Dear Mary: should I ever pay for dinner on a date with a feminist? 

Q. I took a girl out for dinner last week to a rather expensive restaurant. At first we got on well but then the conversation went on to politics and I spent the next 45 minutes listening to a fourth-wave man-hating feminist. Despite her stance that women should share every opportunity that men have (which I agree with incidentally), when the bill came she didn’t even gesture to put her hand in her pocket. Was I right to be so annoyed? – N.F., London SW7 A. I ran this past another fourth-wave feminist. Her view was that the girl’s ideology was not incompatible with your paying for her dinner on

A study of isolation: The Late Americans, by Brandon Taylor, reviewed

The Late Americans, Brandon Taylor’s second novel, follows the lives of a group of friends living in Iowa City over the span of a year. Early on, Seamus, a poet completing his master’s degree, imagines an ‘indifferent God… squinting at them as they went about their lives on the circuits like little automata in an exhibit called The Late Americans’, and this is a fine description of the novel. Each character is the focus of a chapter, and we watch as Seamus, Fyodor, Ivan, Timo, Noah, Bea, Fatima and Daw’s lives overlap, in bars, seminar rooms and dance studios, while they negotiate their place in a world determined by their

The case for culling friends

Since I’m so old – 64 this summer – Facebook has always been my preferred form of social media. But if I was a softer soul there’s a feature on it that might really tug at my heartstrings: ‘See your memories.’ Because many of mine – going back more than a decade – are now blank of any actual memory: ‘Content not available.’ I know what these were: photographs of me with ex-friends (they’d always take the selfies, as I don’t have a camera-phone) who I’ve fallen out with and who have since deleted the photographs. In 90 per cent of cases, I’d say that I was the one who

Matthew Parris

The close friend I never really knew

I have just read an extraordinary new book. It’s by a close and old pal whom I’d count as one of my best friends. He was my lodger in London for ten years. His book is autobiographical. And I now realise I never knew him at all. In Don’t Ask Me About My Dad, Tom Mitchelson charts a life story that is entirely strange to me, and shocking. And yet the weird thing is that I know many of the people in it – or thought I did. His late father, Austin, who helped launch the Sunday Sport, I met and thought a likeable if flaky chap, and good company.

Friendships and rivalries in the golden age of Oxford philosophy

Though it is startling to think of it now, analytic philosophy was once considered a promising subject for satire on mainstream television. When Beyond the Fringe was broadcast in 1964, the viewing public could apparently be relied upon to recognise the archetype of the post-Wittgensteinian linguistic philosopher being impersonated by Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett. The discursive style on display was anguished, effete and reflexively pedantic; the setting, a kind of implied common room (the only atmosphere this particular creature was able to breathe); the repartee hopelessly clogged with qualifications and smug little obiter dicta and minutely alert to exquisite verbal distinctions of doubtful relevance to the point in hand.

Dear Mary: How do I get my friends to leave after a dinner party?

Q. We have made available our mews cottage – 30 yards from our main house – to a woman with small children, who has had a tough time recently through no fault of her own. She will be staying pending her divorce. Our problem is that she keeps asking us to dinner. We like her and she is a good cook and we understand that she is trying to give something back since we are not charging rent. However, our lives are just too busy to see even our very best friends more than once a month. We can’t use any of the normal excuses, e.g. that we are away

Why your more successful friends will drop you

You might have noticed the numerous glowing pieces by friends of Salman Rushdie about their ‘brave’ and ‘brilliant’ friend. I too would like to write a glowing piece about my brave and brilliant friend Salman Rushdie, but there’s one little problem: I’m not a friend of his. In fact I don’t have any famous novelist friends. I used to. There was the occasional lunch with Nick Hornby and the odd debauched evening with Will Self. I’ve drunk whisky with Norman Mailer and smoked pot with Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (And I have a lovely thank-you letter from Edward St Aubyn – does that count?)

Dear Mary: How can I find out whether old friends fancy each other?

Q. How can I find out, without making things awkward, whether one of my close male friends fancies one of my close female friends? They have known each other for years but until recently were both in long-term relationships. Now she has developed a major crush on him. Is there a way I could help to move things forward? It is too risky to tell him directly, because if he’s not interested, it could spoil the whole dynamic of our group. – Name and address withheld A. Wait till you are alone with the male friend and scrolling on your phones. Randomly mention the female’s name, e.g: ‘Oh wow, X

Dear Mary: Can I ask our hosts to look for my husband’s tooth in the flowerbed?

Q. My 74-year-old husband was having drinks in the garden of some young clients when he bit down on an olive with a huge stone in the middle. He heard a crack and picked the stone out of his mouth – along with what he thought was a splinter of tooth – and threw the bits into the flowerbed. This morning his dentist told him he had thrown away a whole crown. While he could repair the crown, it will cost £500 to create a new one. Although I would have no qualms in asking someone of our own age to scrabble through a flowerbed looking for a 74-year-old man’s

Dear Mary: How do I stop a mutual friend giving my contact details to a man I don’t like?

