Cultural Appropriation: Flesh and Fantasy

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Where do you stand on Cultural Appropriation? It’s the topic of the hour and it’s driving LW crazy because it would seem to have a special relevance to perfume – crucially, one not yet  determined.  One source ( “on line” ) defines it as a culture enjoying or celebrating a sensation that another has known in misery or in otherwise alternative circumstances. As in, say, pizza. An easy example. In the eighteenth century the good pizza succeeded macaroni as the food of the street poor of Naples – the lazzaroni. Ergo, it is morally wrong to enjoy this delicacy in our modern affluence at Pizza Express. But this explanation would not explain the frenzy over a girl dressing up on American TV as “Hello Kitty”. Twiggy voo? Viewers were described as “traumatised”.  Pretty Kitty is an especially controversial figure: there was another quite separate scene recently about whether or not she is bodily and entirely a cat beneath that little pink dress. Then “Around The World in 80 Days” is in trouble; also, the sporting of sombreros at costume parties; and even poor old Monet’s portrait of a French lady – wearing a kimono.

“How shall so grave a problem resolve itself?”

Scent seems to me to epitomise the best of cultural appropriation. (But is that remark in itself oxymoronic?). Every civilisation since time began has revered, created and worn perfume. It has been put to a multiplicity of arcane uses. The ancient Egyptians believed it could raise the dead. At the altars it created a mystic pathway – a Silver Cord – between earth and heaven. How could one doubt it when a trail of incense smoke was plainly visible in the blue, linking the worshippers physically as well as spiritually to the sky gods? Sweet smells led the way into transcendental states, cured disease, initiated adulthood, promoted sexual vigour and sedated the sick mind.

I hope that perfume’s connection with the tribulations, trials and beliefs of our ancestors is not going to get redolence in wrong. For me – as I am sure for millions of fragrance fanciers – the long and varied history of scent and its multiplicity of contexts adds immeasurably to the magic of perfume: that all-powerful gigantic genie in a tiny bottle. Did you ever hear of mellified man? A legend went around in the antique world of certain saintly sages in a far distant country who, for the public good, would volunteer to be embalmed alive….in honey. The eligible martyr would be fed exclusively on honey – gorged with it – until his all bodily systems and fluids were invaded by the nectar. After he died – which was quite soon – his body was set aside to dry & crystallise into a pungent substance rather – I suppose – similar to the inside of a Crunchie Bar. Fragrant fragments of this carnal honeycomb were then broken off and administered to the sick or sold to the highest bidder as a universal panacea.

So this brings us to oud, that mysterious and dramatic oil: the olfactory epitome of the gorgeous east. Startling and even evil-smelling in the raw (some compare it to an over-ripe Stilton cheese), oud is in my mind assuming an almost semi-mythical construct; rather in the fashion of ectoplasm, prana¤, manna, the alchemist’s stone or the elixir of youth. We all enjoy conjuring tricks and illusions: “is it real? Is the magician in fact in league with the Devil?”. We thrill and wonder at a bizarre and apparently magical perfume ingredient: and here it is, incarnated in oud, a substance that defies logic and belief. “Mankind cannot bear too much reality”: and, goodness knows, reality and rationality are stuffed down our throats with a vengeance nowadays. Maybe what we are now taught to call oud is in fact a mood, a style, a stifled desire: a longing, a far distant horizon of the heart.

Ambergris is another substance which prompts similar thoughts. Last year – maybe the year before – there was a wonderful and sobering thirty minute documentary on BBC R4 – an interview with a man who had found this chunk of ambergris on the local beach. As in a fairy tale, all his problems seemed to be at an end. He was profiled in the Press, the amber was apparently proved to be genuine and worth a fortune. But the treasure trove proved a curse, not a blessing. Envious neighbours poisoned his dog, he was ostracised and in the end, the mysterious substance was proved to be nothing but sea-cured palm oil. As apparently is all too often the case. Worthless! Malign fairy gold. The beachcomber said that ambergris had ruined his life.

“Flounder, Flounder in the sea!”

How just exactly like a tale from the brothers Grimm! The origins of both ambergris and oud are a grotesquerie worthy of folk tale or legend. Both are of animal origin and each is the result of a metamorphosis both actual and symbolic that might have been dreamed up by Ovid. Filth, waste, excrement, decay and rot are transmuted by that supreme enchantress Mother Nature into oils of transcendent beauty and great price. Ambergris comes from the waste matter exuded by whales – probably faecal, they now think¤¤. Oud is derived from a dying agar tree as it fights for breath in the forests of far Asia, poisoned by parasites but gallantly defending itself to the last as it pumps out resin in a gummy shield. These tales are as unlikely as those of the miller’s daughter spinning straw into gold; the maiden invited to empty the sea with a sieve; or the boy left with a swan’s wing for an arm.

