Fish Pie Makes You Cry/ Custard Drives You Mad

Odilon Redon - The Egg, 1885

Odilon Redon – The Egg, 1885

 

The 10th Earl of St Germans died on July 15th. His long and idiosyncratic obituary in The Times (July 19th) observed:

‘He led a full life and would present all his female companions with bottles of Fracas perfume.”

It’s nice to know, isn’t it? As Kay Walsh used to say.
And, aside from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the heat? It nearly did for me. As usual, I turned for empathetic comfort to that first chapter of ‘What Katy Did At School’, in which the highly-strung Elsie Carr goes nearly off her head during an especially hot and prolonged Ohio Indian summer. It’s a baking, dried-up October and Elsie begs to be sent out of town to stay with a family friend – Mrs Worrett – in the country. Alas! The experience turns out to be a nightmare, and there’s the moral: be careful what you wish for. Be wary of what you set your heart on: even if it’s a bottle of Fracas.

“Sometimes the truest kindness is in giving people their own unwise way.”

It all begins well with the journey out – “part of the road ran through woods…the dense shade kept off the sun, and there was a spicy smell of evergreens and sweet fern.” But as we all know, it is better to travel than to arrive, and Mrs Worrett’s stark pumpkin-coloured house is a dreary disappointment. “The spare chamber was just under the roof. It was very hot, and smelled as if the windows had never been opened since the house was built.” The food is worse. Susan Coolidge does not exactly describe its smell but she brings it right under our noses:

“..the room felt stiflingly warm, and the butter was so nearly melted that Mrs Worrett had to help it with a teaspoon. Buzzing flies hovered above the table, and gathered thick on the plate of cake….they sat in the dusk; Mr Worrett smoking his pipe and slapping mosquitoes outside the door…”.

Elsie is weepy and “her head ached violently”. By next morning she is in a state of prostration – we hear all about the horrors of a feather bed in a heat wave –  and is advised to “lie on the lounge in the best room, and amuse herself with a book”.

Can the sense of smell drive one mad I wonder? I think it might. If all the other senses can affect the mind adversely, then why not scent? Elsie’s experiences always remind me of a “true life” criminal case which took place in Fall River, Massachusetts, just twenty years  after ‘Katy’ was written.

I first heard about Lizzie Borden in an episode of The Munsters on TV when I was a tot. Grandpa Munster produced an axe from a trunk and muttered something about the Bordens, whereat my Victorian grandmother laughed uproariously. Lizzie was a large and rather attractive New England girl: a pillar of the community who lived with her sister, father and stepmother in a clapboard house in New England. One terrible and boiling hot August morning in 1892, while Lizzie claimed to be occupied with chores in the barn, her parents were horribly hacked to death in the house. Miss Borden was subsequently arrested, tried for their murder but acquitted.

What aroused much comment at the time – and continues to do so – was the curious life style of the Bordens. Despite it being an exceptionally hot week, the family – and the maid – had dined on the same boiling of mutton soup every day for a week. The house was full of flies and in the back kitchen were found soaking pails and tubs of “ladies’ unmentionables”. Everyone in the house – unsurprisingly – seemed to be suffering from gastric and other “upsets” at the time of the crime. At least one writer has wondered as to whether the appalling concomitant smell in the family home – especially of that mutton broth, perpetually on the simmer in sweltering temperatures – may have altered the balance of Lizzie’s mind, to the point of turning her homicidal.

We shall never know now; but the scent of certain plants has been said, at different times and in various cultures, to drive you crazy. Oleanders, daturas, cypresses and tuberoses all have their various effects. And think of Sherlock Holmes and that terrifying root-derived Devil’s Foot powder. I write this in a garden full of the evening perfumes of mint, tomato plants, lavender, marjoram – and, especially, lilies smelling of sweet lemon vanilla cream. All is perfection. But from time to time I get a particular scent on the brain, to an oppressive and infuriating extent. The key point is, that this is normally and nominally a pleasing fragrance: an odour I love. But something then short-circuits and renders it so grating, invasive and throbbingly insistent that I feel exactly like Sir John Gielgud at that famous Mozart operatic rehearsal: “O DO stop that TERRIBLE music!” Like an animal, I have to plunge into water to be rid of the smell, as a fox is said to escape his fleas.

