“Peace and quiet is for libraries” – Bette Davis

peace-rose-720

Peace Rose

 

Last Remembrance Sunday Our Vicar talked about Peace. She told us about a class of school children who had been asked to write down what Peace might smell like. No one mentioned the now outmoded rose of that name, so popular in gardens of my youth; but one infant had volunteered a bouquet of flowers. Other suggestions included vanilla ice cream, fresh laundry, cinnamon and pop corn.

With Advent now upon us we might all play this little game. I didn’t thrill to any of the above suggestions. For me they are all redolent of comfort, nurture, relaxation and gratification of the senses. No harm in that. Perhaps that’s how most of us define Peace: precious moments of switching off, and a spot of more or less innocent self-indulgence. But clean linen and food scents don’t conjure Peace for me. Not Peace as opposed to war; or divine heavenly Peace; or internal emotional Peace. Bond No.9 perfumes used to make a fragrance called The Scent of Peace – probably they still do. The packaging was designed around a Picasso-style dove and I recall the fragrance as being rather of the crisp, cool aquatic type with a nip maybe of blackcurrant and tea. I thought it a bit numb and vague, actually.

Because, for me, Peace smells of nothing at all. It’s a freedom from all stimulation, including the sensory; a cessation of all the excitement of the perfume cabinet, the scent shop and the sample. It’s as Mrs Patrick Campbell said of marriage – the exchanging of “the hurly-burly of the chaise longue for the deep, deep peace of the double bed”. All passion spent. If I was pressurised to give a sensual attribute to Peace it would be tactile rather than olfactory. Possibly I’m still thinking of that eponymous rose, but I feel Peace would likely be similar to the touch of thick creamy velvet – smooth and having the coolness of petals. But, simultaneously, also healthily firm, well-sprung and grounded. Colour-wise, always in shades of white.

White Painting by Robert Rauschenberg

White Painting by Robert Rauschenberg

J.M. Barrie, like countless others, found a kind of Peace wreathed in the smoky silky brown arms of his Lady Nicotine. “A cigarette – well, it’s like a little friend” someone once said to me, rather tragically I thought. I am lately entranced by vapes, and more especially by vape shops. Suddenly these exotic boutiques seem to be everywhere: the only place to be. I haven’t yet indulged but I look on in wonder. I don’t quite understand vapes yet, and that’s the state of fascination I like best. A little bit of mystery preserved¤.

I must tell you of my vape epiphany. It was an absolute pig of a day – icy rain and it never got light. I was in Richmond, hobbling up a side street in the murk and sodden gloom. Like Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise, I had my salad lunch by me in a string bag. I wondered how our forefathers coped with the old choking London fogs. My father well remembered them from his student days in the late ’40’s; Piccadilly and St James’s cloaked in thick yellow-grey filth. I came by a little shop set rather back from the road. It was like a store in a dream: the Sheep’s shop in “Alice”, or Mrs Corry’s establishment in the “Mary Poppins” books. (D’you remember Mrs Corry? Too frightening for the movie, I guess, she has barley-sugar fingers which she snaps off for children to eat).

I peered through the window and saw only clouds of mist. The door flew open and two gentlemen emerged like Seraphim, absolutely enveloped in perfumed steam and sweet vapours. The grey day was suddenly psychedelic with colour and fragrance: it was a vision from the Arabian Nights; a folk memory of the Temple of Solomon. Warm odours of caramel, grapefruit, chocolate, cherry, strawberry, tobacco, vanilla, pineapple and peach filled the air and rolled up the hill towards those roads aptly named Paradise and Mount Ararat.

Magical! Absolutely. Because so unexpected, do you see? Peaceful? Not exactly, but a vision of another world. Those departing customers put me in mind of the four mythical houris who are said to be made respectively of amber, camphor, saffron and musk. And  of course, at the risk of being accused of cultural appropriation, we shouldn’t forget the ancient Native American concept of Smoking the Pipe of Peace.

