“Just Like a Little Bit of Leather”

shanghai express


Perfume and leather, leather and perfume: the trajectories of both are forever crossing and merging. For centuries, the tanneries of Europe used raw human excreta to cure hides and skins: that’s how the Golden Dustman in Our Mutual Friend makes an honest maintenance, collecting the waste of London streets to sell on at a handsome profit. (‘Dust’ is by way of being a dainty euphemism for what Mr Boffin trades in). Therefore, for our forefathers, the heavy and heady scenting of leathers was not only a sensual pleasure but also a cruel necessity.¤

On the battlefield, in the armoury and the stables, leather has been a virile medium of aggression and restraint material for millennia. The more elegant use of it in clothing and furnishings had its first tremendous vogue in Tudor and Elizabethan times. Leather was made up into curtains, books, cloaks¤¤, covers, jerkins, mantles, gowns, boots, shoes, gloves: soft supple upholstery for both the home and the body. Marie Stuart went to her death in beautiful slippers of Spanish leather, saved for the occasion and much remarked upon. In that age of display and the beginning of modern ideas of luxurious living, stylish but hard-wearing leather was an ideal medium for gilding, bejewelling and painting: a costly but tough and hard-wearing backdrop for priceless ornamentation.

And the leather was soaked, drenched and saturated in perfumed oils; initially as a camouflage, later according to the dictates of fashion. What started as a precaution and an olfactory necessity became de rigueur among the beau monde ¤¤¤.

Hence the well-known tale of Elizabeth 1st ( blessed like her father Henry VIII with a very sensitive nose) telling a courtier to take himself and his scented leather cape out of her presence before she choked on the smell.

The overly-fragranced fancy man had the ready wit to riposte:

“Tush, Madam! ‘Tis my boots that stink!”

But off he went, just the same.

The old Victorian version of this anecdote has the offending garment smelling of the lavender essence which the Queen is supposed to have loathed. Maybe the Victorians – who loved the modest herb so well – saw a certain symbolism in lavender’s repudiation by the gaudy bawdy Virgin Queen of whom they so greatly disapproved.

The other, ruder, tale concerning Gloriana and smells is that of an Earl who inadvertently and noisily broke wind in the Royal Presence Chamber, before the Faery Queen Herself. Mortified, he buried himself for seven long years (the mystic seven!) in the country. On his return to Court, Elizabeth was like honey; charming, witty and adorable as only she could be. Then, at the end of the audience, as she whisked out of the door in a haze of sweet marjoram and Tudor rose, the Queen said with a dazzling smile:

“We hath quite forgot the f…t!”

We’d better get back to leather, though that is hardly a safer theme. There’s something about it that excites, intrigues and titillates people. Perfume is daring enough, but a touch of leather lends an extra edge of wickedness. What does the smell of leather imply? What gender and ambiguous sexual preferences does it infer? As a perceptive woman – well attuned to her animal nature – said to me the other day, “the thrill of wearing scent is all about anticipating what MIGHT happen when someone smells me…how will the beast react? Love me or eat me?”

Or, of course, both.

Imagine, then, if you are sporting a leather fragrance: what might NOT happen? You are presenting visually and olfactorily as a sexually attractive human being, decked in the dressed skin of a beast. And smelling, deliciously but definitely, of that animal’s hide. Leather is a living entity: the creature that yielded it may be long gone but the dried husk lives on. When I was young, my elders were always reminding me of this: leather must be continually “worked”; that is to say fed, polished¤¤¤¤, dubbined and waxed. Above all, it must be much handled. That was the point of having beautiful kid-bound books or good doe-skin gloves. The more you nurtured them with your own oils, the softer and warmer they became. The more intimate they seemed as they absorbed new life from their owner. The human and the animal elements would elide as the DNA mingled.

The Ancient Greeks explored the implications of all this very fully in their myths which have since been dissected with many a cosmic or Freudian slant. Over and again the old poets and playwrights tell us of beautiful flower-crowned heifers pursued by Zeus; Queen Pasiphae’s passion for a white bull from the sea; the voyeur Actaeon ripped apart by his own hounds after Artemis turns him into a stag.

Provocative. And all those millennia ago.

Leather’s second great fashion vogue, both in clothes and perfume, was during the Roaring Twenties* and the Hungry Thirties. This was the craze my parents remembered: my infant mother’s craving for huge gauntlets; her terror of an aunt’s zippered alligator boots; an uncle’s vast white leather overcoat. No doubt – like the fashion for smoking & all those concomitant tobacco fragrances – this rage for leather referenced the emancipation of women and the late hostilities of the Great War. The scent of fine leather was now cherished for its own sake. The fragrance and the texture emphasised, by contrast, the delicacy and fragility of the feminine form and mystique – or so the style magazines might say, for form’s sake. But the wearing of leather also demonstrated sexual ambivalence: it played lightly with the contemporary fascination with “inversion”**, and hinted at the shocking inadmissible fact that Woman could be the Boss.

