Dear Mary: How do I choose who to sponsor for the London Marathon?

Q. For the past couple of years, many of my sons’ friends have been gamely running the London Marathon for good causes. I received more than 15 emails this year, all asking for sponsorship. As much as I’d like to respond in the affirmative, I am not in a financial position to sponsor more than two at the most. They all know each other, so how do I go about choosing which ones to sponsor? – R.B., London SW9 A. Send out a group email saying that, as you aren’t able to give generously to each one of them, you will put all their names into a hat and the

Dear Mary: why don’t my guests thank my husband for hosting too? 

Q. When people come to stay for house parties, my husband – who already works a 60-hour week – does a lot of the unseen chores. He’s in charge of fires, drinks, seating plans, arranging outings, and he pays for everything. We are in our sixties and I know it is traditional etiquette to write and thank the ‘lady of the house’, but my husband really feels rather miffed that no one ever mentions him in their thank-you letters. How should I most tactfully encourage people to address their thank-you letters to both of us, rather than just to me, without seeming bossy? – G.M., West Sussex A. It may

Freddy Gray, Kate Andrews & Lloyd Evans

20 min listen

This week Freddy Gray takes a trip to Planet Biden and imagines what would happen if little green men invaded earth and found a big orange one back in the White House (01:15), Kate Andrews finds herself appalled by the so-called ‘advice’ routinely handed out to women that can be at best, judgemental, and at its worst, slightly bullying (12:51), and Lloyd Evans spills the beans on searching for love on his recent blind date, courtesy of the Guardian (07:13). Produced and presented by Linden Kemkaran

In praise of minding your own business

Athens With energy bordering on the demonic, I strut around an ancient stadium trying to make up for the debauchery of the past two weeks in Patmos. Alexandra has flown back to Gstaad and I’m staying with my oldest friend, Aliki Goulandris, whose magnificent country house north of the capital brings back very pleasant memories. Just saying her name, which is Alice in English, makes me think of my youth and my two tiny children who both grew up in this house. It was the golden age: Davis Cup, karate championships, polo in Paris, sailing the Nefertiti and Bushido, Lolly and JT and Alexandra swimming in the pool, and parties

Dear Mary: what is the perfect response to an awkward discussion?

Q. I recently joined our gardener during his tea break and asked: ‘What news? He replied: ‘We went to see Dad in his coffin yesterday – he looked very smart in his suit. It is amazing what they can do these days.’ I was quite unable to think of a suitable response – and still cannot. Any thoughts, Mary? — R.H., Cheltenham A. One good all-purpose response in these situations is to nod and murmur: ‘So they say… So they say…’ Q. I am a moderately successful journalist and sometimes friends ask me to help their children enter the trade. The problem is: after initial contact, usually by text or

Dear Mary: Should I tell my boss I swiped his champagne?

Q. I have got myself in a pickle. My boss was given a bottle of Louis Roederer Cristal by a client. It came in a very smart presentation box. I thought it would be funny to open it and replace the champagne with a bottle of fizzy water. My boss duly took it home and I waited several days, expecting him to come in one morning laughing and saying: ‘Where is it?’ Alas, silence. So in passing I nudged him with a grin on my face and said: ‘How was the champagne?’ He then told me he had fallen out with a childhood friend and they had not spoken since

Dear Mary: How do I stop fans asking me for selfies?

Q. My wife and I live in a grace-and-favour house with beautiful gardens, of which our landlord is justly proud. He employs a full-time gardener to tend the grounds around the big house and also around our cottage. The gardener has recently developed a habit of using petrol-powered tools, such as strimmers and lawn mowers, at increasingly antisocial hours, including a recent 6.50 a.m. chainsaw attack on some dead trees. We do not pay for his services, which include not only looking after our little garden but also keeping us stocked with firewood and clearing a tennis court for our use, so we are reluctant to appear ungrateful. How can

Dear Mary: What’s the cure for writer’s block?

Q. Do you have a solution for writer’s block, Mary? A friend is the best company in the world, but I haven’t been able to speak to her for months. I know she reads her emails but they bounce back with the generic reply that she cannot respond until she has completed an urgent piece of writing work. I suspect she is blocked because this piece of writing is important to her on an emotional level but she is also the authority on the subject and only 5,000 words are required. — W.M., London W3 A. In writing it is often much easier to correct something bad than to begin

Dear Mary: What’s the etiquette of bumping into someone in a doctor’s waiting room?

Q. I own a flat and have rented two rooms out to friends from university. Now they have fallen in love. This means the three of us are often in the kitchen at the same time or watching television together at close quarters. They never stop kissing and cuddling and declaring their love – in front of me. Of course I am happy for them but even if I had my own boyfriend, I would consider PDAs TMI. How can I get them to stop without coming across as bitter?  – Name and address withheld A. This phase will probably not last long but you are right – Public Displays

Dear Mary: How do I get my host to open the wine I brought?

Q. I have a friend who is a serious gardener. I myself am reasonably keen but not in her league. Last year she gave me some rare plants. Unfortunately I didn’t plant them very carefully and they ended up dying. She lives some distance away and I felt quite safe pretending they had flourished. With any other gardener I would have had no compunction in admitting they had died but our relationship is complicated. She’s now asked to come and stay for a local wedding and I’m dreading her discovering the truth. What can I do, Mary? – Name and address withheld  A. When she asks how the plants are

Dear Mary: How do I find out the truth about the family tapestry?

