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The Rooms That Shape And Frame Our Living

WHATEVER happened to the living room? Or, for that matter, rooms in general?

"Interiors," in architect-speak, are what we are supposed to have in today's houses.

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"Areas" and "spaces" in those interiors have been what our century believes it has invented, rather than "rooms." Central heating allows for the open plan. Old separations and divisions, with their names and definitions, have been submerged by compounds; the invitation spoken at the front door, "Come in!" may mean the visitor is shown straight into the "lounge-dining-kitchen area," which also happens to be the entrance hall and the main stairs and may even boast some sort of overlapping landing like a 20 th-century "gallery" (though without minstrels).

The table for eating fills one part of this melange of an area; things for sitting on grace other parts. There might be a sofa that can, by ingenious lurching gestures, be turned into a bed for unexpectedly arriving nephews. The stereo system and the keyboard slot in somewhere. There's a book or two. An angle-poise lamp. A poinsettia. Ornaments strategically placed on available surfaces. A corner may be hived off for the kid's playpen; another for the TV and video. There may or may not be a fireplace. An d if there is, it may or may not have a real fire burning in it. If it does, you can be sure there won't be a resident cricket chirruping on the hearth. It left long since.

What such all-purpose areas in our homes have foregone in privacy and intimacy they have gained in community and togetherness, no doubt. If ever an interior space truly fitted the epithet "living," then this is surely it. It's the place where living is done. But it is not, in any traditional sense, the "living room." It is too expansive, inclusive, wide open. It's a kind of common room.

I exaggerate, of course. Open-plan houses are probably still a minority. We go in for rooms. With doors. We still find we need firmly walled-off compartments we can call our own. And since many people live in old buildings, modernized or not, old divisions do persist: After all, it's not so easy to knock down every interior wall in your home ... without, that is, incurring interesting forms of structural dissolution, eviction by a nervous landlord, or an overdraft.

So by preference or caution, we have things we call kitchen, bedroom, hall, even dining room. And although we do a certain amount of "living" in all of these rooms, we still, also, go in for "living rooms" proper.

Actually, when it comes to the living room, nomenclature is something of a minefield. There are quite a number of names to choose from: living room, sitting room, lounge, front room, main room, drawing room.

Dictionaries make little distinction. At least we no longer have the word "parlor" to contend with (at one time almost every room that couldn't be called anything else was a "parlor"); but depending on where you live, and also - in subtly nuanced ways which are exceedingly hard to fathom - what social strata you are voluntarily or involuntarily aligned with, you may call what I call the sitting room any of these other things. To me it's the cosiest word, the most private and family-friendly, a bury-yours elf-in-a-good-book-in-a-deep-armchair-by-the-log-fire sort of room.

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Some people don't have sitting rooms unless they have enormous, pretentious houses. What they have is living rooms. Well, to me, English as I am, "living room" has a rather cool ring to it, a little bit institutional, somewhat public. Too many visitors have sat on the chairs in a "living room."

But "lounge" is far worse! For a start, it's exactly the sort of word used for the least appealing room in sad, bad hotels like Fawlty Towers or in some over-chummy boarding house by the sea. The assorted furniture is all hand-me-down; nothing matches or fits. And it smells acridly of old boiled cabbage and very recent floor polish.

Poet John Betjeman, in a satirical verse called "How to Get On in Society," took funny exception to the word "lounge." Clearly he thought it a snob word, a jumped-up notion. Certainly what might be just about bearable in a pub sounds simply horrible in a home.

The affected voice that speaks this poem presumably belongs to a lady homeowner with delusions of grandeur. She's one up on the neighbors. Stanza three reads: "It's ever so close in the lounge, dear,/ But the vestibule's comfy for tea/ And Howard is out riding on horseback/ So do come and take some with me." Makes you wince.