” Die Wahrheit ist: was ist wahr….ist unwahr!” ¤¤¤

But strange as they are, these scented stories happen to be true, even though many of the details still remain vague and mysterious.  No wonder we talk endlessly about oud and ambergris, speculating on exactly which perfumes contain these oils – which fragrances have the genuine article and which the synthesised. The whole saga is so weird and so wild: a wonderful diversion in our cut and dried world. The scent of both ingredients is ambiguous too: what could be more fitting? Farouche, shattering, disturbing, animalic, two-edged, invasive maybe even frightening, repellent. Oud and ambergris are not easy to work with. Ambergris we have learned to handle after several thousand years, but oud is new to the west.

For decades oud was a generic name given to that heavenly fragrance emanating from the robes and veils of London’s Middle Eastern visitors¤¤¤¤. It surrounded them like the perfumed nimbus that is said to grace saints and angels. Then, just recently, western perfumers discovered raw oud, popped it on their palettes and began wrestling with it. Many lost the struggle. Nevertheless, oud became a craze, the latest “must-have” and “must-do”. Every perfume house demanded an oud scent for their clients. But this is not an easy oil to work with: it is extreme and out of control; hard to subdue, to interpret and to tailor to Western tastes. A few brands have succeeded brilliantly – MFK, Killian, Creed and Ex Idolo for instance have all flourished beyond expectation. Their fragrances  are sculpted and hewn; are superbly wrought; carved, as it were, from the living rock by artists who are not afraid of oud oil but who have dominated and mastered it as though taming tigers. We wear perfume differently in Europe and America – we are shy of it, whereas in the Middle East perfume is treated as a good servant but a poor master. In Britain perfume all too often becomes the tyrannical boss.

Long may perfumery continue to discover new molecules and ancient oils; and to make use of forgotten techniques, contrasting traditions and flourishing hybrids. As the Prince Consort used to say, we need fresh strong blood to invigorate the line, to expand the horizons and boost the vigour of fragrance. Absorption, lending, borrowing, grafting and enriching: not appropriation but a grateful sharing of the mysteries of peoples, perfumes and nations. Somewhat akin to “Mae West’s Plan for World Peace”…but not as rude.

¤ “Living on Prana” – do you remember?
It turned out the high priestess was subsisting on a more mundane diet of digestive biscuits and cold chicken.

¤¤ the point is, they don’t really know. I rather hope they never will.

¤¤¤ Marlene Dietrich – having, as usual, the last word on the nature of reality.

¤¤¤¤ though I not smelled a Western treatment that captures that especial esoteric fragrance. Maybe, as is often suggested, it results from the smoking of clothes over a brazier filled with oud. Or perhaps it comes from an oil not yet known here. We shouldn’t let in all the daylight on magic…

April – Spring Forward!

Loie Fuller dancing

Loie Fuller dancing

April really is the cruellest month: just look at her now!

Warned of the great coming frost on April 16th I spent three hours that evening swathing my poor magnolia in voluminous veils of fine white protective fleece¤: as fast as I wrapped the tree, another rogue wind would whip the fabric off again. The dryad of the magnolia yearned for freedom. The neighbours must have thought me a sight as I teetered on a step ladder, manipulating the cloths with long bamboos like Loie Fuller doing her butterfly dance. The sky turned a terrible frightening livid yellow and pink, like one of the Selznick sunsets in Gone With The Wind. Hail and sleet came down in fierce spurts. People next day said they had feared the Ragnarok was imminent. In the end I pulled all the swaddling bands tight with pins, rubber bands and clothes pegs – they held! And the magnolia flowers were saved to delight and fret, in equal measure, for another day.

magnolia james
This shrub really is a torment to the gardener – so lovely but so fragile. I only wonder that after so many million years of existence – scientists believe it to be the oldest flowering tree on the planet – it’s not toughened up a bit. No doubt the extreme susceptibility of the magnolia adds to its appeal but it plays Old Harry with its keeper’s nerves.¤¤
I say ‘keeper’, not owner: like a faery tree, the magnolia owns he who grew it.

Take heart all you chastened horticulturalists! At Les Senteurs you can now enjoy all the beauty of the flower with none of the angst; pleasure with no pain.¤¤¤ Tom Daxon’s latest, the creamy MAGNOLIA HEIGHTS, now blooms on the shelves alongside Eau d’Italie’s Magnolia Romana and Editions de Parfums’s Eau de Magnolia. Each fragrance in this triptych of waxy blossoms has its own discrete mood – the romantic, the stylised, the stately, the botantical. Tom’s interpretation is maybe the most impressionistic and the prettiest; exhaling suggestions of creamy gardenia petals blended with deeper tropical fumes of ylang ylang and intoxicating jasmine sambac. All three of these magnolia perfumes have a delicious lightness and airy quality – a soft spangled rainy generosity – which make them perfect for spring.

