“Anything in the fridge?”… What Alice Found There

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Cellophane boxes of mauve cattleya orchids, maybe – or fragile gardenias keeping cool and creamy before their last and only outing, pinned to a satin shoulder strap or a jacket lapel. Very Dolly Sisters. So, are you looking at the new (and the final) series of MR SELFRIDGE? It gets increasingly perfume-y; claustrophobically and wonderfully scented. The great Elizabeth Arden – remember Blue Grass? – has now put in an appearance, magnificent in elaborate draperies of rose pink. And those Sisters! I don’t know why they are portrayed as tousled wiggy blondes – the twins invariably wore signature sleek black bobs with bangs – but the characterisations give some idea of Rosie and Jenny’s extravagant and tragic erotic hysteria. Last week we were treated to the spectacle of Rosie between the sheets with the Chicago-born store magnate. She was sporting nothing but a dazzling parure of diamonds, including improbable and rather risky chandelier earrings. I guess this is how Gladys George, in pre-Hays Code days, might have been presented in THE ROARING TWENTIES. Like the Marquise de Pompadour and other successful courtesans the Dollies were compulsive collectors of exquisite fragrances: tools of their craft. You can try some of their favourites by Isabey, Molinard and Caron at Les Senteurs today.

But back to the fridge and its exotic cargo. Nowadays, in even the most modest dwellings, fridges tend to be great big things, the size of locomotives: the kind of chillers in which Eva Peron kept her blue minks during the summer months. Or the flower cold store in which LW was once briefly locked. (“It was just for a laugh…”). Cold always diminishes the projection of odours but this is no reason not to keep a refrigerator in good order. I have smelled some beautiful things in there – sherry-soaked ratafia trifle, bowls of stewed plums, summer raspberries half-crystallised in sugar – but also some of the worst.

We always kept a clean fridge at home but my father did bring in strange things which were kept chilled in bowls: ink caps or unidentified fungi, skinned hares, whole ox tongues, ribbed whorls of spongy tripe, dusky-feathery rook pie. Such dishes could give you a bit of a turn when you opened the fridge door unawares in the deep dark larder. They often had an uneasy queasy natural redolence, but at least they were fresh. I think one of the vilest and intensely nauseating smells I have ever encountered came from a tupperware box of decomposing kidneys found at the back of an icebox in a professional kitchen, victims of slack stock rotation.

Communal fridges are always tricky: those installed in staff rooms, offices and shared living accomodation. They get cluttered up – no one likes to be seen to be interfering with other people’s provisions by doing a bit of ordering so of course food becomes dried up, contaminated, neglected and forgotten as junky Pelion is piled upon wholefood Ossa. Quinoa versus Chicken MacNuggets. But, have you noticed? Nowadays, nothing seems to actually go bad. Or, at least, decay takes such a long time to set in that you are almost bound to notice, and have made your own pre-emptive strike before the sliced bread and cheese grows its own blue furry coat and runs off. Modern food is so pickled in salt and sugar that it is more or less mummified¤.

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A certain staleness is usually the worst thing that you now smell in fridges. I’m always having rehabilitated young offenders at the door – these poor folk who are sent out by our masters to sell ludicrously priced domestic items to householders:  three dusters for a tenner or individual J-cloths at £5. I feel very indignant on these callers’ behalf but who can afford much of that sort of thing? Anyway, ages ago – rather in despair – I bought three little devices rather like perforated golf balls and they kept my fridge as sweet as a nut for years. A good wipe out with a solution of bicarbonate of soda or vinegar is nature’s own disinfectant, as is a large open bowl of cold water, replaced every hour or so. Add a cut lemon for added effect and a splash of colour. You can’t beat vinegar. Years ago I went to Paris on shop business with our manager. We put up in a picturesque old hotel by the Gare du Nord. The garden walls were lined with shards of looking glass; and every morning the entire establishment smelled like a pickle factory as a sub-concierge went right through the whole of the ground floor with vinegar and scalding hot water.¤¤

Coming full circle, I’ll remind you that if you keep your fridge nice and clean you can also store your scent in it! Light and heat are the enemy of fragrance. As Frederic Malle demonstrates, perfume does excellently in a wine cooler, or in a refrigerator at medium temperature. To me, a chilly-minded cologne – Atelier Cologne’s Cedrat Enivrant is an especial favourite – is especially delicious on a sticky summer day when served direct from the fridge. “Cheers!”

