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Obsessions

Homes…

It is largely thanks to the awful climate in England that the English lavish so much attention on their homes and gardens. They employ their leisure hours with an endless cycle of "home improvements". For no English home can ever be considered fully improved.

Inside and out they beaver away, installing electronic gadgets, showers, built-in furniture and turning the exterior of a suburban semi into a gothic nightmare of mullioned windows, stone-clad walls and studded front doors.

Even the family car is not safe from DIY man's attentions. He drives the impeccably polished vehicle up on to ramps, which he buys from the DIY shop, and tinkers around underneath it for hours on end.

You might think that, with all this self-servicing, self-plumbing, self-decorating and improving, English skilled labourers would be out of a job or two. But that is not the case. Sooner or later, these experts have to be called in to make good the damage caused by the over enthusiastic amateur.

Leaning back on their heels, pencils behind ears, glancing sideways and taking long breaths in between their teeth, they shake their heads. "Of course you've been fiddling with this, haven't you?" DIY man winces at "fiddling", puts his hand ruefully into his back pocket and pays handsomely. It is tacitly understood that part of the fee buys the expert's discretion. For DIY man will still take the credit for the shower, burglar alarm or "suping up" of the family saloon.

No disaster will ever convince the Englishman that any job is beyond him. Every job is a challenge and all challenges are to be met.

… and Gardens

Out in the garden, the English have no hesitation. They are surprisingly effective out-of-doors. Gardening is a national sport and "green fingers" are a proudly-born English deformity.

Once they get going, something very strange happens. They temporarily lose their innate practical bias in favour of a purely personal expression.

While other nationalities tinker away with pots and potagers in an attempt to increase the foodstore and add a splash of colour, the English are landscaping - dreaming of grandiose sweeps of green, studded with plantations of exotic shrubs.

While the French content themselves with a sprinkling of mostly native plants, the English suburban garden is a riot of international flora - lilies from Tibet, wistaria from China and gunnera from Patagonia.

Garden centres thrive. Gardening magazines and books are everywhere in their houses and when the temperature indoors is below freezing, the seedlings and cuttings in the greenhouse still luxuriate in tropical warmth.

And all this in the smallest of properties, for every English garden or window box becomes a national park in the English imagination.

Railway travellers in England cannot fail to notice the numerous little collections of horticultural enclosures which cluster around embankments up and down the country. These are the allotments - municipally owned land originally leased to town dwellers ufwartime to help with the production of vegetables. Even without the threat of war they are still jealously guarded patches. English men and women will wait half a lifetime to inherit one of these insalubrious little plots with their ramshackle sheds, for here they can play at being market gardeners all weekend.

For the English the first sound of spring is not really the song of the cuckoo, but the echo of the unprintable oath of the gardener who discovers that his lawn mower will not start. After that first primaeval shout, they are off. And so, throughout the summer while other people in the world are sitting outside their houses chatting, the English apply themselves to the horticultural labours of Hercules. They weed monstrous herbaceous borders, build palaeolithic rockeries, divert waters to prime fountains, cultivate giant marrows for the annual village fete and dead-head acres of asters.

If they feel in need of a change, they will go and visit someone else's garden, returning home via the garden centre with another car bootfull of plants, implements, plastic pond liners and compost.

Come rain or shine, but mostly come rain, the English mulch and prune their way through the year, rejoicing in the dignity of their labour.

The Gnome

The garden gnome is a peculiarly English phenomenon which gives a fascinating insight into the English character.

In English suburban gardens, like the classical statue in great English parks, the coarse-fishing gnome wielding his little rod is a reminder not of some pagan past but of a secret and precious time before the coming of adulthood, the very childhood the English had thought they had forgotten.

Along with coy garden poetry, a laughably impractical sundial and, above all, the Enid Blytonesque name on the garden gate - "Bide-a-Wee", "Dunroamin", "Kenada" (the home of Kenneth and Ada) or "Olcote" (Our Little Corner of This Earth) - the gnome helps to create, in a private place, a private world in which the Englishman is just a great friendly giant.

A Nice Cup of Tea

Foreigners may scoff, marketing men may try to seduce with alternatives, but the English still carry on doggedly in their devotion to what they consider to be one of the few good things ever to come from across the sea - balm for the wounds of the Empire builder.

Whilst foreigners stiffen their sinews with something stronger, the English constitution merely demands tea. They have imbued it with almost mystical curative and comforting qualities. In moments of crisis, as a remedy for shock or just at a social gathering someone will suggest tea. It is probably their only addiction.

Tea to the average English man or woman usually means Indian tea. It is served with milk and sugar and the folklore surrounding its preparation is prodigious. First the teapot has to be heated. The tea, once made, has to be left to "stand" and "brew" - but not so long that it becomes "stewed". Cold milk is poured into the bottom of each cup and then tea is added either with the addition of water or, more normally, "just as it comes" - neat and strong.

Among the upper classes, China tea is considered smarter. Preparation rituals are similar, but milk is always added after the tea if it is taken at all. A slice of lemon is often substituted. Sugar goes in last.

In great English institutions tea brewed in vast urns like Russian samovars still often comes with milk and sugar already added. It should be approached with caution. The liquid that oozes out of the English variety is best described as canteen tea - the kind that stands up without a cup.

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