Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 26 October 2002

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. My social life and my job depend to a degree on my contacts with the aristocracy. During a recent visit to a stately home, I had an unfortunate reaction to alcohol and rich food. The result, without going into too many details, was that I had no alternative but to take my bed linen with me when I left. I have not yet corresponded with my hostess. How can I explain the absence of the bed linen? Clearly it would be inadvisable to tell the truth. Although my hostess is/was fond of me, I doubt our relationship could survive it.

E.H., London W8

A. You should spare your hostess the full details. Go to Peter Jones or John Lewis and buy replacement bed linen as similar as possible in quality and size to the desecrated linen. Post this to your hostess with a letter thanking her in the normal way, then going on to explain that you are replacing the bed linen you damaged through stupidly smoking in your bedroom while the worse for wear. You took the precaution of removing it on your departure to ensure you could achieve as good a match as possible.

Q. A close friend and I are about to embark on a business project that has the potential to make both of us a huge amount of money. My problem is that there are issues of intellectual copyright involved, and it is vital that the ideas should be discussed with no one. My colleague has assured me that he will keep the details secret from his wife, who is a blabbermouth. He denies that he has told her anything. I suspect, however, that the opposite may be the case. I know that they are very close. Is there any way in which I could test the waters to see how much, if anything, she already knows?

D.K., London SW7

A. You could trick your friend into an admission of guilt (if he is guilty) by inviting the couple to a dinner or lunch party along with some others. At an opportune moment, when he is off his guard, murmur to your friend, 'You've let me down. You've told your wife. I know.' Since you will have staged it so that he will be unable to make faces or whisper at his wife - who will be only a few feet away - without your witnessing it, your friend will either draw himself up to his full height and reply, 'You couldn't know anything of the sort. I haven't told her.' Or his eyes will dart frantically to and from her as he splutters, 'How on earth did you find out?'

Q. A dear friend is flying out to join me for a couple of weeks at my home in Los Angeles. How can I gently tip her off that she may need to pay some cosmetic attention to her chin, out of which various hairs were bristling when I last came to England? It may be all right in your cold climate, but it will not stand up to the close scrutiny of the sunlight as we sit around the pool?

J.M., Los Angeles, United States

A. On her first morning, playfully tweak your friend's chin as you set off for the pool. (Ensure that your thumb is black with fountain-pen ink as you do so.) Then, when you are settled at the pool (just the two of you), you can cry, 'Oh silly me! Look what I have done to your chin. Here, wipe it off.' At this point you can pass her a cosmetic bag containing tissues, tweezers and a giant magnifying mirror with which she will be able to view the full horror. In this way you cannot give offence.

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