Vignettes of Old Marylebone: No. 9 – House of Wax

France Robespierre's FaceWhen you’ve stimulated your imagination with gorgeous perfume why not float up to Baker St and excite a little more fantasy at the Waxworks? Back in the 1960’s when I first visited Mme Tussauds the place was filled with glamorous gloom, potted ferns and elaborate tableaux behind plate glass. People still squealed and fainted in the Chamber of Horrors: all those rows of butter-coloured murderers wearing clothes supposedly bought from their familes even before the condemned were hanged.

Maybe visitors still swoon upon occasion but the last time I went to Mme Tussauds, 10 years ago, the atmosphere was greatly sanitised. Too few shadows, and far fewer exhibits. Diana Dors in gold lame (fresh off the cover of “Sergeant Pepper”) was gone and the Royal Family looked less convincing under brilliant spotlights. But it was still great fun. For you could now grope or kiss the models if so inclined and so pose for a saucy snap. The Sleeping Beauty was still elegantly palpitating under her lace veil, her breath quickening at a touch.

Maybe you read about the true face of Robespierre being recently reconstructed from a death mask cast by the Madame in 1794? And an ugly old phiz it is, too. I have my doubts: his portraits show a neat fastidious little face whereas this is that of a toad-like pockmarked brute. Maybe Tussaud took the wrong head out of the basket? And you know, from the state Robespierre was in when he was guillotined – botched suicide attempt with a pistol, smashed jaw – would the taking of a mask have been possible or desirable?

What loses the truth game at Tussauds is that the glass-eyed throng all lack a smell, whether of hair, perspiration, fear, or the jonquil & rose waters of eighteenth century France. Or even, as if in some fairy tale her creatures should suddenly grow hot hearts of flesh and blood, the intoxicating odour of hot melting wax: the scent that excited De Sade.

Image: huffingtonpost.com

Taxi!

Blonde Venus

Remember the movie Blonde Venus and the show girl who introduces herself as Dietrich as “Taxi Belle”? “Do you charge for the first mile?” replies Marlene silkily. Eighty years ago taxis were very sexy – listen to that rude French music hall song “Elle a perdu sa comme-a-dit / La pauvre cherie dans un taxi”. They could also be dangerous. Elizabeth Bowen’s short story The Demon Lover is about a woman who hails a very wrong taxi indeed, a taxi to the gates of Hell. Equally horrible is the vehicle in Hilary Mantel’s Winter Break, a tale which may put you off Mediterranean holidays for life. Years ago I got into a night taxi in Tangiers which I then imagined was my doom come upon me: we shot off the main road, charged down unlit lanes and finally bumped into dark woods. I was already imagining the cold steel at my throat when the darling driver cried,”Look!” He’d wanted to show me the best view of the bay and buy me mint tea at his brother’s cafe.
My hands were shaking too much to lift it.

Taxis are not everyone’s cup of tea: some people see them as the acme of metropolitan glamour and romance – “twice round the Park, driver!” – and dancing on the roof like Santos Casani’s Charleston down Regent St. Nostalgia for the era of little glass vases in holders above the seats, full of paper, silk or even real flowers and movie memories of Gary Cooper,Miriam Hopkins and Frederic March a trois on the back seat. Or the Great War troops being taken up to the Front in Paris cabs, in the days when Caron’s perfume N’Aimez Que Moi was the only possible parting gift to the girl left behind.
For others taxis are a dreary and expensive necessity when old, ill, heavy laden, banned from driving or otherwise come to a pretty pass. Then they become a expensive sign of dependency and are resented accordingly.

It’s the putting of yourself in someone else’s power that’s so nerve-wracking: sitting on the hall chair in your coat, suitcase and bag at the ready, compulsively checking tickets, money, keys, phone and watch. Where IS he? Has he forgotten? Should I ring again? then you do ring and the office says “he’s two minutes” away and you’re in for another quarter hour of agony before the car turns up and in the exquisite ensuing relief you and the driver immediately bond as best friends for life.