Peace to You All!

¤ like the very best sort of perfume. Or friendship.

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Glad Rags and Tatters

marilyn-with-dog

 

Ever been told by a stay-at-home how your dog knows that you’re on your way back, even though you’re still in transit half an hour away? Maybe he goes to sit by the garden gate or peers, all expectant, from a window. One of our pugs used to squawk like a macaw in the car when we were homeward-bound, albeit miles off. I once escorted a pining peke from Leicester to Cambridge to be reunited with her mistress. I swear, that peke picked up from the moment we boarded the train. Of course, it’s all due to the acute power and versatility of the canine sense of smell. The dog realises that his perception of the owner’s smell is growing fainter: so apparently he reasons that it must be time for an imminent reunion. To put it in crude human metaphor, it works like an olfactory clock; a variation of the ones that Carl Linnaeus and Eugene Rimmel planned with plants and perfume and which never worked properly. But animal senses have perfect timing. They just proved it with “tests”, though I think we all suspected as much.

Smells cross the hours and the years as well as the miles. That dress Marilyn wore to sing ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ has been auctioned off once again. Last time the occasion was all written up at length in a magazine; Vanity Fair, I think it was. The dress was then in a poor state of repair, for MM had been sewn into it for the live performance and cut out of it after. The Jean Louis nude souffle chiffon¤ was so wringing wet with sweat, they had to dry it with a squad of hair-dryers before Marilyn was hastily sewn back into it to go off to a Kennedy dinner. She was rushed and fussed and she fidgeted a lot, so the re-robing caused minor tears and spilled bugle beads. She had insisted on putting it on again -“since when I have worn no other” – and it was well sprayed with No 5, I suppose, to “refresh and sweeten”.

Never cleaned – you couldn’t clean garments like that in 1962 – the dress subsequently decayed badly. I recall a certain Luxury Specialist Cleaners making a disastrous attempt to launder a similar dress even some thirty years later – the thing simply dissolved. Only the trimmings survived. When they opened the drum, there were all the rhinestones and sequins rattling about, but no trace of a golden gown. You wonder, therefore, if there’s much left of the original: I’m imagining extensive expert restoration. Dietrich, as is well-known, used to do running repairs on her Jean Louis stage costumes with hairs pulled from her own head, saying thread or cotton was too coarse.

Expected to fetch $1.5 million this time around, the Monroe gown was finally knocked down at $4.8 million. Amazing. An observant correspondent writes in: “….the thing is, no new icons are being created so the old ones are priceless, like Vermeers…”

I wonder if you can still smell the Chanel.

I thought of that terrible story told¤¤ of Garland during one of her final concert seasons. She was in such a bad way by then that toxic odours gushed from the poor girl’s pores – “stage hands recoiled visibly” – and she had to drench herself in Ma Griffe before, during and after every performance.

Legends of old Hollywood often smelled a bit funny. We’ve all heard about Gable’s teeth and Grable’s nervous incontinence. Crawford had her movie sets kept icy cold, reputedly to control her sweats. Garbo chewed garlic cloves to put a damper on amorous leading men. Returning to Marilyn, do you remember that story of her munching greasy cold cutlets in bed and wiping her hands and lips on the sheets? Gloria Swanson made a point in her memoirs of mentioning Lionel Barrymore’s terrible smell, a reek which offended her super-sensitive (and very beautiful) ski-jump nose. During the filming of ‘Sadie Thompson’, therefore, she had Lionel’s clothes confiscated and destroyed during his lunchtime nap¤¤¤. Apparently thereafter he was a changed man. Maybe as Gloria writes “he’d taken a notion to bathe”.

A tiny tot once shouted out in a crowded department store : “Mummy! There’s the man who smells!” She wasn’t referring to me, thank Heaven, but to a game octogenarian who was always soaked in L’Heure Bleue, even at 8 in the morning. Inevitably, there were terribly hurt feelings. You have to be so careful. Smells – like yawns – are contagious.

