On an unusually beautiful morning of our perfect Indian summer I awoke feeling like the Mole in The Wind in The Willows, possessed of a great urge to get out of the house and do something a bit different. So I put up an egg sandwich and hopped on the first bus into Leicester to see for myself what is afoot with the remains of Richard III in the newly designated Cultural Quarter. The Cathedral is full of screens behind which they are digging out the grave in the crypt and then the new tomb will lie above in the nave. There’s a newly planted herb and flower garden outside graced by a statue of the last Plantagenet in Bosworth armour, with a spicy nip of catmint from beneath his mailed feet, but no alley cats to roll in it. This part of town has been greatly smartened up. That sharp scent in the clear silky air persuaded me to give the accompanying exhibition a miss: it’s permanent so no doubt I shall go eventually but it seemed to be too lovely a day to be indoors with all the flashing lights and booming sound effects. All museums have a certain airlessness about them, some of the most famous being the most oppressive. There are too many fast food cafes for one thing and too many sealed windows. It’s a new kind of stuffiness to that of the old days. I remember the smell of the old Leicester Museum in New Walk, just a few minutes’ stroll away from Richard. It is now greatly changed and modernised: the menagerie of stuffed animals which so entranced and secretly terrified me as a child have all gone. I realise now that the pungent odour that hung over everything then must have been some kind of embalming fluid: and maybe the emanations of the partially unwrapped bitumen-blackened mummies in a shadowy back gallery. Like a lot of Leicester people I can’t get too excited about King Richard in death. Our vicar thinks he should have been left alone in the privacy of his car park, not dug up to make a Roman holiday. I’m with her there. I think we have far too many exhumations in this modern craving for certainties. Exhumation is a dreadful and solemn thing, traditionally performed by the light of torches as though it were something shameful: the participants holding cologne-soaked cloths to their faces, and prayers said as spades jar against rotting wood and eternal stone. Nowadays it is all sanitised and glossed over by easy talk of DNA and glib scientific journalistic niceties. Poor old king, his bones all spread out on a table for the world’s press to peer at. How would Richard have smelled in life? Probably not that bad. The folk of the late middle ages were rather cleaner than their immediate descendants. They didn’t for one thing have the fear of washing and bathing which came on rather later due to cranky medical theories, sewage-polluted rivers and water-borne diseases. Medieval people liked hot baths, often taken communally. The habit had been brought back by the Crusaders, along with such expensive and desirable niceties such as soap, attar of roses, incense, spices, damask and silks. Jolly pictures of naked ladies in the bath show them still wearing their hennins, veils and cauls, the bare head still being regarded as the most erotic and private part of the anatomy. So Richard would have had his baths; washed his hair occasionally; dried and mopped himself with linen towels. All very necessary after being half boiled in a suit of armour all day whether in battle or for arms practice. Skin might be rubbed with bunches of herbs or with grains of musk; it was also rinsed, massaged and toned with primitive blends of what we should think of as eau de cologne – concoctions such as the 14th century Queen of Hungary Water, the European best-seller (to be taken internally, too) of rosemary, marjoram and pennyroyal. It was Richard’s clothes that caused problems: the damp of those stone castles must have permeated everything, despite being laid up in cedar chests and layered with dried rose petals and lavender. None of the garments apart from the shirts were washable; and underwear as such was unknown. The furs so essential for warmth were not all properly cured and the tanning processes of leather relied heavily on the use of human excrement. The most popular method to deter moth was the hanging of one’s clothes on poles above the open pit of the latrine. So you can see for yourselves that a certain whiffiness would have been only exacerbated by the attempted camouflage of civet, musk and ambergris. Picture the scene! The Tower, the sleeping Princes, the reeking bottled spider scuttling up the winding stair..but all that is another story…
When we were studying Paradise Lost for English A Level, I remember Mr Edwards expounding on the nature of the fruit that ruined Eve. The idea of it being an apple was all wrong, he thought. The fatal fruit should have been a luscious peach, a satin-skinned nectarine or a furry-velvet apricot – soft, tactile, fragrant; dropping sweet perfumed nectar, and of a rosy golden colour, blushing at the cosmic shame of the Fall. It’s not just that most of us today have the image of an apple as a hard green waxed ball sat in the supermarket: the early Church fathers suspected the intrinsic perversity of apples and this is why the fruit was stigmatised as the undoing of Eve and Adam. Apples grow harder as they mature, unlike respectable soft fruit; they are indecently slow to decay, defying the Divine Law. To put the tin hat on it, the Latin name for an apple is the same as that for evil. (“Malo I would rather be/ Malo in an apple tree/ Malo is a wicked man/ Malo in adversity” – remember?).
