All The Silly Dreams…

Brief Encounter is a great favourite, and as is the case with all great movies you read it differently with each viewing. Last night I remarked how desiccated and sour Laura Jesson’s life has become: the rather tiresome children seem to get on her nerves; her supposed friends are all hateful. How has this apparently highly sensitive person fallen in with the company of such shallow mean-minded treacherous women? She has no real friends at all. She spends every Thursday at the pictures and is dissatisfied with everything she sees: except for Donald Duck. What appeals to her about him? “His furious energy and his blind frustrated rages.” Go figure, as the young people say.

Laura’s energies are confined to a boring, narrow if relentless routine – reserving new books at Boots Library, dodging bores, and changing into the same dowdy dress for dinner with reliable affectionate Fred who appears interested only in his food, a quiet life and the crossword puzzle: in fact he’s the only person in the movie who genuinely cares for Laura’s wellbeing. Then she meets the glamorous doctor: is he all he seems? Alec may easily be seen as an cynical serial seducer, preying on lonely and impressionable middle aged ladies with not enough to do with their lives. The scene of him barging in Laura at the Kardomah cafe and suggesting, as he gobbles bread roll, that he come to the pictures with her can be romantic or horribly creepy, depending on your own mood. We only have his word for it that he has the alibi of a spouse (“his wife…Madeleine…”) and children at home. And what of his ambiguous relationship with the vile surgeon, Stephen, who lends Alec the keys to his arty service flat where he keeps tropical fish on the mantelpiece above a live fire. Though evidently not with assignations with virtuous housewives in mind: Laura’s appearance there provokes the most appalling outburst of vindictive spite from Stephen. In fact the two doctors (in the 1940’s, unimpeachable pillars of the community) compare very badly with Fred and Mr Godbey the ticket-collector at Ketchworth Station who are protective, loyal, reliable and full of soothing common sense: the two men who are – and how ironically! – satirised as figures of fun.

Is the tale we are narrated by Laura actually true? She is a dreamer; the story of the film is told in a flashback of sad reverie – she dreams within the dream, sitting in a darkening railway carriage spinning fantasies “like a romantic schoolgirl, like a romantic fool”.

Has Laura imagined the whole thing? Was there really any love affair at all? Does the whole romance simply take place in her head, prompted by the chance encounter with Alec who takes the grit from her eye? Is the rest of the film just her fantasy, as she sits in her chair sewing, of what might have been? A hash of everything she’s ever seen on the cinema or read in a toiletry catalogue? “ Then all the silly dreams faded”…..

I don’t think Laura Jesson is much of a user of scent and I suspect that Fred would probably dislike it, though he doesn’t mind his wife smoking providing it’s not in the street. She disparages frivolous hats and too much make-up; the malevolent friend (sic) Mrs Norton is seen plucking her eyebrows like a bird of prey, while Laura stumbles through her poor little lies on the telephone. Laura likes the smell of her chemist’s (“nice things: herbs and soap and scent”); maybe she dabs a little eau de cologne on her hanky for special occasions, but no doubt has a horror of “common” perfumes such as Evening in Paris and Californian Poppy. In this she is unlike her creator, Noel Coward, who was a promiscuous and liberal lover of scent on stage and off: Arpege, Narcisse Noir, No 5 and Mitsouko were all grist to his mill. But Laura is a lover I’ll bet of scent stories and beautiful bottles, anything to feed that starving imagination like the barrel organ music that so delights her. (“Strange how potent cheap music is”). That movie that she and Alec walk out of, Flames of Passion, sounds like the name of a Woolworth perfume, all promise and no fulfilment.

As the lights come on at the Odeon is Laura left with a fragrant memory or a cheating whiff of lies? Top-notes of exciting illusion with no base in fact?

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The Golden Age of the Golden Fish

You don’t hear much about Chinese Restaurant syndrome these days but in the 1970’s it was all the rage and many’s the time I staggered and fell after an overdose of monosodium glutamate, most spectacularly at a huge establishment in Leicester Square. Flat on my face, taking the red lacquer chair with me: and after only jasmine tea to drink. The syndrome made the eater light-headed, wobbly on his feet and presently comatose: it felt like being ever so pleasantly suffocated by a Hungarian goose down pillow which is why a gasping for air was often cited as another symptom. That’s when I fell, making tracks for the door.

