The Scent of a Green Corn Sturgeon Moon

Full Moon

 

Last week ended with a cataclysmic electric storm over our village. “Like summer tempests came his tears”. It banged around for two hours or more, with great flashes of sheet lightning and torrential rain like waterfalls. The older inhabitants declared that they had never heard such thunder-claps, never in all their lives. What can it all mean? The great full moon of a few days earlier seemed also full of auguries. Did you see that? Up in the Midlands it was unnaturally vast and golden-orange, like a huge tropical moon hanging over Africa. Like Dorothy Lamour’s moon of Manakoora; or the moon of Tanit that I used to watch, rising nightly over the Mediterranean and illuminating the Tunisian coast as bright as day. What scent does such a moon exude? Maybe that of great glassy fruits; maybe fragrance of frangipani or gardenia? Certainly not green cheese. Write and tell us what you think.

The mad rains unleashed wonderful scents. I went into Leicester on a wet grey morning following the hottest day of the year. Trudging up High Cross I passed through the graveyard of All Saints Church: that’s where Margery Kempe – that connoisseur of the glorious scents of Heaven – was arraigned for heresy in 1417. The church stands in a small green oasis surrounded by a new shopping centre, blocks of flats, old yards, fallen walls and patches of urban desolation that seem to have lifted direct from a Ruth Rendell thriller. The whole setting was bathed in the most overpowering fragrance: something like Swiss black cherry jam and somewhat like powdery sweet heliotrope. It had hints about it of DON’T CRY FOR ME and BACCARAT ROUGE 540. It was powdery and warm; but also damp, heady and languid; so unexpected in this rather desolate setting. And it came from dozens of woody plumey buddleia bushes, those accommodating mauve and purple denizens of scrub-land, rubble and railway embankments. “Absolutely divoine, dorling!’ as an old colleague of mine used to say.

And then, another day, I had lunch in an enchanted garden; the table laid in a grove of Japanese anemones and pink & yellow hollyhocks, all buzzing with huge bumble bees. We ate a Swabian dish of delicately smoked fish – traditionally served to counteract goitre – which was accompanied by a cream dressing of fresh chopped dill, that most delicious and piquant of culinary smells. After lunch, Mine Host said ” I have something here which will amuse you!” Off he scooted and came back downstairs with a large bottle of Chanel’s Egoiste. Now the fragrance was launched in 1990 and this bottle was bought not very long after. (My friend is an expert Curator, as you will readily understand¤).

You’re bound to remember this perfume. It was showcased on TV in a memorable advert that had numerous Carmen-like ladies in a rage, slamming shutters and shrieking at some love-rat of a fella.

Well, I had always loved Egoiste so I sprayed on a smidgeon, and how the past came flooding back – only better. Maybe the fragrance had matured and macerated well over the years; perhaps it was the contrast of its volume compared to the slenderness of so many modern commercial fragrances. I put on more –  and more again. I was suffused and enveloped in ells of ivory velvet; a cumulus cloud of cinnamon, ginger, coumarin, vanilla, tonka and other gorgeousness. And I’ll tell you more. Hours later, after I had got home and taken a hot bath, I found that the whole flat was invaded and pervaded by Egoiste; it had taken new wings on the steam.

The other slightly weird olfactory experience of the week took place on the stairs at home, right in the middle of the day. It was one of those moments which everyone who takes an interest in smells knows of. Halfway down, on the bend of the stair, I suddenly snuffed up – quite overwhelmingly and all complete – the aura of a house I have not set foot in for over 50 years. I am assuming that a combination of coincidental factors triggered this manifestation, principally those meteorological. For it was to an old holiday home to which I was transported – set by the sea and all too familiar with the suffocating heats and sudden storms of August. But this redolent perception was so vivid, and so odd. The carpets, floors, curtains, bathroom – even the faded paisley cretonne bedspreads all materialised in a split second. I was electrified: just as on that occasion when the late Duke of Windsor’s nurse laid hands on my head. Another bolt of lightning in a week full of natural electricity!

¤ see “Curating the Curators” blog of 24th August, 2016. And a very charming regular reader writes in from Canada to report an new use of the word “curate”:

“Chef-curated recipes based on seasonal farm fresh ingredients delivered to your doorstep every week.”‬

Wunderbar.

