Country Driving

Country driving can be a pure delight – an unfolding canvas of scenic roads, very little traffic, picturesque villages, panoramic views. But it can also be dangerous, especially if you’re used to motorways or city streets. The key to safe and well-mannered driving in the country is patience. When roads are narrow and visibility is poor, you will find any number of hazards – from herds of livestock and slow-moving tractors to groups of hikers and horse-riders  – to slow you down. Accept that country driving is slow, sit back and enjoy the scenery.

Country Driving Essentials

•Keep to your side of the road, and don’t let reduced visibility tempt you into wandering into the oncoming lane.

•Watch your speed and observe speed limits carefully. Country driving is notable for a number of unexpected hazards, and you need to be able to react quickly. Be very wary of road surfaces: we’re beset by potholes on UK roads and country lanes, which may be liable to flooding and damage from heavy agricultural machinery, are often ill maintained and dangerous.

•Country roads are often twisting and turning; brake before you reach a corner and try and use hedges or telegraph wires to anticipate the layout of the road ahead.

• Be patient: you may be stuck behind slow-moving tractors or agricultural machinery, but this will rarely be over long distances. Remember these are country-dwellers who are legitimately going about their everyday business – the country is not a theme park, conveniently laid out for your delectation and enjoyment. Just resign yourself to moving slowly and resist the temptation to flash your headlights or swing out from behind.

•Watch out for cyclists. It’s an increasingly popular hobby and they frequently travel in packs, which makes them hard to overtake on country roads. Crawl along behind them, keep your distance and only overtake when you’re confident to do so. You may find them irritating, but honking your horn, revving your engine, or shouting at them through the car window is an absolute no no; remember that, according to the Highway Code, they have priority.

•Be very cautious around horses. If you see a horse and rider ahead, slow down to a crawl and creep behind. When it is completely safe to overtake, pull out, giving the horse a wide berth, and driving very slowly to avoid alarming the animal.

•Driving along with your windows open and music blaring out is an inconsiderate assault on rural tranquillity. It is also dangerous when, for example, encountering horses, who may well be startled by loud noises. For this reason, honking horns is frowned upon on country roads.

 •Keep an eye open for pedestrians. Walking down country lanes can be hazardous, and where there are no verges, pedestrians are often forced to walk in the road. Slow down if you see a pedestrian ahead and overtake gently. Aggressively racing past with just a hair breadth’s clearance is the height of bad manners.

•Accept that, if you encounter a car coming in the opposite direction on a narrow, single-tracked country lane, you may have to reverse to let them through. Don’t try and sit it out; the convention is that the person who is nearest to a gateway or pull-off is the person who tucks their car into the side. If you encounter a large vehicle, they take priority, and you must manoeuvre yourself out of the way.

•Nothing winds up locals more than a visitor parking in a passing place or not acknowledging someonwe who has pulled over to let them pass – a wave of a hand or raising a finger from the steering wheel is all it takes.

•Park considerately; a gateway might look like a convenient spot to pull off the road, but you may well be blocking a farmer or a resident.

Satnav Slip-ups

In-car navigation systems have prevented many a long and scenic detour, but they are not infallible: listen to that inner voice of doubt before you gamely follow your SatNav’s instruction to turn off an A-road onto a narrow dirt track. Remember, in areas with limited satellite coverage, such as remote rural areas or deep valleys, GPS accuracy may be impeded. Listen to instructions from residents and bow to their greater knowledge of rural highways and byways and always carry a physical road map; a craven dependence on technology may well leave you seriously disorientated. 

Animal Alerts

British road signs alert motorists to a number of wildlife hazards – swerving to avoid wildlife is the cause of many accidents. In 2019 the UK government introduced a ‘small mammal warning’ sign, depicting a hedgehog, intended to protect vital crossing routes, particularly on rural roads. A recent estimate suggests that as many as 335,000 hedgehogs are killed on UK roads a year, with numbers peaking in July, suggesting that the road deaths are linked with the breeding season. Hedgehog fatalities are highest on the suburban edges of towns and in areas where roads are bordered by grassland, so being aware of the season and terrain can help prevent needless roadkill.

One of the most dangerous wild animals for motorists is the deer. Recent research indicates an annual tally of 74,000 deer-related accidents on UK roads. Most accidents occur during the deer’s rutting season, which occurs from around October to December, with dusk and dawn being high-risk times of day. Be particularly vigilant at these times, especially on roads that run close to woods and forests and take note of deer warning signs. If you do see a deer at night, dip your headlights, which will prevent the animal from ‘freezing’.

The Unfortunate Pheasant

Exotic pheasants originated in Asia and were brought to the British Isles by the Romans, where they have thrived and become an integral part of the country scene. Unfortunatey, they are particularly vulnerable on British roads, especially in the autumn, when captive-bred birds are released from their pens. Not noted for their intelligence, such birds have little experience of living in the wild or learning from other birds; they are mainly land-based and only fly when startled, with an alarming tendency to head across roads in front of traffic.

Click here for a free download of our new booklet, Debrett's Guide to Country Pursuits

Winning Well

This has been a truly competitive summer. Not only have we been transfixed by our own UK general election, but all over the world an unprecedentedly high number of democracies have gone to the polls in 2024. Sports – from tennis and Euros football to the upcoming Olympic Games – are taking centre stage this summer, gobbling up news slots and airtime and attracting exuberant partisanship and support. At the other end of our spectrum, it is nearly the end of term, and our children are caught up in their own sports days and competitions, vital early training in the art of winning and losing.

All this competitiveness and striving for success puts winners and losers in the spotlight. We are taught from an early age about the essentials of losing graciously – the brave smile, the generous tribute to the winner, the dignified exit. But what about winning well? We’ve all seen examples of how it should not be done – gloating triumphalism, disdain for the loser, a lack of generosity when it comes to applauding their achievements. So how do you go about winning well?


1.  Thank your opponent
It is important to acknowledge the time, energy and commitment that your opponent has put into competing with you. After all, without that input, you would not be celebrating your victory and all contents are dependent on dedicated participation. Thanking your opponent is an elegant way of endorsing the importance and legitimacy of the contest.

