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  Avoiding the Question

Today I welcome the services of Eunice Pepistratos, the international expert on etiquette, and past winner of the Monte Carlo Golden Napkin.

Eunice believes, as do I, that good manners are vitally important today, and that as every other form of behaviour crumbles before our eyes, etiquette may become our only bastion against the forces of barbarism. Take it away Eunice!

Dear Eunice, I recently went on a date with an American girl. As I pride myself on my political correctness, I am well aware that you must ask permission of your date at every stage during a romantic evening in case your advances are misunderstood, or indeed in case she understands them all too well and calls her lawyer direct from the boudoir to land you with a $4m suit.

So I was very careful to get clearance every time I put my arm round her shoulder or my hand on her knee, and at no point did she seem reluctant to accede. However, by the time we got back to her apartment for a late coffee and had reached the third quarter- hour of an interminable conversation about OJ Simpson, I felt much less attracted to her.

Then I realised that if one has to ask permission to establish closer physical contact with an American female, the converse was presumably true and one should ask permission likewise to diminish physical closeness. I therefore said, as formally as I could: ‘Do you mind if I take my arm from behind you?’, and ‘With your permission, I shall now replace this shoulder strap which seems to have become inadvertently disarranged.’

She looked at me oddly and said:’ Are you looking for an old-fashioned poke in the kisser, punk?’ She then committed a personal assault on my chin and the evening ended shortly afterwards. Where did I go wrong?

Eunice Pepistratos writes: Try dating English girls next time.

Dear Eunice, I recently had a dream in which I met the Queen. We were travelling on a train across America, but were both stowaways – we had climbed into one of those vast freight cars you see in American films to avoid paying. I got chatting to her and discovered she was trying to get away from all her family troubles.

She kindly asked me about myself, and how I happened to be there. I told her about my struggles to bring up a small child alone on an estate on the outskirts of Gloucester, and she said: ‘Oh, my son has an estate near Gloucester. I wonder if you know him?’ I explained that the kind of estate I lived on was probably not the same as the kind he lived on, and she said very graciously: ‘You may well be right, my dear.’ Then she moved on to . . .

Eunice Pepistratos writes: I know it is rude to interrupt, but do you actually have a question for me?

Dear Eunice, Yes. If I should meet the Queen in a dream, should I curtsy to her?

Eunice Pepistratos writes: Only if she is on duty. If, as in your dream, she is travelling as a private citizen, then you should really respect her incognito and wait to find out in what role she is travelling.

Dear Eunice, As a young man I had a close friendship with a man whom I will identify only as John. As this was a very pleasant episode in my life, and one of which I am not ashamed, I always kept the letters that he sent me, which were couched in, let us say, very warm terms.

I have not see this young man since, but I have kept a distant eye on his career and have been pleased for him that he has entered the church and reached as high as he could in the Church of England with his installation as … let us call him the Bishop of Northumbria, as I believe there is no such diocese in fact. I suddenly remembered the pile of old letters from him.

It then occurred to me that he might be interested in purchasing this collection of letters from me at some very advantageous price! What I don’t know is the social protocol involved in blackmailing a bishop. When I write to suggest the sale of letters, do I address him as “Your Grace” or “Dear Bishop”?

Eunice Pepistratos write: You should start “Dear Sir or Madam”.

Dear Eunice, To a bishop, I say “Dear Sir or Madam”?

Eunice Pepistratos writes: It isn’t the bishop who reads the letter first, it’s his minder. The Church of England has installed a minder to vet all bishops’ mail, just to be on the safe side. That’s who we are saying “Dear Sir or Madam“ to.

If you have any etiquette worries, just drop a line to Eunice Pepistratos. If you feel like enclosing money, go ahead. She will not be offended.

The Independent Wednesday 12th October 1994

© Caroline Kington