‘His taste is sterile, but he thinks mine is twee — how will we ever agree on a house to buy?’ — Country Life’s agony aunt Mrs Hudson offers her advice

Each week, Country Life's agony aunt Mrs Hudson answers readers' queries on everything from house parties and cutlery conundrums to wild pets and affairs of the heart.

Got a problem of your own for Mrs Hudson to solve? Drop her an email at mrs.hudson@futurenet.com.


The age old battle of sterile v twee

My partner and I have decided to move in together, but cannot agree on what we are looking for. I currently live in a charming character cottage, whereas he bought a very modern flat after his divorce. I find his taste sterile and he finds mine twee — I’m not sure what the compromise is. — G. C., Hampshire

Ah, the great combining of assets — congratulations. I thought it was the ambition of every Englishman (and woman) to reside in a charming character cottage, although they are admittedly more of a challenge to clean, with all those nooks and crannies. Could you, perhaps, buy an airy modern property together, but fill it with lacy curtains, overstuffed velvet sofas and dusty antiques? Or how about a crumbling pile, which you then totally gut, fit out in chrome and marble and paint the walls 50 shades of white?

Depending on your budget, I think by far the best solution is to design your own home together from scratch — a ‘twee’ wing with turrets for you, a vast warehouse for him, joined in the middle. I can already see Kevin McCloud getting the grand tour. Of course, at that stage, you might just as well keep your current properties and continue holding sleepovers.

A barn conversion is another thought — they are often spacious and modern, but, when done well, with enough residual character left to feel authentic. Any children will also be able to use the excuse, in years to come, that yes — they were indeed raised in a barn.


How to win favour with a difficult dog

I work in a dog-friendly office and my boss’s dog hates me. It’s not very big — some sort of terrier, I think — so isn’t going to do me any real harm, but it bites at my ankles every time I walk past and has drawn blood on multiple occasions. How bad would it be to give it a swift kick when no one is looking? — K. S., Bedfordshire

I think it is clear, from ‘some sort of terrier’ to the suggestion that it might be ok to physically assault the creature, that you are no animal lover. No, it isn’t acceptable to kick someone’s dog because it nipped (nor is it ok to pinch a child if they kick the back of your seat in the cinema, before you ask). I wouldn’t imagine it will improve your career progression if you’re caught, either — most people are more devoted to their canines than their spouses and they certainly tend to prefer them to employees in steel toe caps.

You are approaching the situation entirely incorrectly. Dogs are simple enough creatures and respond better to reward than punishment. Stuff your pockets full of treats and drop one (a safe distance from your ankles) each time it passes by — you will be the best of friends in no time. If your boss mentions the dog’s unexplained weight gain, smile sweetly and proffer that those in happy and contented relationships are often prone to putting on a pound or two. You may be destined to smell of liver, but at least you will be employed.

Obviously, Mrs Hudson doesn’t use a quill — she uses a laptop, same as everyone else. We just thought this was a fun picture.


A cure for mobile phone addiction

Fed up of sitting in a room of people glued to their devices or of finding my children texting at midnight, I have decreed that all mobile phones and tablets will be shut in a drawer from 6pm until after breakfast the next morning. The children complained, but my husband has flatly refused to abide by the rule. How can I expect them to comply if he won’t set a good example? — M. C., Kent

I am partly in awe of you and partly terrified at the prospect of ever meeting you. I imagine your children can look forward to mind-improving tomes and useful new underwear at Christmas. Their peers will be envious. Yet I do believe you are doing the right thing — it was during lockdown that I discovered a strange lump on my little finger. It proved to be a callous, developed from incessant phone-clutching — it was only when my online activities started to literally deform me that I went cold turkey. Hopefully, you have caught the children before their hunchbacks set in.

Is your husband concerned about missing an important call or just about having to make conversation? You could, if feeling generous, allow him to bend the rules once the babes are asleep, but this still leaves you chatting to the succulents. Perhaps you need to make being offline a more attractive proposition? A little mood lighting, a nice bottle of something… I shall leave you to fill in the rest. And yes, of course I meant a jigsaw.


