From Lady Antonia Fraser
Q. I enjoy getting readers’ letters, but there is one category I am at a loss how to deal with. These are from readers who inform me that in another life, another incarnation, they were one of my historical characters, their present lives being generally very different. Most striking was the vicar’s wife who wrote to me after reading my King Charles II: ‘I am now the hard-working wife of a clergyman but in another life I was that naughty minx Nell Gwyn.’ Occasionally there has been aggression: ‘How dare you write about my wife, Mary Queen of Scots?’ signed ‘formerly Lord Darnley’. A great many people seem to have once been Marie Antoinette. Should I answer them as they were — or as they are? For instance, ‘How was the guillotine for you?’ vs ‘Did you enjoy my book?’
A. You might reply that it must be tiresome for them to read inaccurate representations of their own past lives and that it would be sensible for them to commit to paper their own recollections before they find themselves in another incarnation.
From Matt Hancock
Q. Earlier this year I had a change of circumstances and haven’t had the chance to be in touch with some of the people I enjoy spending time with. How should I rectify this problem? Should I send Christmas cards, despite the fact that they seem to be going the way of the horse and trap? Or should I host a Christmas party and run the risk of a last-minute cancellation by Sajid Javid?
A. It is best to send what has become known as a ‘round robin’. Normally viewed as the quintessence of naff, these self-important news-sheets list all the sender’s achievements and setbacks of the previous year in far too much tedious detail. I would never normally recommend that anyone send one out at Christmas, but in your case I will make an exception. Your friends and colleagues must be extremely keen for a blow-by-blow account of your year containing as many details as possible.
From Lord Archer
Q. I wrote to you some years ago about the trouble I’m having with my wife (also Mary). I took your advice, and frankly, things have gone from bad to worse. I was rather hoping that when she retires as chair of the Science Museum (unpaid), she might come home and take care of her 81-year-old husband. No such luck! Dame Mary now tells me that she plans to spend the next five years building a children’s hospital in Cambridge (unpaid). She has offered me the job as her speechwriter (unpaid) and driver (unpaid). Is this fair?
A. You are lucky to have an energetic wife who wants to keep you on your toes well into your eighties. I urge you to make yourself useful or risk her being snapped up by someone more dynamic.
From Rachel Johnson
Q. I am a terrible champagne snob and bore and I hate prosecco. I can only drink ice-cold champagne poured within seconds from a cryogenically frozen bottle. Is it allowable to ask my host, as I enter a Christmas party and when offered ‘champagne’, whether the refreshment is in fact prosecco or cava in order to politely request a glass of wine instead?
A. Such a question would flatten the effervescence of a Christmas party. Instead take a glass of wine as you enter… until you can quietly establish from a waiter or other guest whether champagne is on offer.
From Georgina Toffolo
Q. Having published four books of surprising success I’m now turning my attention to my next masterpiece. Despite a mild case of writers block whilst plotting my next book, I am aghast that my pen flows so freely when imagining a romantic novel based in the walls of power. Do you think a fictional world of sex, power, greed and corruption, that is so intoxicating to me and my readers, would be overshadowed by the current controversial daily headlines?
A. Congratulations! I have checked the Amazon figures and you are doing really well as a creator of fiction. Since you have proven your ability to hold the attention of readers there’s no reason why the subject matter you speak of should put off your fans — just so long as you continue to make your narratives entertaining. Gallows humour is a long established literary tradition.
From Richard Madeley
Q. I have been rising at 4 a.m. to present a breakfast television programme. Motoring to the studios through the empty streets was rather pleasant in the midsummer months, but now it is dark and cold and I am consumed with resentment towards all those still sleeping peacefully in their beds. Increasingly I’m tempted to sound my horn to wake them up. I know this is small-minded and spiteful, but the urge grows ever stronger. How should I resist?
A. Your urge to be noticed as you labour could be more easily satisfied. Just as Ryanair pilots have a rush of well-being when a triumphant fanfare proclaims their flight has landed on time, arrange for someone sympathetic on reception to trigger the sound of rapturous applause as you arrive in the building each day.
From Jeremy Paxman
Q. If I ruled the world I would make it compulsory for employers to provide siesta facilities in all workplaces — even if only hammocks and hooks. What would you insist upon, Mary?
A. Power naps were highly recommended by the birth guru Betty Parsons (1915 – 2012), whose mental and physical abilities into her late nineties bore testament to her own teachings, so I would agree with this dictat. Were I to rule, I would insist on a village shop within walking distance of most rural households. Imagine the community bonding, the reduction in emissions and the chance for an elder to have one conversation a day! As a redress for their dominance, the big supermarkets would have to supply the village shops with their staples at the same price as they charge in the megastores.
From David Starkey
Q. I am writing to ask you for urgent advice on the etiquette of citing cancelled honours and distinctions in post-nominals and CVs. I’ve lost a few myself recently and suspect it may become an increasingly common problem. My own suggestion is to continue to cite the honour but to place (Canc.) for ‘Cancelled’ afterwards. Thus: FRHistS (Canc.), which is neat and factually correct. But do you feel it sufficiently reflects the awful seriousness of cancellation? Perhaps it would be advisable to add, say, an emoji as a symbol of contrition?
