Q. A new flatmate at university is very likeable but I get the feeling that she only half listens to what I have to say. When we are chatting at the kitchen table, for example, she interrupts me, often mid-story, to tell a story of her own. This will invariably be very entertaining but it still feels a bit insulting that she did not bother listening to the end of what I was saying. How can I tactfully cure her of this habit without making her feel that I am jealous of her being wittier or having more interesting names to drop than I do?
Name withheld, Leeds
A. If you were jealous you would allow her to continue with this bad habit. Nobody wants to feel that what they have to say is not worth listening to, just because somebody amusing is present to take the stage. It would be only a kindness to retrain her. So, when she interrupts, simply hold up your hand like a traffic policeman and, smiling benevolently, say, ‘Remind me in a minute to finish what I was telling you,’ but insist she continue with her own story. When it is finished, affect to struggle to remember what you were going to say. ‘Oh dear, it was so interesting and important. What was it?’ Ask her to try to help you think what it was you might have been about to say. She will soon learn that her habit of interruption can lead to her undergoing consequent tedium and you will see an end to the nuisance.
Q. I have been invited to dine at High Table in Cambridge mid-week, following a reception being held for an artist friend. Obviously high heels are out, but I am wondering what sort of dress code to adhere to, given that the artist himself has rarely been seen out of a denim jacket? As a somewhat junior, non-academic acolyte and friend, should I dress ‘up’ or ‘down’? Should I look innocuous or buttoned up? Expensive/individual, smart or shabby-chic, formal — or what?
A. Life is only too full of opportunities to dress down or to dress in boho/shabby-chic style so why not ring the changes and dress up in formal and grown-up, even faintly pompous, mode? Not only will this give you the pleasure of posturing within another persona for an evening — a holiday from yourself, as it were. It will also, by making his ‘set’ seem less predictable, boost your artist friend’s cachet.
Q. When going to stay in houses where the hosts ‘have everything’, one can be stumped when trying to think of something to bring as a present. I know that in the past you have mentioned bringing sheets of first-class stamps, Mary, but some houses have their own estate offices and franking machines. Do you have any other suggestions?
H.B., Chagford, Exeter
A. People who give large house parties are usually plagued by the problem of being asked to post on favourite coats and boots to absent-minded guests who have left such items behind. You would do well to present your hosts with helpful packaging solutions in anticipation of this chore. Strong two-ply reinforced paper potato sacks are available in multiples of ten for £8.45 from the Organic Gardening Catalogue. Turn up with a bootful of these and your hosts will be thrilled.
If you have a problem write to Dear Mary, c/o The Spectator, 22 Old Queen Street, London SW1H 9HP.