Q. Everyone was divine at a very jolly lunch I attended in the Cotswolds with the exception of one person, who everyone else seems to know and like, but about whom I have always had a mild phobia. Fortunately I didn’t have to sit anywhere near him but when I wrote to my host he told me this particular man had asked for my contact details. I really don’t want him to make contact with me. How can I duck out of this in a diplomatic way, Mary? – N.H., Gloucestershire A. You will have to just say ‘do pass them on’. If an invitation from the feared figure is

A twist on the American classic: The Sidekick, by Benjamin Markovits, reviewed

On the cover of The Sidekick, just below a broken basketball hoop, a quote from Jonathan Lethem suggests Benjamin Markovits is a ‘classic American voice’. Open the book and the first sentence – ‘I was a big slow fat kid but one thing I could do was shoot free throws’ – confirms the kind of American classicism we can expect: Salinger-conversational, Updike-melancholic, Roth-confessional. Male and white, in short. A decade ago, when The Sidekick is largely set, this would be hardly worth mentioning, but for a new novel to stand on such patriarchal shoulders now feels curiously old-fashioned. And while Markovits strives for something more contemporary, it is that voice

A podcast with real emotional heft: Philippa Perry’s Siblings in Session reviewed

Have you ever taken a piece of advice? I’m not asking a rhetorical question. Have you ever once in your life been given a piece of advice that you’ve then acted on? I ask this question a lot at parties, and generally find the answer is: ‘No, not that I can think of.’ It may be that when we take good advice, we begin to imagine we came up with the idea in the first place. It may be that we always just do whatever it is we were always going to do. All I can say for sure is that if you ask: ‘What’s the best piece of advice

Mismatched from the start: One Day I Shall Astonish the World, by Nina Stibbe, reviewed

First the bad news: Nina Stibbe’s new novel does not feature Lizzie Vogel, the engaging narrator of the trilogy that made her name as a comic novelist after she’d first published some extremely funny letters written during her stint as a nanny in a north London household in the 1980s. Man at the Helm (2015) is the novel Dickens lacked the generosity to write, in which tribute is paid to the creative value of a chaotic childhood presided over by what the conventional world calls an unfit parent. The two which followed covered just a year of Lizzie’s teens and early twenties. The fact that our beady-eyed chronicler remains on

Male friendship is in crisis

Most of my women friends work hard to keep ancient friendships alive; the seasonal lunches, shopping trips and afternoon teas are observed as scrupulously as the feasts of the liturgical calendar. ‘Friends make all the difference in life,’ my mother used to say. In her late eighties, she would defy the wobbles of Parkinson’s and haul herself on to a bus for the all-important ‘Tea with Daisy’, inscribed with a shaky hand in her diary. My sister was the same. In September last year she marched her girlfriends off to Whitby for a week of what I assume was slightly manufactured jollity (she was dying of cancer), but you’d never

Dear Mary: What’s the etiquette of tipping takeaway delivery drivers?

Q. Rory Sutherland recently wrote about high-end takeaways (Wiki Man, 19 February). In the last London lockdown, I was fortunate to use the Supper app to try a number of gourmet takeaways from places such as Nobu, Coya Mayfair and Park Chinois, spending up to £100 per head. What surprised me, given that someone had driven halfway across town at speed to deliver the food, was that no service charge was added. I considered this far greater service and effort than one receives in a restaurant, but my fellow diners were aghast when I insisted on giving 10-20 per cent as a tip to the driver. What is the correct

Dear Mary: How do I stop my new friend leaving me broke?

Q. Recently I started hanging out with a new friend. We are both in our twenties, single, and usually go to gatherings and talks downtown. I’m working part-time and studying, she has graduated and is working full-time. We both live in the suburbs, not too close to each other. I drive, she doesn’t, and she refuses to use public transportation. The result is, she asks that I chauffeur her around, while normally I would use public transportation. She does reimburse me for petrol, but this is money I’d rather not spend. On top of this, she wishes to go out dining every time we meet up, and Mary, frankly I

Dear Mary: How do I tell my friends that napkin rings are the height of naff?

Q. Three weeks ago I banged my head on the lower branch of our near neighbours’ tree, which I couldn’t see from under my peaked cap. I delivered a polite and non-threatening letter explaining that I wasn’t badly hurt and that the branch of their tree overhanging the pavement was a danger they should kindly arrange to remove. Although they were in residence, I received no acknowledgement of my letter, but this morning their entire tree came crashing down in the storm. Mary, please advise how I should write to thank them for their courtesy in arranging this divine intervention? — T.L. (86), London NW11 A. For all sorts of

Can I really be turning 80?

A princess of Hanover wrote in her diary: ‘My 30th birthday. There must be some mistake.’ Substitute 30th for 80th and you have how I feel this week. But age is all relative, being dependent on your genes, immune system and how it was primed in childhood; on your location, your income and luck. I had long-lived grandparents on both sides; had measles, rubella, mumps, chicken pox, whooping cough and scarlet fever before five; and in spite of semi-permanent tonsillitis was 20 before any antibiotic entered my body. I spent the years until 16 on the north-east coast of Yorkshire, through bitter snowbound winters, my lungs loaded with fresh sea

Dear Mary: How can I stop unexpected visitors using my loo?

Q. I treat myself to a manicure every ten days. It’s a 30-minute appointment and the girl I use is always fully booked. I turned up — punctual as always — for my appointment this week to be told that the client before me had been stuck in traffic and so my manicurist was ‘running late’. It turned out to be a wait of 12 minutes and she ended up giving me rather a rushed job. I looked at my watch when I left, and saw that she had made up her lost time at my expense and I felt short-changed. This isn’t the first time it has happened. Mary,

Dear Mary: Do I have to display my friend’s awful painting?

Q. A long-standing artist friend, whose work now commands high prices, has sent me out of the blue a present of one of her paintings. She clearly didn’t realise after all these years that, although I have always been immensely fond of her, I have never been a fan of her work. I am grateful and will keep it in my attic but wouldn’t dream of selling it while she is still alive. My friend now lives abroad but is the sort of person who might suddenly turn up in London with no warning and drop in without ringing first. I would hate to hurt her feelings by not having