Poetry In Motion

amaterasu_cave

 

Spring air –
Woven moon
And plum scent.¤

 

Who should pop up on R4 the other morning but the great Juliet Stevenson, brought before the microphones to celebrate the Equinox She read Keats’s Ode to Autumn – beautifully, of course – said a few words, and was off. A casual, almost throw-away recital: It reminded me of Myra Hess’s lunch-time concerts during the War; Sarah Bernhardt or Lillie Langtry making brief appearances in barns and tents on the American frontier. It was just how a performance should be. A sudden splurge of splendour going up like a firework in the gloom; a few transient seconds of glamour and beauty in the darkness.

The Ode was a brief moment of uplift in a busy day. Poetry should illuminate the path, jolly us along, stimulate the ear and the brain. It presents emotions and situations in a certain way – a new way. Poetry offers revelations and, sometimes, solutions. Its pleasure should be taken for granted, easily and frankly like a music hall song. We needn’t wait for a poetry class or a formal recital  –  tags and lines and refrains can inspire and buck us up at any time, whether formally declaimed or just chuntered under your breath.

Now, doesn’t this sound remarkably like the role of perfume in life? A scent which may be startling, delicious, sprightly or hypnotic by turns but which seizes our attention and beguiles our senses. Price, value, composition and provenance really need not come into the matter. What’s vital is the sum of the thing: how the scent speaks to you, and how it affects your mind. Smell it, grab it, wear it. Stop analysing and start smelling. It’s like the sense of taste: quit taking those selfies of your dinner – eat it up!

When I was at school, aged ten or so, we had to learn a set poem weekly – “Home Thoughts From Abroad”, “Upon Westminster Bridge” and the like. No piece thrilled me much. All one’s energies and attention went into getting the thing into one’s noddle and then regurgitating the verses correctly, so as to avoid being snubbed by teacher in front of the precariously smug class. However, then as now, individual words, sounds and ideas of colour & smell caught the ear and excited the mind. The first line of Shakespeare that ever caught my fancy was Lady Macbeth’s wailing of the smell of blood and the perfumes of Arabia.

Presently one went up the school and a more enlightened schoolmistress got us writing haiku in lieu of learning other people’s masterpieces. That was kind of liberating – firstly because the haiku form is so short;  and because observing the 5-7-5 syllable structure made us far less self-conscious about what we were composing. We were too busy trying to make the thing ‘fit’.

I see now that the essence of the haiku is in its moment of generation; those ideas it evokes in the exhalation of a breath. There is no analysis, no set or intended meaning: all is sensation and emotion, a moment of observation and insight as clear but transient as a dew-drop. Sometimes you see something akin to this in the PR blurb written by French perfume houses: translated into English the evocations are meaningless and bathetic. In the original they have a certain haphazard poetry to them. Same like the haiku.

Here are two observations of an orchid, by Basho¤ and Buson¤¤ respectively:

Evening orchid-
The white of its flower
Hidden in its scent

Orchid –
Breathing incense
Into butterfly’s wings

Haiku can be not only surreally lovely but as droll, rude and scatalogical as a good limerick.

Issa¤¤¤, who lived a rather dreadful life of poverty and loss, wrote much about love and death but was also fascinated by the yowling of mating cats, bodily smells, soiled clothes & bedding, effluvia and excrement – “flies on the porridge…..piddle pattering down…the wild iris…”

Here’s another Basho haiku which smells both aspects of our fleeting existence:

In the garden
A sweaty shoe
Scent of chrysanthemum

You may take these two observations separately or link them as you will: but it’s true, chrysanthemums do have the sharp tang of perspiration to them. As Issa noted, they are redolent of tea, sake and urine. And here’s the typically ironic haiku paradox: they are also the Japanese national flower, quasi-sacred as they symbolise the Sun goddess Amaterasu-o-mi-kami, the divine ancestress of every Emperor. There have never been many chrysanthemum-based perfumes on the market. Maybe that’s because of this sour ambiguity and (in the West) the association of the flower with the dying of the year and hard-wearing funeral tributes.  The Crown Perfumery once did a little gem – I forget it’s name; it’s long time ago. Serge Lutens De Profundis – a ‘Paris Only’ Exclusive – is probably the one to seek out.

How often will a neophyte come to try a much-touted new scent and exclaim –

“But it smells of my father’s bike! – like a cement mixer – like cleaning the baby’s bath..”

