Dear Mary

My long gossipy letters to an old friend get just a few words in response

13 October 2018

9:00 AM

13 October 2018

9:00 AM

Q. An old friend shares aesthetic sensibilities and tastes in people. Hence we have sustained a highly enjoyable correspondence over some decades. However, having recently had significant professional success, he is no longer fulfilling his side of the bargain. Even 1,000 words from me will now elicit only a perfunctory response. Yet whenever we meet in London he apologises that he is too busy to respond at length and begs me to continue with my own musings, on which he insists he ‘depends’. Mary, how, without seeming querulous, victimy or even ‘queeny’, can I make him see this has become an unfair exchange?
— Name and address withheld

A. While the disparity in word count might seem unfair, you can be reassured by your friend’s real enthusiasm at close range. Moreover, you could take heart from David Batterham’s recently published book of his letters to Howard Hodgkin (Dear Howard: Tales Told In Letters). Despite their quality and wit, and the relish with which the painter received them, Batterham,a bookseller, never received one word of reply to these 1970s letters. Nevertheless they survived, and provide a mosaic of small, hilarious and poignant detail and a valuable personal record for their author (and now, after publication, a record to delight others). Detail is what has been lost in modern-day communication, but detail is vital to the socio-historic record. You should continue writing into the void, confident that your friend is sincerely enjoying your output; and in the fullness of time you can revel in the record yourself.

Q. I’ve been sharing a university flat with a close friend who is lovely in all ways but one. She has never been taught how to do laundry properly and she regularly overloads the machine and leaves the clothes wet for days. As a result, all of her clothes have a damp smell that lingers on her and around our flat. She is very clean so it is not a problem of hygiene. Mary, how can I tell her that her things smell without offending her?
— E.C. , Edinburgh

A. Buy a piece of clothing from a charity shop. Launder it badly, then wear it to welcome an older visitor with whom you have conspired. Your visitor can recoil in disgust at the smell of your garment and indeed the general smell of damp around the flat, as she gives you both a motherly lecture in how to do laundry.

Q. When offered a single upgrade when travelling with my wife, who had booked separately, we quietly agreed to change places halfway through the flight. So we each enjoyed one posh meal and an equal share of the extra space and comfort. The staff didn’t mind.
— P.C., Salisbury, Wiltshire

A. Thank you for submitting this commonsensical response to the dilemma of only one half of a couple being offered an upgrade.

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