I recalled all this when reading The Song of Solomon, preparing a talk on perfume in the Ancient World. Here is a wonderful meditation of the sensual hypnosis of perfume: let the poetry stupefy you with scent. Once again, the 1907 “Helps To The Study of the Bible” suggests that we might more accurately read “apricot” for apple; the trouble (and joy) of all these ancient texts is that repeated translation may confuse such a precise science as modern botany. What the Old Testament calls a rose may have been what we know as a lily, a crocus or a narcissus. The ‘lilies of the field’ were probably the same scarlet anenomes that I saw one February bursting from the bare and snowy hills above Jericho.
But let each judge for himself as to the odour of his loved one:
” …Thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine; and the smell of thy nose like apples…who is it that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant? A garden enclosed is my sister…thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire* with spikenard. Spikenard and saffron; calamus¤ and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense ; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices…”
And then we read of the skin oozing, dripping with impossibly delicious and expensive perfumes; limbs slathered in precious oils:
“I rose up to open to my Beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock”.
Spikenard is an evocative word; it now usually refers to an extract of a root of the valerian family but, once again, the ancients may have known it as another fragrance entirely. We meet it also in the New Testament brought – “very precious” – in an alabaster box for the anointing of Christ. I have smelled it only once, I think, and it was not at all as I had expected being not creamy, spicy and sweet but dark, earthy rebarbative. In this it reminds me of the pink lotus absolute that Elizabeth Moores uses today in her perfume Anubis; a scent which leads us back into the fragrance world of 4,000 years ago.
For here is a phenonemon that links us directly with our ancestors; the sense of smell and the timeless palette of perfumers’ oils. Whereas air pollution, chemicals, saturation of odours and an increasing remoteness from the natural world may imply that we experience smells differently from our forebears, the traditional natural constituents of perfume remain largely the same. Perfumers of 2014 AD use juniper, hyssop, artemisia, iris, mint, coriander, anise and galbanum just as their predecessors did in 2014 BC. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” and despite the confusion of nomenclature we still enjoy the spices, resins, incense and perfumed woods known to the Israelites, Greeks and Egyptians when Rome was still unknown.
* thought to be an oil of lemon grass
¤ the heady fragrance of henna flowers
Do you find the Empress Eugenie a sympathetic character? I never know quite what to make of her; I find her hard to get close to. Her numerous portraits are theatrical and glamorous to a degree, especially the glorious set pieces by Winterhalter with their sensual and tactile treatment of his sitter’s luxurious garments and draperies. Romantic, too, are the circumstances of Eugenie’s long life: the exotically mixed and mysterious ancestry; her Scottish blood; her wooing by Napoleon III – “the only way to my bed is through a well-lit chapel”; her role in creating the concept of haute couture and making Paris the fashion centre of the world. And then there are the frivolous but delicious legacies left by Eugenie to the world: a mauve passion flower; an amethyst tiara in the Louvre: a rakish style of hat, re-introduced to fashion by Garbo and even more popular the second time around. Above all, the crinoline is forever associated with her and with her pet designer Worth – the nice boy from Lincolnshire who spoke with a strong Northern accent in a “low deep voice” and was unable to draw faces or limbs: he cut them out from photos and lithographs and stuck them on to his sumptuous designs.