2. Thank your friends and supporters
Most winners have achieved victory on a tidal wave of support. Whether it is the back-breaking hours of campaigning and volunteering that have helped usher a political candidate to victory, or the professionalism and commitment of trainers and coaches who have helped their protegees achieve sporting gold, victors require assistance, and this must be acknowledged as effusively as possible.

As well as dedicated helpers, it is also important to thank the support of the wider public, whether it is voters in a constituency or the thousands of dedicated fans who travel great distances and spend large sums of money to cheer on their sporting heroes.

Above all, it is vital to thank friends and family; they have lived through the battle, and their loyalty and enthusiasm is a vital prop to all competitors. Their contribution should never be overlooked or underestimated.

3. Pay tribute to the losing party
You must always find something positive to say about the losers. This is straightforward if you have lost by the slimmest of margins – ruefully acknowledging that the battle was close-fought and could have gone either way makes it clear that you both respect, and fear, your opponent, and you will no doubt find it easy to single out their strengths and commend their performance.

But even if you have trounced an opponent whom you despise or disdain, it is still important to find something positive to say about them and rise above your own feelings of justified triumphalism. Praising their conviction or tenacity is often a good way of masking your negative feelings.

4. Be humble
Never let the sheer joy of victory turn into bragging or gloating. You may feel overwhelmed with feelings of superiority but putting them on display will turn onlookers off. It‘s fine to be proud of your achievements, but revelling in obvious delight at your opponent‘s loss is very unattractive.

5.  Ignore sore losers
Sometimes, when feelings are running high, losers are not able to control their emotions and behave with becoming magnanimity. They might even throw a tantrum or lash out at you with personal insults and negativity. In these circumstances, it is important to stand by and allow them to let off steam. By rising above their anger, you will look calm and dignified. Remind yourself that, however unpleasant the loser’s outburst, you are the winner and you have achieved your goal – don’t let the loser’s bitterness taint your triumph.

6. Don’t fixate on vindication
Some victories occur against the odds: you have been predicted to lose, commentators have rated your chances at zero, you have been dismissed out of hand. Or maybe you are competing against a firm favourite, and you have had to struggle against a partisan crowd and ignore the taunts of hecklers and abusers.

In these circumstances it is tempting, when you finally prevail, to focus on your own sense of vindication. You might feel an overwhelming urge to berate your audience of detractors, sullying your victory speech with “I told you so” gloating. Hard as it is, it is always better to put these feelings behind you and focus on the positive aspects of winning, as outlined above. That way, you will earn the grudging respect of your erstwhile critics.

And finally...
Winning is delightful and nobody should begrudge winners the opportunity to celebrate with friends and supporters. But beware complacency and resting on your laurels and always remember that, in most circumstances, a victory is a stage in a journey, rather than an ultimate goal. Top athletes who reach the pinnacle of their aspirations feel driven to strive for greater and greater achievements and record-breaking wins. Politicians are also aware that even a resounding win at the polls is only the beginning of the story; the hard work starts here…

Country Life for City Slickers

Britain is 85 per cent urbanised, and for all of us town- and city-dwellers the countryside is an alluring prospect of escape, a place where we can indulge in rural pursuits and tranquillity. But we are merely visitors in the countryside and do not depend on it for our livelihoods; it is all too easy for us to see it as a kind of theme park, open to visitors, rather than a place where people live and work, which can lead to culture clashes. We’ve looked at ways in which city-dwellers and people who live in the countryside can interact in a positive way.

How to be a Country House Guest

For a traditional weekend in the country, guests are expected to arrive on the Friday night in time for dinner. If it is not going to be possible to arrive in time for dinner, they can suggest they will arrive late on Friday (having already eaten) or cone on Saturday in time for lunch. The usual time to leave would be after lunch on Sunday, or possibly after tea, but do not expect a Sunday night supper. Know the code: “Stay for lunch on Sunday” means “leave soon afterwards”.

If you are running late, call ahead in good time. If you are arriving by train, you will probably be met at the station, but check first, and offer to get a taxi.

•Come Bearing Gifts

Wine is usually very welcome, but don’t be offended if the wine is put away and not offered – it might not go with the menu or other wines. A bottle of chilled champagne is always a safe option.

Bringing food and drink is not suitable for a very formal or grand house party but may be much appreciated on other occasions.

You can always avoid any potential awkwardness by bringing small gifts for the hosts’ children.

Alternatively, it may be more considerate to offer to take the hosts out for lunch on Saturday.

•Come Equipped

Your hosts may have informed you in advance of their plans (horse-riding, golf, a long walk etc). If they have not done so, you should certainly make sure that you have got appropriate footwear and waterproof clothing.

Dress according to the grandeur of the house. A country cottage won’t require black tie, but a stately home just might. Your hosts should alert you to any planned formal events.

•What about the Dog?

It is essential to ask your hosts first as the host’s dogs may not like other dogs on their territory. The exception would be a shooting dog, but always asks first.

Guests should bring their own dog’s food, basket etc. They should not bring dogs that are used to sleeping on the bed; this may be beyond the pale for many hosts who like to ensure the bedrooms are a dog-free zone.

•The Ideal Guest

The ideal guest is always easy-going and compliant and fits in enthusiastically with plans made for their entertainment.

You will no doubt be told to “make yourself at home” but don’t interpret this literally. That means following the rhythm of the hosts, getting up in time for breakfast, being sociable, and not expecting hotel-style facilities – plumbing, for example, may be antiquated and unpredictable (rural areas are more likely to experience power cuts) so taking endless hot baths is not recommended.

Food should not be taken from the kitchen or drinks from the fridge and ask first before you make a cup of tea. Offer to help with cooking and washing up (even though you will probably be turned down).

Don’t leave your possessions lying around in communal spaces and be meticulous about removing muddy footwear before entering the house.

•Tipping

If there are household staff, they should be tipped. On departure, a tip is left on the dressing table, either in an envelope or just on its own, or ask the host for advice.

•Say Thank You

It is essential that you write a note of thanks within a day or two of your departure (avoid emails and texts). As well as showing your gratitude, you should refer to something specific about the weekend that you enjoyed (a particularly enjoyable walk, delicious dinner, fascinating outing etc)

If you have transgressed in any way during your visit (eg drunk too much on Saturday night or spoiled the evening because of a strident argument with a fellow guest), now is the time to apologise.

