Each week, Country Life's agony aunt Mrs Hudson answers readers' queries on everything from house parties and cutlery conundrums to wild pets and affairs of the heart.
Got a problem of your own for Mrs Hudson to solve? Drop her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ice ice baby
I have always enjoyed ice cubes in my wine, particularly come summer, when I am partial to a large, frosty glass of pale rosé. I believe this is something I picked up when visiting family in the south of France over the years, but in this country I have found that eyebrows are raised when I request it. Am I committing some kind of social faux pas? — M. V., Surrey
I believe this is a case of judging the situation. Icy cold rosé in Provence? Fine (if anything, lowering the temperature of these insipid blends does them a favour by disguising how utterly lacking in depth or flavour they are). A few cubes to chill your red in Spain? Fairly inoffensive. A shovel’s worth in your Pinot Grigio at the local pub? If you want to water down your alcohol, then why not — each to their own. In fact, you will probably get away with it in any scenario in which you are paying for said glass of wine. After all, isn’t the customer always right, even when committing crimes against viticulture?
I would, however, advise against demanding that frozen water be added to the cheeky Chablis offered by your host at a dinner party, unless you want to find yourself being served a dusty Liebfraumilch from the back of the cupboard next time you are invited. Much like requesting additional seasoning for your vegetables or, heaven forbid, ketchup on your smoked salmon, it’s really not the done thing.
Friends like these
A few months ago, I fell out with a friend and she sent some incredibly vicious messages—rather than engage, I chose silence. She has since sent me a birthday card and I responded with a brief thank-you note, but she is yet to apologise. Her birthday is now approaching and I am unsure what to do. I don’t particularly want to open the lines of communication, but if I don’t send a card, it feels rather final. What would you advise? — S. N., Warwickshire
This is definitely one where I could do with further information. What was the argument about? What vicious things did she say? How close were you? Do you still have to see her? Does she have nice hair? Without this level of detail, I will do what I can.
Deep down, you probably know what you want to do. Send a card and she is likely to assume you are ready to talk. To send one and continue not to respond to messages might be considered cruel. If you are in the habit of exchanging cards, she may well take an absence of one to heart. The root of this is whether you want to continue the friendship, now or in the future. Was the argument a one off? Were there extenuating circumstances? If so, you might have to be the bigger person. If, on the other hand, this person has been a regularly negative presence, this may be a chance to focus instead on those who bring you joy.
The unbearable lightness of getting old
I am approaching a big birthday and had been questioning all my life choices thus far, getting really quite depressed, until someone laughingly suggested doing away with the milestone birthday all together and sticking at my current age. My sister says I’m being ridiculous and that lying about such things is wrong, but I can’t see who I’d be hurting. What are your thoughts? — R. T., Worcestershire
I seem to remember having a similar crisis and spending my 30th birthday in floods of self-indulgent tears, but that’s because I was a frivolous human being who was lucky enough to have nothing bigger to worry about than impending wrinkles. Those were the days. Since then, I have to admit that getting older hasn’t bothered me, although I’m still not delighted about the creases.
I agree with both you and your sister, to some extent. Yes, you are being ridiculous: we are born, we age, we die and that’s that. On the other hand, it’s really not anyone else’s concern, as long as you’re aware that the charade might get somewhat harder to maintain as the decades pass. Suspicions will be aroused as long-standing acquaintances reach said milestones (and you don’t) and I’d advise against lying to the police or romantic interests with potential longevity — but otherwise, why not? Although… have you considered that you’d actually be better off pretending to be older, so that everyone thinks you look cracking for your age? Food for thought, perhaps.
I can’t believe the self-cleaning house has yet to be invented
I’m writing to you as I’m at my wits’ end over how to clean the house. I know I really ought to get Someone Who Does, but considering that the gas bill alone is now enough to bankrupt a small republic, that will have to wait. Anyway, the problem is this: no matter how carefully I clean the bathroom, kitchen or other rooms, within a couple of weeks, they’ve become dusty and grimy all over again. Please, Mrs Hudson, what am I doing wrong? — K. T., Hampshire
I’m not sure how it has taken you this long (only just left your parents’ house? Suddenly found yourself single for the first time?), but it appears that you have finally discovered the most tedious part of housework — and that is that it needs doing repeatedly, on a never-ending loop, forever and ever, until you die. Somehow, even empty properties with no one there to create mess or shed skin (yes, disgusting, but what do you think house dust is?) develop a layer of grime. So no, you aren’t doing anything ‘wrong’, other than naively thinking that some sort of bi-annual blitz would suffice.
Are there any children you could enlist to help, incentivising them with a small monetary reward? If even this is beyond your means and you can’t find the time to do it yourself, you will just have to become one of those fabulously eccentric types who wafts around trailing cobwebs and pretends not to notice — but please refrain from inviting me around anytime soon.
What’s in a name?
Recently, my wife and I had the pleasure of being the supper guests of a locally resident Earl and his Viscountess wife, who is a client of our family business. It would be appropriate and polite to thank them for their kindness and a very pleasant evening, but how to address the envelope? My note inside starts ‘Dear Sheila and Freddie’ (not their real names), but it would seem overly stuffy and formal, nay pompous — which they are not — to address the envelope to The Right Honourable, The Lord and Lady… Can I reasonably tone it down without causing offence? — P. D., by email
If, as you say, the couple in question is not stuffy, formal or pompous, then I doubt you will cause offence unless you call them something derogatory on the envelope. However, I’m not quite sure what you had in mind—other than casually alerting us to the fact that you passed an evening with an Earl and Viscountess. Most impressive, although I don’t know if you saw the photographs of our most recent guest editor… ‘Sheila and Freddie’ would be most odd (particularly bearing in mind that these aren’t their real names) and they aren’t Mr and Mrs. It will only be them and the postman who sees the envelope, so I don’t see any problem with using their correct titles. The most offensive thing you could do is not to thank them at all, so I would suggest that you stop overthinking it and get the thing in the post.
Using your headed
Might you settle an argument? I think headed notepaper still has a place in contemporary society, even though so few people write letters. I like the smartness it gives to any correspondence and find it endearing. A friend says its use is pretentious and a way of perpetuating the class system. As I’m thinking of ordering some, I’d be interested to have your opinion. — J. M., Staffordshire
I’m not sure I’ve ever opened a piece of correspondence and judged the writer for what they chose to send it on. Perhaps if it were a soiled piece of secondhand paper, but, even then, there would be a sustainability argument to be made. I find headed notepaper both smart and useful, as one is instantly able to locate the return address. You can find perfectly nice examples that aren’t prohibitively expensive and it should, therefore, be available to most, if not all — and possibly the aristocracy less than most, as heating bills on crumbling old piles were bad enough before the current fiasco kicked in.
Less a matter of class and more one of remaining classy, I would worry about my chosen paper being tacky rather than it coming across as superior. Stay away from fads such as rose-gold embossing and choose something that won’t go out of fashion — largely because it was never in. Also ensure you have no plans to move, as there is nothing remotely classy about headed notepaper that has had to be crossed out and scribbled over.
How to win friends and influence new people
I am a single man who is nearly 35 and I don’t have many friends any more, so I am looking to increase my social circle. Do you have any suggestions for me please? — T.P., via e-mail
My suggestion would be to enjoy the peace and quiet, but then I’m not a hugely sociable being. I am going to look on the bright(er) side and assume that you and your friends have drifted apart due to marriages and children and the like, rather than anything terrible.
This, sadly, is a hazard of being single in your thirties — you can find that you have less and less in common with your contemporaries, as they pair off and lose the ability to engage in any conversation that doesn’t consist of wedding planners, weaning or ‘which school’? The favoured solution seems to be to socialise with a younger set — be they colleagues or the friends of a sibling. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but do be aware that you will only get away with it for a certain number of years, at which point you become the strange older man trying to be ‘down with the kids’.
