Back to School!

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It looks so threatening, that uncompromising late summer notice in the windows of school outfitters and stationers, even to those who left school forty years ago. Can the headmaster really have the power to haul us back, even now? I don’t doubt it, not if he really desired it. How remote and terrifying he was; each one a little Hitler, the monster pike in his own small pond. And each taught his staff his repertoire of cruel tricks: twisted ears, deftly thrown blackboard rubbers (mounted on very hard wooden blocks), pulled hair and burning sarcasm. Do you remember all those poor souls who wet themselves or threw up over their desks because they daren’t leave the room without permission? An increasingly desperate raised hand cruelly ignored. Maybe it was you? Not waving but drowning. And yet overall I loved the drama and Grand Guignol of my schooldays, the extremes of emotions that blew up and over like thunderstorms. Each day was a terrific adventure, you can say that all right.

Because I started boarding at school from the age of eight, the stomach-churning smell of the new term is also the odour of a particular trunk into which my life was regularly packed for ten years. It was already old when I first knew it, bound in moss green canvas and stuck all over with expired railway labels. It closed with a massive clasp which always reminded me of the lock which decapitates the child in The Juniper Tree, that Grimm classic of dysfunctional families and cannibal cookery. The interior of the trunk was upholstered in cream linen, with a removable tray that held a second layer. All was equipped with buckled straps for tidy packing and full of the smell of naphthalene moth balls looking like peppermint creams strung on violet silk threads. It was also redolent of old faded tissue paper, shoe leather, dry cleaning and tinder-dry canvas. Above all there was that remarkable scent of new clothes, a mixture of bleached cotton, detergent and a slightly metallic tang especially noticeable in the “dark suit for Sunday wear” and the itchy-scratchy navy football shorts made of a curious fabric which I have never seen nor felt since 1968. Whether wet or dry they smelled intensely of coarse damp wool: were they maybe the final expression of serge?

The ritual of the trunk’s being brought out and set up in the spare bedroom like a Moloch to be filled was a grim reminder of the sands of time running out. It was like that gaudily tricked out skeleton in the painted coffin which we are told graced the top table at Egyptian banquets, dispersing the scent of mortality amongst the spicy kyphi oils and fragrance of blue lotus. The Black Monday of the Return raced towards us despite prayers for the school to burn down or the outbreak of plague. My grandfather referred us to his favourite novel, F W Anstey’s Vice Versa, and a passage which I am always pleased to recall today:

‘…we cannot escape school by simply growing up, and…even for those who contrive this, and make a long holiday of their lives, there comes a time when the days are grudgingly counted to a blacker Monday than ever made a school-boy’s heart quake within him.’

Would you not love to see that thought set up upon a toy easel in the windows of Ryman and WH Smith? O! the blanched faces!

Then there was the ceremony of the caking of the plimsolls, this performed with a thick white solution which dried to a high gloss that later cracked and peeled. It reminded me of the fuller’s earth which the Romans applied to their gleaming togas: “candida” = shining white. This stuff smelled good, slightly addictive indeed, and no doubt it was harmful by today’s exacting standards of health and safety. You dabbed it on by degrees with a tiny sponge on a little stick – it was grainy, viscous and gave off an odour of chalk, nail varnish and wet rubber. Like every other item the plimsolls had also to be “clearly marked with pupil’s name”. To my intense mortification and anxiety my grandmother neatly Indian inked my name and school number across the uppers of my first pair: in fact, this set a trend. My shoes were never stolen and no teacher could find a reason to object.

Everything else was supposed to be identified with a Cash’s name tape. These were ordered as required from the local haberdashery and rarely arrived in time: another occasion for terror and panic. They were available in every colour and script. We had ours in red and they were stitched by hand onto every item including the “two dozen large white handkerchiefs” by our grandmother (my mother couldn’t and wouldn’t sew) or by ourselves. Like Edward VIII and his brothers we were all taught to sew and knit, skills which have come in very handy ever since. But even the hasty replacement of a shirt button for work still takes me back to that bedroom, full of late August sunshine, littered with paper and fabrics impregnated with the smell of Doom.