But it must be said that taxi drivers are usually the best company in the world with pungent opinions, comforting homilies and extraordinary anecdotes of eccentric behaviour and fares. “Your dirty little dog’s fouled my cab” the great Mrs Patrick Campbell, the original Eliza in Pygmalion, was told by a driver as she descended from a taxi clutching her peke. “Nonsense, it was me” said Mrs Pat, sailing into the Stage Door. Taxi drivers are always interested in smells though it worries me if they lower the window immediately after picking me up: I have bartered my fare with fragrance samples in the past and cabbies in general are highly appreciative of good scent. That intimacy of situation and proximity must refine the nose; picking up so many fares tarted up in their best for a treat, still exuding the delights of Duty Free or shopping up West. My Aunt has always smelled memorably delicious of successively Ma Griffe, Fidgi and Anais Anais; once I bought her a bottle of one of Les Senteurs’s former treasures, Cadolle No 9, now alas unavailable. She was dotty about this creamy aldehydic resinous miracle until a driver asked,”Lady are you burning sulphur back there?” Which brings us back to Ms Bowen – this is where we came in.

Image: Torontofilmsociety.org

Vignettes of Old Marylebone: No. 8 – River of No Return.

Fleet River, London, England

The spell of running water exercises a peculiar fascination on the mind only equalled by that of perfume. The idea of subterranean lakes and streams only compounds the magic and conjures up the exotic fantasies of Gaston Leroux, H. Rider Haggard and Coleridge. Think of the souls of the dead being ferried across the Styx upon payment of an obol; the barque of the extinguished sun sailing through the night. Or, more merrily, drifting in mad King Ludwig’s cockleshell though gaslit pink and blue opaline crystal caverns “measureless to man” and as magical as Selfridge’s Lower Sales Floors or the shelves at Les Senteurs. Who would think that at least one of London 13’s lost and buried – but still rushing – rivers flows below the bustling busy streets of Portman Village?

No wonder London is so humid in summer; it is built over endless marshes. Westminster Abbey once stood on an island; the Thames has lost at least half its width since the Roman city was sacked by Boudicca’s hordes. The City was divided by the Fleet River rushing down from Farringdon until less than 300 years ago – that’s just three long lifetimes. The Tyburn was once better known as the name of a tributary of the Thames than as a synonym for the grim gallows at Marble Arch.

Once green and glorious and gushing down from Hampstead, the Tyburn was one of the bountiful sources of safe drinking water that made early London such a prime spot for settlement. But as the city enlarged and corrupted, the Tyburn like its sister rivers became stinking sewers of offal, by and by built over: sinking out of sight, smell and common knowledge. Londoners quenched their thirst with beer and spent their short lives half drunk in consequence. However, down there the rivers still flow, occasionally heard gurgling or glimpsed contained in drains in underground stations. The Tyburn pours down beneath Regents Park, Marylebone Lane, through Mayfair, Green Park and under Buckingham Palace and the Abbey to the Embankment at Whitehall. Wonderful to think of! Seymour Place now exotic with rare perfumes drifting through the door of Les Senteurs must once have stood in water meadows fragrant with wild flowers. The scent is only a spray away.

Image: The Fleet River under London from undercity.org

Vignettes of Old Marylebone: No 7 – “V for Victory!”

