Christmas Chemistry

chemistry set

This week I was having a quiet soup and sandwich sort of lunch with the 95-year old gentleman who came to live with me earlier this year. I’ve written about him previously in The Old Man and the Pea and Enhanced Eating.

‘What was Christmas like when you were young?’ I asked him.

‘Oh, it was alright,’ he answered, ‘except for the terrible one.’ Then he continued munching his cheese and pickle sandwich.

I waited patiently. ‘You can’t leave it at that,’ I said eventually. ‘You’ll have to tell me.’

‘Well—’ he began, ‘—I was always keen on the idea of chemistry and when I was about ten I heard that some clever fellow had come up with a toy for children, called a chemical conjuring set. I imagined the test-tubes and how you could put in chemicals and mix them to make different colours. So I asked for one of these and was very excited; I couldn’t wait for Christmas morning to come. But there was a terrible misunderstanding. When I opened my present it just had things in it like a dice and some cards. And there was a silly hat that you were supposed to wear when you stood up and did conjuring tricks for people. It was the most dreadful disappointment.


Frank won’t be getting a chemistry set this year either, but I hope he enjoys his chocolate, alcohol and history tapes. And his story reminded me that recently I read about another kind of chemistry: the chemistry of friendship. Some years ago, researchers at UCLA studied the benefits of womens’ friendships and proposed that the hormone, oxytocin, plays an important role. This is released in stressful situations and encourages ‘tending and befriending’ responses. Its effect is enhanced in women, by oestrogen,  whereas in men, its influence is reduced by testosterone. It seems that when stressed, women tend to turn to friends and loved ones, and that this in turn releases more oxytocin which helps to calm them further. Men, by contrast are more inclined to the ‘fight or flight’ response which prepares them to either stand and defend themselves or to run away as fast as possible. Other research has found that the more friends women have, the less likely they are to develop physical impairments as they get older. It’s thought-provoking that friendships and family relationships are such a source of strength, yet they are often the first casualties of busy, stressful lives.


There’s no denying that some of my treats have been precious for being experienced alone. I’ve enjoyed parts of the North Downs Way in contemplative silence, and working my way through Hitchcock’s entire output is a guilty pleasure that I usually indulge when I should really be doing something else. But there are other treats that have been memorable because I’ve shared them. And two years ago, just before Christmas, I did one of these with someone special: my elder daughter, Emma. She joined me for an evening in London at Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields.

I’d put this on my list because it sounded intriguing. A Georgian Grade II listed house, it was lived in by Dennis Severs, a Californian who spent the years from 1979 to his death in 1999, turning the house into a still-life set piece. It depicts the lives of an imaginary family of Huguenot silk-weavers through the generations from 1724 to the start of the twentieth century. As a visitor you pass in silence through a series of ten rooms and it’s as though the people who live there have just slipped out of the room for a moment. Things are left casually lying around and there are meals half-consumed. The sounds of the family accompany you but you never see them. It’s like stepping into a painting.

dennis severs housePhoto: Matt Brown

We went on a dark, December evening. There was no sign outside; just a Christmas tree and a lamp burning bright as we knocked at the door. The kitchen was the first room that we came to and it was as though someone had been interrupted whilst in the middle of their festive preparations. On the table was a basket of eggs, and an open pomegranate with red jewel seeds. A phallic sugar loaf stood upright making me blush momentarily and tarts baked on the fire, their sweetmeat smell merging with the spices of a partially stirred Christmas pudding.


Upstairs was the parlour, warmed and scented by a fire. Music tinkled in the background; a dog barked, a clock chimed and as we stood still and silent, we heard the clip clop of horses trotting past outside. Tea was laid with a candied pineapple in the middle. The lady of the house had just popped out leaving her earrings and fan on the table, and weak tea in a bone china cup. It was the most welcoming room I’d ever been in and I longed to stay.

The main bedroom was dominated by a cluttered dressing table and a rumpled four-poster bed. More horses trotted by and I thought how sublime it would be to drift off to sleep to that sound. Then a smaller bedroom with sewing on a side table, and a chamber pot tucked under a chair. There was a puddle of yellow liquid at the bottom. A glossy black cat sat on the bed with its paws tucked neatly out of sight. It was absolutely still and its eyes were closed. We’d been instructed to remain silent, throughout so Emma and I mouthed at each other: ‘Is it real?’ She stroked it and nodded. I did the same and it bit me.


Climbing to the top of the house we reached the cramped servants’ quarters where it was draughty and plain. On the table was a half-eaten meal of oysters and cabbage. There were cracked jugs and a cloth was tacked up at the window in place of curtains. Old bloomers were hung up to dry and a newspaper informed us that William IV had just died. As we stood there it was as if we were time travellers entrusted with the knowledge of what was to come in this new Victorian age.

After we’d stepped outside the paintings, Emma and I went for a pizza. At last we were able to chat and this was an equally special part of the treat. Life was quite stressful at that point but this evening spent together was a happy oasis. Little did I know then that this was because my oxytocin was working overtime. Over this coming week I’ll be doing some more of this by spending as much time as I can with friends and family.