Image from: mymumdom.com

Treasures: Lost and Found

Faberge is back in the news; once again there’s been a re-division of the limited spoils via the world’s salerooms and auctions. And – did you see? –  a spectacular dental plate of gold and platinum has turned up in a grave near St Petersburg? Only some 40 of the Imperial Easter Eggs survive; I found my old Catalogue of the huge 1977 London Faberge exhibition the other day and was surprised to tot up how many I have seen over the years. The Eggs were less well-known when I was young. I think it was the Nicholas and Alexandra craze of 40 years ago that first put the word about; and then when Bing Crosby died on a Spanish golf course it came out that he was a great collector. I could write my own I Spy book of Faberge (Big Chief I-Spy, Wigwam-by-the-Water, remember?). I get 40 points for seeing the old St Petersburg shop – now, needless to say, a Macdonalds; and I’ve seen the almost absurdly symbolic but chillingly uncanny Twilight Egg.

The Twilight Egg for the twilight of the gods! It makes you shiver. As Russia began her fatal participation in the Great War Carl Faberge continued to supply his Easter trophies to the Imperial ladies. In a rather mad kind of way, and with no dimunition of expense, they were adapted to the austere spirit of the time: the Birchwood Egg, the  Red Cross Egg and the sinister polished steel of the Munitions Egg – the bomb-like Easter kiss of 1916. The Twilight Egg never reached the Empress: by then the Revolution had broken out and the Imperial Family were under house arrest at Tsarskoye Selo. What curious premonitions inspired this toy of lapis lazuli, diamonds and moonstones? What thoughts of Rasputin’s last prophecy before he went under the ice, his fearful vision of the end of the Romanovs and Russia drowning in blood? The photograph of his battered murdered face was the first thing the Tsarina Alexandra saw when she awoke: it hung at the foot of her bed. The Empress was accustomed to shower the Faberge workshop with ideas and suggestions; deeply pious though obsessed with the occult, numerology and portents Alexandra’s agitations and fears are captured in this shell of midnight blue. All Faberge’s Eggs contained within a “Surprise” – an ingenious precious novelty, as in a superior cracker. The Suprise is lost from the Twilight; the Surprise was to be the slaughter house at Ekaterinburg.

For 30 years Faberge solved the gift problem for the royal families of Russia and of England. A branch of the store opened in London; Edward VII and Queen Alexandra commissioned jewel portraits of their animals and plants at Sandringham. One of the most fascinating pieces in the Royal Collection is an midnight blue enamel cigarette case inlaid with a great diamond serpent biting its own tail, the symbol of unbroken love. Edward VII’s mistress, Alice Keppel, commissioned it for her chain-smoking bronchitic royal lover; when he died Queen Alexandra offered it to Alice as a keepsake. Twenty years later, Queen Mary received it back from Mrs Keppel whose great grand daughter is now married to the Prince of Wales. Another touch of the Twilight Egg here; eerie Faberge magic.

So when I saw the white and gold snake caskets of Kilian’s Garden of Good and Evil collection I thought of all these back stories and I was captivated. The luxurious Kilian ethos has enticing echoes of Faberge; one of his motifs is the key, that uber-symbol of sex and secrecy, the locking and disclosure of the mysteries of this and other worlds. Kilian’s tiny keys to his seductively gleaming lacquer boxes (the boxes of a new Pandora) remind us of the velvet shells that protected the Tsar’s eggs; the key that Alice finds on a glass table to open Wonderland; and of the key to Marlene’s eternal enigma. The surname, Dietrich, means in German a skeleton key in German – the device against which no lock is proof.