Curating The Curators

The Bookworm

 

“And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon…she came to prove him with hard questions…And she gave the king an hundred and twenty talents of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones: there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the queen of Sheba gave to king Solomon ..” ¤

So we see that both Balkis, Queen of Sheba and Solomon the Great were early curators and collectors of perfumes: maybe the first of their type actually recorded. The Book of Kings goes on to mention Solomon’s unique hoard of precious almug  – probably red sandalwood – from which were carved divinely scented pillars for the great Temple at Jerusalem. “There came no such almug trees, nor were seen unto this day.” ¤¤

Nowadays we are all curators. Curating is what they call a sexy – if lazy –  concept: it has come to mean whatever you want it mean. The word “curate” (both the noun and the verb) derive from the Latin root ‘cura’ – ‘care’. When I was a little boy the word made me somewhat wary. I didn’t like the look of it, written down. It had a hardness to it; and of course it also had a medical association. The cure of patients and the cure of souls. Hence those flocks of curates in church circles – those strange unfledged semi-vicars, as they seemed to a child. Then, curates still had an air that was partially sinister and partially foolish¤¤¤. And of course I found it hard to differentiate the word ‘curate’ from that infallibly deadly poison – ‘curare’ – which supposedly tipped the arrows of Amazonian savages. Then there were those vague and alarming – though usually unseen – curators in museums. “The Curator will have you!” was almost as powerful a threat as that of the Policeman coming to get you or – in public gardens – the “Parky”.

I would say that we at Les Senteurs curate our perfumes in the true sense. We select, display, preserve and care for them. We may choose to edit judiciously certain brands from time to time, just as the Man at the Museum relegates the stuffed polar bear to the basement for a spell and replaces him with a Meissen monkey orchestra. We protect, clean, promote and exhibit our scents to their best advantage. Like guardians of antique fabrics or paintings we try to protect fragrances from excessive illumination, but unlike an art gallery we are keen on the hands-on approach. All our hundreds of scents have a tester bottle and that tester is there to be sprayed. So come on in and have a go. Benefit from our curation to build your own collection.

For collecting is quite a different thing.
Speaking only for myself, collecting is haphazardly amassing. In my old Dutch Booke of Magicke¤¤¤¤ I read a most accurate and disconcerting insight into my astrological traits. Folk born on my day are “…generally open to less conventional art forms, diversions and entertainments…they are often art or antique collectors with an eye for those apparently ordinary items from bottle caps to brass door knobs..” My father, also an Aries, left behind boxes of crab & scallop shells, pipe cleaners and feathers.

My own collection of perfumes, by virtue of my being in the business for so long, is extensive but rambling. The current bottles are decently stored, in that I keep them in the dark, well padded and at a pretty constant temperature. Empty flacons are moved on to a somewhat primitive Cabinet of Curiosities where they sit alongside grit from the Valley of the Kings and a dried rose from Samarkand.  But I am not one for ordering, labelling and precise regimentation. I love the idea of all that – I admire it –  but in practice I like to be fooling around with my treasures; having them about me like toys and talismans. I like them portable and accessible. I like them “live”. Also, I am messy.

People are kind enough to show me wonderful exuberant photos of their own perfume collections. Here one sees literally hundreds – often thousands – of filled bottles, heaped up before mirrors or on glass tables like the treasures of King Solomon’s mines or the contents of the late Queen Mary’s Faberge vitrine. “Stuff it all in!” as my dear friend Felicia used to say.  I feel these collectors have the right spirit. Perfume may be a form of poetry but it’s got to be poetry in motion. A working collection is the right collection. Perfumes cannot be pinned to boards like poor dried bees or butterflies.

It’s rather like that other modern craze: that of tracing your ancestors. Some do this as an academic mathematical exercise. Others are primarily interested in the characters, individuals and human oddiities they unearth: the magic and mystery of the ever-developing gene pool.

And so with fragrance. A great part of its fascination lies in how each perfume relates to another: how the perfume families first defined over a century ago grow increasingly diffuse and more elaborately defined. Amazing hybrids and mutations appear as off-shoots but the great pure-blooded ancestors still stand in the background, albeit face-lifted, dieted and genetically modified. The good curator and the devoted collector know that the essence of perfume is just that: using it and smelling it. As for instruction, let the fragrance speak for itself.

