London — Now here's a question with a sting in its tale: What should you do if a swarm of bees descends on you?
A. Duck for cover in the shrubbery?
B. Hide in a dark room?
C. Plunge into a nearby river or lake and stay submerged as long as your breath holds out?
D. Stay perfectly still?
Sorry, no conclusive answer can be given yet because the argument has not yet closed in the correspondence columns of The Times (London).
The Daily Telegraph may pride itself on its ``infernal crossword''; the Financial Times on its weighty economic news; the Guardian on its reporting of social issues; and the ``populars'' may feel they touch the man in the street. But none of these British papers has letters to the editors that rival The Times in their compre-hensiveness, tendentiousness, and whimsy.
Anyone feeling hot under the collar about the current teachers' strike, the impasse in the arms talks, the failure to feed starving Africans, or the relative merits of brown eggs over white eggs, is invariably enjoined to ``write a letter to The Times.''
Although it has been publishing for 200 years -- celebrating its bicentenary this year -- its letters column is only 60 or 70 years old.
According to a Times staffer on the letters page, some 200 to 300 letters arrive every day, clamoring for space that allows about 14 to be printed on any one day.
Certain events -- lightning striking York Cathedral just before the consecration of the new and highly controversial bishop, David Jenkins -- prove irresistible to some letter writers.
The Bishop, whose questioning of the validity of the Virgin Birth and the miracles of Jesus as historical facts caused no little consternation, dismissed the thunderbolt as ``just lightning.''
But all sorts of letter-penners wrote, only half in jest, that lightning was a sure sign of God's wrath.
As a source of information on what excites and agitates the British, as well as providing welcome light relief, the letters column in The Times is hard to beat.
Want to know what Sir John Gielgud, Yehudi Menuhin, Lord Devlin (noted British jurist), the Archbishop of York, and Ludovic Kennedy think about the great issues of the day? You need only read the correspondence columns of The Times to find out.
All the above have written The Times during the last two months. In each case, they were obliged to list their full addresses (now readers know exactly where Yehudi Menuhin lives) although some, like Sir John Gielgud, craftily conceal their lodgings behind the name of their private London club. In the case of Sir John, it's the Garrick.
But while the letters to the editor column reads like a British Who's Who, there's plenty of space for the plebs who in true Times style are accorded formal courtesy titles. Each letter begins with an italic introduction ``From Mr. J. Smith'' or ``From Professor P. Dark and others'' (in the case of a joint letter).
While some letters may be gems of profundity, others are no more than brief and sometimes very amusing ripostes that can be read in a few seconds.
In response to a terrible gaffe made by one of The Times's reporters, T. Quinn of Strathclyde in Scotland snorted in a one paragraph letter: ``Please inform Mr. Simon Barnes that Jeeves was never a butler. He was a gentleman's gentleman.''
Meanwhile Brian W. Hall with a London address finds his patience snapped on another issue:
``May I enquire of your readers to what use they put the regulation Post Office rubber band? I wish to dispose of a drawerful and there is a limit to the number of dead daffodils that can be tidied up.
``The Post Office do not appear to need them, otherwise my 24 letters today would not have been secured by nine bands,'' he says.
It needs only one reader to raise a new subject for an avalanche of letters to follow, such as that great debate a few years ago on white eggs vs. brown eggs.
Right now we're into the terrifying solecisms of airline pilots. Colin Drury reports that when he and his wife flew to Sri Lanka last year, the captain informed them ``On our left side, you can't miss Windsor Castle.'' Mr. Drury then adds laconically: ``Fortunately we did.''
Alan Iliffe reported that after a long wait on the runway at Dublin the captain's voice was heard to say: ``Apologies for the long delay, but we want you to know that in this airline we don't make any concessions to safety.''
And then there's the subject of what to do when bees swarm.
Probably the only reason the subject arose was because Britain had a wet and cool June. Poor bees. Because they couldn't get out and around, they became hungry, constipated (since bees keep their hives clean), and pent-up. When July came, they were on the warpath.
So how to avoid them was the question.
Not surprisingly, the respondents came from areas of the country that could only be described as rustic.
Lord John-Mackie recalled the time when the local postman in Glen Esk, in Angus, Scotland, had a swarm land on his head and shoulders. He walked gently down to the river, waded in, and immersed himself completely. The bees left without a sting. Lord John-Mackie conceded that such a method did of course require the proximity of a river.
But while others also subscribed to the hide-in-the-water theory (or the hide-in-the-bushes theory, which apparently bamboozles the bees), there were some who were equally insistent that the best escape was a dark room, since bees are less active in the dark.
Then there were those who argued for moving away as quickly as possible since the scent from a sting is a signal for other bees to attack.
That subject being fairly well aired, it shan't be long though before other readers discover they have some other bee in their bonnet about some subject and make a beeline for their pens and dash off a stinging letter to The Times.