Q. The other night I attended an enjoyable lecture on the Mitford sisters at the British Institute in Florence, the former townhouse of Harold and William Acton, who were lifelong friends of the sisters. The library where the lecture was delivered was packed to the rafters. My enjoyment was spoiled, however, by the ordinary, conversation-level chatter which was taking place between two ladies in front of me, one on each side of the aisle — and they were not even talking about the Mitfords! I am shortly to give a lecture myself, on a similar theme, and would find myself quite undermined were such an intercourse to start up while I was talking. Mary, how do you suggest I tackle such interruptions if they happen to me on my own lecture tour?
A. Arrange for a helper to introduce you to your audiences and to announce, while waving a mobile microphone, that you will be delighted to take questions at the end of your talk. In this way, should there be any disruption, your helper can swiftly demonise the culprits by acting daft and rushing forward with the microphone as though he assumes they wish to pose a question. This will shut them up smartly and décourager les autres.
Q. New neighbours in the house opposite are extremely friendly and take in parcels and let in workmen for us. However, this week they have rigged up huge flashing Christmas decorations and lights in their front garden and in every window. The worst offender is a giant flashing Santa Claus directly in line with our bedroom which is preventing us from going to sleep. We do not want to seem un-neighbourly or to be lacking in Christmas spirit, but we are desperate.
R.H., Tooting, London
A. Go across just after dusk and stand on their doorstep, your body language, palms upwards etc, conveying huge personal disappointment. ‘It’s such a shame,’ you can announce self-pityingly. ‘We absolutely adore the lights but we sent our bedroom curtains to the cleaners this morning and I’ve just seen that the stopgap ones are letting all the flashing through so we won’t be able to sleep later.’ Then remain silent. Your neighbour will say, ‘Well, what time do you go to bed? We’ll turn them off then.’ It is important they do not suspect you have been nursing a grudge and have built up resentment against them, as this would make them defensive.
Q. The other day I met in the street a man I had known in his prime but had not seen for 12 or so years since he was snapped up by a glamorous woman 30 years his junior and had gone to live abroad with her. I knew they had had a baby together. My old friend was still as dazzling and exquisite and charismatic as ever, if slightly crumpled, and we stopped to talk. He was with a boy of about 12. The boy was very fat, pasty-faced, sweaty, sickly-looking as well as ugly and surly. He introduced him as his son. I know my face registered incredulity and, of course, it is too late now but I wonder how I could have quickly undone this spontaneous response to spare the man’s feelings.
Name and address withheld
A. Whenever an introduction triggers a visible negative response be prepared to immediately counter it by saying, ‘Forgive my shock but you look absolutely identical to my first cousin!’ In this way you can transmute an insult into a compliment.