This is such an emotionally exciting, vividly raw and startlingly disjointed season. After that terrible frost came hot sun, melting old bones in  deckchairs.  April is full of new beginnings and personal revolutions, intended or involuntary. So it’s an excellent time to recall what I’ve always told you – all the dusty classic perfume rules are there only to be broken: the important thing is to ENJOY scent, not to agonise about it. Follow your instincts, cultivate a sense of humour and let yourself go. LW can throw out tips, hints and modest advice until he’s blue in the face; but scent is ultimately all about you, your emotions and finding your pleasures in and through your nose. Remember! The sense of smell sends signals to that part of the brain that deals solely with emotion – not rational sense.

Maybe this year you might like to experiment with the wearing of scent in different ways? I always used to say that spraying too much is better than too little: perfume by definition is there to be smelled. But, like many people, as I grow older I’m coming to prefer the idea of a waft rather than a blast. As with food, you can always come back for more. I’m getting to prefer eau de toilette – even cologne – to parfum. I now enjoy a light misting about the neck or head rather than a real dousing from top to toe. Apart from anything else, decreasing the amount of application seems to sharpen my sense of smell. I’ve abandoned the idea of a signature scent: instead, I dabble. A little something new, every day. I’ve also gone back to the practice of putting scent on a clean hanky and keeping fragrance about my person in that way.

It’s fine to spray scent on your garments, but try to limit this to clothes that are regularly laundered. Summer time is best, when most of us are togged up in readily washable cotton or linen fabrics. (Always do a patch test, first.) Scented clothing can be wonderful but it does need frequent washing to avoid any suggestion of staleness, so I do not recommend spraying onto heavy woollens, leather etc. Keep it fresh and light – and natural fibres always work best.

And you can have fun with fragrance combining. The ancient Greeks – said to have invented perfume in its liquid form – loved to scent each part of the body with a different oil. I have tried this: it’s kind of cute but you cannot fully absorb or enjoy any of the perfumes. You end up in something of a muddle – a broken kaleidoscope of smells. It’s more productive to combine just two or three creations. Many perfume lovers swear by the practice – and some achieve very striking and effective results. My non-pareil colleague at Les Senteurs is a mistress of the art: a Circe of Combinations.

Apply the heavier scent first – let it dry –  then spray the lighter one on top. If desired you can perform a non-binary gender re-assignment on a perfume with a deft spray or two – though I think it is maybe easier to “man up” a fragrance than to feminise it. You will need to bring on the darker, woodier notes, the animalics, the dense greens – to drown the flowers or candies in virile darkness.

Begin your experiments with your existing collection; don’t spend a fortune doubling up on fragrances until you have got your eye/nose in. Combining does take a certain knack but can be so rewarding: and of course if it works for you, you end up with a unique and personalised fragrance, thus saving a bespoke outlay of up to £40,000 – or considerably more.

When you think of fragrance this spring – and you are sure to do so, frequently I trust – cross all limits, every boundary. Be expansive!

¤ available in great quantity at very modest price at Wilkinsons. Ideal to wear, too, if you were attending a costume ball as Marie Stuart. Then all you’d need are the pearls.

¤¤ it’s rather like the terrible night vigil before an execution.

¤¤¤ but – “if it isn’t pain/ It isn’t love.

Keep Your Hair On!

THE PUMPKIN EATER, Anne Bancroft, Yootha Joyce, 1964

Memorable elegiac passages have been written by the great and the good on infant perceptions and idealised memories of the Scented Mother Figure. She tends to materialise as the light fails, irradiating the shadows with her own luminous brilliance. Winston Churchill remembered that Jennie Jerome “shone for me like the Evening Star – but at a distance”. The glowing gleaming goddess-like figure at the end of the little white nursery bed, suffused in heavenly perfumes, appears over and again in memoirs, like the metamorphosis of a redolent guardian angel. Peter Pan’s Mrs Darling, James James Morrison’s mother in her golden gown¤, even the deliciously fragrant virgin saints who appeared in the meadows to Jeanne d’Arc, all contribute to the mythic image, the mystic experience. The scent is key, the exotic alien perfumes which waft into a room: mother and child both in different ways waiting for the party – but also for the parting. The child is left with a fleeting kiss, clasped in the hand like a crumpled butterfly, and the clouds of scent which last longer than mama’s retreating shadow.

I certainly remember my own mother in these circumstances: in those days to be smelled wearing Rubinstein’s Apple Blossom, Diorissimo or Youth Dew. Quelques Fleurs she sprayed on the pug. I think that in her youth, growing up during the Midlands during the Depression and the War, perfume meant nothing very much to her. As I knew her, she had a great knack with clothes: she’d cannily put together one expensive and stylish outfit and wear it to death for a couple of years. And then she’d buy another. It was the same with scent. Much later in the day when I made perfume my profession she grew more adventurous, growing passionately fond of Serge Lutens A La Nuit and Caron’s Eau de Reglisse. But, in fact, infant memories concerning my mother and delicious smells have little to do with fine fragrance. They are much more connected with my tagging along with her to the hairdresser.