And there you are: to her, the perfume is defined for ever, caught in a flash of perception like a spider in amber. You can explain about the ingredients till you are blue in the face but it is the customer’s instantaneous and unique characterisation which is so striking: much more interesting than praising the quality of the jasmine oils. An integral part of haiku language is the use of an exclamation to punctuate a line  – “ah!” – “o!” – “but!” – “pop!”. How rewarding and fascinating to hear these gasps and squeals at the shop as one reveals the latest treasure.

Ise’s shrine –
What tree can give
Such perfume?¤

¤ Matsuo Basho 1644-1694; translations by Lucien Stryk

¤¤ Yosa Buson 1716 – 1784; translation by Stephen Addiss

¤¤¤  Kobayashi Issa 1763-1827; translations by Lewis Mackenzie.

Sunny Stories

From the Author's private WW1 collection

From the Author’s private WW1 collection

“Lemon Wedge Is On Holiday”

Nevertheless, like some old music hall artiste, he will appear for you and offer nugatory olfactory comment on the week gone by. As Arthur Marshall used to say in a different circumstance, LW is never off duty unless he’s in bed – and not always then. Besides, no one’s sense of smell can be turned on and off like a tap: we lovers of scent are literally led by the nose, willy nilly. Odours seek us out rather than the other way about.  Good smells – and bad.

No doubt it had something to do with that short and very intense wave of heat and humidity which sharpened our sense of smell: for suddenly and very evidently there was a spate of unsavoury references to fetor and malodour in the media¤. These came together, all in a clump and a rush: very odd and remarkable. A propos, do you ever analyse the look of your birthday cards? I have noticed each year it falls out, apparently haphazardly, that the cards group themselves into a definite colour co-ordination and theme. One year they are all variations on green and ochre beer bottles; the next time around, every greeting is a flight of blue butterflies. You have a look: the system works at Christmas, too.

And so it was that – as the heat, my heart and my head pounded in tandem every morning – I was greeted by a battery of sequential, often nauseating, redolent vignettes. There was the intriguing but revolting revelation of how, during WW II, SOE had planned to impregnate (via agents with “perfume atomisers”) the uniforms of high-ranking Nazis with unspeakably awful reeks to spread despondency and disgust in the ranks. I don’t fancy going into details but you can picture for yourselves the sort of things the Allied scientists came up with. Think of emergency moppings-up after both human and animal calamities and the concomitant urgent need for Dettol, a scalding hot bath and clean clothes from the skin out. One can imagine that the filthy scheme would have demoralised the enemy only too well. It’s bad enough to have a terrible chemically-enhanced smell stuck in your nostrils – much worse to realise that it’s emanating from you.

Because I am on vacation I have spent a lot of time with my nose in a book. William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Confessions of Nat Turner” is bursting with the sinister smells of the terrible Old South. The barren fields of Virginia exhausted by promiscuous tobacco planting; wood smoke from sad dying fires; uncontrollable sweating; home-distilled brandy; and a reptilian lawyer whose greasy clothes and person are drenched in sweet apple-blossom cologne –  “…..I was unable to tell which I resented more, that doughy voice or the honeyed, overpowering perfume”.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s monumental history of the Romanovs is in great demand at the library (there were 17 readers ahead of me). Here I read about the extraordinary family letters of Nicholas and Alexandra on the subject of breaking wind¤¤. More to be expected were details of Alexandra’s dainty custom of perfuming her letters to the Front with Atkinson’s White Rose. “‘The scent excites me and quite drew me to you'” – wrote the Tsar by return¤¤¤.

And there’s a brand new book out, all about George Orwell’s sense of smell; his perception of redolence and mephitis; and the impact of it all on his writing. I remember his late sister’s shop – “Avril’s” – at Southwold, though, alas! I missed Avril herself by some years. Under later management, the store sold Annick Goutal perfumes – wafts of Passion and Folavril mingling with the ambrosial succulence of salty samphire and dressed crabs at the late fish shop next door.

