Retail Therapy

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The first perfumes I ever bought were (of course) 4711; Coty’s Rose (which I believe cost 25p – five shillings then); and the long-defunct Casablanca – a men’s fragrance which became notorious after several cases of wearers spontaneously combusting or otherwise catching fire. Before that we all used deodorants or even hairspray as perfumes, and also dabbed around with bath oils. All this fragrant booty was bought in an ugly little village which had something of Haworth about it; a gloomy grimy place but minus the moors, tourist trade or the Brontes. You crossed the culverted brook, passed the crumbling mill and climbed the hill to the butchers, church, pet shop and a chemist’s which was so crammed and dishevelled that much of the stock spilled out through the doorway crushed, crumpled, not exactly soiled but far from pristine.

From this disordered but stimulating grotto you could take home Tabac, Blue Grass, Brut, Quelques Fleurs, In Love, My Love, Charlie, Blase and Tramp (“she’s wearing Tramp and everybody loves her”) and at any time of year there were always masses of grainy gritty bath cubes, “heavily perfumed” with ersatz carnation. These are always mixed up in my mind with the same-named scouring powder (the texture of which they resembled), tinned milk and corn plasters. Kiddle Kolognes, Kiku (packaged in egg yolk yellow) and lovely comforting Yardley still ruled supreme. On a roll from all this olfactory gratification we reeled out into the street where heavy odours of smoked bacon and cheese rolled from the grocers with the tang of particularly greasy cheese and onion crisps which always tasted good when washed down with warm Campari: something to do with the herbal blending, I guess.

The post-office smelled unaccountably of powered scrambled eggs, ink and dessicated dust; the pet shop of mice, bran and rabbit. The butchers’ aroma was of fresh juicy meat which sounds obvious enough, but it’s rather rare these days in the era of multi-packaging and laboratory reared meals. Only the other day I heard retail experts pointing out that flesh must never be displayed in shop windows for fear of scaring the punters; it must sit at the back, veiled decently in shadow. Our fish shops (now so rare and we had three) were salty, lemony, golden-crispy by noon – “Kindly Note: Oil Changed Daily”. The wool shop was airless, close and full of lanolin. But the best smells came from the huge hardware warehouse: creosote, tar, new metal, Made in China crockery and fripperies, plant bulbs, peat, bolts of gaudy oilcloth, Zip fire-lighters (which I always wanted to eat, like choc ices), formica, lino, canvas, sacking, saw dust and newly cut wood. Gorgeous. We’d go in and snuff up the air like hounds upon the scent.

At least perfume shops still smell good, still smell mysterious, voluptuous and rich. If only we could bottle the scent of Les Senteurs, that wonderful accumulated pot-pourri of sillages that Dodie Smith describes so memorably in I Capture The Castle when the girls venture into a fragrance department up West. Well, we’re trying…

Photo courtesy of staff.

Fairest of All

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“In winter a Queen sat at a window sewing..”: the classically simple first line of the folktale Snow White as told by the Brothers Grimm. To me, it resonated in the Arctic freeze of the past winter like the tolling of a bell, calling out over the snowbound land. We know exactly what is to follow: the words have an incantatory invocation, like the reciting of a spell, or the singing of a hymn. They release the power of the story afresh by setting out its elements in a formal familiarity from which one cannot deviate without losing essential magic.

Snow White is a parable of innumerable layers, exploring elements and psychoses of the human condition, sexuality, death and the toxic family. There is also the pervasive theme of vanity: seen not only in the jealousy of the step-mother, but in the desire of Snow White’s own mother for a perfect child in red, white and black; the baby that costs her her own life. On the first two visits of the wicked Queen to Snow White at the dwarves’ house she lures the girl with laces for her stays (pulled tight to asphyxiate her) and a poisoned comb for Snow White’s hair. Presumably even the humblest eighteenth century German peasant girl could identify with the desire for these modest luxuries: a fatal flask of perfume would maybe have been too rare ambiguous and arcane a treasure to feature in a fireside tale. Having failed to slay Snow White through vanity, the Witch-Queen then turns to another deadly sin, greed: and the fatal apple – the fruit that undid Eve.

