The Perfume That Hurts

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It is a popular theory, noted by Barbara Pym and Philip Larkin amongst others, that librarians generally loathe books. Toilers in confectionery factories never touch the chocs: we all know that. Could it be, then, that scent sometimes gets on the nerves of perfumers and irritates the most ardent of perfumistas? Very possibly. Now Quentin Bisch, creator of Etat Libre D’Orange’s imminent new fragrance Attaquer Le Soleil, tells us that he had always abhorred the smell of cistus labdanum. Taking his distaste as a challenge, he wrought Soleil exclusively from this sweet resin. For that’s the total sum of the perfume: layers of labdanum in varying degrees, of different strengths and with a myriad faces. The odour of cistus manifests like the shifting aspects of some heathen god – simultaneously personifying half a dozen paradoxical roles from Universal Magician to infant victim. And, I’m here to tell you, Attaquer Le Soleil is absolutely ravishing and mesmerising; no less for possessing that perverse piquancy of having been begotten by dislike upon incompatibility.

For – maybe – it is extra special just because of its creator’s qualms, not in spite of them. I remember the former nun Monica Baldwin remarking in one of her books that, in the convent, you learned to become very wary of a sister who was egregiously kind and friendly. It meant that the nun had conceived a particular dislike of you and was trying, in charity, to overcome her profound aversion. And then, too, perfumers love a challenge. Every one of them wants to have a crack at a perfect rose; an unparalleled glittering crystal citrus; the most jungly of vetivers. A perfumer like any other artist wants to define a genre; to break boundaries; to outstrip limits; to defy his own reasoning. Upon occasion, to shake up his own preconceptions as well as those of his clients and the fans.

As all the Life Coaches tell us, once we confront a fear then the terror melts away into its own native void. The sense of smell is always pretty unsettling because it is so little understood; and because any odour triggers off feelings about the Great Matters of Life. Our past and our memories; our self-preservation; sexual desire and procreation; life and death. We define ourselves by the scents we use; many people pine and languish when their favourite perfume is commercially withdrawn, dying a thousand deaths before the final consummation of discontinuation. Perfume is not all about straightforward pleasure, not by any means.

So would you wear a scent you don’t like: fragrance that you, in fact, detest? You might well. I have known such cases. People will choose a perfume to please a loved one; to attract attention; or simply because it lasts well, indifferent to how it smells. Another tribe and tongue (and I, too, have dwelled in Arcadia) will struggle through the beastly top notes of a fragrance just to reach the paradise below and beyond. In a masochistic way one then grows to relish the discomfort of the initial accords in anticipation of the delights to come. “If It Isn’t Pain Then It Isn’t Love”, as Miss Dietrich once sang in the movies. For once the censor was fully awake: ‘song cut before release’.

A customer told me how a dog had howled and moaned when she wore a certain notably animalic Serge Lutens fragrance. She found this off-putting. Others might relish it: Circe and the ship-wrecked sailors in your own back yard. The now universal promulgation of oud fascinates me and many others because it presents a riddle – I am always intrigued by oud, but am not invariably inclined to wear it. I like to have it about me but not necessarily on my person. I enjoy it best as an attar: gummy and concentrated, not blended into a western scent. I enjoy its farouche and dangerous quality. This is why I am so drawn to Frederic Malle’s The Night: ‘for The Night is at hand and it is well to yield to The Night.” Editions de Parfums present this most exotic of oils in its most magnificently concentrated and austerely awesome form: it’s up to every individual to reason it out, to come to terms with The Night as one does with Life itself.

Incidentally, a wonderfully generous customer made me the present of a tiny phial of oud last week: I have it beside me in bed as I write this, to sniff and inspire. The gentleman gave it to me because he said I reminded him of his grandfather: a unique accolade which gives the oil a very particular quality.

As I came round the corner from the Underground Station last Friday morning the pavement was up and the air was heavy – very heavy indeed – with the dangerous blue smell of gas. The workmen were all there, putting things to rights. The air shimmered with fumes and I was relieved to turn the corner before someone lit a cigarette. And just around the corner was this beautiful and curiously vivid rose-red car: I’ve never seen a car sprayed such a hue. I stood and peered at it – and then was seized with SUCH an uncanny – a truly weird – sense of horror and nameless dread. It was the effects of the gas, I’m sure of that: some curious short-circuiting of the gas together with an elementary sense of self-preservation. And the rose colour must have triggered some long-repressed associations.

But doesn’t the nose play us curious tricks! ”

NB:

There’ll be a fabulous LES SENTEURS Competition coming your way very soon: it’s all about Scent and its Darker Side. Keep your eyes, nostrils & minds open! Details to follow. Intrinsically valuable prizes to be won!

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