Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 5 July 2003

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. I have been giving a summer drinks party in my London garden each year for the past 20 years. It has become something of a fixture on the social calendar and I am loth to give it up, but now a ruthlessly frank friend has suggested that this year I move the party inside the house. She points out that none of us is getting any younger, and that the brightness of the early evening light is not flattering. She says that she is not alone in finding it painful to contemplate a garden full of contemporaries, many of whom were stunners in their prime, 'all advanced a little further in their deterioration since the year before'. The lighting inside the house would be more flattering, but the house is cramped and the garden is my pride and joy. What do you suggest, Mary?

Name withheld, London W11

A. Everyone enjoys a masked ball, partly because they are liberated from their own personas for a few hours, but not least because their facial defects are screened from view. So instead of your usual 'At Home' invitation, issue one proclaiming 'Masked Summer Drinks', noting on the hem of the card, 'No dressing-up necessary. Face masks will be provided.' Pick up the relevant number of cheap cardboard masks from the children's department of Peter Jones. You will find your guests more than happy to assume the disguises offered as they file through the door, even if it means that they have to sip their drinks through straws and a hole punched in the lips of the masks. There is no need to have a different 'face' for each guest. May I suggest simple cat and dog masks – cats for the women and dogs for the men? The confusion will only add to the rip-roaring success that the party is bound to be.

Q. I will shortly be hosting a small house-party in Ireland. My guests inhabit very different worlds, and there will be representatives from the musical, literary and racing fraternities. I fear there will be very little common ground, and conversation may be sticky.

G.W., Thorpe-le-Soken

A. Why not help your guests to relax by pouring wine from a great height into their glasses? The ensuing tinkling noise will be familiar to everyone present, and they will soon be guffawing uninhibitedly. You will need to practise the skill during the week before your house-party to ensure that no 'fine wines' are wasted through spillage, but the manual dexterity you achieve will elicit warm applause. Having broken the ice in this way, more sophisticated topics can be introduced in due course.

Q. I've a terrible feeling that Brian Sewell isn't as posh as he pretends to be. Could you advise me on how I should behave if I meet him?

P.W., St George's Square, London SW1

A. Brian is actually lower-upper-middle-class, but his exhilarating vocal style is no reflection whatsoever of social pretension, merely of his connoisseurship and fastidious intellect. But what an easy mistake to make!