A damn silly column

The worst agony aunt ever?

in Reviews

Pissed-off Toff is infuriated by Mary Killen, The Spectator’s ubiquitous agony aunt.

The high point of my week is the arrival of The Spectator every Friday morning. Like a greedy boy with a bag of sweets, I occasionally read it in one sitting. Normally, though, I exercise a degree of self-control, read my favourite columns first, and leave the rest till later.

These preferred columns – all based loosely on the theme of ‘the way we live now’ – are at the back of the magazine: High Life by Taki, Low Life by Jeremy Clarke; Real Life by Melissa Kite; and No Sacred Cows by Toby Young. After these, I read anything by my favourite journalists. Thus any piece by Douglas Murray or Rod Liddle receives my prompt and undivided attention; anything by the excellent Ross Clark about the madness of the ‘man-made climate change’ scare and our insane determination to return to the Middle Ages by closing down the entire industrial base will not go unread for long, either.

(Come to think of it, I must write to him and point him in the direction of my rave review, in these pages, of his novel The Denial, set in a near future in which the drive towards ‘zero-carbon’ has made life entirely unlivable.)

Next, I turn to the book reviews and consume anything that takes my fancy. And the letters page, perhaps. Finally, I will pick at the less appetising things that remain on my plate: the leading article, often too bland and sententious for my taste; the political analysis, which just depresses me, reminding me as it does of the existence of our idiot prime minister and his band of fools and knaves.

Days later, with nanny standing over me telling me to finish everything on my plate … only days later do I turn with the greatest reluctance to the one column in the magazine that is downright awful. I refer, of course, to Dear Mary, the agony aunt known to the rest of the country as Mary Killen, whom we regularly see with her genial husband on Goggle Box, and who has somehow established herself as an authority on modern etiquette. 

In normal circumstances, I thoroughly enjoy such columns, dealing as they do with the trickier aspects of friendships, with thorny issues of when to tip and how much, or with the question of when a thank-you letter is obligatory or when it is optional. Such matters are fascinating. However, Mary Killen invariably annoys me to distraction.

* * * * *

Let us take, more or less at random, the 11th September edition of The Spectator, and let us look at her column in some detail. The normal format for this sort of thing being respected, we have a number of people writing in with their problems, followed by the agony aunt’s suggested solutions.

The first question comes from a woman whose grand-daughter has been invited out to the Wolseley by a chap she likes and whom she would find attractive, but for his terrible body odour. If only he didn’t smell so bad, the girl would love to accept, and might well contemplate forming a serious relationship. As it is, she is unsure. So what to do?

Here is Killen’s answer in full:

Deodorant wouldn’t crack the issue. It sounds like George [the suitor in question] needs a full hose-down – and probably for his trainers to be binned. Let Jane [the young girl in question] accept the invitation but suggest that they ‘make a night of it’ since you, her grandmother, have given her vouchers for a Turkish bath treatment in a luxury hammam near the Wolseley: ‘Let’s go there first!’ If he agrees, then you the granny must buy the tickets. Males and females will be segregated so Jane need not worry about looking unattractive with sweat coursing down her face. George will emerge from the experience in a user-friendly condition and Jane can take the relationship one step further.

Let us ignore, if we can, the terrible use of ‘like’ instead of ‘as though’. Regrettably, this is now The Spectator’s house-style; and they should know better. Let us admit, too, that the expressions ‘a full hose-down’ and ‘in a user-friendly condition’ do elicit smiles.

But in terms of its substance, Killen’s suggestion is surely idiotic. If I were George and if the girl I had my eyes on suggested that we go to a pre-dinner session in a Turkish bath, I would think that she was bonkers and might well look for a way of backing out of the evening. And that’s just the first of my many objections to what Killen proposes.

No, the obvious solution to this problem is for the girl to be entirely honest and to exercise a bit of ‘tough love’. “I like you, George,” she should say; “I really do. But I have to tell you that you always stink of BO. So I will accept your lovely invitation and will be totally looking forward to it on one condition only: that pre-dinner, you have a good long bath and wash yourself really thoroughly. And we can take things from there.” Or words to that effect.

Unless George were an idiot, he would see the sense in the girl’s request, and would thank her into the bargain. Indeed, an Italian girl once said something very similar to me, years ago in Rome. “If you want to carry on sleeping with me,” she said, “you’ve got to be spotlessly clean all the time. Geddit?” She was quite right, and I obeyed; nor did I regret it.

* * * * *

Now onto the next Q and A.

A chap writes in saying that he runs a small business in the creative sector and that charming as they are, many of his creatives like to delay paying for his services. How can he get these recalcitrant clients to pay promptly?

