Everything Stops For Tea



Nearly a quarter of a century ago a rumour ran around perfume circles reporting the imminence of a divine new scent; a wonderful fragrance, the like of which had never before been smelled nor seen. Presently, like the Firebird or Phoenix or some other airy creature of legend this miracle came to rest as an Exclusive Presentation in the marble halls of Harvey Nichols. We all rushed round, in our lunch hour or coffee break, to try it. To some, the premise of Green Tea – an “eau parfumee” by Bulgari – was somewhat bathetic but the effect was staggering, a revelation. You must remember this was the heyday of the first cough-candy aquatics; the time of the Escape riots at  Harrods; and the blazing crimson sunset of the hideous ’80’s power scents, then slipping below the perfume horizon in a sea of blood. Green Tea was all delicacy and elegance; it was slinky, lissom and diaphanous while its contemporaries were brash, loud and angular. And it cost a fortune.

As far as I can recall this was the first time that tea had been presented in a scent, or, at any rate, had taken centre stage as an perfume accord. Green Tea set an amazing precedent. Like some hermaphrodite chthonic deity it became the Father & Mother of hundreds of descendants. Green Tea was the progenitor of a discrete and very specialised new fragrance family which also infiltrated candles; room scents and diffusers; bath gels and creams. Maybe Bulgari’s influence was so tremendous because Green Tea hit upon the fact that tea is a paradigm of our extraordinary society: this struck a instant if unconscious chord with the public.

For, however you look at it, tea presents itself as a paradox as mad and contrary as our own modern lifestyle. Tea is rarified, refined and exotic – and, simultaneously, a staple food of the thrifty, the modest and the down at heel. Tea – like biscuits – keeps you going. Sweet strong tea and a couple of aspirin is still one of the best and cheapest quick cures for a nerve storm. Weak black tea is the banter’s friend, and soothes an uneasy digestion. Tea and sympathy: it still comes cheap enough. The tea ceremonies of the Far East and the subtle blends of epicure groceries are in another world from those drudging toilers “weary of the tea leaves in the sink”¤. Yet the common source is the same, those camellia bushes in the damp mists of an Asian hillside – “on your far hills/ Long cold and grey…”. Every cup of tea is individual; every blend of leaf offers different interpretation of the drink. A perfect parallel with perfume, no?




Tea has been Britain’s favourite beverage for three hundred years: in that time it has developed from the epitome of rare luxury (the locked mahogany and ivory caddy) to the role of universal friend and comforter (the painted Typhoo tin: Free Gift With Purchase). Tea is a stimulant and the warm curvy rounded pot – sometimes wearing its own little knitted or quilted jacket – is the hearth goddess that gives it birth¤¤. Over the centuries tea became a necessity rather than a treat, but it has always been able to soar again when necessary to the heights of refinement. Furthermore it has a compelling touch of the weird. The skilled seer can read the future in the leaves. (Green Tea was also the title of Sheridan Lefanu’s most famous tales of the supernatural – a tale of delusions and apparitions later riffed by Ruth Rendell in The Speaker of Mandarin).

All these contradictions and ambiguities add to the allure of tea in scent. You don’t have to follow these trains of thought, of course. You may choose tea fragrances purely on account of their fresh clarity; their delicious contrast to smoky orientals or waxen florals. But their variety is infinite, their boundaries generously wide.

There are worlds of difference between the icy-cold freshness of SILVER MOUNTAIN WATER¤¤¤; the dark bosky richness of IMPERIAL TEA with its steamy jasmine vapours; and the tiger-stalkers’ greedy picnic sketched out in FOUGERE BENGALE. Don’t forget to try YERBAMATE with its bitter – almost sour – notes of South American mate and its visions of huge open pampas of grasses, herbs and starry camomile. What a contrast to the pink and mauve transparency of DON’T CRY FOR ME: an Argentine vision of cherry flowers and heliotrope floating in jasmine tea. A personal favourite – MYRRHIAD – adds absolute of black tea to unctuous myrrh, liquorice and vanilla. This last gummy gorgeous fragrance is a Pierre Guillaume creation for Huitieme Art. Msr Guillaume is a genius with tea. Consider his three blissful MATALE variations.

Les Senteurs is a veritable Tea House of the August Moon: model the slim grace of ASIAN GREEN TEA; Cloon Keen’s tailored and classy INFUSION ASSAM; and the glassy glittering EAU DE CAMELLIA CHINOIS which explores the austere succulence of the living plant from which the tea leaf is plucked. If you’re seeking the most recherche of pale and faint exotica, OOLANG INFINI with its mouthwatering list of accords – blue tea, tobacco flower, blond leather  – may well prove your heart’s desire.