The fox’s fleas sail off downstream on a hank of hair: likewise, by this time, the smell has become its own entity. I have written before in this column of once going after work to the swimming baths; doing a length; and then disconcertingly meeting a cloud of my own fragrance brooding above the waters as I made the return. “Meeting Myself Coming Back”.

There’s nowt so queer as folk – thank Heaven! Nor so strange and unpredictable as scent.’

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“Just Like a Little Bit of Leather”

shanghai express

 

Perfume and leather, leather and perfume: the trajectories of both are forever crossing and merging. For centuries, the tanneries of Europe used raw human excreta to cure hides and skins: that’s how the Golden Dustman in Our Mutual Friend makes an honest maintenance, collecting the waste of London streets to sell on at a handsome profit. (‘Dust’ is by way of being a dainty euphemism for what Mr Boffin trades in). Therefore, for our forefathers, the heavy and heady scenting of leathers was not only a sensual pleasure but also a cruel necessity.¤

On the battlefield, in the armoury and the stables, leather has been a virile medium of aggression and restraint material for millennia. The more elegant use of it in clothing and furnishings had its first tremendous vogue in Tudor and Elizabethan times. Leather was made up into curtains, books, cloaks¤¤, covers, jerkins, mantles, gowns, boots, shoes, gloves: soft supple upholstery for both the home and the body. Marie Stuart went to her death in beautiful slippers of Spanish leather, saved for the occasion and much remarked upon. In that age of display and the beginning of modern ideas of luxurious living, stylish but hard-wearing leather was an ideal medium for gilding, bejewelling and painting: a costly but tough and hard-wearing backdrop for priceless ornamentation.

And the leather was soaked, drenched and saturated in perfumed oils; initially as a camouflage, later according to the dictates of fashion. What started as a precaution and an olfactory necessity became de rigueur among the beau monde ¤¤¤.

Hence the well-known tale of Elizabeth 1st ( blessed like her father Henry VIII with a very sensitive nose) telling a courtier to take himself and his scented leather cape out of her presence before she choked on the smell.

The overly-fragranced fancy man had the ready wit to riposte:

“Tush, Madam! ‘Tis my boots that stink!”

But off he went, just the same.

The old Victorian version of this anecdote has the offending garment smelling of the lavender essence which the Queen is supposed to have loathed. Maybe the Victorians – who loved the modest herb so well – saw a certain symbolism in lavender’s repudiation by the gaudy bawdy Virgin Queen of whom they so greatly disapproved.

The other, ruder, tale concerning Gloriana and smells is that of an Earl who inadvertently and noisily broke wind in the Royal Presence Chamber, before the Faery Queen Herself. Mortified, he buried himself for seven long years (the mystic seven!) in the country. On his return to Court, Elizabeth was like honey; charming, witty and adorable as only she could be. Then, at the end of the audience, as she whisked out of the door in a haze of sweet marjoram and Tudor rose, the Queen said with a dazzling smile:

“We hath quite forgot the f…t!”

We’d better get back to leather, though that is hardly a safer theme. There’s something about it that excites, intrigues and titillates people. Perfume is daring enough, but a touch of leather lends an extra edge of wickedness. What does the smell of leather imply? What gender and ambiguous sexual preferences does it infer? As a perceptive woman – well attuned to her animal nature – said to me the other day, “the thrill of wearing scent is all about anticipating what MIGHT happen when someone smells me…how will the beast react? Love me or eat me?”

Or, of course, both.