You have to be careful with these reminiscences, though. Careful how you filter them. Last weekend I went to a wonderful show put on by the local history society. There was all my infancy and early life in the villages, laid out in post cards, posters and photos in the Methodist Hall. There was the flowering almond tree in our garden; the dusty old library with the dark creaking stairs; the cheesey-bacon-coffee-smelling grocery. There was the tiny shoe shop full of new leather, raw canvas, rubber soles, chalky whitening paste and Cherry Blossom Shoe-Shine. That night I woke myself up at 3am, shouting my head off in nightmare and alarming the neighbours. Emotional indigestion. Too many memories stirred up. And I remembered then how, as a tot, I had got very muddled in myself over the tale of Moses in the rushes. I knew the reedy smell and velvety texture of bulrushes from walks down the water meadows. Moses’s floating cradle, caulked with pitch and tar, I could relate to our newly creosoted fence and the steamrollers¤¤¤¤ that surfaced the roads. The thuriferous fragrance of the Egyptian princess’s palace must have been like that of our very high church.

And I was the first-born son.

Consequently, I often fancied I saw Pharaoh in his blue war crown peering in at me through the tiny window at the back of our sitting-room.

No wonder I yelled out…..eh?

Yes, you have to watch your step with smells. Such power!

¤ even to an endlessly re-run trailer for a vintage episode of The Likely Lads on Channel 19 – “she’s so stuck-up, you’d think her backside was a perfume factory”. Honestly…..!

¤¤ very strange, you might think, in view of the usual perception of the Empress as a parody of bourgeois narrow-mindedness. But then, Alix was used to the strong emanations of Rasputin – onions/garlic/alcohol/sweat/vodka/sebum – and his rustic mystic predecessors. She’d worked in military operating theatres; her husband had chronic dental problems; and she had grown up at the court of Queen Victoria who, contrary to the belief of many, took a pretty robust view of the Schattenseite of life.

¤¤¤ Note to our friends and colleagues at Atkinsons: is this romantic perfume not due for an exciting revival?

¤¤¤¤ when did all the steamrollers vanish from our streets? There was a drama! There was a smell to thrill!

A Plum In My Mouth

plums_early_morning

 

Just around about this time my mind and my nose turn to the sweet redolence of plums. I must tell you that for many years we have lived next door to an extensive walled garden. For twenty three Septembers, a gnarled old tree in that plot’s remotest and most picturesque corner was seen to be laden with magnificent plums – never gathered but left to rot on the branches or to provide occasional food for birds and insects. How our mouths watered and how our hearts ached for those wasted luscious fruits. We looked on and languished like Rapunzel’s mother pining for the witch’s blue-flowered rampion. And then – do you know? – the house was sold and we told the new young owners about the plums. “Plum tree? There are no plums here. Just apples….hard little red apples”. So all the greedy longings of decades were wasted and quite in vain: a three minute sermon in a country garden! The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

“Plum blossoms:

Red, red

Red ” ……¤

My mother often described folk whose looks she admired as resembling “a great big beautiful plum”. That is to say:  high-coloured, smooth-skinned, zaftig; apt to be extravagantly exuberant and deliciously scented. And evidently she was not unique in entertaining this fantasy. A lively lady at the Tesco check-out this morning jabbed a lilac-painted finger nail – “Tsarina Mauve” – into a basket of over-ripe scarlet plums saying with a wink, “and this one’s me!”. It was the softest piece of fruit, and the most brilliant.

Plums have a great individuality about them: they are vivid little personalities with their silky iridescent skins, sensually cleft flesh and hard-hearted stones. They grow in a rainbow of wonderful colours: blue, yellow, topaz, crimson, pink, mauve, green, purple and almost white. When you cook them you see a miniature sunset of red and gold blaze at the bottom of your saucepan. Their perfume fills the house; a smell which is sharper when plums are cooked¤¤ than when they hang all velvety and sun-warmed on the tree. Or when their syrupy nectar oozes out as they lie on the grass, ripped open by voracious young wasps.

“Send her Victorias!”, as one of my teachers used to parody the National Anthem. They put him away for two years – though not for that.

The heavenly smell of plums is what used to lead children into orgies of greed, gorging themselves on the pilfered orchard fruit and being terribly ill – “pains” – in the night. And then, at Christmas, the indigestible but irresistible richness of bottled, candied, frosted, and crystallised plums. Plum cake, plum pudding, plum duff and the Sugar Plum Fairy. In these austere days when Expiry Dates and the “Five-A-Day” policy rule the roost these surfeits probably no longer take place. But, in the same way as oranges and nasturtiums, plums have an indefinable but powerful nostalgia about them. Like dahlias, grapes and golden rod they have the glamour of an imperial past, a dazzling hue and the thoughtful bitter-sweet taste & scent of autumn about them. A sense of numbered days.

