Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 4 September 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. Last week I arrived to stay with some English friends near St Remy and was shown to a most delightful and certainly ‘best’ spare bedroom — with glorious views over the Camargue and beyond. You can imagine my astonishment when, on climbing into my luxurious bed later that night and folding the essential but always romantic mosquito net around the bed, a pair of extra-large men’s boxer shorts dropped on top of me. (I, incidentally, am a single woman and was travelling alone.) The pants had clearly been left behind by the guest immediately before me and had got muddled up in the mosquito net. My dilemma is twofold. I know the owner of the underpants to be a flamboyant picture dealer who has offices near mine in Jermyn Street. He and his wife are a madly social and well-connected couple and I have been keen to get to know them better. Would my discreetly returning the underpants (which have now been washed and pressed by my own housekeeper) either to him or to his wife be the best approach — perhaps followed by an invitation to them both to dine with me?

N.J.B., London SW1

A. If your aim is to become better friends with the couple in question then it would be a mistake to return the underpants discreetly. You would need to make a flamboyant gesture in order to register on the consciousnesses of this oversubscribed couple to have any hope of social access to them. May I suggest you make a primary overture by requesting the dealer to allow you to enter the underpants as an item for sale in a forthcoming auction? The Tusk evening at Christie’s on Monday 20 September, for example, would be ideal, as other objects of curiosity from the art world will also be for sale on that night to benefit this elephant charity, and the cult status of the pants’ owner would ensure heavy bidding. You can protract the negotiations by asking the provenance of the underpants, and indeed the precise weight of their owner. He may need to go to Victoria Station to be weighed on the baggage scales if he is over 20 stone, the standard limit of normal scales, and you can accompany him there so that full details can be supplied on the night. Your exposure to the couple over these interchanges will give you a good chance to bond with them.

Q. I am a freelance journalist. What is the most suitable message to leave on one’s telephone answering machine? I am always torn between allowing the anonymous tones of the 1571 operator to speak for me, or leaving my own personalised message. Which annoys busy people the least?

A.O., Sittingbourne, Kent

A. People are very tense these days and I recommend that those with business to do put their telephones on to call-divert to their mobiles if they are going out. In that way one can reduce the frustration experienced by those who find they have to telephone sometimes as many as three numbers before reaching their desired contact. The extra cost is minimal and, since you are a freelance journalist, I assume people ringing you will need you urgently.