Miss Ribstone’s salon was across two streets from us, occupying the coverted ground floor of a Victorian terraced house. Miss R was a sweet and tiny scuttling woman, with green combs in her foxy hair. She had something of Marie Lloyd about her – I mean to say, always merry, with large teeth and full of what they now call banter. She must have been fond of small children – or remarkably tolerant – as the place was crawling with them. Tots could have their hair cut on the premises. They were also haphazardly entertained as though in a creche. Allowed to play with the scissors, combs and curlers and all that¤¤. I remember sitting on the lino amid all the hanks of hair (and no doubt splashes of peroxide). I do not recall a single window in the place: they must have been boarded up to allow numerous cubicles of hardboard to be erected in a kind of warm damp labyrinth. A client sat in each one, robed in a sea-green bib, like a Queen Bee in her airless waxen cell. Miss Ribstone ran like a rabbit, in and out the dusty bluebells, sectioning, wrapping and combing out.

The entire establishment was painted a boiled shrimp pink and had something of the atmosphere of a seraglio in old Constantinople¤¤¤ – all those ladies in negligent and relaxed deshabille, surrounded by children and attendants. Ladies “letting their hair down”, indeed. The place smelled so exciting, so strange, so very unlike home. An intoxicating cloud of hair spray, setting lotion, bleach, shampoo, hot water, perfumed steam, soap, conditioners, nail polish and wet hair. A frisson of fright was provided by alarming singey smells which added to the horror of those hideous hooded hair dryers. Sinister wires and cables trailed about as in some gruesome American execution chamber.

A dear friend and correspondent reminds me of “that smell of the old fashioned hair lacquer that used to be in a plastic bottle – you had to pump it out. That took a lot of strength! Masses of it went on, until the hair was helmet hard; and the smell – reminiscent of old fashioned carnations – lasted for days”. My interlocutor tells me, too, that today the burning smells – to do with the straightening of frizzy barnets  – have got much worse.

Like the breeching of little boys of 400 years ago, the day of my eventual graduating to the barber’s shop came as a terrible shock. “I’ve brought a bag for the ears” said the larky young man who took my younger brother and I to our initiation. It was a real horror. A dark bleak room, full of cigarette butts; sour old men sitting about, snarling at one another; smutty talk not fully understood, but confusing and disturbing; the agony of the rusty hand clippers nipping your neck. Things have changed now – somewhat – but half a century ago you would barely have known that the hairdresser and the barber and were in the same trade. It was pampering versus character building, then. There was no attempt at “styling”. The virile odours at the sign of the red and white pole came from barbicide – a dubious liquid in which the scissors and combs were disinfected; Brylcream; and a rough sort of hair oil which smelled like the bus station. “Pleasant pongs” – as The Beano called them –  were strictly for ladies only.

When us kids came home, our parents screamed at the sight of us – “Why did you let him do that to you?”

We’d had no say in the matter.

There’s something about the scent of hairspray which I still enjoy. The aldehydes which wreathe around some of Les Senteurs’s loveliest scents like luminous rainbow bubbles have a discreet and dazzling champagne memory of hair lacquer. Aldehydes give a perfume an escapist lift, an airy varnish, a fairy finish – a perfect “set”. They lift and elevate, lending their host fragrance a gleaming artifice and glamour. Next time you come by, try Noontide Petals, Dries Van Noten, Memoire du Futur, Lipstick Rose, Nocturnes or Lady Caron: each one a triumphant glossy crowning glory.

¤ this poor woman “.. .drove right down to the end of the Town……” & “hasn’t been heard of since” – terrifying.

¤¤ I once cut all my own hair off with a pair of paper scissors. Not at Miss R’s but early one morning, in bed. Had to go to school, though, just the same.

¤¤¤ try Parfum d’Empire’s Cuir Ottoman for sensual evocations of the hidden world of the Sultana Valideh – jasmine oil, and soft leather boots sewn with pearls padding down the passages…

Blood and Sand: Part Two

val-blood-sand

 

‘APPROPRIATE’: a doom-laden word of today. So, is it appropriate to use the smell of blood – the essential fluid of life – as a  perfume accord or a fragrance theme? I’d say it was permissible, interesting, provocative, adventurous – if risky. To others it remains weirdly and wholly inappropriate. The problem is, that blood – which could and should be perceived as awesome, sacred, even mystical – evokes in many people a sense of fright, revulsion and disgust.  The very thought of it, coursing hotly within us all at this very minute, is upsetting or repellent. Blood is all too intimately relevant to birth and (of course) to death. The circulation of the blood is inevitable, involuntary and universally applicable, but is best ignored whenever possible; or distanced by the conventions of cinema, Hallowe’en grotesquerie or gallows humour. Those avant garde perfumers who have so far “had a go” with blood, have therefore so far tended to trade on shock value, rather than contemplating the austere beauties of the metaphysical.