¤ Mind you, when I was at boarding school we kept butter (if we could occasionally get hold of a piece) in inky study cupboards. It got to taste very musty, and acquired a curious texture, as did the bread it sat upon. And I remember a boy regularly being sent a large carton of pork pies by his grandparents and having them lying in and around his desk and locker for weeks. Another child kept fruit cake down his bed: for safety’s sake.

¤¤ these are my preferred methods, but I have just seen on the web a “tip” for disinfecting the fridge by inserting a tray of cat litter. Fresh and unused, of course: but this idea still makes me feel rather sick.

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“Sorry Wrong Number..”: Box and Cox.

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Deconstructing those half-forgotten smells last week put me in mind of  telephone boxes, iconic like still-living flies in amber, though long past their glory days. Who now, I wonder, remembers the origins of The Tardis? I sat in the kitchen and watched the inaugural episode of DR WHO¤ : that first police box was a very crummy affair. I was enthralled, though I now understand that viewing figures were disappointingly low on that dark and far off Saturday afternoon. Everyone was still in shock from the Kennedy assassination the previous day.

Once an essential lifeline and a refuge, phone boxes have become quaint oddities: something for the tourist, a fragment of not so olde England. The Household Cavalry, pillar boxes, double decker buses and phone booths: they all fit the same vividly scarlet picture post card – preferably a ‘Salmon’, ‘J. Arthur Dixon’ or ‘Dennis’ imprint.

In the old days a phone box was almost like a elongated doll’s house: one had fleeting fantasies of living in one. The occasional eccentric did just that. (Sometimes the synonym ‘kiosk’ was used, evoking visions of a Turkish love pavilion on the shores of the Bosphorous). You pulled hard on the heavy padded insulated door and stepped up into a muffled intimacy, hauling your shopping and often a companion with you: “my friend would like a word”. The mysteries of the jutting Buttons A and B are famous, but there were many other accessories to explore. Once upon a time – before the age of the vandals returned –  a small vanity mirror was mounted on the wall above the telephone. In this you could reassemble your features after an upsetting conversation; apply make up before a chat with your demon lover; or watch yourself pulling extraordinary faces as you told porkie pies – “making excuses for absence”. The mirror might also reflect the impatient, angry or mocking faces of those to come after you, restlessly and loosely queuing outside. There was an awful lot of intimidation at phone boxes: tapping on the panes and even “mouthing”.

Under the looking glass was a kind of open cabinet. The top shelf was useful for your bag and the stack of coins with which to feed the machine. Pennies – those old pennies¤¤ the approximate size of a cocktail cracker – had a very particular smell, maybe slightly eggy, sulphurously metallic, caked in decades of DNA. (Writing about her war work, the novelist Monica Dickens used to say she’d turned down the chance of being a clippie on account of everything you eat ever after tastes of money). The telephone apparatus also smelled. What  would now be called “dedicated hygienists” used to come round to clean and disinfect the receiver and the dial. They used to make private visits too, to homes and businesses. I well remember the excitement a visit from the cleaner used to arouse in the office where I had an early job. An entire day was planned around it. But, even in a natural state, phones then – plastic, bakelite or whatever – seemed to have a warm faintly comforting redolence. Maybe it was just the odour of animal communication, the lingering traces of human hands.

So, then, the lower shelf was full of telephone directories. Remember those? Geeks used to tear them in half as an amusing act on the halls. They were printed on coarse rag paper and had a very particular smell; apparently – fascinatingly – old printing ink used to oxidise on paper and secrete its own vanillin. And this explains the sweetish-spicy scent not only of phone books but also of old libraries. My mouth always used to drool over those old volumes “produced in complete conformity with authorised wartime standards”. I sometimes even licked the pages.

There were other smells too, not so nice; reeks that all too often blotted out the delicate papery fragrance and the faint trails of countless callers’ perfumes. Do you remember the brimming ashtray below the mirror? It WAS a little tray, too, quite literally; vaguely shell-shaped, like those then screwed to the backs of theatre and cinema seats. Talking on the telephone promotes the yen for a cigarette almost as much as does alcohol, and people smoked their heads off in phone boxes. Sometimes, as you waited outside, you could hardly see the caller – “Go ahead, caller!” – wreathed in fumes. Once the smoker left, you had to fan that heavy door like a punkah before you dared step inside. Or you held the door open with an extended foot while you chatted; as was essential in hot weather when you feared being cooked alive like an ant under glass. People passed out – or were otherwise ill – in phone boxes.

