Mr Putin’s Pleasure

We have evoked scents of Imperial Russia before in these pages, but the recent triumph of Vladimir Putin at the polls has awakened memories of the Russia I knew in the 1970’s when I travelled on different occasions to Moscow, Leningrad, the Crimea and the outer wastes of Siberia across the frozen wastes of Lake Baikal. Every country has its own definitive smell: can anyone define the smell of England? Being a native I am maddeningly immune to it, as one so often is to one’s signature scent. But once abroad, the indigenous smells bombard me like a Battle of the Flowers. Syria was a fog of intense night-flowering jasmine and aromatic woodsmoke, undercut with diesel fumes and wafts of Chanel 19 exuded by the cafe boss at the Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers. Egypt in June was burning dust, sweet bursting fruits and dried animal dung. Tunisia was the sickly sweet, slightly headachey scent of oleanders, datura lilies and a curious but ubiquitous floral disinfectant. Russia… ah, Russia was then very potent; and as I have not returned in 30 years I should be greatly intrigued to know whether the ambience has changed with the fall of Communism. Let us know, world travellers.
In those days, it hit you as soon as you boarded Aeroflot, and only intensified on landing: waves of a warm mellow mature smell that somehow complemented the ubiquitous maroon of the furnishings and the hostesses’ uniforms. “Musky-tusky” was one passenger’s apt description – something like an old warm loft, filled with sunshine of a hundred summers, sweet hay and the golden scent of just slightly over-ripe apples. And of course, the tang of traditional Russian cigarettes in their rolled card holders. There was something animalic in there, too, from the winter furs in which nearly all the locals were swathed. To begin with we were slightly taken aback by the speed and firmness with which all our outdoor clothes were removed in every public bulding to vast beautifully ordered cloakroooms; then our darling Intourist guide explained in her purring English that many furs tended to be  “ah…not so well cured…”, a condition to which the warmth of theatres, museums and restaurants drew unwelcome attention. A delicious scent of oranges blended in too, at the opera and ballet: the old Imperial box at the Maryinsky Theatre was still fitted out in walnut and blue velvet; crammed not with Grand Dukes and Duchesses, but ladies straight from the factories bringing vast string bags full of fruit and the occasional bottle of “Red Poppy” (Krasnya Mak) the only scent I ever saw on sale. Thickly oleaginous it was, a sweet powdery even chalky floral apparently macerated in petrol.
Each dim hotel landing was the domain of a (usually) elderly lady who sat at a desk at the top of the stairs and monitored all the comings and goings. She also, if so disposed, supplied tea,dispensed lavatory paper and extra blankets, if tactfully handled (individual pages of Vogue, biros and lipsticks being the preferred currency). These ladies never seemed to go off duty, night or day but kept up their vigilance fuelled by the samovar and tangy dishes of salted lemons, pickled herrings and cucumbers brought from the cosy little buffets that were to be found on every other floor of the big hotels. These buffets also sold tiny delicious cakes – shells of pastry filled with vanilla, chocolate and coffee cream, exactly as one imagined the delicacies stuffed with arsenic that were offered to Rasputin by his royal murderer, Yussopov.
Through Siberia, heaped with snow and such intense cold that the breath froze to crystals as one exhaled and the sense of smell was numbed. Expect this in very cold weather: your skin lacks warmth, there is not sufficient heat for perfume oils to open and evaporate. (I remember a damp freezing December in Berlin and going to a round of birthday parties, all curiously devoid of smell due to this phenonemon; and the new bottle of scent I had brought with me quite wasted). In Novosibirsk, a fried fish restaurant where emaciated waitresses leaned against the walls and coughed their lungs out; to the circus, full of sawdust and hot greasepaint: and thus aboard the Trans Siberian where passengers wore pyjamas for the duration; the perspiring cook, stripped to the waist, ladled out bear stew in the galley; and we settled our stomachs with a fragrant bottled honey drink the name of which loosely translated as “Bee Juice”.
And finally to the hot semi-tropical lushness of Yalta and the Crimea: a stomach upset treated by a tumblerful of boiling vodka, in which was dissolved black pepper and a knob of butter. It worked too: vodka has great medicinal properties. Years later when half-dead of food poisoning in Uzbekhistan, all alone with a bottle of Jicky, I was swabbed down by a charitable cleaner with a floorcloth sopped in vodka from what looked like a milk bottle. The beginnings of my recovery dated from that moment. The waterfront at Yalta was lined with marvellous flowering trees (never identified) covered with pink blossoms which looked and smelled like scoops of strawberry ice cream. A bronzed Dutch lady in a marvellous swimming costume covered in michaelmas daisies was invariably scented with Caron‘s Fleurs de Rocailles, its delicate notes of lilac and violet shimmering and transparent in the damp heat. We choked in acrid smoke from a burnt rainy barbecue on the Fairy Picnic: and I recall a magnificent oriental tea-party after a tour of Catherine the Great’s palace (airless and dusty: someone fainted) at the Fountain of Tears. A spread worthy of the Empress: rose petal jam, glasses of what smelled and tasted like Tia Maria, and sugar-coated jam doughnuts, served up in a conservatory filled with palms and scarlet hibiscus.
But weaving in and out of all this kaleidoscope of colour,taste and scent, there were always those musky apples in the background, like a miasma. I wonder if its still there….
Image from