"Front room" is a strange one: I presume it means the kind of room my landlady had in her tiny terraced house in Northamptonshire when I was briefly a schoolteacher needing lodgings in the early '60s. This room was meticulous, untouched, valued but unloved and only entered, I think, for christenings, funerals, weddings, or if the queen happened to drop by. All the best things were in that room. The nicest china dogs, the prettiest plastic roses, the laciest curtains, the least-worn chairs. It was as cold

as charity. Since no one ever used it, there was no need to waste electricity heating it.

"Main room" seems prosaic, too obvious and dull. It might as well be in the village hall, the place with a corrugated asbestos roof where the Women's Institute members sort clothes for a country in need or scouts learn knots. It certainly isn't a good word for a sitting room at home.

Which brings me to the drawing room. My American informant informs me that nobody in America has a drawing room. It just sounds like something from another universe, another era. So it does. But I know of at least two young couples in Britain who have "a drawing room." And certainly it has a long history; at least back to the middle ages as Mark Girouard's classic book "Life in the English Country House" explains fascinatingly.

It should be understood that "drawing room" has nothing to do with drawing (though late in its history uppercrust young ladies certainly did do their watercolors in such a setting). It means a "withdrawing" room - a room into which you might withdraw from some other room.

At first this other room was always a bedroom. So the "withdrawing chamber" was a kind of anteroom, and might be where the servant slept, close at hand for his master's call. There is little doubt that the "drawing room" has always had a large-house connotation. A humble cottage (see Beatrix Potter's endearing watercolor) couldn't possibly have had a drawing room.

As the centuries rolled, the drawing room gradually turned into, well, a sitting room. Because of a developing habit whereby the men stayed at the table after dinner while the ladies retired - to the drawing room - by the 18th century, Girouard says, "the dining room began to be thought of as a mainly masculine, and the drawing room as a mainly feminine, room."

And so it became the sort of room you read about in 19th-century novels where the ladies of the house all sit elegantly around and do what novelist Maria Edgeworth in a letter of 1819 called "our various little employments."

"And this day," she wrote, "we have been all sitting together in the drawing room going on with our various little employments." "Mrs. Sneyd," she notes, was "by turns making net for one of the Miss Leicester's and a pantin [puppet] for one of the Leicester children, Emma rummaging in a box for new ribbons from Lichfield ... all the ribbons so pretty that they make ones eyes water." When Fanny came in from the library to join "the vulgar herd in the drawing room," she and Honora sat on the sofa and read Ariosto together, "translating it much to their mutual satisfaction." That was the life!

The drawing room certainly survived well into the second half of our century in Britain. In both my parents' homes, first in Yorkshire, then in Surrey, there was a drawing room. However, by some ironic twist of domestic evolution, probably connected with the cut-backs and stringencies caused by a World War I or II, our concept of a drawing room had become a middle-class equivalent to the working-class "front room." It was hardly used at all.

The grand piano stood in there stiff and lonely among old and rather Victorian armchairs and sofas, freezing. This was the coldest room in the house bar the stone cellar. Even my occasionally enthusiastic attempts to practice the simpler Beethoven sonatas in there did little to wake the room up (and did even less for my negligible musical talents).

It was at Christmas, and only on rare special occasions otherwise, that at last this room burst into life. By Christmas Eve the tree was in place and smothered in lights and tinsel and pink and yellow balls as fragile as eggs. Every piece of furniture was loaded and piled with presents ready for the grand opening ceremony next day and after that ready to welcome the noisy waves of family that broke over the house, heavy with even more presents, throughout the day.

A heaped coal fire burnt intensely in the grate. Large bowls of blue hyacinths adorned the piano and pervaded the air with extraordinary, sweet perfume. And as the evening came down with black suddenness halfway through the afternoon the dark red velvet curtains were drawn against it, and we played silly games, and ate crystallized fruit, and looked at our presents again, and all wondered - as we did annually - why we never normally used such a lovely, cosy, warm room.

What we used the rest of the year was smaller, and convenient to heat and was perfectly pleasant and comfortable, and not particularly special. But it served very well. We called it the sitting room.

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