Boxing Clever

chariots-in-tut-antechamber

Recently I was told off at home to have a thorough clear-out, a spring clean in the Mrs Tittlemouse manner. “Very Tabitha Twitchet-Danvers” as the wonderful Sue Kaufman used to say. The stacks of sealed boxes piled up in the bedroom, under tables and behind the sofa all had to go. I had something very like a panic attack. “But what of the treasures inside?” I moaned. “Those boxes are filled with irreplaceable unique documents!”

“Then they will all need to be sorted out!” came the implacable reply. Now, I’d been filling these containers for at least 40 years: they represented, I believed, my archive, my legacy. Anyway, I hauled out gaudy biscuit gift tins, beribboned chocolate coffrets, shirt boxes, dress cartons & old suitcases and amid clouds of dust and cactus sediment I began the sad but thrilling task of breaking the seals. At least, I thought to myself, I shall have a few delicious surprises; old dear forgotten friends reunited. How bittersweet and emotional ( I thought to myself ) it will be. “I’ll bet”, I thought ” I shan’t be able to bring myself to throw out one single item!”

Do you know, there was nothing in any of it!

Well I don’t mean there was a void, a vacuum – at least, not literally. What I found in there were 1000’s of post cards and letters from folks long since dead, silenced or forgotten; endless newspaper clippings the significance of which I had quite forgot; and a few tatty photos. A three minute sermon, in fact, thunderingly delivered on my own bedroom floor! Never was a clearer and more shattering exposition of St Matthew Ch. 6, v.19 ¤. Most everything was quite without meaning. I had evidently moved on: so much for those expectations of being unable to part with any of it. Instead, all went unheeded into the recycling in short order and I felt much the better in consequence: just as the lifestyle therapists always say.

Now, there’s a moral here I think. Don’t fall into the same sort of trap with your prized perfume collection. Perfume, like our food, our skins and our emotions, is a living breathing thing. It is to be used, experienced, cherished and explored. It is an enhancement and nutrient of life. While all we scent-lovers build up a collection of favourites and curiosities over the years we must always remember to curate with care. As we know, properly stored (no heat, no light) fragrance will keep well for years. Still, we should keep it circulating and active; like beautiful garments it should be aired, inspected, shaken out and worn. Don’t bury your exquisite bottles too deep and dark against a rainy day or the Special Occasion that never comes. Use your perfume archive to adorn your daily life and activities.

There’s another snag to stockpiling. Everything changes: no doubt we wearers alter more than our scents, though they too undergo various metamorphoses over the years, both chemical and perceived. But our brains, bodies, dreams and perceptions all constantly mutate and the scent that once was couleur de rose may turn into a nightmare a year – or ten – later. Or, more excitingly, vice versa. This is one reason why at Les Senteurs we are continually smelling, wearing and re-evaluating our precious cargoes. Nothing stands still, the scent experience is always fluid, and like Pandora the perfume fancier often finds that the ultimate occupant of the fragrance bottle is Hope. I trust I shall never lose that sense of thrilling excitement as I whip the cellophane off a brand new perfume. Great expectations indeed but LW is no Miss Havisham. At least, not superficially so…

¤ “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt…”

WAIT FOR THE MOMENT WHEN: Patricia Roc

patricia roc

…Tries and fails to eat her dinner in the munitions canteen during the final minutes of MILLIONS LIKE US, the British Home Front propaganda drama of 1943. Roc made a speciality of playing superficially drippy but loveable girls with unsuspected reserves of resilience and spirit. Here she’s the newly widowed Celia Blake whose RAF husband¤ has been shot down over Germany. She takes her place at table in a vast hanger (filmed on location in the Midlands: there’s a joke about Market Harborough and another about The Marquis of Granby) clasping her cutlery and a plate of stew. On stage, singer Bertha Wilmot (Northampton girl) entertains the workers with throbbing music hall standards and lovely twiddly hand gestures. As Wilmot switches from “Just Like The Ivy On The Old Garden Wall” to “There was I, Waiting At The Church” Celia’s throat closes up and she has to be coaxed by best friend Megs Jenkins to join in the chorus for one of cinema’s great tear-jerking cinematic finales. Planes roar overhead across the night sky as the bombardment of the enemy continues, and Celia even breaks into a triumphant smile, tossing her head on the line “My Wife Won’t Let Me!” Written down it sounds too corny and ghastly for words, but it’s not: it’s wonderful and powerful & to see it is to weep or at any rate to feel a shiver through the flesh on every single viewing.

