Treats

Elizabeth Taylor

Apparently there is no word in French for “treat” because the concept does not exist: in France life is one long treat. For myself the heyday of the treat was my early childhood in the 1950’s. We had enough money and my parents were far from strict, they were indulgent indeed: but daily life was so circumscribed and low-key that the smallest relaxation of routine seemed hedonistic. John XXIII was then writing of the moral dangers of treats, holidays being especially suspect as Occasions of Sin. Being allowed a glass of milk (generally forbidden) was as exciting as a trip to the pantomime: the magic of “Goldilocks” (the bears lived in a huge revolving house) at Nottingham stayed with me for years. So did a bowl of cauliflower soup and being allowed to float matches down the river at Dovedale the following summer. Reckless extravagance: and I couldn’t get over the exoticism of that hotel soup, billed as creme du Barry. I have been a fan of the eponymous inspiration ever since: the cauliflower is supposed to resemble the great courtesan’s powdered hair, by the way.

Of a Sunday, my father would cut a Mars Bar (had we children been lucky enough to have been given one) into wafer slices and we would be offered one apiece after lunch. The rest was then put away for another time. I was sometimes taken to my maternal grandmother’s to watch half an hour of television; once a year we went to the local zoo or met our cousins at Warwick Castle for a picnic. Until the mid-1960’s the purchase of ice cream (as opposed to ice lollies) was unheard of: my grandmother believed that the commercial version was made and stored under the bed – so that was out.

All these treats were planned, discussed – and remembered for a lifetime. Therefore, we were overwhelmed and over-excited by the Liberty Hall atmosphere at my paternal grandfather’s. He lived with his daughter at the other end of the village: both had a great zest for life. My aunt was – still is – an intensely romantic and glamorous personality and we’d start the afternoon with a game of “Jane Eyre” in her bedroom – aunty being the mad wife roaring & raving in the bed. As she’d bagged the best part there wasn’t much for the rest of us to do except scream, and then explore the dressing table and the wardrobe.

No shortage of treats here: my aunt adored perfume and had many admirers. She is the only woman I have known who once had champagne drunk from her slipper – “messy”. Scent was then the supreme adult treat. It was said to be imported from Paris at ruinous cost, applied with great and cautious ceremony and worn on only the most significant of occasions. A bottle lasted for years: children were not supposed to touch but I remember flacons and their labels being all stained and gummy with drips and drops from what I suppose were now-outlawed ingredients. You knew something monumental was afoot when perfume was in the air, and I think even then I realised that the application of scent implied heightened emotions and consequently tension, if not ructions, in the adult world.

On that fascinating dressing table in the icy blue bedroom I first smelled Coty’s Muguet des Bois, Ma Griffe, Femme, Cabochard, Quelques Fleurs, Tweed (“The Finishing Touch”) and the Grossmith runaway bestseller White Fire which was a novelty then: it was launched 60 years ago this autumn. Dry, flowery, powerful, aldehydic
White Fire gusts through my memories wafting from car coats and accordion pleated skirts, mingling with the smell of hair spray, face powder and setting lotion. One caught a whiff of it at Sports Days, Carol Services and tennis teas. It was not only delicious, exuberant and tenacious, but an empire product, too – “made in Britain” – which to many was an added benefit. To me it is inseparable from those crinolined summer dresses (‘Horrockses Frocks’), white gloves and Aertex shirts which marked the setting forth on a great occasion in the 1950’s, everyone twitching with nerves: “I’ll smack the back of your legs!” Nowadays everyone seems to reel from one treat to another: we have become so blase and spoiled. If someone gave me a treat today I don’t think I’d quite know what to do with it. But a smell of long-ago White Fire – ah! Now, that I would love…

Les Senteurs and Grossmith Invitation

Perfume Shops Pt. 2: Health and Efficiency

Rosalind Russell 'The Women' 1939

Rosalind Russell ‘The Women’ 1939

No one has yet made a movie about the life and times of Les Senteurs but there are numerous examples of perfumeries on film. In British pictures they used to be discreetly referred to as “beauty shops”, maybe to distance them from the dubious sort of apothecary’s which Margaret Lockwood patronises to procure poison – and perhaps other services? – in “The Wicked Lady”. Celia Johnson tells us how much she loves the smell of a chemist’s shop but we also remember the sinister establishment in “Pink String and Sealing Wax”, a hot-house of frustration, vivisection, blackmail and poisoning. No, “Beauty Shop” is preferable – clean within and without: a healthy mind in a healthy body. This has a more reassuring ring about it, especially in the coded symbolism of 1940’s cinema.

But it’s a funny thing: as we have noted in this column before, once a screenwriter brings perfume into a script it usually heralds the advent of some kind of calamity. Diana Dors’s sale of a bottle of “Christmas Rose” in “Yield To the Night” is her first step to the gallows. How inspired it was of Wilder to have Norma Desmond sitting on the sofa in “that grim Sunset castle” smelling of some anonymous tuberose, maybe bought at Schwabs Pharmarcy along with her Egyptian cigarettes. I don’t suppose it was frothy Fracas ( though that was already in the shops in 1950), but rather a dark predatory tuberose with all its folkloric connotations of madness, narcotic stupefaction, obsession and lust: a thumbnail sketch of Norma’s personality that would fit on the bottle’s label. Joe Gillis tells us tuberose is not his favourite scent – not by a long shot. He would do well to heed his animal instinct (as we should all do with scent) and get the hell of there before overtaken by the havoc bred by that voracious and invasive scent.