How to stand in the way of great adventure — or not

Our adult daughter has announced that, as soon as restrictions allow, she is going to quit her job and travel the world with a group of friends — most of whom don’t need to work. I understand the urge after recent events, but do worry about what she’ll be left with when she gets back. How can we get her to take her future more seriously? — H. M., Leicestershire

It sounds as though you are taking her future quite seriously enough for both of you. Come, now — don’t you remember what it felt like to be young and carefree? After the months we have all spent staring at our own four walls, how could anyone not understand her desire to get out into the world and see something new? Between you and I, I fully intend to quit and set off on a round-the-world jolly as soon as restrictions allow, too — just don’t tell the Editor.

Assuming she is good at her job (whatever it may be), I’m sure she’ll secure some way of earning a crust upon her return (whenever that may be). Who knows, perhaps she’ll find love on some sunny foreign shore and you’ll have a guaranteed holiday and/or retirement destination; perhaps she’ll get bored after a fortnight and end up back in her childhood bedroom, regretting what she’s done.

As you say, she is an adult and you are powerless. The world’s governments, however, are very powerful indeed and will send her back as soon as Covid levels start creeping up — I’d start clearing out that childhood bedroom.


Come on, feel the noise

I now work from home and my husband, who is retired, has taken to sitting in the study with me. It’s not this I mind, but rather the constant commentary on the contents of the newspaper or the TV on full blast. How can I politely ask him to either leave or at least be quiet? —— R. A., Herefordshire

Your husband is clearly delighted to have you there and I bet that more than a few readers would be charmed to have such a devoted spouse. I do, however, appreciate the impracticalities of having current affairs recited at you while you’re trying to do whatever it is that you do.

A handy tip I picked up when last I worked in an office was to keep a large pair of headphones on at all times. You needn’t have anything playing through them — their mere presence acts as a deterrent for conversation (this is also a good trick for the antisocial on public transport). Go for a noise-cancelling pair and you will also be able to drown out Loose Women. If your husband takes offence, it’s time for noise-cancelling earbuds—discreet headphones that you can wear undetected, if your hair is long enough. Just nod and smile once in a while and he’ll be none the wiser.

Should it transpire that you’ve missed a question, there is one answer that will never let you down: ‘Yes, dear.’ Unless it was ‘Shall we get a divorce?’ — although that would, at least, solve your initial problem.


The suit maketh the man

My son is getting married so I need a new suit, but I have never been comfortable in formal wear, being more of a chinos and polo shirt man. Is there anything I could do or wear to feel more like myself, while still looking smart? —— P. R., Tyne and Wear

It is a truth universally acknowledged that one cannot turn up to their son’s wedding in chinos and a polo shirt — unless that is the dress code, but I think you might have your work cut out convincing everyone that this qualifies as a good idea. You will simply have to wear whatever you are asked to, be it top hat and tails, a kilt or a lounge suit. However, I do sympathise. Most people seem to relish donning their finery, whereas I still feel like a child playing dress up with their mother’s wardrobe.

I suspect that this is more of a confidence issue than anything else. The best thing you can do is visit a smart tailor — Savile Row, if funds permit — and get yourself an outfit that fits you like a glove. When you see yourself in a suit that was, quite literally, made for you, I predict that you will feel an inch taller and wear it with pride. If not, just think of the beautiful family photographs that will be yours to treasure and look back on for the rest of your days, everyone dressed to the nines and glowing. That, surely, is worth a day of mild discomfort?


Ready, Steady, Cook

After my wife died, my neighbour started to cook extra suppers and drop them round, which was very kind and greatly appreciated at the time. The trouble is, she is still doing it after six months—and she’s a truly terrible cook. Is there any way of asking her to stop without offending her? —— M. P., Surrey

I know we teach children that honesty is the best policy, but this really is an exception to that rule, poor woman. I would never advocate throwing food away when so many around the world go unfed, but if you have a dog with a strong enough stomach, you could save yourself a fortune on kibble. If your dog has standards, I find the surest way to stop people from cooking or baking for you is to steal their Tupperware. I don’t mean that you should break in and raid her cupboards, but rather that you should cease returning the containers—she’ll run out eventually (unless she’s a home-shopping-channel addict).

