Jill Stanton-Huxton asks:

Surely Mrs Hammerstein deserved a burial in the back garden rather than being thrown out with the rubbish (Tim Dowling, 12 March)?

To answer this question it’s important to remember that Mrs Hammerstein, despite her name, was a snake – and snakes in the wild have no tradition of burying their dead.

It’s true that  many snake-owners feel it appropriate to bury their snake upon its death; and that Dowling’s house has a garden, as revealed in previous columns, meaning this course of action would have been possible. Additionally, some councils request that people do not put their deceased pets in the rubbish (see for example Uttlesford council, which states that “pets are suitable for neither recycling nor landfill, and should not be left out for collection”).

With regard to Mrs Hammerstein’s specific expectations and the treatement she deserved, however, we can be relatively confident that she would not feel let down by the Dowling family’s treatment.

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Victoria Green asks:

Can we have Shappi Khorsandi’s brother in his pants in every issue?

It would be possible for the Weekend to create a special slot for pictures of people in their underpants, an equivalent of the Sun’s Page 3 girl; but it doesn’t fit with the general tenor of the magazine, and it’s an unlikely direction for the editorial team to take. Unfortunately for Victoria, even if they do branch out to regular pants pics, they’re more likely to vary the pants-wearer from issue to issue (as The Sun does) than to stick resolutely to Khorsandi’s brother.

Jill Harrison asks:

“The other day a friend said, ‘Jimmy looks like he’s got Aids but forgot to tell his face.'” Nice friends Jimmy Carr has. Oh, silly me, it was a joke. Was it? Better ask Frankie Boyle or Jim Davidson. Or someone with Aids perhaps.

It was indeed a joke. Jill’s confusion may be a result of the erroneous assumption that a joke must be funny. Certainly most jokes are intended to be funny, but actual funniness is by no means universal to the form – just as not all meals, for example, are delicious.

Geoff Wicks asks:

Why is it always actors who have the earliest memories (Q&A)? I have often wondered who would be the first to remember being in the womb. Gillian Anderson (5 March) came very near to saying so. What next? Remembering being a sperm going for a swim?

Before answering Geoff’s question, we thought we’d better check whether his observation was correct. We went through every Q&A published in the past year, and noted down the age of every earliest memory given, wherever this could be ascertained – either because it was stated directly, or because it could be deduced. (For example, David Miliband’s earliest memory was of the birth of his brother, and therefore his age at the time was readily calculable). In cases where the age was given as, for example, “2 or 3” or “not yet 3”, we went with 2.5.

We found that the earliest memories of the interviewed actors came at ages 1, 3, 3, 3, 3, 4, 4 and 7 (with a mean of  3.5).
The earliest memories of musicians came at ages 1, 2, 3.5, 4 and 4 (mean 2.9).
The earliest memories of television presenters came at ages 2.5, 2.5 and 3 (mean: 2.67).
The earliest memories of editors and writers came at ages 2 and 2 (mean: 2).
And the earliest memories of politicians came at ages 1.5, 2, 2.5, 3, 4 and 5 (mean: 3).

The evidence is clear. Actors do not in fact consistently claim to have earlier first memories than non-actors; and in fact the mean age of earliest memory is higher among the interviewed actors than among any other group. Even Gillian Anderson’s memory aged 1 is not unprecedented.

In answer to Geoff’s questions, then, we can’t say whether anyone will claim to remember being a sperm – but we can say that if someone does, it is not particularly likely to be an actor.

Sara Hayward asks:

I had only to glance at the photograph for Clare Price and Struan Robertson’s Blind Date (5 March) to know that the scores would be high and that they’d meet again. How? They looked like each other, and great matches often do.

Thanks to Sara for answering her own rhetorical question with such clarity.

Valerie Farnell asks:

Scallops are going down (The Measure, 5 March)? Never!