So that, talking of feet, you needed to be careful of where and how you stood, as telephone boxes were notoriously and frequently used as impromptu public lavatories. Courting couples were fond of them too. All human life was here. No wonder that boxes have so often memorably and spectacularly featured – even starred – in movies of varying degrees of nastiness. The phone booth as a focal point of imprisonment, betrayal, entrapment, threat, abduction and panic. We may have to return to this theme on another occasion. Consider the role of the telephone box in ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE SERVANT, THE BIRDS, DON’T TALK TO STRANGE MEN, LA CABINA etc. The phone itself is an instrument pregnant with menace. When combined with stuffy claustrophobia and public exhibition in a glass cage it personifies our worst recurring nightmares.

¤ as incarnated by William “Billy” Hartnell – “literally impossible to work with”: what a sad epitaph!

¤¤ when I was a tot “bun pennies” minted with the image of the young Queen Victoria were still current. I wish I had a handful now.

Washing The Blues From My Soul

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A lovely lady came on the ITV News last Friday night, wonderfully emotional concerning the restoration and re-running of The Flying Scotsman. “Ah!” she said. “Steam, coal, oil! if you could bottle that as a perfume I’d wear it”. Don’t we all have similar epiphanies whether it be the scent of an April bluebell wood, the shores of the North Sea, the first sweet peas or an especially fragrant kedgeree? It must have been a case of telepathy as regards the reportage of the great train because all that day I’d been thinking of lost smells. The smells that no longer manifest since times and circumstances have changed: and not necessarily ones that you’d wish to have in a cut-glass atomiser. Odours like the weekly soaking of combs and hairbrushes in stinging ammonia¤. Or the dreaded ‘Flit’ fly killer and fly papers, in the days when ‘Flit’ smelled as though it was the destruction of mankind rather than of insect life that it was designed for. “Cover the fruit bowl! Cover the goldfish! Put the cat out! Children, go and sit on the stairs!”

Dry cleaning shops now seem to smell far less – ahem! – vibrant than of yore. The  customer used to choke and retch on the reek of “perk”, and it was often remarked upon that staff in such establishments seemed never to live long. I’ll tell you something else that seems to have happily passed away: the miasma of those ubiquitous greasy leather jackets which smelled as though they’d been aired and stored above the deep fat fryers of the nation’s worst restaurants. The London Tube used to be full of them 40 years ago, invariably jammed tight against your face. All gone. Ou sont les cuirs d’antan? Cinemas are no longer fragranced with ersatz rose bug-spray; and who could forget reluctant but occasionally unavoidable visits to the dainty ‘Elsan’?

There’s a moment in David Lean’s OLIVER TWIST when a Member of the Board declares indignantly that “The workhouse has become a regular place of entertainment for the lower orders”. Quick cut to skeletal but agile old ladies toiling in the communal laundry; embroiled in heat, steam and noise; wrestling with machinery that looks like instruments of torture. School laundries used to be like this: ours was housed in a complex of Nissen huts. If you peered through the cloudy streaming windows you might see surprising things: the operatives stripped to their underwear, for one thing, purple in the face and perspiring freely.

I am just old enough to remember the pandemonium of a traditional family wash day. My aunt was then housekeeping for my grandfather and I can see now the piles of garments heaped up for a day’s hard work. It was a messy business. The kitchen space was extensive but inconvenient: a tiny brown parlour with an Aga covered in blankets; then two steps down into a long brick larder; up again into a perpetually damp scullery which opened on a loggia hung with drying lines. In the red-tiled scullery Aunt would struggle with the malfunctioning noisy twin tub, wooden tongs and lengths of tubing. Woman’s Hour – then broadcast after lunch – was turned up very loud on the wireless. I recall water everywhere – warm puddles all over the floor – an overpowering harsh smell of detergent and green scrubbing soap; a liberal use of the blue bag and a sense of extreme discomfort, even infantile Angst.

Everything seemed slightly out of hand: so that when one morning Aunt found a Biblical plague of frogs congregated in the scullery, come up from the water meadows beyond the garden, this was no more than likely. Much later on, when I read about wash day murders in at least two Agatha Christie novels, I felt that my sense of unease concerning laundry had been well founded.