Jennie Jerome

One of Creed‘s best-selling millesime fragrances at LES SENTEURS is Tabarome, a modern interpretation of the dark cigar-smokey cologne once reputedly worn by Winston Churchill. Having freshly spruced up with Tabarome’s warm woods, ginger and citrus then sally forth to pay an additional homage to the Churchill family. Not two minutes away, bang opposite the Odeon on the Edgware Road, is the vast building which was once the London home of Winston Churchill’s parents, Lord Randolph and Lady Jennie. (Think of the stairs! think of the servants!) She, of course, was American, a fact that her son was inordinately proud of: he inherited much of his charm, cordiality and joie de vivre from her transatlantic genes. Her astonishing beauty however passed him by. He was a bullish redhead while Miss Jennie Jerome had the type of melting dark looks which can still be appreciated today: portraits of her contemporaries are often a sad disappointment but Jennie’s abundant dark curls, full mouth and great soulful eyes remain mesmerising. Before the arrival of the cinema, professional beauties were the great stars of late Victorian London with their latest photographs in shop windows bringing the traffic to a halt in Oxford Street. Lady. Churchill was one of many lovelies of whom it was said that onlookers scrambled to stand on chairs, carriage seats and Park benches to catch a glimpse of in the flesh. Three times married and reputedly the mistress of Edward VII Jennie died as the result of a freakish accident involving new high heels hastily put on and a consequent fall downstairs. Put to bed, she mistook a fatal haemorrhage for a leaking hot water bottle.

How fitting that the Victory Services Club should now be practically next door to Sir Winston’s childhood home, occupying Connaught House in Seymour Street. Founded in 1907 to look after Boer War veterans, the Club moved to Marble Arch from Holborn in the late 1940’s. Churchill’s photo portrait hangs in the foyer of the concern in which he took a great personal interest. Nowadays the Club offers accommodation, restaurants and entertainment to servicemen, their families and connections. I heard about it from a friend who is a most enthusiastic member: her late father served in the RAF and she recommends the Club for unbeatable comfort, convenience and value right in the heart of London. And so handy for a perfume spree. At LES SENTEURS we used to sell Jean Patou’s L’Heure Attendue, created in 1944 to celebrate the Liberation of France. Many Churchill ladies since are said to have admired and worn it; I remember commenting on this to a German visitor to the shop who replied, “In that case, give me a bottle directly!” That famed Churchill charm you see: the spell remains potent.

How Bitter the Holly Smells!

Elizabeth Jane Howard telegraph

A Very Happy & Prosperous Peaceful New Year to you all!

I left you in December with memories of Susan Coolidge’s Katy books. I come back to you in January saddened by the unexpected death of the great Elizabeth Jane Howard, and gladdened by the genius of Thomas Mann.

Elizabeth Jane Howard would have been 91 in March: she was an Aries, born the day that Sarah Bernhardt died and maybe some of that artist’s glamour, energy and allure was reincarnated in her. Anything by Elizabeth Jane is an inspiring and deeply satisfying read: memoirs, anthologies, cookery books, novels, ghost stories, psychological thrillers. She’s marvellous on fabrics, cats, colours, textures, clothes, food, gardens, smells. I remember the luscious seductive aphrodisiac summer dinners in “Odd Girl Out”, the pinks, reds and greens of fruits, cold salmon and fruits. There is always lots of perfume around; opening a book now at random, I find almost at once references to Evening In Paris and Caron. She loves heat, sunshine, hot afternoons – “the caramel scent of hay”. There’s an unforgettable apercu ( in, I think, “Something In Disguise” ) of a dandruffy scalp smelling of cheap raspberry jam. In “The Light Years” Howard suggests rather than describes the aroma of an elderly governess who finds the getting of food, baths, washing and laundry all prohibitively expensive. She writes of a haunted dressing case reeking of rotting roses in “Left Luggage” and the stench of a car filled with a supernatural smell of death (“Mr Wrong”). I saw Elizabeth Jane lecture once in the 1970’s with her then husband Kingsley Amis: she wore crimson velvet and her glorious hair unbound in a magnificent glossy tawny mane. It was as though a goddess had come down from Olympus to the humdrum halls of Loughborough University.

