That Was The Week That Was

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“Casting always starts on time. Can’t you smell the cheap perfume?” MAD MEN: The Final Season.

You can forget about BREXIT – (someone asked, “is it a type of chocolate?”) –  it’s been a great week for scent and smell. In the tradition of Florence Nightingale and native common sense, Professor Stephen Holgate of Southampton University begged us to open our windows and ventilate our poisoned homes. Fancy needing to be told! We have become a funny lot. Fumes from wood-burning stoves, furniture polish and spray deodorants are all under suspicion; which last concern leads us neatly to all these fascinating newspaper features about the human deodorising gene. It seems that around 2% of us probably don’t need to wear a proprietary deodorant at all, if only we dared to leave it off. We smell naturally sweet and clean, no matter how hot and bothered. The problem is, determining for sure who these lucky people are: for who will take a chance, eschew the roll-on and make sure of the fact?

Maybe Alexander the Great – whose sweat reputedly smelled of violets – was blessed with this gene. I have certainly known certain folk who have always the perpetual aura of a spring garden or the flower shop around them. Possibly this topical gene holds the answer to a mystery I have often pondered: the chain smoker who never has a trace of stale tobacco or cigarette smoke about her person but only a redolence as sweet as a nut, fragrant as a rose, pure as a lily.

Also featured in the press was the amusing case of a serial ‘career’ shoplifter who told the judge after sentencing how handsome he was. Like many of her kind, she was no stranger to the perfume counter and, fascinatingly, a cute reporter noted her preference for Hermes and Hugo Boss creations. I remember that around thirty years ago a huge fragrance warehouse in the Midlands was looted by thieves who had tunnelled in like ancient tomb robbers. They stripped the place methodically, leaving only stacks of Houbigant’s Demi Jour untouched. This was taken as a terrible slight on the dewy jammy-sweet perfume in question.

Well, then we took delivery at the shop of James Heeley’s revelatory new Chypre 21, and this started a lively discussion as to what a chypre fragrance actually is. If you’re looking for an intellectual treat in scent-circles, a symposium of meta-cognition, just propose to those present that they categorise a chypre, concisely and definitively. This most glamorous and alluring type of fragrance has been around for centuries but was only pinned to the butterfly board of perfumery ninety nine years ago when Francois Coty launched his eponymous Chypre. Guerlain’s immortal Mitsouko followed two years later with vast success but chypres, though much admired, have never been the most popular scents with the Lumpen. Maybe the name is too tricky for the Anglo-Saxon tongue. I had to smile, because in pursuit of chypre history I stumbled across the Google fact that in the text of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon (1929/30 ) Mr Joel Cairo’s hankies are soaked in chypre. Evidently Warner Bros jibbed, because in the movie version (1941) Peter Lorre is drenched in gardenia. A more accessible scent for contemporary audiences? (Or was gardenia – as witness Mary Astor’s bath salts in THE GREAT LIE – just more on-point that year? Or did gardenia sound more aptly and obviously pansified).¤

But the greatest event of last week was probably my mail order! I finally got around to answering a most enticing advertisement for tuberose bulbs, as seen in the back pages of a national newspaper. Five bulbs of ‘The Pearl’ for just £8. My imagination ran riot and galloped off, well ahead of itself: as it always does with such ads or with the flowery promise of any seed packet. I imagined the back yard transformed into a tropical terrace, the heavy scent driving me indoors of a summer’s evening, stupefied & moribund with perfume; pink and white tuberoses running riot like a stage garden of tissue paper blossoms. I kept this advertisement on the kitchen table for a full week, gloating over it, but now the cheque’s gone off and when the precious bulbs come I’ll plant them like Jack’s beans and keep you informed of their (indubitably magical) progress.