There’s no need to fret! The Measure often declares that things are going “up” or “down”, but it’s not the result of peer-reviewed research or even an exhaustive survey – indeed, often it seems to be little more than whim. Take a look, for example, at this Measure from October 2008: going up we have tedddy bears, and going down we have macaroons and Emma Watson. With the hindsight granted us by our viewpoint in 2011, we know that haters of teddy bears, like admirers of macaroons or Watson, had nothing to fear.

Alistair Ross:

Dear God, if they’re all female, they’re not old enough; if they’re all old, they’re not black enough; if they’re all black, they’re not gay enough (Readers’ Letters). Will you lot ever stop whingeing?

Their Questions Answered has been answering Readers’ Letters since August 2010, and we therefore feel particularly well qualified to answer this question. The answer is no.

Victoria Green asks:
Can we have Shappi Khorsandi’s brother in his pants in every issue? 

It would be possible for the Weekend to create a special slot for pictures of people in their underpants, an equivalent of the Sun’s Page 3 girl; but it doesn’t fit with the general tenor of the magazine, and it’s an unlikely direction for the editorial team to take. Unfortunately for Victoria, even if they do, they’re more likely (like the Sun) to vary the pants-wearer from issue to issue, rather than sticking resolutely to Khorsandi’s brother.

Jill Harrison asks:
“The other day a friend said, ‘Jimmy looks like he’s got Aids but forgot to tell his face.'” Nice friends Jimmy Carr has. Oh, silly me, it was a joke. Was it? Better ask Frankie Boyle or Jim Davidson. Or someone with Aids perhaps.

It was indeed a joke. Jill’s confusion arises from her apparent assumption that a joke must be funny. Certainly most jokes are intended to be funny, but it’s by no means a necessity – just as not all meals, for example, are delicious.

Geoff Wicks asks:
Why is it always actors who have the earlist memories (Q&A)? I have often wondered who would be the first to remember being in the womb. Gillian Anderson (5 March) came very near to saying so. What next? Remembering being a sperm going for a swim?

actor 1, 3, 3, 3, 3, 4, 4, 7   mean: 3.5
musician 1, 2, 3.5, 4, 4,    mean: 2.9
tv presenter 2.5, 2.5, 3   mean: 2.67
editor/writer 2, 2 mean: 2
Politician: 1.5, 2, 2.5, 3, 4, 5   mean: 3

Before answering Geoff’s question, we thought we’d better check whether his observation was correct, so we went through the last year’s worth of Q&As and noted down the age of every earliest memory, where this could be ascertained, either because it was directly stated or could be deduced (for example, David Miliband’s earliest memory was of the birth of his brother, and therefore his age at the time was readily calculable). In cases where “2 or 3” or “not yet 2” were stated, we went with 2.5.

We found that the earliest memories of the interviewed ACTORS came at ages 1, 3, 3, 3, 3, 4, 4 and 7 (mean: 3.5).
The earliest memories of MUSICIANS came at ages 1, 2, 3.5, 4 and 4 (mean 2.9).
The earliest memories of TV PRESENTERS came at ages 2.5, 2.5 and 3 (mean: 2.67).
The earliest memories of EDITORS AND WRITERS came at ages 2 and 2 (mean: 2).
And the earliest memories of POLITICIANS came at ages 1.5, 2, 2.5, 3, 4 and 5 (mean: 3).

The evidence is clear: actors do not in fact consistently claim to have earlier first memories than non-actors; and in fact the mean age of earliest memory is higher among the interviewed actors than among any other group. Even Gillian Anderson’s memory aged 1 is not unprecedented.

In answer to the question, then, we can’t say whether anyone will claim to remember being a sperm (though obviously it is physiologically impossible for this to be the case, whereas it is at least possible to remember something that happened to you aged 1). If they do, however, it is not particularly likely to be an actor.

Sara Hayward asks:
I had only to glance at the photograph for Clare Price and Struan Robertson’s Blind Date (5 March) to know that the scores would be high and that they’d meet again. How? They looked like each other, and great matches often do.

Thanks to Sara for answering her own rhetorical question with such clarity.