“I like tired people”

As is well known, Marilyn Monroe wore Chanel No 5 to bed: what do you wear in yours? Garbo wore men’s pyjamas and retired at 6: the maid’s last job before leaving at 4pm was to disconnect the telephone.

Perfume goes wonderfully well with beds, langour, torpor, snoozing and sleep. One thinks of fairytale princesses and ancient heroes, King Arthur and Sleeping Beauty,The Seven Sleepers and Snow White, lulled into death-like sleep by magic drugs and perfumes “poppy and mandragora and all the drowsy syrups of the world”. (What a brilliant perfume name was Opium..). And in the kingdom of Morpheus, dreams drift in the Valley of Sleep: those that enter via the Gates of Horn will come true; those passing through the Gates of Ivory are pure fantasy.  Do you dream about smell and scent? In colour or black and white?

There is nothing nicer than a soak in a long hot bath and a hair wash, followed by clean night clothes in a crisp white linen bed: and then a spray of scent as you prop yourself up against the Siberian goosedown pillows with a new book. Perfume is wonderful in bed, it relaxes and feels magnificently sybaritic. A sparkling hesperidic cologne feels perfect in warm weather, clean and clear and soothing – something like Acqua di Genova which is soft besides citric, petally with orange blossom and a touch of sandalwood. And it has that faint suggestion of a fine silky talcum powder which I love. Maybe it is that association which also makes sweet powdery perfumes great at bedtime: atavistic memories of babyhood, warmth and total wraparound security. Then in colder weather, something more exotic…a rich floral or oriental. Or a golden crystallised gourmand: one of Pierre Guillaume’s beauties, maybe, Aomassai or Tonkamande. All the “luxe et volupte” of sugared almonds and praline but no crumbs in the bed.
And a wonderful sensation of slaked desire.

In my store days, we used to spend hectic Saturday afternoons fantasising about this routine. One woman used to have a special weekend dressing-gown laid out on the hot pipes against her return: a scalding bath, layers of Bronnley’s White Iris or Fern; then scrambled eggs with mayonnaise on a tray. I remember coming down the tube escalators one filthy wet December evening behind two exhausted girls. One was chanting her comfort-mantra. “When I get home I’m going to off every bit of makeup, cover myself in Fracas body cream and put on those pink cashmere pyjamas…”

Bed can be a great place to try out samples of that scent you are thinking of buying. You are washed and clean and in your right mind; at ease with life and ready to analyse a new perfume. Remember to wait a while for your skin to regain its normal temperature and for the natural oils to start flowing again before you apply. This ensures that you won’t get that slight brief burny sensation on the skin from the alchohol, and also allows your skin to reflect the perfume more exactly. The only danger that I have found with the years is that sleeping in a new scent can desensitise the nose to it by the following morning. I am then in the position (which we all know and dread) of having a favourite new scent and unable to smell it: the brain is so relaxed by the agreeable odour that the nose switches off. But, that’s only my personal reaction: I can still sleep very happily in old favourites and find them on the pillow when the alarm goes off.

The professors of the new Sleep Hygiene might possibly object on the grounds of perfume being stimulating (and so to be put on the Bedroom Index, along with alchohol, computers, tv and reading in bed) but for most of us perfume at night is a tranquillising experience, one to be encouraged and relished.

