Blue Tits


We are still officially in winter for another three weeks but these last days of February have their own loveliness. Every year without fail we always have a brief foretaste of spring round about now as if to tide us over until the real thing takes over, a little picture preview to get us through the last bit of winter. It’s already light until six o’clock, the air smells young again: the older I get the more I think I prefer these unique days at the turn of the season to the rather uncontrolled frenzy of the true spring which often feels overpoweringly passionate, making unreasonable demands of the stunned admirer.

The first daffodils came very early in February this year and now the garden foliage is the colour of the blue tits pecking at the peanuts suspended in my still skeletal magnolia. Have you noticed how uncannily and exactly the plumage of these little birds echoes and blends with the winter jasmine, the crocus, lungwort, the washed or stormy sky, and the blue grey yellow-green of all the young shoots? Only as they dart from branch to branch does movement render the tits fleetingly visible. And once April comes they appear to vanish altogether, swallowed up by golden verdance and blue sky. I never see one during the summer; colour absorbs them.

Delicious powerful scents are now lured forth by the first brief burst of warm sunshine. I haven’t seen violets in February for many years but there are stars of purple set in glowing green leaves by the bus stop – and that incredible mesmerising fragrance of musk and sugary petals: yesterday as I knelt in the muddy grass the violets smelled as sweet as though crystallised on a wedding cake. Maybe no other flower but the rose has such a familiar aroma. But be patient, push your nose beyond cliche – violets are fleshy & carnal and also reveal a faintly smoky note deep within them. They emit an echo of Frederic Malle’s Rubber Incense, a sheet of which I keep in my writing box to scent the stationery with “Saint des Saints”.

The vibernum flowers look like clots of mashed up raspberries and cream against emerald black leaves; their sharp spicy fragrance is faintly peppery, mingled with the damp earth & mould under the wall where the snowdrops’ luminous pearliness illuminates the dark purple hellebores and the mauve primulas. Those early daffodils exude the weird soaring excitement of a Sarah McCartney scent: a penetrating, exuberant and flagrant fragrance. The thrilling rubbery polleny yellow powderiness blown from satin trumpets is one of springtime’s most characteristic yet neglected perfumes.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”! For the rain is back again and the forecast for the weekend predicts sharp frosts, hail and does not rule out snow. Hold back on your planting! But spring will keep and its scents continue to discreetly herald its coming.


When Toni met Therese


Well I have to tell you I finally finished Buddenbrooks and the only thing is to do now is embark on a repeat journey through this most seductive of novels.

Meanwhile to clear the palate – though this is maybe an unfortunate metaphor in the circumstances – I re-read Zola’s 1867 shocker Therese Raquin which seemed to me to have gained in horror over the years. I suppose advancing age makes this study of lust, murder, physical and mental decay even more disturbing. I now had to skip certain passages and once felt actually sick.

But there’s a connection with Buddenbrooks: the acute, even neurotic, sensitivity to smell. It surprises me that the party line today is the extreme difficulty of expressing scent and odour in words: publishers tell me they are chary of books on the subject of perfume; television treads a wary path despite sporadic huge success on shopping channels. Yet here we are in the gifted hands and brains of two nineteenth century novelists who use words and images precisely and exquisitely to convey smells.

One of the subtle images that only becomes apparent as you read the final chapters of Buddenbrooks is that the smell of death – strange yet familiar as Mann keeps reminding us – is continually abroad in the house of this once prosperous thriving family. It comes to the nose on odd currents of air, despite the heaps of tuberoses, violets and roses heaped up in the Sterbzimmer; it manifests even when the family is apparently whole and healthy. Evidently there is a rottenness in German society – and of course this is the theme that so enraged Hitler later on.

Zola fills Therese Raquin with the stench of corruption that breeds and fructifies in extremes of heat and cold. The characters’ bodies burn with desire, avarice, greed and delirium. When Therese ( born under the hot sun of Algeria ) are not writhing in bed they’re sweating and baking in the suburban countryside, eating in cheap restaurants smelling of burned fat, sour wine and dust; or stifling in hackney cabs. They live in a subterranean passage, in a terrible cavern of a shop with claustrophobic flat above. All is gloom, darkness, damp, the cold perspiration of guilty terrors. Everything is horribly softly wet and bloated like the flesh of their drowned victim, hosed down in cold water on the slabs of the Paris morgue – freely open to the public as a place of entertainment.

One of Zola’s masterstrokes is to have Therese’s seductive body smell of violets – that musky indolic note that is often compared to the scent of death. Elizabeth Jane Howard comments on this in her memoir “Slipstream” – her deceased mother’s room seemed filled with the delicate scent of the flowers though none were there. The roses with which Therese’s aunt thinks to purify the murderers’ nuptial bedroom wilt in the heat of the fire, becoming not bridal but bestial and we remember that chemists have noted the molecular similarity of rose extract to human sweat.

By a final irony Zola himself perished in 1902 as a result of a curious accident which he might well have relished as one of his own plot devices: he died of monoxide poisoning, caused by the the malfunctioning bedroom chimney.


