Magnolia

magnolia

O, the exquisite torture of cultivating a magnolia tree! Fatally easy to grow in the English climate and a cliche of every suburban garden, its beautiful flowers are nonetheless peculiarly susceptible to the vagaries of our weather. Ruin can come upon you within hours. Last year the great moon blossoms opened overnight in a burst of late March warmth, only to be nipped within the week by a savage frost which reduced the white velvet petals to rags of brown shrivelled canvas. These unsightly tragedies clung to the tree for weeks, like traitors’ heads on old London Bridge, enough to make you weep and a grim warning against the vanity of human hope. This year’s cold late spring kept the magnolias back another month and my tree escaped the frosts only to fall victim to the winds. But a respectable number of flowers have survived, weirdly late in the season, and the fallen petals look wonderful on the grass, glowing and gleaming in the gloaming. Strange they should be so fragile. These trees have been on the planet since the end of the Jurassic Period: their blooms were among the first flowers to appear on Earth. But a chilly English night is still too much to ask of them.

If you own a magnolia you’ll maybe wonder every spring if it’s worth the agony – this huge anticipation of a few days of loveliness; and hopes so often dashed. But then, which spring flowers and shrubs do last? Lilacs and guelder roses, cherry and apple blossom are all the more exquisite for their fleeting appearances. An uncertain two week flowering period is the norm and the brevity is surely part of the bitter sweet appeal, a mordant metaphor of the human condition.

“Man that is born of woman is of a few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower and is cut down: he flees also as a shadow and continues not.” Job had it right.

Do we want anything to last for ever? Mythology tells us of Anchises, father of Aeneas, who was granted the gift of immortality by the goddess Aphrodite. But he forgot to ask for the complementary blessing of eternal youth and grew unimaginably shrivelled and decrepit over the centuries until the goddess, unable to withdraw her divine favour, turned him into grasshopper,crazily chirping – and easily squashed, one supposes.

Everyone thinks he wants a perfume that will last indefinitely on the skin; to me this sounds a nightmare comparable to other putative perpetual sensory experiences – a meal that never ends; a concert with no finale; eyes that never close. Spring is so emotionally demanding that we cannot bear too much of its verdant reality, its explosive bursting into life.  And fragrance, like flowers, should catch the nose, delight the brain, dissipate – then come again, alternately dying down and reviving like a plant, all the more enchanting for its transitoriness.

In Rome, fifteen years ago, I made a chilly spring pilgrimage to the gardens of the Villa Borghese only to find them closed so I never did see the famous magnolia avenue. However we can all smell an impression of it in Eau d’Italie’s cool and stylish fragrance Magnolia Romana. The scent of a magnolia will vary according to type; but it’s a cool, white perfume which fits the look of the flower perfectly. Soft, clean, mellow – something like the very finest soap but without undue sweetness. Slightly reserved, discreet: you’ll not usually find the smell by lingering near the tree. You need to poke your nose into a low-growing flower, like a pollinating bee. (Or questing beetle, since bees did not exist when magnolias first evolved). Magnolia Romana catches the fragrance wonderfully, weaving together accords of hay, basil, cedar and watery lotus
into a fresh newly-washed perfume which has a faint damp green earthiness beneath the petals. The new grass and the spring rains shine through the petals. Quite simple, quite delicious. And no Angst at all.

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A Day at the Races

ascotposter

A perfumer was probing the other day asking for my earliest memories of smell, a topic which regular readers will know is one of my favourite themes. The more you talk about it, the more the memories return. 55 years rolled away and I remembered the notorious Strawberry Elephant. This was a toy given to my baby brother by his godfather. About the size of a generous teddy it was made, as I recall, of some kind of foam rubber in a brilliant shocking pink and its smell was as startling as its colour. It was very very heavily impregnated with the scent of vanilla and ersatz strawberries – but a bad vanilla, that terrible artificial vanilla that has undertones of parmesan cheese mixed with candyfloss. You occasionally meet it in those hanging air fresheners that come in the form of cardboard fir trees, sold in packets of 3. The strawberry was deadly sweet even to my two year old’s nose and seemed to cling unnaturally to the skin if you caressed the animal. The house was filled with the smell: visitors were repelled by the miasma, the baby was terrified of the toy and Jumbo rapidly ended up in the caring arms of the Red Cross. He was a watchword for offensive smells for many years.

