Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 9 October 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. My problem concerns the wording of an invitation. My husband will be 50 years old in January and we are giving a party for about 300 people. Without wishing to seem ungrateful, he actually is the man who has everything, and he dreads being given hundreds of new things he doesn’t want, to say nothing of having to write hundreds of thank-you letters for them. Yet we both think there is something a bit killjoy about having ‘No Presents’ on an invitation. What is the most tactful wording, Mary? Or should I let people bring the presents and just divide them between our staff later?

Name withheld, Stockbridge, Hampshire

A. Logical though it may seem to discourage waste, there is still something depressing about seeing the words ‘No Presents’ on a party invitation. They strike the wrong note. Parties are supposed to be about celebration and gaiety, not about complacency and jaded palates. It would also be tactless to dump a present mountain on your staff, thus emphasising your income differentials.

Instead, accept the presents gratefully. Open them and make a note of who has given what for thanking purposes, edit out those inappropriate for redistribution, then quietly deliver the lot to a worthwhile charity with a forthcoming fund-raising ball where they will make a delightful addition to the evening in the form of an upmarket lucky dip at £20 a go.
This anonymous donation will give your husband a far greater rush of happiness than any well-intentioned waste-avoidance gesture which could be easily misread as triumphalist boasting of fat-cat status.

Q. As a single woman who has had a busy love life, I find it humiliating in a way when, at parties, I meet old boyfriends, now married, who ask me whether I am in a relationship. The answer is currently no, to which their response is usually a patronising moue of pity. I would much rather not be asked this question and I think it so unfair that people who are married shouldn’t have to account for their sex life. What should I say, Mary?

Name withheld, London W8

A. You could make the innocent reply, ‘Why do you ask? Are you still sleeping with your wife?’

Q. We are putting some fireplaces into our 1960s-built house, which is a huge undertaking. We cannot afford not to get it right first time. Do you have any tips?

K.F.G., York

A. Apart from ensuring that Golden Section proportion rules are in place and getting ideas from Chesney’s website, why not install some club fenders? These come in a variety of designs, add extra seating to sitting rooms and are invaluable as cosiness promotion schemes, especially as the winter days are drawing in.

If you have a problem, write to Dear Mary, c/o The Spectator, 56 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LL.