The city of Leicester (Gok Wan’s home town) used to boast a superb clutch of Chinese restaurants, now long gone. There was The Lotus House where my first ever migraine developed over a prawn curry; I was about nine and had just bought a copy of Myths and Babylon and Assyria. Half a century later any mention of Gilgamesh and Ishtar still summons up those aromatic but agonising crustaceans. The Hong Tao and the Bamboo House were down by the bus station – well rubber planted in the window and handy before or after the cinema. Fatal to eat before the big picture though, as the last stages of the Syndrome would kick in around Reel 3 of Anne of The Thousand Days, Cabaret or Young Winston, leading to deep restful sleep in the one and nines. You could still get into the Cameo Cinema in High Street for five bob or under, though its programme was mainly restricted to the Carry Ons; but .25p was still a lot to pay for a roaring pass-out on well-disinfected plush and half the movie missing.

So we preferred to dine after the show, at the Hong Tao – always empty – on their famous “specials”: a mound of bean shoots and water chestnuts topped with slices of pork coated in a Schiaparelli pink sauce and a fried egg. Very echt! The gastronomic equivalent of Beatrice Lillie’s yellow peril in Thoroughly Modern Millie. At midday all these establishments offered the amazing “Businessman’s Lunch” which stuck for years at .25p. (Coffee .5p extra.) Incredible value, even in 1976. For that you typically got white soup or canned orange juice; sweet and sour pork, beef chop suey or “English Dish”; fried or boiled rice followed by a deep fried fruit fritter in golden syrup. And these latter delicacies were lovely to look upon: rococo whorls of boiling hot crispy batter, filled with yellow tinned pineapple or fluffy apple. Naturally there was plenty of soy sauce on hand, for all but the fritter. No wonder we got sleepy.

These restaurants were all flatteringly dark to both face and food with a soft glow from gold tasselled plastic dragon lanterns and tanks of mauve-lit tropical fish.They were well carpeted: you couldn’t quite see, but the floor covering FELT thick – and faintly damp if you kicked off your shoes: damp in the way of expensive silk Oriental rugs, as you told yourself. The ambience was discreetly, weirdly hushed and seemed intensified by a thick warm soporific smell of gentle frying, rice water, and a glutinous aroma that was something between Horlicks and chicken flavour Cupasoup – bland and clinging and floury, but with a piquant kick to it: the chemicals, I suppose. Funnily enough,it didn’t cling to the person or clothing; nor did cigarette smoke from the tin ashtrays. They must have had exceptionally good air conditioning. Light subdued muzak – thoroughly Westernised – completed the picture. I can’t tell you how lovely it all was…and no pressure to eat up and leave.

All gone now: the modern style Chinese restaurant is bright brisk and laminated: no doubt the cuisine is more sophisticated, but the setting has lost character. How strange though to re-encounter rice as one of the latest ingredients on the perfumer’s palette. Rice powder – as in Creed’s Love in White – adds a soft faint powderiness as you’d expect from its cosmetic properties, drier and lighter than orris; more attuned to Austerity. A more exotic interpretation is the humid cereal aroma of steamed rice as featured in Fils de Dieu where it references oriental storms, heavy grey Chinese summer skies and the overheated but languid world of Maugham: duck suits soaked with perspiration after five minutes wear and their wearers dulled with opiates and chota pegs.”

