Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 11 September 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Q. Some time ago I introduced a friend of mine to a very distinguished journalist. Their friendship has clearly blossomed, because in a recent article the journalist glowingly described him as ‘the Essex historian and thinker’. My friend, for all his qualities, is a Toad of Toad Hall-like figure, both physically and mentally. The only recognisable part of the description is the word ‘Essex’; his only claim to being an historian is his ability to recite endless tedious lists of events and dates (focusing on those which show the French in a bad light), while his ‘thinking’ is confined to planning his next (gargantuan) lunch/dinner/cocktail or arranging his shooting calendar.

Unfortunately my friend has become even more insufferable than usual, preening himself like some overgrown peacock and truly believing that he is now regarded as some sort of literary (rather than merely physical) heavyweight. Mary, how can we bring him back to earth and get it across to him that the description was almost certainly intended to be heavily sarcastic?

Name and address withheld

A. I am not abreast of the full permutations of your relationship but on first appraisal it seems rather mean-spirited of you not to allow your friend a brief moment of glory — particularly if, as you say, he is in reality a Toad of Toad Hall-like figure. But assuming he really does need to have the wind taken out of his sails, one good way of curing intellectual arrogance is to invite people to attend one of the currently fashionable general knowledge quizzes — such as those held by the admirable charity Rapt (Rehabilitation of Addicted Prisoners Trust) with questions set by the ingenious Judith Keppel. Invite your friend to be team captain and see how he fares in front of a table of up to nine others staring expectantly at him as the questions are posed.

Q. I must be getting old! I have become increasingly annoyed and irritable this year when attending and also hosting dinner parties. The problem is how one should deal with an occasional fly or wasp hovering over the table. A casual flip or flick of the fingers results, invariably, in the insect flying in panic in my direction. What does etiquette demand in such circumstances?

B.K., Cavendish, Suffolk

A. Your instinct rightly tells you that there is an etiquette issue at play where insects are concerned, since one’s reaction to them is a clear indication of rank. The more you flap and flail, the less blue your blood. Unless you are actually allergic and likely to need an intravenous antidote if stung, the correct form is to ignore the tedious insect in a disdainful manner. You could, however, resort to the discreet method of retaining your composure by quietly tipping some sugar into a glass of water and placing it at a distance from your own seat. The wasps will be magnetically drawn to this death zone. Meanwhile, by wearing sunglasses and ensuring there are no wasps on the actual forkful you are loading into your mouth, you should have little to fear.