Hello, Twins!

Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror.

Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror.

Last night I went in search of diversion down my favourite road – the always perfumed Memory Lane, where the trees are perpetually in flower, even though the cherry blossom be made of tissue. I went not to Manderley again but looked at beautiful and fascinating Olivia de Havilland in the 1946 psychological thriller The Dark Mirror. Her co-star here (apart from herself) is a worn-looking Lew Ayres, once the second Mr Ginger Rogers, whose career suffered from his wartime pacifist stance. I hadn’t seen this movie for decades, in fact I think my previous viewing was a dubbed version on German tv over 30 years ago.

It’s very good! Olivia plays twins – Terry and Ruth. “One of them is insane” and has stabbed a man to death. But which one? Doctor Lew Ayres has to find out. The special effects when the girls are on-screen together are remarkably adroit and convincing, and de Havilland’s characterisations are highly accomplished and subtle. Even with identical clothes, hair and make-up the viewer can soon tell the girls apart – or thinks he can.

Reader, here’s where I had to keep putting the film back for another look – and another. Towards the climax the now clearly psychopathic Terry dolls up for a late-night appointment with Dr Ayres, posing as her own sister. In black satin and sequins she nips into the bathroom and dabs on perfume – the finishing touch. A discreet little bottle – we can’t tell what it is – but it lurks beneath the cabinet containing sleeping pills, the pills with which she is fuddling her poor sister Ruth. We take the hint that director Robert Siodmak has already cast perfume as a murderess’s accomplice: but then when Terry arrives at Ayres’ apartment he kisses her – and the camera catches his face as he smells her fragrance.

Such a wry grimace! Such scorn and contempt! He turns away, repelled. He knows already he’s kissing Terry: the scent does not reveal her deception. He is revolted either by the idea that the Good and Evil twin should share the same perfume, or (and I think this more likely) perceives the use of scent as final proof that the wearer is depraved. Old Hollywood was always puritanical and reactionary in her attitudes: any mention of perfume in the movies usually heralds trouble. But, take a look sometime – ‘judge for yourselves’ as Lillian Gish once said.

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After the aftershave.

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Many people ask me, “Mr Wedge, what IS the difference between a fragrance for men and an aftershave? Or, is there NO difference? Please shed a ray of light: I am so bewildered and get so confused in the shops.”

These enquirers have all my sympathy. The semantics & issues have become entangled and confused. Now let me try to explain. As ever at Les Senteurs we aim to give crystal clear advice and information on every olfactory theme.

Originally, classically, formally an aftershave was, and is, any gentleman’s fragrance in a very low concentration – around 1% – 2%. Ergo, a very small amount of perfume in a great deal of alcohol. It stung like mad when splashed or patted onto tender freshly-shaved faces and necks, but it disinfected nicks, cuts and grazes and it tightened the skin like an astringent. In the dreary old days when most men feared that their use of scent might be considered effeminate – not least, as Mr Crisp would say, by themselves – the sheer agony of aftershave and its starkly masculine, quasi-clinical name was reassuring to its users.

As we became more liberal and adventurous in the 1960’s and ’70’s, many men’s fragrances were sold in two formats: an aftershave concentration plus a stronger eau de toilette strength. The latter lingered on the skin for hours rather than minutes and was intended to be applied as required about the person. Today ( thank goodness ) men increasingly have scents available in eau de parfum, even parfum concentration: far richer and more full-blooded.

The trouble is, that many men and women still use the word “aftershave” when what they really mean is “scent/ fragrance/perfume”. In a similar way Americans often say “cologne” to denote the same products. No one loves a pedant; in some ways I’m with Humpty Dumpty on this – “When I say a word it means what I want it to mean” – but you’ll see how misunderstandings can and do occur.

I think today that by and large true aftershaves have gone the way of the lava lamp, knee breeches and rainbow-haired trolls. However, what has taken their place are the much more comfortable and beneficial aftershaves balms, moisturisers and emulsions; rich soothing creams and lotions to nourish and soothe tender skin. Creed is especially good at these products: they feel good, are kind to your face and are strongly scented to eau de parfum strength to wear alone or to enhance the effect of your matching Millesime.
For day to day I swear by Nivea or Astral, but for high days and holidays the luxury of a Creed balm is hard to beat.

Vignettes of old Marylebone No 13: How Green Was My Valley

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Supermarkets rarely have much  romance about them these days; now, 50 years ago, when I was taken shopping at the ‘Piggly Wiggly’ in Hamilton, Bermuda it was another matter. I’d never seen such a store at home and the ‘P.W.’ was not only embowered in mauve bougainvillia but sold unheard-of exotica like deep fried battered jumbo prawns, maple syrup and Hershey bars. 

Nowadays you have to look to the Arabic and Asian cultures to bring a little fantasy and imagination into the aisles. Both touch the everyday with  magic. There’s a glorious establishment in Leicester which is best seen at night when it’s lit up like an Edwardian toy theatre in scarlet, coral, turquoise and pink lights. These shops have wonderful names too: the Ishtar, the Baalbec and the fabulous Astarte Mart. In Tunis I have the happiest memories of the Jasmine Superstores. The Jasmine was tiny with a staff of one, but was packed with Jaffa cakes, cheap cigarettes, tangerines, perfume oils, painted pots & candles all spilling over onto the pavement in a madman’s paradise of abundance.