Generally speaking, it is common ground that makes for solid friendship. Into literature? Join a book club. Theatre? Am-dram. Fitness? Sports team. You get the idea. My only word of warning is to find something that genuinely interests you — or you will only find yourself surrounded by conversation equally as tedious as that of your former friends.
The definitive answer for how to cater a party
Our anniversary party is approaching and we are doing the food ourselves. The trouble is, we can’t agree on what to serve. I want something a bit avant-garde and unusual, whereas my husband is arguing for mini beef Yorkshire puddings and the like. Who is right? — M. F., Cornwall
Personally, ‘avant-garde’ and ‘unusual’ aren’t qualities that I look for in food, ‘edible’ being higher on my list of priorities. However, to be honest, no one at Country Life has had to worry about the menu, theme or even their outfit for a party in years, as we have one member of staff who is a party planner extraordinaire — as anyone who has ever seen an ‘Out & About’ page or has been lucky enough to be invited will know. I’m tempted to forward your email to her, although if she starts taking on events for readers, too, there is a risk that whole sections of the magazine won’t make it to press and that would never do.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what either you or your husband would like to serve — the question is what would your guests prefer? I would always go for platters of sushi if it were down to me, but not if I was catering a toddler’s birthday party. You see?
Oh yes — and you are quite mad to do it yourselves. Are you determined to spend the entire event in the kitchen? Why bother having the party at all? Far better to employ caterers, which also rather neatly takes care of the washing up.
On the ball
Our gardens back onto a field in which local children play come the summer months and the constant knocks on the door asking if they, or I, can retrieve their ball send me to distraction. They are perfectly polite, but I don’t want them traipsing through the house and it’s a long way for me to go each time — not to mention finding it when I get there. Is there a satisfactory solution? — C. S., Worcestershire
It’s not often I receive letters complaining of perfectly polite children, but I do see where you’re coming from. If you wish to become known as the scary person in the big house (I assume, as it comes with ‘gardens’ rather than ‘a garden’), you could return the balls, but after first popping them, claiming they all landed with unfortunate accuracy in your meanest rose bush. I’d imagine the knocks will stop, eventually (but so might the Christmas cards).
A kinder solution would be to install a small gate somewhere providing access, removing the need for them to bother you, although this could result in small people traipsing through your borders or indeed to rather larger persons, with less innocent intentions, gaining access to your grounds. The answer is to play the generous benefactor (even if it’s really for your own benefit). Install a container on the playing field simply brimming with balls, thereby removing the need for errant ones to be immediately returned, then throw those back over as and when you stumble across them.
Our daughter and her husband live locally to us, which is lovely as it means we get to see lots of them. However, it does mean that she is quite fond of dropping the grandchildren off while she ‘runs some errands’ — errands that often take the majority of the day. Neither my wife nor I has the stamina to care for a baby and a toddler unaided — it’s hard enough doing up our own shoelaces these days. Yet how can we say no? — L. H., London
Grandchildren are lovely indeed, but preferably in smaller doses and with someone else to do the bending and lifting once one reaches a certain age. I think I could say no quite easily — your daughter and her husband must be aware that two smalls are enough of a handful for anyone, let alone grandparents.
Perhaps you are nicer than I am, perhaps relations are fragile, but it sounds as though a sneakier approach is needed. I find my doorbell with a camera attached quite useful, in that it allows me to check who is at the door and pretend not to be home when it suits.
If this isn’t an option, try sending the children back smeared in chocolate and full of sugar, singing bawdy and age-inappropriate ditties you have taught them over the course of the day. If that isn’t enough to encourage your daughter to pay for appropriate childcare, sell up and retire to the countryside for some peace and quiet — and hope they don’t follow you.
A dog is for life, not just for making friends
Having finally moved to the countryside, we are struggling to get to know the locals. Everyone in the village appears to have a dog, so we are wondering if we should get one as an ice-breaker? Walking it might also give us something to do, as it is terribly quiet out here. — K. A., Buckinghamshire
Gosh yes, the deepest, darkest Buckinghamshire countryside… what a shock to the system that must have been. I rather thought it being ‘terribly quiet’ was one of the main draws of moving out of town, but I suppose that’s beside the point. The important thing is that I beseech you, under no circumstances, to get a dog as ‘something to do’. They would most certainly provide you with plenty to do — for the next decade or so, all being well — and are not something to provide entertainment during a lull in your social calendar. Puppies, adorable as they may be, are essentially hairy babies (in that they require constant attention, not that they should wear booties and be pushed in a pram).
If you decide that you really do want a dog in your life, do make sure it’s the right one. Basically, you can’t go wrong with a labrador, a spaniel or a Jack Russell — or, for the more adventurous, one of the many rarer native breeds you can read about in this magazine. Turn up with some shivering creature with a silly haircut, however, and the locals will be less likely to speak to you than ever.
Four’s a crowd
My wife and I were looking forward to our first holiday since Covid, but, now, our tedious neighbours have asked us to go away as a foursome. It’s bad enough living next to them, but it’s not as though we can fib to get out of it — they’re sure to notice our absence if we go without them. What is the solution? — E. P., by email
Edward — if that’s you, you might have been big enough to say it to my face.
If it’s not you, excuse me — let’s start that again.
When you say foursome, I assume you mean ‘as a group of four’? Otherwise, you have more to worry about than a holiday. Let us assume the former, for the time being. Might you pretend that you are planning to use this trip as a make-or-break second honeymoon? No one is stupid enough to want to gatecrash that. If you don’t want to tempt fate, you could tell them you’re going somewhere you know they’ll hate — Ibiza’s clubland should do it. Although if you plan to share any photographs, this might mean you actually have to go clubbing in Ibiza. The horror.
Are you a gambler? If you want to get them off your scent once and for all, imply that you have taken ‘foursome’ to mean something else and that you’re rather keen on the idea. The gamble being that they already sound quite keen on you and there’s always the risk that they’ll take you up on it.
A wine whine
Having moved to a new village, I decided to start a book club as my husband has no interest in literature and I thought it would be a good way to meet people. There was enthusiastic uptake, but the club has since taken a disappointing direction. We take it in turns to choose titles and the vast majority are utter tripe, then any discussion lasts for all of five minutes before everyone launches into the wine and starts spreading village gossip. How can I get things back on track? — J. M., Rutland
There is only one way to get things back on your intended track and that is for you and only you to select all reading materials and to draw up an agenda of topics to be discussed, which should be distributed ahead of meetings and ticked off as you go along to ensure nothing is missed. Assign a different topic to each member of the group, then make them lead that particular part of the discussion — but don’t warn people which topic is theirs, as this would enable them to skip some of the reading. Spring it on them as they come through the door. Oh, and do away with the wine — soft drinks only from now on, if you want everyone to stay clear-headed for the serious academic discussion expected of them.
Or you could accept the fact that you have entirely misjudged the point of local book groups, allow your neighbours to continue enjoying themselves and sign up to a literature course.
Dealing with a neighbour who keeps making a bit of a boob
A neighbour of ours has an unfortunate habit of staring at my chest when speaking to me. I know his wife well and I don’t think he means anything by it, but that’s not really the point, is it? — K. N., West Sussex
I’m working on the assumption that you are a lady and are referring to someone staring at your breasts — but if you are actually the proud possessor of a marvellous set of pectoral muscles, please do excuse me. No, I suppose it isn’t the point whether or not he ‘means anything’ by it — by which I assume you mean whether or not he’s making advances. If it’s any comfort, I genuinely believe there are men who have no idea that they’re doing this. I mean, they can’t, can they? Because often, they’re perfectly lovely chaps who would surely be mortified, were they aware…
Of course, you could try the mortification approach to put a stop to it. ‘Hello Ned, yes, I’m well thank you and so are the girls — but they’re also quite shy, so would you mind not focusing all of your attention on them?’ — stooping simultaneously so your eyes are back in his field of vision.