Guide for City Slickers

Are you an urban animal who feels adrift in the countryside?

Do

•Come prepared for all eventualities, not least inclement weather. Waterproof clothing and wellington boots are essential; white linen trousers and leather loafers will soon look laughably bedraggled and mud-splattered.

•Remember that – unlike the mean streets of our big cities – where everyone does their utmost not to engage in conversation or eye contact, in the countryside it is customary to smile, greet people and even exchange a few words.

•Accept that life in the countryside is much more slow-paced, and that includes the driving. Hurtling through country lanes at breakneck speeds is extremely dangerous. Step off the treadmill and take the time to really appreciate the tranquil sights and sounds.

•Remember that visiting the countryside is an olfactory experience. If you’re accustomed to nothing more than traffic fumes, you will be assaulted by the scent of wildflowers and freshly cut hay but also by less pleasant odours – animal droppings, manure, cow pats, silage. Gagging into your handkerchief is a real give-away.

Don’t

•You will be a bit of a laughing stock if you visit the countryside kitted out for activities that you have no intention of pursuing. Jodhpurs, riding boots, thigh-length waders and so on are practical items of country clothing not fashion statements.

•Banging on about yourself and your wonderfully stimulating city life isn’t going to cut any ice at a country house dinner. Do people the courtesy of showing an interest in their lives and preoccupations, ask plenty of questions and listen attentively.

•Wandering disconsolately around a country house or garden with your mobile raised above your head as you try and get a signal is not a good look. Everybody knows that the WiFi signal is dodgy in rural areas; making a song and dance about it is just rude.

•Inflicting your latest list of food intolerances, fads, diets and fitness regimes on your fellow guests may be met with dismay. Most people who live in the countryside are proud of their range of local products and are fit because they walk everywhere, ride or engage in vigorous land management. Your fastidious lifestyle choices will betray you as a real city slicker, and a self-preoccupied one at that.

Not a Fan of the Countryside?

Here’s how to ensure that you will be seen as irredeemably urban and not invited back:

•RSVP and arrive late, bearing a sad bunch of petrol station flowers or, better still, nothing.

•Announce that you are a vegetarian. Time your revelation to coincide with the carving of Sunday lunch.

•Complain about the cold. County house inhabitants pride themselves on their hardiness. If you really want to put their backs up, moan about the lack of central heating and double glazing and sit hunched next to the fire in multiple woolly layers.

•Make loud comments about the one-toothed local in the village pub. Then order a martini.

•Refuse to walk anywhere and insist on using your car. Then complain vociferously about potholes, mud splattering and the paucity of EV charging points.

•Talk about nothing other than yourself, preferably down your mobile phone (IF you manage to get a signal) to someone back in town.

Click here to download our Debrett's Guide to Country Pursuits

A Very British Queue

The British are renowned for their imperturbable, orderly queueing, and this propensity will be genially displayed over the next fortnight, when large numbers of tennis-fans queue patiently outside the All England Lawn Tennis Club, eager to gain access to Wimbledon.

The need for queuing dates to the Industrial Revolution, when cities became overcrowded, resources were stretched, and public transport was at a premium. But it is theorised that it reached its apogee during successive world wars in the 20th century, when queueing was essential to maintain order, and large numbers of citizens were marshalled daily to collect their rations, obtain scarce commodities, enter bomb shelters, board crammed trains and so on. “Waiting your turn” became a patriotic duty and queue-bargers were seen as letting the side down, an attitude that persists to this day.

Queues, while onerous and time-consuming, were also seen as a chance to consolidate a feeling of community in difficult times – often by indulging in moaning with strangers (frequently about the queue), which is another undeniably British pastime. Even today, many people still find queuing surprisingly bonding.

The British are excellent queuers because they are phlegmatic and forbearing. While they might enjoy moaning about the queue, they choose not to fight against it. They observe queuing conventions because they perceive them to be fair and even-handed. A good queue is essentially a democratic affair; situations where VIPs are allowed to break the rules and are ushered to the head of the queue are much resented.

Queuing Etiquette

1. Never Jump the Queue

This is the worst queuing solecism and if you cut into a queue, you are liable to find yourself reproached. Many people try to evade this fundamental rule by ‘planting’ people in the queue to hold their place. This may be just about acceptable if one person is holding a place for another, but if a larger number of people are relying on a single placeholder, they may well find themselves extremely unpopular as other queuers will see their queue-jumping as fundamentally unfair.

2. Respect your Neighbours

A queue will find you in proximity with other people, who will be able to hear what you are saying. So don’t act as if you are in your own little bubble; resist making provocative or offensive remarks that are likely to make your fellow-queuers uncomfortable. Be polite and considerate.

3. Observe Personal Space

We all know that everyone who is forced to wait in a queue is anxious to move forwards, but you cannot make progress by inching forwards until you are breathing, impatiently, down the neck of the person standing in front. Don’t invade other people’s personal space and leave as much room as possible.

4. Participate in Queue Conversations

One of the great pleasures of the queue is the liberating anonymity that you will discover in conversing with someone whose back is turned; you can avoid eye contact and hence actual personal interaction and the intimacy that might entail. But you are effectively in the same boat (or queue) and will be able to find common ground, which may be fruitful.

5. Mind the Gap

While it is important to leave a sensible amount of space between you and the person in front, you must also be mindful of leaving too large a gap, which might attract the unwanted attentions of a queue barger. Remember, anyone who isn’t fully committed to moving forward an inch for every inch that opens up will earn the opprobrium of the crowd queuing behind.

6. Politely Deter Transgressors

We’ve all been in situations where someone has, possibly innocently, queue-barged. They may of course be a dedicated cheat, intent on evading their queuing obligations, but they also might simply have made a mistake about the end of the queue. So, give transgressors the benefit of the doubt, by politely pointing out their mistake. Just say, “I’m so sorry, I’m in the queue – you’ll find the end over there.” They will be embarrassed and will withdraw instantly as we all know that queue-jumping is a serious matter, which moves even the reticent British to outrage. Whatever you do, don’t just accept their anti-social antics and spend the rest of your queuing time simmering with silent resentment.