And what do you wear while you are getting up next day? Now while that may sound too precious or over-refined a question, this really is the time for those scintillating light colognes and eaux de toilettes – “dressing colognes”, we used to call them. Bright, delicate impressions of scent that wake up your senses, refresh the body and prepare you for a day’s work before you graduate to something heavier after lunch. Frederic Malle‘s Angeliques Sous La Pluie, Cologne Bigarade, Guerlain’s Eau Imperiale, and Creed‘s Bois de Cedrat just film the skin and hair with notes of citrus, fresh air, morning gardens and herbs – leaving a discreet trail as of expensive soap and crystal water. Spray them while you wash and dress; spritz them on newly washed hair. For myself, I always reach for a fragrance before I even boil the kettle for the first cup of tea: it lifts the spirits for the coming fray. And then I start planning what to wear tonight…

Eau d’Italie at the Scent Salon

On Thursday night, we played host to Marina Sersale and Sebastian Alveraz Murena of Eau d’Italie. We were treated to a history of the Le Sirenuse hotel, which Marina’s father, Paolo, founded in 1951. Paolo was the Marchesi of Positano – he ran the town with the local Priest, and they enjoyed eating, drinking and playing cards together. Then we were taken on a tour of the fragrances, and also Italy itself – which has inspired all of the scents in the collection.

The family decided they should do something special to celebrate the 50th anniversary the hotel in Positano. The idea of a fragrance was brought up, and so they decided to create the scent of Le Sirenuse. They gave themselves a few rules in the development of the scent: to make it original, and they didn’t want it to be full of lemon and citrus as it is a cliché of Italian fragrance. Working with perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour, they created Eau d’Italie taking inspiration from the ideas of sun on the skin, warmed terracota, the shrub that grows on the cliffs, incense from the church, and the salty sea breeze.

The next scent they created with Bertrand, thanks to the success of the first fragrance, was Paestum Rose. Inspired by an ancient Necropolis in Paestum, the birthplace of Italian perfumery, they took Turkish rose, spiked the opening with pepper and coriander, and gave it a dark and woody feeling, from woods and resins.

Sienne L’Hiver & Bois D’Ombrie were described as two takes on the same theme. Both of them to evoke the end of the year in Italy: Sienne L’Hiver (Winter in Sienna) is subtly earthy, a smoky and dark fragrance, given coolness from it’s violet leaf note and a surprising depth from black olives! Bertrand Duchaufour reportedly considers this fragrance his masterpiece.

Bois D’Ombrie is an autumnal scent, inspired by the exapnsive woods and forests of Umbria: it has a powdery facet from iris, warmth from leather, and green woody notes such as vetiver and patchouli.

Magnolia Romana was inspired by the magnolia trees that grow around Rome’s Villa Borghese. Marina and Sebastian said, and quite rightly, that very few fragrances really do smell of the magnolia in full bloom. The magnolia in Rome blooms in June, and the scent around the Villa Borghese is said to be truly incredible.

Baume du Doge was created for Venice: the gateway to the tradesmen of the East. The Doge of Venice was an elected official that held office for life, and Baume du Doge translates as balm of the Doge. As the gateway to the East, Venice was the centre of the spice and aromatic trade in Italy and most of Europe, and thus it contains spices, such as cinnamon, cardamom and saffron, as well as incense, myrrh and benzoin.

Au Lac was inspired by a love affair around Lake Maggiore, between the Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni and Princess Vittoria Colonna, many of their meetings taking place in the beautiful garden on the island. Centred around Osmanthus, they wanted the scent to be bright and fresh, like the waters of the lake – it opens with water lily and bitter orange, drying to a beautiful jasmine and musky-ambery warmth. This was the first time they worked with a different perfumer, Alberto Morillas. The departure from Bertrand Duchaufour was due to a desire to use some captive molecules from Firmenich that leave a beautiful sillage, without making a perfume too strong to wear. They collaborated without knowing who the perfumer was until the end result, so they wouldn’t be influenced by previous creations of the same perfumer.

Jardin du Poete was again created by Bertrand Duchaufour. Marina and Sebastian finally desired to create a fragrance with the typically Italian notes: citrus. But a frustration to many people that wear citrus fragrances is their shortlived nature, which is a technical problem caused by citrus notes: they are small molecules which evaporate quickly. Inspired by Sicily, when it was a Greek colony: Syracuse, full of aromatic plants and citrus trees. Bitter orange is extended with angelica, pepper, vetiver and musk.

Finally, Sebastian and Marina introduced their new fragrance! Un Bateau Pour Capri celebrates the 60th Anniversary of Le Sirenuse. In it’s hayday of the 50s and 60s, Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor taking a Riva speedboat to Capri, looking incredibly glamorous and of course, smelling divine! The notes include peony, freesia, peach, jasmine sambac, rosa centifolia, heliotrop, solar woods, cedarwood and musk. It is a softly fruity and powdery floral, with a hint of a sea breeze, and the feeling of the sun beating down on you. It will be the first Eau de Parfum from Eau d’Italie, and was created by perfumer Jacques Cavallier.