You could respond in kind, delivering all conversation direct to his crotch until he gets the message. If you’re feeling truly wicked (and/or fed up), you could always file a complaint with his wife. I’m sure it’s nothing an electric-shock collar wouldn’t remedy.
A sad duty
An elderly aunt recently died and the task of clearing out her belongings fell to me. Everything has now found a new home or been disposed of, other than several drawers full of old photographs. I have taken them for now, as I couldn’t quite bring myself to throw them away — it seems a terribly sad thing to do, despite not having a clue who any of the people in them are. Do you have any suggestions on what I might do with them? — D.G., West Sussex
I agree that throwing away photographs of the dead, especially ones that a relation of yours cared enough to keep, does seem terribly sad — but as you say, what on earth does one do with them? It might be nice to invite your relations to sift through them and check if there are any they wish to keep, but, in reality, this is only likely to account for a handful.
You could instigate a new game, whereby, after a family meal, each person draws a random photograph from the drawer and has to concoct a backstory to entertain the table — the more outrageous the better. You could try placing an advert, offering the photographs up for use by an art student or similar? A long shot, but how lovely if they could be repurposed.
Finally, you could do what I fully intend to do with my own drawers full of old photographs — keep them firmly closed until they become your own child or niece’s problem.
Why you should NEVER feel bad for having a cleaner
I recently mentioned our cleaner in front of some friends and am sure that they judged us for having one. We are a couple in our twenties and live in a flat, so yes, we’re perfectly capable of cleaning our own home—but we both have busy jobs and, quite frankly, it’s the last thing we feel like doing at the weekend or at the end of a long day. Now, however, I’m wondering if we should be. — K. I., London
Are you sure your friends weren’t judging you for bringing your cleaner up, rather than for having one? Not only is it not a hugely scintillating topic of conversation (unless your other half is knocking off the cleaner, for example), but they might have felt you were showing off or implying that housework is beneath you.
Assuming you pay your cleaner well and don’t make them live in a cupboard, it’s quite clear that you aren’t doing anything wrong. In fact, you are providing someone else with a wage.
I’m not sure when we all decided it was our job to judge one another’s every move (might reality television be at least partly responsible?), but it really is no one else’s business what you spend your money on and I can think of far worse habits than cleanliness—gambling, drugs, wearing clothes once and then casually discarding them… this, I would not lose sleep over. If anything, your friends are probably wondering how they, too, can dodge Marigold duty.
How do I overcome embarrassment about my body at the gym?
My doctor recently suggested that regular exercise would be a good idea, but I am struggling to overcome my embarrassment and sign up to my local gym. It is full of lithe young things strutting about in skin-tight lycra who put my middle-aged man’s physique to shame. How can I overcome my insecurities? — P.M., Somerset
One of the surest ways to overcome embarrassment about one’s body is by signing up to a gym and getting some exercise, thereby improving the general impression created upon walking into a room — so we’re in something of a pickle, aren’t we? Focus on the fact that there is an incredibly low chance any of these lithe young things will be looking at your middle-aged-man bod. If they do successfully drag their eyes away from their own reflection, rest assured that it will be to ogle each other, not you.
You should also know that, unless this is a fairly niche breed of gym, there is nothing written in the rules of membership stating that you are obliged to attend in skin-tight lycra. Don an oversized t-shirt and jogging bottoms (but never in grey — why do people insist on wearing the most easily sweat-stained colour during exercise? Revolting), hold your head high and jump on that running machine.
Alternatively, save yourself some money and go for an actual run. Or jog. Or brisk walk. Outside, where the air is fresh and no one gives runners a second glance, other than to think ‘Rather you than me’.
My mother-in-law accidentally saw me naked. How do I get over it?
I sleep in the nude and, since the children left home, don’t always bother with a robe when I need the loo at night. Recently, I sleepily forgot that my mother-in-law is staying and walked straight into her, sans robe. I shrieked like a girl and scuttled away. She hasn’t brought it up, but I can’t look her in the eye. Should I apologise? — B. M., Devon
Your poor mother-in-law. At her presumably advanced age, you’re lucky not to have given her a heart attack, skulking around in the dead of night and shrieking in her face. Saying that, assuming an advanced age, lack of light and the distraction caused by said shrieking, might she not have noticed your undressed state? If she hasn’t mentioned it, she seems to be pretending not to have done, at least. Perhaps she’s reached the conclusion that it was nothing more than a bad dream.
I would be inclined to leave the old girl alone. In a worst-case scenario, she might think that by exposing yourself to her and then bringing the subject up again, you are actually flirting with her. It wouldn’t be the first time such things have happened (although hopefully it would be a first in your household).
Your next birthday or Christmas is when the truth will be revealed — should you unwrap a pair of pyjamas or a robe, she definitely saw your unmentionables. If it’s a pair of Speedos, it’s she who is flirting with you…
I know something about a friend that they don’t — what should I do?
A friend has told me something awful that affects another mutual friend (and which they don’t know about). I understand they wanted to share the burden, but it’s burning a hole in my stomach and I think I’m going to have to tell the person it affects—how can I not? G. U., Nottinghamshire
How very tricksy of them — friend A appears to have reached the conclusion that friend B should be informed of this something awful, but is hoping that you will pass on the unfortunate news and therefore risk being shot in the face, rather than them having to do it. It’s a like a game of adult tag where you pass the burden along to the next poor unsuspecting person.
There is a school of thought that you should stay out of business that doesn’t concern you. However, I think that, once you are privy to information that is going to hurt a friend — and it will, if it’s already being passed around — it has become your business.
I always try to put myself in the other’s Louboutins/Birkenstocks/insert preferred footwear here — would you want to know? I think most of us would, rather than having our friends gossip and decide what is best for us.
Force friend A to come along for drinks or dinner or wherever it is you decide to break the news to friend B—as kindly as possible. Friend A should then be left to pick up the bill as penance for making you do their dirty work.
Why don’t people write thank-you notes any more?
On many occasions when I have given wedding presents or new baby gifts to family and friends, I have not received a thank you. Why? I spent hours choosing the right gift or days knitting a special blanket for their newborn. It is very hurtful and I consider it to be plain bad manners to ignore the giver by failing to send a thank-you card or even an email. — C. W., Victoria, Australia
I wish I could say that you are unlucky enough to have rude friends and relations, but I fear this epidemic is sweeping the nation (or the world, apparently). I was raised to pen a properly tailored thank-you letter for any gift received, no matter how baffled I was by it (an Easter bonnet from an elderly aunt at Christmas was particularly challenging). Similarly, one never arrived anywhere empty-handed and always wrote afterwards to thank their host. This practise seems to have quite gone out of the window with the younger generation: I have actually struck some more distant relations from my gift list, as I rarely knew whether they had received my present or not. I blame the parents.
Ideally, I would like you to re-enact the tale of the Grinch who stole Christmas, creeping into the homes of the ungrateful and reclaiming all unacknowledged gifts. Failing that, you should send out the most extravagant, simpering and over-the-top thank yous to all concerned when it’s your turn — a good dose of shame can, on occasion, work wonders.
I’m working for the person I had an affair with — how can I cope?
Several years ago, I had an affair with a colleague. It was short-lived and I was relieved when they left the company, but I recently found out that they’re coming back in a new role (senior to mine, incidentally). How can I ensure that nothing happens between us again? — S.A., London
Oh goodie, a saucy one — not that I’m condoning extra-marital (or non-marital) affairs, but they are so much more fun to discuss than dirty nappies. Is a hurried liaison bent awkwardly over the photocopier ever worth the day you have to sit in a meeting opposite someone who once saw you naked and you would now rather never see again? You’d think not — and yet it happens, time and again. Relationships at work will forever be a high-risk sport, so I can see why you would have been relieved that they left. How irksome, therefore, to have them resurface — and in a senior role, no less.
