LONDON -- Give them a purpose, no matter how faint or weird, and the English will form a society around it, create a club to advance it.
It might be a rescue mission for one of the unlovlier animals, like the Norway rat. (Whales get enough attention.)
It might be a club of hobbyists: boat modelers, say, who send their miniature yachts onto the surface of ponds and annoy ducks. Or the Polite Society, whose purpose is self-evident, thank you very much.
These groups usually coalesce for the healthiest of reasons, the desire to find and socialize with like-minded souls, which is not always easy in this country, where meeting new people is not necessarily thought to be entirely wholesome. Not English.
Then there are the people who band together to gain relief from some affliction others may not have experienced or understand or sympathize with. Or may even ridicule.
Such as the "hummers."
Who are the hummers? More formally they are the people in the Low Frequency Noise Sufferers Association, such as Elizabeth Griggs.
Mrs. Griggs lives in bucolic Somerset County and began to hear the hum almost eight years ago. This is how it started:
"Near the end of 1984 I turned to my husband one day and asked, 'What's that strange noise outside?' Then it stopped. Then it started again. At first it was spasmodic, but soon I began hearing it all the time, a low-frequency droning, going on and on and on.
"When we moved, about a mile away, I thought I'd heard the last of it. But it moved with me. This was in March 1985. The hum went on. I tried to find some source for it, but it is non-directional; it is all around."
Is she hearing it now? Even as she speaks on the telephone? "Yes, it's with me right now, though not as strong."
At night it is worse, said Mrs. Griggs. When all the world is asleep the hum grows in intensity. It takes over the night, invades her mind and seizes her thoughts.
Her only escape, she said, is to go into a cave. This she does now and then.
All of this is not to suggest that Mrs. Griggs is on the run from the hum, or becoming unhinged by it. She believes there is a rational explanation. She suspects British Gas and the pipes they have buried beneath Somerset's rolling farmland, the compressor stations dotted around the countryside.
British Gas denies it. BG has investigated, said the company's Pat Weatherilt, and the hummer's suspicion is "not based . . . on logic or science." If there is a sound, he suggests it may derive from radar or microwaves, or traffic in the distance.
It was dismissive responses like that which drove Mrs. Griggs to found the association, which now has about 260 members. They are from Scotland, England and Wales. All are hummers, and they represent, she believes, thousands more who have remained silent, not wanting to draw the disapproving stares of their friends and family.
The Department of the Environment, which receives about 500 complaints a year from hummers throughout Britain, has agreed to spend about $100,000 to try to end the mystery. The man in charge of the investigation is John Sargent, an acoustics scientist.
Mr. Sargent said most of the people who complain tend to be reasonable, not cranks. Oddly enough, no extra-rational explanations have been advanced, no outer or inner space beings tunneling through the earth, spaceships anchored off the moon, nothing like those offered for other unexplained phenomena in England, like crop circles.
Finally, Mr. Sargent said complaints about hums aren't all that new. "They go back more than 20 years."
Mrs. Griggs said she has letters from hummers from Spain, Italy and France. Mr. Sargent remembers a report of a Canadian hum. These suggest to both of them that the hum may be everywhere, something both of them agree must be given serious consideration.