The Blue Afternoon

One can admire and revere a perfume without having a desire to wear it and the last of the great Edwardian scents, L’Heure Bleue, is not to everyone’s taste. The great modern perfumer Francis Kurkdjian hates it, thinks it smells of burning rubber. Others, including myself, find the core of the scent more reminiscent of food – almond pastries, glutinous black cherry conserve and the clove of orange pomanders or pink Italian carnations. The heavy cloying food which piled all that creamy flesh onto the picture postcard beauties of the day: how they stride out these girls,charged up with calories, still lively on ancient newsreels of Ascot, the Gaiety Theatre, Longchamps and the Bois de Boulogne. A thoroughly emancipated walk heralding a new era, though still hampered by hobble skirts,
stays and no vote. L’Heure Bleue likewise falls between two worlds – more majestic and assertive than the swoon-away mauve boudoir ambience of Apres L’Ondee, Shem el Nessim and L’Origan; less mad than than the frenzied exaggerations and bizarrie of Narcisse Noir, Tabac Blond and the noisy novelty scents of Ragtime and the Jazz Age.

For a scent which ostensibly celebrates the hour of love, the twilit time of assignation when Paris as Nancy Mitford wrote looks as though “made of opaque blue glass”, L’Heure Bleue is a strangely robust perfume. It reminds me of Lillie Langtry whose exquisite face is from certain angles disconcertingly strong and powerful; her jaw square and bold; her body curiously muscular and masculine in that famous photograph of her marching down Sloane Street from the palace built for her by the Prince of Wales behind the Cadogan Hotel. Maybe this aspect of the perfume is what attracted the late Queen-Empress Elizabeth whose signature scent it is said to have been. It seems an odd choice for the ever smiling chiffony-powdery-petally Queen Mum, but more suitable for George V1’s steely consort and mentor, the Enriye of David and Wallis, the bombed-out consort who could look the East End (and no doubt Hitler, had needs be) in the face.

For at the heart of L’Heure Bleue’s grandeur is an intense melancholy and sense of tragedy which appealed so much to the neurotic literary genius Jean Rhys; and the lyrical perfumer Mona di Orio who confessed to being reduced to tears by the scent. I don’t know if Lady Duff Gordon and Mrs Astor took bottles aboard Titanic but the ship and the perfume both made their debut in 1912, and all too soon the best selling L’Heure Bleue became associated in the mind of its generation with the horror of the Great War, the collapse of old Europe, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919-20. It had caught the Zeitgeist to perfection and in a way, it transmuted into one of those superstitions that grew organically from the War: like “three on a match” and the ill-omened mixing of red and white hospital flowers.

Perfumes absorb the spirit of an age as well as reflect them: Chanel No 5 (1921) is a world reborn, glossy and adventurous and full of confident sexuality. L’Heure Bleue is death and decay, fading and lost love, a product of imperial luxury and complacence and the decadence inherent in that last flowering in the years before 1914 when the fruits were rotting from inside out. Within 5 years of the Romanov Tercentary Celebrations of 1913 the bodies of the Imperial family were ground into mud and ashes in a Siberian forest; the Prussian and Austro-Hungarian emperors gone into exile.
L’Heure Bleue rolled on, marked by its experiences and the wounds of its wearers: the only Guerlain scent that is indelibly dated; an unmistakable child of a century ago.

No wonder so many find it sad, even depressing: it is often smelled at funerals as it lulls mourners into a stupor of black poppies, spices, jasmin and those almost oppressively lush Bulgarian roses redolent of pepper and musk. It wraps you not in a veil, but a cloak of midnight blue velvet and musquash and sable. It stifles thought, it brings on the comforting warm darkness,it tempers the blues with the blue in almost homepathic principle. Hardly erotic, it is romantic, introverted,narcotic and sentimental. Reassuring and calming like the camouflage of mourning weeds, it muffles feeling and numbs thought like intravenous diazepam.

If you wear it, go easy or it will overcome you and your surroundings with an almost anaesthetic redolence with hints of camphor and menthol before the stained glass floral notes boil over like rose petal syrup – “…such sweet jams as God’s own Prophet eats in Paradise.” And to read as you wear it, William Boyd’s “The Blue Afternoon”, another masterpiece of doomed love.