But all through the tale you can smell scents – snow-bound castles and forests, glittering mountain peaks, flowering woods and pastures, fine leather and fabrics, snug little cottages fragrant with woodsmoke and beeswax polish. Cloon Keen‘s new fragrance Lune de Givre has a corresponding ethereal fantasy quality about it: a pale silvery green frosted moon shining over a winter landscape but stimulating warmth and growth in the earth below, budding with seeds and new life. Sharp fresh galbanum underlines the arcane chthonic qualities of vetiver and the magnificent delicate pepperiness of angelica.

prod_5148There is another Grimm tale in which an enchantress gives a poor girl three seeds or tiny nuts: in each is a dress, successively magnificent, outshining the stars, the moon, the sun. Lune de Givre has this opulence about it too, graced with a soft embracing cloud of orris which unites the fragrance in a surge of twilit passion, under the darkness of the night sky or the eternal starlit forests. And like a fairy tale, Lune de Givre has a universality to it: perfect for princes as well as princesses. As Tynan said of Marlene Dietrich, it has sex but no gender: a warm and hypnotic experience both calming and arousing, glamorous and serenely timeless.

Image from candlelightstories.com

DAFFS

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The daffodils have been late in coming this year. In one of those strange warm non-winters earlier this century I noted on my calendar that they were in full blow in the London parks on February 9th, which makes them now two months behind. But in the supermarkets and flower stalls they’re freely obtainable, wonderfully cheap and you can turn your home into a glowing golden glade with minimum outlay. At Easter I filled a room with bowls of hyacinths, narcissi and six vases of daffs, spending no more than on a moderate bottle of wine. The cream and tangerine narcissi smelled as pungent and heady as tuberoses, while the daffodils sprinkled motes of pollen in the sunbeams which lit up every shade of yellow in those petals like silky waxed paper.

Daffodils are such accommodating plants – cheap and easy to grow, long lasting when cut – that they are often underrated and taken for granted. Over the centuries they have been bred and developed from a modest wild flower to showy flaunting beauties. Pilgrims to Wordsworth’s lakeside daffodils are often taken aback by their delicacy, miniatures in beige or sepia rather than the giant blooms of the horticulturists in every colour of sunshine and sunset, fire and flame, pink grapefruit, raspberry and orange. Even my Tesco’s three dozen, opening slowly in a sunny cold room, attained a remarkable size. They were rightly marvelled at as though,with their frilled trumpets, weird subtle fragrance and slender jade leaves they might have been sulphurous canary cattleya orchids against a sky as blue as that of Brazil.
Hence the acuteness of Elizabeth Bowen’s short story “Daffodils” which delicately probes this ambiguity in a tale of a school mistress’s past.

The scent is wonderful, though easily missed and not a little strange. You have to be looking out for it; like that of many flowers it is perhaps not quite what you imagined. Daffodils smell dry and green and slightly peppery; a trifle rough and lightly feral – gorged with pungent raw spring pollen. They smell of growing and pulsating life, the urgent uncontrolled resurrection of the spring; of rubber gloves and gas and crisp chilled white wine. For many of us this is the first garden fragrance of the year, especially if you can no longer get down on your knees to smell the honeyed snowdrops and musky, fleshy, powdery violets. It’s a colder, fresher, more bracing scent than the swooning jasmine odour of vibernum, or the piercing sweetness of hyacinths which for some people is unpleasantly redolent of cat world – a touch of domestic civet in the herbaceous border.

Daffodil is only occasionally used as a note in perfume, sometimes peeping from older twentieth century creations. I think the flower’s familiarity works against it psychologically; it seems lacking in exoticism though rich in scent. Like the blossoms of potatoes, beans both broad and runner, wallflowers, gorse, pansies and petunias the daffodils are maybe perceived as too humble to mingle with ambergris, ylang ylang and gardenia in a crystal flacon or sprayed on ivory shoulders. For perfumers who have dared to experiment it has yet yielded effective results. Bronnley once made a delicious cologne, perfect for splashing around after a bath, sweet and naïve and refreshing. Daltroff used daffodil to add a sly faux-innocence to the top notes of Narcisse Noir, and it turns up in Jean Patou’s devastating Adieu Sagesse of 1925.