I first smelled plums – I suppose – in the Madman’s Paradise of my great uncle’s suburban garden. His house was full of the fumes of leaking gas and Players cigarettes. The back garden was a jungle of old man’s beard, of half-wild nose-tingling horseradish and fallen waspy plums heaped up on the old tennis court and all over the cinder paths. Uncle Fred was born only 13 years after the death of the Prince Consort: he gardened like a High Victorian. I think this sepia photo aspect is what makes plum such a popular and powerful note when used in perfumery. It takes you back to a finer age of leisure, succulence and refined self-indulgence.

The plum accord in scent need not be botanically exact. It comes to life in the imagination and perception of the beholder, in a similar way to many people’s definition of musk. Plum notes evoke a mood rather than a precise odour. Plummy scents have a deep dark polished fullness to them; an embraceable roundness; a feeling that every corner has been smoothed away & sanded down leaving a glorious glowing ripeness and volupte. Plum scents whisper – in rich engorged plummy tones – ‘eat me!’. I have only to read that a perfume boasts plum notes for me to want to try it. I associate plum with the sophisticated fruitiness of the classic chypres – the novel peach accord in Mitsouko; the sexy synthetics of Ma Griffe; the grande horizontale seduction  of Parure. Especially I love the infinite and mysterious sweet green lake – “all hung about with fever trees” – that is LE PARFUM DE THERESE, Roudnitska’s star turn from the late 1950’s, bound into softest moss-coloured leather for Editions de Parfums.

Kilian’s LIAISONS DANGEREUSES is served from a bar in Zola’s Paris – a plum steeped in a shot of brandy or absinthe to brighten a frosty morning in Les Halles. ACQUA FIORENTINA is an Italian orchard where late carnations add a delicate hint of clove to a conception of greengages, plums and apples. LIQUEUR CHARNELLE streams out like liquid apricot velvet: plums and prunes distilled into after-dinner gourmanderie. And then, less literally, I find a dark, discreet but splendid plummy opulence and amplitude in that fabulous duo from Atelier Cologne – ROSE ANONYME and VETIVER FATAL.

In the old days I went several times to the former Jugoslavia. In Split – where the Emperor Diocletian once grew his prize cabbages – I first tasted plum slivovitz. We were recommended by a local to try it spliced with kruskovac: the sharpness of the plums, the sweetness of pears. Greatly daring, I ordered this enticing-sounding drink in a waterfront hotel: there stood the appropriate bottles, all ranked on glass shelves. But the barmaid – vividly similar in appearance to Elsie Tanner  – vehemently refused to serve me. “NO slivovitz! NO kruskovac!” Her hands slammed flat on the bar like fruit pelting down to earth in a high wind.

Plums witheld! Plums verboten! Their glamour was heightened all the more.

¤ Hirose Izen c.1652 – c.1711

¤¤ unless you are jamming of course: copper preserving pans full of red plums; pounds of white sugar slowly staining pink. Then the saucer on the window-sill to test the setting. My mother tended to lose her nerve at this point, but our Paddy who came to help in the garden used to stick his thumb in the sweet goo and judge it to a nicety. He was wonderful at timing when a cake was done, too: just thrust in the cold steel of the bread knife. He was always right.

“…give him the air!”

bride_of_frankenstein_167

 

Sometimes after a busy day in our shop I feel absolutely soaked and saturated in scent. I am exuding fragrance from every pore, like a dying agar tree or a sticky cistus bush. Scent seems to be within me as well as without. I am, as the French say, wonderfully  “embalmed”¤ in perfume, like the ancient Egyptian procedures evoked in ANUBIS. I am pleased to remember that the necromancer sorcerers and priests of Karnak & Thebes used fragrance as a spell to reconstitute flesh and to renew life. Being pickled in perfume can be a rather attractive sensation, although it is disconcerting when taxi drivers lower the windows during the ride home; or if people look askance and shift themselves on the Tube. Mind you, the most unsettling thing on the Underground nowadays is that I need only step into a carriage to have kind young people leap to their feet, proffering seats. It is very kind but also a memento mori.