¤ 1 Kings, 10. Passim.

¤¤ I also remember ‘La reine de Saba’ tea rooms in the shadows of Chartres Cathedral, decades ago: scented with madeleines, saffron buns, ginger bread,  fine teas – and, of course, the eponymous cakes.

¤¤¤ from Charlotte Bronte – and Mr Punch’s notorious egg – to Enid Blyton.

¤¤¤¤ THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF BIRTHDAYS by Goldschneider and Elffers, Viking Penguin 1994.

“Open Now The Crystal Fountain!” – torrents of scent…

chateau-versailles-jet-d'eau-grand-petit-canal-xavier-veilhan

‘THE MALTESE FALCON’ (1941) – Lee Patrick comes into Bogart’s office, rolling her eyes at a perfumed calling card just handed in at the outer door by Peter Lorre

“Gardenia…..”

” Quick, darling! In with him!”

A dear friend and client of Les Senteurs wrote to us last week to suggest we have a fountain – what is sometimes now called a water feature – installed at the shop. As she said, imagine the cooling musical sound and delicious odour of fragranced droplets  –  maybe rosewater – splashing into a marble basin filled with gold and silver fish. We would all sit around the atrium on cushions stuffed with rose petals and musk, sipping sherbet and drinking jasmine tea. So then we ruminated on the Palatine palaces of Roman emperors, running with conduits of violet perfume; Francis Kurkdjian’s glorious installations at Versailles; Eugene Rimmel’s multi-spouted Fountain of Perfumes at the Crystal Palace in 1851; and Clover Carr’s fantasy of the eau de cologne pond in “Katy”. All excellent precedents and no wonder we got rather carried away. Alas! Perfume shops are not run by peris, djinns and houris. Someone has to cash up the till and dust the shelves. It’s not all glamour.

So, just as Rudyard Kipling wrote of ‘The Glory of the Garden’:

‘Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made

By singing:-” Oh, how beautiful,” and sitting in the shade

While better men than we go out and start their working lives

At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives….’

I scratch around in my back yard with my dad’s penknives and a trowel. I don’t know how I’ve raised such beauty as now manifests by the back door. No credit to me, I’m sure. I’m an old duck that’s hatched a swan in a bucket of compost. The famous tuberoses are now 36″ high – I measured on Sunday morning. They are like bolted sticks of asparagus; the leaves, so profuse in spring, have dwindled to almost nothing. Very strong and tough the stalks are, with no need for staking. At the top of each stem is a cluster of snow white ovoid buds tinged with pale apple-blossom pink; like the toes of a Norse goddess with nails tipped with shells from the sea shore. Msr. Rimmel tells us in his Book of Perfume that no more than two stellar flowers open daily. He’s not precisely correct here – I see rather more – but the blooming is certainly steady and leisured. No doubt there has been some genetic alteration in the bulbs since 1866.¤ What I must do next is to discover when – and if – I should lift the bulbs after flowering; and how to nurture them over the winter to ensure another crop in 2017. Rest assured I shall pass all this on to you. Having spent all my working life with the extracts and infusions of tuberose, how fascinating it is now to watch the plant grow and bloom, not on human skin but in accordance with the rules of Nature.

One thing I have learned is that the plants appreciate almost unlimited watering. Dousing, in fact, at the roots. It seems to me that this prevents the buds at the very top of the stalk from shrivelling before they open: something you often see in shop-boughten tuberoses. (I have noted, too, that those beautiful and supposedly drought-resistant clove-scented pinks and carnations will also lose their buds in infancy if kept too strictly short of water).

Next to the tuberoses stand two pots of  tower lilies: they have grown nowhere near the promised six feet (though this is only year one), but they are billowing out clouds of intoxicating swooning perfume. At dusk the combination of voluptuous floral smells is almost too much. Some visitors are overwhelmed.  The lilies smell something like Malle’s Dries Van Noten but with a touch of ginger, too; the white and gold flowers have a sensuous smooth coolness like that of perfect skin. I put two fallen petals in a saucer of water: these fragranced my bedroom for days.

