Monday, 30 November -0001

Modern manners

It’s not that easy knowing how to be polite in the modern world. This week: neighbours and knife holding

Written by Thomas Blaikie

Dear Thomas,

My neighbours are driving me mad. Well, really it’s their son. You wouldn’t believe the way he parks his car, blocking my space most of the time! I live in a close, you see. What can I do? And then there is the added problem of him playing his music so loudly. I like his parents; they’re good neighbours. I don’t want to upset them.

Mrs Browning, Hertfordshire

Dear Mrs Browning,

Oh dear. Neighbours! I’ve had endless emails: neighbours wanting help with their computers night and day, nosy neighbours, noisy neighbours, neighbours who talk too much… neighbours from Hell. At the same time, we’re getting more neighbourly, aren’t we? More residents’ associations, the ‘Big Society’ and so on.

On the parking issue, best to ruthlessly suppress your righteous indignation. Come over all helpless: ‘I know I’m useless. I just don’t seem to be able to get my car into/out of my space. So sorry. Could you possibly move?’ Make him think he’s helping you. He might not change his ways the fi rst time but persist.

Loud music from next door is real misery. The utter lack of consideration is more upsetting than the noise. But maybe they just haven’t realised. Seize the opportunity of a neighbourly chat to drop a hint: ‘I thought I heard a familiar song. Am I right it was such and such?’

The indirect approach won’t always work. If they’re blasting away in the middle of the night, what can you do but go round and ask them politely to turn it down or off?

Avoid confrontation if you can but don’t be afraid of it. I’ve had several run-ins with my neighbours over noise nuisance, even a flaming row on one occasion, but we still speak and they’ve stopped doing it.

If you’re planning a big noisy party, warn your neighbours in advance, even invite them. People will tolerate occasional disruption if they feel they’ve been thought of or given the chance to escape.

Now, I’m going to be controversial. I don’t want to annoy you or maybe I do. So much talk of ‘community’ in recent years, but has anything really changed?

The meanspirited tradition that neighbours are best avoided otherwise you’ll get stuck with them can persist in some quarters. But surely, knowing people, even slightly, makes it easier to put up with their little failings. And they’re more likely to be considerate to you.

Most of us do take an interest. It’s rewarding in itself. On the whole, neighbours like to help. It makes them feel useful. The opposite of what you might think. They like to take in parcels, keep a spare set of your keys, lend salt or sugar. Don’t hesitate to ask. Don’t fear obligation.

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

What to do about... Holding a knife

How should you hold your knife? Mrs Glenn Abbassi writes: ‘I never cease to be amazed at the number of people, young and old, who I am sure consider themselves from the upper echelons or at least of the professional classes, who hold their knife like a pen… it’s the f rst thing I notice when dining in company.’

Like it or not, we do notice how people hold their knives. Mrs Abbassi is not alone. Holding your knife like a pen is not actually revolting in the way that hanging low over the plate and shovelling food, doglike, into your mouth is, or smacking your lips, slurping your soup and not using a napkin.

But somewhere along the line it has been decided that the dainty poising of the knife and fork between thumb and forefinger is something to be looked down on.

Perhaps that’s it – it’s just too refi ned and pretentious. So much more robust and downtoearth to grip the handle completely in the hand as the upper classes do. Nancy Mitford applied this principle to what she thought were fancified French terms, such as ‘serviette’ and ‘settee’. So, there it is: don’t hold your knife like a pen.

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