Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 11 January 2003

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Q. Friends of mine have parents who moved to this neck of the woods three years ago. The parents bought a property with a tiny garden and consequently very much wanted to find an allotment. An elderly lady living in a stately home nearby was dividing up her walled kitchen garden and gave them a plot within this. The allotment has been a great success but my friends' parents are now faced with a dilemma. The elderly lady is moving to a dower house and would like the couple to leave their existing allotment and start another one in her new garden. Meanwhile, the son and daughter-in-law who have moved into the big house are also very keen on the couple and want them to stay on in the walled garden. On the one hand, as any gardener will understand, the couple have an emotional attachment to the existing allotment. On the other, they also feel a loyalty towards the elderly lady. More to the point, they secretly fear that as the years roll on 'presenteeism' may result in their doing more caring than gardening. What should they do, Mary?

Name and address withheld

A. A secret snobbery can be detected over the matter of whether the allotment is attached to a stately home or a dower house. Equally, there is a worry about performing small acts of kindness in the future which might bear the faint whiff of domestic service. Were the couple not English, these problems would not arise. Snobbery is the reason why English students lose out on the opportunities offered by the magnificent charity Homeshare. Homeshare finds young able-bodied people to live free of charge in the central London houses of elderly people in exchange for only ten hours help per week, but has to fill the often sumptuous dwellings with travellers and students from Slovakia, South Africa, Australia and the like. The English are too chippy to benefit from anything that smacks of servitude. It would be correct for the couple to move with the old lady. She clearly needs them more and was the first to bestow generosity upon them. The random nature of their attendance in the garden would preclude her developing a dependence but, in any case, why should they resist the joys of being valued and needed? Interested readers should contact Homeshare on 020 7376 4558 or browse the website

Q. With reference to your 'Celebrity Problem' from Michael Ancram regarding Mr Straw's spinelessness over Zimbabwe, might I suggest that the dispossessed farmers have missed an opportunity? What is to stop them from organising a squatting rota to bivouac the Straw house in Peckham and give the Foreign Secretary a dose of his own medicine? Such a sit-in would provide days of amusement for the tabloids, and cause such inconvenience and intrusion to the Straw household that the Foreign Secretary would soon be jolted out of his paralysing moral confusion.

Name and address withheld

A. Thank you for this suggestion.

Q. I have a VAT inspection looming in my own home. Despite my best efforts, I am not sure my books are in order. How should I best ingratiate myself with the inspector?

S.W., London W11

A. Why not take a tip from one VAT inspection veteran of my acquaintance who tells me he always shows the inspector into an overheated room and immediately unwraps a couple of packets of lusciously moist Marks & Spencer prawn sandwiches. 'You must be starving,' he announces as he puts them under the inspector's nose. All too soon the inspector's hand will be drawn to the sandwiches which, being starch, protein and dairy-product combined, serve as a stupefacient. Before long the heat of the room and the effect of the sandwiches will have reduced the inspector's mental clarity and caused him to long for nothing more than a daytime nap. Hence he will soon be on his way.