And then …..and NOW!….we proudly add Mona di Orio’s glorious BOHEA BOHEME to the array on the tray. For our ancestors the bohea blend – ‘wu-yi’ in its native China – was synonymous with tea; it was the only tea; the Ur-tea. That’s what they’re all drinking  in those stiff eighteenth century conversation pieces; sipping from porcelain bowls and making play with their fair hands and lace cuffs. Queen Anne¤¤¤¤ was addicted both to bohea and to brandy: the latter often being disguised in the former. That’s how I think of this smoky black tea: being sipped in the luxurious cabinets and boudoirs at Hampton Court or St James’s Palace.  BOHEA BOHEME evokes tiny intimate rooms draped in silk, and filled with flowers and temperament and hysteria. Odours of pot pourri, incense, dark polished beeswaxed wood, amber and musk are enhanced and flavoured with this precious and mysterious new drink from the East. A window is thrown open – stopped with a cushion to ward off the perilous fresh air – and scents of poplar and box waft in from the parterres; smells of fir balsam, oak, bay and smoked juniper.

Another cup, dear? And whilst you’re enjoying that, why not read our intriguing interview with the creators of Bohea Boheme, Fredrik Dalman and Jeroen Oude Sogtoen? Stimulating and highly digestible.


Tea in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka on Claire's recent visit

Tea in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka on Claire’s recent visit

¤ Louis Macneice: Death of An Actress, 1940.

¤¤ remember the cosy mice in Two From a Teapot? And note the way some folk nurse a teapot as a substitute for human contact; warming – to coin a phrase – both hands before the fire of life.

¤¤¤ a quintessential Creed masterpiece, SMW was also released in 1992: another tea scent in the van of fashion.

¤¤¤¤ “Here thou, great Anna!whom 3 realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take – and sometimes tea”

Alexander Pope 1688-1744

Just Follow Your Nose

Ruskin Spear


Another landmark this week with the death of the King of Thailand after an immensely long reign of seventy years – a stint just short of Louis XIV’s marathon. Once, long ago, I had the honour of helping his widow, the lovely Queen Sirikit, to purchase a number of novelty musical boxes, fashioned in the style of Bavarian chalets. The Queen had the exquisite relaxed courtesy of an ancient royalty – “there is No Hurry At All!”. It was wintertime and she was cocooned in layers of dark silky fur. A wonderful smooth warm fragrance surrounded her person, susurrating & shimmering in almost visible waves in the eternal wraparound heat of Harrods’ ground floor.

An essential new book¤ reviewed in The Times tells us, amongst other things, that celebrated writers have often been stimulated and inspired by their noses. Schiller habitually kept over-ripe apples by him (see also Louisa May Alcott). No doubt Balzac was addicted as much to the scent as to the taste and kick of his fatal coffee.  Rudyard Kipling believed that every word should have its own redolence. I’m half way through an extraordinary novel¤¤ by one Ottessa Moshfegh: a Boston writer with a powerfully disturbing vision of life. Ms Moshfegh is blessed – I suppose – with an almost obsessive sense of smell. Spoiled food, body odour, the inevitable sordid consequences of anorexia, alcoholism and chronic constipation are all grist to her mill, pitilessly & pitifully recounted.  Ottessa’s heroine distrusts perfume:

“…I often have to leave a room…when a person near to me smells bad. I don’t mean the smell of sweat and dirt, but a kind of artificial, caustic smell, usually from people who disguise themselves in creams and perfumes. These highly scented people are not to be trusted. They are predators. They are like… dogs….”

I’ll spare you the rest of that sentence, it contains too revolting and vivid an olfactory idea. You’ll need to go and look it up. I know what Kipling was getting at, I think. There is an aspect of synaesthesia that has the printed word not only conveying an image, but actually reeking of that idea or concept. There are many words I prefer not to use either in speech or in writing on account of I find them ugly or, as it were, evil-smelling. They are not in themselves intrinsically offensive but there’s something the very look and sound of them – not to mention the smell – that grates. “Stink”, pretty obviously, is one. “Rip” is, more obscurely, another: as in “don’t you rip that paper!” When I was very small, my grandmother pronounced both of these words as “common” and consequently verboten. Nowadays, I wonder whether she and I do not share this same syndrome. “Common” – with its late Victorian connotations of inappropriate expressions of uncontrolled emotion in all its forms – was perhaps the nearest my grandmother could come to defining her aversion. If being common is to do with bad taste, then it must inevitably have a connection with bad smells as surely as the palate is connected to the nose.