We’d like to thank Sebastian and Marina very much for their company – and are very much looking forward to next time we see them! Ciao!

Images supplied by Eau d’Italie

I Can Sing A Rainbow

“Pink and orange and red and green, yellow and purple and blue..” Do any of my older readers remember this faintly irritating novelty hit which I think originated with Cilla; there was a 1965 album of the title with the Scouser songstress posing in PVC mac with umbrella, and a signing performance on tv for the deaf. In retrospect, I guess this was my first public introduction to synaesthesia though then I thought nothing of it; the silly song just got stuck in my head for 40 years. Then about four or five years ago I was diagnosed as synaesthesic and people came to look at me like something in the zoo: “Is it true you see words in colour?” I do : I always have.
And I took it for granted that everyone else did, too.

My Collins dictionary gives two definitions: “1. a sensation experienced in a part of the body other than the part being stimulated” and “2.The subjective sensation of a sense other than the one being stimulated. EG a sound may evoke sensations of colour.”

I experience both conditions; I am a connoisseur of the first one, something I’ve always known as remote or transferred pain. My teeth hurt if my feet are sore. Physical pain drives out mental angst so that dental treatment makes me immensely cheerful. Anxiety brings on relentless yawning and a severe burning sensation in the eyes; tiredness induces frightful itching of the back and around the waist. Seeing or hearing someone tearing cotton wool makes my flesh crawl and shrink like a melting snail. It must be inherited: both my parents were like this and so are two brothers.

And we all saw numbers, days of the week, letters of the alphabet in colour. A is green, B is blue, C is yellow. Monday is black, Wednesday crimson, Friday gold. 13 is leaf green, 7 is tan, 1 is black. So on and so forth. I was amazed when I found this was not universal. I used to know a trainer of perfume sales assistants who had reduced the tenets her art to a laconic and very basic synaesthesic dogma: “Look at the liquids in the bottle: the pale ones appeal to blondes and the dark ones to brunettes. Get on with it!” My own perception is more complex, tending to group the perfume families by colours. Again, to me this seems so inevitable that I wonder if I am indeed truly synaesthesic: orientals are purple (what else could they be?) florals are white and silver; gourmands maroon and magenta. But then within this general grouping, there are individual differences: Shalimar is an orange oriental within a purple group; Fleurs de Rocaille is a turquoise exception to a white family. Myself, I think it looks highly odd written down, but entirely clear and instinctive inside my head.

Maybe this is why that sometimes the change of the seasons can feel uncomfortable, even painful: I find the beautiful spring a bit threatening – l love what I see and feel; but there are days when the almost unhinged spurt of vegetable fertility seems more than a liitle sinister. One almost hears it, like the snake-like rustling noises on those old-fashioned natural history films of accelerated plant growth, prompting uncomfortable memories of Virginia Woolf hearing the birds singing in Greek. Whereas the slow decline of autumn is soft and lulling; winter a slow ponderous thud. Scents make sounds too: they crackle, fizz, boil, bubble like lava and susurrate like silk. Mitsouko unrolls thickly and damply like a bolt of green velvet spread over the counter; Creed‘s Bois du Portugal plumps up and sighs like an precious antique chair of great depth and comfort; Fracas froths and foams like can-can petticoats or pink champagne or raspberry jam on a slow rolling boil.

It’s like that corny old ’70’s advert for cooking fat:

“The pleasure of cooking
Is listening and looking”

In my kitchen days I learned there was something in this: cooking by eye. Noting the changing colour of food is the best guide to knowing when it’s done without prodding with knives and skewers. Take a good look at the colour and consistency of your scent, as well.

Perfumes have a definite texture: grainy, velvety, silky, sequinned, furry, hard, soft, squishy- squashy, molten, gauzy, powdery, feathery. And of course they don’t always correspond in a logical way: Malle‘s revelatory Une Rose is certainly a wine-dark carmine but the texture seems more metallic, even marmoreal, than soft and petally. Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier‘s sublime Tubereuse is not creamy white, but a rich glossy chestnut, with the texture of a well-worn sable, satin-lined.

“Listen with your eyes…
And sing everything you see..”

There’s Cilla again, still at it. We can all learn something from her.

Image from

Say It With Flowers

In this Diamond Jubilee year of the second Elizabeth (of whose perfume tastes we know little) let’s remember her great royal namesake who died after a reign of 45 years on March 24 1603. It is well attested that Elizabeth Tudor had a particularly acute sense of smell, and an especial detestation of the then fashionable trick of treating soft leather with lavender oil: this brought on the violent nervous headaches to which the Queen was prone. We have the amusing tale of her ordering some courtier out of her presence on account of his perfumed cape only to have him best her (a rare event) with his riposte “Tush, Madam, tis my boots that stink!”

