Mary Killen

Dear Mary | 30 June 2016

Plus: the ‘toilet’ problem again; sustaining a splinter at the house of friends

Text settings

Q. The setting was dinner for 16 at one of Europe’s most civilised houses. Sitting on the right of the guest of honour (sixty-something) was a blonde beauty (twenty-something) who stared into social media on her iPhone for the entire first course. The crime was compounded by the light from the iPhone focusing on her grinning face. The conversation was obviously disrupted as she was totally ignoring her neighbour. Believe me, Mary, this girl was brought up to know better. The issue was that our host had turned to his right so couldn’t see what was happening. I felt I should have intervened but could not see how to do so discreetly. I was too far away to signal to the girl. What should I have done?

—Name and address withheld

A. You should have simply brought out your own mobile and texted her to say ‘Put your phone away. You are being rude to the guest of honour.’

Q. How can I tactfully nudge my journalist daughter (who just happens to share the name Mary with you)? For PC reasons she insists on using the word ‘toilet’ in her articles. Mary was brought up to have a rather more conventional vision of ‘Venus at her toilet’. When talking to local worthies, my mother-in-law, Lady Mary, would break into her own version of Northumbrian, to the recipient’s intense embarrassment. How can I get across to my Mary that this clearly hereditary affectation appears patronising rather than unifying or edifying?

—Name withheld, Chillingham, Northumberland

A. You are muddling two different things. To the younger generation, dislike of the word ‘toilet’ is anachronistic and divisive. It is only sensible to use it in commercial premises and schools, but since the usage in print cannot come naturally to your well-meaning Mary, she would do best to substitute it. She needn’t write ‘loo’. ‘Conveniences’ is perfectly acceptable to all ranks, particularly because of its ironic overtones. The chameleon-like assumption of different accents for different places is, on the other hand, rightly regarded with suspicion.

Q. Following dinner in a mansion block in Chelsea, I decided to walk down the stairs rather than take the lift. As I did so I got a bad splinter in my left hand from the bannister, which required considerable outlay on plasters and antiseptic. I am loath to tell my host and hostess what occurred. But would it be irresponsible not to?

—Name and address withheld

A. You may not wish to wrongfoot your hosts at a time when you should be thanking them but you should have telephoned to alert them to the risk while not mentioning your own injury.