The plants stay outside most nights pumping forth their nocturnal mega- sweetness to the owls and foxes. However, it was blowing a gale last Sunday so I brought the tuberose indoors and kept her overnight in the passage between kitchen and back door: there’s a glass door at either end. The next morning that space was heavy with elements of every tuberose perfume I have ever smelled – wreathing, blending and embracing. Very fascinating and instructive: everything from Carnal Flower to Fracas, but dominated maybe by Pierre Guillaume’s Tubereuse Couture, sweet and sugary and smokily candified.

The other week in this column I was musing about dogs in perfume shops and wondering how they protect their poor noses. (The tuberoses don’t keep the local cats away from my doves and goldfinches, by the way). One of my supportive regular readers has sent me a piece from a recent edition of the Times newspaper concerning a new type of novelty collar which is designed to curb barking dogs. As the animal sounds off, a powerful burst of citronella – which dogs apparently loathe – spurts from its harness. The fright of the sudden odour is supposed to silence the dog. Animal charities have condemned this device, repeating the old circus adage that any form of cruelty has no part whatsoever in corrective training. Too right. One thinks of customers taken by surprise by zealous spritzers on duty at the doors of a department store. A nasty shock which can put one off perfume for life.

Drop by at Les Senteurs and let us guide you by the hand to the metaphorical crystal fountain of fragrance! Where all is done by kindness and every prospect pleases. You’ll be so welcome.

MARIE ANTOINETTE: an old acquaintance

marie antoinette

Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette, 1938

 

Contemporary travellers and observers  had certain things to say about eighteenth century European cities and the urban assault on the senses.  London was the noisiest, Amsterdam the cleanest and Paris by far the dirtiest. Paris smelled appalling. Unlike London, pre-Revolutionary Paris still had no pavements and the city was essentially medieval in lay-out. The effluvia of its streets gave its name to a racy tint of shot silk  – “boue de Paris” – a  striking example of the perverse – not to say morbid – desire of fashionable Society to roll in the gutter. The mud glowed, you see, just as the colours changed in the fabric: the muck of the avenues was all phosphorescent with rot. Where it splashed and spattered, the filth burned holes in clothes and scarred delicate skin. Another new colour, a purplish-brown, was christened “puce” – the colour of a flea when engorged with blood. Maybe because the structure and etiquette of French aristocratic circles had become so rarefied and stultified, the ton enjoyed childish jokes about potties, enemas, underwear (or the lack of it) and the like. All this silliness was described as being in touch with Nature. Queen Marie Antoinette is said to have had Sevres cups modelled from her own generous bosom for the serving of foaming fresh milk in her let’s-pretend dairy at Rambouillet. A few of these curious “bols-sein” survive today: whether the royal belle poitrine did in fact provide the originals remains to be seen.

Ironic isn’t it? Marie Antoinette spent millions over a very brief period – 15 years – on creating her own fantasy world: and, ever since, the reality of the woman has been lost sight of in an agglomeration of myths and legends. When I was sixteen, I read Stefan Zweig’s celebrated “post-Freudian” biography over and over. I have just returned to it: still fascinating, but now the terrible American translation grates – the Queen lost in “a fit of the blues” and what not. And maybe because I am so much older, I now find this poor woman far more maddening than of yore. Unlike our own dear monarch, she consistently put her foot wrong, sometimes wilfully so. Her defenders tell us how she settled down to home economics after the birth of her children and the devastating shock of the Diamond Necklace Trial. And yet, in those last years just before the storming of the Bastille, she was spending as never before. That new dairy; the constant refurbishment of her rooms and palaces; the famous toy village at the Petit Trianon which was still being added to by the architects Mique, pere et fils¤, right up to the end.

But then you might say, what else was she to do? The Queen of France was expected to keep up appearances and to patronise French arts and industries. Marie Antoinette certainly kept a French perfumer, Msr. Fargeon; and she probably used Houbigant products. Aside from that, I think I have read more twaddle about Marie Antoinette and scent than almost any other person. We read of her collecting samples en route for the guillotine; being recognised by her fragrance as the Royal Family attempted to flee the country in 1791; even wearing perfume in a phial around her neck as she was taken to execution. As her Hungarian biographer Antal Szerb remarked, the Martyred Queen involuntarily attracted libels, slanders, factoids and trolls all her life – and has continued to do so ever since. Like some magnetic Hollywood star – or modern princess, come to that – she was an perpetual object for the projection of hostile, crazy and sometimes pornographic public fantasy.