I went to a Conference recently. It was great. There were hundreds of us in the hall. After lunch, a Life Coach came on to lecture the assembled perfume-vendors. He asked each one of us to think, silently, of five words to describe fragrance and scent. Then he pounced at random and asked individuals to tell us their chosen words. Amazing, of course, because of the enormous variety of ideas – “swooning”, “spreadsheets”, “seduction”, “sales”, “sex”, “profits” and “exhaustion”. All human life was there.

When it comes to describing perfume, everyone has difficulties. What sort of scent is one looking for? A Lovely Perfume, of course; an Exciting Perfume; a Different or Delicate Perfume. After that, it gets tricky for nearly all of us. We have to hunt for metaphors, similes and approximate images. Sometimes our limited vocabulary and language fail us completely and like our cousins the great apes we have to use gestures, mimes, squeaks and grunts in desperate efforts to get our ideas across.

Mrs Thatcher used to talk a lot about “weasel words”. For me, the artful weasels are the apparently straightforward words that lead us by the nose. Words like “rose”, “jasmine”, “vanilla” and ” violet” seem safe and sufficiently unambiguous. Surely they can be used as solid building blocks when it comes to describing and choosing a scent? Not at all. “Rose”, for instance, is the vaguest of concepts for the aroma of that multi-moleculed flower is only what each person makes of it¤¤¤. Hence the classic and not unusual case of someone who has always lived by the credo that he loathes and abominates rose perfume – but who on a visit to Les Senteurs ends up intoxicated by it.

Providing, of course, that he forgets the preconceptions of the word and concentrates on his own sense of smell: thus discovering a rose interpretation that “clicks”.  Again, consider lavender – another word that travels badly: to the Italians it speaks of fresh laundry; to the French a potent masculinity¤¤¤¤; to the British – faded & fragile old ladies. Its no good fixating on any one word in the complex arcane language of scent: we must get behind and beneath that, to the true fragrance hidden in the verbiage.

This week’s tip must therefore be, to ignore the smell of the perfumer’s words; pass over the ingredients – and concentrate on the aura, the mood, the atmosphere of the whole composition. Immerse yourself not in descriptors but in an olfactory, holistic and emotional experience.

¤ How To Write Like Tolstoy: a journey into the minds of our greatest writers by Richard Cohen. Random House 2016.

¤¤ Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. Jonathan Cape 2016.

¤¤¤ So that perhaps Les Senteurs’ fragrance with the wittiest and most acute title is ALTAIA’s soft and subtle By Any Other Name.

¤¤¤¤ witness Caron’s definitive Pour Un Homme: “the world’s first scent for men”. A triumph since 1934.

Perfume That Hurts. Part 2: The Scent That Stings



Life is so very fluid and uncertain that there’s great comfort to be found in the Eternal Truths of the primeval cosmic myths. The contemplation of the planting of a Garden, east of Eden; or the Laying of the Cosmic Egg by the Cosmic Goose. These stories have the great calm of an eternal inevitability. There was a riveting, if slightly grumpy, discussion of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi on the wireless last week: a fresh churning of that ocean of perfumed milk and white lotus flowers from which the deity sprang, entire and perfect, like Athene or Aphrodite. I was enchanted by the description of the cosmic elephants trumpeting golden largesse and wearing garlands of impossibly lovely blossoms of unearthly fragrance. The animals were maddened by the sound of the scent. The pachyderms were bombarded by the vibration of the intoxicating perfume, in itself the sound of Creation. At this point the studio experts disputed as to whether the noise was coming from the flowers themselves or from the bees swarming on their nectar. But what an image! We have all in our time been deafened by fragrance; and stung too, as by a merciless horde of insects.

I’ve been re-reading Hilary Mantel’s magnificently upsetting Beyond Black: a novel of the grotesque, cruel and comic supernatural, replete with invasive, disturbing and disorienting smells. These are the kind of reeks that muck up your powers of hearing – and thus your balance – just as the ungodly voices of fiends gibber on the psychic Alison’s tape recorder. In vain she tries to repel them with hot scented baths and liberal applications of her sweet signature perfume, pregnant with meaning: Je Reviens.

An early lost work by Rembrandt has recently been rediscovered in the USA. This is one of a series of paintings illustrating the five senses. Rembrandt’s depiction of the sense of smell is perhaps the last thing you would expect: nothing lyrical nor sentimental here. We see the eponymous Unconscious Patient in a swoon, during the course of some minor and doubtless dubious surgery. The man is being brought round with pungent smelling salts: consciousness being revived by the shocking sting of sal volatile. When I first saw images of the painting I instinctively thought, with my foolish modern sensibilities, ah! now here is a patient being given a whiff of merciful ether prior to treatment. I was, of course, ahead of blessed anaesthetics by two centuries. Rather the artist is taking a very grim look indeed at the power of smell: its use to restore that consciousness lost through pain in order that the victim may endure more – possibly efficacious – agony.