Thomas Mann’s first novel – published in 1904 and a huge best-seller until Hitler burned it – was “Buddenbrooks”. I’ve just read it: a modern paperback of a 1924 translation was given to me last summer and something told me to save it for a ripping Christmas read. My instinct was dead right: 600 pages of perfect bliss, the sort of novel that makes you cry out at intervals ” this is the best book I ever read!” I wish I’d found it years ago; I want to read it again, on a beach or in a wet holiday hotel, eating digestive biscuits and drinking tea on the bed, in those long afternoons perfectly described by Elizabeth Bowen. Warm, funny, wise, sad – and so leisurely, so smooth, so confident: “Buddenbrooks” is a family saga that spans the central portion of the nineteenth century, set in a provincial town (maybe Lubeck?) near Hamburg within easy reach of the coast and the salty tang of the Baltic.

Lord! Germany then sounds a lovely place; better than Victorian France, Italy or Britain for my money. Full of sun and light, sea and sand, flowers, music and abundant wholesome meals. Houses smelling wonderfully of coffee; everyone filling their faces at the second breakfast and doing ample justice to sausages in ginger, ham with sour onion sauce, raspberry trifle, bacon broth, fruit soups, boiled carp in red wine, apple jelly, lemon buns with smoked goose, grilled chops, green cheese, currants, bread and butter, sugar and chocolate. Has any other novel featured such delicious good food?

The family house smells of cologne, used to brisk up, freshen and revive. Scent hints at the autobiographical origins of the novel, the tricks and hooks of memory: a Buddenbrooks matriarch wears heavy silk gowns smelling soothingly and aromatically of the patchouli in which they are stored; her son, when young strong and confident, perfumes his moustaches with wax. Both Howard and Mann implicitly remind us that perfume is a innate sensual pleasure that should develop organically as part of the human condition, an aesthetic and psychological enhancement of life not a disassociated pursuit of scented fluid in a bottle. The Buddenbrooks sense of smell takes its place in the repetitive rhythms and joyous monotony of family life – and plays its part in one of the most disturbing but underplayed death scenes you will ever read.

I cannot bear to finish it!

Image: telegraph.co.uk

Vignettes of Old Marylebone: No 6. A Taste of India

commons voluptuary

When I hobble up to Sainsbury’s for a Simply Ham sandwich on sliced white, I am entranced by the leisurely Arab diners on the terrasses of the glorious restaurants of the Edgware Road. They look so effortlessly graceful and elegant on their cushioned benches and basket chairs, with all the time in the world for good food, ruminative chat and an inhalation of perfumed narghil smoke. Some of these establishments have the charming addition of caged exotic birds beside the tables, chirping, singing and chatting along with the clientele: another therapeutic aid to relaxation.

Portman Village has always been a pioneering centre of exotic dining ever since the Romans marched down Watling Street to where Marble Arch now stands, with their barrels of oysters and pots of garam. Around 1810, as England was consolidating her Indian Empire, the Hindoostanee Coffee House opened just north of Les Senteurs at 34 George Street: it’s now renumbered as 102 if you want to make a little pilgrimage. The owner was the enterprising Sake Din Mahomet newly arrived from Patna ( famous for its fine rice), and for a couple of years he kicked up a great stir with his provision of hookahs, sumptuous seating arrangements and native delicacies. English adventures in India had led to a curry mania at home during the Napoleonic period: remember Becky Sharp choking half to death on a chili at Joss Sedley’s over-spiced dinner in “Vanity Fair”?

On the corner of Duke Street, in the now vanished Edward Street, was Parmentier’s: this was not the Parmentier who pushed the potato as health for all, but a namesake who sounds as though he kept the most magical confectionery in the world for the beau monde and Royal Family. Preserves and conserves both “wet and dry”, ice creams and superior macaroons (just like Laduree) all piled on the health problems which Mr Din Mahomet then alleviated while wearing his other professional hat of “shampooing and vapour surgeon” to two Kings and the Quality.

I suppose we at LES SENTEURS might also consider ourselves as vapour surgeons of a sort – and our collection of gourmand perfumes are second to none. Come by and sample the Indian Raj tea party as interpeted in Parfum d’Empire’s “Fougere Bengale”: truly in Portman Village there is nothing new under the sun!