On August 10 1901 the English tourists Misses Moberly and Jourdain believed they had seen the Queen’s shade – and those of her entourage – in the park at Versailles. They were so convinced by their experience that they set it all down in a book; and well worth reading it is, too¤¤. Wouldn’t it have been remarkable if they had remarked on the phantom’s sillage – a haze of roses, tuberoses, jasmine and amber?¤¤¤ Or, rather, a shifting variation of the same, as Msr. Fargeon had his work cut out thinking up continual new creations. In the days of Louis XV – Marie Antoinette’s grandfather-in-law – Versailles was supposedly known as “le cour parfume”. The great perfume entrepreneur, Eugene Rimmel, writing less than a hundred years later, tells us that Court etiquette demanded the use of a different perfume for every day of the year. True, do you think? Or the retelling of an enchanting fairy tale? It does sound rather like Grimm: the 365 Princesses with their 365 Perfumes.

Re-running Sunset Boulevard (1950) yet again last night on the DVD, I was struck by Billy Wilder’s set-up for the line in which Norma Desmond’s notorious use of tuberose perfume is described. She takes her place on the sofa with a dark gauzy handkerchief floating from her wrist: it is evident that her suffocating scent – the odour of seduction, madness and death – is emanating not from her skin but from the fabric. Women were spraying perfume on their skin by 1950, to be sure; but how interesting to note that, as children of the late Victorian/Edwardian age, Wilder and Swanson still regarded fragrance as a phenomenon that surrounded the human body, but never actually touched it. Marie Antoinette may have soaked her hair & face powder, her fichus, her Trianon muslins in scent – she burned perfumed pastilles in her apartments and had her Sevres bowls filled with flowers and pot pourri – but she would certainly not have dabbed scent on wrists and decollete. That would have been altogether too risky – not only morally objectionable but also probably injurious to health, playing havoc with the volatile humours of the body.

At least we know – and for many of her admirers this is important – that the Queen kept herself clean. It is the done thing to go on about Versailles being as filthy as a Paris street, and no doubt the public rooms accumulated heaps of waste matter and unpleasantness. But the Royal Family had designated bathrooms – I have seen Louis XV’s: most attractive. Marie Antoinette’s bathing suite is now restored and, I believe, open to view – at a price. Her contemporaries thought the Queen bathed more often than was wise. Having a bath was then regarded as more medicinal than hygienic. Marie Antoinette went into the tub wearing what Quentin Crisp used to call a “minimum risk” kind of nightgown, well buttoned up to the neck. For she never bathed alone, but always surrounded by a retinue of ladies. The Queen of France may have given birth in public but for bathing she covered her modesty.

My more mature readers will just about remember –  as I do – the puritan days when it was still considered boorish, common and gauche to praise anything. Delicious food, a delightful personal appearance, lovely clothes were never commented upon in polite society. They were verboten topics, same like money, politics and religion. Marie Antoinette’s contemporaries may well have been enthralled and bewitched by her perfume but no memoir or letter ever refers to it. Marie Antoinette is remembered for her seductive walk, her stately carriage, her beautiful hair, her complexion – “literally a combination of lilies and roses”. But not for her scent. That would be going simply too far, even for her most implacable enemies. Cosmetics, yes: we hear a lot about the royal rouge and powder. Perfume, no.

Fragrance two hundred years ago – as now – remains the most personal and intimate of topics. When did you last read an interview in which the subject’s smell was referred to?

Precisely.

¤ for which creative endeavours they paid with their heads during the Terror of 1794.

¤¤ ‘An Adventure’,1911.

¤¤¤ as ghosts are noted for the odours which attend them.

Dog Days

Toby the Pug 1986-1999 Image from the author's collection!

Toby the Pug 1986-1999 Image from the author’s collection!