One thinks of the great originals of that period who toyed with a leather motif: Vita Sackville West in her pearls, silk shirts and great clumping laced knee boots. Garbo as Queen Christina, swathed from top to toe in Adrian-designed suede. The whole flight of aviatrixes – from Jean Batten (“The Garbo of the skies”) to Amy Johnson.  Dietrich in the then outrageous leather jackets and flying caps of ‘Dishonoured’. And Marlene again in ‘Shanghai Express’, the apogee and pinnacle of sartorial fetish: a wardrobe of gleaming black & white. Harsh wire-like net veils, cascades of glossy feathers, furs, silk, lace, bugle beads. Above all, those magnificent kinky hugely-cuffed gloves: black backs, white palms.  And her perfume? “The Notorious White Flower of China”, blooming in a bed of leather.

The Cutting Edge of Leather: now It’s back for a third time around. Try Six Of The Best – at LES SENTEURS

– Tom Daxon’s VACHETTA –  a deep, fleshy, profound leather with meaty hints.

CUIR PLEINE FLEUR – is a James Heeley cracker – silky, musky and unctuous. The gloves of Cardinal Mazarin.

– Parfumerie Generale’s CUIR VENENUM – the smell of tanneries, orange blossom and sulphur. Lucifer descending, in his traditional suit of black and scarlet leather.

– Mona di Orio’s CUIR – smoky, dry, almost savoury with a strong accord of castoreum and the sweetness of opoponax.

And from Andy Tauer, the Dark Lord of Leather:

LONESTAR MEMORIES – the cult evocation of cowboys around the prairie fire – saddles, boots, harness, wood smoke and coffee.

LONESOME RIDER – Tauer’s new chamois twist; sweeter and sweatier – introducing notes of orris butter, pepper, rose and citrus.’

¤ hence the name of the brand so long and happily represented at LS: ‘Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier” (soon to be repackaged): glove makers of the Baroque being, of necessity, also perfumers.

¤¤ it makes more sense of Sir Walter Raleigh’s puddle incident if we imagine him laying a great leather tarpaulin at Elizabeth’s feet.

¤¤¤ just as patchouli did, centuries later. Primarily a moth repellent, then an indispensable perfume oil.

¤¤¤¤ should you doubt that the heyday of polishing is long gone, conduct your own little survey of dismal shoes on the Tube.

*Erich Von Stroheim in ‘Sunset Boulevard’, recalling his Paramount office back in the ’20’s :

“I remember the walls were covered with black patent leather…”

** “the bucket in the Well of Loneliness”

Artificial Flowers

artificial flowers


Half a century ago my grandmother used to walk home from church with an aged retired Canon who had come to live in the village with his unmarried daughter. The Tomlinson pair lived “round the back”, in a characterless modern bungalow on a new development. The lean and egregious daughter made of their garden a bizarre work of kitsch art. People came on the sly from miles around to see Miss Tomlinson’s garden. She didn’t like you to stand and peer: you had to walk briskly past with a discreet but searching “eyes right”.

I always aim for a riot of colour in my own plot. Miss Tomlinson achieved this in spades by an obvious but unusual trick: every flower she planted was artificial. Plastic, wax, bakelite, plaster and nylon bloomed in tropical profusion, regardless of the weather and untroubled by blight. There was no regard for season or clime: cattleya orchids, daffodils, chrysanthemums and forsythia were all jammed in together. Roses, snapdragons, snowdrops and daisies were tied onto trees, the garage roof and entwined on the wire perimeter fence.

The Tomlinsons kept a magnificent – if perpetually furious – tabby tom. I never saw his name spelled out or written down. Phonetically, it sounded like Cinna or Sinner: either a nod to classical Rome – “Cinna the Poet”? –  or a reminder of the fallen nature of us all and of the Beast in Man. Both versions seemed possible in this eccentric ecclesiastical menage. The sibilant cat was not allowed beyond the confines of his ersatz paradise. He was contained, raging, amid all this unnatural floral splendour, under a great trellis woven of sprays of pink rubber peach blossom with chrome yellow stamens. “Tiger! Tiger! burning bright”.  Sinner – being in his full and unashamed state of nature, and not “arranged” – added to the strange smells of this garden of very earthly delights. The feral ammonia reek of cat blended on summer days with the olfactory blare of hot plastic; and with that hard, stinging chemical redolence of man-made fibres baked by the sun; a smell that is so unnervingly akin to sweat and human skin. Tarmac, tile, brick and concrete – all the scents of the brave new housing estate – thrummed in the August air, threaded through with the fake sugary haze exuded by the Messrs Softee and Whippy. Those suffocating mobile smells of low-grade vanilla, petrol, gas fridges and heavy syrup were as cloying as the saccharine van chimes. Fluorescent orange and shocking pink fruit – garnish for the Sunday sundaes – swilled around in white plastic pails like fairground goldfish spawned of sugar and Kia-Ora.

