Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 28 September

If the question ‘Anything I can do?’fills you with dread, Thomas Blaikie advises on what to do when guests offer to help

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,
What can you do if you're giving a dinner party and one of the guests offers to help but won't take no for an answer? Recently, such a person barged into my kitchen, re-chopped my parsley so it was almost a paste, and then wouldn't stop asking questions just as I was at the tricky stage with the rack of lamb. I'm sure she meant well, but really. Any advice?
Marion Silverlock, Spalding

Dear Marion,
I wonder how many other readers are chopping their own parsley while perusing The Lady! It sounds a top-drawer dinner. I wish I'd been there.

This problem of unhelpful helpers is exacerbated by our modern mania for open plan. Is your kitchen in full view of your guests? The architect Rick Mather told me recently (sorry, namedropping) that one of his clients ordered folding screens for her kitchen so she could cook in peace.

But you may not want to rebuild your house. I suppose your guest can't be criticised for offering to help, but 'No' does mean 'No'. The trouble is, to get this clear, we have to change our whole culture of centuries where 'No' does not mean 'No'. What to do?

Only occasionally do I put my foot down: if there is the merest hint of what you might call formality or perhaps better expressed as trouble being taken – dressing up, flowers and candles on the table and so on – then, as a guest, please don't offer to help, except perhaps to carry items either to or from the table. Even then, ask if this assistance is wanted and request exact instructions about where to put things.

On the whole, the hosts' pleasure is to stage a treat where guests luxuriate: no washing up, waited on hand and foot, no finger to be lifted. If visitors start scurrying about, busy bees, manoeuvring with cling film, it's all quite spoiled.

As a guest, your responsibility is to entertain your hosts with your talk or your beauty or your jewels – or all three. Guests trying to help means explaining where the knife drawer is, which board to use, etc. By which time you could have done it yourself.

Repeated offers of help can create the impression that the hosts are struggling.

If you really can't get the wellmeaning guest out of your kitchen, don't let them interfere. Say, 'Don't do that', with enormous charm. Dole out a drudging job (scrubbing potatoes?) with precise instructions as to how and where to do it – as far away as poss.

On the other hand, hosts' prerogative, you're in charge: if you're hopelessly behind or just chronically incompetent at dinnerparty giving, there's nothing wrong with getting the guests to help you out on quite a large scale. I've tried it myself. They love it.

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

WHAT TO DO ABOUT... living next door to a Cabinet minister who was sacked in the recent reshuffle

Should you mention the debacle in an over-the-fence encounter? Miss Elsie Lamore writes from what, we can safely assume, is a desirable address in south London. Such a common problem, you're no doubt thinking; my goodness, I must be prepared!

Not so hasty, perhaps? Any neighbour might suffer a misfortune of some kind. You don't know them that well. It seems churlish to say nothing, but there's the risk of embarrassment or intrusion.

As I hope has come across to regular readers, I'm all in favour of reaching out, contact, communication, sociability. So, when in doubt, do something rather than nothing. Nothing will come of nothing.

Won't most people appreciate the interest taken? If not, more fool them.

I think Miss Lamore could pen a brief note of condolence (regardless of whose side she's on politically) to the stricken Cabinet minister rather than wait to bump into them, which might not be for some time. It's important not to tarry. It could even be a postcard. She could end: 'Don't trouble to reply.'

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