All this bearing in mind that, as was appreciated even then, the healing arts of the seventeenth century killed more than they cured. Our ancestors used perfume for pleasure, to be sure: but scent then was far more to do with awe, magic, alchemy and enchantment – and that’s enchantment in the witchy – rather than the QVC or Disney – sense of the word.

I have been stung – literally; not in the monetary sense¤ – several times by fragrance. By crude pot pourri that burned the nose – “don’t get it near your face” – and which roughened the hands as though you were laying carpets; by liquid perfumes that scorched my neck and peeled my ears. These items I have avoided at point of sale. It is trickier when you are assaulted by scent worn by others. I don’t subscribe to the general execration heaped on Dior’s Poison – I think it’s an ingenious and pioneering creation. However, some quarter century ago, I worked for a whole year standing next to a girl who apparently swam in Poison and washed her clothes in it. I was comprehensively worked over by Poison; pounded and force-fed by that curious smell that is so like that of old Russia: spicy fermenting bruised apples.

Last week – anticipating LES SENTEURS’ paradoxical new scent ATTAQUER LE SOLEIL – I said a little about the pain in pleasure of certain perfumes. These You Have Loathed – Yet Loved. I remember now my tormented relationship with Fahrenheit – is there some curious anti-bond between me and Dior? – in the late ’80’s. People today say Fahrenheit has an unnatural strength and vigour: but back then – o my! Those wild accords of leather, mandarin¤¤ and violet and I don’t know what. It was something akin to the buzz you may get from the smell of fresh petrol on the garage forecourt. I adored it and had a standing order with the Dior girls for empty testers from which I could wring a few more drops. The precious odour of Fahrenheit kind of hurt my teeth: it made my gums ache and my mouth water¤¤¤. I think it’s the closest I ever came to a perfume addiction.

Perfume is an exciting and nerve-wracking business: occasionally even the most ardent of lovers needs to take stock. Every once in a while a fragrance-free weekend, naked as nature intended, rests the nerves – while simultaneously sharpening the appetite for more. The technique of the true epicure and the connoisseur of sensations.

¤ In 50 years of purchasing power I’ve always felt I’ve had my money’s worth from perfume. I have bought into the dream all my life and never yet awoken.

¤¤ ‘mandarin’ – or ‘man-darr-INN’ as everyone pronounces it these days.

¤¤¤ Lancome’s Tresor – once the cult fragrance of Holloway wardresses – had something of the same effect. A compulsive acidic juiciness.

The Perfume That Hurts



It is a popular theory, noted by Barbara Pym and Philip Larkin amongst others, that librarians generally loathe books. Toilers in confectionery factories never touch the chocs: we all know that. Could it be, then, that scent sometimes gets on the nerves of perfumers and irritates the most ardent of perfumistas? Very possibly. Now Quentin Bisch, creator of Etat Libre D’Orange’s imminent new fragrance Attaquer Le Soleil, tells us that he had always abhorred the smell of cistus labdanum. Taking his distaste as a challenge, he wrought Soleil exclusively from this sweet resin. For that’s the total sum of the perfume: layers of labdanum in varying degrees, of different strengths and with a myriad faces. The odour of cistus manifests like the shifting aspects of some heathen god – simultaneously personifying half a dozen paradoxical roles from Universal Magician to infant victim. And, I’m here to tell you, Attaquer Le Soleil is absolutely ravishing and mesmerising; no less for possessing that perverse piquancy of having been begotten by dislike upon incompatibility.

For – maybe – it is extra special just because of its creator’s qualms, not in spite of them. I remember the former nun Monica Baldwin remarking in one of her books that, in the convent, you learned to become very wary of a sister who was egregiously kind and friendly. It meant that the nun had conceived a particular dislike of you and was trying, in charity, to overcome her profound aversion. And then, too, perfumers love a challenge. Every one of them wants to have a crack at a perfect rose; an unparalleled glittering crystal citrus; the most jungly of vetivers. A perfumer like any other artist wants to define a genre; to break boundaries; to outstrip limits; to defy his own reasoning. Upon occasion, to shake up his own preconceptions as well as those of his clients and the fans.

As all the Life Coaches tell us, once we confront a fear then the terror melts away into its own native void. The sense of smell is always pretty unsettling because it is so little understood; and because any odour triggers off feelings about the Great Matters of Life. Our past and our memories; our self-preservation; sexual desire and procreation; life and death. We define ourselves by the scents we use; many people pine and languish when their favourite perfume is commercially withdrawn, dying a thousand deaths before the final consummation of discontinuation. Perfume is not all about straightforward pleasure, not by any means.