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Andy Tauer’s new Tubereuse fragrance – of the Sotto la Luna tribe – is sumptuously ample, eye-poppingly opulent, like the chasuble of a Spanish Conquistador bishop. A vestment woven of black cloth-of-gold; then sewn with black opals, jet and black diamonds strung on human hairs. Beneath the coruscating magnificence there lurks a profoundly earthy quality which puts me in mind somewhat of the rootiness of Annick Goutal’s long-vanished tuberose experiment. The crystal Tubereuse grown in Tauer’s nursery – dusky top notes of cinnamon, galbanum, clove and prickly green geranium – slowly rises through the chthonic darkness of earth and cinders like an exhumed Pre-Columbian American statue of the Divine. A massive ornately carved idol, resurrected from chasms of wandering shadows, to bring ambiguous greetings from the Lower World of Mictlan. As Tubereuse warms, it sings – as the Colossi of Memnon were said to do when hit by rays of the rising sun – emitting chords of sweet rose, jungly ylang and the bitterness of patchouli. Tuberose perfumes come in many moods –  natural, green, frothy and frilly, smoothly syrupy, fruity, sensual, erotic and brash. But this Tauer creation is unique, startingly original: an iridescent ruby-throated hummingbird scent from the nectar of a sooty lily. A pure white flower – a sacrificial “blossom of the bone” – reflected in a sorcerer-priest’s obsidian mirror: “through a glass darkly”. Disturbing, weirdly beautiful, mesmerising.

So: why not pop round?

¤ more inexplicable changes in movie translations: can anyone tell us why Melanie’s reading from Les Miserables in the book of Gone With The Wind is switched to David Copperfield in the film? And why the name of the sculptor of Mrs Mingott’s hands in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is (seemingly pointlessly) altered by Martin Scorsese?

The Sunshine of Your Smile

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“Sunshine is the best disinfectant” pipes up Dr Serena in Holby City and I thought, I know that line. The purifying healing effect of sunlight is one of the many subjects explored in Florence Nightingale’s vastly entertaining “Notes on Nursing”, first published in 1859 and an immediate best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic. This slim volume – just over 130pp – is energising and fresh as a breezy spring day: packed with practical advice and acute psychology, spiced with Miss Nightingale’s sarcastic and pawky humour. I love this book: you see at once how magnetic the great reformer was, and how very tricky to work with. “Notes” is invaluable for incidental and usually horrific insights into mid-Victorian domestic life. We hear about the uncovered and brimming chamber pot left under the bed for twenty four hours – and not in a poor household; the arsenic-soaked wallpapers, fatally inhaled; disastrously inflammable starched petticoats and the “indecency” of the crinoline”¤.

“A respectable elderly woman, stooping forward, invested in crinoline, exposes quite as much of her own person to the patient lying in the room as any opera dancer does on the stage”¤¤ – F.N.

Sunlight, writes Miss Nightingale, sweetens a room, revives the sick and invigorates all forms of life. The chronically ill perk up as they turn their faces, like a row of heliotropes, towards the sun. Nightingale loves sunshine because it shows up dust (source of all evils)¤¤¤; it dries up the foul air and vapours which she believes – no doubt with good reason – cause disease. Her theories on light are certainly very persuasive and easily proven. An otherwise unscented room, well-aired and then filled with sunshine for an afternoon, has a wonderful cleanth and purity about it. By the accident of its positioning, my own bedroom basks in sun through nearly the whole of a clear February day. So I draw back the bedcovers – Nightingale has some dreadful things to say about mattresses and valances – and lay out all my linen and woollens for a sun bath. As I may have mentioned before in this column, intense exposure to spring sunlight when the ultra-violet rays are at their most intense is the only sure prevention  against moth. Unlike most eggs, which thrive on heat and incubation, those deposited by the noxious insects will infallibly shrivel and perish in the sunbeams. So, you see, the ancient Egyptians were on to something when they saw their solar goddess Sekhmet as both the bringer and the expunger of disease. And look at ‘Sunlight Soap’!

A dear friend tells me that before, during and after the frying of fish she opens simultaneously her front and back doors for a great through-rush of fresh air. Keeping one’s house sweet is a problem that has not lessened since 1859: the causes of lingering odours are much the same as those listed in the “Notes”. Viz: stale carpets, curtains, loose covers, “sanitary arrangements” and cooking. I must say, I am all for a ban on the wearing of outdoor shoes in the private intimacy of the home. The full implications of the muck trekked in to multiply on floor coverings do not bear thinking of. And I wonder if you’ve noticed that when people in films and on tv fling themselves on sofas and beds they never ever remove their shoes, encrusted with all the filth of the streets. I think it must be because shoes are currently so sexy and on point: the directors want them kept on show at all times.