Boarding Buses

Queues are very much a fact of British life, but in some instances, they are breaking down. Orderly lines waiting at bus stops are a thing of the past. Nowadays, passengers tend to mass around the stop and board the bus in random order. This alarming tendency can be somewhat mitigated by your behaviour:

•Try and respect the amount of time people have waited: if there are people already at the bus stop and you turn up at the same time as the bus, it would be polite to let the people who are already waiting onto the bus first, rather than swanning up to the door and getting on first.

•Always let older people, or parents with pushchairs and small children, or people with mobility issues onto the bus first. They will need more time to board, and in any case should be allowed to secure seats if possible.

Top: Britain Queues For Food- Rationing and Food Shortages in Wartime, London, England, UK, 1945
Men, women and children queue for potatoes outside 'J Wood' the greengrocer at 97-99 High Road, Wood Green, London.

Refusing to Take No for an Answer

We all know that saying “no” can be extremely hard: we risk disappointing or letting down our friends and colleagues; we might upset someone who relies on our emotional support. But the whole business becomes much more difficult when we encounter someone who simply won’t take no for an answer.

We’ve all met people who simply refuse to be refused. From the most trivial thing, such as saying no to a glass of wine, to turning down an invitation, our every negative is met with a torrent of incredulity, distress, cajoling and pleas to reconsider. It is emotionally exhausting, and it is also very rude: good manners dictate that we respect other people’s integrity and their ability to make their own decisions and we accept them graciously with a minimum of fuss. We may feel disappointed or let down, but we should never use those feelings to manipulate other people into doing what we want.

A Social No

The tendency not to take no for an answer is often very apparent in social situations, especially when someone is hosting. This is because the social responsibility of offering hospitality can make people feel pressurised and exposed. They have gone to a great deal of trouble to organise a social event and understandably want it to be a great success. They are anxious about the food and drink and the social dynamics. So, when a guest says no (to the invitation, an offer of a drink, a second helping, a plea to stay), they dig their heels in and seek to persuade the nay-sayer to change their minds. This inevitably makes the whole encounter awkward and embarrassing, which of course is completely counterproductive.

You might find that you have friends or relations who are very prone to refusing to take no for an answer. When they extend an invitation, or ask for a favour, you are filled with dread, because you know you are about to embark on a long, possibly distressing, negotiation, which might even end in your capitulation. Try and do the following:

•Think carefully about why you are saying no and be sure that you have good reasons for doing so.  If your refusal is well-founded, you should be able to assert it more firmly. If you’re half-minded to comply, you’ll be open to persuasion – but beware, that sets a dangerous precedent and you might find that your refusals are never taken seriously.

•Inveterate non-accepters of refusals may use texts and emails to engage in long negotiations or may even try to persuade you that they didn’t get your text or that your message wasn’t clear. Sometimes it’s easier to say no in person or, failing that, on the phone. You can communicate decisiveness and resolution much more effectively in the tone of your voice than in a written message.

•Be polite and decisive, and don’t feel compelled to elaborate. Once you start listing excuses (other commitments, social exhaustion and so on), you are giving the other person a nugget of information which they can use to worry away at you (pleas to reschedule, attempts to persuade you that your batteries will be recharged by a social event).

• Be observant about the tactics the other person will use. It is likely that you have had difficulties with this person before, so you should be aware of their techniques: they may be adept at making you feel guilty (I “won’t enjoy it if you’re not there!), or skilled at manipulating your fear of missing out (using promises of illustrious guestlists, alluring venues, gourmet food etc), or good at flattering you (“but you're the life and soul of the party!”). Forewarned is forearmed.

•Shut the conversation down, but politely. Acknowledge the other person’s kindness (especially if they are asking you to a social event) but reiterate your refusal: “It was so kind of you to invite us to dinner on Saturday, but I’m afraid we won’t be able to come. I do hope you all have a lovely time!”

•If you’re interrogated about your reasons for saying no, keep your answers polite and pithy; you are under no pressure to go into minute detail about your social commitments, or rambling anecdotes about the myriad reasons why you can’t comply. Just say something like “I’ve got other social commitments that night…” and leave it at that.

A Professional No

It was once considered a great compliment to say that your boss was “someone who won’t take no for an answer!” because it indicated that he was relentlessly bullish, didn’t believe in failure and was always looking for positive outcomes, even if that meant pushing his team and ignoring objections.

Nowadays, we are all too painfully aware of the perils of 24/7 working and recognise that relentless pressure at work can lead to stress and burnout. Yet many workplaces are powered by a culture that is all about saying “yes” to impossible requests, showing a willingness to do whatever it takes, and expects employees to contribute to a general atmosphere of positivity. There is so much emphasis on team dynamics and achievements that workers are afraid to say “no” because they fear they are letting their colleagues and managers down, even if they know that they are jeopardising their work-life balance and might quite possibly be promising something they simply can’t deliver, with all the attendant stress that involves.

Hearing the word “no” and taking it seriously means not seeing it as an indicator of general negativity, but as a sign that too much is being demanded of the workforce. In these circumstances, it is vital for managers and team leaders to prioritise the demands that they are making and to look at other solutions, such as hybrid, part-time or flexible working.

At work, as in social life, it is important to take no for an answer. Nobody, in a professional context, is going to say “no” lightly. We are all convinced that our capacity as workhorses and our willingness to take on ever great challenges are the indicators that we are good employees. But these traits might be signals that we are overreaching, compromising our professionalism through over-ambitious striving, and very possibly becoming much less effective because we are just demanding too much of ourselves.

Managers need to create a culture where expectations are realistic and employees’ estimates of their capacity or doubts about the viability of certain undertakings, are taken seriously. Indeed, they should create a culture where they are willing to take no for an answer and should congratulate themselves because doing so is an indication that workers are being respected.

It’s Barbecue Season!

For a country with reliably undependable weather the British are remarkably keen on barbecues and al fresco entertaining. This means that, in addition to all the usual hazards involved in entertaining, the weather is an unknown quantity, and best-laid plans are often upended.