And the devastating anecdote of the poor man who broke wind when bowing to his sovereign and hid his mortification in self-imposed exile for seven years. When finally he re-appeared at Court Elizabeth was at her most charming,gracious and hospitable before remarking over her shoulder as she swept out, “We hath quite forgot the fart…”

The Virgin Queen bathed more often than was considered safe for her health; about once a month. Her near-fatal smallpox of smallpox in 1562 was attributed to this dangerous indulgence. Elizabeth’s daily hygiene routine would have consisted of wipings down with cloths soaked in rosewater, colognes and spirits. Spring water was also imported from spas for her use, London sources being far too filthy to use. To sweeten the breath it was then logically but fatally thought well to swill the mouth with vinegar, honey and sugar. Vain of the whiteness of her skin and her long delicate fingers the Queen cut a far more attractive figure however than her successor James 1st whose hands, perennially unwashed, were said be as soft as black silk.

For propaganda purposes Elizabeth sat for a succession of portraits which defined her popular image according to strict government guidelines, and which became more symbolically complex as they grew increasingly less realistic. The Rainbow Portrait was painted when the Queen was sixty seven but there is no acknowledgement of this in the painting: she is fantastic in appearance, literally ageless. She holds the eponymous Rainbow in her left hand – we are tactfully reminded that without the Sun (Elizabeth herself) the Rainbow cannot exist – and we think of Iris, the goddess who trailed her multi-coloured cloak across the sky and gave her name to the exquisite flowers which even in Tudor times played such a key role in perfumery: orris powder, from the dried and pulverised iris roots, was used to scent clothing, hair, closets, chests and linens.

The Rainbow portrait is so crammed with symbols that a small book might be written on its various possible meanings; the point is that in an age of illiteracy these now enigmatic emblems would have been immediately understood and appreciated by everyone who saw the painting itself, and the innumerable cheap prints and copies which took the Queen’s image to the masses.

Let’s take only one detail: the plants embroidered on the royal bodice. Elizabeth is personified as the virgin goddess Astraea who dwelled on Earth in the Golden Age when the world was one vast (and surely English) flower meadow.
Furthermore, each plant has a specific meaning:

The Arum – for ardour (and devotion to duty)

The Cowslip – for grace and youth (the Queen’s, naturally)

The Honeysuckle – for fidelity and the bonds of love (between the Queen and her subjects)

The Pansies – for her wise thoughts

The Acorn – for immortality, and for the English oak which built the ships that destroyed the Armada and founded the Elizabethan empire

The Rose – the Tudor badge and the emblem of the Virgin

The Carnation – a woman’s love (for her people)

The Violet – faithfulness

This rich, compact but elaborate shorthand may suggest to you a new approach to assessing a perfume, reflecting on the ingredients and their arcane significance; what may still be concealed from us is the alchemical relevance of the scents of the flowers and their medicinal properties. Construct your own iconic perfumed image: per perfuma ad astra!

Image from Wikimedia commons

Scents of Memory Lane

“I count only the happy hours” reads an inscription on an old sundial: is it the one we see in Gone With The Wind before Scarlett storms into the library to confront a reluctant Ashley? I can tell off the hours of infantile happy smells like beads of a rosary; each bead filled, as it might be, like those of Marie Stuart, with amber, civet and musk: the odour of sanctity.

I did love the smells of church. We were in a High Church of England parish so lots of incense (“Rose of Sharon”) and the thrill of hot waxy smoky snuffed candles, as well as the fascination by the neat little brass cone on a stick which did the trick. I longed to take it home and put it to use. Then in the vestry, the inhalation of laundered surplices, dusty rusty cassocks and shelves of well-handled leather books, all slightly foxed. And then the smell of the lickable adhesive on the brilliantly coloured Bible stickers doled out at Sunday school – glue boiled from hooves, I guess: very thick and the colour of dark amber.

