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Serial complainers lack the self-awareness to eat humble pie when caught out

There’s a big difference between unreasonable gripes and genuine complaints.

Meet Linda and Tony Gilkes. They’re modern day heroes. Modern day heroes fighting for the rights of all those who desperately want to eat a meat pie before 9am. They battled against the massed Mordor-like forces of... Morrisons in Berwick Hills, Middlesbrough. And they triumphed! Now you, too, can eat a pie there before 9am. What a feel good human story... 

And that’s what the Middlesbrough Gazette thought when it jumped on the Gilkes’ complaints for a story headlined “Fury after Morrisons wouldn't sell couple meat pies before 9am”. 

Only in the world of local newspapers do minor gripes from folks like Linda and Tony rise to the level of “fury”. If those journalists were less inclined to hyperbole they might go with “Grumpy oldsters in meat pie gripe explosion”. 

Does it matter, though? After all, the Gilkes have got their pies and, in doing so, won a historic victory against some poor baker who was just trying to make pies at a time when most people actually want them, and the Gazette has been gifted with a viral success, a story that includes the Gilkes accusing Morrisons of “having [its] own agenda”. But, yes, it does matter — as you could probably have predicted since you’re reading a New Statesman opinion piece about it — because the Gilkes are serial complainers, people for whom no inconvenience can go unchallenged. 

A man who goes by the name of Paddy Sisyphus on Twitter pulled together an entertaining run through the Gilkes’ history of pettifogging complaints and it’s pretty eye opening. Sisyphus previously ran a blog called The Nether Regions, which he describes as dedicated to “[celebrating] the way local newspapers have to resort to reporting on tedious local happenings which are strangely entertaining, often funny, and kind of charming.”

But, as he concludes, the Gilkes’ tale is none of those things, “it’s just crap.”  

Because, as Sisyphus flagged up, if you take a trip further down the Google results related to Linda and Tony, you’ll find a Northern Echo article about the housing association in whose property the couple lives taking legal action against them back in 2004 to curb their tidal wave of complaints: 

“Campaigning residents Tony and Linda Gilkes have had the tables turned on them after years of complaining about anti-social behaviour.”

The couple have lodged a catalogue of complaints against neighbours on the Thorntree estate in Middlesbrough, but are now the subject of counter-criticism. 

Later this month, Erimus Housing is going to Teesside County Court to seek an injunction against the Gilkes, after receiving a 70-name petition from residents. The injunction seeks to prevent them from causing nuisance or annoyance to residents or their visitors, and to stop them making “malicious” complaints against Erimus tenants to the housing association or police.” 

It’s worth saying that Mr and Mrs Gilkes are quoted in the piece as being utterly baffled by the petition and the injunction, but they do admit “they had contacted Erimus and Cleveland Police on a number of occasions after claiming they were subject to anti-social behaviour, vandalism and threats.” 

The thing about serial complainers is that they are often totally unaware of their own faults. They are so heatedly focused on the failings of others that self-awareness is kicked right to the back of their priorities. For others, complaining is a business. Vanessa Gilby, feted here by The Sun, claims to rake in £400 a month in freebies from targeted and repeated moaning. 

TUI Travel, the holiday giant, runs a black list of persistent complainers to deal with the likes of the Gilkes and Gilby. If someone who consistently complains for what appears to be spurious or ginned up reasons tries to book holidays or flights with any of the group’s brands they rate simply told that it will be “unable to meet their expectations”.

There is a vast difference between consumer advocates like Martin Lewis, The Money Saving Expert, who encourage their readers and viewers to complain effectively and stop big businesses from getting away with poor or even negligent service and the serial complainers. Those who actively generate complaints or find fault where there really is none are effectively ripping the rest of us off. The cost of those frivolous complaints doesn’t come out of company profits, after all. It just gets slapped on the bills we pay. 

So what makes a good complaint? The Rs: 

1.  Reasonable grounds to complain — something you should have expected wasn’t supplied or didn’t happen 

2.  Reasonable requests for redress — you were due a free burger and didn’t get one? Don’t ask for a 5 course meal in recompense 

3.  Rational approach to blame — realise that you are the bad guy if you get a low paid worker in trouble for something they really had no control over. 

And yes, before you say it, I realise this is just one big complaint about serial complainers.  

Mic Wright is a freelance journalist and CEO and partner at The Means Agency.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.