I’ve had so much correspondence lately on one especial topic: the finding of a reasonably priced house plant or bunch of flowers to sweeten and scent a room in late winter. It’s a tricky one: there really isn’t much choice. The first daffodils are now in the shops – average supermarket price £1 for a good twenty or so stems. If you blow a fiver and place the massed flowers in a warm room, or where the sunshine will illuminate them, then that powdery, faintly rubbery greenish smell is absolutely divine, though fleeting. But a word of warning, in recent years I think the commercial florists have treated daffs as the Walrus and the Carpenter did the Oysters – “brought them out so far/ and made them trot so quick”. The flowers, delivered like Richard III before their time into the world, seem frail and pale in scent. I think they must suffer from too long in the cold store because bunch after bunch now wither and die before the blooms – sunshine on stems – are fully open. Shame.

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Tulips – gorgeous but no scent. Shop carnations no longer smell. Potted gardenias are heaven, provided you can rear them. I’ve fiddled about with distilled water and rain water and what not, but with no success. One glorious coconut-smelling cream velvet blossom, and then a tragic succession of dropped buds. I think gardenias are allergic to gas, draughts and central heating. In my case, it must be the draughts. Jasmine is lovely, but a bit pricey for what you get, and doesn’t last long. Excellent value is to be had for a basic bowl of three hyacinths which, if you buy the bulbs in tight green bud, should see you through a month in a temperate house. That’s as long as you are not one of those who find that hyacinths smell of cat. Personally I love them: the flowers like the carved hair of a Roman statue; the clear strong colours; the bewitching, heady, fruity and yes – faintly iffy – perfume.¤¤¤¤ For years I set hyacinth bulbs in water glasses every autumn and shut them up in a cupboard: the roots grew like so much vermicelli, and they bloomed in January.  But last winter neither I nor my neighbour had any success with our individual attempts. The bulbs failed and short-circuited. I suspect another case of mutated breeding has taken place. Freesias are still lovely but the overpowering fragrance seems to have been sacrificed for longevity and brilliance of colour. Occasionally I find an exceptionally pungent spray of the golden variety, and when the rays of the sun play on these you get a cloud of that well-remembered perfume of the past.

Florence Nightingale was ahead of her time in not being afraid of having flowers in a bedroom – “…they actually absorb carbonic acid and give off oxygen”. However, she would disapprove of my final recommendation: the smell of lilies, she writes,”depresses the nervous system”.  Certainly I would have nothing to do with lilies if you keep a cat: they affect the feline respiratory system badly. But, for the cat-free, their exotic scent is probably the most powerful and penetrating of all shop-boughten blooms.

One final thought. Decades ago I walked into a chilly winter drawing room: there was a smoky whiff from an unenthused log fire but dominating everything was a clear sweet fresh floral smell like that of a beautiful perfume. It was intoxicating and slightly woody; it came not from a crystal flacon but from a tiny sprig of pink vibernum, tucked into a liqueur glass of water on the mantlepiece. Worth investigating.

¤ another reason why she and Queen Victoria, also a crinoline-hater, hit it off so well. Victoria also had a horror of over-heated rooms, demanding open windows at all times.

¤¤ and maybe more. Knickers had still not yet become general.

¤¤¤ even as I write, a treasured correspondent tells me of a recent Daily Mail piece about a pillow fungus that feeds off dust mite feces. Florence Nightingale was righter than she knew.

¤¤¤¤ Guerlain’s Chamade: in its original form the best and most sophisticated hyacinth perfume ever, blended with blackcurrant and vanilla.

A Whiter Shade of Pale

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Perfumes are turning very pale, do you notice? Olfactory pallor is “on point”. That’s an interesting theme. Myself, I prefer to have my chosen fragrances rich and brilliant. “Penny plain and twopence coloured” is my way of thinking. I was enthralled on this drear and stormy wet morning by the earrings on my Tesco check-out lady: baroque silver sprays with huge glowing ruby drops. Cherries in the rain, she said. “Colour”, as Miss Brodie remarks, “enlivens the spirit”. Other folk are more aroused by the ideal of our ancestors – “pale and interesting”. (Or, as another later version has it – “pale but interesting”. Not quite the same thing).
We have watched with interest as this pallor in fragrance has developed over the past year or so. It began, I think, with a tendency for perfumers to become shy about revealing their ingredients in interviews and PR releases. I approve of this like mad, actually. Many of us fragrance lovers are looking not so much for a recreation of a specific flower, plant or redolence but a mood, a fantasy, an atmosphere. This is as it should be. Perfume is capable of such magical and psychotropic effects that it is the accomplished transcendental whole that is vital, not the component parts. Agreed that a perfect rose scent – see Frederic Malle passim – is a marvel and a joy for ever; but it all too easy to become overly narrow in our presumed preferences of ingredients. An appealing legend in the business – possibly true – has it that one of the twentieth century’s most famous rose soliflores (Guerlain’s Nahema) has not a trace of rose oil in its formula. The stretching of the imagination is key to the joy of scent. Illusion is a very luxurious and accomplished commodity. Think about Marlene’s nude souffle stage gowns.