St. Valentine


My Oxford Dictionary of Saints is informative but confused on the subject of St Valentine: there may have been two Roman martyrs of the same name, both male clergymen of the early Christian Church. Fascinatingly there is no British church with this dedication which may hint that in this country at least there were always doubts as to the Valentines’ authenticity. How the saints became associated with lovers and carnal love is by no means clear though it is interesting that the name can be used by both sexes: Valentine is universally applicable, and how apt is that. There’s Val Doonican of course, and remember Valentine Dyall “The Man In Black”? And Maurice Chevalier’s saucy song “Valentine” about a light of love who spectacularly loses her looks:

” Hier, sur le boulevard, je recontre une grosse dame
Avec des grands pieds, une taille d’hippopotame…”

Talk about laugh!

Most authorities seem to think that our feverish red rosey modern celebration is all tangled up with the old belief that birds mate in mid-February and that this became associated with the reputed martyrdom of the saints around this date, at a time of Roman festival. This, I think, gives a wonderfully optimistic twist to 14th February even if one is crossed in Love and sitting all alone by the gas fire. It’s a day of starting afresh, of recommencement; late winter sunshine shining out just for a day, if only symbolically; a token of life renewed; the beginning of the end of winter.

For see how the days are drawing out already and the energising earthy smell of early spring is just perceptible; the chthonic scent that galvanises the instincts of the animal kingdom and which has such a powerful subliminal effect on us humans. I saw my first powdery green daffodil on February 6th ( a personal record) and delicately musky snowdrops are lighting up the garden in clumps of pearls. The tang of new parsley is once again in the air.

Do you know Thomas Hardy’s wonderful poem The Darkling Thrush – recently recited to great effect on The Archers. Hardy comes across this poor old bird ” ..frail, gaunt and small ” singing his heart out in the bleakest blackest winterscape. And thinks that no doubt

” …there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.”

Need one say more? Be my Valentine?

Animal Crackers

Orland Becomes a Doctor

My late father was a rural veterinary surgeon: in his more morbid moods he used to say that he expected all the patients he’d failed awaiting an explanation when he came to the Pearly Gates. Animal life fascinated, baffled and intrigued him; in many ways he saw himself on the animal level, never above it, always prepared to admit the mysteries of the lower creation. This made him a humble, modest and at the same time uniquely gifted vet; it also disconcerted some of his patients’ owners. He was often able to detect sickness by odour, would as soon sleep in a ditch as a bed and often said he could think of nothing nicer than to have his linen smelling of jugged hare. How he loved snuff – constantly inhaling McChrystal’s mentholated in a noisy prodigal manner more akin to Mrs Gamp than Beau Brummell. Messy stuff, snuff. But then, 45 years I remember a fashion for it at school; the teachers in their innocence, apparently ignorant of its tobacco origin, could think of no reason to prohibit it.

Some of my earliest olfactory memories are those of the domestic animal world. I have talked before in this column of the pungent white mice in their cage on the dresser. Thomas the tabby preferred, if not closely watched, to use a fluted silver Georgian sugar bowl as his private loo; his successor was adept at fishing for goldfish or mountaineering on cold turkeys. But both gentlemen were neutered so that the piercing reek of tomcat, so common in those days, was rare on the premises except prior to surgery.

Until I was about eight I liked nothing better than to be with my younger brother watching my father on operating afternoons, set up on a stool, so that I could see all that went on on the high green scrubbed table. This stool had a woven straw seat so I tended to wobble a bit: I can not only feel the quaver now but also smell and taste that frequently repainted wickerwork. As an infant I used to sit underneath and chew away: cutting teeth I suppose as I gnawed on straw.

Rochal disinfectant was blue as the Mediterranean and seared the nose in a tingling exciting way. It was brewed at home and laid up in old Booths gin bottles for lavish splashing and mopping out. My father scrubbed up with a great lather of Wrights Coal Tar and scalding water before boiling up surgical instruments with a great rolling rattle in a saucepan – later a tiny steriliser. Then came the intoxicating wads of cotton wool sodden with ether and packed in a jam jar, into which was introduced the patient’s snout. It was not until years later that I read how popular chloroform and ether were as recreational drugs with Great World VADs: my brother and I certainly came out of that surgery very tranquil and fulfilled by the sneak peak into animal anatomy. We were also crazy for the smell of creosote, iodine, my grandfather’s turps and that scrapbook paste sold in a blue pot that smelled of marzipan and had a solid white wax protective lid as tempting as the top of a Mr Kipling Bakewell Tart.

The colours and shapes and textures of the animal interior were beyond fascination. Blue, mauve, grey, pink and opaline like the denizens of rock pools but hot and smoking. And so very much offal seemed to emerge: impossible quantities, Mary Poppins-like, from a tiny shaven furry tum before the neat and intricate sewing-up with cat-gut and deft tweezers. And then, quite suddenly, all this began to pall; I suppose it was the end of the age of innocence. We began to realise what was actually going on and the magic melted away; a terrible adult revulsion contaminated innocent enquiry. I liken this to the case of Stella, a woman I once worked with who was a great believer in the disinfecting powers of rose geranium soap: she
sold it for many years to prostitutes’ maids. Anyway, until she was some six years old Stella could and did levitate at will, floating up and downstairs or down the nursery corridor. But once she became aware of what was happening, the power left her overnight, flat and suddenly weighty on the carpet. And for me the magic never came back. When I take the budgie these days to have his beak trimmed the veterinary world seems very different to half a century ago – tidier, quieter and no smells at all.