Santa Claus (& other festive smells)


I heard a little tot go singing ‘neath the General Post Office windows by the church; it was just before Christmas. He was worried about Santa getting  scorched when the old gentleman came down the chimney on the Eve. His parents kept reassuring him: “we’ll both make sure the fire is quite out – and raked out – before we go to bed. Now don’t you fret!” I thought, how lovely to still have a real smoky-woody fire. When I was an infant I never worried about such things, but I was terrified that I might SEE Santa; that I might awake and find him there filling both the room and my knitted stocking; huge and scarlet and alien. My father reassured me with a dryness that now makes me laugh: “I can promise you faithfully that you’ll Never Ever see him!”
Or smell him. But then, maybe you did just that, last weekend? Wouldn’t it be lovely if – like the great St Nicholas that he actually is – Santa smelled of incense and the purest most costly myrrh? After all the Patron of Perfume is not the often wrongly attributed St Mary Magdalene with her costly jar of nard¤, but St Nicholas of Myra whose medieval tomb at Bari was said to perfume the Adriatic coast with divine fragrance. I’m often surprised that the perfume industry has not more openly and widely embraced Nicholas as its own: he’d be something rather different and inspiring in those interminable seasonal advertisements. Presumably, like Mr Blair& Mr Campbell, perfume “en corporation” does not “do God”: which is supremely odd on account of the whole fragrance phenonemon being entirely religious in origin and concept.

Anyway, sublime to ridiculous. I suppose what Santa REALLY smells of is:

Soot – in those chimblies where acrid bitter soot still happens

Crusted port wine and old sweet sherry

That juicy flaky greasy tang of mince pies

Perspiration and unwashed hair; camphor and cobwebs

Reindeer – a sort of venison smell, I imagine, which would kind of meld with the fur trim on the rather tired old hot velvet and cracked leather boots

Then there are all those oranges to stuff into the toes of a billion stockings. Not forgetting the lumps of coal and the fresh cut green willow switches for bad children. All these must cling to the Saint’s presence, oozing from his great oakum canvas sack.

Incidentally, did you see that curious “slow television” turkey – ‘SLEIGH RIDE’ – over Christmas? I felt sorry for those poor reindeer in their clearly very uncomfortable blue dog-leads, being yanked along by two rather unsympathetic girls through the eternal twilight. I could smell that scrubby tundra all right: the snow, the frozen black twigs, the damp, the scanty fires and the pathetic reindeer supper of frozen moss chunks.

One common, yet often forgotten, Christmas smell is that of glue: vital for inventive fancy gift-wrap, for botching up decorations and for mending that odd breakage that will happen in all the excitement. But hasn’t the odour of glue gone off? We all know why this is, I suppose, but it really has lost its punch. Do you remember Copydex? It was made I believe from boiled up fish heads. And, of course, there was that white paste – what was it called? – in blue pots, smelling deliciously of almonds. Appropriately, each pot had an inner wax lid exactly like a Mr Kipling Bakewell tart icing, minus the cherry. I know some of us tasted it. Then there was messy old Gloy which used to encrust its red rubber stopper like clear nail varnish, and which soaked through newspaper clippings, ruining them even as you compiled the scrapbook.  Each adhesive had a very distinct character. Being a child of Leicester, I liked crystal-clear Bostik best. There was a boy at school who played a sort of Russian roulette with Bostik. He’d spread a thick layer over the lenses of his very expensive spectacles. If the glue was allowed to set undisturbed, it would eventually set and peel off in a perfect film; incidentally – or so Kenneth said – efficiently cleaning the glasses. But, of course, if the glue was tampered with as it dried – total disaster. We all had time to waste in those days.

As we still do at Christmas, leading remorselessly to a waist of time.

I wish you all that you wish for yourselves in the fullness of 2016. “Time! And time hath brought us hither!” Happy New Year to One and All.

¤ nor SS. Therese, Dorothy and Rose of Lima with their cornucopias of roses, flowers and fruits.

st nich

The Sort of Thing I Like…

Rita Hayworth

Being poorly can be a good time to take stock…of all sorts of things. People are frequently kind enough to ask me, “Now come on, LW, what IS your favourite perfume? Climb down off that rose-trellis fence and tell us!” I usually truthfully reply that the answer is not so simple. I certainly do not have one single non-pareil. Favourites shift and change with the years – even with the days. One has phases (and fazes, too) & crazes. One moves on; and goes back, to rediscover treasures where before all was dross or mystery or simply non-connection. Like the castaway on that famous Desert Island one might choose a scent for the memories it evokes rather than for its intrinsic qualities. Or, again, am I allowed to choose a fragrance as it was in a certain era, in a certain formulation – at a specific stage of its history? For example, I’d have several Guerlains on the list if I could have them as they were 35 years ago but not necessarily now. (It’s all relative for were I twenty years older, I’d probably stipulate them being as they were in 1940).

I certainly tend to grow to love scents that at first whiff I dislike. The stone which the builders rejected etc etc. I guess I like a challenge and our animal nature enjoys an olfactory mystery. That’s how I got to adore Shalimar: initially I thought it smelled like a bonfire of old tyres and that weirdness drew me back time and again until I’d parsed it. Then came the ultimate accolade: a chorus of approval on a winter fenland train: “what IS that wonderful smell?”

Jicky, the same. I’d read about it in a memoir of very strange people, and first encounters with the scent found it equally and satisfyingly dotty. Meeting a new perfume is like making a new friend: aren’t we always intrigued by some mystery? Some oddity? We don’t want everything as clear as crystal from the off. Coming to love a scent can be a coup de foudre or a slow piecing together of a puzzle, a gradual coming to terms with the component facets.