“She’s leaving no rhinestone unturned!”

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The new pale beauties – the enchanted triptych of Altaia; James Heeley’s imminent Chypre 21; Francis Kurkdjian’s Baccarat 540 has just drifted in – are paradoxical. By pale I do not mean insubstantial or naive. Their components (if divulged, or hinted at) are rich, even florid, but their final realisation is fragile and elusive. Baccarat is impossible to define in terms of the now outmoded classic fragrance families. It’s a conceptual exploration of the scent of blown glass, hot sand becoming crystal, of a glittering chandelier chiming in the hot draught of candles – with a single burning drop of crimson, “la touche de rouge”, at its heart. Oolang Infini by Atelier Cologne is another excellent early example of this type. Blond leather, neroli, tobacco flower, jasmine and blue tea are fun to think about and fool you into thinking you are going to enter a traditional Aladdin’s Cave of sweltering oriental chypre whereas the genius of Jerome Epinette gives us instead the hungry ghost – a Fata Morgana –  of these oils. The latest Frederic Malle release – Monsieur – has a massive injection of patchouli at its core, paraded with mandarin, rum and amber – but do not expect a new take on Opium or old-style gourmanderie. Monsieur is exquisitely restrained, aristocratically parched: like the tweed cuff displayed on its inspired PR visuals.

Where has this love of pallor, this exquisite delicacy come from? Does it not reflect a pathology of our times? For millennia, pallor of skin was an essential refinement. Egyptian tomb paintings show noble women as shades paler than their men. Queen Elizabeth painted her skin with egg albumen and white lead. Byron drank vinegar. Seventeenth century ladies of quality applied leeches and enemas, and wore sickly green veils to encourage a look of chlorosis. Women caught in the San Francisco earthquake perished in collapsing buildings rather than run hatless into the street. Like pencil-long Manchu fingernails, paleness was an indicator of status; it showed that you did not have to toil under the sun, cultivating your own diet of root vegetables. Ruddiness was intolerably vulgar.* But then, barely a century ago, vegetables and sunburn became all the rage: everyone wanted to glow and tan¤. And, at around the same time, the soi-disant Golden Age of perfumery exploded in a dazzling heady pyrotechnic riot of gorgeous colour and throbbing fragrances as powerful as the Victorian aniline dyes. The exaggerated perfection of the cinema screen brought sex, glamour and fashion into the lives of anyone with a few pennies. The terrible twentieth century stigmatised reticence and modesty as unbearably dowdy and everyone started cheeping for attention like insatiable baby birds in a nest.

So, the new pallor may be a temporary reaction, a rebellion against seven fat years of oud. Or it may be something deeper: another of those exercises in nostalgia that take such curious forms. Are we associating paleness with the comforting security of the past? I think we certainly equate it with craft and skill and integrity: a return to the days before the scientific molecular explosion when all perfume was “natural”, every man was gallant and every woman virtuous.

“When all the world is young, lad
And all the trees are green
When every goose a swan, lad
And every lass a queen..”

Pale perfumes have an intrinsic agreeable mystery, with intricately subtly wrought ingredients whose secrets need to be teased out. They require patience and detective work. They demand a keen sense of smell which, like pallor, is always associated with sensitivity. In a crass age of blarting noise and demented trolls everyone wants to be thought sensitive – if not spiritual. A new report from the University of Stirling concludes that most people choose a perfume which chimes with their own personal smell – “fragrances are chosen to work in tandem with individual body odour, potentially enhancing an individual’s personal olfactory fingerprint”. Like calls to like. How satisfying it is when all the pieces fit together!

“Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar,
Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell?”

* which is why Edwardian hostesses found tomatoes so unbearably common.

¤ had not everyone mucked in, and fought and laboured together during the Great War?