Let’s talk some more about this another time.

¤ “a very rude dress” writes a correpondent. She’s right.

¤¤ by biographer Anne Edwards.

¤¤¤ beauty sleep. I remember “going round” after a matinee of ‘Aren’t We All?’ at Birmingham in 1984 to be told firmly: “Miss Colbert and Mr Harrison are asleep”.

If you really want to know – look in the Mirror…

crystal-ball-2

 

A report in the Times last week – buried under the news from America – was all about current British food fashions and forecasts, as reported by the Waitrose analysts. Health and efficiency is – naturally – key: but so, too, is an interesting appreciation and cultivation of a sense of smell. So, seaweed, cactus water and coconut flour are among the hard-hitters now trending. And it seems that Polynesian cuisine is going to be the next big sensation, the taste of 2017. Vegetable yoghurt will be all the rage; also promised – thrillingly – are perfume-themed cocktails.

I felt quite intoxicated by the idea of a Polynesian diet – so, the other evening I went down to my nearest ethnic eaterie. I rang the bell. The menu was rich and evocative: including chicken long rice; lomilomi (that means “massaged”) salmon; kalua pork; and masses of poi, both leaf and root. The scent and taste of the islands. All that succulent golden aromatic fruit exhaling honey dew and sunlight. Crackling roasts basted in coconut oil and brought to table wreathed in tiare flowers. (Thoughts of cultural appropriation recrudesce but are rapidly dismissed*). No wonder that early western visitors to the Pacific islands thought they had reached the outer shores of Paradise. Sailors reared in the slum rookeries of London and Toulon were ravished by the unknown and delicious scents floating out to their ships from the mountains and lagoons of “the new Cytherea”. I once sailed out from Galway on a warm spring morning to the Isles of Aran: the perfume of spring flowers – violets, cowslips, bluebells – drifted over the water to the ferry passengers with amazing power and radiance.  This is a singular beautiful phenomenon – the fragrance of a new land sweeping over the salty billows like an ambassadorial suite. Our CORSICA FURIOSA is a perfume that presents Napoleon’s birthplace thus: rain-drenched minty lentisticus, honey and tomato leaf. TULUM is a garland of roses, limes and mangoes, thrown down by the old Aztec gods from a sapphire sky into the Yucatan Caribbean.  Come by one day soon, and try.

But to return to the newspapers. What strikes me most in these dietary ruminations is the comforting reflection that we at Les Senteurs have always been – and still are –  very much in the van of style & fashion. We have – thank goodness – our fingers on the pulse of the Zeitgeist. We are currently looking at all kinds of cacti though we may not plant them in our perfume nursery quite yet. We are awash with coconut and seawater. Last month our Egeria  collaborated with the Daily Mail on a feature celebrating the cocktail as perfume and vice versa. Right back in 2012 we had hosted a Valentine’s Event to explore this same intriguing theme. Like ancient shamans and wizards, our minds are opened and stimulated by the divine fog of fragrance in which we spend our days. Mind reading and telepathy are in the air, especially in this super-weird year. Like the Sibyl at Delphi, we inhale the scents which exude from the innards and skin of Mother Earth to be caught in a thousand bottles. We have heard and tasted – merely metaphorically, mind! – the Shrieking Mandrake.¤

Some seers look into the future by gazing into a bowl of water which blooms with visions of things to come. Some perfumers refresh their noses by inhaling from vessels of clear cold water. We use coffee beans for this at Les Senteurs: not maybe as picturesque but more practical. Water needs endlessly replacing as it becomes corrupted with scent; just as in the prophet’s dish it is clouded and disturbed with jostling phantoms.