Again, I quote the answer in full:

Invent a financial controller and set up a new email account in his or her name. Let this persona do the bill chasing. In this way you need never mention the awkward subject of payment yourself and you can keep harmony between you and your clients.

And again, I start my many objections to this answer with a stylistic point. I loathe the squirmish new pronoun ‘he or she’ and the new possessive determiner ‘his or her’, and will do anything to avoid these abominations. But let us consider the substance of what Killen suggests.

Not only is her proposed solution weak and dishonest, but it is also entirely unworkable. Invent a fictitious financial controller with a false name, a misleading email address, and no telephone number? What is the woman thinking of? If the chap writing in with his problem were to do as Killen suggests, his clients would surely find out and would rightly despise him as a lily-livered fool.

No, the solution is quite simple. The man must pick up the phone and ring his non-paying clients. “Look here, Freddy,” he should say, “you know I love you to bits; you know we get on well; and I hope that you appreciate the service I offer. But you’ve just got to pay my invoices on time, old boy. Because this non-payment is becoming really very stressful.” Short, friendly, and to the point. Not, as per la Killen, tortuous, cowardly and dishonest.

Even better, I suggest, is to make one’s relationship with the client crystal clear from the very outset. I give an example from my own experience … a rare time when I managed things really rather well. Again in Rome, where I worked for many years as a translator, a certain Contessa X, for whom I had translated a book to which she attached some importance (her client was the President of the Italian Republic), decided that she wanted me to give her English lessons. By then I had almost entirely stopped teaching English, this being a life of drudgery. So I declined. But she would not take no for an answer. I was at the time slim and good-looking, and I sat in front of her wearing a very expensive tailor-made suit. She wanted me.

Vedo, contessa, che è inutile resistere,” I said. “Accetto, quindi; ma ho una sola condizione.”

“Oh yes?” she replied. “And what might that be.”

“My one and only condition, Contessa,” I said, “is that we never ever discuss money, and that when, at the end of every month, I send in my invoice, it will be settled on the spot, and with no dispute of any sort. And I will say now, one time and one time only, that if ever my invoice is not settled on presentation, I will immediately call an end to our collaborazione.”

Affare fatto,” she said. From then on I was her show Englishman, paraded before her friends, clients and political contacts at a series of enjoyable receptions. Not once did her secretary fail to pay, on the dot.

* * * * *

We now come to the third problem which Killen is called upon to solve (the column is subtitled ‘Your problems solved’).

Someone writes in from Lymington saying that whenever his daughter, aged 25, comes home for the weekends, he and his wife are driven to distraction by the fact that she will not stop looking at her iPhone and will not concentrate on any conversation. What does Killen suggest?

For the third time, I quote the answer in full:

Go to sea [Lymington is on the south coast of England]. Phones soon run out of battery and unless there are solar chargers on board she will soon have to switch her attention to you. Alternatively identify a spot in your local area where there is no signal. Drive her there and park.

Yet another idiotic proposal from Killen, therefore. But it’s worse than idiotic. It is objectionable in its triviality. Because this particular problem, so serious and so often encountered, must be faced, and properly.

“I’m sorry, darling,” the loving parent of Victorian inclination might say, “but when you come home at weekends, here to be well and generously looked after by us, you simply must use your iPhone out of our sight and hearing. Not when we are hoping to talk to our beloved daughter.” Or words of equivalent import.

The more subtle parent might adopt a different approach. He – or she (£5 in the box!) – might do as a dear friend did with his own wayward son. Without making a show of it, this friend, father to a boy aged twenty-something, would sit there in the presence of his offspring, apparently engrossed in on-line chats with endless friends.

“That’s so rude, Dad,” said the son, after not long. “That’s so, so – like – rude!”

In any case, here we have a battle of real importance in the culture wars which now consume our lives. Trivial ‘solutions’ as suggested by Killen are not funny.

* * * * *

Which brings me to the heart of the issue. Namely, that my reaction to Dear Mary is not just annoyance, but also puzzlement. Is the entire column a sophisticated joke played on us by the editor of The Spectator? Are Killen’s ‘solutions’ designed on purpose to range from the far-fetched to the idiotic? Is this an exercise in sub-Woodhouseian absurdity?

I just don’t know. Perhaps I should write in to her, thus:

‘Dear Mary,’ I will write, ‘I am not sure whether your column is a subtle jest that I am unable to comprehend. Or whether it is just ditsy nonsense. Please advise.’

Actually, that’s not a bad idea …

Click here to print this article (text only).