Now we at Les Senteurs love our local Lebanese GREEN VALLEY store at 36-37 Upper Berkley Street W1. First of all it is irresistible because it shares its name with a lost Creed floral fragrance. Here I will advise that lovers of the discontinued Green Valley Millesime may care to smell Atelier Cologne’s Trefle Pur when passing No 2 Seymour Place. This sweet pure clover fragrance has something of the same meadow-sweet mood: come by and try. 

You’ll love the smell of the Green Valley store, too: a delicate aromatic temptation of mouth-wateringly fresh herbs, fruit and vegetables that look as though just culled from the gardens of the world. Then there are tiers of potted, pickled and preserved eggplant, chillis, peppers, mushrooms and every sort of cucumber you can think of. There’s sour cherry jam, hibiscus tea, myriad coffee blends and a dozen varieties of honey. You’ll be tempted by apricot nougat done up in frills of pink lace, baklava, pistachios and turkish delight all set out on great brass and silver chargers. And what makes all this bounty irresistible is the warmth and cheer of the lovely staff, all smiles and kindness. I guess that’s another reason why the Les Senteurs personnel like the Green Valley so well: it’s home from home!

For me, the finishing charming touch is that when you come to the check-out there’s not the usual racks of horrible plastic sweets but strings of worry beads, umbrellas & sunshades, tiny packets of dried pink rosebuds. The Green Valley lifts the heart: it’s only 2 minutes’ walk from Les Senteurs so do make us both part of your essential Marylebone lifestyle routine!

Everybody Out!

Image: guardian.co.uk

Image: guardian.co.uk

Another Tube strike, another adventure! The weather being so glorious on both days I walk to Les Senteurs from Holloway down the Camden Road and so through Regents Park into Baker Street. It takes an hour and having lived in Holloway for nearly 30 years it proves a curious trip down Memory Lane besides being a strike-buster.

My life is an open book – but who would want to read it? I have often considered conducting a recherché guided tour around London pointing out all the landmarks of my life but I don’t suppose there would be many takers. The streets of Camden are full of souvenirs of the past: a mural of Amy Winehouse, looking like a Mexican Madonna; the days when the great Elizabeth Jane Howard was creating a garden at her home in Delancey Street; emotional meals at the eponymous café in the same road. Do you know the plaque celebrating the martyrdom of St Pancras as you walk up Parkway, and the mysterious hidden garden in a deep valley beneath the bridge as you cross over Park Village East? And that strange stark building almost opposite, which I used to fantasise might be a private lunatic asylum or former workhouse but which is in fact a school – nowadays, at any rate.

Then the Outer Circle around the Park: on a night of freezing fog in 1999 I wandered round and around here for over two hours after a dinner party in Fitzroy Road, unable to break out of the maze. Now it is a mass of pale pink and creamy hawthorn blossom reminding me of Elizabeth Bowen’s darkly comic ghost story “Pink May” and the poltergeist, conjured maybe by a guilty conscience, which destroys a woman’s love affair. Or perhaps the phantom is the scent of the may itself, which has been likened both to the smell of human decomposition and the odour of procreation: the scent of Life and of Death. Bowen lived for many years in the white fortress-palace of Clarence Terrace, over across the lake. In the last days of this warm April the Park is almost vulgar, overwhelmed with blossom and fragrance: rioting over every hedge and railing are cascades of lilac, choisya, clematis and the sea-blue ceanothus which takes me back to its azure waves across the walls of my school quad. I remember staggering up to the Rose Garden with huge picnic baskets in the 1980’s, a memory now stimulated by all the paper beakers of coffee being toted – and slopped and spilled – by fellow walkers.

The Lilac Alley which I recall being planted, timid saplings in a morass of mud, is now a bosky thicket of abundance candled with every shade of flower from imperial purple to delicate blackcurrant mousse. The tulips are blown and lifted, only few snow white camellias remain but in Queen Mary’s Rose Garden an astonishing number of blooms are already out, especially our old English roses. To walk past the beds, reading the names on metal plaques, is like riffling at top speed through a series of encylopaedias and phrase books. Names historic; names whimsical, comic, surreal, banal and dotty – Pensioners’ Voice, Ingrid Bergman, Quaker Star, Princess Alice, Annick (can this be celebrating Mme Goutal?), Mountbatten, Lili Marlene, Diamond Jubilee, Radox Bouquet, Easy Going, Lady of Shallott, English Miss, Royal Philharmonic, Gertrude Jekyll, Singin’ In The Rain, Britannia and dear old Sexy Rexy. The full massed fragrance is yet to come but, as so often in life, the anticipation is often keener than the final experience.
On, on! On towards morning! “Felix kept on walking”: past the irises in their stony beds, flowers of perfumery’s most costly ingredient – the glorious buttery orris powder; past the last of this year’s guelder roses. I fall into a bush, trying to catch the last of their scent, but right myself and set my face towards the rigours of Baker Street and the scented oasis of Seymour Place. Despite the strike, an enchanted passage from one perfumed Paradise to another!