Personally, I would invite her over to dine at your house, making it very clear that this feast is to say thank you for all those months she has spent nourishing (or, indeed, poisoning) you. Make it a kitchen supper and cook everything from scratch before her very eyes—the more elaborate, the better—thereby demonstrating how capable you are of taking care of yourself, rewarding her virtue and drawing a line under the situation in one fell swoop. If this plan falls down on the fact that you can’t cook either, I’m not sure what you’re complaining about.


Bad kitty

During lockdown, I bought a kitten for company. It was quite sweet when small, if always slightly feral, but it’s getting meaner with age. It recently launched itself at my boyfriend’s face for no apparent reason — he was lucky to keep his eyes. I’m convinced my cat hates me and am feeling trapped. How might we make friends? ——  R. M., East Sussex

Had you never come across a cat before? Cats are meant to hate you — that is the whole point of cats. I maintain that the Ancient Egyptians only worshipped them because they were too afraid not to. This is why I’m more of a dog person: your forearms remain unscathed, you aren’t woken in the night by a feline attempting to asphyxiate you by sitting on your face and you look far less ridiculous dragging them round on a lead (who started this cat-on-a-lead fad? I should like to write them a strongly worded letter).

All this being said, I don’t believe in giving away animals because you’ve realised they are a minor inconvenience. If people did this as easily with children, where would we be? No, you have welcomed the creature into your home and now you must share it. I don’t know if you saw the recent article on ‘dog rooms’, but I believe separate quarters might be the best solution.

You could even build a catio. No really, it’s a thing — Google it. Although confinement does minimise the chances of the little bugger adopting the neighbours.


Eyes wide shut

After being left by his wife, one of my friends has had ‘relationships’ with a series of 20-somethings. He’s in his fifties and I can’t imagine what they have in common — I certainly struggle to make conversation with them. I’m embarrassed on his behalf, but am unsure how to make him see what a twit he’s making of himself. Do you have any suggestions? ——  Y. C., London

Well, I would probably avoid trying to imagine ‘what they have in common’… No, I’m being unfair — they may well sit up into the wee hours having great debates. Really, it’s none of your business either way. Your friend has, presumably, been hurt by his wife’s defection and, if the company of these women is helping, there’s no reason for embarrassment. Perhaps it’s a relief to find himself single and he’s merely enjoying himself — and why not?

If you were feeling savage, you could engage his current amor in a conversation that you suspect will throw her and humiliate her in public, in an attempt to open his eyes. However, such a stunt may well end his relationship with you, rather than her. You could tell him he’s a twit, although if he has children, I suspect he has already been informed of this. You might remember that, after a certain point, age really is just a number — we are all adults.

I’m mostly intrigued by how he has managed such a string of affairs, given recent restrictions — but then, given what the rule-makers have been up to…


Make that change

I’ve always hated people saying that ‘things aren’t what they used to be’ as they object to some minor change. However, as I approach the end of middle age, I find myself railing against changes in everything from the National Trust to my local theatre. Am I wrong to feel this way? ——  L. G., North Yorkshire

I think we can all agree that things are most certainly not what they used to be. Of course, in some cases, I’m rather glad. It’s infinitely easier to flick a lightswitch than to wander around with a candle, indoor loos are an undeniable convenience and I’m inclined to think it preferable that young girls are no longer married off to their father’s eligible friends. On the other hand, I resent the ever-increasing number of television channels, very few of which offer anything one might actually want to watch, and the fact that you are now expected to be contactable at all times. It doesn’t help that we are approaching a point in our lives where people assume we have died if we don’t respond to a text message within five minutes.

That said, I think the solution here is quite simple. Either you remain a member of the National Trust and continue to visit your local theatre, becoming angrier by the day, or you find other activities that soothe the soul. Do things that make you happy, rather than resentful. There must be some, surely — or you really are in trouble.


Friends like these

A group of old friends has arranged a ‘reunion’ of sorts. I agreed to go, but am dreading it. I am fairly recently divorced and spend most of my time with my dog, whereas everyone else will be bringing spouses and talking endlessly about their children and grandchildren (of which I have neither). Do you have any tips to make it bearable? ——  F. L., London

It’s fascinating how we view our own lives. It sounds as though you have been liberated from what was, presumably in some respect, an unhappy marriage and now have the freedom to do whatever you choose — a situation that many will envy. Concoct some grand plans and dazzle everyone with your glamorous new life — even if all you’re really planning is your next boxset. You might just inspire yourself to follow through with some of these plans.