Superficially it’s similar to the climax of the biggest grossing German film of the war “DIE GROSSE LIEBE” (1942) which has Zarah Leander• handing back her wounded Luftwaffe husband to active service as the two marmoreal beauties (Swedish + Hungarian) gaze upwards at the winged Axis squadrons soaring over the Alps. Men must fight and women must weep: but MILLIONS LIKE US has a modesty, humour, heart and charm that had little place in Goebbels’ cinematic remit. Exotic Zarah’s idealised sacrifice is chilly and remote; she and co-star Viktor Staal, bathed in mountain light, seem fascistically impermeable to mere death. Whereas Pat Roc is simply the sweet dull girl from next door whose husband is suddenly wiped out.

millions like us

MILLIONS LIKE US has a lengthy cast of unrivalled & charismatic character actors¤¤. A certain roistering amateurishness adds to the invigorating atmosphere; as does the adroit use of unlimited factory workers & members of the armed forces as extras*, many of them endearingly self-conscious as they peer, giggling and entranced, at the camera and the stars among them. The very ordinary and rather mardy Roc (known around the studios as ‘Bed Roc’: now, why?) is a British working class Everywoman who makes life in munitions look such fun that the viewer feels he’s been cheated of the experience of a lifetime. Tactfully, no mention is made of war nerves, hideous industrial accidents or ground-down exhaustion. Nor of the reek of swarf, grease, oil, cordite and B.O. (six inches in the bath and clothing on the ration) that engrained these heroic workers for the duration and “without complaint”. Of the girls, only stuck-up blonde Jennifer Knowles (Ann Crawford) smokes – and from an egregiously long holder at that. Wartime cinemas and their audiences smelled pungently. (LW well recalls watching films – and much later than this – through a thick mist of cigarette smoke and disinfectant). When a bomb hit the Bourjois factory in Croydon the smell of Evening In Paris hung for weeks over South London.

As in another contemporary Roc vehicle 2,000 WOMEN (in which the sharp-eyed viewer will spot Pat’s dress from MILLIONS LIKE US, thriftily recycled) females en masse are exploited to provide a certain titillation. The contemporary male audience no doubt enjoyed the frissons of references to “repression”, discussions of honeymoon lingerie, and girls being discovered in their hostel rooms in various stages of undress. Get an eyeful of pretty Terry Randall hopping into bed in her vest and knickers much to Ann Crawford’s distaste:

“Aren’t you going to take off your underclothes?”

“They’ve only got to go on again in’t morning….y’are fussy!”

Then there’s the Wednesday night dance (the mad stampede of the Palais Glide; the silk stockings won in the Prize Spot Waltz) and the over- eagerness of the salacious hostel doctor:

” …I enjoy these hops….Overcrowded, sweaty + remarkably unhygienic but as I say unprofessionally: what the hell, what the hell!…I’m always being misunderstood..”

As LW hits 60 he identifies more and more with the scene which has Celia’s dad staggering in from Home Guard duty and painfully prising his swollen achey feet out of his boots. His women have all gone off to war and he’s alone in a filthy kitchen with a stacked sink of food-encrusted plates and a fat studio cat named Pickles who steals the old boy’s fish and chips. Dad knocks Pickles off the table and fills his own mouth with a handful of puss-chewed batter.

The glossy Pickles waddles off, not a whit abashed. But the whiffy squalor of the lone pensioner on his uppers was not to be equalled again on celluloid till Edith Evans knocked us for six in THE WHISPERERS”.

¤ Gordon Jackson – ‘Mr Hudson’ from “Upstairs Downstairs”; MISS JEAN BRODIE’s nervous lover; an heroically patient friend of Kenneth Williams.

•much admired by her compatriot Garbo.

* these rationed players eat with genuine appetite. There is a wartime preoccupation with food and frustrated hunger throughout the picture: the scarcity or inferior quality of biscuits, oranges, saccharin, potatoes, cabbage, dates, potatoes, sausages and beer are all wistfully or disparagingly evoked.