Kilian‘s “Straight To Heaven” – where St Peter waits with the golden Keys of the Kingdom and St Zita finds those you have mislaid – is a lyrical shimmering streak of flaming rum and psychotropic nutmeg which fires you up like a rocket, reminding me of those neo-Gilray cartoons of 1997 depicting Diana and Mother Theresa whizzing like shooting stars to Paradise. Kilian loves the scent and symbolism of soft fruits – apricots (female beauty), peach and especially plum (perpetual youth) which appears – candied and crystallised and darkly oozing in Liaisons Dangereuses and In The City of Sin. The fruits of the Garden of Eden: my English teacher, when holding forth on Paradise Lost always held that Eve was more likely betrayed less by an apple than by a peach  – the key note of Kilian’s cool green celadon  “Flower of Immortality” –  the Chinese emblem of eternal life and fidelity. For in tandem with these high ideals the sweet golden flesh of the fruit, its intoxicating juices and delicious odours are deeply sensual and carnal: an irresistible invitation to voluptuous reverie and amorous intercourse, the exchange of a spiritual heaven for a more robustly physical one. “Here’s the key to my heart/ Don’t lose it/ Use it” as Alice Faye used to sing.

I haven’t been so captivated by a perfume range for a long time as I am by the smooth and silky Kilian line. Polished, vivid and easy to wear the fragrances are also mysterious and adventurous. Fewer in number than the Imperial Eggs, they are the products of a similar genius and devotion to artistic luxury, perfection for its own sake. Every one a gem and like Faberge’s treasures, they are destined to delight future generations beyond our own. But judge for yourselves: why not pop round?

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.

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I am dotty about What I Did On My Holidays, Sarah McCartney‘s preservation of past summers like so many flies in sweet-smelling amber. Highly original, devastatingly pretty: here’s an elegant scent that’s cunning and clever, amusing, witty and a treat to wear. A jeu d’esprit, a tonic, a irresistible pick-me-up even on the weariest and wickedest of August days. WIDOMH is a  hand-tinted picture postcard album of seaside nostalgia; what Charlie Drake used to call “a world of toffee and tears”. Take a pierrot line of melting Neapolitan ices, creamy whorls of dusty pink, pistachio, gold and vanilla. Then fold in green cucumbery notes of sea breeze, rock pools and crab teas; pink sticky watch-your-fillings peppermint rock; coconut suntan oil from the pre-SPF era; and the yellow haze of sunshine filtered through Bank Holiday traffic fumes and serenaded by the melancholy Sunday afternoon chimes of the Mr Softee van. Does this have you reaching for your purse? I’ll take two,please!

I’m told that my first sight of the dark North Sea aged two and a half prompted no response other than “I want my tea!”. I remember the kitchen curtains of our holiday house, patterned in a very 1950’s whimsy of trams and trains; and the sensual pleasures of popping seaweed between the fingers – the sun-baked black sort like dried currants and the slithery greenery yallery ropes of what looked and felt like strings of sultanas, smelling of harbour water and mud. I recall our pointer dog finding the remains of a dead seal on the early morning beach, his ecstatic and comprehensive roll and the subsequent reeking chaos. And I remember stumping over the quaggy marshy waste between sand dunes and street through clumps of red and yellow bird’s foot trefoil which my mother told me was called the bacon and eggs plant. For years I used to smell the savoury odours of the family fry pan billowing from this tiny flower: now the the trefoil seems to have vanished and the full English with it.

Then one Whitsun we went to Bognor, so beloved of George V : Bognor in a heat wave and a bright yellow house called Easter Cottage, with a piano and a window seat for the pugs to scratch; a house made even hotter by a kitchen boiler with live coals and cinders to be raked out every morning. This was my first encounter with holiday crowds, great heat, vinegary wasp traps and the prodigality of holiday ice creams, the latter very carefully rationed. My parents were dubious about cornets (made under the bed, said my grandmother, and using the cheapest sort of lard); but a choc ice might be occasionally allowed (safely wrapped, you see), and brought home before being cut into slices and shared out by degrees. Years later I got into terrible trouble with a teacher at school for being seen to eat ice cream in the street. The front and the beach at Bognor were too crowded to attempt,  and what I remember best is pottering endlessly round a tiny zoo of which my grandmother rightly disapproved, fascinated by an African crested crane. The bird looked elegant and cool under the dusty trees and didn’t have the disturbing, even frightening, smell of the monkeys and chimps. Neither did it shriek and chitter, nor wave a shaming pink behind at the bars.