Do you remember the garden of talking flowers in “Through The Looking Glass”? Lewis Carroll – almost inconceivably for such an erudite man – had assumed that passion flowers were so named from their connection with an evil temper. When he discovered that they are in fact an ingenious Jesuit metaphor of the Passion of Christ, Carroll was appalled at himself and substituted ferocious tiger lilies for the purposes of his tale. I think today most of us are even vaguer about plants and horticulture: we don’t have the time. Botany – with its walks and pressing and curating – is a subject that has long dropped off school curriculae. A pity. For most of us the science of flowers is a reductio ad absurdam. Either they have an agreeable smell – or they don’t. Period. I remember Marshall & Snelgrove in the 1960’s selling a whole flower market of pre-perfumed silk and velvet blooms to adorn one’s tenue de soiree. Individually packaged in exciting cellophane and mounted on tiny gilt pins, they must have been rather old-fashioned even then. Nontheless they seemed infinitely desirable even if the camellias, the poppies and gardenias all smelled alike: a kind of Essence of Superior Soap.

Nowadays I find artificial flowers – despite their having never been more lifelike – almost unbearably triste. At least, that is, artificial flowers made of fabric. I grant you that Queen Alexandra’s jewelled garden of Faberge flowers – with diamond tremblant dew drops all complete –  has a genuine charm and beauty.  But a vase of dust-gathering blue rayon carnations is a sorry sight. I think, you see, it harks back to that paradox we discussed the other week. Flowers – like perfume – are not intended to live forever. Trying to defy this ruling of Mother Nature can only lead to dreariness and disillusion unless, in the process of copying, another work of art is generated.

Mind you, real flowers so bizarre that they appear artificial have a great charm. I revel in the explosive glorious grotesquerie of strelitzias – those spiky orange and blue bird of paradise blooms so inappropriately named for George III’s severe and homely Queen. I get excited by orchids and calceolarias; carnivorous fly traps and lobster claw cacti. I’ve got some giant tower lilies incubating in pots: I don’t think they’re going to reach the promised six feet – not this year – but they are full of buds and I can’t wait for the supreme moment of revelation.

Perfumers know they have to offer an impression of a flower: not an exact and accurate reflection, but the famous Lie That Tells The Truth¤. You can talk about Head Space Technologies and Living Flower Vacuums till you’re blue in the face but too literal and accurate a translation of a plant’s scent does not, on the whole, amuse. Perfumers are chary of reproducing the odours of traditional cottage-garden flowers. Sweet pea, wallflower, petunia, lily and lilac are rarely attempted. Even jasmine – in isolation – is rare. Perfumers say – and I do ask them, on your urgent behalf – that such notes when used in soliflores, rather than as allusive components of an intricate pattern, appear crude and hackneyed; too unsophisticated for modern taste. Those brave souls and gallant hearts currently taking our Great Ingredient Challenge know how hard it can be to identify concentrated natural oils, however apparently familiar the source. We love what appears to be a blushing crimson rose no matter how little actual rose oil may be present.

The old legend that Guerlain’s glorious Nahema has not a drop of natural rose within it may or may not be true, but it shows us that our noses play us wonderful tricks. How much more delightful than that novelty of my youth: an Incredibly Lifelike Plastic Rosebud, given away FREE with every packet of soap flakes, and Genuinely Indistinguishable from a living Etoile d’Hollande!”

¤ as expounded by both Picasso and Susan Sontag.

Flowers Of The Bone

Diego Rivera Xochiquetzal

Xochiquetzal, the Aztec goddess of love and fertility, wearing a headress of lillies in this mural by Diego Rivera. Her name comes from ‘xochiti’ meaning flower, and ‘quetzalli’, meaning precious feather.


‘Then as she once walked up and down in the White Friars’ church at Lynn, she felt a wonderfully sweet and heavenly savour, so that she thought she might have lived by it, if it would have continued. And in that moment, our Lord said to her, ‘Daughter, by this sweet smell you may know that there shall in a short time be a new Prior in Lynn…” ¤
At this uncertain time I’ve been reading this most marvellous Book of Margery Kempe, said to be the first autobiography in the English language. Mrs Kempe was the mother of fourteen, a mystic and sometime brewer of Kings Lynn: she was born around 1373. She travelled all over England and Europe, glorifying God; she even reached Jerusalem. Her book deals extensively with the Divine ravishment of the human senses, including that of smell. Margery, like all her contemporaries, equated sweet smells with the treasures and revelations of Heaven.

Hasn’t it been a peculiar week, though? Perhaps the strangest yet in this oddest of years. I have been glued to the wireless and the BBC News on the hour. I’ve been like that Imperial nursemaid, obsessed with l’affaire Dreyfuss, who came close to letting the Tsarevich drown in the bath: away in a world of my own. I have noted such curious portents in the natural world, too: a heart-shaped ring of toadstools sprouting in the night on the public highway; a lone buzzard circling overhead; a frost in Scotland; unnatural levels of rain and clouds of flies. Despite all the eccentric and dismaying weather, the weather office now announces that this June has been much warmer than the average. The earth seems to have shifted on its axis: we used to sit out in the back yard on midsummer evenings, bathed in sunshine till supper time. No longer: even if the rains stop in time the bench under the kitchen window is now deep in chilly shadow by 6.30pm. Curiouser and curiouser!

