Ask Martha: I'm revamping my shared front garden with my neighbours. How do I get my way?

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The Independent Online

Q. I share a front garden with my neighbours, and I want to revamp it. We're splitting the cost but they are suggesting all sorts of deeply distasteful designs (faux-Victorian statuettes, multicoloured gravel). How do I get my way without offending them? Kate C, Beckenham

A. Offence doesn't even come into it. You are fighting for your life here. Allow one concrete nymph into your front garden and you also invite Sleepy, Grumpy, Itchy and Diphtheria or whatever all those hideous plastic troll creatures are called. And a bird bath. Before you know it your postal code will have lost 15 per cent of its value (if it hasn't already) and you will never invite anyone round again. So stand firm. Invent reasons why multicoloured gravel is a deathtrap – it rots! It's illegal! – and then tell them that your neutral decking idea (yes, we've got your number, Kate) is the only viable option. Install, and wait for them to add their own peeing cherub fountain. If they do, well, there's always the into-a-skip-by-nightfall option.

Q. How should I deal with the friendly local Jehovah's Witnesses who persistently ruin my Saturday mornings? Charlie A, Nottingham

A. As with any cold caller, retaliate. Tell them you're so glad they called as you want to convert them to Scientology. Would they like a leaflet? They'll be gone faster than you can say "Cruise".

Q. A distant family member has asked me to buy some Barbie toys for his daughter from a website in America, because he doesn't like using his credit card on the internet. If I do this for him, I doubt I will ever see the money but feel sure that will not be the end of the requests. How can I get out of doing this without looking unfriendly? Henrietta K, Edinburgh

A. This calls for the classic manoeuvre I call "Slip and Flip". Like a martial-arts technique, this combines graceful distraction with a decisive chop. So you don't want to become your relative's internet toy-runner, Mattel procuress or all-round merchandising dogsbody. Fair enough. Cut that idea dead. Tell them sorry, you've decided that you don't like using your card on the internet either. But be sure to surround that cold sliver of truth with lots of lovely cotton wool. If it's in an email, attach pictures. If it's on the phone, think up some anecdotes and questions. Preparation is key. You need to put on a performance of natural, spontaneous charm. And we all know how much work that takes.

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