You’d have thought the ‘boss factor’ might be enough for the more prudent employee to ensure it never happens again, if not the thought of your significant other (assuming you are still with them). But your phrasing tickles me. It’s as though you are implying that these things happen by accident — I slipped, I tripped, I had an affair! A drunken kiss? Yes, that might happen by accident. An affair? You decided to have one of those. It really is that simple — decide not to, this time. (You never know, they might not even fancy you anymore — the cheek.)
How can I avoid being as strict as my parents were?
My wife and I are expecting our first child at a slightly more advanced age than might be considered the norm, which has come as a bit of a surprise. We are delighted, but I have taken to worrying in the wee hours. My parents — and my grandparents before them — were incredibly strict and I always swore that I would do it differently. However, we are quite set in our ways and I fear I am going to be just as bad. — P. C., Somerset
Congratulations! What lovely news for a grey February day. Not news I would want to receive myself, you understand (just in case any deity happens to be eavesdropping), but lovely for you. The fact you haven’t asked a question makes me suspect that all you really seek is reassurance. So let me assure you: no matter their age, all parents-to-be will lie awake worrying about how bad they are going to be at it. ‘What if I drop them?’ (Try not to. And certainly not in public.) ‘What if they hate me?’ (Ha ha ha ha ha — they will.)
Most of us dread turning into our own parents — can there be a worse fate? Surely not! — but did you turn out so badly? You seem fairly well balanced and discipline is no bad thing. Of course, one can take it too far and you will need to let go of ‘your ways’ quite quickly — but you’ll be left little choice once you’re wading around in dirty nappies.
How to deal with — ahem — a dog that can’t stop farting
Our terrier is now almost two years old, so no longer a puppy, and seems to be becoming increasingly flatulent as he matures. It’s unpleasant in the house, but utterly mortifying when in public and I always feel the need to excuse him to ensure that no one thinks it’s me. Is there any way to make him smell a little sweeter? — T. O., Derbyshire
As with most foul-smelling humans, a change of diet is often the best solution for flatulence in dogs. My parents used to feed our retriever on kitchen scraps, from baked beans to Brussels sprouts, then feign surprise when he spent the evening breaking sulphurous wind at their feet (and he really did smell abysmal).
Take yourself to a proper pet-feed store with knowledgeable staff, explain the issue and prepare to be bombarded with a list of options that may help to calm the little chap’s tummy. If this doesn’t work, you might like to consider lavender-scented nappies. He will look entirely ridiculous, so you probably won’t want to be seen with him in public anyway, but will emit floral-edged puffs of air rather than noxious gases.
I don’t know if this is your first pet, but I must tell you that most animals come with their own unique aroma — and it isn’t always a pleasant one. As with children, their owners tend to smile indulgently and pretend they can’t smell it. If you’re struggling, you might be better off considering a Furby next time (remember those?).
In need of advice? Email your problem to email@example.com
My sister took the name I had chosen for my baby
My younger sister and I both fell pregnant at about the same time—she was a few weeks ahead of me and recently gave birth to a little boy, who they have named Albert. Funnily enough, this is the name we had chosen for our baby, as she was well aware. I can’t believe she has done this—should I insist that she change it? — S. B., North Yorkshire
You could try, but I believe it is bad luck to change a baby’s name. Actually, that might be horses rather than babies, but still — she probably won’t go for it either way. Especially if she’s already printed the baby announcement cards everyone seems to insist on sending out these days (oh, another photograph of someone else’s wrinkly newborn to add to my collection, lovely!).
This is the problem with younger siblings: everyone thinks only children are the problem, but really it’s the babies of the family who grow up thinking they are entitled to anything they take a fancy to.
I would be tempted to name yours Ernest instead, for the pure joy of calling ‘Bert and Ernie’ to the dining table. If you’re really stuck on Albert, just do it anyway. Children rarely end up being called by their full names, so you can always have a Bert and an Albie. In addition to this, they will both probably be one of approximately 10 Alberts in their class at school, so you might as well get them used to it.
What should I wear on a cruise?
My husband and I are planning to go on a cruise with Cunard, but he is reluctant to buy (or hire) a formal suit for the so-called Gala Evenings. In fact, over 50 years of married life, I have never seen him in a suit—even at our wedding! I know Cunard has its rules, but why should we have to adhere to outdated protocol? Manners maketh man, not clothes. — J. B., Derbyshire
Indeed, why should we have to do anything? Why queue for five hours when you could barge straight to the front? Why pay for a house when you could break into any you fancy and claim squatters’ rights? Why cook a Sunday roast when chicken nuggets are so much quicker?
Because, my dear distressed of Derbyshire, without rules, the world would quickly descend into madness.
If your husband has made it through 50 years without donning a suit (really? I have no idea what the dress code was at your wedding, but has he never attended anyone else’s?), I suppose he is unlikely to now. I’ve never been on a cruise myself — it’s bad enough being stuck with a ghastly group for an evening, so imagine being trapped with one for a fortnight — but I can’t imagine attendance at these ‘so-called Gala Evenings’ is obligatory.
Why not spend the evening in your cabin? Otherwise, you can apparently order black t-shirts with tuxedos printed on the front, so you could always try baffling the gatekeepers into submission with one of those.
How to deal with SAD
Each winter, I go into a slump. I struggle to get up in the mornings and never have any energy. I would honestly go into hibernation until spring if I could. How can I get myself motivated? — F. N., Warwickshire
As previously established, I am no medical professional, so if you think this could be a form of depression — you may have heard of seasonal affective disorder or ‘SAD’ — please do see your doctor. There is no shame in it.
Otherwise, I will let you in on a secret: the majority of the population would rather not get up in the morning once the clocks go back.
There is little joy in emerging, shivering, from your duvet and making a mad dash for the warmth of the shower before your feet freeze to the floorboards (yes, I should perhaps invest in timed central heating at some point).
But there are always things you can do to pep yourself up. Love chocolate? Promise yourself a square with your coffee if you rise with your alarm. Go for a bracing walk in the crisp winter sunshine, once it appears, each day. If it doesn’t appear, go for a walk in the squalling rain — less pleasant, but equally invigorating.
Take vitamin D to compensate for the lack of daylight. Invest in a giant version of the heat lamps people keep over lizards and recline beneath it each evening. You could even strap a few to the inside of an umbrella, providing a portable solution (disclaimer: this probably won’t work).
How to stop foundation coming off on other people
As a woman of a certain age, it takes a certain amount of make up to create a face I consider presentable to the world. However, I am forever discovering it smudged down my clothing. At a recent event, the host hugged me to his white-shirted chest. As he drew away, I was mortified to see an orange imprint of my face left behind. He was too polite to comment, but I did notice that he disappeared and swiftly changed. How do other women keep foundation on their faces? — H. M., Staffordshire
I believe there are certain tricks — fixing sprays and the like. A drag queen once confessed to me that her solution was a liberal spritz of hairspray, over the visage as well as the coiffure. Having very sensitive eyes, I merely ended up with mascara running down my face, as well as foundation on my top.
I can’t help but keep returning to your need to ‘create a face’. It makes me rather sad. As you point out, we are now women of a certain age and can’t be expected to look like 20 year olds. I reached the conclusion some time ago that, actually, the more make up I caked on, the older I looked — it simply sits in the crevices. Rather than wasting years of your life (believe me, it adds up) doing yourself up like a clown, simply slap on some tinted moisturiser, mascara and lipstick and you should be good to glow. Try it — you might be amazed.
Never be afraid to throw back a catfish
During lockdown, I began speaking to a gentleman via a dating website. He was my rock during a difficult time, but, when we finally met, it transpired that not only had he used photos of someone else on his profile, but that much of what he’d told me about himself was untrue. I feel as though ending the relationship would make me appear shallow and confirm his insecurities, but how can I trust him? — N. D., Lincolnshire
Have you ever heard the term ‘catfish’? Well, you have been catfished. If you bought something online and an entirely different item arrived, would you not send it back? Forgive my flippancy — some might say ending the relationship makes you shallow or selfish, that instead you should ask why and help him to believe in himself.
