The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 15 June

Dear Thomas

I have a difficult letter of condolence to write to a chap who has done odd jobs for me for many years. Recently his mother died and I know they didn’t really get on, although I never knew her myself. He always complained about having to wash her car every week, and all she’d say was he’d scratched it or missed a bit. What do you advise that I say in my letter?

Valerie Gray, Stockport

Dear Valerie

Be careful. We often find ourselves writing letters of condolence and the person who has died is someone we hardly knew or didn’t like very much. I always think these letters are supremely a case of, ‘it’s the thought that counts.’

It doesn’t really matter if they’re bland or clichéd, but try not to make them so. The moment of a person’s death ought to be their chance to shine. They are transfigured by death into something better than they had appeared to be while alive. And their lives now complete – well, there’s something restful about that. There are very few, such as Hitler or Saddam Hussein, of whom there is nothing nice to say. Of course, you can feel inadequate trying to sum up a whole life in just a few paltry sentences. But your memories (try to be particular) might make more impact on the bereaved than you imagine.

So, the letter of condolence should really try to recall the departed while they were alive. This, ultimately, is the best hope of consolation. The other manner of comfort (‘this terrible time of loss... I can’t imagine what you’re going through’)... well, it depends how shocking, premature or tragic the death has been, but perhaps be careful about descending into gush.

As to how ‘honest’ you should be: often when relationships have been difficult, especially between parents and children, those who remain on this earth are left with much guilt and conflict. Although they might not admit it, they feel bad that they argued with the departed one or bickered about them behind their back. So saying, ‘I know she wasn’t always easy’ may not help. It may make things worse.

Ultimately, it’s a question of how well you know the person you’re writing to. You have to judge what will comfort them and what won’t. It might be that a robust, realistic view is just what they want. Or it might not. Or you just don’t know. In which case err on the side of caution. Your odd-job man sounds more of an acquaintance. In any case, his complaints about his mother might have been just harmless venting. He might have loved her very much. Probably best to say, ‘She certainly sounded a feisty character who knew her own mind, from everything you told me about her.

Please write to Thomas at the usual Bedford Street address or email

WHAT TO DO ABOUT...Excessive hygiene rules 

I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time, but a certain daintiness has restrained me. I mean – just how clean should a place be? Is there an absolute standard? It seems plain that one person’s idea of spotless is another person’s utter sewer.

Now I hear of research carried out by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which has found that women are more disgusted than men by such things as spoilt food accidentally treading barefoot on a slug, and poor hygiene. This is because men are programmed to slash about, taking risks, procreating at any cost, while women must protect their offspring from general nastiness and disease. Well, maybe… who knows?

I’ve been thinking about hairs. Once in an episode of three in a bed, Channel 4’s series about B&Bs, there was outrage and horror because somebody found a hair in the shower upon arrival in their room. Really, does one little hair mean it’s not clean? You can clean and clean, and still, there will be a hair. These things aren’t rational. That’s how it is, I suppose.