Surely we are all haunted by time; its cruelties and mysteries. When, on her accession in 1558, Elizabeth Tudor rode into London she paused – mystified – before an elaborate tableau of infants and ancients, all wreathed & garlanded in tinsel and out of season flowers (for the month was November). “Madam”, explained an Alderman, “it is an Allegory of Time.” “Ah” said the Queen “And Time hath brought me hither”.
The scary thing is, as far as we know – and as we are too well aware – Father Time travels one way only, and that’s not a comforting direction. To conflate the words of Lewis Carroll and George III’s daughter Elizabeth, this “vile old gentleman … he won’t stand for beating!”. Each of us learned at his mother’s knee how terrified Elizabeth Tudor was of the bony old fellow – the stopped clocks, the banished mirrors, the elaborate wigs and maquillage. One of our favourite ‘heritage monarchs’ has become almost a national symbol of the vanity of struggling against Time and his remorseless ravages.
There was a rather creepy piece in the newspapers this month all about the latest techniques in making cut flowers last longer via a technique “which muffles the DNA responsible for producing ethylene, the gas that ripens fruit and rots petals”*. I was a bit amazed, really: we nowadays already get a sachet of that funny syrupy preservative bound, gratis, to the cellophane wrappers of most shop blooms. Either that or inherent breeding seems to semi-embalm them. I have mentioned before that, in any case, I mistrust flowers that last too long in water: three weeks – with chrysanthemums¤ – being my record. When I was small it was always said that flowers that kept beyond their natural span were a sign that a death was imminent in the family circle. Blossoms that had stood by a death-bed never perished.
So I am instinctively averse to this new idea, a process known apparently as “RNA interference”¤¤. Why should we want plants to last for (nearly) ever? What a horrible idea. Classicists will recall the Trojan prince, Anchises, for whom his lover Aphrodite secured the gift of eternal life. She forgot to ask for concomitant youth; so that eventually – centuries later – she had to solicit her divine confreres once again, this time to beg for the poor shrivelled chirping husk to be transformed into a grasshopper.
Everlasting flowers direct our thoughts to the notion of perpetual perfume. There’s nothing new in the idea. Three centuries B.C. Theophrastus (“The Father of Botany”) was writing that “what women require is perfume that will last”. (And Greek men did too, to be sure; but they were not supposed to be interested in such stuff). Another ancient, Apollonius, wrote a treatise on about where to source the finest perfume oils in the Mediterranean region¤¤¤ – “insist on the best!” As we – and he – would say.
But the development of a fragrance that lingers for ever on the skin still remains elusive – thank goodness. The beauty of a scent is – almost by definition – fleeting and fugitive. A lovely scent must fade naturally like a flower or a piece of music: we try in vain to catch or detain its fleeting passage; its transience is an essential part of its appeal. Bitter-sweet. Should a “fine-dining” meal last for ever? Or the act of love? A poem? So why a beautiful scent?¤¤¤¤ How unnatural that would be. When I was a tot I used to lie in bed and my grandmother would come in to say goodnight and plant a kiss on the palm of each hand. Then she’d fold my fingers over it. “Hold tight! Don’t let those kisses escape!”
But the kisses always managed to fly away.
Perfumers – expert perfumers – will temper the concentration of their creations to reflect mood. Take the Frederic Malle masterpiece Angeliques Sous La Pluie: perfect example. This is an evocation of a March breeze blowing over newly-turned earth; a passing inhalation of early spring shoots and of an awakening garden. People love it but many complain that it does not last well. Jean-Claude Ellena, the creator of this heavenly scent, conceived it as the lightest of eaux de toilette precisely to enhance & reflect that vision of exquisite fragile elusiveness. Desiring it to be robustly tenacious is as paradoxical as nursing a butterfly into ripe old age.
How heartening to reflect that we are after all – just like the Book of Genesis and that famous hymn always said – “frail children of dust”. Professor Brian Cox was telling the tale yet again on tv last night: we are all of us born from the dust of dying stars. And in turn we duly return to the stars. Our ancestors knew this instinctively: we modern know-it-alls have to have it demonstrated by science.
As Marie Stuart’s father said, “it came with a lass; it will go with a lass”. Let’s end as we came in with the attempts of a British Queen to hold back Time. One of Victoria’s grand daughters remembered how the old lady smelled so deliciously of orange blossom imported from the Riviera. Others remembered her aura of immaculate cleanliness. When the Queen was young, she had her babies’ tiny arms, legs, hands and feet cast in marble to have about her, laid on cushions. A sweet idea in some ways; but now, with those nine children all long gone, there is something faintly macabre in the sight, rather reminiscent of the upsetting cadavers of Pompeii. Especially as, at the time, Victoria had found all those babies a sad and fretting trial. Like many a modern tourist, she concentrated more on capturing the image than relishing the actuality.
Those cold stone limbs remind me of a bottle of scent, romanticised and idealised but never used: lovingly preserved for an special occasion that never comes. Today – as regards perfume as with everything else – HAS to be the day! Sufficient to the day is the perfume thereof.
* The Times – 4/6/16
¤ “such serviceable flowers” – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
¤¤ all readers of Enid Blyton will jar at the connotations of the word “interference”. Very similar to “meddling”.
¤¤¤. Crocus oil from Rhodes; spikenard from Tarsus; frankincense at Pergamon…
¤¤¤¤ years ago I remember in Harrods seeing a party of nuns in fits and tucks as they examined a bottle of “Eternity”. ‘Cheap at the price!’ cried one.