Imagine, then, if you are sporting a leather fragrance: what might NOT happen? You are presenting visually and olfactorily as a sexually attractive human being, decked in the dressed skin of a beast. And smelling, deliciously but definitely, of that animal’s hide. Leather is a living entity: the creature that yielded it may be long gone but the dried husk lives on. When I was young, my elders were always reminding me of this: leather must be continually “worked”; that is to say fed, polished¤¤¤¤, dubbined and waxed. Above all, it must be much handled. That was the point of having beautiful kid-bound books or good doe-skin gloves. The more you nurtured them with your own oils, the softer and warmer they became. The more intimate they seemed as they absorbed new life from their owner. The human and the animal elements would elide as the DNA mingled.

The Ancient Greeks explored the implications of all this very fully in their myths which have since been dissected with many a cosmic or Freudian slant. Over and again the old poets and playwrights tell us of beautiful flower-crowned heifers pursued by Zeus; Queen Pasiphae’s passion for a white bull from the sea; the voyeur Actaeon ripped apart by his own hounds after Artemis turns him into a stag.

Provocative. And all those millennia ago.

Leather’s second great fashion vogue, both in clothes and perfume, was during the Roaring Twenties* and the Hungry Thirties. This was the craze my parents remembered: my infant mother’s craving for huge gauntlets; her terror of an aunt’s zippered alligator boots; an uncle’s vast white leather overcoat. No doubt – like the fashion for smoking & all those concomitant tobacco fragrances – this rage for leather referenced the emancipation of women and the late hostilities of the Great War. The scent of fine leather was now cherished for its own sake. The fragrance and the texture emphasised, by contrast, the delicacy and fragility of the feminine form and mystique – or so the style magazines might say, for form’s sake. But the wearing of leather also demonstrated sexual ambivalence: it played lightly with the contemporary fascination with “inversion”**, and hinted at the shocking inadmissible fact that Woman could be the Boss.

One thinks of the great originals of that period who toyed with a leather motif: Vita Sackville West in her pearls, silk shirts and great clumping laced knee boots. Garbo as Queen Christina, swathed from top to toe in Adrian-designed suede. The whole flight of aviatrixes – from Jean Batten (“The Garbo of the skies”) to Amy Johnson.  Dietrich in the then outrageous leather jackets and flying caps of ‘Dishonoured’. And Marlene again in ‘Shanghai Express’, the apogee and pinnacle of sartorial fetish: a wardrobe of gleaming black & white. Harsh wire-like net veils, cascades of glossy feathers, furs, silk, lace, bugle beads. Above all, those magnificent kinky hugely-cuffed gloves: black backs, white palms.  And her perfume? “The Notorious White Flower of China”, blooming in a bed of leather.

The Cutting Edge of Leather: now It’s back for a third time around. Try Six Of The Best – at LES SENTEURS

– Tom Daxon’s VACHETTA –  a deep, fleshy, profound leather with meaty hints.

CUIR PLEINE FLEUR – is a James Heeley cracker – silky, musky and unctuous. The gloves of Cardinal Mazarin.

– Parfumerie Generale’s CUIR VENENUM – the smell of tanneries, orange blossom and sulphur. Lucifer descending, in his traditional suit of black and scarlet leather.

– Mona di Orio’s CUIR – smoky, dry, almost savoury with a strong accord of castoreum and the sweetness of opoponax.

And from Andy Tauer, the Dark Lord of Leather:

LONESTAR MEMORIES – the cult evocation of cowboys around the prairie fire – saddles, boots, harness, wood smoke and coffee.

LONESOME RIDER – Tauer’s new chamois twist; sweeter and sweatier – introducing notes of orris butter, pepper, rose and citrus.’

¤ hence the name of the brand so long and happily represented at LS: ‘Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier” (soon to be repackaged): glove makers of the Baroque being, of necessity, also perfumers.

¤¤ it makes more sense of Sir Walter Raleigh’s puddle incident if we imagine him laying a great leather tarpaulin at Elizabeth’s feet.

