Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 15 May 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. My son attends a school where all the parents, apart from his own, appear to be either Yummy Mummies or Superdads as well as multimillionaires. Since most of these mothers don’t work, they are all very competitive with each other, and the key competition of the year is coming up in the last week of term, the PTA-arranged tennis tournament. I dread the thought of being ritually humiliated both on and off the court. When confronted by the PTA member who will shortly be standing outside my son’s classroom asking me to put my name down for singles or doubles, how can I decline without seeming antisocial or unsportswomanlike?

Name withheld, London W11

A. Do not cringe in anticipation. Instead surge potently towards the PTA member to praise her for getting involved, adding that you know what a nightmare it is trying to round people up to participate in something because you yourself are hosting a fund-raising lunch on the very same day. There is no need to lie — the glorious thing about the summer ahead is that everyone can duck out of things they don’t want to do by arranging to host lunches or dinners for the charity WaterAid on the same day as the event they are trying to avoid. In a campaign spearheaded by House & Garden editor Sue Crewe, people are asked to give normal parties or picnics in their own houses or gardens, invite their friends — whether three or 33 — and simply ask them to pay whatever they think appropriate. The takings then go to WaterAid, which can translate £15 of English money into a lasting supply of safe water and sanitation for one person. People always enjoy parties more if they can feel virtuous about attending them, and WaterAid ,which won UK Charity of the Year Award 2003, is clearly a worthwhile recipient. Details on how to organise a party for WaterAid from 0207 793 4531 or

Q. There may be another way for your correspondent (1 May) to get back at the affluent Notting Hill banker with the perpetual builders. It would require the co-operation of the builders themselves, but this should be possible with £20 notes or whatever else it might take. After their allegiance is assured, your correspondent should buy a powerful radio, operable by remote control, set it at a station of choice and arrange for it to be built deep within the fabric of the house. Your correspondent can then enjoy annoying the offending neighbours by remotely activating the radio at any time he likes, turning the volume way up, then right off again. Of course the downside of this is that after the neighbours have finally identified where the bloody thing is they will have to have the builders back to get it out.

P.S., Eliot

A. Thank you for this stimulating idea.

Q. I am keen on rare vegetable one-upmanship. What seeds should I be planting now?

M.P., London W6

A. Scorzonera will be peaking in fashionability by this time next year and is ready to plant now. Usually the roots are harvested as a winter crop; however, if left to flower the following spring the tightly folded buds can be picked and steamed before being fried lightly in butter, whereupon the flowers will open to decorative effect.