At home we had a massive mangle outside the back door, occasionally used for sheets and towels. My grandmother had misgivings about us tots going near it. One of her best stories from her own childhood was of a neighbour – the cowman’s wife – smashing one forefinger flat in the mangle and cooking the severed tip of another in an apple pie. The mundane undercut by the macabre. Now, every day is washday and the liberal use of Galaxolide gives countless commercial perfumes the freshness of sun-dried linen and Egyptian percale sheets. For me, winter is such a mucky month I’m happy to empower the boil wash at any time: as for the drying, as Sir Thomas More might have said, “let it shift for itself”.

¤ do you remember the flighty lady so named in ‘Up Pompeii’?

June In January

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What a funny outlook for 2016. Don’t you agree? I can’t think what may lie ahead of us in the New Year’s tiny cradle. On Christmas Day the LWs motored into Cambridgeshire and, although the rain was coming down in stair rods, the verges and greens on the edge of the fens were golden with hosts of daffodils, full out. Not just one or two rogue flowers, but the whole Wordsworth effect. I could hardly bear to look: it was like Easter Day. Since then I’ve seen wallflowers, periwinkles, dwarf iris and, most awfully, our magnificent village Parma violets which usually bloom in a purple carpet by the bus stop in time for Easter.

How shall we be placed by then? That’s what worries me. Will the roses be out? My neighbour tells me this coming summer will be “Australian in its intensity”. The grass is already running riot and badly needs cutting, but no chance of that in all this wet – and, if we are in for an Antipodean drought, worrying about lawns must be redundant. I don’t want to see all this unnatural growth, and I don’t care to smell it. It seems most terribly wrong : I am not ready for violets before Epiphany. My favourite name for a nail polish may be Revlon’s  “Cherries In The Snow” – but when this supposition seems to become likely, it’s not so nice. Instead of glorious and heartening, late December violets appear sinister – and pathetic, too, for who knows when that ruthless killer Jack Frost may decide to suddenly wake up and pounce? And there is something missing too, for the concomitant insects who should be buzzing about the plants, intoxicated by scent, spring light and warmth, have wisely absented themselves.

Nonetheless, one must keep positive and I’m somewhat encouraged by knowing that it has – naturally – all happened before. When the dying Princess Pocahontas sailed for America in 1617 – a voyage never achieved – the banks of the Thames were in full summer blow, even in February. And there’s been a heartening letter in The Times reminding us of honeysuckle and nectarine blossom in Horace Walpole’s garden on Boxing Day 1748. It’s funny though, isn’t it? The weather seems to be aping our own nutty modern impatience: we can’t much enjoy the present for always wanting to move on to the next entertainment. Christmas wrap and decorations were swept away from our local shops two weeks before the 25th: now it’s as though El Nino is mocking us with premature spring flowers that don’t fit the occasion. Nature is unsuitably and grotesquely bedecked, like a school-age damsel sprayed with her mama’s Poison or Opium. “The Last Rose of Summer” – and the first of winter.

But there again, all this alteration in nature has been creeping up on us throughout LW’s lifetime, ever since he first took an infant interest in gardening by sowing radishes and mustard & cress. When I go for my annual medical lunch at Teddington in August, I find the town a tropical bower of passion flowers. Speaking only for myself, I don’t remember seeing an example of this plant blooming in England prior to c.1980. Gardening books of the 1950’s give very different advice from today on flowering times and plant hardiness. Change is good for all of us: it may not always seem attractive, but it keeps the human race going and it is always interesting to observe, especially in safe retrospect.

“May you live in interesting times!” – the notorious, and no doubt apochryphal, Oriental curse.

But truly, the only flowers – apart from  hellebores and, presently, snowdrops* – I enjoy seeing at this time of year are those intended for indoor decorations. I appreciate (though rarely get) a room with a roaring fire where apple wood smoke is a backdrop to Blue Delft bowls of hyacinths; cascades of potted jasmine; shocking pink prawn-like Christmas cacti; cyclamen, azaleas and the jolly brash blaze of poinsettia. I was surprised to read in the paper that, despite loving their scent, Jo Malone finds tuberoses ugly to look upon. I guess the budding stems can appear rather like asparagus but, when those starry miniature lily blooms begin to open, the tuberose is for me the apogee of exoticism. Bizarre, perhaps, but gorgeous: like Gloria Swanson’s fabulous face. One stem can amply perfume your living space for days. That’s my botanical ideal for January: peering at a brilliant frosty outdoors through the sub-tropical petals of an interior winter garden.
* but, in 2015, flowering in the graveyard in time for the Christmas Carol Service.

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