Mary Killen Mary Killen

Dear Mary: How to talk to friends whose book you haven’t read

Take a tip from John Betjeman. Plus: foraging etiquette

Q. What is the correct thing to say to a writer friend whose book you haven’t read? I buy most friends’ books out of loyalty but there have been so many in the last few months that I can’t think when I will have the time, if ever, to read them. So what feedback can I tactfully give?
— Name and address withheld

A. You might take a tip from Sir John Betjeman. Derwent May has given me permission to repeat his own account of taking Caroline Blackwood to lunch and finding John Betjeman in the restaurant. Kind Betjeman sprang instantly to his feet to announce, ‘I’ve just ordered several copies of that book!’

Says Derwent May: ‘It was a brilliant utterance, it carried a heavy load of charming flattery to Caroline while committing himself to nothing.’

Q. A week ago I asked a woman I don’t know very well to dinner as I want to return her hospitality. I put a note through her door as she lives near me, then emailed her. She emailed back saying how lovely and she would look at her diary. But I have heard nothing. I emailed her again, again no response. The thing is, I am in a small flat and my table only seats ten. I have at least ten women friends I could invite instead of her. How should I proceed? Do I ignore her and ask someone else? (I only give a dinner in my flat once or twice a year.)
— E.S., London W11

A. Your objective was to return this woman’s hospitality and she knows you are trying to.

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