Memorable elegiac passages have been written by the great and the good on infant perceptions and idealised memories of the Scented Mother Figure. She tends to materialise as the light fails, irradiating the shadows with her own luminous brilliance. Winston Churchill remembered that Jennie Jerome “shone for me like the Evening Star – but at a distance”. The glowing gleaming goddess-like figure at the end of the little white nursery bed, suffused in heavenly perfumes, appears over and again in memoirs, like the metamorphosis of a redolent guardian angel. Peter Pan’s Mrs Darling, James James Morrison’s mother in her golden gown¤, even the deliciously fragrant virgin saints who appeared in the meadows to Jeanne d’Arc, all contribute to the mythic image, the mystic experience. The scent is key, the exotic alien perfumes which waft into a room: mother and child both in different ways waiting for the party – but also for the parting. The child is left with a fleeting kiss, clasped in the hand like a crumpled butterfly, and the clouds of scent which last longer than mama’s retreating shadow.
I certainly remember my own mother in these circumstances: in those days to be smelled wearing Rubinstein’s Apple Blossom, Diorissimo or Youth Dew. Quelques Fleurs she sprayed on the pug. I think that in her youth, growing up during the Midlands during the Depression and the War, perfume meant nothing very much to her. As I knew her, she had a great knack with clothes: she’d cannily put together one expensive and stylish outfit and wear it to death for a couple of years. And then she’d buy another. It was the same with scent. Much later in the day when I made perfume my profession she grew more adventurous, growing passionately fond of Serge Lutens A La Nuit and Caron’s Eau de Reglisse. But, in fact, infant memories concerning my mother and delicious smells have little to do with fine fragrance. They are much more connected with my tagging along with her to the hairdresser.
Miss Ribstone’s salon was across two streets from us, occupying the coverted ground floor of a Victorian terraced house. Miss R was a sweet and tiny scuttling woman, with green combs in her foxy hair. She had something of Marie Lloyd about her – I mean to say, always merry, with large teeth and full of what they now call banter. She must have been fond of small children – or remarkably tolerant – as the place was crawling with them. Tots could have their hair cut on the premises. They were also haphazardly entertained as though in a creche. Allowed to play with the scissors, combs and curlers and all that¤¤. I remember sitting on the lino amid all the hanks of hair (and no doubt splashes of peroxide). I do not recall a single window in the place: they must have been boarded up to allow numerous cubicles of hardboard to be erected in a kind of warm damp labyrinth. A client sat in each one, robed in a sea-green bib, like a Queen Bee in her airless waxen cell. Miss Ribstone ran like a rabbit, in and out the dusty bluebells, sectioning, wrapping and combing out.
The entire establishment was painted a boiled shrimp pink and had something of the atmosphere of a seraglio in old Constantinople¤¤¤ – all those ladies in negligent and relaxed deshabille, surrounded by children and attendants. Ladies “letting their hair down”, indeed. The place smelled so exciting, so strange, so very unlike home. An intoxicating cloud of hair spray, setting lotion, bleach, shampoo, hot water, perfumed steam, soap, conditioners, nail polish and wet hair. A frisson of fright was provided by alarming singey smells which added to the horror of those hideous hooded hair dryers. Sinister wires and cables trailed about as in some gruesome American execution chamber.
A dear friend and correspondent reminds me of “that smell of the old fashioned hair lacquer that used to be in a plastic bottle – you had to pump it out. That took a lot of strength! Masses of it went on, until the hair was helmet hard; and the smell – reminiscent of old fashioned carnations – lasted for days”. My interlocutor tells me, too, that today the burning smells – to do with the straightening of frizzy barnets – have got much worse.
Like the breeching of little boys of 400 years ago, the day of my eventual graduating to the barber’s shop came as a terrible shock. “I’ve brought a bag for the ears” said the larky young man who took my younger brother and I to our initiation. It was a real horror. A dark bleak room, full of cigarette butts; sour old men sitting about, snarling at one another; smutty talk not fully understood, but confusing and disturbing; the agony of the rusty hand clippers nipping your neck. Things have changed now – somewhat – but half a century ago you would barely have known that the hairdresser and the barber and were in the same trade. It was pampering versus character building, then. There was no attempt at “styling”. The virile odours at the sign of the red and white pole came from barbicide – a dubious liquid in which the scissors and combs were disinfected; Brylcream; and a rough sort of hair oil which smelled like the bus station. “Pleasant pongs” – as The Beano called them – were strictly for ladies only.
When us kids came home, our parents screamed at the sight of us – “Why did you let him do that to you?”
We’d had no say in the matter.
There’s something about the scent of hairspray which I still enjoy. The aldehydes which wreathe around some of Les Senteurs’s loveliest scents like luminous rainbow bubbles have a discreet and dazzling champagne memory of hair lacquer. Aldehydes give a perfume an escapist lift, an airy varnish, a fairy finish – a perfect “set”. They lift and elevate, lending their host fragrance a gleaming artifice and glamour. Next time you come by, try Noontide Petals, Dries Van Noten, Memoire du Futur, Lipstick Rose, Nocturnes or Lady Caron: each one a triumphant glossy crowning glory.
¤ this poor woman “.. .drove right down to the end of the Town……” & “hasn’t been heard of since” – terrifying.
¤¤ I once cut all my own hair off with a pair of paper scissors. Not at Miss R’s but early one morning, in bed. Had to go to school, though, just the same.
¤¤¤ try Parfum d’Empire’s Cuir Ottoman for sensual evocations of the hidden world of the Sultana Valideh – jasmine oil, and soft leather boots sewn with pearls padding down the passages…