I’m hoping that there will be plenty of Christmas chemistry and no conjuring sets. And I wish you the same.


Buttembly Buttignment


A few years ago when I was finding life extremely challenging, I decided to take up some new hobbies. One of the most successful of these was swearing. I incorporated it wholeheartedly into my everyday life and found it very therapeutic.

Then after a while, I started to wonder about it. What are the origins and function of profanity? It’s clearly a useful component of human experience: David Crystal, the linguist, says that nearly everyone swears even if it’s just a polite watering-down of ‘God!’ to ‘Golly Gosh!’ And swearing is found in all known languages. In English, swear words centre around religion, sex and the toilet and are derived from German. They are direct, unapologetic and taboo. The formal, polite versions of these words, on the other hand, tend to have their roots in Latin.


Robert Graves observed poetically that after childhood, tears and wailing are no longer so acceptable. Groaning is discouraged as a sign of weakness and hence swearing fills the gap when silence is impossible—when the nervous system ‘demands a reaction that does not imply submissive acquiescence’. A new word has recently emerged to encapsulate this phenomenon—lalochezia. It’s defined as ‘emotional relief gained by swearing’, and I can vouch for its value.

But observation of its effect does not answer the key questions. Why does swearing carry so much more emotional power than normal language? Why does it release tension? In his award-winning book, Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad, Richard Stephens says this is probably because swearing is not processed by the brain’s usual language centres, but originates instead from an area of the brain that is close to where emotions are handled in the limbic system.


Swearing is undoubtedly helpful in letting off steam. However, I found to my cost, one Saturday morning that there’s a time and a place for this. I went for an early swim at the local pool and was getting dressed in the changing room whilst a number of parents were getting their small children ready for their swimming lesson. The air was filled with social niceties and child-focused chatter but as I went to get my clothes out of the locker I banged my head very hard on the sharp corner of the metal door. It hurt and I swore loudly, rudely and involuntarily. There was a shocked silence and disapproval seeped through the room like a bad smell. I should have smiled and apologised but shame pushed me into a defensive silence. No matter that I’d spent hours of my life crooning lullabies to my own children and soothing their torn knees. That one moment marked me out to the assembled mothers as a thoroughly undesirable individual and I slunk out quickly, avoiding any eye contact.


That wasn’t good, but so long as it’s in the right environment, swearing can facilitate bonding. And it’s contagious. My friend, Dot, has a very kind heart and was keen to help me when I was going through my divorce. Her unique contribution was to become my swearing ally. We exchanged regular texts and followed the general principle that there’s no point in saying, ‘having an awful day’ when a couple of profanities would make it so much more expressive. She also helped by inviting me to join the local Rock Choir and offered to give me a lift to the first session. When she arrived I got into the back of the car as she was taking an elderly lady called Sarah, too. We all chatted politely for a while, and then Dot asked how my week had been. The urge to include a few strong words was irresistible and so we explained to Sarah about being ‘swearing partners’. She was very interested and asked us lots of questions.

The singing was fun. I sat with Dot’s alto group and we started with the Bee Gees classic, ‘How Deep is Your Love’. Then we tackled Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’ which was impressively complex. It was all very good, but my favourite bit of the evening came when Dot dropped me outside my house. Sarah jumped out of the car, flung her arms round my neck and said warmly, “Sodding bugger off”.


Whilst it’s true that swearing is a relatively new hobby for me, I can’t pretend that my lexicon before was entirely pristine. The evidence comes from Molly. Her first words were innocent ones like ‘Mama’ and ‘Dada’ but once she started to combine words into phrases, the rot set in. At that stage life was dominated by our unruly menagerie and the vagaries of her father’s commute to London. Consequently she spent a lot of time muttering to herself about ‘bloody goats’ and ‘bloody trains’.


But even when I’d washed my mouth out and was trying to be an upright member of the community, I fell foul of the cussing problem. When Will, Emma and Henry were young, I was a school governor. It was a charming little Church of England school in a village, and one day I was invited to make a governor’s visit. I sat through assembly and then went to each of the classrooms to see what was going on. When I got home, I wrote up a report feeling rather pleased at having done a good morning’s work. However, the computer refused to accept any mention of my visit to school assembly. Instead of accepting my intentions as community-spirited, the over-zealous filters rejected my foul-mouthed use of the word ‘assembly’. A similar issue has been a thorn in the sides of the residents of Scunthorpe. Back in 1996, many of them were blocked from creating an account with AOL because their address contained an ‘obscene string of letters’. This has led to similar situations being called The Scunthorpe Problem.

Some American anti-obscenity filters automatically replace offensive content with what are deemed to be equivalent words. So instead of being assassinated, Lincoln was rather perplexingly ‘buttbuttinated’.

And if you’re puzzled by my choice of photos to accompany this post, then it’s very difficult to represent swearing without causing offence. So instead, I’ve chosen a selection of things that I’m enthusiastic about. I like macaroons, trumpets, roses, black and white films, long walks, mango and flamingos. As you may have realised by now, I also like swearing.