Dear Serena: Modern Manners, your cut-out-and -keep guide to surviving the minefield

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Dear Serena,

St Valentine's Day is merely another commercial occasion which we, as consumers, have allowed ourselves to be hypnotised into co-operating with. I refuse to be blackmailed into spending unnecessary money by large organisations, but none the less feel myself under pressure to do so. Can you suggest a means whereby I can make my partner understand that I love her without spending money?

Steve, Brighton

Two things, Steve: firstly, commercial organisations are very rarely able to sell us things we don't want unless it's via government without our knowledge. Valentine's gifts may be a ghastly commercial tat, but they are merely a commercial response to a very real human need for self- affirmation and/or intrigue. You would, therefore, be well advised to acknowledge these feelings. Secondly, you don't have to spend money, though you might have to sacrifice 10 minutes of your precious time by making a card with scissors, glue, cardboard, tissue paper and other common household items and leave it somewhere where your partner will find it on the day in question. It is generally a good idea to make romantic or, at least, appreciative gestures within a relationship, as they can disappear altogether without nurture.

I love my partner very much, but he has a terrible tendency to meanness which he thinks he has disguised with a set of political stances about commercial exploitation and renewable resources. The endless recycling of string and the bits of wood clogging up the garden shed I can handle, but how can I persuade him to drop the pose and give me a Valentine's card this year?

Stella, Brighton

Tell him that refusing to participate in loaded emotional occasions, however commercialised, can be interpreted as a sign of spiritual meanness and that you would really appreciate receiving a card as a sign of his affection. And just in case, spend the housekeeping money on a back-up card to send yourself; that way he will at least have paid for half of it.

Last year, I met a girl on the Internet who is everything a man could dream of: slim, blonde, small features, large breasts, loves sex (we have had some pretty steamy cyber-sessions, I can tell you!), is popular, works in the music industry, lives in a warehouse flat in the centre of town, is a cordon bleu cook, and single. We've had a relationship for some months now, and the time has come to actually meet. The problem is this: I have been a little untruthful with my descriptions of myself, as I didn't think a woman like her would want to know me if she knew the truth. How do you think she will react when she turns up to meet a Mel Gibson lookalike with his own company and finds a 20-stone bald bloke who lives in a bedsit and works in a sandwich bar? Oh, and I told her my name was Gideon.

Barry, Ealing

I wouldn't worry too much. Do you really think that the woman you describe is spending her nights sitting in by herself playing lonely hearts on a computer? At least you will have your lively imaginations in common. But I would suggest that you both wear unmistakable identifying marks in your buttonholes so you have some chance of recognising each other. The name you might have to change by deed poll.

I have been to a couple of dinner parties recently where the women were expected to withdraw at the end of the meal. I don't think this is right in this day and age. Do you?

Lucy, Harrogate

This is a habit that has pretty much died out in the big cities, generally due to lack of space, but continues elsewhere. Personally, I don't mind it much, as it provides a change of scene when things might be getting dull, and the women, when you finally get to talk to them, often turn out to be a good deal more amusing than the pair of bores one has been trapped between all evening. Remember, also, that men don't actually stay behind to have interesting conversations about world affairs from which you will be excluded, but to indulge in the important bonding ritual of going out into the garden and pissing on the lawn. Insist on staying if you must but be prepared to hoist up your skirts in a flowerbed and squat.

My cat is fond of chewing things, and is gradually reducing my wicker furniture to shreds. He pays no attention when I shout at him. What can I do to stop him?

Penny, Newquay

First of all, buy some wooden furniture. Wicker is ugly and collects dust, and cats have a refined sensibility when it comes to their surroundings. While you are saving up, you could try a dash of Tabasco rubbed over the parts he's most fond of chewing.

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