Once again Mary has invited some of her favourite figures in the public eye to submit personal queries for her attention.
From Sir Les Patterson
Q. I am a distinguished Australian diplomat and happily married man, and I recently had a discreet liaison with a lady of oriental descent who was married to a newspaper tycoon. They are splitting up and I’m worried my name could be dragged into the limelight. How can I keep this out of the press? Alternatively, if it hits the headlines, how do I keep Lady Patterson from reading about it?
A. Tongues are already wagging so it is too late for a cover-up, but fortunately the scandal will break at a time when most senior commentators and grand inquisitors will be on holiday. In their absence, and in the absence of up-to-date images of yourself and Lady P, this story will have no fuel to fire it. Therefore take Lady P on a romantic maxi-break to a remote island, perhaps somewhere in Polynesia, where you can escape prying long lenses. By the time the festive season is over, a new scandal will have knocked your own off the perch.
From Andrew Castle
Q. After a career that has taken in Centre Court, the GMTV sofa and the ballroom, the time has come for a new hip. The operation is fairly routine but recovery will be spent at home in Balham over Christmas. The full house of family and friends will include my mother-in-law, whom I lovingly refer to as Cruella de Vil. I do love her but I don’t wish to spend every waking moment with her. How am I going to find some peace and quiet, being temporarily crippled and therefore unable to escape the kitchen?
A. Ask your wife to confide in Cruella the following confession she has extracted from you. Since you hold your mother-in-law in such enormously high esteem, you dread her witnessing the indignity of your having to make an unseemly wheelchair rush from the kitchen in order to fulfil a call of nature. Would she therefore be tactful enough to keep her own visits to the kitchen to the absolute minimum during the season of goodwill?
From Rachel Johnson
Q. I get sent a lot of advance copies of books both in proof and hardback. I am also often invited to the launch parties for said books by the authors. What is the form vis-à-vis buying a supernumerary copy of a book that you already own and have even read? I always buy the book if I don’t have a copy, but when I went to Daunt’s in Marylebone clutching a proof copy for the author to sign, he accused me of tightness within earshot of several luminaries I wanted to impress, who gave me pitying looks as they ostentatiously shelled out. I might add that I did once pay £20 for a copy of Robert McCrum’s P.G. Wodehouse biography and was wandering around with it unsigned at the launch at Penguin — only for McCrum to beard me and accuse me of stealing it from the heaped pile.
A. Fancy that. Book purchases at a launch used to be voluntary, but with some hardback ‘bestsellers’ shifting as few as 1,000 copies, the new protocol is that even reviewers should show support for the endangered habit of reading books by making a supernumerary purchase at the launch party. At least it can be inscribed and passed on as a present.
From Rory Stewart
Q. I have reluctantly concluded, after years of blaming food in Afghan villages, that my stomach may in fact be ‘lactose intolerant’. Apart from making me feel like a Californian hypochondriac — none of my friends believe me — it is also a political catastrophe. I am the MP representing the largest milk field in England, and the bit I enjoy most about my work is walking from farm to farm. Cumbrian farmers are very generous; in all the farmhouses I enter they lay on huge teas with buttery scones and cream cakes, and I am watched very carefully to make sure I eat it all. If I ask for black tea, dairy farmers are so shocked that they put milk in my tea anyway. If the truth gets out I expect no one will ever vote for me again. What do I do?
A. There is no satisfactory direct solution to this problem other than for you to persuade Sir Malcolm Rifkind to swap constituencies with you. Following a trek across Kensington Gardens to Notting Hill Gate, you would find around 80 per cent of the constituents you visited to be suffering from real or imaginary food allergies themselves, and serving afternoon teas rich with dairy-, yeast-, wheat- and gluten-free treats.
From Annabel Croft
Q. With three kids, my husband and I always have a problem as to whose sporting fixture we go to watch. It can’t be a decision based on the best school match or the best tea provided. How can we be fair?
A. Why not take a fatalistic stance? The children should pull numbers out of a hat at the beginning of each new term. This process will decide which matches you parents attend. The children can barter among themselves if they wish to change the running order.
From Philip Hook
Q. At the launch of my recent book Breakfast at Sotheby’s, an A-Z of the Art World, one of those who lined up for his book to be signed requested that I inscribe it ‘to my mentor’. Although I have known him for some time, and was grateful to him for buying the book, such a dedication would have been a total distortion of our relationship. How could I have handled the situation diplomatically and swiftly without blocking the access of the seething queue behind?
A. You should have written the dedication as requested, then outwitted the man by substitution, through sleight of hand, an ordinary copy signed only ‘Best wishes, Philip Hook’. Such an outrageous ambush deserved to be punished.
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