I am not one of those people.
This ‘gentleman’ deliberately mislead you in order to gain your confidence and there is no justification. If he had done this to gain your money, he would be arrested. Is your heart less valuable? We all have insecurities, but we don’t all use them as an excuse for such behaviour. He clearly needs help, but it isn’t your job to provide it — that’s what therapists are for.
I’m glad he was a rock for you, but, sometimes, people come into our lives for brief periods and for a specific reason. Comfort yourself that you cared for each other during these difficult months, then go forth and find yourself a new man — one who values honesty.
Are my jokes funny?
I have always been a great teller of jokes, but, at a recent social gathering, someone asked if I might ‘give it a rest’ as they didn’t find my comedy stylings amusing. Now, I can only wonder if everyone feels the same way and has been too polite to say. Should I hang up my jokebook and sit quietly henceforth? — R. O., Greater Manchester
Much as not everyone in the world enjoys cheese (although, in my opinion, these individuals should not be trusted — who doesn’t like cheese, attending the theatre (again — I know they exist, but who are they?) or drinking alcohol (not guilty), it is a fact of life that not everyone we encounter will enjoy our company. Throw a tendency towards joke-telling into the mix and you will narrow the field even further, for hasn’t comedy always been a divisive field?
Recently, a well-known comedian visited my home town. I’d rather have had pins stuck in my eyes than attend, yet there they were, hordes of middle-aged men in jeans beating a path to the auditorium door. Each to their own.
I assume you aren’t close to this person or they would have closed you down long ago. If it brings you joy, you must continue to tell your jokes among friends and even to strangers — but learn to laugh it off if they leave abruptly. If all else fails, a quick trip to your local comedy club to see someone else dying on stage should lessen the sting.
Making Christmas magical for everyone
As Christmas looms, I am already dreading it. My wife always ends up feeling hard done by as she has done all the work. The children spend the day eating chocolate in front of films, then refuse to eat their dinner. It would be nice if we could avoid the usual unharmonious ending to the festivities. — O. A., Berkshire
If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard ‘my wife gets so grumpy on Christmas Day’, I would spend all my time playing penny-shove machines at the seaside. Have you ever considered peeling some carrots, rather than sipping a G&T while she does it?
My own childhood Christmases were probably more regimented than any other day of the year, but they were no less enjoyable for it. On waking, we crowded into one bed to empty our stockings, which contained a satsuma and the odd chocolate coin, but nothing to spoil appetites. After gifts were opened, we were expected to play with or read these offerings, rather than slumping back in front of a television. We were also expected to help — they needn’t polish all the silver, but laying the table wouldn’t hurt (unless they are very small, in which case it might).
Christmas should be a magical time for children — but doesn’t your wife deserve a holiday, too? I have always found that a trip to Barbados alleviates the pressure, although granted, this year’s more likely staycation in Bognor doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. At least it has those penny shoves.
The age old battle of sterile v twee
My partner and I have decided to move in together, but cannot agree on what we are looking for. I currently live in a charming character cottage, whereas he bought a very modern flat after his divorce. I find his taste sterile and he finds mine twee — I’m not sure what the compromise is. — G. C., Hampshire
Ah, the great combining of assets — congratulations. I thought it was the ambition of every Englishman (and woman) to reside in a charming character cottage, although they are admittedly more of a challenge to clean, with all those nooks and crannies. Could you, perhaps, buy an airy modern property together, but fill it with lacy curtains, overstuffed velvet sofas and dusty antiques? Or how about a crumbling pile, which you then totally gut, fit out in chrome and marble and paint the walls 50 shades of white?
Depending on your budget, I think by far the best solution is to design your own home together from scratch — a ‘twee’ wing with turrets for you, a vast warehouse for him, joined in the middle. I can already see Kevin McCloud getting the grand tour. Of course, at that stage, you might just as well keep your current properties and continue holding sleepovers.
A barn conversion is another thought — they are often spacious and modern, but, when done well, with enough residual character left to feel authentic. Any children will also be able to use the excuse, in years to come, that yes — they were indeed raised in a barn.
How to win favour with a difficult dog
I work in a dog-friendly office and my boss’s dog hates me. It’s not very big — some sort of terrier, I think — so isn’t going to do me any real harm, but it bites at my ankles every time I walk past and has drawn blood on multiple occasions. How bad would it be to give it a swift kick when no one is looking? — K. S., Bedfordshire
I think it is clear, from ‘some sort of terrier’ to the suggestion that it might be ok to physically assault the creature, that you are no animal lover. No, it isn’t acceptable to kick someone’s dog because it nipped (nor is it ok to pinch a child if they kick the back of your seat in the cinema, before you ask). I wouldn’t imagine it will improve your career progression if you’re caught, either — most people are more devoted to their canines than their spouses and they certainly tend to prefer them to employees in steel toe caps.
You are approaching the situation entirely incorrectly. Dogs are simple enough creatures and respond better to reward than punishment. Stuff your pockets full of treats and drop one (a safe distance from your ankles) each time it passes by — you will be the best of friends in no time. If your boss mentions the dog’s unexplained weight gain, smile sweetly and proffer that those in happy and contented relationships are often prone to putting on a pound or two. You may be destined to smell of liver, but at least you will be employed.
A cure for mobile phone addiction
Fed up of sitting in a room of people glued to their devices or of finding my children texting at midnight, I have decreed that all mobile phones and tablets will be shut in a drawer from 6pm until after breakfast the next morning. The children complained, but my husband has flatly refused to abide by the rule. How can I expect them to comply if he won’t set a good example? — M. C., Kent
I am partly in awe of you and partly terrified at the prospect of ever meeting you. I imagine your children can look forward to mind-improving tomes and useful new underwear at Christmas. Their peers will be envious. Yet I do believe you are doing the right thing — it was during lockdown that I discovered a strange lump on my little finger. It proved to be a callous, developed from incessant phone-clutching — it was only when my online activities started to literally deform me that I went cold turkey. Hopefully, you have caught the children before their hunchbacks set in.
Is your husband concerned about missing an important call or just about having to make conversation? You could, if feeling generous, allow him to bend the rules once the babes are asleep, but this still leaves you chatting to the succulents. Perhaps you need to make being offline a more attractive proposition? A little mood lighting, a nice bottle of something… I shall leave you to fill in the rest. And yes, of course I meant a jigsaw.
How to stand in the way of great adventure — or not
Our adult daughter has announced that, as soon as restrictions allow, she is going to quit her job and travel the world with a group of friends — most of whom don’t need to work. I understand the urge after recent events, but do worry about what she’ll be left with when she gets back. How can we get her to take her future more seriously? — H. M., Leicestershire
It sounds as though you are taking her future quite seriously enough for both of you. Come, now — don’t you remember what it felt like to be young and carefree? After the months we have all spent staring at our own four walls, how could anyone not understand her desire to get out into the world and see something new? Between you and I, I fully intend to quit and set off on a round-the-world jolly as soon as restrictions allow, too — just don’t tell the Editor.
Assuming she is good at her job (whatever it may be), I’m sure she’ll secure some way of earning a crust upon her return (whenever that may be). Who knows, perhaps she’ll find love on some sunny foreign shore and you’ll have a guaranteed holiday and/or retirement destination; perhaps she’ll get bored after a fortnight and end up back in her childhood bedroom, regretting what she’s done.
As you say, she is an adult and you are powerless. The world’s governments, however, are very powerful indeed and will send her back as soon as Covid levels start creeping up — I’d start clearing out that childhood bedroom.
Come on, feel the noise
I now work from home and my husband, who is retired, has taken to sitting in the study with me. It’s not this I mind, but rather the constant commentary on the contents of the newspaper or the TV on full blast. How can I politely ask him to either leave or at least be quiet? —— R. A., Herefordshire
Your husband is clearly delighted to have you there and I bet that more than a few readers would be charmed to have such a devoted spouse. I do, however, appreciate the impracticalities of having current affairs recited at you while you’re trying to do whatever it is that you do.
