Magazine article The Spectator

The Perils of Answering an Advertisement in the Personal Column of the Spectator

Magazine article The Spectator

The Perils of Answering an Advertisement in the Personal Column of the Spectator

Article excerpt

The mating season is supposed to be in the spring. But the fool's mating season is January. More personal advertisements are placed in magazines and newspapers during that month than at any other time of the year.

One New Year, when I was working at the Sunday Telegraph, the then features editor waved a copy of The Spectator in my face. `Look at that,' she cried, pointing to one such advertisement. I looked. It said, `Son of peer seeks young lady from similar background for friendship and marriage.'

The features editor was ecstatic: `You must write to him. You're a peer's daughter.' I pointed out, glumly, that my father was merely a life peer, but she waved this caveat aside. `With a bit of luck he won't find out.'

So I wrote to the PO Box number. I decided to use a nom de plume: Mary Stanley. The surname sounded suitably aristocratic. One could always claim to be a cousin of the Earl of Derby (Stanley being the family name).

Three weeks later I received my first `Dear Mary'. It had been posted in Budapest. This was a turn-up. My mother comes from Budapest and I visit my aunt there every year. But what attractions could Hungary hold for the son of an English peer? If the address was a surprise, the letter was more perplexing.

My correspondent's name was, well, let us be discreet and use his initials, M.M. His grammar was very discreet, in fact it was non-existent. He said he had `been gone to school in Eton, where I did prodigious'. His family had an estate in the north of England and oil in Texas. He was in Budapest to `teach to the ballet'. What a man of parts, as Jane Austen might have said.

I looked up M.M.'s name in Debrett's. It wasn't there. I surmised that he was a Hungarian hoping to net a wealthy foreign wife. His subsequent letters dwelt on money. He was no longer teaching `to the ballet', but `looking after the horses to be ready to come back to my many estates'. Did I like horses? Did my family have an estate?

In for a penny . . I wrote back saying that my family had a seat in Gloucestershire so large that we had been forced to build outhouses to accommodate all the servants. This drove M.M. into a frenzy of excitement. He wrote that he was coming to London as soon as possible.

I was intrigued by M.M. Was he a villain or that age-old dreamer yearning for social betterment? Then I had an idea. I knew M.M.'s address. Why not send my aunt to investigate his story?

Reader, I had been sadly deceived. M.M. lived in the most wretched area of the city - a Hungarian Brixton without the charm. My aunt rang the bell of a flat the size of a dog kennel. It was answered by a dirty child. There were two more infants displaying varying degrees of cleanliness. Presently a Hungarian woman emerged. My aunt asked her if she knew 'M.M.'. It seemed that she did: `He is my husband.'

The features editor, who had been following my 'romance' closely, was full of glee. She suggested I go to Hungary with a photographer and unmask M.M. I protested that he might kill me, or at least his wife would. This only made her more eager.

A few days later, sitting in my aunt's flat overlooking the silvery, shimmering Danube, I found M.M. in the telephone book. But if I rang him what would I say? `Hello, it's Mary. Surprise!' What if his wife picked up the telephone?

I dialled the number. A man answered. I asked to speak to M.M. `You are speaking to him. …

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