Friday, 17 March 2017

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 17 March

Your friends may love their uninhabitable home in the country, but you don’t have to

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,
I need urgent help with a problem of ‘how to refuse gracefully’. Let me explain: two very dear friends, both bachelors, have purchased, in Northern France, an old presbytery in urgent need of renovation.

I have seen photographs of the work in progress and I am impressed by the change from near-bleak monastic style to a more quaint decorative style.

However, quaint does not mean comfort as the ‘boys’ (and I use the term loosely) have hinted there may be a paucity of heating and hot water. Therein lies my problem – how can I refuse their constant invitations to visit ‘la belle France’ until they can guarantee the most basic living standards? I look forward to your comments.
C Gosneth, Highgate, London

Dear C Gosneth,
How I feel for you! For many years I longed to visit the country at weekends but the only opportunities were offered to me by friends with challenging accommodation – animals all over the AGA and in the washing-up bowl, a vacuum cleaner the mistress of the house had no command of as to function; that kind of thing.

Maybe it is the case that only those of no or low domestic standards would ever have the nerve to invite anybody to stay in this servant-less age.

I did not hesitate, as a visitor, to vac and dust and polish myself. After all, house guests should lay the table and wash up, so why not be even more helpful? But where basic amenities are denied, there is little to be done. One can hardly set about installing a heating system.

On the other hand, a country home so honed and pitched up to a state of bland perfection can have its drawbacks, the first of which might be the prissy, fussy occupants who are mad-keen to invite you only so they can push you out again as quickly as possible – perhaps even before Sunday lunch. These types don’t encourage mucking in. They acquired a rural retreat in order to be idyllic and invite their friends but when it comes to it, the whole thing is a terrible strain and bore.

It could be that your dear friends with their crazy unheated presbytery are to be treasured. If they are so wayward and haphazard as to have failed to install chauffage, would they really mind if you were quite straight with them – in a perfectly delightful way, of course? No need to evasively suggest that you might stay for one night only or even merely drop by for tea. But everything depends on how you put it – try for a mock- imperious tone: ‘Really, it’s quite impossible to visit until delicious piping hot water gushes forth from the taps, which will surely be soon.’ This could be just the spur they need to get that former religious dwelling up to scratch.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER


Am I right or am I wrong – do fewer persons nowadays from the realms of officialdom, the power services and so on, phone up and ask to speak to ‘a Mrs Connybeer’ or ‘a Mr Opalbrook’? This inclusion of the indefinite article is supposed to indicate lack of acquaintance with the individual in question. So one becomes indeed not an individual but one of a range of possible Mrs Gardendoors. I can’t believe the formula was ever intended to be polite.

Really, it’s frightfully rude. The only possible response is, ‘I am certainly not “a” Mrs Silverlock. I am “the” Mrs Silverlock.’ I wonder if anyone ever phoned up Timberlake Wertenbaker, the playwright, and said, ‘I'd like to speak to “a” Timberlake Wertenbaker’? It helps to have an exceptional name, and these days many do, being called ‘North West’ or ‘Novelette’. WH Auden said he’d be furious if he came across anyone else called ‘Wystan’. I was surprised, though, when someone phoned me up and by way of introduction said, ‘this is “a” Mrs Stuart speaking.’

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