Most mornings in the summer holidays my brother and I would sit on the hot dry dusty pavement waiting for Mrs Crump, the kind postlady, who allowed us to follow her on her rounds – “no further than the gasworks,mind” – and inhaling the wonderful aroma of flowering privet and hot tarmac. Summer roads always seemed to be pleasingly sticky in those days. In my memories the nose-tickling pungent privet segues into the spicy pink and white phlox in the back garden; peppery lupins the colour of sweet corn kernels; and the thick overpowering scent of the hawthorn hedges, almost unbearably abundant and lush but grounded with that faint aroma of cow dung deep in the creamy blossom. The weird smell of daffodils: something like green rubber gloves and with a sinister hint of gas. Unhappy people still put their heads in the oven in those days, and the grown-ups whispered over our heads, “she even thought to put a cushion on the bottom shelf…she wanted to take the cat with her but he jumped out…”

Fresh cut grass, of course, mixed with the newly oiled mower; candy floss at the Fair; honeysuckle and lily of the valley under primary school windows, filling me even at 5 with an inexplicable emotion which I suppose was nostalgia – but at that age, for what? Not to mention the warm velvet perfume of wallflowers, hardly ever used in perfumery: thought too homely, perhaps. But one of the most delicious smells in the world.

I also relished the less obviously idyllic aromas of burning newspaper (illicit garden bonfires) and the universal panacea for upset tummies: kaolin and morphia. Who else remembers this, and the wonderfully comforting way it made your inside fairly glow with heat? Vick’s chest rub was good too, and my father’s Cherry Blossom shoe polish. I was intoxicated by the way my grandmother’s Players mingled with the scent of her face powder, lipstick, hair and Arden’s Blue Grass: one of the quintessential childhood scents, gone these 50 years but intact in my brain. The inside of her handbag smelled good too, except that “Little boys Never Ever look in ladies’ bags!”

The poignant thing is that time moves on but the smells remain as clear and entire as ever, locked in the mind to be released at will. The people we knew die, houses are demolished and fields built over: but their scents are imperishable.

And one more question: is there anyone out there who remembers Kiddle Kolognes? And if so, which was your favourite?

Image from

Infantile Memory Regression Syndrome

They say you only remember the good times; that all the summers of the past were sunny ones. Of smells gone by, I am not so confident. To be sure I share that common memory of my mother kissing me goodnight, smelling delicious (probably in her Diorissimo phase) + my aunt’s wonderful aura of Ma Griffe; but I also have vivid remembrance of the white mice in their blue cage on the dresser to whose acrid reek Mrs Garner invariably drew disapproving attention when she came round to help with the ironing. To me aged 4 it was quite amusing in its rankness, but I can see now that the adults suffered terribly.

A truly nauseating smell was emitted by my father’s favourite meal of boiled tripe. I was scared of the fascinating odour of creosote because I was told it could kill me (this an adult warning to keep me from dabbling my fingers in the creosote barrel); and I couldn’t stand the terrible asphyxiation of “Flit” fly spray – a truly appalling smell half a century ago, which had me running upstairs and burying my face in the pillows, as my great grandmother had done whenever a barrel-organ (with monkey) trundled round the corner. I can smell that “Flit” now, mixed up with the delicate scent of ripe pears: the spray seemed to penetrate the very food. And of course the can carried its own sinister warning “may be fatal to pets”.

Cars were a problem: as a small child I suffered terribly from travel-sickness invariably triggered by the whiff of fresh petrol fumes, so that I dreaded the obligatory fill-up at the garage as we set off for seaside holidays. The smell of a car’s interior, a fine new leathery interior, could be very queasy – my grandfather’s Wolsley with its deep squashy seats and built-in cigarette lighter, and the scent of Mr Stride’s string-backed chamois driving gloves on the school run both induced uncomfortable sensations.

Other horror smells of the 1950’s included: the inside of sugar jars; next door’s obese cocker spaniel covered in eczema; ham omelettes; iodine (the smell anticipated the squeals as it disinfected the abrasion); soot (because I was frightened of the sweep – still as sinister in those days as in “The Water Babies”, one of my grandmother’s favourite readings-aloud); a pink foam rubber elephant impregnated with saccharine strawberries, given to my brother; and napthlene moth balls.
Nearly all now deodorised and changed and gone forever. Happy days!

Having arrived at the seaside in the petrolly car, we always stayed in a tall narrow old house overlooking the salt marshes and the North Sea: five minutes to the beach across a foul-smelling bog starred with long-vanished wild flowers. Invigorating scents of salt, roses, harvest fields, tar, driftwood, seaweed, wet dog, and fried fish all carried on the wind. But the idyllic garden of our lovely house held a foul secret: at the bottom of the lawn (and it was a small, short lawn), insufficiently screened by fuschias and hollyhocks, was a Victorian cess pool, emptied rarely. In warm weather it was overpoweringly sulphorous, and the few occasions when “the man” came to empty it are not to be thought of. We went off to the sand dunes for the day: but the miasma stirred up hung about, hovering over the garden for days after and calling for sealed windows. My poor grand-mother, who was very much of Miss Nightingale’s opinion as to the danger of smells breeding disease,had us all cover our faces with cologne-soaked handkerchiefs – 4711 or Yardley’s lavender.