I like a scent to have me laugh or at any rate smile: I enjoy being entertained. Elizabeth Arden’s stunningly exaggerated and comically ostentatious Red Door had a special place in my heart for a couple of hysterical and exuberantly floral Christmas periods back in the ’90’s: and as for that matching silky icing-sugar matching dusting powder! One of the greatest perfumed accessories ever. Long gone, of course. I fell madly in love with Annick Goutal when the brand first appeared over here – at Les Senteurs, naturally. Heure Exquise eau de parfum hung like golden nectar in those fluted gracious bottles – the headiest powdery blend of iris, sandalwood and rose. I remember uncorking a sample at a modest lunch in the Mountains of Mourne: the room went crazy. You can just imagine.

These I Have Loved:

Fahrenheit – in the days when it was blastingly powerful, blazingly aggressive. I used to fish old testers out of bins for one last precious drop. La Perla – in the good old times when they gave out free bottles of the parfum strength to all comers. The Samsara launch when the Buddhist tourists protested. The Demi-Jour launch when the sales girls’ Gainsborough Lady hats were said to repel the customers. With Demi-Jour I turned turtle over night: from hating it I became insanely, if briefly, intoxicated by its brassy fruity florality. Fracas – in the days when Fracas ruled the Earth I was given a bottle and took it to Egypt with me: that extreme climate suited it; the mad heat calmed and tamed it and brought out a fresh playful froth that billowed forth like ice-cooled flowery champagne.

But you’ll be wanting to know what my Les Senteurs’ favourites might be. Like a nasty little kiddie – “not going to tell you!” I don’t want to influence you in any way. One man’s meat is another’s Poison. O very well! It being Christmas, I’ll give you three current darlings:

Morn to Dusk – that gorgeous flash of creamy vanilla embedded in bergamot, streaming like a flamingo sunset across a Calabrian dusk. Soothing, tranquillising, addictive and ever so faintly disturbing.

Rose Anonyme – a rose perfume always makes me sit up and take notice. But then what happens? This one keeps my interest fully engaged with its poised sophistication and dark notes of patchouli and a trace of oud.

Myrrhiad – I first worked with oil of myrrh as a palliative for mouth ulcers. Here I love the exotic concept, the softening of the bitterness with black tea, amber and tonka.

Wishing You and Yours a very Merry Christmas, a Happy and Healthy New Year, and a Wonderful Peaceful Holiday!
Best thanks and warmest wishes to One and All.


When I Was Sick and Lay Abed

sick bed


My kind readers should pardon a much shorter and possibly rather addled piece, even after an unusual two weeks’ absence. I have had the ‘flu. The real old-fashioned sort – “the kind doctors prefer”, as those old TV ads used to say. Stinging eyes, blinding sinus headache, a fatal weakness in every limb, legs like boiled pasta, giddiness, fever, a wandering mind and all the rest of it. I don’t think I’ve felt like this since 2002 when I was ill for a fortnight at the time of the death of the last Queen Empress.

True ‘flu is unmistakable – you can tell the exact sinister moment when it hatches: and one of the symptoms is, with me anyway, a malevolently distorted sense of smell. While I was really bad, one especial fragrance seemed to take over my entire orbit – of necessity, my bedroom – to a suffocating degree. Being ill takes you right back to needy infancy: I’ve been feeling like that poor little Dauphin I told you about the other week, asphyxiated by the preternaturally perfumed presence of Mme de Polignac. Perfumes that had no actual existence in reality.

The first weekend I fell ill, I took a warm bath with a dose of delicious healing oil. But something short-circuited and the scent of that herbal immersion stayed with me for the next two weeks, day and night despite many other unfragranced baths, numerous changes of linen etc. It seemed to be coming from within me, as though this frail vessel had become porous. I could taste it in my mouth, smell it in slices of toast. I daresay that, living by perfume, my sense of smell is naturally over-tuned, so that when the normal running of the Good Body collapses, the accurate perception of odours is one of the first casualties. But it is strange: the redolence of that bath is still with me while the secondary infection of a heavy cold now renders any other scent undetectable. Let’s hope the sense of smell returns, quickly and in good order.

While my other capabilities have lain dormant I’ve done a certain amount of reading and, more than anything else, a great deal of “laying there”. What I did discover, was a most wonderful book by Elizabeth Grant. “Memoirs of a Highland Lady” was written initially for the author’s family circle; then published to great acclaim in 1898. It relates the first 33 years of the writer’s life at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Charming, vivId, prejudiced and funny the memoirs are packed with intricate intimate details of meals, clothes, washing procedures and all the minutiae of Regency daily life. I was especially struck by the following line:

“(Julia’s mother)…. was the Widow of the Alderman Hankey who died from putting brandy in his shoes when his feet were sore and hot with walking through the City, canvassing to be Lord Mayor: the chill of the evaporation produced apoplexy”.

But the idea of pouring in the brandy….! That anecdote that reminded me of the time I overdid the cooling peppermint oil in a heatwave and nearly finished myself off with hypothermia. Exactly the same phenomenon. And then, talking of peppermint, the Highland Lady describes the evening toilette of Willie Cummings, student army surgeon:

“…he dressed himself in his best carefully, and noticing that all the fine young men were scented, he provided himself with a large white pockethandkerchief (sic) of his mother’s which he steeped in peppermint water…’There’s an extraordinary smell of peppermint here,’ said Lord Erskine to Mrs Henry Siddons, as …(Willie)… turned and twirled to pass them, Willie flourishing the large pockethandkerchief in the most approved style.”

I hope my sense of smell comes back for Christmas. Meanwhile I’m mentally listing and reliving some favourite fragrances and shall offer these up for your possible interest next week. Hope this finds you “In The Festive Mood”!