 

There has been a strange and rather lovely odour all around the house this week. Perhaps it’s me? But all I have worn in this warm close weather is Atelier Cologne’s Cedrat Enivrant. Now that’s a glorious greeny-gold glittering citrus; and what I can smell here is a deep woody floral; soft and pervasive and lulling. It seems to be everywhere, despite the open doors and windows. It was only intensified by my darling sister-in-law’s visit. She came over for lunch bearing two large bags of magazines dated 1952 and ’53: pristine souvenir numbers of The Sphere, The Illustrated London News and Picture Post commemorating variously the death of George VI and the Coronation of Elizabeth II. Amongst all the paperwork was a bar of amber and sandalwood soap: I wrapped it up in my clean underwear, like Betty Macdonald’s tubercular friend in The Plague and I¤. There were also two very old bottles of Floris room scent – Ormonde – the colour of old amber, slightly crusted, and smelling delicious. Rich, voluptuous and assured: the scent of country mansions, polished up with beeswax and filled with vases of stocks and sweet peas.

Barbara Cartland used to say that she knew from a strong fragrance of clove carnations manifesting in the house that her deceased brother Ronald was about the place. You wonder, don’t you? This morning, out and about at the shops, on the street and in the garden, all I can smell is a creamy sweet coconut, rather like gorse. But there is no gorse, and there were no coconuts. When I went down the aisle of Laundry Requisites at the supermarket – a well-known household name – the detergents assailed me like wasps. My face prickled all over as though from heat rash; a myriad invisible chemicals stimulating my skin, though apparently safely contained in their cardboard and plastic wrappers. Over-sensitive at the moment: very strange!

I have just finished a rather nasty but very gripping book of long short stories by Daphne du Maurier¤¤. She is good on scent and its implications. A bored Marquise plays with a scent stopper as she plays with people’s lives. A seductively brittle cinema usherette may be a phantom and is certainly a murderess. Contrary to usual fictional convention this ominous figure exudes the most delicious perfume to beglamour her garage mechanic suitor:

” I’m not a great one for liking scent. It’s too often cheap and nasty, but this was different. There was nothing stale about it, or stuffy, or strong; it was like the flowers they sell up in the West End…three bob a bloom sort of touch…and it was so darn good, the smell of it … that it nearly drove me mad”.

The title story is done with great subtlety – the death of a wife is swiftly followed by her haunting of her widower in the form of a deformed apple tree in the garden. The tale is told by the husband. We slowly realise that it is he – and not, as he would have us believe, the late wife – who is a monster of self-indulgence and misery. The barren tree flowers in a cascade of over-ripe, decaying blooms which repel rather than attract. “Instead of blossoming to life, to beauty, it had somehow, deep in nature, gone awry and turned a freak”.  Or so the widower perceives the flowers¤¤¤.  When a fallen branch of apple wood is sawn to feed the fire, the smell is not fresh and aromatic but “sweet, sickly…greenish…turning his stomach”.

We all know how sensitive animals can be to the Unseen. A lady told me the other day that whenever she sprays Etat Libre D’Orange’s Putain des Palaces her tom cat goes absolutely beserk. It’s like cat mint to him. He becomes skittish, roguish, even disconcertingly amorous. I know many horse owners who avoid wearing perfume when they visit their stables. Apparently our most august fancier of horseflesh, the Queen herself, is amongst them. Fragrance is said to unsettle, even arouse, the equine. Both Fracas and Chanel No 5 have been said to have had disturbing effects on stallions.  Now, we at Les Senteurs are always happy to welcome a canine visitor, on the arm of his owner. But I always marvel at how calm dogs remain in our palace of 1,000 scents. When you think of the bombardment of smells on those little supersensitive snouts you’d think the animals would run half mad. I guess what it is, is this: in the interests of his own sanity, the dog remains involuntarily onosmic to odours that have no possible relevance to his needs. He picks up only what is needed for his comfort, feeding, preservation and – if in his natural state – his reproductive interest. Am I somewhere near the truth? Vets, please write in. Makes you wonder about Putain des Palaces though.

¤ “..’he brought me a whole roasted chicken and twelve chocolate eclairs and that’s all I’m gonna eat until next Thursday’. I asked how she managed to keep food in her stand as it was absolutely forbidden.  She said, ‘Oh, I wrap it all up in my clean pyjamas.'”

¤¤ “The Apple Tree” first published by Victor Gollancz, 1952.

¤¤¤ We are reminded of the abundant and beautiful but sinister white roses which fill frame after frame of The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s 1961 film adaptation of The Turn of the Screw.