Then, too, Eugenie was fabulously lovely: or so Worth and Winterhalter made her. She was slim and of middling height ( 5’5″) with cascades of red gold hair put up in chignons and ringlets. She had violet eyes, perfect skin and the most extraordinary eyebrows which she made her signature. You can recognise her in any likeness by these quizzically raised butterfly brows which lift like antennae from the outer corner of the eye. They give her a somewhat affected look, very distinctive. The Empress kept them pencilled dramatically black to contrast with the dazzling brilliance of her complexion. Her teeth were good: like many of her Imperial contemporaries she had a state-of-the-art American dentist, Mr Thomas Evans, who was destined to save more than the Empress’s teeth when the Second Empire collapsed in 1870. He whisked her into a cab and off to a 50 year exile in England before the Paris mob could subject her to the fate of Marie Antoinette: a circumstance of which she had always a superstitious dread.
We think of Eugenie when we use her preferred Roger & Gallet soap, and Guerlain’s blissful Eau Imperiale. The latter is supposed to have been commissioned for her, but then her unattractive husband (“a very awkward shape”) liked it so well that he made off with it for his own use ( as Samuel Pepys often did with his wife’s accessories). Above all Eugenie’s aura can still be smelled in Jasmin Imperatrice Eugenie, for which Creed devised the original formula just as the Second Empire collapsed. If ever there was a scent to be smelled against a background of ermine, sable, violet velvet and pink silk this is the one. Jasmin is soft but penetrating, headily warm, all-embracing; somnolent and sleepily erotic, well-laced with iris and aphrodisiac vanilla. Maybe the scent is in fact too sexy for the eponymous wearer; or perhaps it is ironically piquant that a woman said to be so prudish and uninterested in sex should apparently have sprinkled such a slow-burning scorcher about her person.
Whether Creed kept up with the ex-Empress in her retirement at Farnborough is unknown. Mabell Airlie who visited the 77 year old Eugenie at home in 1902 was horrified at “the way …she had let herself go – like any old French peasant woman”. The famous brows, now white, were clumsily and only partially blacked in and the Empress’s once formidable sense of decorum seems to have slipped: ” There were some other English guests at tea, but when the Empress told – in English – an impossibly indelicate story about two swans they were so shocked that they rose hastily and took their leave”. In photographs of this period and later Eugenie is appallingly changed and aged, even frightening, and always in the same huge and terrible hat: the sort of old lady who scares little children.
By the age of 53 she had lost her crown, her sister, husband and only child, the Prince Imperial. Her son fell in the Zulu Wars and his body was brought home to be buried at Windsor. When I went to pay my respects I found his tomb in the centre of the St George’s Chapel souvenir shop: tourists wrote their post cards on his chest. But despite Eugenie’s tragic circumstances she didn’t lack for admirers: Queen Victoria (“ma chere soeur”) always adored her, with the passion of a homely person for a beauty. Even in her 70’s Eugenie attracted a passionate suitor in the suffragette and composer Ethel Smyth who wrote that the Empress was more brilliantly lovely than ever. It was to Ethel that Eugenie once revealed her snow white naked leg,”in extenso”, a curious episode which Miss Smyth vividly described in a letter to the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury.* Meanwhile Eugenie herself nurtured a sort of schoolgirl crush on the aged and (in this case) baffled Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, begging in vain for a meeting.
Eugenie lived to be 94 and died in Madrid in 1920, while on a visit to her native Spain. I find her elusive and I suspect her biographers do likewise. No life of her seems really to capture the woman. Perhaps this was part of her charm to contemporaries; maybe too she was a mystery to herself, one of those strange sphinxes without a secret. People who knew her said she was highly emotional, prone to fuss and easily bored; nervous and a martyr to migraine. But she was a survivor – as is her perfume. Come and smell it chez nous.