With this in mind, we looked at the five most common barbecue blunders and countered with five basic tips, which will help your event go with a swing:

Barbecue Blunders

1. Not lighting up before guests arrive

Everyone agrees that food grilled on charcoal is particularly delicious, but if you are choosing to go down this road you will have to accept that it is much more fickle and fiddly than a gas barbecue, which can simply be fired up 10-15 minutes before you want to start cooking.

Never resort to lighter fluid to start the coal as a paraffin taste will impregnate the food and the unpleasant smell will linger. Take it slowly and use a chimney starter: pack the bottom with newspaper, add the coals, light the newspaper and allow 20–30 minutes for the charcoal to heat up before pouring the hot coals into your grill. Only do this when the coals have turned grey, and no black is visible. You can create heat zones by piling up coals on one side of your grill for high temperature searing and positioning fewer coals on the opposite side for cooking more delicate fish and vegetables. Now close the lid on your grill and let it sit for at least 10 minutes before you start cooking.

2. Not focusing on the food

Barbecuing is an art, and you will need to concentrate when you’re cooking, especially if you are juggling meat, fish and vegetables, which will all need different heat levels and cooking times. It’s easy to get carried away with your professional chef persona but the reality is that barbecuing is not a theatrical performance, and you will probably need to ignore your guests while you concentrate on cooking.

It is sensible, therefore, to enlist the services of your partner, or a close friend, as a co-host, while you are negotiating the most challenging part of the process. They can hand out drinks and nibbles and make sure that guests are comfortable.

3. Not thinking about vegetarians

Traditionally, barbecues are seen as pretty meat-centred affairs. Carnivores will drool at the prospect of sizzling slabs of rare steak or fatty sausages, but for pescatarians and non-meat eaters this could be a real turn-off.

Check out beforehand if any of your guests are vegetarians or vegans and don’t simply resort to making an extra large bowl of coleslaw. Cheese such as halloumi is delicious on the barbecue, and vegans will enjoy grilled tofu. You can also create vegetable skewers, using peppers, onions and courgettes. Fish-eaters will enjoy robust choices that withstand the barbecue experience like halibut and swordfish (lightly oiled before cooking to prevent sticking); sardines and mackerel also barbecue well.

4.  Not thinking about the guests’ comfort

It’s all very well revelling in the primitive ‘cave man’ aura of cooking over fire in the open air, but many of your guests – while undoubtedly appreciative of your culinary efforts – will be less than pleased if they find themselves perched on a wobbly chair, forced to balance an overloaded plate of steaming hot food on their laps, while their wine glasses repeatedly topple over in the long grass at their feet.

Eating and socialising is much better if everyone is sitting around a table on reasonably comfortable chairs, with real crockery and cutlery. The furniture doesn’t have to be pristine – you can disguise a multitude of imperfections with tablecloths, throws and cushions – but it should at least be stable and functional.

5. Not planning for the weather

Optimistically setting out the garden furniture and the grill, with no provision made for a sudden dash indoors (dining room table overloaded with papers, not enough chairs etc) is foolhardy unless we are in the middle of one of our rare heatwaves.

Many people wisely make barbecuing into an impromptu decision, entirely based on the weather and on levels of confidence in the sunshine lasting all day. It is hard to organise a barbecue well ahead because the weather may not fit in with your plans. The best solution is to invite your guests in advance, mention that – weather permitting – you will be barbecuing and serving food in the garden (this will alert them to the need for hats, suncream, sweaters and wraps for chilly evenings). But always have a Plan B: you may have to cook the food in your conventional oven, and your guests may have to move inside and eat in the dining room.

Barbecue Basics

1.  Preparation is key

Most barbecue food preparation can be done well in advance: marinades for meat must be prepared and utilised ahead of time, and salads and salsas can be chopped, assembled and refrigerated (add dressings at the last minute to avoid salads looking sad and oily).

But it’s not just about the food; you should also ensure that seating is organised, and the table is laid before your guests arrive. There is nothing more discouraging than arriving, and then being forced to stand around, looking helpless, while your hosts hump large items of furniture and cool boxes around the lawn.

2.  Timing is Everything

Cooking on a barbecue is stressful because it involves concentration and coordination, which can be very difficult to maintain when you’re surrounded by guests. Remember, it doesn’t have to be a solo show: enlist a couple of willing helpers to keep an eye on the various components and distribute cooked food. You might have to accept that a barbecue is effectively an ad hoc staggered meal, with different dishes coming out at irregular intervals and some people getting their food way before their companions. This really doesn’t matter, because people really enjoy the improvisational nature of barbecuing – they will appreciate well-cooked food straight off the grill even if they do have to wait for it.

3.  Remember the drinks

With so much focus on the grill and the cooking, it’s easy to forget to keep your guests’ glasses full and ensure that they are well hydrated – especially important if it’s hot and sunny. If possible, deputise someone else to ensure that there is a smooth flow of bottles from the fridge to the cool box (or shady spot) and that ice is regularly replenished. You could set up your drinks on a table under a tree and point your guests to the drink with an invitation to help themselves; barbecues are, first and foremost, informal affairs so they’ll be happy to do their own pouring. Finally, make sure you have adequate supplies of water and soft drinks for people who do not want to drink alcohol, or for those who have reached the point where self-restraint looks like a sensible option.

4. Take a break

It’s hard, sweaty work keeping a barbecue going for a crowd of people. No matter how much you love the process, don’t overdo it. It’s easy – especially if your marinades start sizzling, the sausages are spitting, flames are licking out of your grill, and your garden is engulfed in clouds of acrid black smoke – to become extremely frazzled and short-tempered. This is a sign that you should take a break; sit down, have a drink and talk to your guests.

5. Don’t be a barbecue fanatic

It’s great to enjoy outdoors cooking, but don’t get so absorbed by the food that you fail to notice that your garden is windswept, it’s spotting with rain, your guests are huddled under an assortment of blankets and their fingers are gradually turning blue. Sometimes, you really do have to concede defeat and take it indoors. Don’t put your guests in a situation where they must either sit it out in sub-Arctic temperatures or plead with you to go inside. Keep an eye on everyone and the moment you see any signs of incipient discomfort, call it a day.