So would you wear a scent you don’t like: fragrance that you, in fact, detest? You might well. I have known such cases. People will choose a perfume to please a loved one; to attract attention; or simply because it lasts well, indifferent to how it smells. Another tribe and tongue (and I, too, have dwelled in Arcadia) will struggle through the beastly top notes of a fragrance just to reach the paradise below and beyond. In a masochistic way one then grows to relish the discomfort of the initial accords in anticipation of the delights to come. “If It Isn’t Pain Then It Isn’t Love”, as Miss Dietrich once sang in the movies. For once the censor was fully awake: ‘song cut before release’.

A customer told me how a dog had howled and moaned when she wore a certain notably animalic Serge Lutens fragrance. She found this off-putting. Others might relish it: Circe and the ship-wrecked sailors in your own back yard. The now universal promulgation of oud fascinates me and many others because it presents a riddle – I am always intrigued by oud, but am not invariably inclined to wear it. I like to have it about me but not necessarily on my person. I enjoy it best as an attar: gummy and concentrated, not blended into a western scent. I enjoy its farouche and dangerous quality. This is why I am so drawn to Frederic Malle’s The Night: ‘for The Night is at hand and it is well to yield to The Night.” Editions de Parfums present this most exotic of oils in its most magnificently concentrated and austerely awesome form: it’s up to every individual to reason it out, to come to terms with The Night as one does with Life itself.

Incidentally, a wonderfully generous customer made me the present of a tiny phial of oud last week: I have it beside me in bed as I write this, to sniff and inspire. The gentleman gave it to me because he said I reminded him of his grandfather: a unique accolade which gives the oil a very particular quality.

As I came round the corner from the Underground Station last Friday morning the pavement was up and the air was heavy – very heavy indeed – with the dangerous blue smell of gas. The workmen were all there, putting things to rights. The air shimmered with fumes and I was relieved to turn the corner before someone lit a cigarette. And just around the corner was this beautiful and curiously vivid rose-red car: I’ve never seen a car sprayed such a hue. I stood and peered at it – and then was seized with SUCH an uncanny – a truly weird – sense of horror and nameless dread. It was the effects of the gas, I’m sure of that: some curious short-circuiting of the gas together with an elementary sense of self-preservation. And the rose colour must have triggered some long-repressed associations.

But doesn’t the nose play us curious tricks! ”


There’ll be a fabulous LES SENTEURS Competition coming your way very soon: it’s all about Scent and its Darker Side. Keep your eyes, nostrils & minds open! Details to follow. Intrinsically valuable prizes to be won!

Poetry In Motion



Spring air –
Woven moon
And plum scent.¤


Who should pop up on R4 the other morning but the great Juliet Stevenson, brought before the microphones to celebrate the Equinox She read Keats’s Ode to Autumn – beautifully, of course – said a few words, and was off. A casual, almost throw-away recital: It reminded me of Myra Hess’s lunch-time concerts during the War; Sarah Bernhardt or Lillie Langtry making brief appearances in barns and tents on the American frontier. It was just how a performance should be. A sudden splurge of splendour going up like a firework in the gloom; a few transient seconds of glamour and beauty in the darkness.

The Ode was a brief moment of uplift in a busy day. Poetry should illuminate the path, jolly us along, stimulate the ear and the brain. It presents emotions and situations in a certain way – a new way. Poetry offers revelations and, sometimes, solutions. Its pleasure should be taken for granted, easily and frankly like a music hall song. We needn’t wait for a poetry class or a formal recital  –  tags and lines and refrains can inspire and buck us up at any time, whether formally declaimed or just chuntered under your breath.

Now, doesn’t this sound remarkably like the role of perfume in life? A scent which may be startling, delicious, sprightly or hypnotic by turns but which seizes our attention and beguiles our senses. Price, value, composition and provenance really need not come into the matter. What’s vital is the sum of the thing: how the scent speaks to you, and how it affects your mind. Smell it, grab it, wear it. Stop analysing and start smelling. It’s like the sense of taste: quit taking those selfies of your dinner – eat it up!

When I was at school, aged ten or so, we had to learn a set poem weekly – “Home Thoughts From Abroad”, “Upon Westminster Bridge” and the like. No piece thrilled me much. All one’s energies and attention went into getting the thing into one’s noddle and then regurgitating the verses correctly, so as to avoid being snubbed by teacher in front of the precariously smug class. However, then as now, individual words, sounds and ideas of colour & smell caught the ear and excited the mind. The first line of Shakespeare that ever caught my fancy was Lady Macbeth’s wailing of the smell of blood and the perfumes of Arabia.

Presently one went up the school and a more enlightened schoolmistress got us writing haiku in lieu of learning other people’s masterpieces. That was kind of liberating – firstly because the haiku form is so short;  and because observing the 5-7-5 syllable structure made us far less self-conscious about what we were composing. We were too busy trying to make the thing ‘fit’.

