Nathan, the property’s community manager, showed me around. He was dressed in Breton stripes and had a plausible manner. The house had blond-wood floors, distressed rugs and a capacious free-standing bath. In the salon itself, a vast mirror leant against one of the walls and the battered leather chairs spoke of prolonged sedentary confabs.
The company is named after a figure from Norse mythology. I presumed that the bearer of such a gnarly name would be a malignant dwarf guarding a trove of magic gold. In fact, the Norns were beguiling women, the Viking equivalent of the Fates, who controlled the destiny of man. “And when you come here,” said Nathan, “you give yourself over to fate.”
At dinner were two other journalists, a few Norn employees and hangers-on, and two bonafide members. For starters, we were presented with a cracker laden with salmon roe and a doozy of a question: “Does the ephemerality of life and the transience of lived experiences scare you and make you sad, or inspire you?” No one said anything. From another room came the faint chords of anodyne electronic music. I thought I saw the tulips on the table open a fraction.
At last, the man from Monocle suggested that social media may have stopped young people from living in the moment. We agreed that going to a gig and filming sketchy four-second videos that you’ll never watch again was definitely not the way to hold back the sands of time. Louis, one of Norn’s PRs, said that Facebook allows the broken-hearted to remove their ex from their pictures. “That’s photographic genocide!” said Rosh, a jewellery designer.
The marriage of sated appetites and adventurous conversation has a long history. In Ancient Greece, philosophical discourses were washed down with jugs of wine at banquets known as symposia. There was always a risk that some people would over-indulge. In the most famous description of a symposium, Plato describes how the guests, who included Socrates and Aristophanes, were expounding on the nature of love when they were interrupted by the arrival of a boozed-up general, Alcibiades. Table talk was considered an art to be mastered. Athenaeus, a Greek grammarian of the third century AD, wrote a 15-volume work entitled Deipnosophistae (“The Learned Banqueters”) about a series of dinners in which conversation ranged from philology to homosexuality.
In 18th-century France, the sharpest minds of the Enlightenment sparred in the salons of their aristocratic hostesses. Intellectual combat was a prerequisite of socialising. Over the last few years, there has been a flourishing of literary salons in London. These tend to be considerably less sharp-tongued then their precursors – often, they simply involve soft-ball interviews of authors with books to sell. But their popularity suggests that there is a demand for conversation that is both stimulating and intimate. The harder people work, the less often they see their friends and the more time they must devote, when they do, to a recitation of the chronicle of minor triumphs and disappointments known as “catching up”. Then comes gossip, gripes about work and family fortunes. Precious little time is left for truth and beauty. More formal occasions are little better: dinner-party chat can death-spiral with alarming speed into a collective lament over house prices, catchment areas and the intolerable expense of a loft conversion.
Over a tangy salad of bitter leaves and early-season peas, I discussed with Raquel, the other PR, who in our lives we had hurt and whether had we made amends. A certain therapeutic exhilaration comes from talking about feelings with strangers, though neither of us quite let go of our inhibitions. We agreed that we had no one to say sorry to – if anything, it was us who deserved apologies – and trespassed onto safer subjects. To my right, Geraldine, an operations manager for a renewable energy company, told me how she tended to a passenger who had fainted on the tube. This led to a more mundane set of mutual commiserations about commuting on the Central Line.
We reconvened as a group for pudding and testimonies of ecstatic experiences that have shaped our world. Nathan talked of sitting in the auditorium after watching a ballet, awestruck at the human body’s capacity for movement and incredulous that the rest of the crowd had hurried away. No one else spoke up. This wasn’t the right company for tales of sex or narcotics. Eventually everyone agreed that the rhubarb galette was out of this world.