Mary Killen

Your problems solved | 20 March 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Q. My wife and I recently attended a wedding after which we sat down to a formal dinner. It was all going very well until the best man’s speech. This particular chap — a barrister, who should have known better — proceeded to bore for England with an utterly tedious and humourless waffle that lasted for three quarters of an hour. As guests, we were all too embarrassed to do anything except sit tight and inwardly groan. But by the time the fool had finished, he had pretty well ruined the evening. I am puzzled as to what anyone could have done to get him to shut up. And who should take action — the host or hostess, or a guest? As it happens, we have a daughter who is getting married later this year, and I am determined that she will not have her day undermined in this way. What do you suggest, Mary?

A.H., London W8

A. Best men make these overlong speeches either out of passive aggression, because they are subconsciously jealous of their best friend’s good fortune, or out of crass insensitivity and because they have had one too many. In anticipation of the very real possibility of an overlong speech deflating the euphoria of such an event, I usually recommend that the bride’s mother ensures that the extension lead from the microphone passes beneath her table. In this way she is poised to act at a moment’s notice and can, even pedally, cut the speaker off mid-flow. Everyone will assume there has been an electrical fault.

The same situation can happen at literary prize-giving ceremonies, where many organisers have been frustrated by overlong dronings from the recipients. For these events I always recommend that the organisers buy in a Tony Blair full latex head-mask. This means that at a pre-arranged signal a lounge-suit-wearing guest can don the mask and suddenly manifest as a ‘Tony Blairogram’. Lolloping up to the stage in Tony’s new George Bush ‘cowboy walk’, he can seize the microphone as though it is all part of a prearranged joke and say, ‘Look, let’s wait till we see the findings of the report’ while ‘plain-clothes special branch officers’ in the form of two other guests ‘gag’ the speaker and take him away. If one tall person leads the laughter, the rest of the guests will assume the whole thing is a joke and go along with it, laughing wholeheartedly, mainly out of relief that their ordeal has ended.

Q. Despite my son attending a leading British public school, he still contrives to speak with a dreadful ‘Estuary English’ accent. Is there a reputable elocutionist that you can recommend in the London area, or do you have another solution? In despair,

R.C., address withheld

A. Fortunately Estuary English has peaked, so you should soon see an end to the nuisance. Media moguls are realising that the various patois, from Brummie to Geordie to Estuary, which have come to dominate the broadcast airwaves are unhelpful to our immigrant population. The inconsistent and ungrammatical output has had a Tower of Babel effect, serving to exclude newcomers who wish to learn English. Yobspeak having now made its point, it will shortly be replaced by old-fashioned BBC English as the new PC language of inclusion. You will find your son following suit.