I see now that the essence of the haiku is in its moment of generation; those ideas it evokes in the exhalation of a breath. There is no analysis, no set or intended meaning: all is sensation and emotion, a moment of observation and insight as clear but transient as a dew-drop. Sometimes you see something akin to this in the PR blurb written by French perfume houses: translated into English the evocations are meaningless and bathetic. In the original they have a certain haphazard poetry to them. Same like the haiku.

Here are two observations of an orchid, by Basho¤ and Buson¤¤ respectively:

Evening orchid-
The white of its flower
Hidden in its scent

Orchid –
Breathing incense
Into butterfly’s wings

Haiku can be not only surreally lovely but as droll, rude and scatalogical as a good limerick.

Issa¤¤¤, who lived a rather dreadful life of poverty and loss, wrote much about love and death but was also fascinated by the yowling of mating cats, bodily smells, soiled clothes & bedding, effluvia and excrement – “flies on the porridge…..piddle pattering down…the wild iris…”

Here’s another Basho haiku which smells both aspects of our fleeting existence:

In the garden
A sweaty shoe
Scent of chrysanthemum

You may take these two observations separately or link them as you will: but it’s true, chrysanthemums do have the sharp tang of perspiration to them. As Issa noted, they are redolent of tea, sake and urine. And here’s the typically ironic haiku paradox: they are also the Japanese national flower, quasi-sacred as they symbolise the Sun goddess Amaterasu-o-mi-kami, the divine ancestress of every Emperor. There have never been many chrysanthemum-based perfumes on the market. Maybe that’s because of this sour ambiguity and (in the West) the association of the flower with the dying of the year and hard-wearing funeral tributes.  The Crown Perfumery once did a little gem – I forget it’s name; it’s long time ago. Serge Lutens De Profundis – a ‘Paris Only’ Exclusive – is probably the one to seek out.

How often will a neophyte come to try a much-touted new scent and exclaim –

“But it smells of my father’s bike! – like a cement mixer – like cleaning the baby’s bath..”

And there you are: to her, the perfume is defined for ever, caught in a flash of perception like a spider in amber. You can explain about the ingredients till you are blue in the face but it is the customer’s instantaneous and unique characterisation which is so striking: much more interesting than praising the quality of the jasmine oils. An integral part of haiku language is the use of an exclamation to punctuate a line  – “ah!” – “o!” – “but!” – “pop!”. How rewarding and fascinating to hear these gasps and squeals at the shop as one reveals the latest treasure.

Ise’s shrine –
What tree can give
Such perfume?¤

¤ Matsuo Basho 1644-1694; translations by Lucien Stryk

¤¤ Yosa Buson 1716 – 1784; translation by Stephen Addiss

¤¤¤  Kobayashi Issa 1763-1827; translations by Lewis Mackenzie.

Sunny Stories

From the Author's private WW1 collection

From the Author’s private WW1 collection

“Lemon Wedge Is On Holiday”

Nevertheless, like some old music hall artiste, he will appear for you and offer nugatory olfactory comment on the week gone by. As Arthur Marshall used to say in a different circumstance, LW is never off duty unless he’s in bed – and not always then. Besides, no one’s sense of smell can be turned on and off like a tap: we lovers of scent are literally led by the nose, willy nilly. Odours seek us out rather than the other way about.  Good smells – and bad.

No doubt it had something to do with that short and very intense wave of heat and humidity which sharpened our sense of smell: for suddenly and very evidently there was a spate of unsavoury references to fetor and malodour in the media¤. These came together, all in a clump and a rush: very odd and remarkable. A propos, do you ever analyse the look of your birthday cards? I have noticed each year it falls out, apparently haphazardly, that the cards group themselves into a definite colour co-ordination and theme. One year they are all variations on green and ochre beer bottles; the next time around, every greeting is a flight of blue butterflies. You have a look: the system works at Christmas, too.

And so it was that – as the heat, my heart and my head pounded in tandem every morning – I was greeted by a battery of sequential, often nauseating, redolent vignettes. There was the intriguing but revolting revelation of how, during WW II, SOE had planned to impregnate (via agents with “perfume atomisers”) the uniforms of high-ranking Nazis with unspeakably awful reeks to spread despondency and disgust in the ranks. I don’t fancy going into details but you can picture for yourselves the sort of things the Allied scientists came up with. Think of emergency moppings-up after both human and animal calamities and the concomitant urgent need for Dettol, a scalding hot bath and clean clothes from the skin out. One can imagine that the filthy scheme would have demoralised the enemy only too well. It’s bad enough to have a terrible chemically-enhanced smell stuck in your nostrils – much worse to realise that it’s emanating from you.