*For the whole bizarre story see the incomparably marvellous biography “As Good As God, As Clever As The Devil: the impossible life of Mary Benson” by Rodney Bolt, Atlantic Books 2011.
“Sillage”: in French the word means the cleft water and foaming ripples that mark the wake of a ship; it also denotes the trail of an animal. There’s a clue in that, for by the English it is used almost exclusively to mean the waft of perfume left by the presence or passage of a wearer. Everyone demands intense sillage these days: they even measure it. A sillage of three inches is nugatory; a respectable sillage should reach an arm’s length from the body and no further. And so on. Frederic Malle has even, you might reasonably claim, recreated the odour of sillage in his witty and delicious Cafe Society candle and room scent: une sillage de sillage.
Today people are by and large ready to admit (albeit under pressure) that they are wearing perfume, though they might be reluctant to reveal the name of their Chosen One. For centuries, though, the lovely and desirable sought the alluring enchantment of the sillage without the dubious connotations of the scent that gave it birth. To be seen to wear perfume on the skin was meretricious and dingy; yet to smell delicious was the mark of goodness, of moral integrity. The odour of sanctity revealed that a person was pure, benevolent, divine, without spot or stain. And it would continue to manifest even after death, rendering the mortal remains incorruptible, giving off an redolence of sweet myrrh, roses and what have you. So the aim of the fashionable was to create the illusion that scent emanated from one’s own skin, pores and soul – just as Alexander the Great sweated forth the smell of violets – and not from some dubious potation which aped the divine gift on none-to-clean skin.
“From her fragrant robes a lovely perfume was scattered” reads a hymn to the goddess Demeter. For thousands of years men and women strove for this effect: and contemporary literature – poems, plays, novels – colludes in the illusion. Desirable individuals exude scent from a vague, mysterious source. They are surrounded by an aura of perfume which suffuses their clothing, furniture, possessions and which leaves wonderful sillage when they move: “a faint delicious fragrance hung about her…”. Perfume clings to the objects that the beautiful people touch and it lingers in their rooms, their beds, luggage and hair – “she smells all amber!” But the source of the scent remains vague, unspecified: it manifests spontaneously; it seems to transmit from incense burners, herbs & flowers or from the very air. It comes from the purity of the soul. Nothing so vulgar as a bottle of perfume is mentioned: not in connection with sympathetic characters, at any rate.
I remember, I remember memorable encounters with sillage. I recall the girl with magnificent mahogany hair buying postcards in the National Gallery shop some 20 years ago, and she suffused in a cloud of Guerlain’s Samsara. I have never smelled that lovely but tricky scent so beautifully interpreted. I remember Chanel No 5 at a Covent Garden matinee, stealing over the stalls from a golden-shouldered matron in white linen: far more beguiling than discordant old Prokofiev. Some 30 years ago the ground floor at Harrods always smelled subtly and sweetly of gardenias as though left in the wake of generations of exquisite shoppers dipped in the Floris house exclusive. And most of all I recall midsummer midnight at Luxor in 1992 and the temple of Rameses on the Nile waterfront: everywhere the faint but insistent odour of Oscar de la Renta’s Volupte, the osmanthus & violet hit of the day. It was the scent and epicentre of the hot blue night.
“Some smells do linger, Jean!” as that careful lady in the tv ads used to say. And thank goodness for that. There was a woman picking over Cheddar in the Co-Op the other day who left a gorgeous powdery floral mist behind her – I don’t know what it was; dry, faintly spicy, it hung in the air like a sparkling iridescent bubble. And for sillage connoisseurs everywhere let me put in a word for Andy Tauer’s Sotta la Luna Gardenia – la Stupenda, indeed! Here is a massive and glorious gardenia scent enhanced with all the creamy sandalwood, tonka and vanilla notes exuded by the flower itself; and there’s a mossy, dark, jungly quality that expands its gender relevance. But the volume, the expansion! I like to wear just a drop of this one and follow its progress as it expands and inflates like a great balloon of fragrance. It opens up like the flower which inspires it, from a tight green bud to a voluptuous all-encompassing mantle. This is a case where less is definitely more.
