I have made many stories of summer country scents. London smells in June have their own appeal and glamour of a more raucous, highly-coloured sort. They are equally nostalgic. Rural smells remind us of childhood. City scents seem more expansive, more dramatic: they speak of the rise & fall of civilisations. At midsummer the gardens of Islington, Holloway and Camden boil with brilliant roses, spilling perfume into the heavy hot dusty air. Roses roses everywhere – nor any drop to drink. Cut grass, not lying wet and lush but drying almost immediately to fragrant oily hay – baked in diesel fumes, grilled on iron railings, fried on concrete pavements. The immortal privet: creamy sneezy flowers that counterpoint the thick stinging reek of traffic and the private lives of street cats. Spicy geraniums flare up like dodgy rockets; London jasmine is nowadays as luxuriant as that of Cairo or Damascus. Our last winter (sic) was so mild that the Holloway jasmine flowered – if diminuendo – right through Christmas. In the forecourts of redundant churches, decayed shops and old garages, honeysuckle, elder and clematis run riot in a clinging tendrilled madman’s paradise.
These sooty hanging gardens of the sidewalks put me in mind of old-time music hall artistes, all rouged and paillette’d, frizzly-hair-tonged and drenchingly scented. Gertie Gitana and Vesta Victoria; Florrie Forde in her “trellis of Dorothy Perkins roses”¤ and Marie Lloyd. (The tragic cockney Lloyd is best remembered but I prefer Florrie Forde: bigger, tougher, with a crisp bitten-off Australian enunciation. And she had better songs, too. “If they haven’t got it by the second chorus, I drop the number”). These ladies – and their gentlemen – painted in broad strokes just as London flowers do: they had no access to microphones – or any other technology – they didn’t need any help. Their natural equipment was coarsely spectacular, larger than life; and their acts were simple, rudimentary and put across with immense swagger and confidence.
Did I ever tell you? When I’m in Town I put up just across from Hilldrop Crescent. You know, where Dr Crippen lived. In 1910 he murdered his wife, a noisy unsuccessful music hall performer. Crippen filleted the remains and buried portions of poor Cora in the cellar of No. 39. They never found the head. The house got a direct hit in the Blitz but its neighbours on the outer edge of the Crescent are still as they were a century ago¤¤, and the same trees are flourishing in their old age. Strange, isn’t it? … to think we can still smell the same foliage that the Crippens knew. They say that the gardens then, front and back, were luxuriant. If you’re ever up in N7 you can inhale the leaves once sniffed by Ethel le Neve, the Dr’s meek and mild typist, who moved into No. 39 after being told that Cora had absconded with a lover – gone for good. Only it’s funny, she’d left all her jewellery behind – and her fox furs, laid up in camphor. Adornments which Ethel then wore when out and about.
There are many fascinating books on the Crippen crime. I have just read an excellent novelisation by Emlyn Williams ¤¤¤: he characterises the women in the case by their perfumes – Cora, the voluptuous Polish-American, smells like a pungent crimson rose; Miss Le Neve, the modest office worker, is the personification of pale clean eau de cologne. Both fragrances, at different times, have their effect on H. H. Crippen’s sluggish libido.
The sense of smell is very strong in every aspect of the Crippen case. The Doctor’s proprietary quack remedies, the cloves and gargles of his dentistry services. His well-scrubbed, carbolic-clean, industrious & inventive little hands; the fatal dose of henbane-derived hyoscine that did for Cora. No. 39 was full of odours, none of them very nice. After his arrest, Crippen tried to explain away the ghastly remains in the cellar by saying there had always been a bad smell in the house – always – ever since the fatal day he and Mrs Crippen had moved in. The terrible stench that eventually revealed the Doctor’s guilt had policemen and detectives rushing upstairs, nauseous and half-fainting, to the garden and fresh air. Or fairly fresh, for the neighbourhood was always full of the smells, sounds and distressing noises of the Holloway livestock markets and slaughter houses.
Downstairs, No. 39 was redolent of gas mantles, Egyptian cigarettes, paint¤¤¤¤ and stale cooking – the Crippens took in lodgers for a bit. The Doctor had to polish their boots as part of the deal. The house also reeked of Cora’s cats who were kept indoors, never allowed out for fear of coming to grief in the Camden Road. For the same reason, the windows were kept always shut and locked¤¤¤¤¤. There was a certain amount of alcohol slopped about – sad evidence of “pre-drinking” – and much slovenly mess. A witness statement described the horrible basement kitchen, full of half-eaten meals, with Mrs Crippen’s gaudy gowns and stage costumes draped over chairs and dropping sequins into the full English breakfasts. (Once, at my prep school, a teacher opened a wardrobe and inside was a frying pan, full of dripping and a solitary sausage. I imagine No. 39 was like that).
Finally we may allow ourselves to speculate what perfume bottles littered Cora’s Maples dressing table, all looped up and petticoated in Nottingham lace. I shouldn’t think much light filtered in on the flacons of – very likely – Grossmith, Coty, Houbigant, early Caron, Floris, Rimmel, Coudray and Molinard. Some day soon, come into Les Senteurs and lose yourself in our Edwardiana section. Use your nose, your imagination and sense of history to see how this era set the ball rolling to empower the stunning artistry of perfume creation a century later.
¤ Louis Macneice – “Death of An Actress”
¤¤ just around the corner, on the Camden Road, stands Belmore House a modern block of sheltered housing. The name would appear to be the private joke of some architect or councillor involved with the project: for Cora Crippen’s stage name was Belle Elmore.
¤¤¤ Dr Crippen’s Diary, Robson Books 1987.
¤¤¤¤ Cora liked to have every room a bright and lively pink – her lucky colour!.
¤¤¤¤¤ fleeting memories here of Vivien Leigh keeping the cat box on the floor of her wardrobe. Kitty-Litter with Balenciaga hems hanging just above…
A propos of last week’s piece on leeks.
A regular reader writes with a germane comment regarding the pristine cleanliness of the modern leek:
“…You ask, How do they do it? I’ll tell you: they grow them in water and soluble nutrients; not in soil/compost! Never see a real field …”
Thank You, sir!