I wonder what’s going on. Some things are as ever. The Constance Spry roses, though battered, have flowered according to their meticulously allotted span: three and a half weeks. All finished and put away by 4th July: regular as clockwork. The privet hedges are now in flower; all too often overlooked or taken for granted, but smelling as exotic and penetrating as Spanish orange blossom.  The garden is intensely luxuriant, even jungly; and my sense of smell is slightly skewed, as always in times of crisis.

After the Book of Margery Kempe I went on to Jill Dawson’s engrossing and ingenious new novel – ‘The Crime Writer’: an episode in the life of Patricia Highsmith. (Ms Dawson is always adroit as to matters olfactory: she has poor Mrs Thompson smelling of Chanel No 5 in her study of a notorious 1922 murder case, ‘Fred & Edie’). A leitmotif of the narrative is the insistent, invasive and slightly sinister fragrance of Coty’s L’Aimant; and the ‘atrocious’ smell of Pat’s pet snails, kept in pockets and handbags. I’d never thought of snails as having a smell – naïve of me: for everything does if you concentrate upon it.

Now you remember those tuberose bulbs – ‘The Pearl’ – I told you back in February? They duly arrived by post and I potted them up and put them in my bedroom window, one of the sunniest places in the house. Very fascinating to watch. First of all graceful arcs of slender lily leaves sprouted. And then – and my! are they thirsty plants, soaking up water like insatiable sponges – the leaves became wilder; more luxuriant and untidy. I moved the pot to the garden and “The Pearl” is now living mostly outside, coming indoors only on a few unusually chilly nights or when the rain reaches monsoon proportions. The flower buds are emerging – fat messy bundles on sturdy stems, almost like miniature corn on the cob. I shall let you know what happens next: Meanwhile I spin wild fantasies of the garden filled with a scent so strong I am driven indoors.

All thoughts of tuberoses lead one back to Fracas, still ineffably stylish and poised on the Les Senteurs shelves. The Collins Robert French-English dictionary defines ‘fracas’ thus:

“..crash…roar…din..,’annoncer une nouvelle a grand fracas’: to create a sensation with a piece of news..”

What an inspired name for a pretty wild scent, unique and outrageous in its time; a 1948 revival of the rococo tuberose oils that had once delighted Marie Antoinette and the Du Barry. A loud blaring scent to some; to others as frivolous, frilly and frothy as a wired Dior crinoline petticoat. I see it as most intensely pink perfume, of an almost ersatz shade: potentially more shocking than Shocking, but, withal, of a pearly petalled delicacy like the flowers that die so that their fragrance might live. It hangs over every subsequent tuberose perfume created, like the shadow of Rebecca de Winter – or Mrs Rochester, overhead in the attic: an exotic myth-bound memory; a threat to all newcomers in the field.

I have never met anyone who had the means or the daring to wear Fracas in its early days. It is not a provincial scent. Until I came to London I had never met this eminently metropolitan belle. She has had her up and downs over the past 70 years, la Fracas. Elderly fans tell me that like other legends – Ma Griffe, Je Reviens, Tabu – Fracas has known lean times. And then, in the late ’80’s, maybe in the wake of the new and increasingly audacious power perfumes, Fracas was reborn, with elegant new packaging and a price to match. I remember a Japanese gentleman, a quarter of a century ago, coming to the Harrods counter to buy eight bottles of the parfum concentration. He had a charming interpreter with him: when she relayed the total bill, the customer squealed and actually leapt into the air.

“Don’t worry,” said the interpreter. “He pay!”

And he did.

¤ The Book of Margery Kemp. Translated by B.A.Windeatt. Penguin edition 2004

From Here To Eternity

Time, Death and Judgement 1900 George Frederic Watts 1817-1904 Presented by the artist 1900 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01693

Time, Death and Judgement 1900 George Frederic Watts 1817-1904 


Surely we are all haunted by time; its cruelties and mysteries. When, on her accession in 1558, Elizabeth Tudor rode into London she paused – mystified – before an elaborate tableau of infants and ancients, all wreathed & garlanded in tinsel and out of season flowers (for the month was November). “Madam”, explained an Alderman, “it is an Allegory of Time.” “Ah” said the Queen “And Time hath brought me hither”.

The scary thing is, as far as we know – and as we are too well aware – Father Time travels one way only, and that’s not a comforting direction. To conflate the words of Lewis Carroll and George III’s daughter Elizabeth, this “vile old gentleman … he won’t stand for beating!”. Each of us learned at his mother’s knee how terrified Elizabeth Tudor was of the bony old fellow – the stopped clocks, the banished mirrors, the elaborate wigs and maquillage. One of our favourite ‘heritage monarchs’ has become almost a national symbol of the vanity of struggling against Time and his remorseless ravages.

