Lucy Kellaway and David Tang argue over the rules for modern life

The FT’s resident agony aunt and uncle discuss social niceties and conundrums
Lucy Kellaway and David Tang at his home in Piccadilly, London © Victoria Birkinshaw

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Dear Sir David Tang

I wouldn’t normally begin an email quite so formally, but I’ve been reading your new book and see you consider the briefer “Dear Sir David” to be obsequious. As there is nothing I’d like less than to appear unctuous, I’ll stick to your formula.

That settled, may I crow? Last time we exchanged emails we were debating the right amount of stuff to own. Having chucked most of my belongings away, I argued that your three homes in central London, each bursting with antiques, knick-knacks and several hundred monogrammed shirts, were a bit excessive. I can’t tell you how vindicated I felt to visit you this morning in your “set” at the Albany in Piccadilly and find that you have sold one of your houses and dispatched its contents to Christie’s in one go. Hooray.

This time I am writing to you as agony aunt to agony uncle, to congratulate you on the publication of your book, Rules for Modern Life, a compilation of your finest FT advice. I like the dust cover very much. At first when I saw the quotes on the back — paeans from Eric Schmidt, the Duke of Marlborough, Sir Mick Jagger, Joanna Lumley and other assorted giants, I thought it was a brilliant spoof. But then I realised all these people have probably enjoyed your hospitality in your assorted homes over the years and are well placed to comment on how your rules work in action.

I also like the title. In this world in which anything goes, we need rules to help us, and — even better news — I found a couple of yours that I follow already. You don’t send Christmas cards. Nor do I. You think it’s fine for a middle-aged woman to dress like Suzi Quatro, and I agree. You are right that hotels ought not to tuck in duvets at the bottom and that it’s fine to nick the breakfast buffet for lunch. I even agree that a happy life can be led without decanters or coasters.

Yet there, alas, all agreement ends. I see my job as agony aunt to reduce the agony of the reader. You appear to want to add to it. You tell suitors never to send flowers with notes attached. You say it’s more romantic; I say it’s not only a waste of money but will get the recipient’s hopes up that the flowers came from someone more exciting. Equally, you tell our hapless readers that the best thing to do when you forget someone’s name is to greet them with the first name you can think of. Is this a joke?

Stuffed tiger’s head on the landing © Victoria Birkinshaw

More troublingly, you forbid FT readers from wearing signet rings unless they have a family crest. You are perfectly beastly about paper napkins (which I swear by), alleging that they are really tissues. Isn’t the first rule of modern life that snobbery is no longer OK? It was fine for the Mitfords but won’t do now.

One of the many famous people who gets a name-check in your book is the Queen. You talk of watching her push peas on to the wrong side of her fork, and suggest that if it is good enough for Her Majesty, it’s good enough for the rest of us. Are we to take your “rules” in the same light? That if they are good enough for Sir David Tang . . .

Thank you for the delicious coffee today.

Lucy

PS. Hope you appreciate that I’m following your advice that if you use the words “thank you” in a letter, they must come at the end.


Knife collection displayed on a wall © Victoria Birkinshaw

Dear Lucy Kellaway

You were right to crow about your championship of minimalism. Under your witchery, my wife tortured me to the point of total surrender. I simply threw everything out of our seven-storey house either into a skip or to Christie’s at Kensington. There is now only an impersonal cheque from the auction house to remind me of my 20 years at Eaton Terrace. Maybe just as well, as I have never liked the upper-middle class and Eaton Terrace is frightfully upper-middle-class.

Meanwhile, I am delighted you have taken to reading my new book although you really cannot protest about my aversion to paper napkins, which are best consigned to a seedy room at a Bangkok massage parlour.

As for signet rings, nobody uses them any more for sealing wax, as was originally the intention, and therefore they should be abandoned. The Duke of Edinburgh doesn’t wear one and he is the ultimate gentleman. The Prince of Wales does, but he is heir to the throne and is entitled to have an emergency seal at his fingertips.

You are also wrong about a woman receiving flowers without a note. The whole point is to create a slight sense of mystery or magic. That’s why people love guessing the senders of Valentine cards.

We men really understand that; but you women don’t generally. That’s why agony uncles are much more effective than agony aunts, as men would never dream of writing to women for advice, whereas they would write to other men — because men don’t trust advice from a woman, at least not in matters of intimacy or general intuition.

Display cabinet containing books, plus a pair of cowboy hats © Victoria Birkinshaw

So I hope you will find more masculine pearls of wisdom from my book, and share them with your own readers, who treat you as their agony aunt. As we are very friendly colleagues at the FT, I will overlook any transgression on copyright.

Regarding the testimonials I received for the book, you seem to suggest that they were inflated and secured through past briberies of hospitality! How can you be so beastly, as my quotes of praise are as pristine as the songs of praise? Or can you possibly be jealous? Yet you are already the longest-serving and most popular writer at the FT, so sometimes someone else must be allowed a bit of praise.

David Tang

A collection of Sir David Tang’s FT columns, ‘Rules For Modern Life’, will be published next week by Penguin, £12.99

Photographs: Victoria Birkinshaw

Letter in response to this column:

Sir David could have put up a few rough sleepers / From Prof Marcia Pointon

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