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.
Photo: 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.