But the worst memory, really, because it has colour and smell and texture all mixed up together belongs to very early school days and a sweet Italian cleaner who carried around a milk churn of liquid floor polish. This was the exact shade and consistency of Heinz tomato soup and the way in which it blended with Annamaria’s garlicky lunchbox was to me a truly surreal horror. Likewise the cold sausage in a frying pan full of congealed fat found in a teacher’s wardrobe…but here I am getting ahead of myself. Next time we’ll perhaps look at Happy Smells.

Image from Wikimedia commons

We shall all be changed…

Nathalie Priem and Wooden Horse's egg for The Big Egg Hunt

Eastertide is upon us with all its symbolism of change, rebirth, metamorphosis and immortality all neatly symbolised by the ancient symbol of the Egg. The Cosmic Egg from which some believe the whole universe was hatched; the fertile Egg for which Good and Evil fight for possession; and the humble hen’s egg which Carl Faberge turned into a impossibly luxurious celebration of the Orthodox Easter for the delectation of the last two Russian Tsars. Enamelled in pink, yellow, mauve, blue and emerald; encrusted with jewels on frameworks of gold and platinum; these gorgeous toys celebrated the Easter miracle with an extra symbolic twist – the touch of a tiny switch or rotation of a pearl would reveal a surprise, an interior wonder: miniature portraits, orange trees in flower, the Trans-Siberian Express, cathedrals, laying hens would rise up or burst forth from deep within the egg, a glittering child-like metaphor of rebirth + resurrection.

Theology, myths, legends, folklore and fairy tales of every culture celebrate change: of form, of circumstance, of luck, of fate. Classical mythology abounds in tales of luckless individuals who for punishment, reward or escape from suffering, danger, old age or death are changed into statues, kingfishers, fountains, frogs, butterflies, grasshoppers, lizards and spiders, peacocks and sunflowers. Gods assume other forms to court mortal maidens: a white bull, a swan, a shower of gold. Girls pursued by these lecherous gods become laurel trees, rivers, heifers and heavenly constellations. Goddesses (like fairy godmothers and angels) turn themselves into old crones to test the piety and charity of mortals: I used to work with a girl who was always very very careful to be nice to any battered old lady who came near the counter lest she turn out to be a fairy in orthopaedic shoes; or an angel unawares, soliciting a free sample of Houbigant. We all remembered Grimms’ Diamond and Toads: it should be mandatory reading for all in the retail sector. A peasant girl speaks soft and sweet to a beggar-woman: her reward is to have roses and diamonds pouring from her lips with every utterance. Her malevolent sister, envious and rude, is doomed to spew out vipers and toads for eternity.

Brilliantly coloured and scented plants are natural inspirations for tales of transmutation. Scarlet anenomes were said to the blood of Venus’s lover Adonis, sprinkled with nectar by the grieving goddess. I’ve seen them in the deserts of Jordan, springing up from the brown wastes in warm February sun and there, rather than on the florist’s street stall,the legend seems entirely plausible. Lilies of the valley sprang from the Virgin’s tears at the Crucifixion: white violets from the deathbed of St Serafina; the bread in St Elizabeth’s apron was changed into roses. Hyacinths are all that remains of Apollo’s beautiful Spartan lover, accidentally slain by a discus: think of the shape of hyacinth flowers and then the arabesque curls of hair on an antique marble head. Cupid’s wounds of Love left by his arrows become sweet-smelling rose buds, while the self-obsessed cruel Narcissus turns into one of spring’s most fragile flowers, forever gazing into ponds and streams.

Good comes out of evil + pain; beauty and renewal from death. The fragility of humanity is compensated for by the perpetual cycle of the natural world, like the seamless shape of those cosmic eggs: no beginning and no end. And with just a little imagination we can also see perfume as a symbolic part of this cycle: look at oud, a perfect example. A great forest tree becomes infected by a parasite and in its death-struggles exudes this fragrant resin which breathes its own life and mythology. Again, with ambergris, foul waste matter is turned into something precious, mesmeric and aphrodisiac: it promotes life. A roomful of dying rose petals yield a few drops of precious vital essence. The Roman poet Ovid tells us the tale of Myrrha, the Eastern princess who conceived a monstrous passion for her own father and found escape in her metamorphosis into an incense tree, weeping bitter-sweet tears of myrrh for eternity.

