Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 20 July

It’s not easy knowing how to behave in the modern world, but Thomas Blaikie can help. This week: when to send a postcard from your holidays

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,

I recently received a postcard from wealthy friends holidaying abroad. Although the message was handwritten, my name and address had been printed on a label and stuck on the card. These labels had clearly been printed in advance, before the holiday. Was I wrong to consider this – which suggested to me duty not spontaneity, rather as if I were part of a carefully orchestrated business mailshot – a breach of good manners?

Robert Nevill, Cirencester

Dear Robert,

Who said The Lady is just for ladies: welcome. I quite agree with you. The pre-printed labels are a mistake. I've never heard of anyone doing a mass-mailing of holiday postcards. Your friends must be potty. Presumably their secretary arranged the printing from what I believe is called a database, which he had laboriously 'created' beforehand. All that remained for his employers was to lie on a fivestar beach with the writing of the postcards hanging irksomely over them. Eventually, one might have said to the other, 'I suppose we'd better get the postcards out of the way. You do A to M; I'll do N to Z.'

You wonder what else they might use this 'database' for? Mass invitations? Horrors such as roundrobin letters: 'Bentley – only brand new!!! – was keyed in Chipping Campden! Charlotte on target with five A*s at A level. Ben has become involved with worker at Tesco (not our local branch); they're expecting a baby in March'.

Beware the lure of efficiency. Using a computer-based catalogue of your friends to hasten the distribution of postcards, Christmas cards etc, is just that bit too clinical. The impression given is of a ruthlessly organised social life, one in which dinner parties might be 'diarised' six weeks in advance – that kind of grimness.

It is perfectly acceptable to issue invitations to smaller, more informal social gatherings, such as dinner parties, in one general email or even text message. But do remember to blind-cc the other recipients, otherwise your guests might feel that they've already had the party if they can see the list of the others you're inviting. Or that they'd rather not have it.

For really special occasions, nothing will do except a handwritten and hand-addressed invitation sent through the post.

Going back to postcards, can I put in a plea? Do let's send more this summer from our holidays. Texting and emailing don't mark the occasion at all. A really good postcard, handwritten and addressed, just a few brilliant oneliners, is a thing of joy. The writer Ronald Firbank sent this to a friend. It said, 'Tomorrow I leave for Haiti. They say the President is a Perfect Dear.' That was in the 1920s. The President was a vicious dictator.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 3940 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER.

WHAT TO DO ABOUT... eating grapes

Nigel Spalding (another man reader – it's a male takeover!) writes from London to tell me of his embarrassment at a recent dinner when grapes were offered to accompany cheese – but no grape scissors. Should he have used his fingers or a knife? Grape scissors, along with a lot of other apparently useless pre-war table paraphernalia, were on the whole flung out of the home about 40 years ago. My grandmother had an entire cupboard of impossible items such as lobster forks, crab spoons, a device called a cake slice, if I remember correctly, and an astonishing contraption for keeping boiled eggs warm. Do you remember fish knives? It was never explained why they were that shape.

But the hurling of the grape scissors into junk shops was perhaps over-hasty. Grapes should not be torn one by one from the bunch. The gruesome stump of flesh that remains is unsightly and goes brown, occasioning bacteria. You should detach a bunchlette, as it were, by breaking a side stalk. Sometimes you can do this with fingers alone. A knife might slip and kill you. The only hope is grape scissors – readers of The Lady must revive them. Surely the perfect present.

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