The last time I lit a fire was to burn a packet of indiscreet letters in a flower pot – “Ne brulez pas vos lettres d’amour” – but for many years fire raising was my routine daily activity. Like a votress of Vesta I once had a job which revolved around it so I know that part of the appeal of a fire is that each one has its own character: every one is different. Winter mornings began on my hands and knees raking out the warm clinkers and cinders. For wood fires you leave a bed of fragrant powdery silver ash; a coal fire calls for a tidy grate with an empty basket. I had learned the routine at home from infancy: first the ash bucket, then the twisting of scrap paper into wreaths; the construction of a miniature wig-wam of sticks (small hatchet to hand on the hearth) and then the selection of tiny pieces of coal like black pearls, small enough to delicately hand-feed the new flame. There was also the risky trick of holding a double sheet of newspaper over the fireplace to encourage the fire to draw: this was not comme il faut at our house, being considered both dangerous and a bit of a fraud. I know I was petrified the first time I saw it done by Mrs Woodall from up the road. She was not above overcoming reluctance by also splashing a drop of paraffin about.
My father held that a fire should be kindled simply by skilled and simple laying: anything else was cheating. Maybe this was reaction on his part as his own dad was reckless and flamboyant with fire. Astonishing and wonderful noises, smells and colours billowed out from my grandfather’s hearth: squeezed-out tubes of oil paint, stale cocktail snacks, 78rpm records and once even an old radio were all chucked on. Amazing turquoise, green and orange flames roared up the chimney like Pamela Browne’s visionary fires of Isis in “Cleopatra”.
The biggest cheat in my father’s eyes was the use of firelighters: both an unnecessary waste of money and lacking in artistry. I’m not certain of their current retail status but no doubt you can still buy them. There was a type that looked a bit like meat faggots – lumpy bundles of sawdust and twigs: intriguing but not especially incendiary. And then there were ‘Zip’. Ah! ‘Zip’, once the light of my life. Zips came in a black packet licked by stylized flames. The packet somehow felt slightly damp and to me the contents looked like bars of moist, succulent nougat coconut cake: I always longed to lick them, bite and chew them. You could break or slice them in two (leaving oily crumbs) and the smell was addictive and tempting beyond belief – petrol/napthalene/ paraffin – so dense and literally mouthwatering. It lingered deliciously on one’s fingers but o! the punch of it when a new packet was opened. I never did taste, though: perhaps I wouldn’t be writing this now if I had.
Wood smoke is now a perfumery standard and you can smell coal mixed with rose in Nu_Be’s terrific ‘Carbon’. Coal has a great scent. It’s cold with a sooty dustines, an icy purity and the mysteries of a buried eternity. At home we went down steps into the pitch darkness of the coal house smelling the fossilised woods of one million years BC heaped up next to green logs, dry bark and sawdust. Hares, pheasants and the odd side of beef hanging for the table swung from hooks in the shadowed ceiling. There was a metallic tang from two great axes which were propped against the wall like props from a Tudor epic. It was a shed of horrid romance and imagination.
And we also had bonfires in the garden: the cardinal sin was to light one on a Sunday. (It was also said that a cheque written on a Sunday was automatically invalid). Bonfires of household rubbish, garden waste, soiled cat papers and whatever were heaped up on a concrete plaza beneath the apple trees. Fascinating smells filled our hair and clothes as we spent whole days playing around the pyre, the only pleas from the adults being that we didn’t waste too many matches. I think we got a little high on the smell of those too: the initial exciting hit as the flame takes wing. I imagine we smelled terrible but this I do not recall: like so many things the odour of bonfires seems to have changed with the years due I guess to the quality of things burned. We were like little devotees of Moloch, pleasing the nostrils of the gods with dead leaves and cardboard.