In the 1960’s we made excursions to Wales, to the coast and the mountains; I developed what was either meningitis or sunstroke, the doctors could never decide. But the walls of my bedroom melted into crumbling india rubber and my splitting head was, for months after, full of the scent of the liver paste sandwiches which we were eating on the sands the day the horror struck. Indeed, I can still smell them, 50 years on. On a subsequent visit, we children all went down with chicken pox (which my brother had been told by his school nurse was a flea infestation) so the classic fougere of the wet bracken is forever mixed in my mind with the chalky kiss of kalomine lotion on red burning skin. That was the time when in my fever I fancied Satan was outside the bedroom window: the cow with the crumpled horn scratching herself against the wall of the house.

Holiday memories are the sharpest, because one is living out of the ordinary for a week or two; and because the camera that we all carry with us is so tuned up by anticipation if not apprehension to snap a sharp succession of new experiences. I used to hate those intrusive essays demanded on the return to school: “What I Did on My Holidays” seemed absolutely no one’s business but my own. Yet, here are 4160 Tuesdays and I  sharing these long-ago experiences, caught in this extraordinary scent which  smells elusive, heart-tugging and hilarious in turn. It has a whiff of that most comical and grotesque of trips, Dora Bryan and Robert Stephens lugging a sullen Rita Tushingham (“be nice to him, love, he’s brought you chocolates”) along Blackpool Pier in A Taste of Honey. And it has the melancholy dreamy beauty of a faded water colour in an old bedroom looking out to sea, a room I’ve not seen for more than half a century; where if I stood on top of the water tank I could just about make out the grey waves and the sand dunes away across the marshes.

A Fine Baby Boy

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I didn’t write about royal baby joy at the time as everyone was complaining of saturation coverage: I enjoyed it very much myself, something cheerful for a change. And now that Prince George has gone home, we may perhaps take a little look at him. Baby Cambridge’s appearance on July 22, day of stupendous, stupefying heat, the most intense of the year, seemed richly mystically symbolic: a Son of the Sun, grandson of Diana of the Moon. A ray of the Sun in Splendour, device of his distant Plantagenet ancestors. Astrologically Prince George is just caught within the watery Cancerian net as demonstrated by the breaking of tropical electric storms and deluges over London within hours of his birth, but he’s on the cusp of fiery Leo too, a creature of heat, passion and flame. I should think he’ll run rings round his Gemini papa and lock budding horns with his tough and charismatic Capricorn mother. A perfect amalgum for a future King: proud, loyal, economical, charming, creative, magnetic, sensitive, gentle, empathetic and responsible. And with enough of the deep crustacean shell and native caution to preserve his regal distance. Sharing the day: Mama Rose Kennedy, Terence Stamp, Oscar de la Renta, Bryan Forbes and –  supposedly – Alexander the Great.

Always excepting the unfortunate Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor, this baby is the first Heir to the British throne since the Conquest to be born under the sign of Cancer. All things being equal, he’ll be the first crowned Cancerian monarch in 1000 years. We’ve had plenty of mighty Leos and glittering mercurial Geminians, stubborn dutiful Taureans and balanced, impartial Librans – “affable, suave and dapper” – but no King Crabs. Our Cambridge infant should prove to be a revelation in kingship, though probably long after the last juice has been squeezed from Lemon Wedge and his rind consigned to the recycling. However, one must not presume or assume. Like Nostradamus I looked into my basin of dark waters on your behalf, and now wonder, after all this continuing uninformed talk of abdications, whether it will not be William who in the end springs a surprise. Will he maybe decide to take a rain-check on kingship and hand the reins, untried, over to George VII? After all, William too is on the Cancerian cusp.