A. Your solution is obviously the right one. It was foreshadowed in 1066 and All That where one of the authors describes himself as MA (aegrotat) meaning that he is ill. If you could find a Latin rendering of ‘cancelled’ the classics always lend distinction to any description of failure.
From Ann Widdecombe
Q. I never mind being recognised and never begrudge selfies, autographs etc, but sometimes people stop me at the most inconvenient moments. Recently I was trying to parallel park in a confined space (not my forte) when someone rapped on the window and a beaming face filled the windscreen as its owner took a photo. I nearly rammed the bumper of the car in front. Do you have a reply which sounds like ‘Pleased to meet you’ but actually means I wish they would visit the headquarters of perdition?
A. ‘Not now, darling’, as though to a child or puppy, always works well as the petitioner, though cheated of their trophy, is consoled by the intimacy of the rebuffal.
From Simon Callow
Q. I am frequently accosted by people who hail me for my wonderful work, which they just love, but are unable to recall my name. They struggle for a bit, then triumphantly cry: ‘Of course! Simon Cowell!’ Recently even a very close friend introduced me to someone as Simon Cowell. How should I handle this situation?
A. You’re an actor — you are supposed to enjoy assuming the personae of others. Why not turn the situation to your advantage and become Simon Cowell in the short term, saying and doing exactly what the mogul himself would do in the circs?
From Anne Robinson
Q. My friend Matthew and I feel that we’ve seen the best of newspaper journalism and would like instead to become hedge-funders. Matthew is re-watching The Big Short and I’m leafing through Vogue for outfits suitable for a lady hedge-funder. But there is one final bridge to cross before we make our career change. Neither of us has ever knowingly met a hedge-funder and feel it would be irresponsible to join the profession without doing so. Can you help?
A. I would help but I am reliably informed that you were seen at dinner with a very well-known hedge-funder quite recently. Moreover, I am also reliably informed that you are already in possession of a cash mountain so sizeable that you may have difficulty in spending it — in short you don’t need a ‘gig’ as a hedge-funder. Finally, for those readers who genuinely do want to meet a hedge-funder as a way of fast-tracking themselves into the industry, but are finding obstacles in their path, there is no more successful way of meeting and bonding with hedge-funders on an intimate level and allowing them to get the true measure of you than by taking a role in their household as nanny, gardener, chauffeur or tutor.
From Keith Allen
Q. My wife has been suffering with mood swings recently: she’s also losing confidence in herself and appears depressed. I was shocked last week when I saw her eating from a bucket of spicy chicken, as she is a lifelong vegetarian. Should I turn a blind eye or suggest a meat substitution to her?
A. Your wife is not alone. At the same time as many Britons are losing confidence in themselves and suffering mood swings, there is an army of high-spirited younger folk with nowhere adequate to live and who, in exchange for comfortable accommodation, are prepared to be pleasant at all times. Move in a lodger on a peppercorn rent. A lodger will act as a human buffer between yourself and your wife, and both of you will find that life becomes much rosier. This will be especially true if the lodger finds you funny rather than tragic, which is sometimes the default attitude with which we tend to view ourselves in the absence of any live-in presence to contradict us.
From Nancy Dell’Olio
Q. At Christmas, my festive thoughts turn to fine Scotch whisky. Since becoming a patron of Boisdale, I have enjoyed the freedom of one of the greatest Scotch tasting collections on the planet. Scotch appears to be a man-magnet. Whenever I practise whisky breathing, I find myself approached by young men intent on inviting themselves to join me for a wee dram. This is flattering until they become competitive and start to ululate over peat smoke and fruity softness before disappearing beneath the table. Tell me Mary, how do I find a man who can match me glass-for-glass?
A. The trouble is that you have been barking up the wrong tree. This is a vintage issue. Young men — for various reasons — seem to be far less resilient than their elders. At Boisdale you will find plenty of well-matured alpha males fully capable of processing a significant number of units without any noticeable deterioration in capacity. Such men will match you glass for glass — and beyond.
From Henry Jeffreys
Q. We have a relative who is wonderful at looking after our eldest daughter. The only problem is that after a day out with the relative in question, our daughter will always come home with a lurid pink dress with a unicorn on it, an ugly soft toy, or a plastic fidget thing. We don’t want to offend the relative in question, who herself dresses very well and isn’t short of a bob or two, but how do we stop her buying rubbish for our daughter?
A. Don’t bother to reprimand her. Thank your relation warmly for both the daycare and the present. Hide the present when you get home and recycle it via the charity shop — ideally one close to where the relation lives.
From David Bamber
Q. As the festive season is nigh, can you suggest an alternative eco-green centrepiece for the big day? ‘Re-plantable’ fir trees drop dead instantly and the gold thing in the loft might as well be in Abigail’s Party. Help!
A. Why not weave a vertical version of a Christmas wreath? Use trimmings of holly, ivy and anything else evergreen and wrap them around a upside-down, ice-cream cone shape made from hazel, willow stems or raspberry canes. Elaborate on this theme with fir cones and winter berries as decoration, being cautious not to overharvest as nature intends these for the birds.
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