Take the dog along if you can. Not only will this distract from tales of ‘What Arabella did/ate/regurgitated next’, it will provide an excuse to nip outside for breathers and to leave if it becomes too much. You might even forget to take the pooch out and instead encourage it to wee up the trouser leg of anyone who really annoys you. ‘Oh my! He’s never done anything like that before! Do animals usually dislike you?’

Finally, remember that you aren’t obliged to attend at all. Life is too short for people pleasing and you can always catch up with your friends individually, in a setting that doesn’t fill you with dread.


Slip into something more comfortable

Over the years, I have developed a habit of taking a pair of hotel slippers home with me whenever I stay somewhere. I had always thought they were intended as a free gift and that they made a nice and useful souvenir, but a friend recently spotted my (rather impressive) collection and suggested that it is stealing. Do you agree? ——  F. R., Cambridgeshire

I’m slightly lost for words. Do you wear these slippers around the house? And derive comfort and enjoyment from them? Personally, I’d be just as happy to stick my feet in a pair of sturdy envelopes — the experience would be much the same. If you’re staying in that many hotels, surely you could afford a nice pair of sheepskin mules?

The fact that you refer to your ‘collection’ as being ‘rather impressive’ is mildly alarming and evokes an image of a purpose-built display case, each pair sitting proudly on a pedestal beneath its own spotlight. If you’re looking to impress, perhaps a nice collection of antique coins or similar might be more appropriate. Or, if it really is hotel mementoes that do it for you, why not go for the branded pen, which is surely far more ‘useful’, if that’s what you seek? Anyway — each to their own, I suppose.

As regards the issue of stealing, I think hotels are far more concerned with the louts trying to stuff the pillows and bathrobes into their suitcases to worry too much about two pieces of cardboard masquerading as footwear.


It’s my party

Now that we’re allowed to gather in groups again and most of my peers have been jabbed, I’m planning a large sit-down lunch with friends in the garden. I want it to be quite formal so am trying to devise a seating plan, but the old rules of alternating sexes and splitting couples become rather complicated in the modern world. What would you advise? ——  F. P., Cambridgeshire

How sweet of you to arrange such a shindig for your loved ones — wherever you sit them, I’m sure they will feel most fortunate to be included. There are other rules of etiquette you fail to mention, such as where you as the host should be seated, who should be opposite you, etc — but frankly, assuming The Queen isn’t on the guest list, I should ignore the lot.

Why not throw caution to the wind and arrange a huge game of spin the bottle to decide who sits next to and opposite whom? Alternatively, you could name each place setting something witty and make each person draw one from a bowl. Of course, if you do have any guests who should be kept away from each other and they end up as table mates, there is the risk of spilt milk — or Champagne, hopefully.

A safer option would be to seat people next to those you know they will enjoy, therefore ensuring a convivial event. If you’re in need of one more, do send my invitation care of Country Life — but only if we’re playing spin the bottle.


You made your bed

I am in a quandary of guilt because I have never known what polite society does with bed clothes when departing, a) when one’s hostess runs the house; b) when there are signs of a cleaning lady; or c) if there is a housekeeper. One so wants to do the correct thing to ensure another invitation is offered. —— P.D., London

Firstly, I should introduce myself. Once considered quite the starlet, I was recently advised to retrain by the Government and am yet to discover any kind of agony-aunt qualification, but it transpires that it really is who you know. Anyway — back to bed linen! Shall we take a moment to give thanks that we were born into a society where this might be considered a problem? ——  Housekeeper or no, if I were to find the bed stripped, I would assume there had been an incident.

Unless your inclination to be helpful is stronger than your desire not to be known as an adult bed-wetter, I would simply make the bed in the morning (but not so well that it doesn’t look slept in, unless you want the bed-wetting rumours to be replaced by accusations of corridor-creeping). When I have guests, I expect them to leave their room in more or less the state they found it, not to have polished the loo and done a load of laundry on the way out. If you’re that concerned about where your next free meal is coming from, I suggest a suitably ingratiating thank-you letter.


