Sitting comfortably

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If you are the type who prefers to catch up with your friends quietly, over supper cooked at home and with a bottle of good unpretentious red wine, rather than at the best seat of the latest restaurant, then it is likely that you will prefer the English sitting room to almost any other room in the world.

Palaces are all very well; temples of power, impressive; galleries of display, rich. But where does the Englishman feel most at home? In his sitting room, where he can truly kick off his shoes, put up his feet, pour a large gin or whisky and enjoy being with friends, books, or having a night in with the telly. It is the room where he does not need to worry about having to put away the clutter because the house is open to the public at 10am tomorrow.

It would probably be wrong to set out to decorate a sitting room. Sitting room style should take care of itself. Deep, squashy sofas that have seen better days, favourite armchairs, useful bookcases that might, slightly controversially, have been modified to take a stereo and a television, a piano, piles of newspapers, interesting books, lamps in just the right place, turkey rugs, a drinks tray, ashtrays for the unreformed smoker, good but not great pictures, curtains that may have started life at another window, chests of drawers with board games in the top drawer and photo albums and old bank statements lower down ... these are the ingredients of the best sitting room, that above all must never look as if it is trying too hard. (I was going to write “perfect” sitting room, before realising that would be an oxymoron).

English sitting rooms require two other ingredients. They must smell right, and the right smell is not something that can be created in an instant. This is why English sitting rooms in America (I imagine we have all been in them) never, ever, feel right. They smell too clean.

It takes years of wet dogs, tobacco, old books, cut roses, a little mildew in one corner, dusty potpourri, log fires and your grandmother’s inherited chintz curtains to achieve the smell of the best English sitting room. Though some of the ingredients may be not quite what you want on their own, together they create an atmosphere that is unmistakable.

Second, the sitting room needs a pair of doors to the garden. These must be slightly beaten, with worn old brass handles, and a rail above from which to hang a blanket in the winter. The door will face south west, so that late afternoon sun streams in past wisteria, cream roses and honeysuckle.

In the summer, the doors are permanently open, and the occasional drowsy bee meanders in. Once, in the spring, a swallow enters and causes mayhem.

We may contemplate cleaning up; but it is the sitting room, and there are better things to do.

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