A handy tip I picked up when last I worked in an office was to keep a large pair of headphones on at all times. You needn’t have anything playing through them — their mere presence acts as a deterrent for conversation (this is also a good trick for the antisocial on public transport). Go for a noise-cancelling pair and you will also be able to drown out Loose Women. If your husband takes offence, it’s time for noise-cancelling earbuds—discreet headphones that you can wear undetected, if your hair is long enough. Just nod and smile once in a while and he’ll be none the wiser.
Should it transpire that you’ve missed a question, there is one answer that will never let you down: ‘Yes, dear.’ Unless it was ‘Shall we get a divorce?’ — although that would, at least, solve your initial problem.
The suit maketh the man
My son is getting married so I need a new suit, but I have never been comfortable in formal wear, being more of a chinos and polo shirt man. Is there anything I could do or wear to feel more like myself, while still looking smart? —— P. R., Tyne and Wear
It is a truth universally acknowledged that one cannot turn up to their son’s wedding in chinos and a polo shirt — unless that is the dress code, but I think you might have your work cut out convincing everyone that this qualifies as a good idea. You will simply have to wear whatever you are asked to, be it top hat and tails, a kilt or a lounge suit. However, I do sympathise. Most people seem to relish donning their finery, whereas I still feel like a child playing dress up with their mother’s wardrobe.
I suspect that this is more of a confidence issue than anything else. The best thing you can do is visit a smart tailor — Savile Row, if funds permit — and get yourself an outfit that fits you like a glove. When you see yourself in a suit that was, quite literally, made for you, I predict that you will feel an inch taller and wear it with pride. If not, just think of the beautiful family photographs that will be yours to treasure and look back on for the rest of your days, everyone dressed to the nines and glowing. That, surely, is worth a day of mild discomfort?
Ready, Steady, Cook
After my wife died, my neighbour started to cook extra suppers and drop them round, which was very kind and greatly appreciated at the time. The trouble is, she is still doing it after six months—and she’s a truly terrible cook. Is there any way of asking her to stop without offending her? —— M. P., Surrey
I know we teach children that honesty is the best policy, but this really is an exception to that rule, poor woman. I would never advocate throwing food away when so many around the world go unfed, but if you have a dog with a strong enough stomach, you could save yourself a fortune on kibble. If your dog has standards, I find the surest way to stop people from cooking or baking for you is to steal their Tupperware. I don’t mean that you should break in and raid her cupboards, but rather that you should cease returning the containers—she’ll run out eventually (unless she’s a home-shopping-channel addict).
Personally, I would invite her over to dine at your house, making it very clear that this feast is to say thank you for all those months she has spent nourishing (or, indeed, poisoning) you. Make it a kitchen supper and cook everything from scratch before her very eyes—the more elaborate, the better—thereby demonstrating how capable you are of taking care of yourself, rewarding her virtue and drawing a line under the situation in one fell swoop. If this plan falls down on the fact that you can’t cook either, I’m not sure what you’re complaining about.
During lockdown, I bought a kitten for company. It was quite sweet when small, if always slightly feral, but it’s getting meaner with age. It recently launched itself at my boyfriend’s face for no apparent reason — he was lucky to keep his eyes. I’m convinced my cat hates me and am feeling trapped. How might we make friends? —— R. M., East Sussex
Had you never come across a cat before? Cats are meant to hate you — that is the whole point of cats. I maintain that the Ancient Egyptians only worshipped them because they were too afraid not to. This is why I’m more of a dog person: your forearms remain unscathed, you aren’t woken in the night by a feline attempting to asphyxiate you by sitting on your face and you look far less ridiculous dragging them round on a lead (who started this cat-on-a-lead fad? I should like to write them a strongly worded letter).
All this being said, I don’t believe in giving away animals because you’ve realised they are a minor inconvenience. If people did this as easily with children, where would we be? No, you have welcomed the creature into your home and now you must share it. I don’t know if you saw the recent article on ‘dog rooms’, but I believe separate quarters might be the best solution.
You could even build a catio. No really, it’s a thing — Google it. Although confinement does minimise the chances of the little bugger adopting the neighbours.
Eyes wide shut
After being left by his wife, one of my friends has had ‘relationships’ with a series of 20-somethings. He’s in his fifties and I can’t imagine what they have in common — I certainly struggle to make conversation with them. I’m embarrassed on his behalf, but am unsure how to make him see what a twit he’s making of himself. Do you have any suggestions? —— Y. C., London
Well, I would probably avoid trying to imagine ‘what they have in common’… No, I’m being unfair — they may well sit up into the wee hours having great debates. Really, it’s none of your business either way. Your friend has, presumably, been hurt by his wife’s defection and, if the company of these women is helping, there’s no reason for embarrassment. Perhaps it’s a relief to find himself single and he’s merely enjoying himself — and why not?
If you were feeling savage, you could engage his current amor in a conversation that you suspect will throw her and humiliate her in public, in an attempt to open his eyes. However, such a stunt may well end his relationship with you, rather than her. You could tell him he’s a twit, although if he has children, I suspect he has already been informed of this. You might remember that, after a certain point, age really is just a number — we are all adults.
I’m mostly intrigued by how he has managed such a string of affairs, given recent restrictions — but then, given what the rule-makers have been up to…
Make that change
I’ve always hated people saying that ‘things aren’t what they used to be’ as they object to some minor change. However, as I approach the end of middle age, I find myself railing against changes in everything from the National Trust to my local theatre. Am I wrong to feel this way? —— L. G., North Yorkshire
I think we can all agree that things are most certainly not what they used to be. Of course, in some cases, I’m rather glad. It’s infinitely easier to flick a lightswitch than to wander around with a candle, indoor loos are an undeniable convenience and I’m inclined to think it preferable that young girls are no longer married off to their father’s eligible friends. On the other hand, I resent the ever-increasing number of television channels, very few of which offer anything one might actually want to watch, and the fact that you are now expected to be contactable at all times. It doesn’t help that we are approaching a point in our lives where people assume we have died if we don’t respond to a text message within five minutes.
That said, I think the solution here is quite simple. Either you remain a member of the National Trust and continue to visit your local theatre, becoming angrier by the day, or you find other activities that soothe the soul. Do things that make you happy, rather than resentful. There must be some, surely — or you really are in trouble.
Friends like these
A group of old friends has arranged a ‘reunion’ of sorts. I agreed to go, but am dreading it. I am fairly recently divorced and spend most of my time with my dog, whereas everyone else will be bringing spouses and talking endlessly about their children and grandchildren (of which I have neither). Do you have any tips to make it bearable? —— F. L., London
It’s fascinating how we view our own lives. It sounds as though you have been liberated from what was, presumably in some respect, an unhappy marriage and now have the freedom to do whatever you choose — a situation that many will envy. Concoct some grand plans and dazzle everyone with your glamorous new life — even if all you’re really planning is your next boxset. You might just inspire yourself to follow through with some of these plans.
Take the dog along if you can. Not only will this distract from tales of ‘What Arabella did/ate/regurgitated next’, it will provide an excuse to nip outside for breathers and to leave if it becomes too much. You might even forget to take the pooch out and instead encourage it to wee up the trouser leg of anyone who really annoys you. ‘Oh my! He’s never done anything like that before! Do animals usually dislike you?’
Finally, remember that you aren’t obliged to attend at all. Life is too short for people pleasing and you can always catch up with your friends individually, in a setting that doesn’t fill you with dread.
