Woman in a Dressing Gown

From http://notreallyworking.co.uk

A universal cliche holds it as a truth that you cannot portray or even talk about perfume on film or tv without extreme difficulty: ” they can’t smell it, don’t you see?”. I don’t at all agree, holding with that apocryphal but accurate endorsement of radio that the pictures on the wireless are better. I believe that imaginary smells may be more pungent if the correct stimuli are applied to the senses. Do you remember that gruesome children’s game – was it Murderer in the Dark?  – when we all sat in a circle with the lights off while peeled grapes, lumps of meat, pickled onions and egg yolks were passed from hand to hand, purporting to be parts of a dismembered corpse? (Childhood still retained its innocence in the 1950’s). Parents worked very hard preparing the objects for this tableau vivant and there’s no doubt it left a lasting impact on the players and the development of their imaginations.

If you think about it, film has always been able to suggest smell and scent; using them as part of the holistic mood of a movie. I don’t mean that handful of novelty features which pumped smells into the auditorium or used scratch cards to release odours on cue.(“Smell-o-vision” being one such process). No. I’m talking about aromas released in the viewer’s head via the screenplay, the dialogue, the camera. “Out of the character comes the movement; and out of the movement comes the dialogue”, Louise Brooks used to say. Maybe out of the camera comes the perfume.

And out of the vision of a gifted director. Think of Germany’s first talkie, Dietrich’s breakthrough picture The Blue Angel. Setting the action mainly in schoolrooms and the backstage of  tavern cabarets Von Sternberg enhances his banal and sordid theme with a battery of smells, mostly unsavoury, implied by sets, characters and action. A dead canary thrown into the stove, a performing bear, Marlene’s knickers repeatedly gloated over by the camera, face powder blown in Emil Jannings’ face, tatty costumes, beer, cheap champagne,coffee, smoke, tobacco, broken eggs, a pineapple, chalk dust, old books, sweaty wigs…well, see for yourselves sometime. Then take a deep breath on Sunset Boulevard. I don’t know whether (as Caron used to claim) Billy Wilder really sprayed the sets with Narcisse Noir but there’s certainly the dead monkey, the decaying house and pool, the Isotta Fraschini upholstered in leopard in the damp garage, Norma’s Egyptian cigarettes (“Abdullahs”), her tuberose perfume, her “half an inch of makeup”, the rats, the untouched buffet at her New Year party. Plus, what is she smoking in that curious wire holder on her finger? I’m now on series 4 of Mad Men and a holder just like Norma’s is used to puff marijuana at a wild club. And we all used to think it was the champagne making her talk so silly.

But the olfactory movie par excellence must be the more modest Woman In A Dressing Gown, Ted Willis’s 1957 British slice of kitchen sink: Amy (Yvonne Mitchell) in the throes of unrecognised undiagnosed depression, surrounded by her ghastly menfolk and her own hopeless mess at 23 Nightingale House. She’s past bothering to dress, just throws on the eponymous dressing gown.  Her first appearance is accompanied by an beast-like snuffling and sniffing as the breakfast toast burns, followed by a huge close-up of the charred slice shot from under the grill. We’re off!

The camera lingers obsessively over Amy’s dreadful cooking – the blackened bacon and eggs, soaked in fat and the plate wiped on her gown; the burned fillet of plaice and chips (“Smells Good!” – doesn’t taste it though); and yet another supper treat, “cold ham, cold veal, cold pork”. All are served with a battery of bottled sauces, and everything smells of confusion, anxiety and a desperate longing to nurture and please. (Jimbo’s mistress, of course, cooks like an angel in the kitchen: a beautifully presented Sunday roast to mirror her skill in quite a different room).

From breakfast we cut to Jimbo shaving in a steamy bathroom and segue into laundry, hot irons, baby-minding, pawnshops (an old old coat being popped), timber yards, the river, raucous pubs, a hairdressing salon run by Olga Lindo, Tallulah’s understudy in the 1920’s and now a gruff dragon-manageress with a golden heart. And the rain pours down: black, mucky, sooty city rain – used as so often in old cinema as a metaphor for sex, a symbol of illicit passion. Wasn’t film so much more interesting when we had to familiarise ourselves with all these codes and ciphers which faded away so quickly with the collapse of censorship? The film ends with the saddest “happy ending” you ever saw and a threat that the dressing gown may be discarded, even washed. Like dogs, the characters have returned to their own vomit, reassured by the smells of their own debris and failure, safe if not happy in their soiled bedding.