There was a rather creepy piece in the newspapers this month all about the latest techniques in making cut flowers last longer via a technique “which muffles the DNA responsible for producing ethylene, the gas that ripens fruit and rots petals”*. I was a bit amazed, really: we nowadays already get a sachet of that funny syrupy preservative bound, gratis, to the cellophane wrappers of most shop blooms. Either that or inherent breeding seems to semi-embalm them. I have mentioned before that, in any case, I mistrust flowers that last too long in water: three weeks – with chrysanthemums¤ – being my record. When I was small it was always said that flowers that kept beyond their natural span were a sign that a death was imminent in the family circle. Blossoms that had stood by a death-bed never perished.

So I am instinctively averse to this new idea, a process known apparently as “RNA interference”¤¤. Why should we want plants to last for (nearly) ever? What a horrible idea. Classicists will recall the Trojan prince, Anchises, for whom his lover Aphrodite secured the gift of eternal life. She forgot to ask for concomitant youth; so that eventually – centuries later – she had to solicit her divine confreres once again, this time to beg for the poor shrivelled chirping husk to be transformed into a grasshopper.

Everlasting flowers direct our thoughts to the notion of perpetual perfume. There’s nothing new in the idea. Three centuries B.C. Theophrastus (“The Father of Botany”) was writing that “what women require is perfume that will last”. (And Greek men did too, to be sure; but they were not supposed to be interested in such stuff). Another ancient, Apollonius, wrote a treatise on about where to source the finest perfume oils in the Mediterranean region¤¤¤ – “insist on the best!” As we – and he – would say.

But the development of a fragrance that lingers for ever on the skin still remains elusive – thank goodness. The beauty of a scent is – almost by definition – fleeting and fugitive.  A lovely scent must fade naturally like a flower or a piece of music: we try in vain to catch or detain its fleeting passage; its transience is an essential part of its appeal. Bitter-sweet. Should a “fine-dining” meal last for ever? Or the act of love? A poem? So why a beautiful scent?¤¤¤¤ How unnatural that would be. When I was a tot I used to lie in bed and my grandmother would come in to say goodnight and plant a kiss on the palm of each hand. Then she’d fold my fingers over it. “Hold tight! Don’t let those kisses escape!”

But the kisses always managed to fly away.

Perfumers – expert perfumers – will temper the concentration of their creations to reflect mood. Take the Frederic Malle masterpiece Angeliques Sous La Pluie: perfect example. This is an evocation of a March breeze blowing over newly-turned earth; a passing inhalation of early spring shoots and of an awakening garden. People love it but many complain that it does not last well. Jean-Claude Ellena, the creator of this heavenly scent, conceived it as the lightest of eaux de toilette precisely to enhance & reflect that vision of exquisite fragile elusiveness. Desiring it to be robustly tenacious is as paradoxical as nursing a butterfly into ripe old age.

How heartening to reflect that we are after all – just like the Book of Genesis and that famous hymn always said – “frail children of dust”. Professor Brian Cox was telling the tale yet again on tv last night: we are all of us born from the dust of dying stars. And in turn we duly return to the stars. Our ancestors knew this instinctively: we modern know-it-alls have to have it demonstrated by science.

As Marie Stuart’s father said, “it came with a lass; it will go with a lass”. Let’s end as we came in with the attempts of a British Queen to hold back Time. One of Victoria’s grand daughters remembered how the old lady smelled so deliciously of orange blossom imported from the Riviera. Others remembered her aura of immaculate cleanliness. When the Queen was young, she had her babies’ tiny arms, legs, hands and feet cast in marble to have about her, laid on cushions. A sweet idea in some ways; but now, with those nine children all long gone, there is something faintly macabre in the sight, rather reminiscent of the upsetting cadavers of Pompeii. Especially as, at the time, Victoria had found all those babies a sad and fretting trial. Like many a modern tourist, she concentrated more on capturing the image than relishing the actuality.

Those cold stone limbs remind me of a bottle of scent, romanticised and idealised but never used: lovingly preserved for an special occasion that never comes. Today – as regards perfume as with everything else – HAS to be the day! Sufficient to the day is the perfume thereof.

* The Times –  4/6/16

¤ “such serviceable flowers” – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

¤¤ all readers of Enid Blyton will jar at the connotations of the word “interference”. Very similar to “meddling”.

¤¤¤. Crocus oil from Rhodes; spikenard from Tarsus; frankincense at Pergamon…

¤¤¤¤ years ago I remember in Harrods seeing a party of nuns in fits and tucks as they examined a bottle of “Eternity”. ‘Cheap at the price!’ cried one.

All Hold Hands!

marlene palm

Well, this has been a dismal week that has led us a weary way to midsummer and to the Referendum. Strange auguries!¤ The scent of the roses has been blotted out by the constant rain: the inundation of the Midlands has been terrible. All I can smell are water and damp; bubbling drains, wet conifers and woody bonfire smoke.

“Praise for the sweetness
Of the wet garden..”