Address to Impress

In his introduction to the 1976 Edition of Debrett’s Correct Form, Sir Ian Moncreiffe of that Ilk (a fine example of a British title) states that

This invaluable guide to usage combines a sense of historic names and styles with a helpful understanding of the practical need of courteous people to find a guide to present-day usage through our fascinating Hampton Court maze of precedence, lettering, and modes of address.”

He also points out

The custom of putting letters after people’s names has only arisen in comparatively modern times but has proliferated as our enormous increase of population – and the rewarding of service to the economy and not just to the State – has led to a great expansion of our Orders of Chivalry and higher honours, together with the multiplication of degrees and appointees. Since these letters are but abbreviations, we can write them as we please. However, custom has evolved certain standard abbreviations, and most people seek guidance about present conventions. Officially and in business it’s polite to get all that lettering right; for what’s the use of earning all those gongs if the poor fellow can’t use them?

Debrett’s has always believed that the correct form of address is a vitally important pillar of politeness, and that it is always going to reflect well on you if you take the trouble to get it right. Whether someone is the proud bearer of a historic title or a life peerage, or can boast a hard-earned professional title and qualifications, it is only respectful to pay them their dues and acknowledge the title. Crown honours, and the letters after the name that accompany them, are marks of distinction – they recognise people who have made an outstanding contribution to society and they are something to be proud of, not disregarded.

We recognise that strict social norms have relaxed considerably since the first appearance of Correct Form. First names are widely used, titles and surnames are not much used in the world of digital communication. But there are still many occasions when we revert to formality, and we still advise that, if in doubt, it is always sensible to revert to formal titles and surnames until told not to do so.

At Debrett’s we have long prided ourselves on providing general guidance to ‘Styles by Office’, allowing readers to dig deep into the various strata of the main professions to understand the naming conventions that are used within each particular field. Similarly, we have listed Crown Orders and Decorations and explained the hierarchy in which they are listed as letters after the name. These general principles have proved to be an invaluable guide to Forms of Address over the past fifty years.

When writing to someone in their professional capacity, it is a gratifying sign of respect to get their title and any postnominals right. It shows that you have gone to trouble to do so and that you recognise the importance of these qualifications and their significance to the individual. We also appreciate that it can be hard to establish the correct nomenclature when writing a formal letter. In the professions, people move around, gain new qualifications, are promoted, and their titles reflect these changes. Each year the Birthday Honours and the New Year’s Honours are announced and a fresh crop of postnominals are appended to the names of worthy recipients. Some people are knighted, become Dames, or are elevated to the Peerage, and all these changes can be hard to monitor.

So, we are launching a unique free-to-use service, the Debrett’s Directory, which takes the major professions (Law, Diplomacy, Religion, Public Servants, Politics) and provides a listing of individual office holders. Not only do we give the full name of each current office holder, we also list any postnominal letters or titles. Most importantly of all, we give a clear instruction for each named individual on how to address them in writing and on an envelope.

We are confident that our new Directory will provide an invaluable checklist for the public, giving them easy access to the names of office holders and their forms of address. It is an ongoing project, and further Professions (eg the Civil Service and the Armed Forces) will be added in due course. We are constantly monitoring our entrants, ensuring that new appointments and departures are promptly recorded and checking that post-nominals are up to date.

There is nothing more personal to us than our own name. We’ve all experienced a mild stab of irritation when we receive letters with our name misspelt, or when someone abbreviates our name in a way we do not like. Our advice is to immediately and firmly point out these errors. If you are guilty of misnaming, you should apologise profusely, take note and not do it again. It is a social faux pas that can be forgiven.

However, getting names wrong in a professional setting is more troubling. It immediately communicates carelessness, laziness and disrespect and can start a professional relationship off on the wrong footing. By using our Directory, you will be ensuring that small errors are not blown up into significant missteps.

Talking about Illness

It seemed that, during the Covid pandemic and its aftermath, discussions about health were everyday fodder. Long taught to keep our illness and physical complaints to ourselves, we found we were in a place where everyone was forensically interested in everyone else’s symptoms, not least because of an understandable caution around infection. Struck down by Covid, we all enjoyed comparing symptoms and moaning, we discussed vaccines, compared remedies, brandished testing kits and felt no compunction about making very direct enquiries about other people’s immunity. It was a health free for all.

Gradually, we are reverting to our normal British attitudes. We are reminded that everyone has days when they are full of cold and suffering from aches and pains and are urged to remember that these are personal inconveniences which, as far as possible, should be kept to ourselves. We are warned that detailed discussion of symptoms can all too possibly mutate into whingeing and, worst of all, over-explicit accounts of bodily functions. You should never be guilty of telling people things they really don’t want to know.

On the other hand, Covid has taught us important lessons about taking precautions; we now know that if we are suffering from something very contagious or an illness that impairs the ability to work, we should be as honest as discretion allows about taking the day off. Soldiering on may seem brave, but we all know it is simply stupid.

Our reluctance to discuss illness is understandable when we’re talking about everyday aches and pains. But bear in mind that if people are suffering from chronic or long-term pain (eg long Covid) or have received a life-changing diagnosis, it is extremely rude to completely disregard their circumstances.

Here is some guidance about how to react to serious illness or long-term conditions:

•Don’t go into denial

Many people, on being told this kind of news, fall back onto denial, saying things like “You’ve never looked better, you can’t be that sick!”. Nobody who is seriously ill wants to be forced to plead their case and convince friends and family of the seriousness of their condition. When you’re told a fact that you find unpalatable, accept that your incredulity is your own problem – don’t ever communicate it to the conveyor of the bad news.

•Don’t turn into a health ‘expert’

Some people, shocked by bad news, can only cope with it by attempting to control the narrative. They bombard the person who is sick with endless natural remedies, special food recommendations and suggestions for combatting the condition, illustrated by anecdotes about acquaintances who have triumphed over adversity through diets, vitamins and obscure health regimes. Their attempts to manage the situation soon become oppressive and can often drive the patient into a shell. Remember everyone has their own way of coping with illness and that is their prerogative.