Doing The Flowers

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“Come here Barrett… Barrett, do you use a deodorant?
Susan’s (Wendy Craig) blunt interrogation of Dirk Bogarde in THE SERVANT (1963; screenplay by Harold Pinter) is an abruptly shocking cinema moment. Appallingly outspoken, the ultimate humiliation: one of the last taboos is to even imply that someone smells bad. It is what your best friend won’t tell you. Susan and Barrett loathe one another from their first meeting, with the instinctive unreasoning hatred of two animals. Red in tooth and claw they fight for the domination of boyfriend/employer Tony (James Fox). Barrett whips round with air freshener as Susan prepares to leave the house. Her inquisition of his personal hygiene is accompanied by her savage way with a bouquet of flowers, thrusting javelins of iris¤, carnations and daffodils into a vase like so many poisoned darts. Susan handles them as though she hates flowers as much as she hates – and fears – the manservant.

The first half of THE SERVANT is set in a perpetual bleak midwinter. Within doors, stylised and expensive flower arrangements are everywhere: an artificial deceiving hothouse spring which mirrors Tony’s idle fantasies of a career in the Brazil jungle. No sooner has Susan positioned a vase than Barrett is removing it. Needless to say, the arrangements in Tony’s bedroom are those most vigorously disputed. As regards interior decoration, Bogarde is given a wonderful Pinter line, drolly delivered –

“…mandarin red and fuschia’s a very chic¤¤ combination this year, sir”

This is fruity-floral extravaganza at its most florid¤¤¤, especially effective in a black and white movie whose monochrome is so much a part of its whole Gestalt. Outside Tony’s bijou Chelsea home, London is all darkness, wind, rain, snow and arid cold. Whereas the interiors are full of the smell of plants, tobacco, clothes, paint, sex, food and drink: all of them expensively chosen weapons in the armoury of domination¤¤¤¤.

Tony owns a spectacularly large bottle of cologne, guarded as possessively as a child’s teddy bear. It’s kept in his private bathroom which is duly invaded by the sluttish Vera (Sarah Miles) and Barrett. Once Tony has left the house the abandoned pair disport themselves (“splash it all over!”) with the master’s perfume in an orgy which is the more startling and disturbing for being left vague, enigmatic, still guarded by ’60’s censorship.

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A highlight of creepy sensory horror is the restaurant sequence: here’s an establishment that smells as though never aired. “Too posh to wash”, all right. This fine diner could do with some fresh flowers about and a window open.  A sinister bishop* guzzles with his chaplain, the pair of them simultaneously sticking their noses into brandy snifters. Harold Pinter in person is glimpsed in the background, dining with a girl who simultaneously eats, drinks and smokes: holistic sensual indulgence – “gorgeous! Simply gorgeous!” A strong-minded woman in a pot hat, gnawed with jealousy, dresses salad with lemon juice while interrogating her young female companion.

Even in 1963, flower arranging as a leisure activity and the employment of designated servants were beginning to seem a bit dated. Rather earlier, I  remember my mother being reluctantly enrolled on the Church Flower Rota. Specifically, I can smell the old brass tap set in the exterior south wall at just about my height. We were careful to walk round the church clockwise to the tap: if you went round a church widdershins terrible things happened, as a little book of fairy tales in the nearby library bore witness. I remember the smell of icy water gushing into a huge earthenware pitcher that I vaguely imagined having something to do with the Wedding at Cana; and the green sharp tang of brown and gold chrysanthemums unwrapped from rough brown paper to have their woody stems cut and trimmed with steely secateurs.

I am told that today it’s getting harder to fill the quota for the Rota. Flowers are expensive and “tricky”; no one has the time nor inclination to choose and display them. The old ideal of a geisha spending a day positioning a single spray of cherry to its best effect seems bizarre. I notice at the supermarket that spring bulbs now come ready potted in cardboard so you don’t even have to choose a bowl for them once you get home. I’ll tell you one thing: Florence Nightingale would be relieved. There exist exasperated letters written in the late 1850’s by the great reformer, then bottled up in a baking London summer at the Burlington Hotel, writing reports on army hospitals. She was rarely free of background grizzlings from her mother and sister whose “whole occupation…was to lie on two sofas and tell one another not to get tired by putting flowers into water…I cannot describe to you the impression it made on me.”

Surely as lovers of fragrance we can find a Middle Way?

¤ “so spikey and unfriendly” as Ann Todd remarks in another context.

¤¤ pronounced, of course, “chick”

¤¤¤  the in-house workman tries to catch his mate’s eye.

¤¤¤¤ be sure not to miss Barrett’s washing of Tony’s feet in scalding water laced with Stag salt. The censor asleep again.

* the “Vicar of Hell”, indeed