Dinner parties

Your problems solved | 8 August 2019

Q. A friend constantly walks around with his bootlaces undone. His wife declines to nag him on the grounds she doesn’t want to be in a ‘co-dependent relationship’. We all enjoy this man’s company but we cannot work out whether his habit is attention-seeking (for example he often has to kick his legs out at right angles when walking while carrying a lot of equipment) or just a manifestation of his natural slobbishness. Either way it will not make for a restful atmosphere in a forthcoming week-long fishing party. What do you suggest? — S.H., Church Stretton, Salop A. Get hold of the boots while the irritator is in bed

Dear Mary | 2 March 2017

My partner has become a recycling fascist. She checks everything I put into the bin. I received two bollockings today alone — the first at breakfast because I did not make a distinction between the top of my small bottle of Actimel (non-recyclable) and the bottle (recyclable). I do try to do my best, but is it time for her to be recycled? I can’t go on like this. — Name withheld, Hampshire A. First bear in mind that your best will never be good enough. The booby-trap potential is too great for anyone who hasn’t had the time or inclination to mug up on all the complex requirements for correct

Dear Mary | 15 September 2016

Q. At a recent party I was delighted to find my hosts had put me next to one of their most high-profile guests. We had never met before but they knew how much I had to say to this excellent woman. I was consequently dismayed when she failed to — or rather, was unable to — turn. Her first interlocutor, a somewhat physically overbearing character, talked to her with almost pathological intensity throughout all the courses. The dinner came to an end and she and I had been unable to exchange one word. We had been 20 tables of ten. Had one of our hosts been at our table he

In defence of dinner parties

In or out? Almost two months on and I’m afraid the great debate shows no sign of abating, certainly not in our divided household. And while we’ve had several referendums over the matter, the result is always a stalemate. The only upside is that this argument has nothing to do with Brussels. It’s far more rudimentary. The battle in Palmer Towers is whether we eat in or out when wanting to see friends. My wife Joanna — who, as it happens, was for In over the country’s EU membership — is a firm outer, while I, who voted Out on 23 June, am a determined inner. As with the EU

Dear Mary | 12 May 2016

How do you persuade your pleasant dinner guests to go home when they will stay into the early hours if not evicted? I once fell asleep and awoke at 3 a.m. to find our two friends still here! They had seen me nod off in my chair, but hadn’t thought to leave of their own free will. — C.P., Lawford, Essex Slip out of the room and dial on your landline *55*0303#. Then return. Three minutes later a BT robot will call. Cry: ‘Who on earth could that be ringing in the middle of the night? Oh my goodness it must be an emergency for them to be ringing in the

Dear Mary | 7 April 2016

Q. What should a host do when a guest says something so embarrassing in front of the assembled company that conversation grinds to a halt? Is there a way to pretend the gaffe never happened and jump-start the chatter? A dear friend (who drinks too much) recently regaled the dinner table with some excruciating information about her marriage. Everyone was struck dumb and I could not think how to break the conversational paralysis. —Name and address withheld A. The expression ‘But why bring this up now?’ can often stop a self-saboteur in her tracks. If the damage has been done, however, the host’s duty is to trump the indiscretion with

Dear Mary: How can we make our dinner guests go?

Q. Many of our best and oldest friends have done so well they have stopped work. Meanwhile my husband still does a 50-hour week. Our friends must have forgotten what it’s like to have to get up at six because they’re always amazed when we try to leave their dinner parties at a reasonable hour. But the real problem arises when we return the hospitality and they are still at our kitchen table two hours after dinner has been cleared, laughing, joking, saying they’ve got second wind and can I get the cheese out again. Hinting doesn’t work. Last time my husband even changed into his pyjamas and said goodnight.

Your problems solved | 23 April 2015

Q. I socialise in Shropshire every weekend and regularly give dinners which end at 2 a.m., but it’s a different matter in London, where I have to leave the house by six every morning. My problem is that I owe dinner to a lot of people, but I now baulk at how late they will stay, since no matter how heavily I hint, people seem to stay beyond midnight every time. Even if I invite them to come for an ‘early dinner’ at 7 p.m, they are still there at midnight. These are mainly neighbours or fellow parents from my son’s school, i.e. not lifelong buddies of the sort you could just

Dear Mary | 26 March 2015

Q. When sending wedding invitations, does one put the full titles on the card, or can one just put, for example, Jane and John having addressed the envelope to Mr and Mrs John Smith? Isn’t it strange that all one’s old wedding invitations are nowhere to hand when one needs them? I would really appreciate your advice. — K.T., Sherborne, Dorset A. I have it from the highest authority that these days first names on the cards themselves are perfectly acceptable. Q. A client whose wife has left him invited me to dinner at his new flat. He presented me with three fairly disgusting courses, all ‘cooked’ by himself, one

Dear Mary: What can I do to make couples split the bill fairly?

