Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 15 February 2003

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary..

Q. I have a very dear friend who lives in increasingly bohemian circumstances in the country. He and his wife have repeatedly asked us to stay with them on one of our visits to England. The fact of the matter is that their standards of domestic hygiene are not particularly high. Suffice it to say that after using their lavatory a couple of years ago my wife went into something approaching a catatonic trance and was unable to speak for three days. So far we have managed to conjure up sufficient excuses to justify our absence, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that we are deliberately avoiding their hospitality. Mary, what can we do?

Name and address withheld

A. Visitors to England do tend to condemn our general standards of hygiene. However, it is a mistake to be overtly squeamish about these matters since exposure to germs helps to build up resistance, as Professor John Bayley would no doubt testify. It is important that you visit these friends for old time's sake. Simply pack in your luggage a pair of clean pillowcases so as to avoid nestling up to someone else's DNA, and some clingfilm and paper towels with which to improvise Japanese-style lavatory shields. You can guard against food-poisoning by insisting on 'helping' and/or by pretending to have become vegetarian.

Q. I may shortly have to abandon my husband to go and look after my dear old mum. The problem is that he cannot be left by himself for very long either. He isn't an invalid, but a few days on his own exhausts his capacity for self-reliance. He begins to brood, then slumps into abject misery and worse. I wonder if I could put him in some cosy crÅ’che that would suit his mental and emotional age. Can you recommend one? Do you think they'd take a 58-year-old?

E.M., Ceredigion, Wales

A. You have not thought of the most obvious solution. Spare men are at such a premium - even in Wales - that you should have no difficulty in securing a placement for him with friends or neighbours where he can lend a masculine hand to some garden chores, as well as form the focus of a dinner party or two. It will be very good for him to have to pull himself together for the duration of your absence. However, as the saying goes, 'Nothing pinks like propinquity', so take the precaution of billeting him with another married couple.

Q. I was walking peacefully with my girlfriend along Hampstead High Street, longingly gazing at the quality items offered for sale by the establishments in that fine district. I heard a woman shrieking as she passed us, and being hushed by her gentleman accompanier. I realised afterwards that she had been saying something like, 'You should be ashamed! That's disgraceful!' in a loud, strident voice. As my girlfriend was wearing fur, I quickly understood that this woman had been staging an ugly minor protest. I was utterly aghast at this display of intolerance. My girlfriend thought a good retort would have been that the fur was fake. Mary, this kind of assault cannot be allowed to go unpunished. What would be an appropriate measured response?

K.C., Weybridge, Surrey

A. Best to deal with these difficulties through disconcertion tactics. Whirl round and enunciate in anguished tones, 'Look where you're going!' as you stare at an imaginary victim sprawling in their wake. They, too, will whirl round like headless chickens, looking, perhaps, for an old lady whom they have knocked down while distracted by you. Meanwhile you can move on, your social acceptability intact in the eyes of other pedestrians but theirs thrown into question.