Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 18 December 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Once again Mary has invited some of her favourite members of the prominentii to submit queries for her consideration.

From Toby Young

Q. I am a theatre critic currently appearing in a one-man show in the West End. Not surprisingly, several of my colleagues have been less than generous about my performance. One in particular, a man I’ve always had a very congenial relationship with, was absolutely vicious, saying he hoped I’d leave the country. When I resume my duties as a critic, I’ll inevitably bump into this man two or three times a week and I’m not sure how to behave. Should I just pretend I didn’t read his review and greet him in the normal manner? Or should I abandon all attempts to maintain friendly relations?
A. When you resume your duties, break the ice instantly by rushing across to say ‘I’m so sorry you got all that stick over my play.’ Put your hand up to brook no interruptions as you continue: ‘I mean, I said to people, “He was just trying to show he’s non-partisan and he went slightly over the top. So what?”’ Shaking your head solemnly from side to side add, ‘I said, “No way does this discredit his judgment in general just because this one thing backfired....”’ Then slap him reassuringly on the back with the pay-off: ‘Don’t worry. I’ve always stood up for you and I always will.’

From Kirstie Allsopp

Q. As a television presenter I need to spend a fortune on clothes so as to constantly ring the changes. I am also the eldest of four and my siblings have gleaned the erroneous impression that all telly presenters are given clothes free by designers anxious to publicise their wares. Since I am going home for Christmas I want to ensure that my wardrobe remains intact. How can I prevent my siblings from using it as a lucky dip?
A. May I suggest you contact Mr Peter Hutchinson from Xtra-Sense, who supplies the art world with security surveillance systems? For as little as £150 a device can be fitted which detects changes in weight — usually in objects on plinths, but it would work equally well with a wardrobe — and triggers a noisy alarm. With his help you can loll back and relax over Christmas, secure in the knowledge that should your siblings attempt to leave the premises with some of your prized possessions, they can be swiftly apprehended.(Xtra-Sense, 01404 43366)

From Griff Rhys Jones

Q. Is there a correct system of hierarchical address between celebrities, people who might not have met but do still ‘know’ one another from the television? In the street it is not a problem — once I passed Sir Richard Attenborough and the acknowledgement was very casually done. He was with his people and I was with my people and we just ran up a couple of flags and fired a couple of guns, like two ships passing. By contrast, when walking through a club such as the Groucho, you feel an obligation to make some form of acknowledgement of the other celebrities, whether because of their status or because they are a colleague in the same business. The acknowledgement can’t be formal, like it can with Society. It has to have the right level of matiness and informality and also has to be sensitive to the hierarchies of celebrity — film stars look down on television stars, televisions stars look down on journalists, and so on. The conventional Groucho greeting ‘All right?’ invariably leads one into a platitudinous trap. What do you suggest, Mary?
A. ‘Good to see you’ is a suitable all-serving remark to utter as you wade through the treacle of a club like the Groucho. It is seemingly anodyne — with pleasing innuendo implied should the recipient be the worse for wear. More to the point it will allow you to pay your respects without interrupting your purposeful progress.

From Bay Garnett

Q. Friends and acquaintances who know how much vintage clothing I have often ask if they can borrow something. My problem is that because people know I have acquired most of it for tiny amounts of money in thrift shops and so on, they assume I will not mind if they do not return it. How can I put them straight and explain that these things are part of a collection without introducing an unfriendly nagging element?
A. Hand the item over pleasantly and ask the borrower to write on the back of a plain postcard their name and the date they will return it by. Then take a polaroid of the borrowed item and pin it, along with the postcard, on to a giant corkboard centrally positioned in your living quarters. As you do so say jokily, ‘I call this my naming and shaming board but don’t worry about it. You come straight off as soon as you return the borrowed garment.’

From John Humphrys

Q. In my line of work I often have to talk to politicians. Some of them are very unpleasant to me and it can be most hurtful. I am a rather timid person who dislikes confrontation. How should one deal with this?
A. Please explain these problems to your local GP who, although the waiting lists may be long, can probably get you on to an assertiveness training course.