Slip into something more comfortable
Over the years, I have developed a habit of taking a pair of hotel slippers home with me whenever I stay somewhere. I had always thought they were intended as a free gift and that they made a nice and useful souvenir, but a friend recently spotted my (rather impressive) collection and suggested that it is stealing. Do you agree? —— F. R., Cambridgeshire
I’m slightly lost for words. Do you wear these slippers around the house? And derive comfort and enjoyment from them? Personally, I’d be just as happy to stick my feet in a pair of sturdy envelopes — the experience would be much the same. If you’re staying in that many hotels, surely you could afford a nice pair of sheepskin mules?
The fact that you refer to your ‘collection’ as being ‘rather impressive’ is mildly alarming and evokes an image of a purpose-built display case, each pair sitting proudly on a pedestal beneath its own spotlight. If you’re looking to impress, perhaps a nice collection of antique coins or similar might be more appropriate. Or, if it really is hotel mementoes that do it for you, why not go for the branded pen, which is surely far more ‘useful’, if that’s what you seek? Anyway — each to their own, I suppose.
As regards the issue of stealing, I think hotels are far more concerned with the louts trying to stuff the pillows and bathrobes into their suitcases to worry too much about two pieces of cardboard masquerading as footwear.
It’s my party
Now that we’re allowed to gather in groups again and most of my peers have been jabbed, I’m planning a large sit-down lunch with friends in the garden. I want it to be quite formal so am trying to devise a seating plan, but the old rules of alternating sexes and splitting couples become rather complicated in the modern world. What would you advise? —— F. P., Cambridgeshire
How sweet of you to arrange such a shindig for your loved ones — wherever you sit them, I’m sure they will feel most fortunate to be included. There are other rules of etiquette you fail to mention, such as where you as the host should be seated, who should be opposite you, etc — but frankly, assuming The Queen isn’t on the guest list, I should ignore the lot.
Why not throw caution to the wind and arrange a huge game of spin the bottle to decide who sits next to and opposite whom? Alternatively, you could name each place setting something witty and make each person draw one from a bowl. Of course, if you do have any guests who should be kept away from each other and they end up as table mates, there is the risk of spilt milk — or Champagne, hopefully.
A safer option would be to seat people next to those you know they will enjoy, therefore ensuring a convivial event. If you’re in need of one more, do send my invitation care of Country Life — but only if we’re playing spin the bottle.
You made your bed
I am in a quandary of guilt because I have never known what polite society does with bed clothes when departing, a) when one’s hostess runs the house; b) when there are signs of a cleaning lady; or c) if there is a housekeeper. One so wants to do the correct thing to ensure another invitation is offered. —— P.D., London
Firstly, I should introduce myself. Once considered quite the starlet, I was recently advised to retrain by the Government and am yet to discover any kind of agony-aunt qualification, but it transpires that it really is who you know. Anyway — back to bed linen! Shall we take a moment to give thanks that we were born into a society where this might be considered a problem? —— Housekeeper or no, if I were to find the bed stripped, I would assume there had been an incident.
Unless your inclination to be helpful is stronger than your desire not to be known as an adult bed-wetter, I would simply make the bed in the morning (but not so well that it doesn’t look slept in, unless you want the bed-wetting rumours to be replaced by accusations of corridor-creeping). When I have guests, I expect them to leave their room in more or less the state they found it, not to have polished the loo and done a load of laundry on the way out. If you’re that concerned about where your next free meal is coming from, I suggest a suitably ingratiating thank-you letter.
A fishy business
I am struggling with the issue of pescatarian cutlery. We were given a lovely set of Edwardian bone-handled and engraved fish knives and forks, and we increasingly serve fish at dinner parties. Recently, a rather snobbish guest commented that fish knives and forks were a pretentious Victorian invention, designed to make the aspirational middle classes feel superior. I suppose we are ‘middle class’, but how ghastly to be judged on a knife and fork. Should we retire them? —— C. M. M., Lisbon, Portugal
Should you retire your snobbish guests? Yes, a hundred times yes — they sound vile. There are few things I like less than people that judge others based on their vocabulary (assuming they don’t speak exclusively in swear words), education, family… you get the idea. Not one of these things makes one person better or worse, more or less valuable than another. We would all do well to remember that the life we are born into is a complete lottery, that we must all do our best with what we are given and that this involves both kindness and manners. In my opinion, it is insulting your host that shows a distinct lack of class.
If you are insecure enough to hide your belongings away, then so be it. Personally, I would have a new family crest designed (even the ‘middle classes’ are allowed to do this, believe it or not!), with the fish cutlery pride of place, and have it printed in technicolour on the next invitations I sent out.
Hair of the dog
I have a friend coming to stay who has, at the last minute, dropped in ‘And I assume you don’t mind my bringing Teddy along?’ — Teddy being her dog. I don’t particularly want him as a house guest, but I feel as though I have been boxed into a corner. She claims that he’s ‘beautifully behaved’, but we have somewhat different definitions of this. Worse still, she lets him sleep in her bed, which means so much more laundry. Is there a way of saying no without upsetting anyone? —— B. L., by email
Hang on — I’m no advocate of co-sleeping with canines (who wants to wake up with a mouthful of fur?), but what exactly do you mean by ‘so much more laundry’? Are you saying that, if it’s not covered in dog hair, you don’t wash the bed linen between guests? Because, if that’s the case, you could casually inform your friend of this fact and I doubt she’ll want to come at all. Standards must be maintained — and no, a squirt of Febreze doesn’t count.
There are many reasons you could give for denying Teddy an invitation: is your house particularly small or full of breakable valuables? Do you have a cat or small child that might be traumatised by his presence? Might you have developed a severe allergy? If not, your friend has, as you say, manouevred you quite neatly into a corner, so it’s probably time to invest in extra laundry detergent (or Febreze).
Back to reality
After watching the reality TV series Love Island, our daughter has become determined to appear in a future incarnation of the show. We have tried to explain how damaging it could be to her career prospects, but she argues that she wants to be an ‘influencer’ and this is the way to do it. How can we make her see sense? —— N. C., Edinburgh
Ah, yes — why work for a living when you see other bright young things making their fortunes touting tat on social media? What a world we live in. To be honest, one of the main requirements for appearing on such a show seems to be excessive amounts of unnecessary plastic surgery at a frighteningly young age, so unless you’re willing to fund this, you should be safe.
If she does somehow make it through the selection process, I would make much of the fact that you will be watching — as will her grandparents, siblings, former school teachers… Profess to be excited that you will have front-row seats for any romance that might blossom on screen. Tell her that, not only will you be watching as the programme airs, but you also look forward to sitting down for family viewings once she has been unceremoniously evicted (not that I watch it. Obviously). That should, at least, keep her on best behaviour.
I wouldn’t worry unduly about future employers judging her, should the ‘influencing’ not work out — no one remembers any of the contestants’ names the day after they leave, anyway.
It’s a no from me
Do you have any suggestions on how to extricate oneself from doing things such as church flowers? I am currently being dragooned into doing more and more for the community, much of which I am happy to do — but it does seem that the more you agree to, the more is asked of you and it’s jolly hard to get out of it politely. —— S.F., Hampshire
Ah yes — you have made yourself into a walking target by being too obliging. Why would the village organisers make their own lives difficult by going elsewhere when they know that your first answer to everything is ‘yes’? The trick is to be evasive even if it’s something you actually want to do — that way, the person asking will feel as though they’ve really achieved something in persuading you, but you won’t necessarily be their first port of call for every job going.
Of course, my advice is too late in this instance, so you should probably just move. It sounds as though you’re currently in a rural situation — why not snap up one of the flats that the population of London is currently vacating? No one in the city even makes eye contact, let alone speaks to each other or asks for favours, so you’d be well and truly off the hook.
If this doesn’t appeal, you could always pretend to have Covid and go into isolation for a few weeks. With any luck, by the time you are ‘well’ again, they will have ensnared your equally unwilling replacement.