Image from: http://notreallyworking.co.uk

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STRAWBERRY: The Straying Plant

Strawberries

Strawberries are a disarmingly modest but luxurious fruit. At their best they should be home-grown, caressed by the summer sun on their beds of straw to the most brilliant ruby colour so that you smell them on the air before you see them: like melons, nectarines and pineapples the nose detects their ripeness before the tongue. We seem to think of them, quite wrongly, as quintessentially British. We serve them at Wimbledon and Ascot at outrageous price, take them on picnics, mash them up with meringue to make Eton mess. Is it because they are synonymous with the fragile and precarious midsummer that we love them so much? Do they symbolise our national obsession with the weather and our pursuit of the sun?

Like the cherry, the strawberry is sometimes listed as one of the fruits of Paradise, associated with the Blessed Virgin because the fruit simultaneously symbolises purity and fertility. It combines the magic colours of red and green: life and resurrection, the renewal of the vital force. Strawberries are embroidered on Desdemona’s fatal handkerchief, the enchanted cloth given to Othello’s mother by an Egyptian. Strawberries appear in fairy tales and nursery rhymes ( “Goldilocks, Goldilocks wilt thou be mine?”); are the second most popular flavour in ices; feature in one of Jane Austen’s most comic episodes in “Emma”. Esther Rantzen used to tell an anecdote to illustrate Fanny Cradock’s supreme disagreeableness : offered jewel-like wild strawberries at a luncheon, the great cook waved them away with a dismissive, “darling, I ate them for breakfast.” It was a insult to a national institution, Britannia slapped in the face. And the fruit is healthy, one of your five a day, excellent for the skin whether eaten or applied as a face packs. Full of trace elements, with even a trace of the traces in strawberry jam as Dame Edna used to say.

Sweet strawberries versus the tarter raspberry: the childish and the slightly more sophisticated and adult. Both are quietly used in modern perfumery, to give an impression of innocence, the carefree and the playful: une fete champetre in the manner of a Fragonard idyll. “Soft berries” is the blanket term you often see, as in Lalique’s Amethyste, and Dior’s very edible Cherie which melds popcorn and strawberry sorbet. I love Andy Tauer’s ROSE VERMEILLE – the name is so perfect for a start, vermeille meaning both the brilliant red of bursting fruit, and the process of gilding silver to fashion a fairy dish ideal for this gourmand floral. ROSE VERMEILLE is a posy of roses and violets placed atop a bowl of raspberries and strawberries picked in a Swiss forest, dusted with whipped cream sweetened with sugar and vanilla. The bottle contains crystalline glass beads which add to the fantastical nature of the perfume experience: a basket of flowers and fruit picked by Hansel and Gretel or sent by angels from St Dorothy in the Heavenly Gardens.

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Une Touche de Rouge

Rothko Foundation Robert Bayer, basel

Whenever Nicky Haslam is introduced on the radio I jump to it, adjusting the tuning and turning up the sound for he always has something fascinating to say to be pondered on later. In youth he was a friend of the great beauty, wit, ambassadress and writer Lady Diana Cooper and I always wait for her to come up in his conversation. The other day was no exception. Mr Haslam talked of Diana Cooper’s mother, the 8th Duchess of Rutland and her singular views on interior decoration. Violet Rutland – “the artistic Duchess” – was an original in all her attitudes. Diana’s memoirs recall how her mother drew and sculpted to professional standard; condemned tomatoes, lemon flavourings, holding hands and being seasick as common; invariably wore the family tiara back to front. When I was a child our old gardener remembered working for the Rutlands at Belvoir Castle and pinching Violet’s behind as she sat sketching in shrubbery, mistaking her rear view for that of an under parlourmaid.