The splendidly polarising and revolutionary ‘Secretions Magnifiques‘ is probably still the best-known and most startling example of this small and recherche fragrance family. And here’s an interesting thing: in the ten years since its launch, the perception of this startling impressionistic blend of various intimate human body fluids has somewhat tamed and softened. People do still come into Les Senteurs to smell the bottle at arm’s length and to shudder & scream; but a younger generation has now grown up who consider ‘Secretions’ more thoughtfully and analytically.

Many of us have now come to recognize in ‘Secretions’ those molecules which give the perfume a curious similarity with certain crisp florals. Like the Aztecs¤ we may subconsciously make a connection between brilliantly coloured flowers¤¤ and hot spurting blood. For it remains vital that – for now – a sanguinary fragrance accord should display a certain clinical freshness. The reek of stale blood that so repelled the Conquistadors in those Mexican temples, and which stampeded the cattle herded past the guillotine in Revolutionary Paris, is really still too awful to think about. This is the stench which helped to drive Lady Macbeth out of her mind:

“Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh! Oh! Oh!”

Our olfactory decadence has yet some way to go. Sweat may play a role in ‘Secretions’ – but clots of black blood.. not at all, thank you.

Don’t forget, the ‘Secretions’ are still described – ironically or not – as ‘Magnifiques’. There is still somehow the suggestion of a divinely created grandeur. “The blood is the life, Mr Renfield.” Out in the commercial world you can enjoy Lady Gaga’s similarly themed fragrance: this is called “Fame”. You can read that name as bathetic or irrelevant – or alternatively, as a rather splendid invocation of the multi-tongued Roman goddess, proclaiming the perfume and its awe-ful contents to the nations. The veins of the Old Gods ran not with red blood but with ichor, a golden fluid redolent of fragrant honey and nectar. “Bloody Wood” by Liquides Imaginaires suggests something of this lyrically poetic theme: the scarlet succulence of a libation of richly symbolic wine, roses, cherries and raspberries. A Bacchanalian banquet before the Maenads of Dionysus run murderously berserk.

Last week we pondered the scented lure of the desert. The connection of blood & sand begins with the terrifying Egyptian myth of the attempted destruction of Mankind by the lioness goddess Sekhmet, “The Lady of the Bloodbath, the Ruler of the Chamber of Flames”. Enraged by the sins of men, Sekhmet came ravening out of the Western Desert and was stopped in her awful mission of slaughter only by making her dead drunk on jugs of red barley and pomegranate beer. This the lioness lapped, believing it to be the gore of her blasphemers.

Blood and sand coagulated in the Roman amphitheatres beneath awnings of violets and showers of rosewater. A shadow of this vanished ambience still mingles in the bull rings of southern Spain. Vierges et Torreros with its dusky musky accords of leather and tuberose is the corrida sanitised for lovers of “Ferdinand the Bull”, the dear little beast who loved to “sit quietly and smell the flowers” in “all the lovely ladies’…hair”. You might try Tom Daxon’s Vachetta too, a deep, rounded profound leather once described by an admirer as “beefy”. (All that fine Spanish leather is sourced in the ring; and the meat goes to the best restaurants in town).

I am acquainted with the metallic tang  of hot blood as I grew up with my father’s veterinary surgery just across the passage from our kitchen. And in those far-off days, tots seemed to fall over and bloody themselves almost constantly: of course, we all wore shorts to a remarkably advanced age and romped about outside for much of the time. Health and Safety was in its infancy. (I remember having to have the section on First Aid in my Enid Blyton Diary slowly explained to me. “But what does it MEAN?”). The smell of blood is sharp, metallic, rather like the iodine with which all those injuries were agonisingly daubed.¤¤¤

It doesn’t panic me, as it does animals – and many humans – but it inspires me with a certain awe and I think perfume-wise it deserves to be treated with respect. And, so: this is where we came in!
¤ a percipient sociologist, whose name I cannot recall, once famously noted that civilizations who appreciate liberal blood-letting are usually keen flower gardeners, too.

¤¤ flowers scream when they are picked, as Ian Fleming reminded us. I well remember my mother and grandmother shrieking aloud when they reached this line in a Bond novel. Naturally we children were enthralled.

¤¤¤ but why does modern iodine not sting as it once used to? Have they ‘taken something out’? I bought a bottle recently, and had a dab for old time’s sake. The formula is now strangely mild. My aunt used to say it was added to my orange juice to calm my infant agitations: a suggestion my parents hotly denied.

