Sharing a holiday, even with close friends, can be risky enough, but Yvonne had been propositioned by the parents of her seven-year-old daughter's school friend, people she barely knew. Why didn't they all rent a gte together in France? 'All' would include the other couple's 12-year-old son and Yvonne's 17-year-old stepdaughter. Obviously it would be cheaper - but what about the pitfalls? Yvonne's husband had already said he thought the other father was a bit of a bore, and Yvonne was wary.

'Do tell Yvonne that it is a recipe for disaster to go on holiday with anybody if you have not known them for at least 10 years, and only then if you have had a test weekend trial run,' wrote Don Lafferty, of Horsham, West Sussex. It was, he thought, unlikely they would get on. And if they did, there was always the possibility that they'd get on too well, like two couples he knew whose holiday ended in tears. 'The husband of one couple was a keen walker, as was the wife of the other couple. So the walkers went off together and were absent for hours, especially after supper . . .'

Juliet King-Smith, of south-east London agreed: 'Yvonne must be suffering from a touch of the sun to contemplate this venture,' she wrote. 'Two things are true about holidays . . . they have a built-in disappointment factor and they cost twice as much as you reckoned. It can be hard sharing a kitchen and bathroom for a couple of weeks with people you know and like: why increase the odds of disaster by sharing with people who are not only an unknown quantity but also sound so thoroughly incompatible?'

Peter Phillips, of Herne Bay, begged Yvonne not to make 'the gaffe of the century. Family holidays, like Christmas, can cause enough rows amongst one's own relatives without having strangers around. Do think of your seven-year-old daughter as she writes the obligatory essay at the start of next school term about her summer hols. 'Mum made us go to France with this horrible family . . .' '

But there were some gung-ho supporters who gave the thumbs up to a plunge into the unknown. Philippa Russell, of Birmingham, had actually done it and enjoyed it. 'We had a very happy holiday sharing a four-bedroomed seaside flat, and one small beach hut, with two other hard-up families for a month: six adults, seven children and two moody teenagers. It worked because we hardly knew each other beforehand and therefore never got as far as being irritated by other people's idiosyncracies.

Nicholas E Gough, of Malmesbury, Wilts, also said: 'Go for it. Only in relationship can we learn more about others and develop ourselves . . . Any interaction between strangers is usually friendly, innocent and pleasurable. Any deeper friendships which develop are surely good. On the other hand a failure or loss of communication would not matter so much since they were virtually strangers.'

But a 'loss of communication', as he euphemistically puts it (I have a feeling it means non-stop rows) would mean an absolutely ghastly holiday for everyone. And personally I don't go on holiday to 'develop' myself and earn a kind of Duke of Edinburgh award in emotional training. Just being in a new place and a new country is quite taxing enough, thank you.

On the only holiday I ever took with virtual strangers, the other couple were so laid-back they never wanted to do anything except sit up till three in the morning downing bottle after bottle of retsina. And because they let their four-year-old son stay up, I had to let mine do the same. As a result, the couple slept in till midday, while the kids were already up, fractious and wanting to go to the beach. If we took them off, we'd get back to find the parents having breakfast while we had lunch; if we stayed at the beach there was a nasty atmosphere about us having taken the car and left them stranded.

Quite apart from any other considerations, there are too many loose children proposed for Yvonne's holiday, of wildly differing ages. No expedition could be organised without at least one child hanging back feeling left out and sulky. I'd make excuses for this time, but next year I'd take a gte and ask my daughter's little friend if she'd come on her own. I'd also ask the 17-year-old to bring a friend. Strange children are fine; but strange places combined with strange adults can turn sea, sand and sunshine into tension, temper and tantrums.

Terrorised by her partner

Dear Virginia,

My daughter has lived with her partner for 20 years. To all outward appearance he is a charming, helpful man, but in the home he is a maniac. He drinks, hurls verbal abuse at her, steals money from her bag, intercepts letters . . . He hit her once five years ago and she lives in terror of him. She works long hours to support them - he is unemployed - and I have seen her reduced from a vivacious smiling blonde to a nervous, underweight, sad woman. He criticises her cooking, the way she looks and she says she is afraid of him. The family have offered help and will stand by her, but she seems unable to make a move. Last night she was crying on the phone to me. I am so unhappy and tired of it all. How can I advise her?

Yours sincerely, Bella