Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 21 August 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Q. I would welcome your advice. I called a friend on her mobile telephone to ask her for some information and, although she was driving, she answered the call. A vigilant police officer noticed that she was breaking the law and pulled her over to reprimand her and issue a £30 fine. She called me later to complain that I was the cause of her humiliation and implied that I should offer to pay her fine. I asked her why she had answered the call while she was driving, but this did not seem to cut any ice with her. How do I make peace?

Name and address withheld

A. There are two explanations for your friend’s illogical behaviour. The first, she has a low intelligence quotient. The second, she is nursing a secret grudge against you over another matter. Money is often used as an excuse to pick a quarrel. Go and see your friend and look her squarely in the eye. Then say, in kindly tones, ‘I will pay your fine, but will you promise, in return, to sit down and think and then tell me what all this is really about?’

Q. We were invited by the son of an old friend to celebrate his 50th birthday at a party at his house. It was a ‘landmark’ birthday, so we took a bottle of very old and very expensive brandy as our gift. Although we didn’t know many people there, we had a very pleasant time and left after a couple of hours or so. We see him only once or twice a year and our problem is we haven’t received any acknowledgement of our gift.

Our questions are: (a) did he actually receive the bottle? (It was a very big party!) (b) was it ‘mislaid’? (c) is he just forgetful? We can’t possibly inquire and we don’t see him often enough to make a casual inquiry. We don’t want to risk our friendship (or that of his parents) by asking a wrong (and crass!) question. Can you help?

Name and address withheld

A. Ring up your friend, thank him once again for his party and then say chattily that you want his honest opinion on something. The brandy you gave him came highly recommended and you have been happily making a practice of giving it when the occasion demanded a decent present and were thinking of buying in a supply for this purpose. However, the last person to whom you gave a bottle reported back that, in his opinion, it was really nothing special. Has he opened it yet? You would love to know what he thought because, of course, for obvious reasons you have never tasted it yourself.

Q. To KS of Sydney (anxious to find a systematic way of rereading the heaps of Spectator clippings he or she puts aside as too good to bin), your advice (14 August) that your correspondent paste one clipping to the lavatory wall every day, read it on the loo, and paste another over it for the next visit, was contrived with your characteristic delicacy. A more robust application of the same strategy was described to me by a friend who travelled India with War and Peace and dysentery, and ran out of lavatory paper. Determined never to lose a page before reading it, he found (he said) that the stomach was a wonderful spur to progress through this important classic.

Matthew Parris, Derbyshire

A. Thank you for your learned contribution.