¤¤¤ just as patchouli did, centuries later. Primarily a moth repellent, then an indispensable perfume oil.

¤¤¤¤ should you doubt that the heyday of polishing is long gone, conduct your own little survey of dismal shoes on the Tube.

*Erich Von Stroheim in ‘Sunset Boulevard’, recalling his Paramount office back in the ’20’s :

“I remember the walls were covered with black patent leather…”

** “the bucket in the Well of Loneliness”

Artificial Flowers

artificial flowers

 

Half a century ago my grandmother used to walk home from church with an aged retired Canon who had come to live in the village with his unmarried daughter. The Tomlinson pair lived “round the back”, in a characterless modern bungalow on a new development. The lean and egregious daughter made of their garden a bizarre work of kitsch art. People came on the sly from miles around to see Miss Tomlinson’s garden. She didn’t like you to stand and peer: you had to walk briskly past with a discreet but searching “eyes right”.

I always aim for a riot of colour in my own plot. Miss Tomlinson achieved this in spades by an obvious but unusual trick: every flower she planted was artificial. Plastic, wax, bakelite, plaster and nylon bloomed in tropical profusion, regardless of the weather and untroubled by blight. There was no regard for season or clime: cattleya orchids, daffodils, chrysanthemums and forsythia were all jammed in together. Roses, snapdragons, snowdrops and daisies were tied onto trees, the garage roof and entwined on the wire perimeter fence.

The Tomlinsons kept a magnificent – if perpetually furious – tabby tom. I never saw his name spelled out or written down. Phonetically, it sounded like Cinna or Sinner: either a nod to classical Rome – “Cinna the Poet”? –  or a reminder of the fallen nature of us all and of the Beast in Man. Both versions seemed possible in this eccentric ecclesiastical menage. The sibilant cat was not allowed beyond the confines of his ersatz paradise. He was contained, raging, amid all this unnatural floral splendour, under a great trellis woven of sprays of pink rubber peach blossom with chrome yellow stamens. “Tiger! Tiger! burning bright”.  Sinner – being in his full and unashamed state of nature, and not “arranged” – added to the strange smells of this garden of very earthly delights. The feral ammonia reek of cat blended on summer days with the olfactory blare of hot plastic; and with that hard, stinging chemical redolence of man-made fibres baked by the sun; a smell that is so unnervingly akin to sweat and human skin. Tarmac, tile, brick and concrete – all the scents of the brave new housing estate – thrummed in the August air, threaded through with the fake sugary haze exuded by the Messrs Softee and Whippy. Those suffocating mobile smells of low-grade vanilla, petrol, gas fridges and heavy syrup were as cloying as the saccharine van chimes. Fluorescent orange and shocking pink fruit – garnish for the Sunday sundaes – swilled around in white plastic pails like fairground goldfish spawned of sugar and Kia-Ora.

Do you remember the garden of talking flowers in “Through The Looking Glass”? Lewis Carroll – almost inconceivably for such an erudite man – had assumed that passion flowers were so named from their connection with an evil temper. When he discovered that they are in fact an ingenious Jesuit metaphor of the Passion of Christ, Carroll was appalled at himself and substituted ferocious tiger lilies for the purposes of his tale. I think today most of us are even vaguer about plants and horticulture: we don’t have the time. Botany – with its walks and pressing and curating – is a subject that has long dropped off school curriculae. A pity. For most of us the science of flowers is a reductio ad absurdam. Either they have an agreeable smell – or they don’t. Period. I remember Marshall & Snelgrove in the 1960’s selling a whole flower market of pre-perfumed silk and velvet blooms to adorn one’s tenue de soiree. Individually packaged in exciting cellophane and mounted on tiny gilt pins, they must have been rather old-fashioned even then. Nontheless they seemed infinitely desirable even if the camellias, the poppies and gardenias all smelled alike: a kind of Essence of Superior Soap.