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Apparently there is no word in French for “treat” because the concept does not exist: in France life is one long treat. For myself the heyday of the treat was my early childhood in the 1950’s. We had enough money and my parents were far from strict, they were indulgent indeed: but daily life was so circumscribed and low-key that the smallest relaxation of routine seemed hedonistic. John XXIII was then writing of the moral dangers of treats, holidays being especially suspect as Occasions of Sin. Being allowed a glass of milk (generally forbidden) was as exciting as a trip to the pantomime: the magic of “Goldilocks” (the bears lived in a huge revolving house) at Nottingham stayed with me for years. So did a bowl of cauliflower soup and being allowed to float matches down the river at Dovedale the following summer. Reckless extravagance: and I couldn’t get over the exoticism of that hotel soup, billed as creme du Barry. I have been a fan of the eponymous inspiration ever since: the cauliflower is supposed to resemble the great courtesan’s powdered hair, by the way.
Of a Sunday, my father would cut a Mars Bar (had we children been lucky enough to have been given one) into wafer slices and we would be offered one apiece after lunch. The rest was then put away for another time. I was sometimes taken to my maternal grandmother’s to watch half an hour of television; once a year we went to the local zoo or met our cousins at Warwick Castle for a picnic. Until the mid-1960’s the purchase of ice cream (as opposed to ice lollies) was unheard of: my grandmother believed that the commercial version was made and stored under the bed – so that was out.
All these treats were planned, discussed – and remembered for a lifetime. Therefore, we were overwhelmed and over-excited by the Liberty Hall atmosphere at my paternal grandfather’s. He lived with his daughter at the other end of the village: both had a great zest for life. My aunt was – still is – an intensely romantic and glamorous personality and we’d start the afternoon with a game of “Jane Eyre” in her bedroom – aunty being the mad wife roaring & raving in the bed. As she’d bagged the best part there wasn’t much for the rest of us to do except scream, and then explore the dressing table and the wardrobe.
No shortage of treats here: my aunt adored perfume and had many admirers. She is the only woman I have known who once had champagne drunk from her slipper – “messy”. Scent was then the supreme adult treat. It was said to be imported from Paris at ruinous cost, applied with great and cautious ceremony and worn on only the most significant of occasions. A bottle lasted for years: children were not supposed to touch but I remember flacons and their labels being all stained and gummy with drips and drops from what I suppose were now-outlawed ingredients. You knew something monumental was afoot when perfume was in the air, and I think even then I realised that the application of scent implied heightened emotions and consequently tension, if not ructions, in the adult world.
On that fascinating dressing table in the icy blue bedroom I first smelled Coty’s Muguet des Bois, Ma Griffe, Femme, Cabochard, Quelques Fleurs, Tweed (“The Finishing Touch”) and the Grossmith runaway bestseller White Fire which was a novelty then: it was launched 60 years ago this autumn. Dry, flowery, powerful, aldehydic
White Fire gusts through my memories wafting from car coats and accordion pleated skirts, mingling with the smell of hair spray, face powder and setting lotion. One caught a whiff of it at Sports Days, Carol Services and tennis teas. It was not only delicious, exuberant and tenacious, but an empire product, too – “made in Britain” – which to many was an added benefit. To me it is inseparable from those crinolined summer dresses (‘Horrockses Frocks’), white gloves and Aertex shirts which marked the setting forth on a great occasion in the 1950’s, everyone twitching with nerves: “I’ll smack the back of your legs!” Nowadays everyone seems to reel from one treat to another: we have become so blase and spoiled. If someone gave me a treat today I don’t think I’d quite know what to do with it. But a smell of long-ago White Fire – ah! Now, that I would love…
No one has yet made a movie about the life and times of Les Senteurs but there are numerous examples of perfumeries on film. In British pictures they used to be discreetly referred to as “beauty shops”, maybe to distance them from the dubious sort of apothecary’s which Margaret Lockwood patronises to procure poison – and perhaps other services? – in “The Wicked Lady”. Celia Johnson tells us how much she loves the smell of a chemist’s shop but we also remember the sinister establishment in “Pink String and Sealing Wax”, a hot-house of frustration, vivisection, blackmail and poisoning. No, “Beauty Shop” is preferable – clean within and without: a healthy mind in a healthy body. This has a more reassuring ring about it, especially in the coded symbolism of 1940’s cinema.