•Don’t go silent

It is very common, confronted by bad news, to shrink into a shell. You don’t know how to react, so you take the path of least resistance, which is to say nothing, perhaps offering the excuse that you “don’t want to intrude”. This is a terrible let-down for the sick person who at the very least expects acknowledgement of the difficulties they are confronting. On the other hand, regular, compassionate enquiries about health, symptoms, treatments etc will be a source of great comfort and a reminder that people really do care. Sometimes it is all too easy to be ruled by your embarrassment into stigmatising an illness, making it something that cannot be discussed, further isolating the patient.

•Don’t go into overdrive

The other end of the spectrum is to bombard the patient with compassion and sympathy. It is quite possible to fetishise the suffering of the patient to the point where your sympathy feels oppressive and overwhelming, and your repeated offers of help become burdensome.

•Make regular enquiries

Once you have been told about a serious health condition, it is important that you make regular, general enquiries, along the lines of “How have you been feeling?” or “How is your health?”, “Is there anything I can help you with?”. You are not digging intrusively deep (a risk if you offer detailed interrogations about symptoms and treatment), but you are giving the patient space in which to confide in you, should they choose to do so. Ensure that these exchanges take place in private so that the patient is not exposed or embarrassed in front of other people if they do not want to talk; you must respect their sense of privacy.

•Listen carefully

If somebody wants to talk to you about a serious health condition, give them your full attention and do not shy away from difficult insights. Don’t interrupt or lecture them, give them space to talk and listen attentively. Above all, remember that there are times in all relationships when the attention inevitably flows one way; your own concerns and preoccupations will seem trivial to someone who is confronting a real health crisis, so don’t be offended if the give and take of conversation is somewhat lacking. Now is the time to offer selfless support.

•Resist texting

However you choose to react, try to do so in fully thought-out sentences and without the assistance of totally inappropriate emojis. Shielding behind texting is the coward’s way out; it is so much better if you can visit the patient and converse face to face or at the very least talk on the phone. If you want to write, send a handwritten letter or a properly thought-out email. Now is not the time for abbreviated messages, which imply that your compassion is limited.

Birth Rituals

Rituals around the birth of a baby are changing as society becomes less religious. Some of us choose to forego any formal ritual at all, preferring to “wet the baby’s head” with a celebratory drink, shared with friends and family, soon after the birth. Some people still opt for a traditional christening; those of us who seek a ritual but do not want a religious dimension may choose a naming ceremony. Whatever the ritual, the emphasis is on celebrating the new arrival, and on parents and other key adults (godparents, grandparents, special friends) publicly stating their commitment to the child’s welfare in the years to come.

Religious Ceremonies

The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church refer officially to baptism or infant baptism. Both churches prefer the baby to be baptised during a regular Sunday service, often at the same time as other families. If the baptism is during morning service or mass, it will usually be followed by a lunch.

It is still possible to have a private christening in a church of your choice, although it may take some tact and perseverance. If you have a special relationship with a priest or vicar from a different parish, who is for instance a family friend, then you will need to clear the arrangements with the local parish priest or vicar. Private christenings are often in the afternoon and followed by a tea, but this will be dictated by the local church’s timetable.

During the baptism service, the parents and godparents gather with the baby (traditionally wearing a white gown) and the vicar, usually around the church’s font, to make a series of religious declarations. The vicar marks the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead, then pours some water on the child’s head, symbolising the washing away of all sin. If the ceremony is taking place during a normal service, the congregation may join in at this point. During the ceremony the mother usually holds the baby, but the godmother may hold the baby at some point. The register is signed after the ceremony, usually by the father.

•Invitations to Christenings

Notification to godparents, friends and family may be by post, telephone call or email and will include mention of any party afterwards. Traditionally, formal invitations were not sent out for christenings or baptisms, but some parents do choose to send them. These are either pre-printed or bespoke cards; the style of the invitation should reflect the level of formality of the service and party.

Traditionally-styled invitations would be used to signal a formal event. They are usually printed on high-quality white card (600 gsm), measuring W7 x H5½ inches (14 x 18 cm). The wording should read:

Alexander and Eliza Waldergrave
Invite you to celebrate the christening of
Maisie Amelia
at St Luke’s Church, Little Gidding
on Sunday 29th September
and afterwards at The Old Rectory

RSVP
ElizaW@server.com
11.00am Service

12.30pm Lunch

Pre-printed cards are available with spaces left blank for the guests’ names, the baby’s name, and the date, location and time of the christening, to be handwritten.

Guests should reply to invitations promptly. The level of formality of the reply should reflect the style and tone of the invitation. If a very formal invitation is received, it is advisable to reply in the third person, as for a wedding invitation.

•Parties

Parties after the service may include a lunch (possibly a buffet), or tea in the case of an afternoon ceremony. The party is usually fairly informal and not prolonged, as the baby’s routine needs to be considered. It is best to have any party fairly near the church, whether it is in a hotel or similar venue, or a private house.

Drinks are served, most usually champagne and wine, as well as tea or coffee and soft drinks. Traditionally the top layer of the wedding cake was saved and re-iced to use as a christening cake. Or you may choose to order a christening cake, which is usually a fruit cake with marzipan and icing, sometimes with bespoke ‘baby themed’ decorations.  A godparent may toast the baby, but long speeches are unusual.

It is likely that guests will bring presents, so it is advisable to have somewhere to put these, but not necessary to open them there and then. Thank-you letters should be sent promptly.

The guests may well bring small children of their own or the baby may have siblings and cousins, so it is a good idea to make some provision. If possible, enlist the help of an older sibling or cousin to supervise and entertain the children, lay on child-friendly food, and organise a play area for them.

Large parties for christenings are unusual. The essential guests are the godparents, grandparents, the parents’ siblings, and perhaps the godparents of the baby’s siblings and the closest family friends. Cousins will not always be included, nor will neighbours or friends, even very close friends. Godparents are usually accompanied by a spouse or partner. It is polite to invite the clergyman and spouse to any party or reception (although they may not be able to come).

Photographs in church should always be non-invasive and cleared beforehand with the vicar or priest.

•Dress Codes

It is correct to dress smartly, with men in suits, or a jacket and tie, and women in dresses and jackets but not necessarily hats (although it is not wrong to wear one). It is no longer necessary for women to cover their heads in Catholic churches though some may choose to do so. Men should remove hats.