A fishy business

I am struggling with the issue of pescatarian cutlery. We were given a lovely set of Edwardian bone-handled and engraved fish knives and forks, and we increasingly serve fish at dinner parties. Recently, a rather snobbish guest commented that fish knives and forks were a pretentious Victorian invention, designed to make the aspirational middle classes feel superior. I suppose we are ‘middle class’, but how ghastly to be judged on a knife and fork. Should we retire them? ——  C. M. M., Lisbon, Portugal

Should you retire your snobbish guests? Yes, a hundred times yes — they sound vile. There are few things I like less than people that judge others based on their vocabulary (assuming they don’t speak exclusively in swear words), education, family… you get the idea. Not one of these things makes one person better or worse, more or less valuable than another. We would all do well to remember that the life we are born into is a complete lottery, that we must all do our best with what we are given and that this involves both kindness and manners. In my opinion, it is insulting your host that shows a distinct lack of class.

If you are insecure enough to hide your belongings away, then so be it. Personally, I would have a new family crest designed (even the ‘middle classes’ are allowed to do this, believe it or not!), with the fish cutlery pride of place, and have it printed in technicolour on the next invitations I sent out.


Hair of the dog

I have a friend coming to stay who has, at the last minute, dropped in ‘And I assume you don’t mind my bringing Teddy along?’ — Teddy being her dog. I don’t particularly want him as a house guest, but I feel as though I have been boxed into a corner. She claims that he’s ‘beautifully behaved’, but we have somewhat different definitions of this. Worse still, she lets him sleep in her bed, which means so much more laundry. Is there a way of saying no without upsetting anyone? ——  B. L., by email

Hang on — I’m no advocate of co-sleeping with canines (who wants to wake up with a mouthful of fur?), but what exactly do you mean by ‘so much more laundry’? Are you saying that, if it’s not covered in dog hair, you don’t wash the bed linen between guests? Because, if that’s the case, you could casually inform your friend of this fact and I doubt she’ll want to come at all. Standards must be maintained — and no, a squirt of Febreze doesn’t count.

There are many reasons you could give for denying Teddy an invitation: is your house particularly small or full of breakable valuables? Do you have a cat or small child that might be traumatised by his presence? Might you have developed a severe allergy? If not, your friend has, as you say, manouevred you quite neatly into a corner, so it’s probably time to invest in extra laundry detergent (or Febreze).


Back to reality

After watching the reality TV series Love Island, our daughter has become determined to appear in a future incarnation of the show. We have tried to explain how damaging it could be to her career prospects, but she argues that she wants to be an ‘influencer’ and this is the way to do it. How can we make her see sense? ——  N. C., Edinburgh

Ah, yes — why work for a living when you see other bright young things making their fortunes touting tat on social media? What a world we live in. To be honest, one of the main requirements for appearing on such a show seems to be excessive amounts of unnecessary plastic surgery at a frighteningly young age, so unless you’re willing to fund this, you should be safe.

If she does somehow make it through the selection process, I would make much of the fact that you will be watching — as will her grandparents, siblings, former school teachers… Profess to be excited that you will have front-row seats for any romance that might blossom on screen. Tell her that, not only will you be watching as the programme airs, but you also look forward to sitting down for family viewings once she has been unceremoniously evicted (not that I watch it. Obviously). That should, at least, keep her on best behaviour.

I wouldn’t worry unduly about future employers judging her, should the ‘influencing’ not work out — no one remembers any of the contestants’ names the day after they leave, anyway.


It’s a no from me

Do you have any suggestions on how to extricate oneself from doing things such as church flowers? I am currently being dragooned into doing more and more for the community, much of which I am happy to do — but it does seem that the more you agree to, the more is asked of you and it’s jolly hard to get out of it politely. —— S.F., Hampshire

Ah yes — you have made yourself into a walking target by being too obliging. Why would the village organisers make their own lives difficult by going elsewhere when they know that your first answer to everything is ‘yes’? The trick is to be evasive even if it’s something you actually want to do — that way, the person asking will feel as though they’ve really achieved something in persuading you, but you won’t necessarily be their first port of call for every job going.

Of course, my advice is too late in this instance, so you should probably just move. It sounds as though you’re currently in a rural situation — why not snap up one of the flats that the population of London is currently vacating? No one in the city even makes eye contact, let alone speaks to each other or asks for favours, so you’d be well and truly off the hook.