Nowadays I find artificial flowers – despite their having never been more lifelike – almost unbearably triste. At least, that is, artificial flowers made of fabric. I grant you that Queen Alexandra’s jewelled garden of Faberge flowers – with diamond tremblant dew drops all complete –  has a genuine charm and beauty.  But a vase of dust-gathering blue rayon carnations is a sorry sight. I think, you see, it harks back to that paradox we discussed the other week. Flowers – like perfume – are not intended to live forever. Trying to defy this ruling of Mother Nature can only lead to dreariness and disillusion unless, in the process of copying, another work of art is generated.

Mind you, real flowers so bizarre that they appear artificial have a great charm. I revel in the explosive glorious grotesquerie of strelitzias – those spiky orange and blue bird of paradise blooms so inappropriately named for George III’s severe and homely Queen. I get excited by orchids and calceolarias; carnivorous fly traps and lobster claw cacti. I’ve got some giant tower lilies incubating in pots: I don’t think they’re going to reach the promised six feet – not this year – but they are full of buds and I can’t wait for the supreme moment of revelation.

Perfumers know they have to offer an impression of a flower: not an exact and accurate reflection, but the famous Lie That Tells The Truth¤. You can talk about Head Space Technologies and Living Flower Vacuums till you’re blue in the face but too literal and accurate a translation of a plant’s scent does not, on the whole, amuse. Perfumers are chary of reproducing the odours of traditional cottage-garden flowers. Sweet pea, wallflower, petunia, lily and lilac are rarely attempted. Even jasmine – in isolation – is rare. Perfumers say – and I do ask them, on your urgent behalf – that such notes when used in soliflores, rather than as allusive components of an intricate pattern, appear crude and hackneyed; too unsophisticated for modern taste. Those brave souls and gallant hearts currently taking our Great Ingredient Challenge know how hard it can be to identify concentrated natural oils, however apparently familiar the source. We love what appears to be a blushing crimson rose no matter how little actual rose oil may be present.

The old legend that Guerlain’s glorious Nahema has not a drop of natural rose within it may or may not be true, but it shows us that our noses play us wonderful tricks. How much more delightful than that novelty of my youth: an Incredibly Lifelike Plastic Rosebud, given away FREE with every packet of soap flakes, and Genuinely Indistinguishable from a living Etoile d’Hollande!”

¤ as expounded by both Picasso and Susan Sontag.

Flowers Of The Bone

Diego Rivera Xochiquetzal

Xochiquetzal, the Aztec goddess of love and fertility, wearing a headress of lillies in this mural by Diego Rivera. Her name comes from ‘xochiti’ meaning flower, and ‘quetzalli’, meaning precious feather.

 

‘Then as she once walked up and down in the White Friars’ church at Lynn, she felt a wonderfully sweet and heavenly savour, so that she thought she might have lived by it, if it would have continued. And in that moment, our Lord said to her, ‘Daughter, by this sweet smell you may know that there shall in a short time be a new Prior in Lynn…” ¤
At this uncertain time I’ve been reading this most marvellous Book of Margery Kempe, said to be the first autobiography in the English language. Mrs Kempe was the mother of fourteen, a mystic and sometime brewer of Kings Lynn: she was born around 1373. She travelled all over England and Europe, glorifying God; she even reached Jerusalem. Her book deals extensively with the Divine ravishment of the human senses, including that of smell. Margery, like all her contemporaries, equated sweet smells with the treasures and revelations of Heaven.

Hasn’t it been a peculiar week, though? Perhaps the strangest yet in this oddest of years. I have been glued to the wireless and the BBC News on the hour. I’ve been like that Imperial nursemaid, obsessed with l’affaire Dreyfuss, who came close to letting the Tsarevich drown in the bath: away in a world of my own. I have noted such curious portents in the natural world, too: a heart-shaped ring of toadstools sprouting in the night on the public highway; a lone buzzard circling overhead; a frost in Scotland; unnatural levels of rain and clouds of flies. Despite all the eccentric and dismaying weather, the weather office now announces that this June has been much warmer than the average. The earth seems to have shifted on its axis: we used to sit out in the back yard on midsummer evenings, bathed in sunshine till supper time. No longer: even if the rains stop in time the bench under the kitchen window is now deep in chilly shadow by 6.30pm. Curiouser and curiouser!

