Mary Killen

Your problems solved | 28 February 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. I have three bolshie children and at this time of year I like to start writing dates in the diary for the summer holidays, since I know that without a carefully pre-arranged schedule the children will start making inconvenient arrangements of their own. However, my problem is that for the last two years we have rented a house in Cornwall with another family. They have made no mention this year of repeating the experience and, although we like them very much, neither have we, for fear of being pushy and turning the thing into an inextricable annual arrangement.

I am now paralysed, not knowing whether to wait for them to suggest it or go ahead with

independent arrangements. What shall I do?

Name and address withheld

A. You should make independent plans this summer, then ring your friends to make the cheerful announcement that you were panicked into making a booking but, next year, if they felt like joining you, would they let you know in February so you can all join up again together in 2005? Once the threat of permanent fixture has been removed, you will find your two families can once again respond to each other in a spontaneous manner.

Q. Propriety requires me to maintain a civilised front when dealing with my

mother-in-law. This is achievable when the two of us are in the company of others, but occasionally I have to telephone her to pass on some information from my husband, and her caustic tongue can leave me shaky for a whole day. How can I avoid these telephone encounters, Mary, and make sure she is always out so I can just leave a message on her answering service and bypass the

conversation? Postcards would just be impractical and too obvious a sign that I was frightened of her.

A.T-P., London W8

A. You can trick your mother-in-law and do her out of these chances to humiliate you by the following method. Ring her number from your mobile, putting 141 first so as to disguise your identity. Leave the mobile next to a television. While she is bellowing ‘Hello?’ into the receiver, ring her quickly from a landline and get straight through to the answering service.

Q. Mary, you always have the answer to everything. My beautiful and lovable sister is not married. She would make anyone the most charming wife. As she is an heiress with a recognisable name, I don’t think a dating agency is the right thing for her. What do you suggest? She is 49.

Name withheld, London SW3

A. For her age group, the bereaved and divorced are always a better bet than the never-married and it is now a spinsters’

market at the ‘top end’, as you may have noted from the obituary columns. If your sister keeps her eyes peeled she may be well positioned to win the heart of one of these top-of-the-range vintage old boys that are coming up. Were

I free myself I would certainly be writing to offer my services as housekeeper to at least two of the glamorous ‘knights in shining armour’ now in need of companionship.