“You’ll fall into the flames of hell if you dig any deeper” said our gardener Mr Sarson as I grubbed about in my own little patch of garden aged 5 or so. Mr Sarson must have been in his eighties but was lean and wiry after a lifetime working as a railway ganger. He had once found a severed human head on the line – “it took three men to lift, it weighed so heavy”. And I wondered how the executioner had coped with Mary Queen of Scots who we had learned about at school: the infant curriculum was very different in the 1950’s. After Mr Garner died, eating a pickled onion, Mr Cannon came to help: he had sailed German POW’s down the Rhine in a caged barge in 1919; been a professional dancing master, and as a boy had pinched the behind of Violet, Duchess of Rutland in the shrubbery at Belvoir Castle: “I took her for the parlour maid”.
These two gentlemen introduced me to the vegetable world which flourished exceedingly in my father’s garden since so many of his animal patients were buried there. Vegetable lore we learned, and the smell of all the old favourites. Radishes are easy and quick for even the youngest child to grow, though their leaves may sting a bit; and their rose pink hue is as vivid and exciting as their cracked-ice peppery scent and tart hot/cold taste. Our neighbours, elderly maiden ladies, lived on radish sandwiches and dripping: it sufficed.(Their brother was a morphine addict, in the nonchalant respectable style of a Victorian bachelor).
So many vegetables have the most bewitching scents: the dry hot spiciness of celery; the rubbery, flowery earthiness of purple sprouting broccoli; the searing sweet and sour pungency of wild garlic especially on a cliff patch in bluebell season. Carrot has been recently added to the perfumer’s palette as a sweetener, and can contribute to an excellent synthetic fleshy fruit accord. Tomato leaf has something of the same magic as geranium – hot, green, spicy, and dusty. It is replete with the nostalgia of those ruined walled kitchen gardens, frost-cracked glasshouses and stagnant water butts that you sometimes discover abandoned beyond the formal gardens of a minor stately home. Now, I know tomato is a fruit, but in the minds and habits of most of us it is treated as veg. It was probably Annick Goutal who pioneered its use in her Eau de Camille – a perfume smelling of broken flower stems and the inner pale flesh of wild grasses.
Yet vegetables and man have until the twentieth century had a wary relationship: for millenia vegetables were the preserve of the poor, served up like animal swill while the rich dined on white bread, meat and sugar. The onion and the lettuce may have been sacred emblems of fertility in Ancient Egypt (due to their propensity to run to seed in a phallic bolt) but they still fed the pyramid toilers rather than grace Pharaoh’s table. When the Americas were first colonised, the treasure fleets brought back potatoes, avocados and tomatoes; all snapped up in the West as intriguing novelties but just as quickly abandoned. They took centuries to fully assimilate as part of the food chain; and for westerners to learn how to cook and season them.
This often seems to cause the British unreasonable difficulties: one thinks of traditional Christmas brussels boiled to mossy mush,and marrows cooked to rags. My grandfather used to say that his favourite way to prepare a cucumber was to cut in half and put in dustbin. Highly distrusted by European doctors, American produce became notorious for other qualities. Avocado is a Mexican Nahuatl word for “testicle” – as “orchid” is in Greek – and so could be choked down as a flavourless if stimulating aphrodisiac. Potatoes turned out to be of the same family as the enchanters’ nightshades, clearly poisonous and possibly diabolic; and as for the colour of these “love apples”, these tomatoes! Painted like harlots and obviously to be avoided. According to Lady Diana Cooper, her mother Violet (the same woman who was goosed by our gardener) banned tomatoes from her dinner table as impossibly common. This prejudice is still not entirely extinct in some circles, I can assure you.
Vegetables are still, I suppose, generally thought dull and worthy; your dreary 5 a day to keep you regular and minimise the household bills: one can still live very cheaply live on roots. Therefore the scents of their leaves and flowers, though often delicious, lack the psychological glamour demanded by perfumers: though the scent of field of broad beans in flower rivals Grasse jasmine, and see how a bed of scarlet runners (grown in Tudor gardens purely for their gaudy flowers) drive the bees wild with their fragrance. Even the wonderful scents from vegetable-related flowers (the cabbage-cousin wallflower; the sweet pea) rarely make it into the commercial perfume bottle; maybe unconsciously rejected on account of their humble relations.