The ex factor
My partner is invited to a wedding without me, which I wouldn’t usually mind — except he was invited with his ex wife and is still planning to go as her ‘plus one’. I know for a fact that she has thrown herself at him when drunk before and, although I trust him, I do wish he wouldn’t put himself in that situation. What if something happens and he goes back to her? —— H. F., Cornwall
Oh, I suspect you would ‘usually mind’, but that’s by the by. If the poor woman is getting drunk and throwing herself at someone who has clearly moved on, it is her that needs my counsel, rather than you. Unless, of course, there’s more to this story and you genuinely have reason to doubt him… Otherwise, you are just going to have to put your green-eyed demon in a cage, lock it securely and try not to feed him. If this man can’t be allowed out of the house without you as an escort to defend his honour, it’s going to be a long life indeed — for both of you.
Be the bigger person, help him choose a suit and tie and send him on his way with your blessing to enjoy himself. Believe me, that is far more attractive than an inebriated ex desperately clinging to the past. If something does happen and he does go back to her, then presumably he isn’t committed to you… and wouldn’t you rather know that now? ——
A smash hit
For our wedding, my mother-in-law bought us an incredibly expensive and equally hideous vase, which generally resides in a cupboard. Of course, it sits in pride of place in the hallway for her visits — but the last time I was putting it away, I dropped it. It’s beyond repair — do I really have to pay to replace it or should I just confess? —— A. S., Wiltshire
Confess that you finally cracked and threw it against a wall, only considering the ramifications once it was too late? This might ensure that you have one less to cook for at Christmas, but is unlikely to do much for familial harmony — either between you and your mother-in-law or you and your spouse, who will inevitably be caught in the crossfire.
I believe it is customary, in these situations, to blame the housekeeper. Of course, you will have to fire said housekeeper for authenticity and your mother-in-law will probably replace the vase out of pity. You will then have a hideous vase and no housekeeper, which seems a lose-lose situation. Alternatively, you could blame a child, if you have one to hand, although the bribery required to buy their silence might end up costing you as much as a replacement vase.
On balance, I think that yes, you will have to buy a new one — even if it means tracking one down on eBay. You could always recoup your loss by gifting your mother-in-law one of the other hideous items kept in the cupboard for her next birthday. Revenge is sweet.
I got you babe
I have started a relationship with a lovely man, who is incredibly attentive and wonderful company, but began calling me ‘babe’. I’m not a huge fan of this and asked him not to — but he is now calling me ‘sexy’ instead, which is infinitely worse. How can I get him to stop without upsetting him? Is there any way of reverting to ‘babe’ as a compromise? —— G. J., Cumbria
Well done you, for finding yourself a kind and affectionate chap. This in itself is not to be taken for granted, but I agree that the pet names are unfortunate. It does display a level of easy familiarity — assuming he doesn’t call everyone else the same thing — but unless you’re a piglet masquerading as a sheepdog, I would advise against answering to ‘babe’.
Having already chastised him once, I would be reluctant to pull him up again for fear of damaging relations; I recommend a stealthier approach. Next time he calls you ‘sexy’, do not respond. Not in a sullen fashion, you understand (no eye rolling or sighing) — simply fail to acknowledge that he has spoken and continue with the task in hand. After a couple of failed attempts to get your attention, he is likely to use your real name, possibly quite loudly and in an exasperated manner: ‘GINA?!’ (For example.) At this, bestow your full attention and a radiant smile upon him. Repeat this process — ignore and reward — until he learns to use your proper title in the first place. It really is very much like training a puppy. Or, indeed, a piglet.
Lights, camera, action
I know what I’m about to say is unacceptable — but I do not like my own child. She is sly and deceitful and seems determined to cause trouble between me and her mother. When we’re both around, she is the model of good behaviour. The moment we are alone together, she turns into a she-devil. My wife thinks I’m exaggerating and I don’t know how long I can continue like this. —— D.M., Cambridgeshire
A she-devil indeed! I would be intrigued to know what the little mademoiselle gets up to. I’m not sure what you’ve said is unacceptable — most of us dislike our family from time to time, which isn’t to say we don’t still love them (even if it is deep, deep down). Living in close proximity breeds annoyances anyway, but particularly if certain parties are being deliberately provocative.
I’m not sure what age your daughter is, but the sooner traits such as slyness and deceit are stamped out, the better. The important thing is that your wife’s eyes are opened to these faults so that you can act as a team. I would leave them alone together for a prolonged period, as even the best actresses slip up eventually — could you arrange (or fake) a business trip or a friend in need? With only her mother there to insist that the child tidies her room/brushes her teeth/eats her greens, there is bound to be some resistance eventually. If not, it’s time for hidden cameras — and do share the footage, I love a good movie night.
My brother and sister-in-law both had very successful careers and have always lived in big houses and driven fast cars. This is all very well, but I do wish that she would refrain from telling me how much everything is worth, which top restaurant they have eaten out in recently and which designer she is wearing. She always follows up with a compliment on my own (often ancient) outfit, but it feels backhanded. Please advise on how to control my tongue and unkind thoughts. —— E.W., Pembrokeshire
It is a sad truth that we don’t get to choose our relatives — and that our own relatives don’t always choose well (in our eyes, at least) when it comes to adding branches to the family tree.
Presumably you don’t have to see her all that often (I am assuming you don’t live in an equally big house next door, from the hint of sibling rivalry in your tone…), so I would encourage a generous and numbing dose of strong margarita before your next encounter. It won’t help you hold your tongue — quite the opposite — but it will make it more fun and, with any luck, you might not even remember having seen her.
You might consider that she is, however ineptly, trying to impress you and it may well be that she genuinely admires your look. After all, money can buy a lot of things, but it can’t teach a woman how to cut a dash in an Hermès scarf — no matter how many she owns.
Can’t you hear me SOS?
Some years ago, my father retired, leaving his very successful company under my control. Since then, I have made a series of business decisions that haven’t worked out, to the extent that I’m not sure how much longer we can keep going. I have managed to keep the situation quiet as I know it would break his heart, but unless our fortunes change dramatically — and soon — I am going to have to confess. How do I tell him I’ve killed his legacy? —— S. M., London
It sounds as though you’ve either had a run of incredibly bad luck or your father perhaps isn’t quite the businessman you think he is — if he handed over the reins and left you without any guidance, merely assuming that his genes would carry on and do the work. Either way, I wouldn’t spend too much time on self-flagellation — it will achieve nothing other than sleepless nights (and blemished skin, depending on how far you take it).
Have you considered, at any point, that rather than presenting your father with a dead legacy, it might be time to swallow your pride and simply ask for his help? If he was that successful, it may well be that he can see a solution and a way of reviving things that you are too far in the mire to grasp. I have always been of the opinion that it is far braver to admit when one is out of their depth and seek counsel than it is to go under with a whimper.
The gift of giving
This year, my wife and I agreed not to exchange birthday or Christmas gifts. Her birthday was first and I duly presented her with a card, but when my own arrived, she gave me a thoughtful and quite expensive present. Has she forgotten our conversation or have I unwittingly stumbled into some sort of trap? —— G. F., Essex
I can’t believe you fell for this. Admittedly, it’s a passive-aggressive move on her part, but you made a definite error of judgement. A no-gift rule calls, at the very least, for flowers and chocolates (as well as a card — always a card). If you’re playing it safe, you opt for a middle-of-the-range yet personal something (‘I know we said no gifts, but I couldn’t let the day go unmarked’); the belt-and-braces approach is to buy them something fabulous and claim that you just couldn’t help yourself. But anyway — you went with a card.
You now have two options. One, you go out and panic buy a belated birthday gift. I can guarantee you that, whatever it is, however much you spend, she will never use it. Secondly, you can spend the rest of the year being incredibly lovely, then blow her away with the best present you can lay your hands on at Christmas. I suggest a puppy. Possibly a yacht. She will either have calmed down enough to accept the peace offering or have simmered all year and reject it violently, potentially setting fire to said yacht (but hopefully not a puppy). I wish you luck.