Dear Mary

Dear Mary: How to talk to friends whose book you haven’t read

Take a tip from John Betjeman. Plus: foraging etiquette

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

Q. What is the correct thing to say to a writer friend whose book you haven’t read? I buy most friends’ books out of loyalty but there have been so many in the last few months that I can’t think when I will have the time, if ever, to read them. So what feedback can I tactfully give?
— Name and address withheld

A. You might take a tip from Sir John Betjeman. Derwent May has given me permission to repeat his own account of taking Caroline Blackwood to lunch and finding John Betjeman in the restaurant. Kind Betjeman sprang instantly to his feet to announce, ‘I’ve just ordered several copies of that book!’

Says Derwent May: ‘It was a brilliant utterance, it carried a heavy load of charming flattery to Caroline while committing himself to nothing.’

Q. A week ago I asked a woman I don’t know very well to dinner as I want to return her hospitality. I put a note through her door as she lives near me, then emailed her. She emailed back saying how lovely and she would look at her diary. But I have heard nothing. I emailed her again, again no response. The thing is, I am in a small flat and my table only seats ten. I have at least ten women friends I could invite instead of her. How should I proceed? Do I ignore her and ask someone else? (I only give a dinner in my flat once or twice a year.)
— E.S., London W11

A. Your objective was to return this woman’s hospitality and she knows you are trying to. Since it is only her prevarication which is stopping you from doing so, your conscience can be clear. You have as good as discharged your duty. Go ahead and ask someone else. If she accepts at the last minute, extend your table with a pop up surface such as card table or ironing board so as to issue a silent chastisement.

Q. What is the etiquette regarding foraging? For many years I have been able to feast on a neighbour’s sweet chestnut crop. The neighbour himself doesn’t bother with it. Chestnuts are one of the few most valuable sources of meat-free protein and represent to me a genuine saving of cash as most sweet chestnuts are imported at great expense. I would not mind competing against muntjac and roe deer for the harvest, but this year I was dismayed when I ran into a ‘colour supplement forager’ who has moved into the area and who boasted to me that her freezer is full with chestnuts. I find she has hoovered up the entire crop, which I think is not cricket. What do you say, Mary?
— G.W., Wilts

A. The code, as expressed by every countryman from Richard Jefferies to Ray Mears, dictates that a forager should only take enough for his or her own needs and should not stockpile or profiteer from nature’s bounty.

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