Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 23 October 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. As the father of two young daughters, I naturally want their upbringing to be as happy as possible and part of this, I understand, involves toys and dolls. However, my wife and I are forever being given our friends’ plastic cast-offs. We have reached the limit of plastic fruit, crockery, cutlery or Lego. Our little Fulham house increasingly resembles a municipal dump; my wife is constantly tidying up. How can I dissuade our ‘kind’ friends from off-loading their unwanted plastic on to us or buying yet more cheap birthday/Christmas presents that keep the girls occupied only for the time that it takes to rip open the paper? Books, clothes, shoes or donations to school fees, on the other hand, would be genuinely welcomed.

Name withheld, London

A. Your wife can pre-empt any further dumping by telling your friends that your children have developed an allergy to plastic and they now become hyperactive with an inability to concentrate while handling said product. No one will dispute her claim since parents are endlessly gullible about allergies these days. Indeed you are likely to find fellow sufferers coming forward in the wake of her announcement. Your wife should go on to chatter that ‘in some ways it’s a blessed relief because now people are starting to pass on old books and clothes to us instead of toys, which are so welcome, I can’t tell you how grateful we are’. Your friends will get the message. But leave it at that. It would be going too far to ask for contributions towards school fees.

Q. For more than 30 years I have derived much in the way of fresh green vegetables and satisfaction from cultivating an allotment. In the last three or four years, however, two adjacent plots have been taken up by self-important, busybodyish people who quickly got themselves elected to the committee. Now, in all sorts of niggling ways, they are making my life a misery. One has eaten into the path in such a way that passing gardeners have to step on my plot. The other has installed a cold frame that can be accessed only from my side. He also uses part of my plot — though admittedly it has nothing on it — to store his wheelbarrow. He has planted a gooseberry bush exactly on the dividing line, so its branches will intrude a long way. I have no wish, dear Mary, to descend to their level of petty trespass but it’s time I did something to defend my territory. I am unable myself to volunteer for the committee, while to build a fence or plant something with thorns would be a last resort. Please suggest an elegant solution.

J.D., London

A. Start to reassert your boundaries by passive aggression in the form of acting daft. The wheelbarrow should be quietly pushed away by a friend of yours when you are not present. ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I think my friend borrowed it. She wasn’t to know it wasn’t mine. I’ll have a word and see if she can bring it back sometime.’ Meanwhile construct an innocent fragile edifice of stacked pots just at the point where the other man stoops to get to his cold frame so he will bang into them and they will all fall down. You should soon see an end to the nuisance.