I’ve written many letters of complaint in my lifetime. Committing your dissatisfaction to the page is profoundly satisfying; to then send those words to the source of your pain is more effective than any traditional form of therapy. I can only imagine, then, the pleasure and healing experienced by Oliver Beale after writing the following letter to Richard Branson in 2008, shortly after a disappointing 10-hour flight from Mumbai to Heathrow with Virgin Atlantic. For not only did it reach Branson as he sat atop his empire, but it led to Branson calling Oliver personally and apologising for the trauma.
It’s a long letter but it’s worth it. And it has photos. And at the very bottom, beneath the letter, can be found footage of the complaint being read aloud for us at a Letters Live show, by the wonderful Himesh Patel.
Dear Mr Branson
REF: Mumbai to Heathrow, 7th December 2008
I love the Virgin brand, I really do, which is why I continue to use it despite a series of unfortunate incidents over the last few years. This latest incident takes the biscuit. Ironically, by the end of the flight I would have gladly paid over a thousand rupees for a single biscuit following the culinary journey of hell I was subjected to at the hands of your corporation. Look at this Richard. Just look at it:
I imagine the same questions are racing through your brilliant mind as were racing through mine on that fateful day. “What is this?” “Why have I been given it?” “What have I done to deserve this?” And: “Which one is the starter, which one is the dessert?” You don’t get to a position like yours, Richard, with anything less than a generous sprinkling of observational power, so I KNOW you will have spotted the tomato next to the two yellow shafts of sponge on the left. Yes, it’s next to the sponge shaft without the green paste. That’s got to be the clue hasn’t it. No sane person would serve a dessert with a tomato, would they? Well, answer me this, Richard: what sort of animal would serve a dessert with peas in:
I know it looks like a bhaji but it’s in custard, Richard. Custard. It must be the pudding. Well you’ll be fascinated to hear that it wasn’t custard. It was a sour gel with a clear oil on top. Its only redeeming feature was that it managed to be so alien to my palate that it took away the taste of the curry emanating from our miscellaneous central cuboid of beige matter. Perhaps the meal on the left might be the desert after all.
Anyway, this is all irrelevant at the moment. I was raised strictly but neatly by my parents and if they knew I had started dessert before the main course, a sponge shaft would be the least of my worries. So let’s peel back the tin-foil on the main dish and see what’s on offer.
I’ll try and explain how this felt. Imagine being 12 years old, Richard. Now imagine it’s Christmas morning and you’re sat there with your final present to open. It’s a big one, and you know what it is. It’s that Goodmans stereo you picked from the catalogue and wrote to Santa about. Only you open the present and it’s not in there. It’s your hamster, Richard. It’s your hamster in the box and it’s not breathing. That’s how I felt when I peeled back the foil and saw this:
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it’s more of that Bhaji custard. I admit I thought the same too, but no. It’s mustard, Richard. MUSTARD. More mustard than any person could consume in a month. On the left we have a piece of broccoli and some peppers in a brown glue-like oil and on the right the chef had prepared some mashed potato. The potato masher had obviously broken and so it was decided the next best thing would be to pass the potatoes through the digestive tract of a bird. Once regurgitated it was clearly then blended and mixed with a bit of mustard. Everybody likes a bit of mustard, Richard.
By now I was actually starting to feel a little hypoglycaemic. I needed a sugar hit. Luckily there was a small cookie provided. It had caught my eye earlier due to its baffling presentation:
It appears to be in an evidence bag from the scene of a crime. A CRIME AGAINST BLOODY COOKING. Either that or some sort of back-street underground cookie, purchased from a gun-toting maniac high on his own supply of yeast. You certainly wouldn’t want to be caught carrying one of these through customs. Imagine biting into a piece of brass, Richard. That would be softer on the teeth than the specimen above.
I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was relax, but obviously I had to sit with that mess in front of me for half an hour. I swear the sponge shafts moved at one point.
Once cleared, I decided to relax with a bit of your world-famous onboard entertainment. I switched it on:
I apologise for the quality of the photo, but it was incredibly hard to capture Boris Johnson’s face through the flickering white lines running up and down the screen. Perhaps it would be better on another channel:
Is that Ray Liotta? A question I found myself asking over and over throughout the gruelling half-hour I attempted to watch the film like this. After that, I switched off. I’d had enough. I was the hungriest I’d been in my adult life and I had a splitting headache from squinting at a crackling screen.
My only option was to simply stare at the seat in front and wait for either food, or sleep. Neither came for an incredibly long time. But when it did, it surpassed my wildest expectations:
Yes! It’s another crime-scene cookie. Only this time you dunk it in the white stuff.
Richard - What is that white stuff? It looked like it was going to be yoghurt. It finally dawned on me what it was after staring at it. It was a mixture of the Bhaji custard and the Mustard sauce. It reminded me of my first week at university. I had overheard that you could make a drink by mixing vodka and refreshers. I lied to my new friends and told them I’d done it loads of times. When I attempted to make the drink in a big bowl it formed a cheese Richard. A cheese. That cheese looked a lot like your bhaji-mustard.
So that was that, Richard. I didn’t eat a bloody thing. My only question is: How can you live like this? I can’t imagine what dinner round your house is like - it must be like something out of a nature documentary.
As I said at the start, I love your brand, I really do. It’s just a shame such a simple thing could bring it crashing to its knees and begging for sustenance.