On early spring Saturday afternoons we all set off for the local point to point races; my veterinary father was usually on duty to treat equine injuries. The rest of us climbed on straw bales to take the bracing air, huddled in the car if wet, grizzled, squabbled, ate and drank Vimto through straws. It was at a point to point that another child taught me the dangerous trick of licking batteries to feel an electric jolt through the tongue. As I got older I took to safer thrills and brought along the latest library book. Our elders laid bets, gossiped, flirted, consumed a lot of gin, smoked, dodged well-known bores and walked the course with the dogs. Everyone had problems with the appalling lavatory arrangements and the more fastidious sought out hedges and copses. By 5 o’clock on a bad day the grass would be so sodden and swampy that cars had to be hauled out by tractors.

The smells were fantastic and various, not just juniper gin, cigars, cigarettes and pipes but a hillside covered with cowslips in full yellow bloom; fried onions, hot dogs and wet dogs; latrines, petrol, sweating horses, fresh earth and new trampled grass; crushed violets, damp tweed, gum boots, leather saddles and boots. There were draughts of heavy penetrating perfume and make up. Horsey ladies in those days wore extra heavy make-up of almost operatic flamboyance to counteract the effects of winds and weather as they tucked into succulent pork pies, whiffy sardine sandwiches and hot tomato soup. Tupperware boxes exuded the green crispness of tomato, cucumber and shredded lettuce drenched in the tangy “liquid sunshine” of bottled salad dressing. And you smelled money – great greasy wads of pound notes and fivers; the bitterness of old coppers and silver sourly handed out by bitter old bookies, and through chicken-wire grilles in the more refined atmosphere of the Tote. And how that tent smelled after a couple of hours on a busy sodden March day.

It was lovely, even rolling home with hangovers of various kinds and everyone cold, over excited and inclined to be fractious. One last stop at a pub on the way and then back for supper – someone sent down the garden to cut a cabbage, its great purple-grey-green outer leaves full of raindrops and exuding that strange scent that is something between mackintoshes and vegetable sap. All safe in the knowledge of another outing the next weekend.

Twilight Sleep – L’Eau de Circe

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I warned (or promised) you that we should return again to the theme of sleep; and what better time than now when the lurch into spring plays havoc with the body. The clocks go forward, temperatures fluctuate violently, clothes feel too heavy or too light. An Iraqi Kurdish barber once told me that the logical healthy remedy was blood letting – to drain off the poisons of the winter, to relieve seasonal tensions and impurities and that sensation of fogged vagueness. Twilight Sleep therefore strikes a chord: it’s a title I had long bagged for use, but I now find that Edith Wharton beat me to it in 1927. My great aunt was sedated with the German twilight sleep procedure in 1922: she awoke with twin daughters and a foster baby in the bed. A dream transformation indeed.

The Greeks believed that dreams come to and fro from the Valley of Sleep: those that pass out through the Gates of Ivory are mere fantasies, those that leave through the Gates of Horn are destined to come true. The dreams and thoughts of Twilight Sleep are those wandering reveries of half reality, half unconsciousness when we drift and then come to ourselves still unable for a few seconds to distinguish fact from fiction – those moments when we startle awake at our desks, on the Tube or before the tv unsure where or who we are, maybe drooling a little, bemused and half stunned.

Parfumerie Generale’s L’Eau de Circe is a magical but baffling phantasm of this realm. A soft warm damp cloud tinted with all the hues of the setting summer sun, this perfume is mysterious as it is seductive. It references the ethereal and the earthy, the grotesque and the romantic. Circe was an enchantress from a family of magicians who beguiled Odysseus on his sea voyage home from Troy. The hero’s thwarted attempts to reach his wife in Ithaca follow a classic anxiety dream pattern: like those nightmares in which one tries continually to catch a train, pack a suitcase or find the right book, Odysseus is hindered at every turn by the intervention of a supernatural being. Cyclops, Sirens, Lotus Eaters all impede him. The lovely Circe lays on a luscious feast in the gardens of a scented palace for the crew of the traveller’s ship; then on a whim, disgusted by their gluttony and drunkenness, she transforms them into swine in a typical abrupt dream metamorphosis. With divine aid Odysseus forces Circe to restore his men to human shape and in another sudden volte face the witch becomes a benevolent fairy.