Be that as it may, our niche perfumers continue to garner a little romance from the kitchen garden: try The Unicorn Spell where an eccentric and beguiling top note of dawn-picked runner bean leads into frosty violets. The cucumber in En Passant helps to spangle the white lilac with rain. Gorge on Gantier‘s sweet, rich, outre Grain de Plaisir, a presentation of celery as aphrodisiac – as used so famously by Mme de Pompadour and her eighteenth century contemporaries, brewed up with ambergris, chocolate, truffles and vanilla. I think the 21st century will continue to see fascinating new experiments with the odours of the vegetable kingdom just as our cooks soldier on promoting their vitality and potential excitement in our diet.
Image from wildaboutgardens.org.uk
Fascinating to me that in both the original Ira Levin novel and also the film version of Rosemary’s Baby, perfume is used to make a very definite point. From the start, the apartments we see in the company of Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse at “Black Bramford” are forcing houses of herbs and soi-disant medicinal plants. As both Rosemary and her unfortunate acquaintance Terri Genofrio are drawn into the garrulous old Castavets’ sabbats they are embraced by the foul bitter reek of the diabolical tannis root (“can a root be an herb?”) in its exquisite silver Renaissance pendant: pungent, earthy, sharp and repellent. “You’ll get used to the smell before you know it,” chuckles Laura Louise, the jolly witch from the 12th floor, and the strange thing is that Rosemary does. She becomes anosmic and I think this is a metaphor for her shutting her eyes to her instinctive suspicions of the supreme horror approaching, and one hint of many that ultimately she will become another Minnie Castavet, a perfect mother to the infant Satan at the ambiguous conclusions of the movie.
However once Rosemary discovers that she is indeed in the clutches of a nest of devil-worshippers and the time for the baby’s delivery approaches she drops the stinking root – “what IS it? A – a chemical thing?” ( a nice little in-joke, if unintentional, for perfume lovers) – down the drain and sprays herself heavily and refreshingly with Revillon’s 1953 Detchema. Now, why this scent? Possibly it was Ira Levin’s own particular favourite or maybe there’s a more pointed implication. Detchema is floral and heavily aldehydic – roses, jasmine and ylang ylang; iris, muguet and vetiver. About as far from sinister tannis as you can get, as the doctor’s receptionist comments. Its a bit middle-aged for Rosemary, though; and Revillon, being a fur company, originally commissioned it to complement the wearing of pelts. Perhaps a hint of the all the treasures of the world coming from Guy’s demonic bargain (“suddenly he’s very hot!”), but maybe too its a nudge to think animal; to imagine exactly what kind of baby poor Mrs Woodhouse is about to deliver….covered in fur, coated with scales? (“It won’t bite you…”).
As she slowly realises the Castavets’ game, Rosemary develops other understandable fears – “they use blood in their rituals”. This moves us into to quite different territory – the appeal of the vampire. Vampires have never really been out of style since the publication of Dracula in 1897, but they seem especially in vogue again now: there was even one running in this year’s Marathon. Amusing to read about Tim Burton’s new movie of Dark Shadows: I remember watching this as an late afternoon tv show in Bermuda in 1968, in a tiny house set in a grove of grapefruit and banana trees, with hibiscus flowering round the porch. Our hostess Barbara was a retired Ziegfeld Follies girl who had grown up next door to Joan Bennett, the pre-war Hollywood star who was now queen of the show, hence the obligatory daily viewing with the first stiff rum + coke. There was also the smell of electricity and faint scorching in the air as Barbara had to hold wires from the tv set to her head as a primitive conductor: reception was truly terrible on the island.
Why have vampires such a perennial appeal? If it’s just the smell of blood you’re after, pay attention next time you fall out with a can of beans and a faulty opener: sharp, metallic, hot, salty and of course alarming. Or try Etat Libre‘s Secretions Magnifiques: an extraordinary recreation and evocation of blood and other intimate fluids. An interesting and mesmeric scent (even if the mesmerism is one of repulsion or disgust) but to me, it lacks the necessary warmth of its human ingredients: there is corpse-like cold – or is it surgical coolth? – instead of a palpitating heat. And also a suggestion of decay; the accords seem to represent secretions from a body not entirely healthy, or having otherwise staled.
Vampires and their renewed popularity are a macabrely acute metaphor for the apathetic and fatalistic malaise into which society has fallen, just as they symbolised the decadence of the Naughty Nineties. We feel out of control, drained morally, financially and responsibly by the terrifying drift of the world. It seems impossible for the average individual, preoccupied by his own survival and that of his family to do anything to influence the general drift of events. Where once religion provided an anchor and a rationale there is now often a void, or a Church that itself that sometimes seems to have lost its way and fallen into schism. The notion of being sucked dry of the life force, of falling into a paralysed state of partially languorous torpor while initiative and vitality is inexorably drained away by a figure of supernatural authority (and erotic appeal) can be powerfully attractive as a fantasy to those without faith or hope. Stoker’s Dracula and many of his type are presented as possessing a hideous kind of attraction for their prey, being involuntarily welcomed in by their victims who become willing partners in their own destruction.