¤¤ Besides Megs Jenkins, we have Terry Randall (who turned 100 last year), Eric Portman, Moore Marriott, Joy Shelton, Basil Radford, John Slater (later famed for the ‘Special K’ tv ads), the incomparable Amy Veness, Beatrice Varley, Irene Handl, a teenage Brenda Bruce and the eccentrically beautiful and very funny Ann Crawford who died of leukaemia at only 35….

“….& millions like YOU!”

PATRICIA ROC 1915 – 2003

My Grapefruit and I

grapefruit-tree1

Sixty years ago grapefruit were still rather exotic. They hadn’t been around for all that long, the first canned specimens arriving Britain via Florida in the 1880’s, well in advance of the fresh fruits hitting the shops. Grapefuits are a hybrid fruit derived, either by deliberate grafting or by chance mutation, from the pomelo a.k.a. the shaddock. The eponymous Captain Shaddock is said to have brought the original seeds from Java and sown them at Barbados. A romantic tale; and grapefruit are suitably glowing and glamorous in their native orchards, hanging like great golden suns among the leaves, a fructose solar system in the Garden of the Hesperides. I remember eating them once in Bermuda, sun-kissed and warm, straight from the tree in January. Succulent and sweet, they bore little resemblance to the pithy sour old things we were used to at home.

I could see then why grapefruit have been called one of the Seven Wonders of Barbados. (I have no idea what the other six are, though one of them certainly ought to be the movie star Claudette Colbert. She spent her declining years as queen of the island, telling Vanity Fair magazine that her greatest disappointment would to be denied the eating of sorbet “EVERY day”).

Maybe because her father had been a Leicester food inspector in the 1880’s, my grandmother had very definite views on food: Bovril, Italian ice cream, Mother’s Pride and Birds Instant Whip were all streng verboten. Milk was always suspect. Bemax, P.L.J., muesli, raisins, wholemeal bread and grapefruit were strongly recommended. When I stayed with her as child we shared a grapefruit for breakfast, with the addition of unlimited brown demerara sugar. (The same dish, popped under a hot grill until the sucrose bubbled & caramelised, used to be a popular starter at dinner parties of the period). To drink there would be tinned grapefruit juice which bore no relation to the modern carton drink. It was very thick, viscous and (as I recall) a dark yellow colour, the colour of a chrysanthemum. My grandmother would hack and tear the can with a heavy Victorian opener shaped like a black bull’s head, with a blade like that of a miniature guillotine below the animal’s jaw. I think now that maybe it was made of lead. It had a very distinctive smell, rather like dill, maybe the result of being impregnated with decades of fruit and other juices . The grapefruit nectar had a not unpleasant musty dusty taste: I drank it from a thick white china mug decorated with a picture of a jovial Yorkshire yokel in a blue smock. I wish I had that mug now.

fanny

Grapefruit in the 1960’s was ubiquitous. The juice – or alternatively, segments in heavy syrup¤ – was served as an appetiser in hotels & fancy restaurants (‘fine dining’ was then unheard of). We were shown (on Blue Peter, I think – or maybe in the Blue Peter Annual) how to use the empty fruit rinds as growing pots for bonsai trees. “Burn off the roots as they emerge through the skin to keep the plant dwarfed…”. My mother was very sceptical and we had an entirely unsuccessful attempt with acorns before all rotted. Fanny Cradock ( pronouncing them “grrrrapefruit” ) dolled them up for the dinner table, filling the half shells with coloured brandy butter – “a harmless food dye” – stuck with crystallised fruit. There was also a very popular reducing diet – you ate grapefruit before every meal to kill your appetite – and I seem to remember a variant whereby one lived exclusively on hard boiled eggs¤¤ and the said fruit.

pomelo lo-res

So grapefruit has “previous” and a rich “back story”. Grapefruit can also work well as a delicious perfume accord if you fancy something a little bracing and original. With more body to it than lemon and less sweet than orange or mandarin, grapefruit has a challenging, more assertive even faintly sweaty (ergo erotic) aroma. See if you can track down a bottle of Caron’s Alpona, said to be the first fragrance in the world to blend flowers with this particular fruit. Grapefruit accords can also demonstrate sophisticated froideur, a coolness well illustrated by Creed’s Royal Water which is as frosty as though fresh out the ice box, then spiced with a slow burn of black pepper, cumin and peppermint. Try Atelier Cologne’s new Pomelo Paradis – with its juicy sweetness which makes the mouth water as though with wine gums; and smell the intriguing grapefruit-like molecules emanating from the woody earthy depths of Heeley’s Vetiver Veritas.

