Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 17 January 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. As the author of a number of bestselling books, I am naturally thankful for this success, but one consequence is a deluge of requests to sit on committees, judge awards, champion the voiceless, network for the jobless, and so on. It sounds curmudgeonly and pompous, but the truth is that I now have barely a moment to call my own. How can I therefore refuse the sweetly written request of my ten-year-old godson to come to his school and give a talk on the subject of my latest book? Travelling to and from the school to give the hour-long talk would effectively take up a whole day. I also have four more godchildren who might get wind of the favour bestowed and submit a similar request. What should I do, Mary?

Name and address withheld

A. Write to the dear little chap insisting that it would be many times more interesting and exciting for the class were they to visit you. Invite them to tea at your home, where you can illustrate your talk with all your interesting source material. Suggest that his form mistress contact you directly to arrange a date. You will find that litigation-guard admin difficulties mean the visit is unlikely to come off. If it does, then it is no trouble to serve an oven-load of buttered buns and hand-bought cakes to 30 hungry ten-year-olds while holding forth on the subject of yourself. Indeed it would probably be deeply enjoyable to do so in your own home, and teatime means 90 minutes max.

Q. I was strictly brought up not to talk about money under any circumstances, but the inexorable rise in house prices and the competitive reductions in the costs of package holidays have combined to make money an ‘OK topic’ in the circles in which I largely move, i.e., senior citizens. By contrast, I note that health matters are now competing as subjects for discussion, and I sometimes wonder to what extent talk of operations, either awaited or completed, the results of CT, MR and US scans, is appropriate at dinner parties.

Name and address withheld

A. It is perfectly all right to mention that one has had a surgical procedure, or is about to have one, but the line should be drawn there, with no further discussion of the details of the operation or the organs involved. It would be an own goal to seek reassurance from your social circle wherein you may well still retain a certain glamour and mystery. Better to seek it from strangers at online websites dedicated to the relevant conditions.

Q. What is the current protocol regarding filling up with petrol at the ‘estate pump’? Now that times are tight, does one offer to pay one’s host, or simply give a hefty tip to the man?

P.G., London SW3

A. In the old days, partly because it cleared the cars away from the front of the house, your car was taken away, washed and filled with petrol, so the matter of cost simply was not raised. Now that most estates have had to give up their pumps because of EC regulations about the tank having to be dug into the ground at unreasonably deep levels, the attendants having to undergo lengthy health and safety courses, et cetera, the dilemma is no longer likely to come up.