And ironically though many smells thought hitherto unpleasant or inappropriate have been transmuted by the perfumer’s organ (cigarette smoke, Stilton cheese, bubblegum) no one has yet unfortunately risen to the challenge of breaking the olfactory taboo of garlic.
Image from cinerarium.wordpress.com
A 2 hour tour of London on an open topped bus with “live” commentary: what fun! See all the sights, and hop on and off at will if you wish to linger: simply catch the next bus when you’re ready to move on. I had always wanted to ride in one, but never expected this to happen with me as a Guide, in charge of the thing and of 72 eager passengers to boot. It was one of our rare super-hot London summers leading into a warm damp autumn and I sat atop that bus for 6 months, armed with hat, dodgy microphone and a growing fund of London facts and stories. You had to keep talking, that was essential thing, even as you shepherded your charges up and down the shaking stairs and tried to sort out their worries.
Which were varied: a poor man who announced at Tower Hill that he had 20 minutes to reach Heathrow and a flight to Texas; a quarrelsome girl obsessed with Virginia Woolf’s medical history; the American quartet who thought they were in Paris. (The Tube mistaken for the Chunnel). Plus there were problems with “comfort stops”: mine, not the passengers’. You couldn’t go at will and of course as soon as you start thinking about that sort of thing, your need becomes very urgent. Fortunately I had been urged by grandparents from the age of 3 to “think of other things” when out for walks; and I’d read somewhere that Unity Mitford had trained herself not to go for 12 hours to prepare herself for sitting through Hitler’s interminable speeches. So I had to rely on Mental Attitude and it never (quite) let me down. I was very interested to read Karren Brady’s germane comments in a recent Telegraph interview about drinking less at work so as to avoid going and so save working time: ” ..it was a long walk to the Ladies.”
The sights somehow seemed fresh every time you did the circuit and I never got past becoming all choked up reciting the death of Nelson in Trafalgar Square thrice daily. The early morning runs were the best, coasting keen and attentive early-bird punters through the newly cleaned streets; and those on balmy summer evenings with London tinged with blue and mauve, the lights starting to come on, and something of a party atmosphere aboard. Then all was inspiring and magical, and paradoxically one felt as free as the air, master of the City and the West End. Especially if you had a driver eager to finish his shift and driving like Ben Hur down the Embankment and up Park Lane. The bad times came with rare rainy days, all of us huddled downstairs and the bus pervaded by the stale dreary smell of sodden newspapers, cheap umbrellas, wet hair and sullen boredom.
The sights of London enlivened by the smells of London. Around Piccadilly and Leicester Square everything was dominated by fast food and disinfectant. This was the principal comfort and feeding stop between tours: all those munchers of burgers, fries, pop corn, polythene sandwiches, half-eaten apples and “fasta pasta” queuing for tickets and darting back into Macdonalds for favour of lavatories. One of the problems with lemon-based perfumes, especially if sharp, woody and citric, is that they carry bathroom connotations to many people raised on the camouflaging properties of Glade, Oust, Izal, Pine and Airwwick. That summer, the smell of heat predominated: a heady and quite psychotropic fug of exhaust fumes, cigarettes, dry baking concrete, stone and tarmac, perspiration and high-factor sunscreen. And for me the smell of strong tea, taken in the crypt cafe of St Martin’s in the Fields: wonderful scalding aromatic sweet black tea, reviving and comforting. Try Pierre Guillaume’s L’Eau Rare Matale for a scented substitute.
They say you remember only the good times and the smell that lingers longest when I think of London summers, and this was no exception, is that of the linden trees. We swept past Hyde, Green and St James’s Parks with the boughs just gracing our heads, heavy and powdery with that piercingly nostalgic scent of lime tree blossom which cuts through the traffic fumes and if only for a moment freshens the greasy heat. The fact that so many people smell linden without actually knowing what it is only adds to the enchantment of this divine odour. D’Orsay have recreated it in their soap and eau de toilette Tilleul; and Andy Tauer’s staggering Zeta defines it once and for all. Zeta is derived from natural oils, thick and oleaginous; a smell of lime avenues in country parks, new mown grass, sweet fresh hay and even a June afternoon swinging round Hyde Park Corner, just in time for tea at the Ritz.
Image from traveltura.com