Blood And Sand: Part One

marlene-dietrich-in-garden-of-allah

 

The stirring emotional scent of wet earth and newly-turned soil – “the red earth of Tara” or the aubergine-purple ploughed fields of the Midlands – has influenced many fragrances. Eighty years ago Jean Patou’s Colony explored the swampy forest floor of Indo-China. But what of the smells of apparently barren terrain? Eternal wastes of wilderness; the endless deserts – burning hot by day, penetratingly cold after the nightly drama of the death of the sun. Icy conditions numb, shrink and diminish smells and their perception. Antarctic explorers tell us of months in the snows, smelling nothing at all except the occasional pungent whiff of guano from a colony of exceptionally fishy sea birds. Extremes of temperature do perfume no favours, as all good fragrance curators know.

Yet the romance of the bare eastern desert – “on your far hills, long cold and grey” – has inspired many strange, beautiful and remarkable scents. The magic of these lies in the shifting shimmering sands which ensnare and capture elusive and deceptive odours, yielding them up as a Fata Morgana, sporadically and reluctantly, under the probing and teasing of the perpetual winds. Each grain of sand is a minute particle of a lost desiccated civilisation; of primeval rocks; of vanished lives. Each is the tiny crystalline cocoon of an infinity of odiferous molecules: a perfume paradox of the quick and the dead. A master perfumer can create a living dream from a handful of desert dust: an expansive gorgeous butterfly crawling from a wizened brown chrysalis. A marvellous dream born of a gusty void.

The desert – “the face of the infinite” – represented the apogee of exotic eroticism to our great grandparents. The expansion and refinement of the science of archaeology awoke the hearts and minds of the late Victorians to the romance of the enigmatic sands. Those drifting dunes which had silently and implacably engulfed cities and empires in preservative powder now began to give up their secret lives & smells. The canopic jars, dried flowers and perfume phials found in the tombs demonstrated how important scent had been to these lost civilisations. It is not coincidental that the modern oriental family of fragrances was classified around the time of the Tutankhamun mania of the early 1920’s. Novels such as The Sheikh, Beau Geste and The Garden of Allah dropped the historical connections and ran with the raw appeal of the desert and its wild hot-blooded denizens, crazed by sun, wind and sand.

Some of my readers may remember Vallee des Rois, the heady Harrods perfume exclusive of the 1980’s: in its lapis blue sea-glass flacons, Vallee was more Nile than desert nullah. It was very sweet, and to me smelled of hot lemon & honey with a twist of tuberose. Elizabeth Moore’s Anubis captures the perfume of the Egyptian dead more dramatically and exactly. Here we smell kings and courtiers laid out for eternity in those spices, resins and incense oils which, through their own intrinsic magic restored the embalmed to the delights of The Second Life.

The moods of the ever-changing desert are sketched in Andy Tauer’s bewitching pair: L’Air du Desert Marocain and Le Maroc Pour Elle. If L’Air is the cool night wind of the Maghreb desert, then Pour Elle with its passionate musky jasmine is more reminiscent of Arab or Berber myth. Its heady odour is like that of a seductive succubus whirled into some semblance of human shape by wreathed blown sands, leading a man to perdition in a far mirage. It is the scent a cinema audience may imagine emanating from Marlene Dietrich as she kicks off her high heels at the climax of MOROCCO¤ to follow Gary Cooper and the Legion into the Sahara, bare headed and barefoot in a wispy cocktail dress.

Pierre Guillaume, too, has an affinity with the desert. Maybe perfumers love  this wilderness theme because it is as mutable, enthralling and elusive as fragrance itself. One’s mouth waters at the crimson oasis earth of Dhjenne, fertile with palms, green wheat and cocoa beans: “as pants the hart for cooling streams…”. Guillaume’s earlier fragrance, the graceful Harmatan Noir, is delicate and wistful – faint but pervasive trails of mint tea, white jasmine, cedar and salt carried on the air currents across the northern wastes of the Dark Continent.

The Romans – who inadvertently created the Sahara by the extinction of the once vast forests of North Africa – brought the desert back to the Seven Hills in the sinister shape of the sandy arena of the Colisseum: a miniature landscape peopled with African beasts and the condemned from all over the known world. It was here – “lit by live torches” and saturated by the smells of roses, incense, excrement and the “sweaty nightcaps” of the mob – that the concept of blood and sand was first horribly born. We shall consider this in more detail next week.

¤”She’s not half stuck on herself” murmured a girl sat behind the young Quentin Crisp at a London showing in 1930. You can rendezvous with Marlene, back in the desert & swathed in white chiffon, in the movie version of the GARDEN OF ALLAH, shot in beautiful 1936 Technicolor. “…In the silence you’ll hear a box-office record crashing..” ran the ambiguous ads.

The Wearing of the Green

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There can be no doubt of it: green scents are back – and leading the pack. Indeed, contrary to rumour, they never went away but merely sank back like fainting dryads into the groves and thickets, while more ostentatious fragrances filled the air. You don’t have to be synaesthesic to appreciate a green scent, a term I’m using here¤ to describe any perfume which exhales a sense of leafy freshness, tender buds, new grass, rainy air, country lanes: “…praise for the sweetness/ Of the wet garden”¤¤. The first cousins of the greens are the fougeres which are the evocation of ferny woodland, aromatic heath and moor. Kissing cousins are the city-dwelling chypres which owe their special magic to – amongst other things – the now controversial oak moss. But chypres have an far more sophisticated, knowing, glossy aura. Chypres are experienced; greens are naïve.

