Buttered side down? Killers' feelings? Sure, but no stupid questions, please


LONDON -- The British have a tradition of writing letters, and considerable skill at doing it. They write to each other and to the newspapers: some serious; some not.

The Times is world famous for the quality of the letters it receives. These help identify social problems; they constitute a dialogue between influential people in official and unofficial positions; they help turn the wheels of government.

Other letter writers have less ambitious intent. They write for advice and assistance of all kinds -- in matters of etiquette, finance and, of course, romance.

Here Miss Lonely Hearts lives. The Agony Aunt enjoys the esteem of the national family. Both are always ready with inventive, practical solutions, such as this, offered by the Sunday Telegraph's Hope Nott to a woman from Stroud:

"I am in love with a man in my office. He doesn't know how much I love him. . . . I am too shy to talk to him. What can I do?"

The answer: "Occasionally one hears of people meeting as a result of an accident. Why don't you run him over? You could then visit him in hospital, read him fascinating modern novels and show him how wonderful you really are."

The Sunday Times, always the innovator, invites its readers to supply the questions and lets other readers provide the answers. One recent question dealt with an ancient mystery: why dropped toast always lands buttered-side down.

The responses were many. They recounted results of aerodynamic and ballistic experiments, and raised considerations of random probabilities related to the distance of fall, the value of the carpet and so forth.

But the most succinct reply, demonstrating the English tendency to clearheadedness, came from Lesley Wood, of Harwich, Roxburghshire:

"Toast always lands butter-side down. On the rare occasion it lands butter-side up one must conclude that it was buttered on the wrong side."

Occasionally, private citizens use the public press to defend their reputations. The Kray twins did so recently in response to what they regarded as a denigrating reference to them by Prime Minister John Major.

The Krays are serving life sentences for murder, mayhem and other gangland activities in the 1960s. They are probably Britain's most notorious criminals, well-known owing to a movie released a few years ago about their nefarious lives.

Mr. Major fell afoul of them while promoting his current crusade against juvenile crime. He said steps should be taken to prevent young delinquents from becoming the "Krays of the future."

The brothers took umbrage. They wrote to their manager, who passed their missive on to the newspapers. "In our day no one would dream of mugging and battering old ladies, stealing from neighbors or molesting and killing innocent women and children," they wrote.

The prime minister's remark, they added, "saddens and hurts us deeply."

Some Agony Aunts specialize. Mary Killen, who does this work for the Spectator magazine, seems to be the preferred counselor for snobs, as this typical query would indicate:

"My father has recently been made a peer and I am wondering how I can best take advantage of my own new status as 'The Hon.' [for Honorable]. I understand it is wrong for me to be addressed as The Hon anywhere except on an envelope and I find this rather depressing. Can you advise me on how to exploit the title more fully?

Name withheld, London"

The answer: "You can ask your bank to put 'The Hon' on your cheque book. . . . However, you can best announce your new status to the world by sitting on a committee for some charity ball or similar. You can then send out hundreds of letters to friends and acquaintances which will advise them to write to 'The Hon X X' with their donations or cheques for the purchase of tickets."

There are occasional desperate cries for help, and a problem now and then for which not even the most inventive has an answer, such as that written to the Daily Telegraph's Miss Nott from a Mr. Biggins of Aston Shotly:

"I am old. What's the answer?"

She said it was a stupid question.

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