“Would you like us to lay on a turkey?”

mariamontez

“Its almost here again!” as the sherry adverts used to say so reassuringly. And in the great stores the lovers of tradition are queuing up to keep Christmas with their annual purchase of Royal Secret, Nuit de Noel and Cinnabar. A great glowing gaudy perfume adds much to the sense of occasion and lays down every year in an scented album of memories: for myself I cherish thoughts of Decembers past spent with Fahrenheit, Lancome’s lost pearl Climat, Miss Dior, Creed’s Bois du Portugal, Coty’s Rose and Knize Ten. Arden’s Red Door was a real cracker: amazingly florid, exuberantly exaggerated – redder than Santa’s robe, bursting with a bumper harvest of scarlet roses, jasmine and vanilla. If ever a perfume was Queen of the Music Halls, this is it: spangled tights, plumes and earsplitting high notes.

Party perfumes, fragrances as brilliant and expressive as emerald and violet tinsel, golden ribbon and foil wrappings: a new flacon to open on Christmas Eve and polish off before Twelfth Night, keeping company with the sloe gin and the coruscating iced cake. But Shalimar is the flower of the flock, the non pareil. Worn on an endless rattling train into the dripping Fens for a New Years Lunch in ’94 it won me the ultimate accolade, the penetrating voice from further down the carriage: “There’s a wonderful smell in here…!”

In movie metaphor Shalimar is like Dorothy Lamour wrapped in a silver lame sarong or Maria Montez beneath a veiled turban. Shalimar is a glittering Edwardian pantomime at the Gaiety or the Alhambra with 100 gas footlights flickering blue and green and white to illuminate “Chu Chin Chow” or “Aladdin”, an exaggerated Western erotic fantasy of the Orient. A crazy intoxicating musical spectacle designed by Bakst in hues of orange, bronze, crimson and indigo – shimmering in the limelight with huge citric sequins of bergamot and lemon, turning to a rosy pink as luscious as the Principal Boy’s lips and as ample as her thighs and bust; as sexually ambiguous too as her courtship of Princesss Balroubador. Not for nothing do we see Diana Dors at her most incandescently platinum shot sharing a luminous close up with Shalimar in “Yield To the Night”. Those bizarre top notes like a burnt offering of perfumed woods, pop off like fireworks before simmering down into opoponax, tonka and a madly exaggerated creme brulee of vanillin. A spicy powderiness as from the No 1 dressing room dusts the wearer like the fragrant ashes of a fiery nimbus, or the immolation of a phoenix. And the bottle, the original fluted amphora with its stopper like an Egyptian fan or palm, must be the best ever – what might not happen if you rub it? Only one way to find out…

Image from chexydecimal.com

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Nor poppy nor mandragora nor all the drowsy syrups of the world….

mandragore

A kind reader and interlocutor asks for my thoughts on insomnia: a nightmare, is my oxymoronic response. I am not an habitual sufferer but some of my nearest and dearest suffer tortures from les nuits blanches. As ever, in her ineffable “ABC” Marlene Dietrich offers some practical German lore: prior to retiring prepare a dark rye sandwich filled with sardine and chopped raw onion. Eat it in bed. It will knock you out like a blow from a sandbag. I’ve never had the nerve to try this remedy, as inevitably raw onion plays hell with me but there’s no doubt that ingestion of food at 3am (a biscuit, a spoonful of honey, warm milk- Nature’s own proven sleeping draught) can work wonders. Which is why a touch of gourmand perfume on wrist and pillow may help to induce sleep: I’m thinking of the creamy white chocolate of Musc Maori, a velvety syrup of tonka, vanilla and cocoa to lull the brain and unwind the knotted nerves.

But as sufferers know there’s a difference between temporary sleeplessness and the writhing agonies of an insomniacs white night: the racing mind, the sweats, the anxiety, desperation and angry despair. The bedside clock leering at you as it races towards its predestined pre-dawn shrilling. I associate this condition with extremes of temperature, tangled bedclothes and those terrible peppermint green nylon fitted sheets that were all the go in the 1970’s and which shot forth static sparks as your restless feet pedalled the bed: the scent of perfume stimulants like Mad Madame and Malaise of the 1970s – the electric tuberose of Madame being so thrilling and hyper that it banishes forever the thought of sleep. The purple hearts of perfume which bring back memories of a Fulham cafe called “Up All Night”: an ironically ambiguous name I always thought.

