Q. Flowers have arrived, allegedly from my boyfriend — but the bunch includes begonias and gloxinias, foliage tonged into ringlets, sheaths of cellophane and a large acetate ribbon. I am fairly certain the culprit is his new personal assistant. As they are in my country house, he won’t see them, so how can I, without seeming ungrateful or sour, convey the message that he should not trust this important chore again to someone with such poor judgment?
— Name and address withheld
A. Quickly take a snap of the bouquet on your mobile and email it to your boyfriend, along with a blandly affectionate message of thanks. Let the image speak for itself.
Q. How can one find out a woman’s maiden name quickly, without looking like Lady Bracknell? I was recently at a Sunday lunch where a woman about 12 years younger than me stubbornly kept saying just her Christian name. This went on for two hours until, just before the lunch was over, I found out that not only had I known her uncle since I was 18, when we had shared a flat, but had also had two encounters with her grandmother: one was a precarious evening walk on a mountain near the Dalmatian coast, just before the grandmother died. I was able to provide anecdotes about both these close relations of the delightful lunch guest, which she seemed to enjoy. But I feel a great deal of time was wasted — we could have got to grips with these two colourful characters much earlier.
— E.S., Sussex
A. This sort of resistance often indicates the concealing of a family connection to someone of great social interest. Experience has taught the concealer to keep quiet about the relationship, because on hearing the magic surname, others invariably cry, ‘Oh you must be related to X!’ and then talk about X instead of about them. Correct form is to warm up these resentful types with a good 20 minutes chatter about themselves before moving in for the kill and asking baldly, ‘I am sure we have met before. What other names might I have met you under?’ At this stage the truth can no longer be reasonably withheld. Meanwhile the credit you have accrued through the 20-minute preamble will entitle you to move on to Lady Bracknelling.
Q. You recommended panettone as an ideal Wanderpreis (wandering present) due to the pretty boxes. You said that if you still have a box when it nears its sell-by date, it can be turned into bread-and-butter pudding. I regret to inform you that my panettone turned into slime in the oven.
— S. T., Chirton
A. I am sorry you were disappointed. But never feel ashamed about bringing a stale panettone to someone who keeps hens. They are always thrilled.