As I am accustomed to ‘striding commando’ the shock on their faces was one to behold, especially as one of the women was (I estimate) in her late 90s, and the expression on her face suggested that hadn’t seen a partially tumescent man for some time.


As I was paying for my jeans I raised the matter of women in the men’s changing rooms with the till-based customer assistant who shrugged and explained that M&S didn’t have a policy re (1) Prohibiting women from entering the men’s changing rooms or (2) Warning women that if they enter the men’s changing rooms they might see things that induce feelings of regret. I asked the assistant if the same non-policy applied to men entering the women’s changing rooms. Once again my question was met with a shrug, so in the interests of research I texted my wife and asked her to meet me in the lingerie section.


I’m reluctant to go into any great detail about the events that occurred over the next eight minutes but suffice to say, my presence in the women’s changing room was not meet with pleasure by any of the customers I met there. In fact, within about ninety seconds, a female member of staff appeared and asked me to leave the changing room ‘Immediately, or I’ll have to call security’. I did exactly as I was told and spent the rest of my visit to the store browsing the baked goods section of the food hall.


I care less for equality but am passionate about equity, so can you please explain why women are allowed in the men’s changing rooms of your stores but men are not allowed to offer advice to their partners in the women’s changing rooms? Sometimes choosing between a push-up balconette or lace wired plunge brassiere demands as much input from a companion as choosing between a ribbed funnel neck cardigan and a zip up V-neck.


I look forward to your reply.


Peter Benson.

Dear National Trust,

I know this subject has been raised before, realise my complaint is going to have absolutely no effect on your approach to your visitors, and you’ll reply with a stock email of mind-numbing condescension, but let me plough on regardless.


This last Saturday, I visited Buckland Abbey. A beautiful house filled with wonderful treasures, but the visit was ruined by the intrusive volunteers who haunted every room. As soon as I focused on something, one of these committed lovers of our heritage would stroll over and (a) tell me what I already knew, (b) offer an erroneous fact or (c) interrupt my concentration and/or reverie. For example, the man in the room that housed the Rembrandt told me that the great artist ‘Must have been a very vain man because he created over forty self-portraits.’ Did he not know that Rembrandt’s self-portraits evidence the complete opposite, and were an autobiographical exercise executed without a shred of vanity? Besides which, if you include the etchings and drawings (one of which is in my own collection) he actually created almost one hundred self-portraits.


This sort of nonsense continued throughout the house – I stepped into the chapel and was told to look at a letter from a Pope. Why, when it’s obvious I’m studying the altar piece and don’t want to be distracted? I took a turn around the great hall and a woman told me the floor tiles are probably Dutch. Probably? Does this mean that they might be from Topps Tiles? In the kitchen, my close examination of the window tracery was interrupted by another woman who wanted to tell me that the oven was French and originally fired by charcoal.


As I said, I know this letter will have no effect on your intrusive approach to your visitors or the infantilization of your signage (‘Why don’t you try and guess how old this door knob is?’) but writing it has made me feel so much better.

I look forward to my next visit to a National Trust property, and given your volunteers’ enthusiasm for all things old and venerable I’m sure they’ll appreciate some Anglo-Saxon. So I’ll just tell them to f*ck off and leave me alone.


Yours, etc,


Peter Benson.


PS If you begin your reply with the words ‘We’re sorry to hear about the ignorance of our volunteers at Buckland Abbey, and will be removing them from their posts immediately…” I promise to donate £5,000,000 to the National Trust. If you doubt the veracity of my offer, I’ll be pleased to provide you with audited details of my charitable portfolio.

Dear Royal Albert Memorial Museum,


As grandfather to nineteen boisterous and energetic kids, I’m more than aware of the importance of giving youngsters the opportunity to explore their heritage, and as a museum, the RAMM makes an important contribution to this laudable ambition. However, after a visit last week, where study and contemplation of the displays was interrupted by sugar-fuelled children who propelled themselves on ‘wheelie’ shoes while their obese parents yelled ‘Tyler, stop kicking Kayleigh and look at the polar bear…’ (please substitute names of your choosing, and don’t assume that all the parents were obese or discriminating against any of the other stuffed animals you have on display) I’m inclined to consider the RAMM as less a museum, more an indoor playground. 


Now I’m sure you’ll conclude that I’m a crusty old cove with a subscription to the Daily Mail and a penchant for spending my Sundays buffing the bonnet of a carefully garaged Ford Fiesta - however, let me disabuse you of this notion. I abhor the Daily Mail and everything it stands for, I was busted twice in the 1980s for possession of ‘grass’ (known these days as ‘blow’, I believe) and I once saw Jeremy Corbyn in a whole food shop in Norwich. I am married to a Huguenot, have lived in fourteen different countries, have met two Queens and one Pope, speak enough French to irritate a Parisian waiter and believe Olivier Messiaen to be the most important composer of the 20th century - I tell you all this because I like to think that I’m a tolerant sort of chap with an adventurous and engaged approach to life.


So, with all this in mind, can I make a suggestion? Why not offer punters the occasional opportunity to peruse your displays in a peaceful, child-free atmosphere? I'm aware you have a patronage scheme that offers its members a number of exclusive benefits, and maybe one of these is after-hours access (your literature doesn’t make this entirely clear), but I’d be prepared to wager my collection of Sèvres (my pair of hand painted cache pots with bronze doré mounts are particularly admired) that if you offered evening visits to the museum for a nominal entrance fee of, say, £10, you’d have contemplatives queuing round the block.