Q. I’m a single bloke now and for various reasons don’t foresee any change to that status. I have moved to Australia and found several convivial people of similar backgrounds who are couples. From time to time we meet up in restaurants but I find there is an expectation that the bill be settled either by dividing it in two or that I should pay in full every other meal. No one ever suggests splitting it three ways. These are people with means. I dislike broaching the subject of money so the consequence is that I meet up with these friends less often than I would like to. —Name withheld

Dear Mary: When is it all right not to bring something to a dinner party?

Q. A wonderful and generous woman invites me, on a regular basis, to dinner parties at her house. What is an appropriate gift for an impoverished artist to take along on such occasions? I am always told by her that I shouldn’t have brought anything but my rigid British upbringing is telling me otherwise. — T. R., Florence A. As a rule grandees have present fatigue. They already have wall-high supplies of scented candles and chocolates and find flowers irritating due to the nuisance of having to find a vase. They are not ungrateful for the ‘thought’ but for practical reasons, they prefer guests to walk in empty-handed. Having to

When did we become a nation of police informers?

There’s a danger that in what follows your columnist may seem to be recommending an attitude. Please don’t think that. It’s true that I would never shop a friend for drink-driving — but frankly I doubt I’d shop a friend for murder. This column isn’t about what we should do if we know a friend drink-drives — responses will be various and variously arguable — but about shock at my own serious misreading of my countrymen. I was tooling along in our Mini on the first Saturday of the year, with BBC Radio 2 playing. It was Graham Norton’s fizzy and engaging morning show, where a regular feature is his ‘Grill

Dear Mary: How to talk to friends whose book you haven’t read

Q. What is the correct thing to say to a writer friend whose book you haven’t read? I buy most friends’ books out of loyalty but there have been so many in the last few months that I can’t think when I will have the time, if ever, to read them. So what feedback can I tactfully give? — Name and address withheld A. You might take a tip from Sir John Betjeman. Derwent May has given me permission to repeat his own account of taking Caroline Blackwood to lunch and finding John Betjeman in the restaurant. Kind Betjeman sprang instantly to his feet to announce, ‘I’ve just ordered several

Dear Mary: Is there a tactful way to shorten the guest list for my 21st?

Q. I am organising my 21st birthday party at our family house in Italy. It is a fantastic location, but it means that I can only invite about 20 guests. The result of this is that I am unable to invite a group of friends from a university society of which I am a member, despite several of them having invited me to their parties. I will be inviting one person from the group (I knew him away from the society), so the rest will become aware of it. I feel bad for not inviting them, but they are simply not any of my 20 closest friends. Is there anything

Dear Mary: Is there a polite way to ask for the return of a handbag full of cash?

Q. A friend regularly hires a stall at a general neighbourhood market in order to sell surplus second-hand clothes and women’s accessories. She recently sold one of her handbags to a regular customer whom she knows quite well. Subsequently she realised that she had left her day’s takings in the handbag (quite a sum of cash). The customer has since been back a number of times but never mentioned the contents of the bag. My friend is now too embarrassed to ask outright, partly because she is only 99 per cent sure that she left the cash in the handbag. What should she do? — J.W., Sydney A. Why not

Dear Mary: How can I make my polite English husband interrupt like a German?

Q. My dear English husband has never mastered the knack of timing his interventions in conversation. He hesitates politely, and by the time somebody pauses, his comments are no longer to the point so he shuts up. After 45 years I always know when there’s something he wants to say, and it’s become a sort of party turn that I butt in and call for order for the next speaker — which doesn’t reflect well on either of us. Any ideas, Mary? Should he signal, for example by raising his right forefinger, the hand resting on the dinner table? — B.D., Frankfurt A. This gesture is too puny to halt

Dear Mary: How can I make my host pour me a drink?

Q. Some years ago, on holiday in Egypt, we found ourselves in the company of a couple who wanted to see us when we got home. Out of politeness we agreed and we have now fallen into a rut of reciprocal dinners. It has become a bore — perhaps for them as well. How can we stop it without seeming rude? — B.K., address withheld A. Next time provide entertainment as well as dinner.  A talk, concert or play would give new shared references to discuss, just like in the days when you had Egypt in common. It would also halt a slide into cultural complacency. In London, for example,