It Couldn’t Please Me More

Luscious, golden, exotically armour-plated pineapples seem in many ways a more suitable nomination than the humble apple for the fruit that lured Adam and Eve from Paradise. First of all there is that wonderful contrast between the thorny exterior and the succulent inside: as piquant as cracking open a crab or scarlet lobster. The sunshine yellow flesh so aromatic and sticky-sweet is yet refreshing, thirst-quenching and if caught at exactly the right moment (you must smell the fruit in the shops as does the French housewife to catch it at the moment of perfection) just slightly crunchy without being fibrous. The rind is an aesthetic pleasure to watch as it ripens from jade to topaz and there is money to be made from the blue green leaves: in the days when pineapples were generally brought whole to table bets were laid on the number of spiny leaves (like baby aloes) sprouting from the head. There are always far more than you think.

Instead of a token of temptation – and how would our Mother Eve have peeled it? – the pineapple became on account of its rarity a symbol of hospitality during its first 500 years in the West, introduced from the Americas at vast cost of money and human misery. The first fruit to be grown here in the 1670’s by the enterprising and appropriately named gardener Mr Rose was personally presented to Charles 2nd and a picture painted to record the great event. Europeans spent fortunes trying to emulate Mr Rose’s efforts and cultivating a dainty dish to set before kings and honoured guests. Growing pineapples over here was a laborious, expensive and heart-breaking business: you needed pineapple pits, hot water pipes, constant turning, cosseting and applications of warm manure. Pineapples demanded 24 hour attendance; garden boys became their personal nursemaids as they were found to be even more difficult to rear than babies in the perilous eighteenth century. How ironic nowadays to find them priced down to a pound in the Co-Op when the raw fruit is often cheaper than a can of chunks.

Then, they became the ultimate luxury, the ne plus ultra gift: the equivalent of a Damien Hurst diamond skull, or a mink T shirt. (I said to this lady wearing the latter, “how do you clean it?” She said, “I buy a new one”). If you look at the stately homes of England you’ll see stone pineapples on roofs and gateposts; gilded ones on curtain finials and glass ones in the form of ice buckets and menu holders. Shining pineapples reflect the sun aloft on St Pauls; and sit atop the domes of the National Gallery if you look up from the yearning huddled masses of Trafalgar Square, every fruit promising a superabundant generous welcome.

Later, pineapples become iconic of Weimar Berlin, even having a song – “It Couldn’t Please Me More” – dedicated to them in the stage version of Cabaret. Those of you who are fans of The Blue Angel will remember Marlene being courted in her dressing-room by the boorish sea captain with a bottle of sekt and a pineapple from the Indies. Not that it gets him anything but the bum’s rush. It was around this time (1929) that pineapple started making the occasional foray into commercial scent. Perfumers noticed, like those canny housewives, what a glorious fragrance was to be had from the fruit and wove it into their own fantasies: it could be extracted (once again, at great cost) from the whole fruit via the juice, or produced synthetically. Volatile and appetising, pineapple made a voluptuous alternative to lemon, orange or bergamot in the top notes of a fragrance and added an aura of luxurious indulgence to the whole.

The late lamented Colonie by Patou was one of the cult glories of the 1930’s: a smell of the tropical possessions of the French empire, full of swampy vetiver and pineapple evoking steaming soaked mangrove forests and sweaty jungles – interesting to compare with Pierre Guillaume’s Indochine which takes the same inspiration but creates a totally different vision of incense + temples, the spirit rather than the flesh. Molinard de Molinard is an exquisite cool green veil of roses, muguet and mosses with a delicate nip of pineapple and raspberry: treat your bottle with great respect, cloaked in the darkness of your deepest drawer, as it fades rapidly with sunlight, but nurtured like fine fruit this is one of the most delicious and little known of perfumes.

L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Ananas Fizz (now defunct) with its tang of added coconut milk was great holiday fun. Belle Epoque by Knize includes pineapple among its multi-coloured Knickerbocker Glory of ingredients, but probably the ultimate triumph of the pine has come with Creed’s Aventus, the house’s best-seller of all time, even rivalling the legendary Green Irish Tweed. A dark aromatic woodsy scent full of jasmine, birch and juniper, oakmoss and vanilla, Aventus is a precious setting for the gleam and glitter of pineapple in the effervescent top notes grabbing the attention and seducing the senses.
A great introduction to an olfactory experience of this most welcoming and sociable of aromas.