I know I’m whistling in the wind, and the idea of discriminating against children is anathema, but I wanted to register my thought. Indeed, now I've expressed myself in this way, maybe you’d like to change your strap to ‘Home to a million and one thoughts’.


I remain, pompously, etc.


Peter Benson.

Dear Twinings,


I recently replenished my stock of Twinings lemon and ginger tea bags, and was gratified to see that the product features a 'new and improved pack'. It's a shame that this improvement doesn’t stretch to the tea bag itself which - I was horrified to discover - contains appreciably less lemon and ginger than the previous bag.


As I’m sure you already know, this means that I now have to use two bags to gain the desired strength of infusion, which is - I assume - the reason behind your decision to reduce the size of the bags. Compel your customers to buy twice as many tea bags and spend the profits on new yachts and infinity swimming pools. I know your game.


However, you failed to factor in the fact that Tesco sell a lemon and ginger tea bag that not only contains more lemon and ginger than your old bag, but also features a higher percentage (38% to your 37%) of ginger.


I realise this is going to have them quaking in their white disposable overshoes, but please advise your product development boffins that unless Twinings bags return to their previous plumpness and pronto, I will be slumming it with Tesco's own brand of bag. As an extremely refined consumer of lemon and ginger in all its forms, this is somewhat galling, but if questioned I simply tell my sophisticated friends that the person they thought they saw in Tesco wasn't me but my doppelgänger, a chap known locally as Herr Ludwig Grumpenchops.


I remain, etc.


Peter Benson.

Dear Hotel du Vin,


Yesterday evening, 24 May 2016, I booked a table for two at the Bistro, Hotel du Vin, Exeter. I chose to eat here because I used to enjoy dinner in the restaurant when this establishment was known as The Magdalen Chapter, and wished to entertain my Italian publisher (visiting Exeter for a conference at the university) in some style. I have never (apart from a truly horrific experience in Halifax in 2011) had a more embarrassing dining experience.


I arrived at your establishment at 19:30, asked for a table, was told that ‘we’re extremely busy this evening…’ so requested (and was offered) a table for two at 20:00 (in the name of Peter Benson). We spent one and a half hours in your ‘bistro’ and in that time it was never more than a quarter full. Doubt me and I challenge you to consult your records and count the occupied covers.


My publisher and I were quick to choose our food and drinks order, and although there were at least five waiters on duty, and I spent five minutes trying to catch their eyes, it was ten before we were approached by anyone willing to take an order. We ordered a bottle of Primitivo and a jug of tap water, and before we had a chance to order our food, the waiter was gone for another five minutes.


On her return and after a sincere struggle with the Primitivo’s cork, she took our food order from the Prix Fixe. We both wanted the Provençal Fish Soup, but were told this was off the menu. As you may or may not know (I assume not) it is usual practice to tell the customer what is off the menu before they order. You do not wait for them to order and then tell them it’s off. Except, my publisher said, at the Hotel du Vin, Exeter! Oh how we laughed! We both ordered something else.


While we waited for the food to be ‘delivered’ (I hesitate to use the word ‘served’) I watched members of the theatrical kitchen prepare the food ordered by the other unfortunates who happened to be in your establishment that night. I have to say it was a disgrace. Chefs wiping their noses on the backs of their hands before arranging fries in artful stainless steel buckets, underlings chatting loudly to their colleagues about the ‘bastard on lunch’, kitchen porters scratching their armpits prior to going to do some washing up. And all in front of paying customers? You couldn’t make it up but you don’t have to, because it’s a reality at The Hotel du Vin, Exeter.


But it doesn’t stop there. After a passable meal (I’ve had better at a Travelodge) my publisher and I decided to enjoy a brandy to finish our meal, but were told that all but one of the extensive range of cognacs, Armagnacs and calvados (described by our waiter as ‘wines’) on the menu was unavailable. Why offer drinks that are unavailable? And why not tell us before we order (see above). And please don’t tell me you didn’t have it in stock. There’s a Waitrose ten minutes away - buy a bottle, mark it up 250% and do business.


In conclusion, your staff were untrained, unprofessional and unkempt. There appeared to be no pride in a job well done. Shirts untucked, surly attitudes, dirty aprons and in an unforgivable incident that will stay with me until the day I die, unhygienic. One particularly moist male waiter, having dripped sweat onto a table, wiped it off with the napkin he happened to be carrying, and slouched back to the kitchen like the proverbial lamb towards Bethlehem.


I should also say that my publisher pointed out that throughout the evening, senior management were present. Tier one was a suited gentleman with a small moustache. Tier two was a young woman in a hound’s-tooth mini skirt. They were in the library when we arrived, took a tour of the facilities and then disappeared. Tier three was a suited women with bobbed blonde hair who spent some time around the till. When she was told by our tier four server that I wanted the £6:09 service charge removed from our bill, she turned pale and absented herself from the dining room.


You may ask why I didn’t complain in person last night – as I have already indicated, I was with my publisher and keen to close an important deal so didn’t want to embarrass him, or cause anything that could be construed as a ‘scene’. I was, however, sorely tempted.


I look forward to your response.


With all the best,


Peter Benson.

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