Mary Killen

Your problems solved | 4 October 2003

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. For my husband and me the racing world has always been a source of Elysian happiness and this weekend we are taking our children to Newmarket races. There a problem looms. Our trainer enjoys heroic status in our household and our children have reached the age where they are beginning to participate in adult conversation. Although we do not allow our own standards to slip, we are worried they may be confused by our apparent acceptance of our trainer’s barrack-room vernacular. How can we explain this to the children?

S.T., Chirton, Wiltshire

A. Prepare them for this cultural anomaly by screening a couple of documentaries from the Discovery channel of the sort which show, for example, that wooden lip-plates are considered attractive in some tribal societies, while in others mooning is seen as a compliment. You can then draw parallels with the racing world which, you can quite accurately inform them, is itself a self-contained tribal society where Tourette’s syndrome-style talk is the accepted form of dialogue. Be sure you impress on them that, just as our beloved Queen is not expected to moon in response to the compliment offered her by tribal displays abroad, neither will they be expected or allowed to converse in obscenities themselves while at Newmarket.

Q. I find your grandee’s suggestion in last week’s column that it is not on to address your mother-in-law by her Christian name surprising. What is appropriate? We live next door to my consort’s mother; people often refer to her as ‘your mother-in-law’. Should I correct them and say, ‘No, my common-law mother-in-law’?

M. H., Gloucestershire

A. It would be worse if they referred to ‘your partner’s mum’, but the reason why there is no satisfactory term is that your own liaison is in itself unsatisfactory. It is all very well describing your boyfriend as a ‘consort’, but I have made discreet inquiries in Gloucestershire and understand that there is no reason why the two of you should not formalise your successful union and thereby put paid to any further nuisances of this sort. After such a lengthy period of intimacy, your failure to do so is unsettling to friends and well-wishers.

Q. A member of my family has been kind enough to suggest that I have the loan of his house in Ireland for a week next summer. The house sleeps 18 comfortably. Naturally, I want to make the most of this great good fortune and book my best friends in as soon as possible. At the same time, I do not want them to feel pressured or trapped by an invitation issued so far in advance. What would you consider to be a reasonable amount of notice to give people, Mary?

Name and address withheld

A. The norm for a wedding is six weeks, but for a house-party, where people will need to be available for a week or part of a week, you need to give them more notice. However, people do feel a sense of threat when asked to commit themselves a long time in advance. The solution is to issue the invitations now but tell your friends that unless they know they definitely won’t be able to come, they are under no pressure to accept until six weeks before kick-off.