Violet passed on to her daughter this fascinating theory that when you come to furnish a room, it should always be completed with “une touche de rouge”. I couldn’t wait to try out this idea but I soon realised that it was already in effect willy- nilly around the house – the principle works so well that you often seem to achieve it effortlessly and involuntarily, almost instinctively. That splash of red, however small, which brings the rest of the room together, like lipstick completing and signing off a woman’s maquillage. The scarlet cushion dumped down in a decor of blues, pink and ochre; one crimson parrot tulip on the kitchen dresser; a vermilion tooth glass; a bowl filled with nasturtiums. Positioning that touche de rouge is like switching on a light.

Red is the most psychologically, emotionally and culturally loaded of all the colours. It’s probably also the most vibrant violent and varied, with infinite associations and resonances. It inevitably stirs up emotions and reactions. In some languages and societies it is the only colour; the same word is used both for “colour” and for “red”. In Russian, “krasnya” means beautiful as well as red. For the Egyptians it was the personification of the bare burning desert, of chaos, war and evil. Nuns used to be permitted a red pocket hanky as the only spot of colour in their dress: a psychological crutch, an emotional licence implicitly acknowledged by the Rule. It’s the colour of prostitution, a tradition going right back to the early books of the Old Testament; of passion, life, love, victory, blood, danger, birth, help, warning, justice. In the Bette Davis vehicle Jezebel, red provides the plot: Davis perversely wears a “gloriously red” gown to the virginally white Olympus Ball, losing her lover and ruining her life in consequence. Even in black and white, such are the mental associations  of the colour – Jezebel the Scarlet Woman – that the device works without reservation. Red is all things to all men: to me it always manifests with something of a shriek. I can’t wear it, makes me look like a corpse.

How can the touche de rouge relate to scent? I think it’s the leaven in the lump, the unexpected touch of genius, thrown in instinctively, which transforms a humdrum formula into a unique  masterpiece. It’s the overdose of vanillin in Shalimar, the barmily exaggerated aldehydes in No 5, the wine lees in Malle’s Une Rose. For Opium, it was the choice of name: now routine, then so outrageous. Historic Caron perfumes are really one massive touche, a spreading stain of crimson baroque surrealism, a disturbing Rothko canvas. Etat Libre d’Orange’s Encens et Bubblegum is an inspired daub of poppy red.

The touche is not grotesque; it may shock but that is not its aim or purpose. Its not a substitute for creative thinking. It’s not the avocado mousse made up with lime jelly and mandarins or that awful dress run up from sirloin steak or Princess Beatrice’s pretzel wedding hat.  Rather the touche de rouge is the catalyst that brings about the Big Bang, the fiery vital spark of creation.

Picture by Robert Bayer, basel.

Three Minute Sermon

IRIS

I walk out into my back garden and down the lane to the fields where at this  time of year the warm air smells like the best perfume shop in the world. There’s a bed of old-fashioned blue bearded iris beneath the kitchen window in ground as dry as dust; they are flourishing, as they have done for years, in what is little more than sandy grit. Ultimate low maintenance. They need no care or attention whatsoever: they just get on with it and for three weeks every year they smell like the plains of Heaven.

‘Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these’.

The mesmerising enveloping langourous fragrance of iris is truly out of this world. It’s the roots, the rhizomes that are used in perfumery but if you’re mad about scent please don’t forget to poke your nose into those weirdly orchidaceous flowers adorned with their hirsute inner crests dusted with golden pollen. You’ll find it difficult to move on, to return to reality.

The scent is soft, powdery: its summer’s evening warmth is enhanced by the cool silkiness of the petals. There’s a sophistication, a poise about the perfume that reminds us that the iris, not the lily, was the inspiration for the French heraldic fleur de lys. These flowers give off a note that is very close to aldehydic, a knowing stately nod to Mlle Chanel and her stable of scents created by the chemical genius of Ernest Beaux. He must have loved this flower named after the Roman goddess of the rainbow, arching her body across the skies in her mantle of many colours.

