Q. About to depart abroad for a year, I had some friends in for farewell drinks. As they were leaving, I invited them to help themselves from the box destined for Oxfam in the hall. One picked out an ashtray and said, 'I gave you this.' And she had. Mary, how could I have responded at this mortifying moment?
A. You could have chuckled loudly. 'Ha ha ha! You fell for that one, didn't you? I put it there deliberately to tease you.' By using this classic fall-back excuse you would have spared your friend's feelings, if you had wanted to spare them. Some readers may prefer the approach taken by Nancy Mitford towards unwanted presents. As related by her sister Diana Mosley in A Life of Contrasts, one Christmas Day, as the Mitfords opened presents in the drawing-room at Asthall Manor, Nancy unwrapped a present from Diana which the latter admitted in her memoir was not quite up to scratch. 'To my enormous admiration she put it straight on the fire,' recalled Lady Mosley.
Q. I, Ms Female, have been happily married for a year to Mr Male. We went to live in New Zealand. I have a career and we chose to keep our own names. My in-laws live in Australia and are old-fashioned to the extent that all communications are addressed to Mr and Mrs Male. No amount of reason or coercing has changed this one jot. Now there is a baby on the way and presents are arriving from Australia addressed to 'Baby Male', and I feel I am losing my identity as the child too might lose his. What is the best way to deal with this archaic, bullying yet generous behaviour?
A. It is all too clear that you live in New Zealand. This sort of antique thinking has largely been discontinued in England where oestrogenisation of the water supply has rendered it irrelevant for women to fight off male oppressors since there are none. It would seem from your letter that New Zealand has not yet been similarly affected. Please enjoy being oppressed and having your identity undermined while you still can. The resentment you nurse is probably giving you more of an identity than you might have when the 'bullying' ceases.
Q. Deeply enjoyable and uplifting as the Countryside March was, we obviously hope that we shall not see its like again. However, if there should ever be another historic procession of this nature, may I pass on the following tip to readers? Having completed the march and registered your presence at, for example, Whitehall, you should then retrace your steps, walking against the flow of the crowd. In this way you will be able to catch glimpses of, and greet, many, many more friends and acquaintances than can be possible when walking straight ahead in one phalanx where you could be largely ignorant of the friends marching only yards behind.
A. Thank you for this tip.
Q. What was the protocol vis-