As to the coming use of vegetables in yoghurt: it’s about time. We most of us enjoy yoghurt as a marinade and a dressing. Some of us have  experimented with it on the skin, as a purifying masque and moisturiser. Most foods can be applied both within and without. Centuries ago this was also true of perfumes. Different foods feed different parts of the body – helping us to see in the dark; to fade freckles; to nourish our brains; to make our hair curl. Taste and smell are inextricably linked in the human sensory system. That old Polynesian poi root, when cooked, will eagerly absorb all surrounding odours and flavour. Perfumes which celebrate food have long since moved on from the traditional accords of cake, chocolate and cream. Gourmand flowers are now all the go: a return to the eighteenth century idealisation of feminine beauty as rose petals laid in cream. From the kitchen garden come carrot, cucumber, celery, coriander, cumin – and a vast range of herbs – all extensively used in perfumery¤¤. Some of the more intense and earthy tuberoses carry a powerful suggestion of their own tubers – and of sacking, soil and humus. There is a whiff of a fine cabbage-leaf cigar in Killian’s LIGHT MY FIRE ; and of course, botanically, the divinely scented velvet wallflower is a cabbage-cousin. I have waited years for the honeyed smell of bean flowers to grace the perfumers’ palate: the overwhelming redolence of broad beans in bloom. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

Finally, it’s a funny thing but no sooner do we take on a new scent referencing the Marquis de Sade – ATTAQUER LE SOLEIL – than it all hatches out at Penguin Books, too. One of de Sade’s tales is being prepared in a new English translation. Apparently it caused a ruckus at the publisher’s. One of the translators said it made him feel physically sick – “upsetting to read and edit”. The editor at Penguin wept when presented with the final version.¤¤¤ So you might want to have another gander at the perfume which is fascinating and compelling but not, we think, traumatic. Mind you, I’ve always been very very wary of that old Marquis myself.

The old year fast fades but everything at Les Senteurs is wonderfully new and fresh in spirit. See you soon.

* to coin a phrase of the great E.M.Delafield.

¤ years ago we sold Annick Goutal’s celebration of the weird root – MANDRAGORE. “And its carton was gleaming in purple and gold”. We still heed Pierre Guillaume’s advice to taste perfume on the tongue.

¤¤ ANGELIQUES SOUS LA PLUIE – the smell of gentle February rain on a walled kitchen garden.

¤¤¤ See The Times 5.11.2016 – for full report & enthusiastic Editorial.

No proper time of day…

john-atkinson-grimshaw-november-morning-1883

 

The clocks changed last week and I with them. Fiddling around with the time exhausts me – it mucks up my body’s routines. I react like a baby or a dog, uncomprehendingly thrown off course and put thoroughly out of sorts. It’s a species of fright, of course. It’s as John Milton says, it’s “snuffing the scent of mortal change on earth”.  It takes me about a fortnight to get back on track; whether it’s “fall back” or “spring forward”, the effect on me is always retrograde. I think my body clock is tuned so precariously that any tinkering about stops me dead in my tracks.

Especially so in autumn when the  melancholy winds sweep in with the falling leaves; and the rains dampen us down into a brown study beneath the stripped trees. Brown is my least favourite of all the colours. Draining away light, it lacks the drama of black and the warm elegance of grey. I’m talking about that dreary hue when brown shows flat and unadorned; devoid of any flash of red, blue, copper or gold. Just plain brown. Brown is the true colour of prolonged long-term mourning. Shades of dun, umber, sludge, baked-potato, penny and dirt have – like all colours –  their own peculiar odour.

Last week, as I fished leaves out of drains and scarified the increasingly sodden lawn, I inhaled the sad scents of vast dim November afternoons half a century ago. Apparently foggier and colder then, the defining redolence of those days was of school playing fields, scratchy hot-smelling serge shorts and, particularly, of a horrible pair of football boots. They looked like something out of The Beano, those boots. Never well-fitting – to allow for growth – they were hideously built-up and laced to well above the ankle-bone, like a clown’s comic footwear. Off the pitch, I clattered and teetered about in them like a geisha on clogs due to the soles having grotesquely high studs. They smelled of caked Dubbin, wet humus, dried mud, damp woollie socks and knotted elastic garters (“not too tight! Don’t cut off the circulation.”). Every now and again you had to work the boots over with an old knife or a stick to clean the dead grass and muck from the soles and crevices. That dreary doleful smell of cracked leather and impacted dead soil: brown, plain and simple.