Q. I was lucky enough to marry into a family where everyone gets on well. One of my brothers-in-law was the only one with a big enough wall in his house to hang a family treasure of a fragile antique tapestry, but last year he too moved into a smaller house and the tapestry now lies in his attic. When one of us asks how the tapestry is doing he moans ‘ruined, no doubt – ruined by moths’ but refuses to discuss it further or let anyone else have a look. The tapestry may or may not be beyond repair, but this much-loved man has always preferred to keep his

Dear Mary: Should I give weekend guests paper napkins or napkin rings?

Q. I have a hatred of paper napkins – eating outside, they blow away; inside, people drop them on the floor and my dogs chew them, making a horrid mess. I love the old-fashioned way of giving weekend guests napkin rings but our friends tend to drink too much and can’t remember which is theirs! We have a lot of people staying for Christmas – what is the answer? – A.E., Pewsey A. Many companies now will embroider names on to pretty napkins which you can give your guests on Christmas Eve and not only can they keep them for the whole festival holiday but they can take them home

Dear Mary: How do I curb my brother’s unsavoury language?

Q. My brother, who lives in southern France, uses unsavoury words to gain my attention, such as ‘infernal swine’, ‘schweinhund’ and ‘w****r’. Being somewhat genteel myself, I am reluctant to engage in verbal fisticuffs across the ocean. His literary aspirations, I believe, may have topped off with the Biggles compendium. What strategy, Mary, would you suggest I follow to maintain some fraternal friendship yet decrease the negative tone? — Name withheld, Toronto A. Tell him you have got new software on the computer which has an annoying habit of obliterating words it does not like. This makes his emails sometimes difficult to read. For example, he said that ‘x is

Dear Mary: How do I get out of a friend’s bad birthday party?

Q. I shall be spending more time in the company of newer acquaintances in the West Country and would appreciate your advice with regard to a resurfacing problem: narcolepsy. The condition is the source of much embarrassment and I find myself at pains to explain it upfront. (People may infer spurious connections due to limited understanding – that is to say ‘narc’ is now much more closely associated with narcissistic tendencies or worse, narcotics.) In anticipation of negative reactions how can I deal with any awkwardness? I am keen to attend social events. – Name withheld, Wimbledon A. Turn your condition to your advantage by arriving with a lightweight, blown-up

Dear Mary: How do I tell my neighbours I’m too busy to stop for a chat?

Q. My parents are abroad for two months and as my flatmates in London are all, like me, working from home, I’ve moved to their country cottage to get some peace. This is an idyllic and very community-based village but one unforeseen problem has arisen. The house is at the end of a cul-de-sac lane and every time I nip out to do anything – post a letter, buy a pint of milk – I run into neighbours, each one requiring at least a five-minute chat. Short errands are taking an hour to complete. Without seeming to be unfriendly, how can I, on weekdays, give the message I am busy

Dear Mary: How do I avoid getting waylaid at a packed party?

Q. I have found parties frustrating this month because they have been too crowded. Is there a polite way to get through a really packed event without stopping to talk to any number of people you know and like and have things to say to, when someone you particularly want to talk to is at the other end of the room and may leave before you can get to them? – B.A., London SW1 A. It’s always worth picking up two glasses when you walk into a busy party. They will allow you to plough purposefully on towards your target. Hold the two glasses up and tell your old friends

Dear Mary: How should I handle summer invitations when I might get a better offer?

Q. In order to raise money for a worthwhile cause, I have agreed to open my garden for the first time and provide a sit-down lunch for 30. My problem is that there are certain local people who I really don’t want to come and snoop around, but I fear that once they see the advertisement they will be the first to buy tickets and thereby displace slower-off-the mark locals whose company I would genuinely enjoy. Can you help, Mary? – Name and address withheld A. Insert a codicil at the end of the advertisement warning: ‘Places are limited and will be balloted.’ Q. How do you reply to summer

Dear Mary: Should house guests pay to charge their electric cars?

Q. My wife’s father, who she adored, has died and she is to be his sole beneficiary. She intends to import a mass of low-grade ‘ornaments’ and unappealing furniture into our home. I’m afraid these things will, to be blunt, lower the tone of the house I inherited myself. I am fairly well-known in the art world – so it matters. Any advice, Mary? – Name and address withheld A. Enthuse to your wife that you feel her late father’s possessions, so redolent of his distinctive character, would get lost if inserted piecemeal into the existing decor of your house. Instead, why not make it a project to magically recreate

Dear Mary: How do I dodge my village’s Jubilee tug-of-war contest?

Q. I’m 28 and lucky enough to own a four-bed house in Notting Hill. I let three of the rooms to friends. One of these now has her boyfriend over regularly. It was fine when he just stayed the night occasionally but he is now omnipresent and even brings his dirty washing over. The boyfriend contributes nothing to the running costs of the house and I feel I should say something as the rest of us are effectively subsidising him. How can I do this without causing offence? – H.N.A.M., London W11 A. Collude with one of the male lodgers. Script him so that, at a time when all four

Dear Mary: How do I stop my father’s girlfriend boiling a full kettle for one cup of tea?

Q. Financially successful friends have kindly invited my husband and me to stay for a week in France. Our problem is that last time we went they asked each couple to post €200 for tips through the hatch of a postbox-style container so they could share out the money appropriately after everyone had left. Named envelopes were discouraged on the grounds that ‘I trust you all’. Annoyingly, later that year, I happened to overhear my host mention that one couple (of the ten staying) had failed to contribute. Mary, how can I ensure that he knows we have paid our dues when the moment comes round again? – J.L., Cornwall