Royal births used to be, almost by definition, harrowing and terrible affairs. It was not until our own Queen’s lifetime that the custom of having the Home Secretary on hand to witness the legitimacy of the baby was done away with. This precaution started after the widely believed rumour that James II’s son and heir was a changeling, smuggled within a warming pan into the bed of Mary Beatrice of Modena – incidentally, one of our few truly beautiful Queen Consorts.

Royal mothers-to-be were secluded in their apartments weeks before and after the birth; rooms closed and shuttered against perilous light and dangerous fresh air. Goats and cows were brought to the bedside so that their fresh milk would lose no time nor potency in nourishing the young mother; other animals – sheep and lambs and hares – might be slaughtered in situ after a difficult delivery so that the Queen and offspring could be cosied up in freshly flayed warm skin. Can you even begin to imagine the state of the stale foul air, further heated and corrupted with blood, sweat, wine (to wash baby), a blaze of candles and braziers of disinfecting herbs and incense? Queen Jane Seymour never recovered. We know that in 1778 Marie Antoinette nearly died in labour at Versailles for want of fresh air: the King himself smashed the windows, all sealed up for winter, and revived her with the bite of a frosty December morning. And what about the horror story of Queen Mary Tudor? She was immured in her darkened sweltering rooms for month after month after month till it finally had to be horribly admitted that there was no baby coming, that the whole pregnancy had been a fearful illusion. In her memoir, Catherine the Great paints an awful picture of her baby son Paul, his tiny face puddled in sweat, swaddled in a cradle packed with velvet and furs on the direct orders of the Tsarina Elizabeth, herself beautiful, massive and always wine-purple in the face.

The modern baby is marketed as a creature of pure and pretty scents, smelled to advantage on a plumply hydrated uncorrupted baby skin. Do baby worshippers still pay the ultimate accolade of declaring their intention of eating the new arrival? This must somehow connect with the well-known phenonemon of all new-borns looking, however briefly, like their fathers so that papa does not doubt his paternity – and like Saturn (or an animal) devour his own progeny. I like that baby smell, and without sentimental illusion: I’ve changed many nappies, and cleaned up sick in my time. Every healthy baby has an sweetly innocent odour about it, no matter how much of a mess it’s temporarily gotten itself into.

And this smell is what? Well: milky, biscuity, rusky, slightly sicky sometimes, a whiff of ammonia, skin, hair, soap. And  a lavishly powdered bottom, which is why perfumes such as the increasingly rare Narcisse Noir, Villoresi’s Teint de Neige and Kilian’s Love (…Don’t Be Shy) are so much in demand: these confections of orange flower, vanilla, marshmallow, iris and rice have a sweet and nostalgic powderiness which I guess spells nourishment, nostalgia, nursery security, Mummy’s perfume, Nanny’s solid bosom. Narcisse Noir has the slightly citric clogged dampness of Johnsons Baby Powder: a note that emerges in the heart of the scent as the orange hits the orris. Caron has now brought out My Ylang, a creamy white floral, dusted with icing sugar: meringue or derriere? Kurkdjian’s Cologne Pour le Matin is far from infantile but its wonderfully woozy evocation of daytime naps – clouds of thyme, lavender, neroli – lays you down in a doll’s bassinet like Gulliver in Brobdignag.  There is always the faintest hint of wet nappy in orange blossom and mock orange, especially when overblown; not exactly unpleasant but disconcerting and attractively disturbing – a reminder that babyhood is strictly limited; that the serpent has already entered Eden. Which is where the intrinsic corruption of Divin Enfant comes in with its bizarrie of tobacco, cassie, mocha and rose: leading by inference to George’s Christening : the next big photo opportunity.