Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 19 June 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary

Q. Can you tell me who all these people are who wear black eye-patches and look like pirates? One only has to look through the social pages of H&Q or Tatler and no party snapshot seems complete without some old boy or gal with an eye-patch. You never see these people at humbler gatherings, so are people of Social Class One especially prone to eye deformities? Are these due to polo or shooting injuries? I’m a doctor and I know you’re from a medical family, Mary, so can you enlighten me?

C.T., Southsea, Hampshire

A. Although their eye-patches may make them more visible, so to speak, than other ranks with eye injuries, grandees are not especially prone to them. The difference is that, having sustained an eye injury, a grandee may have the confidence to turn the defect into a feature. The socially experienced have observed that a small physical impairment can work in one’s favour since both fellow alphas and potential romantic partners perceive a lesser threat from one, and the results can be enjoyable. Courage is also still highly regarded on grandee circuits. Of course, eye injuries are never a source of mirth. Patches are generally itchy and uncomfortable, and can trigger watering in the non-patched eye. Meanwhile, I am surprised you spotted any members of ‘Social Class One’ in Harpers & Queen. The only minority group which can still be persecuted without repercussion has been cleansed from their pages. This, as the editor recently announced, is to make way for people such as Jenny Halpern and Stella McCartney, who have gained prominence through their own efforts rather than heredity.

Q. We have a number of friends who, on any social contact, including telephone calls, will turn the conversation as quickly as possible to the subject of children and then deliver a monologue updating super Willie’s (or Nellie’s) CV, how he/she is top of the school in this, captain of that, angst-ridden over which Oxbridge college to go to, etcetera. We, on the other hand, are working our way through the usual teenage problems of dyslexia, eating disorders, unhappiness over changing school, etcetera, and our reaction to these self-congratulatory speeches is an uncomfortable mixture of nausea and acute boredom. Mary, is there some way to continue to see these people but suppress the topic of Willie (or Nellie) and get them to talk about more interesting subjects, or are our reactions unworthy?

Name and address withheld

A. Discipline your friends in the following tactful manner. Next time you meet, on being asked how you are, reply that you are really well largely because your own super Willie (or Nellie) has just made a piece of toast without burning it, or whatever. Immediately clap your hand over your mouth, crying, ‘Oh gosh, excuse me! I know that boasting about your children is the most nauseating thing you can do. I’ll shut up now.’

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