But things can go too far; get out of hand. It is more like October than June. The downpours have bleached the landscape to a uniform shade of dun, like very old cotton garments. I’ve been watching greedily the rose buds thicken and proliferate on the bushes since March and now they have burst indeed, but into only poor sodden rotting sponges. I’ve been waiting for the perfume of those Constance Spry’s for eleven months and now I’ve all but missed it. Like Ayesha, I must wait a small eternity for the pillar of living flame to come rolling round again.   “Chastening work, gardening!” – a terrible reminder of the vanity of human hopes. The only thing to hold onto is, that the garden ultimately rights itself in an eternal cycle, and certainly not solely by the agency of human hands.

Our hands! The hands that will duly inscribe the ballot paper on June 23rd now tie up the shattered lupins and collect the snails in a pail. Hands that speak a second language, and reveal in their marks and movements, their opening and closing, all the secrets of their owner’s character. What the Chinese admiringly call “orchid hands”.

And those “pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar…pale hands, pink tipped, like Lotus buds that float …pale dispensers of my Joys and Pains…”. Or, as it may be: dry, cracked and crinkled like autumn leaves or baby armadillos¤¤.

Hands – like our noses and sense of smell – are even more individual than we once thought. Pathologists can now identify a person by the whorls, flecks and lines on the back of a hand as definitively as by finger prints. And look at your palms, lined like miniature maps of the universe – the tracks of the stars and of your tears. “All human life is here”.

Years ago, long before I came to work at Les Senteurs, I lived for a season in Germany. An aged neighbour, with whom I used to drink Advocaat and eat Spekulos biscuits of a Friday evening, told me I had hands like the Madonna. I have never had such an extravagant – fanciful, even – compliment, before or since. The dear lady still had very sharp eyes: she must have seen something that neither I nor anyone else ever has. She also told me that during the War her husband – a relative of Chekov’s – had obliged her to wear a certain perfume simply because it was endorsed by the actress Zarah Leander for whom the late Herr Zirkenbach had had “ein Schwarm”.

We were looking at the shop the other day at a French phrase book published by the Daily Mail in 1930 – “Conversations of Real Use”. There is included a charming vignette “At The Perfumery”: interestingly, the vendeuse sprays the scent on Mme Dupont’s palm, not her wrist or the back of the hand. The fleshy palm (often a cannibal treat in times gone by) is an excellent reflector of perfume: it holds and disperses fragrance well and tenaciously. In addition, the palm is convenient and highly accessible for smelling while one is assessing the effect. And besides, if you wear scent on your palms, you will leave your exotic invasive imprint on everything – and everyone – you touch. A delicious memory, a fragrant echo left in your wake: an act of possessing – “I belong to Mme Bonaparte”.

It may well be that for us reticent British this is going just a little too far; a disconcerting act of intimacy. And I daresay the wrist is also a more practical and democratic area for testing: putting perfume on the palms is a bit like growing six inch Manchu finger nails. Unless you lead a life of complete luxurious leisure, the palms are going to be speedily corrupted by the countless smells of daily life, one rapidly succeeding the other. On the other hand, once your choice is made why not try the trick, at least for one enchanted evening? If you jib at spraying direct onto the hand – and, ladies! watch your nail polish! – then add your scent to a spot of unfragranced hand cream and so apply. I have been on the receiving end of this style of vampery: it is quite intoxicating. We are so sensitive to new smells that you only have to shake hands – at the very least – to seem subsumed in the other’s aura, drenched in their personality. ¤¤¤

You all remember what Chanel said – “wear perfume wherever you wish to be kissed”. The romantic novelist Elinor Glyn – the original identifier & curator of “It” – is said to have suggested to Rudolph Valentino that he kissed the palm of his leading lady’s hand rather than the conventional back. The result is well known – fans jumped into live volcanoes. Enjoy your perfume responsibly!’

¤ yesterday a great buzzard soared overhead in the vasty and briefly blue empyrean: now what does that signify?

¤¤ remember Madge, the outspoken manicurist of the Fairy Liquid ads?

– “Sorry I’m late, Madge, they were mending the roads!”

– “Looks like you stopped to lend a hand..”

¤¤¤ I am thinking of Dietrich’s hands exuding Youth Dew outside the Stage Door of the Queen’s Theatre: June 1972. (And see also today’s illustration, as above).

No. 39 – why not pop round?

FF in her prime


I have made many stories of summer country scents. London smells in June have their own appeal and glamour of a more raucous, highly-coloured sort. They are equally nostalgic. Rural smells remind us of childhood. City scents seem more expansive, more dramatic: they speak of the rise & fall of civilisations. At midsummer the gardens of Islington, Holloway and Camden boil with brilliant roses, spilling perfume into the heavy hot dusty air. Roses roses everywhere – nor any drop to drink. Cut grass, not lying wet and lush but drying almost immediately to fragrant oily hay – baked in diesel fumes, grilled on iron railings, fried on concrete pavements. The immortal privet: creamy sneezy flowers that counterpoint the thick stinging reek of traffic and the private lives of street cats. Spicy geraniums flare up like dodgy rockets; London jasmine is nowadays as luxuriant as that of Cairo or Damascus. Our last winter (sic) was so mild that the Holloway jasmine flowered – if diminuendo – right through Christmas. In the forecourts of redundant churches, decayed shops and old garages, honeysuckle, elder and clematis run riot in a clinging tendrilled madman’s paradise.