Or so the story goes, and therein lies the problem. Here’s the thing: the idea has got about that greens are without sex, and this has led in its turn to the vague notion that they are cold, uninspiring, dull, insipid. Nothing could be more misleading nor further from the truth. A green scent is in many ways the most magical of fragrances. Its lack of the animalic may reduce its obvious eroticism; but by the same token the omission, or at any rate the soft-pedalling, of those oils which so closely resemble our own DNA heighten the exquisite escapism and vivacity of this family.

For a green perfume transports us into a world of flowers and plants, the realm of the pastoral, the idyll of the fete champetre. To many people a green fragrance is what they really mean when they talk of a ‘natural’ perfume; a thing of air and fields, the morning smell of a well-stocked florists’ shop. A green scent eschews sultry sexual allure in favour of sprightly uplift, energy and confidence – none of these qualities being by any means unattractive. Health and efficiency, an upsurge of animal spirits and vitality rather than the earthy sensuality of the den or sett.

Green perfumes usually come to the fore in the aftermath of difficult times: those refreshing eaux de toilette and colognes popular after the Napoleonic Wars had distant but natural successors in the sea of green that lapped the West in the years immediately after World War II. Carven’s Ma Griffe, Vent Vert by Balmain, Green Water by Jacques Fath were all seminal and widely copied. It might possibly be claimed that Germaine Cellier’s iconic Bandit for Robert Piguet – a perverse verdigris leather launched in 1944 – actually started the trend but whereas Bandit was louche, perverse and kinky, the pure floral greens were wholesome, joyous and liberating to wear. And rich with symbolism, too: embodying a youthful crispness cleanliness and rebirth after six years of hell.

The new scents let in light and air after the dark claustrophobia of conflict: their themes were the spring wind blowing over fields of unripe corn, wild flowers and living waters. Today green fragrance is equally escapist, offering an idealised alternative experience in our bewildering, sterile, threatening and threatened world. The apparent naivety of a green fragrance fosters the illusion that it is somehow more honest and artisanal: an authentic link with a simpler pristine past. And there’s something in this. A really accomplished green scent – in much the same way as a hesperidic or a soliflore rose – is almost impossible to bluff or fake. Its luxurious simplicity demands the most cunning and resourceful of hands and noses.

Maybe there is another subconscious key to their appeal: that within the perception of apparently innocent green scents there is an alluring, even troubling ambiguity, a twist in the forked tail. Like all colours, the concept and use of green is packed with suggestion and implication. Mirth, health, growth, joy, abundance are all logically represented by the colour of spring and burgeoning vegetation. Liturgically, green is the colour of hope and resurrection. But there is a reverse side: the green-eyed monster, the witchy face, the colour that is said to be unlucky in apparel¤¤¤. Actors used never to wear it, despite their hanging about in the Green Room. Green clothes often end up on the sale racks – you notice, next time – and Harrods once had an informal policy of not stocking green ties. The Buyer told me, “we can’t shift them”. In the novel of Gone With The Wind, the ambivalent anti-heroine has green eyes and dresses almost exclusively in the shade. Wallis Simpson shamelessly presented herself at Buckingham Palace in green lame sashed with violet. Ancient art used green as the colour of the dead¤¤¤¤; the jade and emerald goddesses of ancient Mexico demanded sustenance of beating human hearts. All this adds a certain spice to what is by no means a bland colour nor a humdrum fragrance family. You have to watch your step with green – and what is more thrilling than a spice of danger?

I think you’ll find the choice of green this season energising, surprising and rewarding; so make a change for spring by choosing a new perfume and a new outlook. Let greens take you by surprise, boost your energies and broaden your horizons. Here’s 7 of the best from our sumptuous shelves:

ABSTRACTION RAISONNEE – tingling textured unripe passion fruit, mango and shocking pink rhubarb melding into soft leather. Sit up and smell me.

ANGELIQUES SOUS LA PLUIE –  a tempestuous spring day as March goes out like a lion: rainy breezes blowing over newly-turned earth.

EN PASSANT – pale and hypnotic creamy lilac buds, reflected back as cucumber green in the emerald waters of the Seine.

GERANIUM POUR MONSIEUR  – immaculately fresh as the dawn of creation. Pristine peppermint and the ineffable fragrance of spicy coral-streaked geranium leaves.

GREEN IRISH TWEED – the living legend. It’s all in the name!

JARDIN DU POETE – the umbrageous herb gardens of Sicily peeping out at the sun.

MEMOIRE DU FUTUR – a dazzling green floral bouquet fizzing with aldehydes and sophisticated seduction.