A immaculately elegant and perceptive colleague said to me just the other day: “Grapefruit? It’s the new black!” There can be no safer guide to chic.

Finally, there is also a huge and unlooked-for bonus in the wearing of a grapefruit fragrance which has been pointed out to me by a dear friend and expert of many years in this very tough business. And that is, “scientists have proved ” that a grapefruit accord on the skin can make you appear years younger than your actual age. Can you imagine it? Lemon Wedge is no chemist (though he may be something of a psychologist) so he’ll refer you to the abundant material germane to this absolutely fascinating theory on Google. Oh, see for yourselves as Frankie Howerd used to say.

¤ indeed “grapefruit segments” became something of a catchphrase in Private Eye magazine. We also ate them for breakfast at school as a Sunday treat – these were of a more austere type, presented therefore either in a “light syrup” or stewing in “their own natural juices”.

¤¤ a nutty theory went the rounds to the effect that hard boiled eggs require so many calories to digest that if you eat enough you ultimately starve to death.

Wait for the Moment When: In The Blue Angel

lolalola

…when Professor Rath (Emil Jannings) shuts himself in his chaotic study¤ to peruse the lubricious postcards of Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) confiscated from his somewhat mature high school pupils. His pose anticipates the fascinated KING KONG examining a doll-like Fay Wray cradled in his palm.¤¤ With the guilty furtiveness of a pornographer, he blows on the feathered card (bird imagery saturates a film which begins aptly with a shot of women loading geese into coops). The fronds fly up to reveal the Dietrich stocking tops and thighs, the objects of his coming destruction. Dissolve to Lola Lola in person, singing a jaunty rude song¥ full of triple entendre, on the stage of the Blue Angel cabaret.

Which itself is like a disturbed child’s cut-out toy theatre jam-packed with grotesques. As a director Von Sternberg, like de Mille, believed in giving the viewer plenty to look at. Moribund obese girls sit drinking beer passed up to them by the even fatter landlord; cut-out cherubs, sunbursts, fountains, clouds, stuffed seagulls and anchors hang over their heads. Nets are draped around like sticky cobwebs. Phallic symbols abound. Lola Lola is shot from below to give us an eyeful of beautiful legs,# pearly plump thighs and suspenders. (The bemused and besotted Professor will be later commanded to roll on Lola’s stockings for her). Dietrich wears the first of a collector’s wardrobe of weirdly fetishist costumes, a shimmering strappy maillot of black sequins with a spangled butterfly in her tong-frizzed hair. Here is Marlene but not as we later knew her: grubby, cheerfully greedy, stupid, sexy and (initially) rather endearing, even loveable, wiping the beer from her lips with the end of her sash. Lola is a dirty postcard come to life. She seems devoid of emotions, an easy-going tart who preys idly on men to relieve her ennui and only incidentally for whatever rewards are going – a bottle of Sekt, a pineapple, a fur coat and in the Professor’s case an offer of marriage, accepted for a laugh. But her eyes light up like a serpent’s, like those a beast of prey as the Professor peers in through the filthy windows and stumbles into the Blue Angel to be entangled in the fishing nets: Lola turns a stage spotlight onto him as he struggles like a bluebottle caught by a plump blonde spider in backless transparent panniers. Her closeup then is astonishing, not for the ethereal beauty revealed in SHANGHAI EXPRESS or BLONDE VENUS, but she because she looks dangerously mad, an erotic Lumpen vampire. She has come to life with the smell of fresh blood and found something to do with her evening.

