Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 12 June 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. I have an etiquette question for you. I came back from Egypt with a stomach bug the other day, was overcome by nausea on my way across Westbourne Grove, and had to choose between vomiting in the gutter or in the litter bin outside Agnes B. I chose the litter bin but have been told that that was wrong/inconsiderate. Can you rule, Mary?

M.W., London W11

A. As the vomiter will be equally humiliated by either course, the point here is to minimise offence to the supporting cast in this mini-drama, so I am sorry to say this means the gutter would have been the better option. It is actually very difficult and unpleasant to try to get sick out of the Kensington and Chelsea bins, as the usual failure to do so attests. It is, by contrast,a lot easier to sluice it down a gutter.

Q. I have taken over editorship of the parish newsletter in our village and have given a column to a neighbour with a keen ear for lively local gossip, much of which she picks up when out walking with her dog and which has been written up to inform and entertain our readers. In the latest issue of the newsletter my columnist mentioned that one of the key houses in the village was for sale. She also gave the asking price (£750,000 for a four-bedroomed house in a Wiltshire village). In my position as editor I have now been upbraided by the owner of said house, who left an outraged message claiming that to mention the price of a house for sale was vulgar beyond description and that my columnist committed a really appalling lapse of taste as well as intruding into her privacy. What do you say, Mary?

M.K., Mildenhall, Wiltshire

A. For people now in their sixties, seventies and eighties, the spelling out of precise sums of money — even when only to do with the price of eggs — will probably always seem unspeakably crude. Those of us in our twenties, thirties, forties and fifties would probably also prefer the occasional mystery, if only to counterbalance the forensic explicitness of most aspects of modern life,but this is not to be recommended. In the wake of the Nick Leeson atrocity, where the values of the gentleman were perverted into an opportunistic tool for exploitation, it is now essential for survival to engage on the same terms as the vulgarians where money is concerned. Therefore your columnist did no wrong, especially as the figure was freely available at the local branch of Dreweatt Neate estate agents, and everyone in the village had rung up to find out the asking price anyway.

Q. The successful social ‘exocet’ — ‘not in the street, thank you’ (The Spectator, 17 April) — reminds me of my grandfather (then a peer) replying to a personal remark made by a yob at some sort of civil disturbance in the 1930s: ‘I don’t think you know who you’re speaking to.’ I have since used this in numerous circumstances with exemplary success.

E.D.G., Lostwithiel

A. Thank you to a valued correspondent for submitting what would indeed be a useful all-purpose remark.