We never learn the name of Norma’s perfume, not that of the haunting mimosa scent in “The Uninvited”. And when Ann Todd wants to keep her sister on side in “Madeleine” while purchasing arsenic ( “a rat in the cellar” ) she buys her silence with anonymous rosewater. An unexpected and mordant add-on purchase is that! A nameless fragrance makes its reference infinitely more effective, each member of the audience imagining the redolent plot device in his own terms. Naming a scent is a tricky task and, once named, fragrance is forever fixed in certain mould.

Fictional names are usually pretty uninspired: “Persian Rose”, ” Jungle Venom”, “Love Kiss”, “Summer Rain” and of course the ghastly “Seduction” which shop-girl Susan Shaw brings as a gift to slatternly sister Jean Kent in “The Woman in Question”. Here the name is all too obviously matched to the outlandish Kent character who snuffs at the bottle in a piggy kind of way before banging it down on her filthy dressing table. “Seduction” comes from Shaw’s Beauty Shop: has she nicked it, as Jean Kent rudely suggests? It comes unboxed which is odd – maybe a tester? A customer return? Faulty goods? A manufacturer’s sample? The risk here is that the viewer gets carried away with the retail conundrum and consequently misses vital details of plot.

I was once asked to propose a name for a simple floral scent created for a department store. I came up with more than 500 over-elaborate suggestions and none was quite right: in the end they called it just “Rose”: the answer was right under my nose. From the back list of classics, favourite names include “Magie Noire”, “Shalimar”, “Teint de Neige”, “My Sin”, “Moment Supreme”, “Crepe de Chine”, “Shocking”, “Vega” and “Ciao!” My current rave is Tom Daxon’s “Crushing Bloom” – an absolutely inspired title for a glorious green spicy rose weighed down with raindrops, nectar and gorgeous perfume. The first word makes you think of pashes & Schwarmerei & ardent swoonings; it has a wonderful onamatopeic quality and it rhymes with “lush”, a quality it has in abundance. “Crushing”: it’s kind of fun to say the word out loud, rolling it around the tongue, thinking of crush bars, fresh fruit drinks, Imperial Roman revellers crushed under tonnes of petals. Then “bloom”, a great silky flower pinned in one’s hair or in a corsage; or lowering, vast and heavy and outsize in a flower bed: I’m sure if we could hear a huge flower opening it would make a sound like this, a whooshing resonant noise as great velvet petals roll back like theatre curtains or lilies trumpet forth nectar and pollen. Bloom / zoom / va va voom. What’s in a name? Everything.

Perfume Shops Pt. One: Little Chemists

john-rogers-in-the-prescription-room-of-his-old-fashioned-pharmacyOne of my greatest pleasures on a home-grown holiday is to shuffle around unfamiliar little shops: no obligation to buy but the easy delights of a good nose around Buddha markets, second hand book stalls, antique attics, gift boutiques and Oxfam. Fusty, musty, dusty smells and all sorts of unexpected and delicious finds: a Spanish fan reeking of Maja, butterfly wing art deco jewellery, the Ladybird Book of Garden Flowers, Gainsborough Studio illustrated film scripts, old scent bottles and once even a rusty Floris soap tin advertised as “Georgian Lady’s Snuff Box: very rare. £75”.

For the open-minded and adventurous, a chemist’s shop can be fun and richly rewarding. “It’s such a mixture of nice things: herbs and scent and soap.” Celia Johnson tells us in Brief Encounter as she browses in Boots, which in those days also ran the famous lending library. Keep your eyes peeled for small old-fashioned chemists, usually deep in the provinces where forgotten treasures still lurk forgotten on the shelves, the sort of place where you can find ancient editions of Ma Griffe, Tabu, Hartnell’s My Love and Je Reviens going for under a tenner. These are the fast-disappearing stores where sea sponges, bath cubes and salts still bring in the money; plastic striped sponge bags have drawstrings and inserts of matching soap cases; vanilla-scented suppositories are still de rigueur and rubber bathcaps sprout riotous flowers like Suttons seed catalogues. You can still ask unblushingly for smokers’ tooth powder without being offered reformatory leaflets and disapproving looks.

Requests for Carnation corn plasters, elastic stockings and Snowfire Jelly are sympathetically understood without having to spell out the names – or pantomime the products’ homely function. Nivea and Yardley are brought out for Christmas on tiny rickety tables jammed in the aisles and piled with hand-painted fir cones, lewdly grinning Santas and cottonwool angels. Bars of soap (rare as hens’ teeth in London) are easily come by, and occasionally razor blades and aspirin are still sold individually like wartime cigarettes. A rainbow of face flannels, almond oil hand creams, pastel cotton wool balls and sticks of frozen lavender cologne for headache relief: impossible not to get your purse out.

And there’s always this wonderful warm ( a baby’s bath not a Moloch’s furnace) comforting fragrance in the air. Soapy, vaguely mentholated and medical: Johnsons Baby Powder blended with the divine scent of Euthymol tooth paste, Universal Embrocation, Bronnley bath oils and boxes of novelty soap shaped like lemons and smelling of verbena,citrus and their dry wooden containers. Pumice stone, face flannels, nail brushes and Wrights Coal Tar radiate reassurance and the indefinable smell of calm and security, as tranquillising to us as to other animals. The dispenser in his immaculate white cotton coat is wise as a doctor and discreet as a priest but less alarming than either: one of us and not one of them. Try 4160’s The Lion Cupboard to evoke all this discreet and irresistible pleasure. The mixture as before: mint absolu and and a ginny juniper; aniseed, lavender and patchouli. Sarah McCartney named this wonderful scent after her father’s personal treasure cupboard – it’s redolent of tooth powder, cashmeres and silk scarves put up in herbs against the moth, dark fragrant woods, leather-bound diaries, half-forgotten colognes and the safe assurance of the past. I’ll take two bottles, Mr Pharmacist, please!