But it’s a funny thing: as we have noted in this column before, once a screenwriter brings perfume into a script it usually heralds the advent of some kind of calamity. Diana Dors’s sale of a bottle of “Christmas Rose” in “Yield To the Night” is her first step to the gallows. How inspired it was of Wilder to have Norma Desmond sitting on the sofa in “that grim Sunset castle” smelling of some anonymous tuberose, maybe bought at Schwabs Pharmarcy along with her Egyptian cigarettes. I don’t suppose it was frothy Fracas ( though that was already in the shops in 1950), but rather a dark predatory tuberose with all its folkloric connotations of madness, narcotic stupefaction, obsession and lust: a thumbnail sketch of Norma’s personality that would fit on the bottle’s label. Joe Gillis tells us tuberose is not his favourite scent – not by a long shot. He would do well to heed his animal instinct (as we should all do with scent) and get the hell of there before overtaken by the havoc bred by that voracious and invasive scent.
We never learn the name of Norma’s perfume, not that of the haunting mimosa scent in “The Uninvited”. And when Ann Todd wants to keep her sister on side in “Madeleine” while purchasing arsenic ( “a rat in the cellar” ) she buys her silence with anonymous rosewater. An unexpected and mordant add-on purchase is that! A nameless fragrance makes its reference infinitely more effective, each member of the audience imagining the redolent plot device in his own terms. Naming a scent is a tricky task and, once named, fragrance is forever fixed in certain mould.
Fictional names are usually pretty uninspired: “Persian Rose”, ” Jungle Venom”, “Love Kiss”, “Summer Rain” and of course the ghastly “Seduction” which shop-girl Susan Shaw brings as a gift to slatternly sister Jean Kent in “The Woman in Question”. Here the name is all too obviously matched to the outlandish Kent character who snuffs at the bottle in a piggy kind of way before banging it down on her filthy dressing table. “Seduction” comes from Shaw’s Beauty Shop: has she nicked it, as Jean Kent rudely suggests? It comes unboxed which is odd – maybe a tester? A customer return? Faulty goods? A manufacturer’s sample? The risk here is that the viewer gets carried away with the retail conundrum and consequently misses vital details of plot.
I was once asked to propose a name for a simple floral scent created for a department store. I came up with more than 500 over-elaborate suggestions and none was quite right: in the end they called it just “Rose”: the answer was right under my nose. From the back list of classics, favourite names include “Magie Noire”, “Shalimar”, “Teint de Neige”, “My Sin”, “Moment Supreme”, “Crepe de Chine”, “Shocking”, “Vega” and “Ciao!” My current rave is Tom Daxon’s “Crushing Bloom” - an absolutely inspired title for a glorious green spicy rose weighed down with raindrops, nectar and gorgeous perfume. The first word makes you think of pashes & Schwarmerei & ardent swoonings; it has a wonderful onamatopeic quality and it rhymes with “lush”, a quality it has in abundance. “Crushing”: it’s kind of fun to say the word out loud, rolling it around the tongue, thinking of crush bars, fresh fruit drinks, Imperial Roman revellers crushed under tonnes of petals. Then “bloom”, a great silky flower pinned in one’s hair or in a corsage; or lowering, vast and heavy and outsize in a flower bed: I’m sure if we could hear a huge flower opening it would make a sound like this, a whooshing resonant noise as great velvet petals roll back like theatre curtains or lilies trumpet forth nectar and pollen. Bloom / zoom / va va voom. What’s in a name? Everything.