These sooty hanging gardens of the sidewalks put me in mind of old-time music hall artistes, all rouged and paillette’d, frizzly-hair-tonged and drenchingly scented. Gertie Gitana and Vesta Victoria; Florrie Forde in her “trellis of Dorothy Perkins roses”¤ and Marie Lloyd. (The tragic cockney Lloyd is best remembered but I prefer Florrie Forde: bigger, tougher, with a crisp bitten-off Australian enunciation.  And she had better songs, too. “If they haven’t got it by the second chorus, I drop the number”). These ladies – and their gentlemen – painted in broad strokes just as London flowers do: they had no access to microphones – or any other technology – they didn’t need any help. Their natural equipment was coarsely spectacular, larger than life; and their acts were simple, rudimentary and put across with immense swagger and confidence.

Did I ever tell you? When I’m in Town I put up just across from Hilldrop Crescent. You know, where Dr Crippen lived. In 1910 he murdered his wife, a noisy unsuccessful music hall performer. Crippen filleted the remains and buried portions of poor Cora in the cellar of No. 39. They never found the head. The house got a direct hit in the Blitz but its neighbours on the outer edge of the Crescent are still as they were a century ago¤¤, and the same trees are flourishing in their old age. Strange, isn’t it? … to think we can still smell the same foliage that the Crippens knew. They say that the gardens then, front and back, were luxuriant. If you’re ever up in N7 you can inhale the leaves once sniffed by Ethel le Neve, the Dr’s meek and mild typist, who moved into No. 39 after being told that Cora had absconded with a lover  –  gone for good. Only it’s funny, she’d left all her jewellery behind – and her fox furs, laid up in camphor.  Adornments which Ethel then wore when out and about.

There are many fascinating books on the Crippen crime. I have just read an excellent novelisation by Emlyn Williams ¤¤¤: he characterises the women in the case by their perfumes – Cora, the voluptuous Polish-American, smells like a pungent crimson rose; Miss Le Neve, the modest office worker, is the personification of pale clean eau de cologne. Both fragrances, at different times, have their effect on H. H. Crippen’s sluggish libido.

The sense of smell is very strong in every aspect of the Crippen case. The Doctor’s proprietary quack remedies, the cloves and gargles of his dentistry services. His well-scrubbed, carbolic-clean, industrious & inventive little hands; the fatal dose of henbane-derived hyoscine that did for Cora. No. 39 was full of odours, none of them very nice. After his arrest, Crippen tried to explain away the ghastly remains in the cellar by saying there had always been a bad smell in the house – always – ever since the fatal day he and Mrs Crippen had moved in. The terrible stench that eventually revealed the Doctor’s guilt had policemen and detectives rushing upstairs, nauseous and half-fainting, to the garden and fresh air. Or fairly fresh, for the neighbourhood was always full of the smells, sounds and distressing noises of the Holloway livestock markets and slaughter houses.

Downstairs, No. 39 was redolent of gas mantles, Egyptian cigarettes, paint¤¤¤¤ and stale cooking – the Crippens took in lodgers for a bit. The Doctor had to polish their boots as part of the deal. The house also reeked of Cora’s cats who were kept indoors, never allowed out for fear of coming to grief in the Camden Road. For the same reason, the windows were kept always shut and locked¤¤¤¤¤. There was a certain amount of alcohol slopped about – sad evidence of “pre-drinking” – and much slovenly mess. A witness statement described the horrible basement kitchen, full of half-eaten meals, with Mrs Crippen’s gaudy gowns and stage costumes draped over chairs and dropping sequins into the full English breakfasts. (Once, at my prep school, a teacher opened a wardrobe and inside was a frying pan, full of dripping and a solitary sausage. I imagine No. 39 was like that).

Finally we may allow ourselves to speculate what perfume bottles littered Cora’s Maples dressing table, all looped up and petticoated in Nottingham lace. I shouldn’t think much light filtered in on the flacons of – very likely – Grossmith, Coty, Houbigant, early Caron, Floris, Rimmel, Coudray and Molinard. Some day soon, come into Les Senteurs and lose yourself in our Edwardiana section. Use your nose, your imagination and sense of history to see how this era set the ball rolling to empower the stunning artistry of perfume creation a century later.

¤ Louis Macneice – “Death of An Actress”

¤¤ just around the corner, on the Camden Road, stands Belmore House a modern block of sheltered housing. The name would appear to be the private joke of some architect or councillor involved with the project: for Cora Crippen’s stage name was Belle Elmore.

¤¤¤ Dr Crippen’s Diary, Robson Books 1987.

