Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 18 January 2003

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. Can you suggest an original birthday present for a novice gardener who is not yet very experienced?

S.B., Aldeburgh, Suffolk

A. Yes, you can buy 1,000 worms for £35 from the Green Gardener at Rendlesham. Curiously, you can freeze worms, then bring them back to life - rather like those little magic fish available from toy shops. Your friend can thump the worms out of their container and down a pipe leading to the centre of her compost heap, where they will go about their business and render the heap a desirable consistency in half the time it would normally take.

Q. My husband and I will be entertaining a member of the royal family to dinner in the near future, and wish him to meet a female friend of ours, as we know that he will appreciate her sense of humour. Thinking ahead, however, we calculate that by the time everyone has been introduced there will be little time for the two in question to get to the point where they might start to have a laugh before we have to sit down. We have not yet sent out invitations, but can predict that we will be unable to seat our friend next to the Prince at dinner. Although she is an 'Hon.', she is bound to be outranked, and precedence will dictate that she be miles away from him at table. We know that he has to leave quite quickly after dinner. How can we get around this, Mary?

A.E., Wiltshire

A. You can confound the expectations of your titled friends by rethinking your guest list to ensure that all the other women present hail from ranks below that of 'Hon.', e.g., dental hygienists and mobile pet-groomers. In this way you can conform to protocol and still bring off the result you desire by seating the amusing 'Hon.' on the Prince's right.

Q. An American friend from the Deep South has a maddening habit on the telephone. At the end of the call she drawls, 'Well, ah'll let you go now.' She thinks she is being polite and gracious, but she sounds patronising, condescending and unbearably irritating. I would like to throttle her every time she says it. She is a very nice person. How can I let her know that this is not the right phrase? I thought of saying, 'Oh, thank you, thank you, Your Majesty. How kind of you to release me,' but I'm not sure that she would get the irony.

Name and address withheld

A. Why are you over-reacting to this perfectly pleasant expression? It is in fact your friend who is being ironic by using this expression, frequently heard at the end of telephone calls in Ireland, when it is used to denote regret that the pleasure of the call must come to an end as the two callers must be responsible and get on with their lives. May I suggest that you are jealous of this person, who is probably more successful and busier than you? If you are looking for friends with whom you can gas for longer, why not use a chatline or join your local Women's Institute?

If you have a problem, please write to Dear Mary, c/o 56 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LL.