One of the dozen corkers later marketed by Patou as “Ma Collection” Adieu Sagesse (and what a name!) is a worthy sister of such weird masterpieces as Chaldee, Colonie and Moment Supreme. It was coming to the end of its long story when I knew it, one of its fans being Prime Minister’s wife and poet, Lady Mary Wilson. The Wilsons owned a house in the Scilly Islands and no doubt the scent of the warm daffodil air of the isles chimed with Lady Wilson’s favourite perfume. “Is she fragrant?” as a contemporary High Court judge famously asked of quite another political spouse of that era. This was a time when Prime Minister’s wives often seemed vague and remote; the charming, enigmatic and discreet Baroness perhaps reveals as much about herself in this lost musky floral as she does in her poems.

“Red Roses For a Blue Lady” – La Fille de Berlin

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Serge Lutens’ latest fragrance, a perfume of blood-red roses and peppers, glows in its classic bottle like a liquid jewel from a medieval apothecary’s cabinet. “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies”. Its inspiration is the wreck, ruin and resurrection of post-war Berlin in the warm spring of 1945; and the work of the Trummerfrauen the civilian women who brought order to chaos clearing the rubble with buckets and their bare hands. Toiling in the dust, wives, mothers and daughters trampled underfoot the mad dreams of Hitler and Speer. Passing bricks and stones from hand to hand in an endless human chain, the women of Berlin laid the foundations of the economic miracle and the ghost of the Thousand Year Reich that had immolated itself after little more than a decade. Nightmares of the past slowly faded in the face of practicality and sanity.

And the flowers bloomed on the shattered masonry. La Fille de Berlin is a meditation on hope and the toughness of the human spirit; the perennial triumph of good over evil, light over darkness. But it is still ambiguous in its references: it offers romance in many forms, not only the marriage lines of the war brides but also the few hours of any meeting between an enamoured civilian and lonely soldier. It breathes the same air as Billy Wilder’s sour contemporary comedy “A Foreign Affair”, also set in Berlin, which implies that Americans and Nazis are brothers under the skin; that chicanery and corruption are what makes the world go round. As the old Argentine tango says ” The 20th century is unsurpassed for insolent evil…”

Wilder is equally ambiguous in his film images. He stages Marlene Dietrich (who was inevitably, though erroneously, suspected of spying by both sides) singing three masterpieces of cynicism and kitsch: Illusions, Black Market and (with silken roses at her bosom) Ruins of Berlin. Dietrich wears copies of the dresses which she wore in her war-time concert tours; her on-screen accompanist is Frederick Hollander who played for her in The Blue Angel and had known her in Weimar Berlin in the Roaring Twenties. Her female co-star is the frosty blonde Jean Arthur, representing neurotic repression (Nazi puritanism / the pursed lips of the American Mid-West) against Dietrich’s florid pre-war sexuality. The past and present, truth and fiction, are inextricably conflated.

Just so with La Fille de Berlin. At first sight and smell you are ravished by a lush Easter bouquet, a glorious spray of scarlet roses so perfectly reproduced that you can feel the petals against your cheek and the dew on your skin. But if you choose, should you let your nose have full rein and allow the fragrance its full expansion, there is something troubling beyond and beneath: a hint of a German cultural perversity – a Grimm fairy tale; Veronika Voss’s suicide as the Paschal bells peal over Munich. In his study of Berlin at war, Roger Moorhouse writes that one of the most pervasive smells of the doomed city was that of halitosis. Pace “Secretions Magnifiques“, perfumery is not quite ready for this most shattering of notes. But Lutens nonetheless alludes to something awry; a rustling beneath the flowers, like Cleopatra’s asp among the figs. Not decay, exactly, but a pourri’d ripeness, perfection that can only spoil. A rosy fruity bloom on the verge of corruption – “O rose thou art sick..”. The unmistakable dark richness of Alpha Damascone; Goethe’s morning rose unfolding only to be broken by the wild boy on the heath.

Or the Rose of Novgorod, the crimson rose that perished in the Russian snows in the corny but irresistible ballad sung by Zarah Leander – the Swedish-born “Queen of the Reich Cinema” and maybe KGB agent too. Leander’s own signature was the feral and complex Bandit – a scent which is too good to rush here and to which we shall return on another occasion.