Because I am on vacation I have spent a lot of time with my nose in a book. William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Confessions of Nat Turner” is bursting with the sinister smells of the terrible Old South. The barren fields of Virginia exhausted by promiscuous tobacco planting; wood smoke from sad dying fires; uncontrollable sweating; home-distilled brandy; and a reptilian lawyer whose greasy clothes and person are drenched in sweet apple-blossom cologne –  “…..I was unable to tell which I resented more, that doughy voice or the honeyed, overpowering perfume”.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s monumental history of the Romanovs is in great demand at the library (there were 17 readers ahead of me). Here I read about the extraordinary family letters of Nicholas and Alexandra on the subject of breaking wind¤¤. More to be expected were details of Alexandra’s dainty custom of perfuming her letters to the Front with Atkinson’s White Rose. “‘The scent excites me and quite drew me to you'” – wrote the Tsar by return¤¤¤.

And there’s a brand new book out, all about George Orwell’s sense of smell; his perception of redolence and mephitis; and the impact of it all on his writing. I remember his late sister’s shop – “Avril’s” – at Southwold, though, alas! I missed Avril herself by some years. Under later management, the store sold Annick Goutal perfumes – wafts of Passion and Folavril mingling with the ambrosial succulence of salty samphire and dressed crabs at the late fish shop next door.

You have to be careful with these reminiscences, though. Careful how you filter them. Last weekend I went to a wonderful show put on by the local history society. There was all my infancy and early life in the villages, laid out in post cards, posters and photos in the Methodist Hall. There was the flowering almond tree in our garden; the dusty old library with the dark creaking stairs; the cheesey-bacon-coffee-smelling grocery. There was the tiny shoe shop full of new leather, raw canvas, rubber soles, chalky whitening paste and Cherry Blossom Shoe-Shine. That night I woke myself up at 3am, shouting my head off in nightmare and alarming the neighbours. Emotional indigestion. Too many memories stirred up. And I remembered then how, as a tot, I had got very muddled in myself over the tale of Moses in the rushes. I knew the reedy smell and velvety texture of bulrushes from walks down the water meadows. Moses’s floating cradle, caulked with pitch and tar, I could relate to our newly creosoted fence and the steamrollers¤¤¤¤ that surfaced the roads. The thuriferous fragrance of the Egyptian princess’s palace must have been like that of our very high church.

And I was the first-born son.

Consequently, I often fancied I saw Pharaoh in his blue war crown peering in at me through the tiny window at the back of our sitting-room.

No wonder I yelled out…..eh?

Yes, you have to watch your step with smells. Such power!

¤ even to an endlessly re-run trailer for a vintage episode of The Likely Lads on Channel 19 – “she’s so stuck-up, you’d think her backside was a perfume factory”. Honestly…..!

¤¤ very strange, you might think, in view of the usual perception of the Empress as a parody of bourgeois narrow-mindedness. But then, Alix was used to the strong emanations of Rasputin – onions/garlic/alcohol/sweat/vodka/sebum – and his rustic mystic predecessors. She’d worked in military operating theatres; her husband had chronic dental problems; and she had grown up at the court of Queen Victoria who, contrary to the belief of many, took a pretty robust view of the Schattenseite of life.

¤¤¤ Note to our friends and colleagues at Atkinsons: is this romantic perfume not due for an exciting revival?

¤¤¤¤ when did all the steamrollers vanish from our streets? There was a drama! There was a smell to thrill!

A Plum In My Mouth



Just around about this time my mind and my nose turn to the sweet redolence of plums. I must tell you that for many years we have lived next door to an extensive walled garden. For twenty three Septembers, a gnarled old tree in that plot’s remotest and most picturesque corner was seen to be laden with magnificent plums – never gathered but left to rot on the branches or to provide occasional food for birds and insects. How our mouths watered and how our hearts ached for those wasted luscious fruits. We looked on and languished like Rapunzel’s mother pining for the witch’s blue-flowered rampion. And then – do you know? – the house was sold and we told the new young owners about the plums. “Plum tree? There are no plums here. Just apples….hard little red apples”. So all the greedy longings of decades were wasted and quite in vain: a three minute sermon in a country garden! The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

“Plum blossoms:

Red, red

Red ” ……¤

My mother often described folk whose looks she admired as resembling “a great big beautiful plum”. That is to say:  high-coloured, smooth-skinned, zaftig; apt to be extravagantly exuberant and deliciously scented. And evidently she was not unique in entertaining this fantasy. A lively lady at the Tesco check-out this morning jabbed a lilac-painted finger nail – “Tsarina Mauve” – into a basket of over-ripe scarlet plums saying with a wink, “and this one’s me!”. It was the softest piece of fruit, and the most brilliant.