If this doesn’t appeal, you could always pretend to have Covid and go into isolation for a few weeks. With any luck, by the time you are ‘well’ again, they will have ensnared your equally unwilling replacement.


The ex factor

My partner is invited to a wedding without me, which I wouldn’t usually mind — except he was invited with his ex wife and is still planning to go as her ‘plus one’. I know for a fact that she has thrown herself at him when drunk before and, although I trust him, I do wish he wouldn’t put himself in that situation. What if something happens and he goes back to her? ——  H. F., Cornwall

Oh, I suspect you would ‘usually mind’, but that’s by the by. If the poor woman is getting drunk and throwing herself at someone who has clearly moved on, it is her that needs my counsel, rather than you. Unless, of course, there’s more to this story and you genuinely have reason to doubt him… Otherwise, you are just going to have to put your green-eyed demon in a cage, lock it securely and try not to feed him. If this man can’t be allowed out of the house without you as an escort to defend his honour, it’s going to be a long life indeed — for both of you.

Be the bigger person, help him choose a suit and tie and send him on his way with your blessing to enjoy himself. Believe me, that is far more attractive than an inebriated ex desperately clinging to the past. If something does happen and he does go back to her, then presumably he isn’t committed to you… and wouldn’t you rather know that now? ——


A smash hit

For our wedding, my mother-in-law bought us an incredibly expensive and equally hideous vase, which generally resides in a cupboard. Of course, it sits in pride of place in the hallway for her visits — but the last time I was putting it away, I dropped it. It’s beyond repair — do I really have to pay to replace it or should I just confess? ——  A. S., Wiltshire

Confess that you finally cracked and threw it against a wall, only considering the ramifications once it was too late? This might ensure that you have one less to cook for at Christmas, but is unlikely to do much for familial harmony — either between you and your mother-in-law or you and your spouse, who will inevitably be caught in the crossfire.

I believe it is customary, in these situations, to blame the housekeeper. Of course, you will have to fire said housekeeper for authenticity and your mother-in-law will probably replace the vase out of pity. You will then have a hideous vase and no housekeeper, which seems a lose-lose situation. Alternatively, you could blame a child, if you have one to hand, although the bribery required to buy their silence might end up costing you as much as a replacement vase.

On balance, I think that yes, you will have to buy a new one — even if it means tracking one down on eBay. You could always recoup your loss by gifting your mother-in-law one of the other hideous items kept in the cupboard for her next birthday. Revenge is sweet.


I got you babe

I have started a relationship with a lovely man, who is incredibly attentive and wonderful company, but began calling me ‘babe’. I’m not a huge fan of this and asked him not to — but he is now calling me ‘sexy’ instead, which is infinitely worse. How can I get him to stop without upsetting him? Is there any way of reverting to ‘babe’ as a compromise? ——  G. J., Cumbria

Well done you, for finding yourself a kind and affectionate chap. This in itself is not to be taken for granted, but I agree that the pet names are unfortunate. It does display a level of easy familiarity — assuming he doesn’t call everyone else the same thing — but unless you’re a piglet masquerading as a sheepdog, I would advise against answering to ‘babe’.

Having already chastised him once, I would be reluctant to pull him up again for fear of damaging relations; I recommend a stealthier approach. Next time he calls you ‘sexy’, do not respond. Not in a sullen fashion, you understand (no eye rolling or sighing) — simply fail to acknowledge that he has spoken and continue with the task in hand. After a couple of failed attempts to get your attention, he is likely to use your real name, possibly quite loudly and in an exasperated manner: ‘GINA?!’ (For example.) At this, bestow your full attention and a radiant smile upon him. Repeat this process — ignore and reward — until he learns to use your proper title in the first place. It really is very much like training a puppy. Or, indeed, a piglet.


Lights, camera, action

I know what I’m about to say is unacceptable — but I do not like my own child. She is sly and deceitful and seems determined to cause trouble between me and her mother. When we’re both around, she is the model of good behaviour. The moment we are alone together, she turns into a she-devil. My wife thinks I’m exaggerating and I don’t know how long I can continue like this. —— D.M., Cambridgeshire

A she-devil indeed! I would be intrigued to know what the little mademoiselle gets up to. I’m not sure what you’ve said is unacceptable — most of us dislike our family from time to time, which isn’t to say we don’t still love them (even if it is deep, deep down). Living in close proximity breeds annoyances anyway, but particularly if certain parties are being deliberately provocative.