As you’d expect from a case study of sadomasochism, the film delights in casual images of cruelty, nastiness and threat. A dead canary is thrown into the stove by a shrewish landlady, a muzzled bear is pulled through the dressing rooms, moths burn in the lyrics of Lola’s song, an emasculated dumb clown mourns and gawps. The Professor bullies his pupils: they trip, entrap and spank the class sneak. Everyone shouts, fights, sneers and blusters – and lives in dread of the police. The characters in this most interior & claustrophobic of films crash, push and trample around like stockaded cattle. Lola’s frilled knickers (dropped, inspected, pocketed, used as a hanky) become the focus of everyone’s attention. It’s like a crazy drunken nightmare: and like a dream it is carnal, comic, surreal and terrifying by turns, each quality taken to extremes. As in a dream, too, the setting is vague and timeless. The very first shot of the movie is of Grimm/ Expressionist rooftops & gables establishing a dark Hansel and Gretl territory where any horrors may happen. There is no sense of a particular era: the studio streets are crooked medieval alleys and it is a shock when we briefly see the cast wearing fashions of 1929. There is a curious echo of THE BLUE ANGEL in Tod Browning’s much-banned FREAKS (1932): both as regards similarities of plot, setting, atmosphere, and in the climax of both films. The last few minutes of THE BLUE ANGEL achieve a rare pinnacle of hand-over-mouth horror as the pervasive bird motif explodes* once again back on the stage of the cabaret. (Wait for the moment when Hans Albers unpacks the straitjacket…).

This was intended to be Jannings’s film**, not Dietrich’s. His is the name above the title. The later fate of the cast after Hitler came to power is bizarre, extraordinary and tragic enhancing both the gloom and magnetism of the film. Marlene took American citizenship and metamorphosed into the most enigmatic and enduring of 20th century movie legends; for my money she was never again as good on screen as in The BLUE ANGEL. A luminous, unearthly and impossible glamour replaced her earlier liveliness and spontaneity. Her lover Von Sternberg helped her realise her potential as one of the most startlingly beautiful women of the cinema; but even as he laid the foundation for her legend Von Sternberg came close to ruining her as an actress. In 1929 Dietrich was heavier but sprightlier; and so assured, so natural, so spontaneous, so entirely within character – “she doesn’t ‘act’ common – she IS “. THE BLUE ANGEL is one of those rare and wonderful films when a star personality, a director’s vision and a script come together perfectly. As Marlene tugs at her crotch, snaps her suspenders and clucks like a hen we gaze fascinated at one of the great instinctive performances of cinema history.

This sinister hypnotic gripping film is as rich in the suggestion of stale, disturbing, invasive smells as it is in its startling and thrilling exploration of the new sound technology***. Dietrich herself was one of history’s great perfume lovers. In the movie our olfactory imaginations are constantly stimulated: cosmetics, creams and a large atomiser on Lola’s dressing table; face powder blown in the Professor’s eyes, endless cigarettes and unclean silk stockings; sweat, hair oil, burning hair and papers; cheap make up, ratty old clothes and wigs; chalk, dust and decay, slopped beer, pigs trotters with sauerkraut, “the roar of the crowd, the smell of the greasepaint”. And of course those eternal knickers. Even the Professor’s name is repeatedly corrupted from Rath to Unrath (“excrement”, by your leave). Which leads our noses into the animal stenches of lust, sex and body fluids. No wonder THE BLUE ANGEL was banned in Germany outright after 1933. The prurient, sensory realism of the post-Inflationary Weimar depression – the smell of moral rot – had no place in the Nazis’ own hellish version of puritan hygienic nightmare.

¤ we have already been told that it smells.

¤¤ and, as in KONG, here too it is Beauty that kills the Beast, after first driving him mad.

¥ “It’s not that one…it’s the other one..” M.D.

# “Sweetheart, the legs aren’t so wonderful, I just know what to do with them” – M.D.

* just as Olga Baclanova ends up in the sawdust as the mutilated Human Chicken in FREAKS.

** as LW witnessed at a London screening about 20 years ago. An elderly German woman stood in the aisle crooning “Ach! Der Jannings! Der Jannings!” until implored to sit by a packed house. In the foyer afterwards, another woman asked her husband, “So – who was Marlene?” As Barbara Windsor once said to LW: “Manic, innit?”

*** THE BLUE ANGEL was Germany’s first major talkie.

EMIL JANNINGS 1884 – 1950
MARLENE DIETRICH 1901 – 1992