“A bundle of myrrh is my well-beloved unto me: he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.” The erotic connotations of the resin in the Song of Solomon then transmute into manifestations of Divine Love in the Christian tradition. The costly bitter perfume is offered at the Nativity by the Three Magi, a Zoroastrian caste, said to have been devoted, incidentally, to the cult of the Egg. This foreshadows Christ’s embalming 33 years later by the Myrrophores, the Three Marys who bring myrhh to the Holy Sepulchre during the three days in the Tomb.
Note all the 3’s : one of the great symbolic numbers of religious numerology.

All of which helps to explain why the patron saint of perfume and perfumers is St Nicholas, one of the most famous saints in the calendar though not usually in this context; he is better known in his stocking-stuffing role as Santa Claus. His tomb at Bari was said to drip with aromatic myrrh, a sure sign of holiness and the resistance of a pure body to decay. The odour of sanctity, in fact. All perfume lovers owe him a lighted candle.

Wishing you all a very happy and relaxing Easter: rest up for renewal!

Image of Nathalie Priem with Wooden Horse’s egg from

Nicholas + Alexandra

Nicholas & Alexandra - Tsar & Tsarina

They called one another Nicky and Alicky, Sunny and Lovey-dear, hubby and wifey: they were the last Emperor and Empress of Russia (a title they preferred to Tsar and Tsarina) and all they really wanted was a recreation of English bougeois family cosiness amid the snows and barbaric splendours of Old Muscovy. We looked at their terrible last days in an earlier blog: now let’s inhale the ambience of their lives in splendour.

Alexandra (our Queen’s great great aunt; and Prince Philip’s great aunt) was largely brought up by her grandmother Queen Victoria to whom perhaps she owed her love of fresh air and extreme cold: Victoria suffered so terribly from hot flushes all her life that she would have fires lit by Balmoral staff abruptly doused with buckets of water; she drove out daily whatever the weather; and like two other great sovereigns, Maria Theresa and Catherine the Great liked the windows flung wide at all times. As Empress (as we can see from numerous photos) Alexandra loved spending snowy sub-zero afternoons wrapped in furs on her balcony at Tsarskoye Selo: her sinister friend, Anna Vrubovya, the introducer of the serpent Rasputin into Eden, lived in a damp cottage in the palace grounds so cold that visitors kept their feet drawn up on divans from the icy floors.

Like many depressives, Alexandra was much affected by extremes of temperature and when not out in the cold she would retreat to her claustrophobic bedroom, furnished by Maples Ltd of the Tottenham Court Road. Here twin beds were pushed together under a tent-like canopy and battalions of ikons hung over and opposite the sleepers. Later, a photo of Rasputin’s mutilated corpse would be hung at the end of the Empress’s bed. The air, already laden with the attar of roses burning perpetually for 23 years in the ikon lamps, was heavy with Alexandra’s own white rose perfume and that of her full English breakfasts: Nicky was long up + dressed before his wife’s tray of bacon and eggs appeared, with toast and Coopers Oxford, a pot of very strong tea and a packet of 20 Players.

Having demolished all this (she suffered agonies from heart palpitations) Alex would often paint, sitting up in bed; or else, dressed in loose drifts of white silk, withdraw to a sofa in her Mauve Boudoir, decorated in her favourite colour with the exception of the pale green carpet. Everything else was mauve and cream, and the room filled with vases of immense size, crammed with violets, roses, lilac, wisteria, peonies and stocks brought daily by train across thousands of miles from the Imperial hothouses in the Crimea.

Here her five children would visit her, and Nicholas join her for tea and cigarettes from exquisitely coloured and jewelled Faberge boxes: he chain-smoked of course, and was always redolent of birch-cured Russian leather from his boots. When he had courted Alex in England, Queen Victoria remarked she always knew when he was in the palace from the scent of his leather luggage. If you take a look at the list of monarchs supplied by Creed (its on the lid of every box) you will see the Emperor’s name though details of commodities delivered are lost.

The offensive smells of Rasputin – the stale garlic, the drink, the sweat – left Alexandra  untroubled. Maybe she thought them subsumed by what she saw as his holiness. We know from her letters to the Tsar that just before the Revolution she visited an aged mystic, bed ridden in a country hovel – “but NO SMELL!” said the Empress. Perhaps that too she could see as a sign of sanctity.

Poor hysterical deluded Alexandra: this old woman gave her a magic comb and a magic apple to avert the coming cataclysm of 1917. A strange and weird combination of Snow White, the Gotterdammerung and Mr Pooter….