The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 2 March

Dear Thomas

I wonder about the person who thought it okay to leave her coffee carton on the floor of the Tube train this morning, where it would roll about for the rest of the day, uglifying the carriage for the hundreds of passengers who followed her.

I wonder if she considered the sad irony of buying something labelled ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ in a container that can’t be recycled, and which she just dropped at her feet. I picked it up and put it in a litter bin. It’s the sort of annoying pedantic thing I do.

Fergus Milne, London

Dear Fergus

There are two things here: first, cutting down on plastics. I’ve mentioned it recently, but now HM The Queen has outlawed single-use plastic bottles, straws and cups on the Royal estates. And the Church of England has had a Lenten brainwave: during Lent, we must give up using the mini- toiletries supplied by hotels. Instead, take your own.

Suddenly, the habits of years are outlawed. It’s about as acceptable now to walk around with one of these ghastly unnecessary cartons of ‘take out’ coffee or the single-use water bottle (also of dubious necessity) as it is to wear real fur in public. Your thoughtless Tube passenger is a complete pariah.

The plastics problem is probably not impossible to solve: their manufacture and sale can be halted. The second aspect, though – well, as I said before, it’s been going on all my life. People just won’t stop dropping litter. I was driving along a country lane yesterday – rubbish everywhere. But, as you hint, we’re reluctant to become a nation of busybodies. You feel you must apologise for being ‘annoyingly pedantic’ in picking up other people’s litter, let alone confronting them directly about what they’re doing – which might result in an ugly scene, in any case.

Our class system doesn’t help. In America, people don’t hesitate to enforce standards in public places and they don’t get told they’re posh and stuck up.

But, unless the majority is prepared to make its voice heard, nothing will ever change. On the other hand, we don’t want to become like Singapore, where you get fined for leaving chewing gum. We pride ourselves on not being conformist and not being slaves to rules and regulations. We don’t want to be like America either.

So we just go round and round, complaining but getting nowhere. A certain amount can be achieved with the silent removal of litter. Gangs of volunteers operate in some places. In Devon, it’s my mother, out at 7am on a summer morning, gathering litter, aged 94. Litter is like graffiti: one little bit, and it instantly proliferates. So you can keep it down, but it won’t go away. It will take a radical change in our culture before we can confront perpetrators effectively.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER

WHAT TO DO ABOUT...Standing Up

People say ‘I must let you go now,’ when on the telephone. It’s a way of ending the call. I heard a woman on a bus in Piccadilly saying just that into her mobile phone. I assumed she was about to get off the bus. But no, she exhaled deeply, settled back and stared out of the window, apparently enjoying a state of mental blankness. In other words, she just wanted to get rid of her caller. I must say, I’ve always assumed ‘I must let you go now’ to be a euphemism. The giveaway is that the person being let go never indicates any desire for release. Really it’s just the same as being sacked: ‘sorry. We’ve got to let you go.’ The words horribly reveal what they’re supposed to conceal. So, on the whole, please don’t say, ‘I’ve got to let you go.’ The late Russell Harty, when telephoning Alan Bennett, used to say, ‘I’ve had enough now.’ Alarming but refreshingly honest. And only natural, after all. We’re only human. We get bored. Our interest wanes. There’s no shame in it.