¤ “when I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less” – Lewis Carroll

¤¤ Eleanor Farjeon

¤¤¤ green is not a primary colour: maybe this has given it a reputation for being ‘unnatural’? Just as early monkish scholars mistrusted the (green) apple that seemed to go against Nature and which had been the instrument of The Fall.

¤¤¤¤ see, for instance, the Egyptian depictions of the murdered god Osiris with his skin of eau de Nil.

Hot Cross Buns

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Now, every weekend when I come home it is to find a pile of the week’s newspaper clippings laid on the table for me, sourced and filleted from The Times by my darling brother.  Last Friday night, my stack of print was topped by an interview with a florist. One of her triumphs was designing a 3-D funeral tribute for a fragrant lady: it took the form of a huge flowery bottle of Chanel No 5.¤ The week’s obituaries, too, were redolent: Cliff Michelmore’s childhood was spent at Cowes, favourite haunt of yachting Royalty and ” smelling of mothballs, cigars and expensive perfume” . A former student of Anita Brookner – Neil MacGregor no less – remembered her office being suffused with scent. Brookner fans have always appreciated how frequently, powerfully and variously perfume is described in her novels: used for pleasure, for refreshment¤¤; as a purge or as a malign weapon of the predatory. I often used to see Dr Brookner, endlessly walking around London; wary and remote as Garbo, usually wearing an immaculate navy reefer jacket and flats. Once, she looked through the window of Les Senteurs but alas! she entered not.

We approach Easter and our minds seem fit to burst with comings and goings. It’s an emotionally thrilling and consequently exhausting time. Winter, slowly this year, gives way to spring; the clocks go forward ¤¤¤; death is succeeded by rebirth. We are drained and refilled, as with a transplant of blood. The smells of Easter should billow forth with gusto and extravagance. The first ceremonial cutting of the grass (already done, with immense relief); the daffodils and hyacinths; the Festive baking and entertaining; the painting of the eggs; the lilies and incense in the churches; the greedy chocolates; and the fragrant embalming spices of the Tomb.

It is these last that we celebrate in a curious form; nowadays probably quite unconsciously so. For the “…mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pound weight..” and the “sweet spices” brought by Nicodemus and by the Myrophorai to the Garden of Gethsemane are supposedly the inspiration for our modern hot cross buns. The sweet smell of cinnamon and nutmeg, the sugar and the fruits are the richly symbolic culinary descendants of the precious oils used in the ancient middle eastern cultures for the final anointing of the body for the tomb. You can smell another, more elaborate, interpretation of this heritage at Les Senteurs in ANUBIS, that Papillon masterpiece which celebrates the funerary rites of old Egypt and the mysteries of the Pharaonic tombs. For the Egyptians perfume was both a preservative and, more especially, a spell to revive the dead through the arts of Isis, mistress of fragrance and its concomitant necromantic magic.

AnubisSQUARE
Hot cross buns are one of the last accessible remnants of medieval folk religion. A thousand years ago spices and dried fruit were unimaginable delicacies, reserved for the banquets of Heaven and Earth. We all know the comical story of Queen Elizabeth refusing to be be fobbed off with five emeralds “the size of a man’s finger”, insisting rather that Francis Drake hand over his cargo of black pepper from the Indies. Today we can pick up six “luxury” fruit buns for under £1, but for some of us they still have something of the uncanny and the charmed about them.

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My grandmother (and, unconsciously or not, she was echoing Elizabeth Tudor’s legislation here) insisted that hot cross buns should be eaten only between Good Friday and Easter Monday. My mother was very dubious – scandalised indeed – about their appearance at other times of year. Much of this attitude and mystique has rubbed off on me. A bun baked on Good Friday is supposed never to go stale or decay; a piece broken from it will cure the sick or guarantee safe passage to a ship at sea. I have never yet put these attributions to the test, partially because I also grew up with the received idea that one may steam fish¤¤¤¤ on Good Friday with a clear conscience, but cook nothing else.

But the fragrant aroma of a sweet-scented hot cross bun, warming in the oven, is wonderful! No doubt its olfactory piquancy is enhanced by all  these guilty confused thoughts, conflicting emotions and memories of Easters long past. It is one of the quintessential Paschal smells, wafting up the stairs as early morning tea is brewed. Although, perversely, for myself hot cross buns, as they say of revenge, are a dish best served cold. The fruit, unheated, tastes juicier. But – as Lillian Gish used to say – judge for yourselves.

Wishing you all a very Happy and Radiant Easter!

¤ myself, I’d be glad of a flacon of Creed, when the time comes, wrought from fancy dyed green carnations and gardenias. An apt summation of my career.

¤¤ one exhausted heroine empties an entire bottle of scent into a scalding bath

¤¤¤ “Spring forward/Fall back”

¤¤¤¤ later elaborated to fish pie