Valerie Farnell asks:
Scallops are going down (The Measure, 5 March)? Never!

There’s no need to fret! The Measure often declares that things are going “up” or “down”, but it’s not the result of an exhaustive survey – indeed, often it seems to be little more than whim.

Alistair Ross:
Dear God, if they’re all female, they’re not old enough; if they’re all old, they’re not black enough; if they’re all black, they’re not gay enough (Readers’ Letters). Will you lot ever stop whingeing?

We have been answering Readers’ Letters since [date] 2010, and therefore feel uniquely qualified to answer this question. The answer is no.

Jenny Moore asks:

Please, can you do more interviews with Richard Hawley (Q&A, 26 February)? The dog training exercise while enebriated was priceless.

The Q&A is the only regular interview slot in the Weekend (other than “Weekender”, which is devoted to readers rather than celebrities). This means there’s no obvious place for more Hawley interviews to go. But it’s not all bad news for Jenny! Hawley has been interviewed several times in the past by other newspapers and magazines, and some of these interviews are easily accessible online. She could try the Cultural Foundation, Crud Magazine, the BBC, PopMatters, the Scotsman, or the List, for a start.

David Walker asks:

I wonder if you could ask Lucy Mangan to de-manganify her sentences (I mean shorten them)?

They could ask, but it’s unlikely to have much effect! People who write long sentences often do this quite naturally, without realising quite how long they leave it between full stops. Even if they form a genuine intent to write shorter sentences, it’s hard to follow through. In fact, in this letter David himself has used a sentence that’s much longer than it needs to be!

Tony Green asks:

“The thinking woman’s guide to fashion” (Cover, 19 February). Surely the most oxymoronic headline yet, given that the point of fashion is to mindlessly spend money on whatever you’re told you should be wearing?

Not at all! So many things are “in fashion” at any one time that spending money on them mindlessly would be impossible for all but the very wealthy. For most people, it’s necessary to make choices about particular trends and decisions about how to respond to them, which intrinsically requires a degree of thought.

If Tony wants evidence that it’s possible to think deeply about fashion, he might like to have a look at the work of  historians like James Laver and Heather Vaughan, philosophers like Malcolm Barnard and Lars Svendsen, and novelists like William Gibson.

Emma Smith asks:

Re Which royal are you? (19 February). Carole and Pippa Middleton – royals? Are you kidding me?!

It doesn’t seem that the Guardian set out specifically to kid Emma, or anyone else for that matter, but their flowchart certainly uses an unorthodox definition of “royals”: roughly “people who are at least slightly well-known, and loosely connected to the royal family”. In a more formal context, readers could certainly expect them to be more rigorous with the term!

Katherine Schofield asks:

Want to play our Yotam Ottolenghi game? From the title of the recipe, guess which impossible-to-buy ingredient will be included. Last week, verjuice and sumac. This week…

Sure! When we gave the game a try,  we guessed that Blood Orange and Anchovy Salad would include a fermented anchovy sauce, and that Crunchy Root Vegetables would include a particularly arcane type of squash. Unfortunately we lost both games: the first recipe suggested a particular, and slightly hard-to-source, type of anchovy, but gave details of a website where the brand could be ordered; and the second included kohlrabi, a cabbage cultivar.

Helen Keall asks:

My heart sank when I saw the cover asking, “Would counselling improve Tim Dowling’s marriage?” (12 February). If it did, that would mean the end of his column. What a relief to find it business as usual. Now they have been reassured they have a sound relationship, I’m looking forward to the next instalment. But will we ever find out Mrs Dowling’s first name?

It’s unlikely! Dowling is extremely consistent in referring to his wife as “my wife” in all public fora including his column, his articles and interviews. Even the biographies in his books don’t give her name; and the Hackney photography studio that shot pictures of the pair for the article mentioned above is careful to refer to them, in their record of the shoot, as “Tim Dowling and wife”. Her anonymity therefore seems to be deliberate, the result of a decision on both their parts that it is best not to name her in public.