I wonder what’s going on. Some things are as ever. The Constance Spry roses, though battered, have flowered according to their meticulously allotted span: three and a half weeks. All finished and put away by 4th July: regular as clockwork. The privet hedges are now in flower; all too often overlooked or taken for granted, but smelling as exotic and penetrating as Spanish orange blossom.  The garden is intensely luxuriant, even jungly; and my sense of smell is slightly skewed, as always in times of crisis.

After the Book of Margery Kempe I went on to Jill Dawson’s engrossing and ingenious new novel – ‘The Crime Writer’: an episode in the life of Patricia Highsmith. (Ms Dawson is always adroit as to matters olfactory: she has poor Mrs Thompson smelling of Chanel No 5 in her study of a notorious 1922 murder case, ‘Fred & Edie’). A leitmotif of the narrative is the insistent, invasive and slightly sinister fragrance of Coty’s L’Aimant; and the ‘atrocious’ smell of Pat’s pet snails, kept in pockets and handbags. I’d never thought of snails as having a smell – naïve of me: for everything does if you concentrate upon it.

Now you remember those tuberose bulbs – ‘The Pearl’ – I told you back in February? They duly arrived by post and I potted them up and put them in my bedroom window, one of the sunniest places in the house. Very fascinating to watch. First of all graceful arcs of slender lily leaves sprouted. And then – and my! are they thirsty plants, soaking up water like insatiable sponges – the leaves became wilder; more luxuriant and untidy. I moved the pot to the garden and “The Pearl” is now living mostly outside, coming indoors only on a few unusually chilly nights or when the rain reaches monsoon proportions. The flower buds are emerging – fat messy bundles on sturdy stems, almost like miniature corn on the cob. I shall let you know what happens next: Meanwhile I spin wild fantasies of the garden filled with a scent so strong I am driven indoors.

All thoughts of tuberoses lead one back to Fracas, still ineffably stylish and poised on the Les Senteurs shelves. The Collins Robert French-English dictionary defines ‘fracas’ thus:

“..crash…roar…din..,’annoncer une nouvelle a grand fracas’: to create a sensation with a piece of news..”

What an inspired name for a pretty wild scent, unique and outrageous in its time; a 1948 revival of the rococo tuberose oils that had once delighted Marie Antoinette and the Du Barry. A loud blaring scent to some; to others as frivolous, frilly and frothy as a wired Dior crinoline petticoat. I see it as most intensely pink perfume, of an almost ersatz shade: potentially more shocking than Shocking, but, withal, of a pearly petalled delicacy like the flowers that die so that their fragrance might live. It hangs over every subsequent tuberose perfume created, like the shadow of Rebecca de Winter – or Mrs Rochester, overhead in the attic: an exotic myth-bound memory; a threat to all newcomers in the field.

I have never met anyone who had the means or the daring to wear Fracas in its early days. It is not a provincial scent. Until I came to London I had never met this eminently metropolitan belle. She has had her up and downs over the past 70 years, la Fracas. Elderly fans tell me that like other legends – Ma Griffe, Je Reviens, Tabu – Fracas has known lean times. And then, in the late ’80’s, maybe in the wake of the new and increasingly audacious power perfumes, Fracas was reborn, with elegant new packaging and a price to match. I remember a Japanese gentleman, a quarter of a century ago, coming to the Harrods counter to buy eight bottles of the parfum concentration. He had a charming interpreter with him: when she relayed the total bill, the customer squealed and actually leapt into the air.

“Don’t worry,” said the interpreter. “He pay!”

And he did.

¤ The Book of Margery Kemp. Translated by B.A.Windeatt. Penguin edition 2004