Plums have a great individuality about them: they are vivid little personalities with their silky iridescent skins, sensually cleft flesh and hard-hearted stones. They grow in a rainbow of wonderful colours: blue, yellow, topaz, crimson, pink, mauve, green, purple and almost white. When you cook them you see a miniature sunset of red and gold blaze at the bottom of your saucepan. Their perfume fills the house; a smell which is sharper when plums are cooked¤¤ than when they hang all velvety and sun-warmed on the tree. Or when their syrupy nectar oozes out as they lie on the grass, ripped open by voracious young wasps.

“Send her Victorias!”, as one of my teachers used to parody the National Anthem. They put him away for two years – though not for that.

The heavenly smell of plums is what used to lead children into orgies of greed, gorging themselves on the pilfered orchard fruit and being terribly ill – “pains” – in the night. And then, at Christmas, the indigestible but irresistible richness of bottled, candied, frosted, and crystallised plums. Plum cake, plum pudding, plum duff and the Sugar Plum Fairy. In these austere days when Expiry Dates and the “Five-A-Day” policy rule the roost these surfeits probably no longer take place. But, in the same way as oranges and nasturtiums, plums have an indefinable but powerful nostalgia about them. Like dahlias, grapes and golden rod they have the glamour of an imperial past, a dazzling hue and the thoughtful bitter-sweet taste & scent of autumn about them. A sense of numbered days.

I first smelled plums – I suppose – in the Madman’s Paradise of my great uncle’s suburban garden. His house was full of the fumes of leaking gas and Players cigarettes. The back garden was a jungle of old man’s beard, of half-wild nose-tingling horseradish and fallen waspy plums heaped up on the old tennis court and all over the cinder paths. Uncle Fred was born only 13 years after the death of the Prince Consort: he gardened like a High Victorian. I think this sepia photo aspect is what makes plum such a popular and powerful note when used in perfumery. It takes you back to a finer age of leisure, succulence and refined self-indulgence.

The plum accord in scent need not be botanically exact. It comes to life in the imagination and perception of the beholder, in a similar way to many people’s definition of musk. Plum notes evoke a mood rather than a precise odour. Plummy scents have a deep dark polished fullness to them; an embraceable roundness; a feeling that every corner has been smoothed away & sanded down leaving a glorious glowing ripeness and volupte. Plum scents whisper – in rich engorged plummy tones – ‘eat me!’. I have only to read that a perfume boasts plum notes for me to want to try it. I associate plum with the sophisticated fruitiness of the classic chypres – the novel peach accord in Mitsouko; the sexy synthetics of Ma Griffe; the grande horizontale seduction  of Parure. Especially I love the infinite and mysterious sweet green lake – “all hung about with fever trees” – that is LE PARFUM DE THERESE, Roudnitska’s star turn from the late 1950’s, bound into softest moss-coloured leather for Editions de Parfums.

Kilian’s LIAISONS DANGEREUSES is served from a bar in Zola’s Paris – a plum steeped in a shot of brandy or absinthe to brighten a frosty morning in Les Halles. ACQUA FIORENTINA is an Italian orchard where late carnations add a delicate hint of clove to a conception of greengages, plums and apples. LIQUEUR CHARNELLE streams out like liquid apricot velvet: plums and prunes distilled into after-dinner gourmanderie. And then, less literally, I find a dark, discreet but splendid plummy opulence and amplitude in that fabulous duo from Atelier Cologne – ROSE ANONYME and VETIVER FATAL.

In the old days I went several times to the former Jugoslavia. In Split – where the Emperor Diocletian once grew his prize cabbages – I first tasted plum slivovitz. We were recommended by a local to try it spliced with kruskovac: the sharpness of the plums, the sweetness of pears. Greatly daring, I ordered this enticing-sounding drink in a waterfront hotel: there stood the appropriate bottles, all ranked on glass shelves. But the barmaid – vividly similar in appearance to Elsie Tanner  – vehemently refused to serve me. “NO slivovitz! NO kruskovac!” Her hands slammed flat on the bar like fruit pelting down to earth in a high wind.

Plums witheld! Plums verboten! Their glamour was heightened all the more.

¤ Hirose Izen c.1652 – c.1711

¤¤ unless you are jamming of course: copper preserving pans full of red plums; pounds of white sugar slowly staining pink. Then the saucer on the window-sill to test the setting. My mother tended to lose her nerve at this point, but our Paddy who came to help in the garden used to stick his thumb in the sweet goo and judge it to a nicety. He was wonderful at timing when a cake was done, too: just thrust in the cold steel of the bread knife. He was always right.