Of course, working out her name would be possible for a sufficiently dedicated investigator; but to do this when she and Dowling have so clearly chosen not to make it available would be unkind.

Harry D Watson asks:

Why do chefs tell us to buy dried chickpeas, soak them overnight, drain, place in a large pan, cover with water, boil and simmer for an hour, etc (The New Vegetarian, 12 February)? I buy mine in a tin, drain and rinse them, then boil for a couple of minutes, after which they’re ready for use. Also, why do chefs assume that normal people know what they are going to eat the following day?

Dried chickpeas are generally considered to taste nicer than tinned, and to have a slightly higher nutritional value. Many chefs and recipe-writers therefore recommend them over the alternative. This is similar to the way that recipes usually recommend, for example, fresh asparagus over tinned – though the difference in taste with chickpeas is not usually held to be quite this marked!

As for Harry’s intriguing second question, it is certainly the case that some normal people habitually plan their food a day or more in advance, and that others will sometimes do so if it’s necessary for a particular recipe.  It is for these people that recipes are provided that involve – for example – soaking chickpeas. The recipe-writers and chefs in question do not necessarily assume that all readers will plan ahead, just as they (for example) provide recipes including lamb or bacon but do not necessarily assume that all readers eat meat.

Celia Pardoe asks:

Why does your All Ages model Valerie always seem to wear her own shoes – does she have bunions or size 10 feet?

Valerie’s feet aren’t a size 10, but they’re close: a size 9. This is unusual even among the taller-than-average model demographic – she is one of only two models with her agency, Close Models, to have size 9 feet (as opposed to, for example, 41 models with size 6 feet, and 47 with size 7).

For this reason, as Celia suggests, it seems that Valerie often needs to use her own shoes for shoots, though there are occasional exceptions.

Terry Brinton asks:

I sympathise with the women in your cover story, but I can’t help wondering if the number of competent elder women who are being discriminated against on account of age is greater or fewer than the number of young, incompetent women who get jobs purely because of their good looks?

This is an interesting and very complicated question. There have been a number of studies looking at the question of attractiveness and employment, and findings have often been contradictory, but to summarise:

  • People who are more attractive are often perceived as more competent, regardless of whether this is really the case,  and they therefore probably find it easier to get a job.
  • There is no widespread agreement on whether attractiveness is more of an advantage for men or for women, in employment contexts – different studies have produced different results.
  • There is evidence that attractiveness can actually harm women’s chances in applying for certain jobs. These tend to be jobs that are often seen as “masculine”, in fields such as security, finance, hardware, and mechanical engineering. However, this effect has been observed primarily in laboratory settings, and is disputed by some.

So, it’s by no means straightforward! One thing that’s worth noting, and may help to address Terry’s question, is that the benefits of attractiveness in employment-seeking contexts have generally been found to be incremental: attractiveness may make someone seem more competent, or lead to higher pay, but it is unlikely to conjure perceptions of competence from nowhere.

Paul Treloar asks:

Doctor, Doctor: “How can we prevent our children from being car sick? Even on short journeys they feel queasy.” Surely the answer is stop driving everywhere and start walking a bit more?

Paul may be surprised to know that the drive-or-walk question has come up in the Weekend letters page before. It seems to arise when a writer mentions a “short drive”, or driving to somewhere “close by”, which naturally prompts questions about why the drive was necessary in the first place.

The answer lies in the fact that average driving speed in the UK differs significantly from average walking speed, and a “short” drive may therefore equate to a quite long walk! A drive of five or ten minutes is generally deemed short, and yet it can easily equate to a walk of thirty to sixty minutes – even more if children are involved (as they are in this case).

Additionally, most cars keep their travellers dry even in rainy weather, and allow them to carry bulky or heavy objects with ease; whereas keeping dry in the rain or travelling with large objects is more difficult for walkers.

Helen Keating-Old asks:

Can anyone explain why Patrick Stewart and Liz Hurley call non-actors “civilians”?