I’m not sure what age your daughter is, but the sooner traits such as slyness and deceit are stamped out, the better. The important thing is that your wife’s eyes are opened to these faults so that you can act as a team. I would leave them alone together for a prolonged period, as even the best actresses slip up eventually — could you arrange (or fake) a business trip or a friend in need? With only her mother there to insist that the child tidies her room/brushes her teeth/eats her greens, there is bound to be some resistance eventually. If not, it’s time for hidden cameras — and do share the footage, I love a good movie night.


Family values

My brother and sister-in-law both had very successful careers and have always lived in big houses and driven fast cars. This is all very well, but I do wish that she would refrain from telling me how much everything is worth, which top restaurant they have eaten out in recently and which designer she is wearing. She always follows up with a compliment on my own (often ancient) outfit, but it feels backhanded. Please advise on how to control my tongue and unkind thoughts. —— E.W., Pembrokeshire

It is a sad truth that we don’t get to choose our relatives — and that our own relatives don’t always choose well (in our eyes, at least) when it comes to adding branches to the family tree.

Presumably you don’t have to see her all that often (I am assuming you don’t live in an equally big house next door, from the hint of sibling rivalry in your tone…), so I would encourage a generous and numbing dose of strong margarita before your next encounter. It won’t help you hold your tongue — quite the opposite — but it will make it more fun and, with any luck, you might not even remember having seen her.

You might consider that she is, however ineptly, trying to impress you and it may well be that she genuinely admires your look. After all, money can buy a lot of things, but it can’t teach a woman how to cut a dash in an Hermès scarf — no matter how many she owns.


Can’t you hear me SOS?

Some years ago, my father retired, leaving his very successful company under my control. Since then, I have made a series of business decisions that haven’t worked out, to the extent that I’m not sure how much longer we can keep going. I have managed to keep the situation quiet as I know it would break his heart, but unless our fortunes change dramatically — and soon — I am going to have to confess. How do I tell him I’ve killed his legacy? ——  S. M., London

It sounds as though you’ve either had a run of incredibly bad luck or your father perhaps isn’t quite the businessman you think he is — if he handed over the reins and left you without any guidance, merely assuming that his genes would carry on and do the work. Either way, I wouldn’t spend too much time on self-flagellation — it will achieve nothing other than sleepless nights (and blemished skin, depending on how far you take it).

Have you considered, at any point, that rather than presenting your father with a dead legacy, it might be time to swallow your pride and simply ask for his help? If he was that successful, it may well be that he can see a solution and a way of reviving things that you are too far in the mire to grasp. I have always been of the opinion that it is far braver to admit when one is out of their depth and seek counsel than it is to go under with a whimper.


The gift of giving

This year, my wife and I agreed not to exchange birthday or Christmas gifts. Her birthday was first and I duly presented her with a card, but when my own arrived, she gave me a thoughtful and quite expensive present. Has she forgotten our conversation or have I unwittingly stumbled into some sort of trap? ——  G. F., Essex

I can’t believe you fell for this. Admittedly, it’s a passive-aggressive move on her part, but you made a definite error of judgement. A no-gift rule calls, at the very least, for flowers and chocolates (as well as a card — always a card). If you’re playing it safe, you opt for a middle-of-the-range yet personal something (‘I know we said no gifts, but I couldn’t let the day go unmarked’); the belt-and-braces approach is to buy them something fabulous and claim that you just couldn’t help yourself. But anyway — you went with a card.

You now have two options. One, you go out and panic buy a belated birthday gift. I can guarantee you that, whatever it is, however much you spend, she will never use it. Secondly, you can spend the rest of the year being incredibly lovely, then blow her away with the best present you can lay your hands on at Christmas. I suggest a puppy. Possibly a yacht. She will either have calmed down enough to accept the peace offering or have simmered all year and reject it violently, potentially setting fire to said yacht (but hopefully not a puppy). I wish you luck.