The other day, I was given a lift to the shops. At the traffic lights I looked over into the car drawn up alongside. Despite it being a warm sunny morning all the windows were sealed. The driver stubbed out one cigarette and in a single smooth fluid movement lit another. “Kid like you shouldn’t smoke so heavy”. Quite a rare sight these days, to see someone so kippered in tobacco smoke. I thought of all those post-war British movies which revel in the evocation of claustrophobic smells. Remember a badly hung-over Jean Kent frowsting between grubby sheets with a caged parrot at the end of her bed?  There are bottles of every sort all over the place, and a quarter ounce of “Seduction” is ungraciously slammed down on the dressing table as the woman In question¤¤ examines her furred tongue in the glass and lards on more lipstick.

How the camera lingers over the slovenly antics of Susan Shaw in ‘It Always Rains on Sunday’ (1947). She comes home from a dance at 3am, too drunk to undress, and falls into bed in her clothes: later we see her hanging up her crumpled frock, evidently preparatory to another outing. No question of the dry cleaners: maybe a dab with a petrol-soaked rag later. Presently, she has a bath in front of the kitchen range and washes out her undies in the dirty water. As I watch these films over and again, I notice all the open doors and windows¤¤¤. People then believed in fresh air, and the directors and set dressers never forgot it. Considerably more recently – 30 years ago – I remember my father, purple in the face, wrenching open sealed windows (like Louis XVI at Marie Antoinette’s bedside) in over-heated restaurants. They’d have the police on him, now.

It’s all very different from a tv ad I saw last night – a strange thing! A young woman is unaware that her lovely home reeks of dog. Her guest is repelled. A huge title flashes up to announce she’s become “NOSE BLIND”. (I gather there’s another version featuring a chap whose furniture is impregnated with the smell of beefburgers: other people’s lives…!).  Our parents and grandparents were only too aware that they had to be on the lookout for unwelcome odours, and so they took natural precautions. If you fried fish, then you opened the house doors fore and aft for a cleansing through-draught. But the poor confined girl with the bulldog has become complacent and anosmic in a world where everything is ruthlessly deodorised, disinfected and hermetically sealed: and in which no one now expects to eat a peck of dirt before they die.¤¤¤¤

When I’m drenched in scent like a pre-Revolutionary Marquis  – last Friday it was with LITTLE BIANCA, our new rosy and romantic Exclusive by Alberto Morillas – I like to pass the fragrance on. And one does so, willy nilly, like the coloured dust from a butterfly’s wing. If you are well perfumed the sillage will lightly and persuasively invade the auras of those you meet, greet and embrace. Greek courtesans, it is said, used to immerse their sandals in fragrance and so lay an enticing trail in the dust. A perfumed scarf or handkerchief will pass on a Chinese whisper of scent. No doubt I leave traces on those Underground banquettes or cab seats. Should you be intrigued by this idea, let me remind you that the palms of the hand are wonderful conductors of scent: spray them with your fragrance and you will leave a little of yourself on everyone & everything you touch.

There was a most amusing man on the wireless recently, talking about the connection of hands across history and peoples. Apparently when Barry Humphries shook hands with Arthur Miller all he could think was, “This was the hand that once caressed Marilyn”. Well – I have shaken hands with Daniel Day Lewis – Miller’s son-in-law – so I’m now a tiny link in that immortal adamantine chain.

I have mentioned before that when I clasped Marlene Dietrich’s hand back in ’72 – the nails painted to match the gold and rose Balenciaga trouser suit – the hand was curiously and wonderfully perfumed. In fact it dripped & dropped perfume, like the myrrh so sensually described in the Song of Solomon. If you have a sense of romance, picture that gallant inventive little German hand – frost-bitten from the War – passing on its redolence to Piaf, Alexander Fleming, General Patton, Jean Gabin, Moshe Dayan, the Beatles, Gary Cooper, Noel Coward, Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Princess Margaret, Orson Welles,  JFK, Fred Perry, Audrey Hepburn, the Burtons ….and on & on. It’s a glorious metaphor for the irresistible pervasiveness of smell and scent. Doors and windows cannot keep perfume out: as Nancy Mitford wrote of the Duc de Richelieu, if you put him out of the door he comes back down the chimney.

Pass it on!

¤ “embaumer 1.vt to embalm 2. vt to give out a fragrance, be fragrant; l’air embaumait le lilas – the air was balmy with the scent of lilac..” – Collins Robert French Dictionary.

¤¤ in the film of the same name: 1950.

¤¤¤ take a look at Fred and Laura’s well-aired house in ‘Brief Encounter’.

¤¤¤¤ LW has already consumed his share, and keeps on munching.