Finally tearing myself away from the Mysteries of Iris I go down the fields with a bucket and spade in search of horse manure for my roses. The meadows smell like the Caron Paris boutique, truly. You sidle in off the road, negotiate the stile and the scent comes close to knocking you over. Clouds of keck, cow parsley, Queen Anne’s Lace crown the grass with endless dancing webs of creamy flowerlets and pollen. Here I inhale that gorgeous note of hay that haunts the depths of all the Daltroff classics: green, sneezy, warm, peppery, sweet, close, simultaneously very dry and faintly damp. Here it is, free for all, on the edge of the cow pasture intensified by hawthorn and new grass. The smell of burgeoning nature, growth, reproduction, fertility and life.  Truth stranger than fiction: reality stronger than artifice.

Coronation Chicken

lilac

It must have been in the early summer of 1963 that we found the official souvenir copies of the Coronation. These included the full order of the Abbey service ten years before, and heavily retouched portraits of all the royal ladies which struck us children as highly comic. Princess Margaret’s face was enamelled like a waxwork and much stuck about with roses, her mouth the very image of Swinburne’s venomous flower. The Queen Mother’s throat looked weighed down with giant rubies like jam tarts. My grandfather had died the year before and his old trunks were filled with fascinating relics, these books among them. His things smelled earthily of camphor, leather and the past; there was a framed list of faded autographs, mostly in pencil – his comrades in the trenches at Ypres. He had been the only man of his platoon to survive.

We had just moved to a new house and decided to reconstruct the Coronation in the garden. Everyone wanted the key role of the Archbishop. We discovered that pilfered rolls of kitchen foil were ideal for creating a facsimile regalia. Fragile crowns were easy, stuck with plasticine gems. The Sceptre was a bamboo rolled around with foil topped with a golden bird from the Christmas tree ornaments;  the Orb a silvered tennis ball. My grandfather’s old apple cart was a godsend: perfect as a tumbril for games involving the French Revolution or the martyrdom of Joan of Arc (Wendy from next door), it served here draped in old curtains as the Irish State Coach. My mother and grandmother in deckchairs were the silent London crowds and somnolent congregation.

Our top lawn was bordered on one side by a small orchard, full of Beauty of Bath apple trees and one gnarled old Victoria plum. In the late summer this was a heaving drunken wasp orgy of golden ripped flesh, oozing juice and bursting purple skins. The insects rolled around in the grass, scrapping like sailors in a Portsmouth gutter. Under these trees my father kept hens; their bran mash, doled out hot and steaming, had a unique sour smell which hung around the humid nesting boxes and echoed in their droppings. There was a huge mauve rhododendron behind the hen house. This we plundered recklessly for Coronation bouquets and garlands.

There was also a purple double lilac bush. It was smelling a lilac this morning that brought back all these memories. I stuck my nose into a great frothy ice cream cone of blossom and it was as though I’d been hit with a tiny petally thunderbolt. It was like the time the Duke of Windsor’s former nurse – a woman of remarkable healing powers  – touched my forehead and I recoiled involuntarily against the wall as though electrocuted, charged up with purging energies. Fifty years rolled away with one inhalation of lilac. I was back in that apple cart.

lilac 2

That scent! And it’s never the same twice over; like a rose, lilac plays hundreds of variations on a theme. This was an intense dewy morning sweetness – like Vimto, cherryade or pear drops – with a green muskiness in the depths. In its fruity hints I caught a waft of Guerlain’s heavenly (and now discontinued) Parure which blessed a mauve powderiness with a touch of plum blossom. Lilac scents are rare. Perfumers are cautious of a flower whose aroma can be overwhelming, with a certain grubbiness at its heart when scientifically reconstructed. And besides, lilac is unlucky in a house: we were never allowed to bring it indoors. Crabtree and Evelyn used to make a fresh and delicious Persian Lilac line; the The Body Shop a penetrating White Lilac oil – in those wee plastic bottles, do you remember? I once wore it into the papery dryness of a Learned Society’s library, with devastating results. It was like letting loose a fox in a chicken coop.
If you love lilac as I do, try Olivia Giacobetti’s En Passant: just a suggestion of the flowers as borne on a breeze. White, cream and palest green, faintly wheaten and with a cooling suggestion of cucumber. Green grow the lilacs,o! – miraculously, on your skin.