The baby may wear a traditional christening robe, which may be a family heirloom, but these may not always fit larger babies. White is traditional and a dress and shawl look best – there are specialist companies that make modern versions.

Naming Rituals

Naming ceremonies are a non-religious option for parents who wish to celebrate, in some official capacity, the arrival of their child with family and friends. They have no legal standing but may be organised in association with a local authority, or through a private company. Parents do not need to be married and can come from any cultural background with any or no spiritual or religious beliefs. Any parent or legal guardian can make the arrangements.

These ceremonies are often led by a trained celebrant and, instead of godparents, individuals are asked to be “supporting adults”.  During the ceremony parents and supporting adults both make promises (usually about the love and care they will offer the child). They may also include a reading or two – every naming ceremony is unique and tailored to individual requirements and registrars or celebrants will provide guidance. A certificate is usually presented as a keepsake. It is usual for the parents to host a reception for guests after the ceremony with some food, drinks and a naming cake (similar to a christening cake).

Many parents now choose to host a naming day or naming party themselves, as a non-religious alternative to a christening. The format of the day will vary from family to family, but a lunch for family and close friends is a popular option. It is usual for guests to take a present for the baby, as they would to a christening.

There is no dress code for naming ceremonies, either for the guests or the baby. Usually, the baby will be dressed in a smart outfit, perhaps with a delicate shawl, and most guests will make an effort to look smart and respectful.

Top: The Lily Font at the christening of Victoria, Princess Royal, 10 February 1841, Charles Robert Leslie

Election Fever

The UK general election has brought political discussions to the fore. It is a time when political issues are uppermost in our minds and views, often very polarised, are being exchanged. Arguments are breaking out all over the country: it’s time to look at ways in which we can discuss politics in a civilised manner and avoid negative fallout.

At times like this we tend to divide into broad politically aligned tribes, or we may choose to step out of the maelstrom and join the “don’t know, don’t care” camp. Whatever your stance, it is worthwhile remembering never to make assumptions. It is so easy to find yourself in an echo chamber, where you are surrounded by like-minded people and the tendency is to deduce that people you meet socially or at work hold the same political beliefs as yourself. This is a dangerous presumption, which can very quickly plunge you into difficult waters. So, think before you speak, ask open-ended questions and try to establish where people stand on the spectrum. You may also be able to gauge how passionately they hold their beliefs and make a pragmatic decision not to engage in a fractious debate.

If you find yourself talking to someone who holds very different views, try your best to be open to different perspectives. It can help if you establish some common ground; you might, for example agree about the extent of a problem (eg the Health Service) and the need to address it. Even if you both have radically different views about how the problem should be approached at least you are starting from a mutually held position.

Here are some ways in which you can approach political arguments:

•Don’t ask emotionally loaded questions

It really helps if you don’t project two emotions when arguing: incredulity and contempt. When you find yourself profoundly disagreeing with someone, especially if you’re getting angry and emotional, it is really easy to lapse into questions like “Surely, you’re not stupid enough to believe x, y or z?”. Eradicate the emotion and turn the question into something much more neutral and open-ended: “what do you think of x, y or z?” or “I understand you believe x, y or z, but have you thought about…..?”

•Don’t interrupt or talk over other people

Nothing is more provocative than arguing with someone who refuses to give you the space to expound your ideas and repeatedly interrupts you. It is true that when discussions get heated, exchanges become more staccato and fragmentary, but the very least you can do is try to listen attentively to what is being said.

•Disarm with emollient responses

You might violently disagree with what is being said but flying off the handle with remarks like “that’s absolute rubbish!” or “How can you possibly say that?” will up the emotional tempo and make the argument much more volatile. Try using phrases like “you make a very interesting point” or “that’s a fascinating point of view, but I do have one major concern”. You are wrapping your disagreement in a positive response, which effectively defuses the other person’s defensiveness – arguers can become ever more entrenched in their positions if they feel their propositions are being shot down in flames.

•Ask intelligent questions

Demonstrate that you are really listening to the arguments by posing questions and drilling down into what has been said. Prefacing these questions with phrases like “Have you considered?” or “Have you thought about?” shows that you are really engaging with an opposing point of view, rather than just sitting, stony-faced, and waiting for your turn to re-state your case. You may well find that, if the questions are acute or challenging, they are met with an evasive response. Pointing this out (“I don’t think you’re really answered my question”) is a highly effective, and perfectly polite, way of needling the opposition.

•Don’t grandstand

It is tempting, when you feel that your view is being challenged or dismissed, to shut down the opposition by dominating the conversation, haranguing listeners with your viewpoint, monologuing, resisting all attempts to interrupt or intervene. This is not an argument, it is verbal assault and battery: it will persuade nobody to come round to your point of view and, on the contrary, might well consolidate opposition.

•Don’t tell lies to support your case

Fabricating figures or making exaggerated or unsupported claims to support your argument will come back to bite you. If you’re going to use facts and figures, verify their accuracy or you may find yourself called out or embarrassed by your credulity and failure to check information sources. Never make broad, unverifiable claims of the “Everybody knows that’s not true” variety.

•It shouldn’t be personal

If you get really provoked you might find yourself making personal attacks, perhaps by dismissing views held as typical of a person of a certain class, background, profession etc (“well someone like you would think that!”). You should never stoop to these tactics; political arguments should be about ideas and not about personalities and the discourse deteriorates when this fact is overlooked.

•Withdraw gracefully

Sometimes political arguments go round in circles and feel like they’re going nowhere. The participants become more stressed and volatile, personal insults fly, positions are endlessly and fruitlessly restated. Nobody is going to ‘win’ the argument and there comes a time when the best idea is to call a halt. A simple way of withdrawing is to say something like “Well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree”, which will shut down the conversation courteously.

•Leave well alone

Not everybody is going to be jumping on the political bandwagon in the weeks ahead. You may hold passionate views, but you may well find yourself encountering people who are indifferent to politics, contemptuous of all politicians, or determined to keep their political views and allegiances to themselves. If you’re stonewalled, don’t berate non-participants for their non-engagement – it’s their prerogative. You will always find other people who are fired up and willing to enter the fray.

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