Yes, we certainly can. It’s a common usage among actors in both theatre and film worlds, and this is doubtless where Stewart and Hurley picked it up. The Oxford English Dictionary dates it from  at least 1946, when From Gags to Riches included the line “Show gals are smarter and keener than most ‘civilians’.” The OED also cites a Scientific American article of 1975: “The listening public—civilians, we call them—its composers, critics and conductors are indeed fortunate that so many excellent instrumentalists spend so much time practicing and producing music.”

In fact, the OED suggests that “civilian” is used by a variety of groups to refer to non-members: by football players talking about people who don’t play, for example.

Robert Boon asks:

“Frogs’ legs are a lot like chicken” and a trip to Jim Morrison’s grave at Père Lachaise: well done to Julie Myerson for getting to the heart of Paris. Can we look forward to further travel pieces from her – the tulip market in Amsterdam or beer drinking in Munich perhaps?

It’s great that Robert enjoyed Myerson’s article – but unfortunately for him, she’s unlikely to publish any more articles along the same lines. Myerson is not primarily a travel writer; instead, her non-fiction tends to concentrate on her experiences of motherhood and family life. In fact, even her Paris article was as much about holidaying with her son as it was about the city itself!

Gillian Jones asks:

Lucy Mangan’s column almost exactly replicates the angst-filled rant my friends and I indulge in down the pub. What can we do? Take to the streets? Man the barricades? It may yet come to that. In the meantime, Lucy, keep giving voice to our rage.

The column in question addresses Mangan’s frustration at class divisions in the UK, and the extent to which people with blue-collar backgrounds are underrepresented in British politics.  In addressing this issue, there are currently no barricades for Gillian to man;  she might have better luck looking into a charity devoted to increasing social mobility in the UK.

The Social Mobility Foundation, for example, welcomes assistance in the form of donations and volunteering. The Sutton Trust has similar ends, and though it has only limited volunteering opportunities it does produce regular studies on social mobility. These are an excellent starting point for investigating the issue further.

Phoebe Rixon asks:

Lucia Hrda’s poignant photograph of her grandfather awaiting the cortege on the day of his wife’s funeral brought me to tears. It’s a shame you didn’t treat it with more respect. Was it really necessary to place it right across the fold? A little more care might have been appropriate.

Paradoxically, it may be the very poignancy of the photograph that led to its placement. Generally the “Your Pictures” feature shows a selection of pictures, with one particularly compelling contribution printed larger than the others. In this case, the picture selected for large-scale display was Lucia Hrda’s.

However, because “Your Pictures” spreads across one-and-a-bit pages, at least one picture has to be placed across the fold – and historically, this has always been the largest-printed photograph, perhaps because the pictures that are printed smaller are less able to withstand the treatment.

Hrda’s photograph is however available online with no fold.

Dee Patton-Statham asks:

What I See In The Mirror with Sandra Bernhard was beyond irony. Did anyone else splutter their coffee all over the page on reading that she “obsessively avoids toxins in the food chain” but has Botox injections?

We’re unable to find a record of anyone else spluttering coffee over the page in question, whether through astonishment at Bernhard’s perceived contradiction or for any other reason – it looks like Dee might be the only one!

Theo Stickley asks:

Wash flower pots in the dishwasher; sieve and microwave compost; water seedlings with camomile tea… Does Alys Fowler realise how bonkers her advice sounds?

Fowler explicitly acknowledges that some readers may be appalled by the use of a dishwasher to clean pots, warning: “if this horrifies you, never come to tea at my house”. In the case of microwaved compost and tea-watered seedlings, however, she simply provides the advice with no further warnings, so she may not have considered that anyone would find it “bonkers”.

Fowler will, however, undoubtedly have read Theo’s letter, and will now be aware that her advice sounds unorthodox to some readers.

David Smith asks:

Am I the only one wondering where the column answering readers’ rhetorical questions has gone?

You’re certainly not! In fact, several people have contacted Their Questions Answered wondering the exact same thing.