For, as sleep inexorably recedes, the nervous system becomes so unbearably taut that any loud smell may amplify unbearably like the ticking of that cruel clock. Try time-honoured lavender to soothe: Tauer’s Reverie Au Jardin reminds me of my grandmother’s excellent advice to meditate on the colour and texture of a sapphire velvet curtain. Here’s a translucent blue-green breeze of Alpine lavender which cools your hand and guides you to a soft cool bed of roses and soporific scented woods. Just deeply inhaling and rolling your eyes upwards at its beauty may help. First World War shell-shocked patients were advised to roll up their eyeballs as far back as they’d go. This I have tried: it causes involuntary yawning, and this infallibly – eventually – promotes sleep. It worked last night. Try it while you’re waiting for Santa this Christmas Eve…

Image from botinok.co.il

…and of course, Quite Alone…

One seems to come closest to the famous in their bedrooms despite the fact that by the time the chambers are thrown open to the public their occupants are long since dead. The oddest and most neglected (I was the only visitor) was at Field Marshall Rommel’s wartime beach villa outside Tunis: the bedroom was dark and stark with a narrow bunk (“time to turn over, time to turn out”) and a scorched lampshade which looked as though the Desert Fox had used too high a bulb wattage. A whiff of Tabac still seemed to hang around the dank plunge bath. Across the Atlantic, Noel Coward’s Jamaican bedroom is full of creeping damp and no glass in the windows. Only slightly mildewed, “That Man” talc still lurks heroically in the bathroom cabinet.

Queen Victoria’s cosy Sterbezimmer may be seen at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Here she died in the arms of the Kaiser in a surprisingly simple room with a lot of flowered chintz, the carpet patterned with pink roses. A wooden nightstand by the big double bed no doubt contains a you-know-what within. Over the pillow hangs a coloured photo of the Prince Consort, taken lying cold and dead in 1861. A painting of Albert as a fairy prince in armour stands on an easel by the bed, the first sight meeting the old Queen’s eyes as she awoke. What we don’t see, maybe surprisingly to the modern mind, are the ritual appurtenances of clothing, hair dressing and adornment which of course would be stored next door in the dressing room – that room once so full of life and interest and bustle, sometimes doubling also as bathroom and wardrobe.

There at a gloriously ornate turquoise and gold Sevres glass with romping cherubs cavorting beneath a crown Victoria gazed into her own blue eyes, round as buttons, and watched her hair being polished with silk before being dressed: “60 years a Queen and always the same hairstyle!” said my pompadour’d and disapproving great grandmother. Here, too, Victoria dabbed a little perfume on a handkerchief or on one of the huge lace fans she favoured. Whereas it was considered then de trop for a respectable woman to scent her skin, the faint sillage from a wisp of fluttering fabric was permitted. In youth Victoria loved brilliant striking floral scents – E Coudray was one of her suppliers and Creed another. Think of her embowered in the roses of Fleurs de Bulgarie, that extraordinarily dense bouquet of crimson Bulgarian roses, which smells at first of pear drops, honey and nectar: some people find that the intensity of it gives them gooseflesh, makes the hair on their arms rise. But wait for the rose attar to open, soften and flower on what smells like a golden ottoman of ambergris, musk, tonka and vanilla. You come to a uniquely stately, confident and womanly scent and one that in the extraganza and concentration of its simple formula gives an idea of the monolithic, massive nature and structure of Victorian perfumes.

I leave you at the toilet table of Marie Antoinette, as described by J B B Nichols; that gold and crystal altar wheeled forward like Juggernaut to the windows among the lilac bouquets and peacock feathers of the cavernous Versailles bedroom.

‘This was her table, these her trim outspread
Brushes and trays and porcelain cups for red;
Here sate she, while her women tired and curled
The most unhappy head in all the world.’

Image from english-heritage.org.uk