Pierre Guillaume’s scent floats in an intoxicating haze of lilacs, osmanthus. The initial effect is of harmony, gentle innocence and peace; but then the animalic powdery musky lilac starts to pound and a fruity vinous note of osmanthus introduces a faintly oppressive mood, heightened by a dampness, a humidity: hypnotic yes, but maybe with a touch of feminine menace. Is osmanthus perhaps one of those trees beneath which it is dangerous to sleep? Do the sleepers awake raving like those who doze beneath the cypress, the datura or the pink and white oleander? L’Eau de Circe captures that moment just before the gorging sailors become pigs, the moment when the sorceress’s baleful beautiful green eye freezes the feasters with a basilisk stare. It reminds us of Alma Tadema’s painting of another doomy banquet – the diners frozen in time as the suspended canopies of roses let fall and millions of petals suffocate the revellers beneath. L’Eau de Circe is a riddle worthy of the sphinx; we smell it like children thrilled by the beauty and terror of a fairytale, reassured by the certainty of a happy outcome

For the Lady of the Camellias…..

Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor

I have a large pink camellia by the back door and it’s just blooming now – two months late, like everything else this year: the astonishing cold has prolonged the snowdrops for a record four months’ flowering. Camellias tend to flourish outside kitchen doors and utility rooms: for all their exotic beauty they are tough creatures and enjoy hot fumey wafts from central heating vents, washing machine drainage and Agas. They flowered like mad in clouds of steam in a grim little patch of dirt under the bathroom windows at school; coming from the hills of Asia they are cold and frost resistant but dearly love a little heat where they can find it.

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Their apparently romantic name is a bit of a disappointment – they are simply called after their European discoverer, the Jesuit botanist George Kamel, and the leaves of the species camellia sinensis brews up for tea. The camellia japonica is a practical beauty: how apt that Dumas should have chosen it as the emblem of the dying courtesan Marguerite Gautier, the grande horizontale up from the country who knows how to catch a swarm of bees and graze a cow. Inevitable that Garbo should take the part on film in 1936: the tall, rather ungainly Swede who began her career in a Stockholm barber shop, counted the sugar lumps in her larder, and chose her five Renoir canvases to match the carpets had a atavistic affinity with the role.

Supposedly a favourite movie of both Hitler¤ and Mme Mao*, Camille is a asphyxiation of studio-bound artifice right from the Valentine card lace of the titles and the cardboard Paris florists of the opening scene. Garbo’s paper camellias crackle and rustle on the soundtrack as she tucks them into her décolletage and woven-in ringlets. She is the only member of the cast who reacts spontaneously, seeming (as always on film) strangely detached from the strenuous acting of her colleagues though amiably humouring them: she chuckles a lot in the first half of the film – in character to be sure, but maybe also amused by the monkey antics of the rest of the MGM prestige troupe.

The stylised look of the camellia – the white cut-out petals, the dark shiny foliage like a child’s drawing of leaves – is visually perfect on film. The nature of the flower is richly symbolic: showy but unscented (fragrance was later bred into certain species) it is a perfect incarnation of a lady of the demi-monde – a creature of showy perfect loveliness but without a heart or human feelings. Camellias are not meant to be picked, when you pluck them they bruise, the petals unravel: take them indoors and they wither and die. You cannot hold them captive any more you can a butterfly or polar bear. Alphonsine Duplessis, the girl upon whose tragic career Dumas based the novel, carried bouquets of camellias to advertise availability: white when free, red when not. This conceit was too much for Hollywood; for Garbo, they are presented more as a floral comfort blanket, an accessory to Adrian’s gorgeous crinolines and those unbecoming hats, too fussy for that wonderful angular face of planes.

Maybe, too, cinema-goers fancied that Garbo was bathed in a fragrance of camellias. Those few scents based on the plant that I recall have picked up the tea leaf note – they’ve been verdant, woody; a fragrance of stems and stalks and sap. Bronnley did one with a bath line; Chanel, a delicious limited edition in the 1990’s, which lasted just long enough for everyone to fall in love with it – and then died. For warm springs and hot summers try Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier‘s Eau de Camellia Chinois – the crispness of camellia sinensis wrapped in cool dark banana leaves and served with ice. Dazzling, refreshing, green and sweet.
The kind of fresh clean fragrance that Garbo herself, a fancier of crisp uncomplicated colognes, might have enjoyed.

¤ Hitler asked Garbo to meet him for one of his famous teas, an invitation which was declined. Later she is claimed to have regretted this, saying she should have taken a revolver with her and shot him.

* A former actress, Mme Mao wore her personal print of Camille literally to a shadow. When it was found after her downfall only a few flickers on celluloid remained. The Sound of Music had received similar treatment.

Image of Garbo and Taylor from garboforever.com, Image of Camellia by Lemon Wedge