¤¤¤¤ Cora liked to have every room a bright and lively pink – her lucky colour!.

¤¤¤¤¤ fleeting memories here of Vivien Leigh keeping the cat box on the floor of her wardrobe. Kitty-Litter with Balenciaga hems hanging just above…


A propos of last week’s piece on leeks.

A regular reader writes with a germane comment regarding the pristine cleanliness of the modern leek:

“…You ask, How do they do it?  I’ll tell you: they grow them in water and soluble nutrients; not in soil/compost!  Never see a real field …”

Thank You, sir!

I am qualmish at the smell of leek



“We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick…”
Book of Numbers : 11.v.

Such an evocative passage from the Old Testament. How acutely these ancient texts show up the unchanging resonance of human nature! How well we can imagine the Children of Israel recollecting the bursting fruits and piquant vegetables as they wandered in the scrubby desert of Sinai; in “the cloud abode in the wilderness of Paran”. All that flavour, appetising smell and juicy texture – the cool luscious melons and cucumbers; the hot tang of the roots. “But now” they said to Moses, “..now there is nothing at all: we have nought save this manna to look to.”¤ You can hear them now, with a derisive emphasis on the word “manna”.

Thousands of years later those lost dinners of Egypt continue to emit a distinct and pungent aroma.  We judge the ripeness of a melon by its warm, earthy succulent scent. Garlic cleans the blood and brightens up almost any vegetarian dish. As to cucumbers, I share in a family trait of finding them indigestible. My grandfather – quoting some Edwardian wit? –  used to say that the best way of preparing a cucumber was to cut it in half and put in the dustbin. But, well watered – drought makes them horribly bitter – cucumbers can taste and smell wonderful. Cucumber waters and flesh whiten and tone the skin, bleach out freckles and soothe swelling and puffiness beneath the eyes. In perfumery, cucumber brings to fragrances such as EN PASSANT and 24 OCTOBRE 1985 a glassy translucent coolth, a green watery subtlety and a sense of light wholesome fraicheur. (Woods of Windsor used to make an exquisite cucumber cologne – and a cucumber blended with roses). Cucumber smells wonderful in food too: as in Marlene Dietrich’s recipe which serves it with with sour cream and masses of chopped dill¤¤. Or, again, inhale the summer delicacy of pure and simple cucumber sandwiches – on brown bread with plenty of butter, salt and black pepper.

As to leeks : the oldest vegetable on earth. The root that nourished the pyramid builders; the medicine that cured medieval lepers (was their disease actually scurvy?); the badge of Wales. I am currently enjoying a near-mania for them. You see, I was reared on leeks but enjoyed them then only with reservations. My father grew leeks but – as with all vegetables – he would never allow them to be culled when young and tender. Eventually great tough things were dug and the everlasting problem was, how to clean them of the grit, dirt and soil which penetrated every one of their hundred skins. So the leeks were put under the hose, washed in the drain, soaked in a bucket, scrubbed, trimmed and peeled before coming to table well boiled. Tasty – though still gritty – but the whole house smelled of them: especially the laundry, hanging like a Coronation canopy below the kitchen ceiling.

Jane Grigson remarks in her wonderful Vegetable Book that it was partly because of their smell that leeks fell from favour for centuries, as British society became more genteel. Root vegetables were despised as the food of the poor; and the fashionable worried about the taint of leeks and onions on their breath.

Now here’s a recipe that I must share with you; something you can photograph and Instagram, and bring to table with pride. A credit to any occasion! My Director originally brought it to my attention and I have since somewhat developed and expanded it. It smells of sweet summer, health, efficiency and vigour.

Take a few leeks and chop them into thick rings. If you buy them at the supermarket you will gasp and stretch your eyes at how clean, how pearly white and smooth they are: like the arms of Norse goddesses. No grit at all. How do they do it? You tell me. Some kind of power-shower?

Rinse the rings in a colander, drain and chuck into a saucepan. That will be enough water. Add a dash of olive oil, another of tomato ketchup; a pinch of salt and a lot of ground black pepper. Inhale deeply. Then cover, and cook very slowly on a low heat until soft: no more than 15 minutes. Stir from time to time. If you desire, throw in a few whole cumin seeds and a little chopped dried fruit – the sort of mixture that’s sold for fruit cakes. Serve alone, with poached eggs, smoked fish or what you will.

Mahlzeit! ‘

* Shakespeare, HENRY V

¤ “and the manna was like coriander seed, and the appearance thereof as the appearance of bdellium…the taste of it was as the taste of fresh oil”. The Book of Exodus agrees with the coriander likeness but says that “the taste of it was like wafers made with honey”. In either case – one would imagine – very toothsome. How ideas of fragrance permeate the entire Bible and indeed so many other religious texts. And no wonder: the origins of perfume lie in worship.

¤¤ See her unique “ABC”. Marlene calls for the cucumber to be peeled; and then drained of its juices overnight. You weight down the slices in a covered dish so that the water pours out. This precautionary procedure seems to obviate the indigestion.