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The fruitcakes of Albion

WHEN Americans talk about the eccentricities of the British, they generally focus on the most obvious national quirks: that the English think brown is a festive color, say ``Ta'' even to armed intruders, and wear Wellington boots to the beach. Having been married to an Englishwoman for 11 years, I believe that I have unearthed two British idiosyncrasies far more indicative of the true depths of zaniness in the English character. Only time will tell whether these bizarre traits will be genetically transmitted to my Anglo-American children. The first of these quirks is the British passion for Christmas puddings. Christmas puddings, for the uninitiated, are boglike clumps of raisins, nuts, and candied cherries, laced with epic portions of suet, that are steamed for 12 hours, then hidden away in a dark corner to fester for three years, until the dire Christmas evening when the perpetrator of this culinary outrage - calling on all her Plantagenet cunning - beguiles her unsuspecting guests into trying a portion of the ominous delicacy. Christmas puddings, the most calorically devastating concoctions this side of raw sugar, look and feel like weight-room equipment, and are one of the few Western desserts that could conceivably be registered with the police department. In Olde Englande, Christmas isn't Merrie without one.

Beryl Bainbridge wrote a book called ``Young Adolf,'' theorizing that Adolf Hitler may have spent time in Liverpool as a boy. The theory is flawed. No one could come to Liverpool without being exposed to Christmas puddings, and no one who had been exposed to Christmas puddings would ever pick a fight with a race that thought these grim items were fun food.

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The second profound peculiarity of the British is the angry letters they write to the editors of newspapers - particularly small, local newspapers. Turn to the editorial page of a tiny, local newspaper in the United States and you will find an endless litany of complaints about insufficient crossing guards, need for better snow removal equipment, and beefing up the police force.

Local British newspapers are far removed from these diurnal considerations. The Stroud News & Journal, a newspaper servicing the small, obscure, west-of-England town where my wife grew up, is always filled with letters from amateur historians refighting the battle of El Alamein or the Second Battle of the Marne.

A couple of weeks ago, we received a box of gifts from my wife's family, all wrapped in local newspapers. Turning to the editorial page, I found two letters. The first was advising the paper's ``socialist correspondents'' to read J.J. Saunders's ``The Age of Revolutions'' and Sir James Jeans's ``Physics and Philosophy,'' which would show Karl Marx to be ``the intellectual dwarf that he was.'' The second offered to supply ``irrefutable evidence'' that King Arthur's Camelot was located in a small, local village called Woodchester, the last place anyone would think of looking for it. Upbraiding previous correspondents for creating a ``lamentable controversy'' involving the fate of the locality's pavements, the second writer wrote:

``Woodchester was destroyed because of differences between the Dubonnic Belgae and the Longheads, Huicci, Scoti or Irish, who, arguing among themselves, allowed the Saxons to take over the area and form the nucleus of Wessex.''

In drawing attention to the fact that the British, as a race, are playing a very deep left field, I do not mean to sound unduly critical. The British, after all, gave us our system of laws, our language, our sense of fair play, and Billy Idol. Given another thousand years, the British would still never produce a chocolate-stuffed croissant, South Jersey, or Bob Uecker. Only time will tell whether my wife's cultural engineering can foil the genetic transmission of American traits to our children, and prevent them from using her Christmas puddings as the hockey pucks they so obviously are.

Joseph M. Queenan is a writer for Barron's national business and financial weekly.

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