Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 25 September 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. I own a house in Cornwall which I rent out. This August it was taken by a couple who had a constantly changing retinue of guests each week they were there, and kept the cook and cleaner working around the clock. At the end of their four-week tenure, and having told me they had had a fantastic time, they moved out. Trouble is, they did not leave even a penny in tips for either the cook or the cleaner. Of course tips on top of wages are not obligatory, but they are the norm and the cleaner is a local woman whom I have only just been lucky enough to find and did not wish to disgruntle at this early stage. The cook, who is a friend of mine, told me that she and the cleaner both feel demoralised by the experience. There was not even a note of thanks for them. They also feel faintly cheated. They cannot believe that of all the people who came to stay not one of them would have left something for them. Personally I can’t help wondering whether tips were left but were somehow stolen. But I do not like to ask in case these tenants did not know the form. They might then be embarrassed at my exposure of their gaucheness — the added complication is that I am now working for them myself, although not in a domestic capacity, and do not wish to lose my job. How can I get to the bottom of this, Mary?

B.M., Dorset

A. Mention to the couple that you have another potential month-long let lined up for next summer but the people concerned live abroad and won’t have time to view the property before then. They want someone who has stayed in the house to give them a verbal telephonic reference. Would they mind doing so? This paves the way for a co-operative friend, posing as a stranger to you, to ring and ask for an inventory of all the physical nuances and ambiences not conveyed in the brochure, finishing off with the innocent query, ‘And how much did you tip the cook and cleaner when you left?’ If they reply, ‘Oh there’s no need to tip on top of paying through the nose’, your friend can express surprise that this age-old tradition has fallen into desuetude in the short space of a couple of weeks. If they reply, ‘We collected up all the money our guests left and gave them four hundred quid each’, you can look into involving the police in your inquiries.

Q. Despite the fact that our mother is obviously his soulmate, my father has done that clichéd old thing of having an affair with his secretary and then marrying her. Her birthday party looms and my brother and I will have to pretend to be civilised and go along to it. What do you suggest is a suitable present for someone you despise?

Names and addresses withheld

A. Why not buy her a Breville Breadmaster breadmaking machine? Bread made in this machine is quite literally irresistible and, if she uses it, your stepmother will be as fat as a fool in no time, perhaps even leaving the way clear for your own mother to make a bid for rapprochement. If she does not use it, it is still a good present in terms of passive aggression since it takes up an enormous amount of space and will engender guilt as it hulks unused on a surface in her kitchen.