Dear Mary

Dear Mary: How can I tame my brother’s savage table manners?

Plus: A plan to dispose of an unwanted portrait

26 July 2014

9:00 AM

26 July 2014

9:00 AM

Q. I live far away from my brother and his family, but went to stay with them recently for the first time in many years. Having supper was like eating a meal with the starving. Brother, wife and their young teenager hunched down low in order to be nearer to their large plates of stew, which they ingested by noisy slurping and eating off both forks and knives, scraping the plates clean intently and, in my brother’s case, lifting plate to mouth to make sure the last bit of gravy went unwasted. Sister-in-law holds knife and fork like pencils. Child is learning the same. My mother would have been horrified at this Hogarthian scene, as was I. I also felt sick. How can I help them to mend their ways?
— K., London

A. Men depend on women’s nagging to ensure courtesy at the table, so your brother’s wife has obviously set the standards for this household. She may herself hail from a background which innocently values gusto over squeamishness. Alternatively, she may be insecure and have subconsciously realised that permitting the savagery is a surefire way of alienating her husband’s natural coevals so that she has him to herself. 

After years of eating like this, civilised guests will have self-edited and there will be no one to pull the family up sharp (apart from another family member). It is your duty to act — but you shouldn’t lecture the parents. Instead, invite the son for a lengthy visit to your own house where, since he is at a susceptible age, he can be subtly re-indoctrinated. Let him be the one to retrain his parents.

Q. A few months ago, a good friend of ours in the village asked if her son could paint a portrait (for a competition) of my daughter and me. We duly sat for the portrait and heard nothing for several months. My wife recently had a significant birthday and our friend gave her the portrait as a gift. It was a well-meaning and kind thought but, alas, we cannot stand the portrait and will not put it up anywhere. However, our friend is a regular visitor to the house and says she can’t wait to see it on display. Please advise.
— Name and address withheld

A. This solution will involve a cash outlay. First contact and commission another portrait of yourself and daughter. Give celebratory drinks to your neighbour with the offending portrait in pride of place, after which your wife should confide the delicate detail that, unaware she would receive this fabulous present, she commissioned another artist to tackle the same topic. For reasons of tact, therefore, she feels it would be better if the portrait is not on permanent display as its presence may well undermine the other artist — a member of the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists partnership. Indeed it may be best if her son retains the original, while you have postcards made of it for correspondence.

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  • davidofkent

    I think the answer to Q2 is ‘never look a gift horse in the mouth’. One day the artist may be famous and your currently unloved portrait could be worth a fortune (e.g. the artist in his ‘naive’ period). The other thing to say is ‘don’t be churlish’; put it up and let others judge.

  • Smith

    Put it up when the person visits. Take it down when they leave. Otherwise, generally speaking, you are just plain screwed.

  • Freedom

    The solution to Problem 2 is no good. The best thing is to show it once, declare that it’s going into a private room (such as a bedroom), and thenceforth it will never be seen again. Meanwhile, it’s been taken away to the local landfill site. Problem solved at no expense.

  • Kaschner

    Freedom is right. Except for the landfill extra. The portrait should be affixed to the back of a picture you already have hanging in the private room of your choice. Any competent framer can do this and attach a thin frame so that it, if you have to swing it round in an emergency, it looks all right at a cursory glance. NOW the problem is solved!