“To this end we must all come”. The smells of autumn may seem variously depressing or cosy according to temperament. The cult of Danish “hygge” is now all the go but I’m thinking less of spicy spine boughs, mulled wine and perfumed candles and more of a nostalgie de la boue in an animal snuggery. Deep in our suppressed bestial nature there is an innate desire to hibernate; to get down that burrow, earth or bed for the next four or five months. To live off our own fat deposits; to be dopily self-sufficient; comatose-cocooned in the smell of our own kind – fur, skin, hay & feather bedding and nugatory waste. (Those all-important national surveys are always claiming that some 20% of the population change their sheets only three times a year). My father always used to say he would have preferred to live as a hound or a fox. He would chunter this mantra as he snuggled down in his kitchen armchair between sturdy horse blankets and beneath a warm and whiffy wriggling dog or two. Maybe those of us more in touch with our animal side have happier and more sensually comforting autumns than the more spiritually evolved.

“The doubt: can these dry bones live?” Have another look at that painting by Alexander Bowler.

I have mentioned before that my sense of smell goes awol when I’m in a state: so since the clock change it’s been very odd. After administering a brisk haircut, my wonderful barber – who entertains me with fabulous tales, as in the Arabian Nights – rubbed my head with some proprietary barbicide bay rum concoction. It was initially delicious but then reacted very oddly with an ambery frankincense perfume I’d applied on arising. (And perhaps that was a bit advanced for a November dawn).  For the rest of the day (despite changing all my linen and washing my head) I was suffused in an effusion of suffocating fruity musk. It smelled as though it was emanating from the depths of my being, as musks formerly poured from the ancient mosque walls of Samarkand and the Empress Josephine’s bedroom wallpaper.

We probably spend more money in the autumn, just to keep ourselves comfortable – and that’s aside from the Christmas potlatch. Now everyone’s talking about the funny new five pound notes. They haven’t yet had enough circulation to have acquired that characteristic faintly greasy pecuniary smell. “They are very slippery”, remarked an aged gentleman as the fresh fivers slid through his fingers like flying fish. (Same colour, too). Apparently the visually impaired and the blind are having problems with them: the notes feel too similar to receipt slips. A man explained on the wireless that he had been used to identifying all our paper currency by touch – but that the new notes defied this. I should like to have asked him whether identification by smell came into it too. I imagine it might well do so.

Thomas Hood¤ failed to mention an absence of smell in his famous poem ‘November’. Was this due to the inhibitions of his time or to an underdeveloped olfactory sense? Rather, I think that the wily poet knew that there are always smells, even in the dimmest of months.

¤1799-1845

Fusion and Confusion

Brocks Fireworks Poster From The Museum of British Folklore

Brocks Fireworks Poster From The Museum of British Folklore

 

By the time you read this, the dread Halloween will have come and gone and we shall be speeding on to Bonfire Night. Halloween’s over and done with for another year, thank Heaven. A gentleman visitor to Les Senteurs told me that if its commercial growth continues at its current rate, in another five years this feast of spirits unleash’d will be bigger than Christmas. I for one am tired of lying on the floor with all the lights off to elude the Trick-or-Treaters. I am repelled by skull racks in people’s gardens and skeletons in book shops. I avert my eyes from cakes iced with gore and witches flying round Tube stations. I find it all terribly unwholesome; and I now wonder, could this be because I have no personal experience – no heritage – of Halloween to draw upon? Maybe it’s relevant that I have no memory bank of associated smells to reassure me, animal-fashion, that it’s all quite tame and safe. Perhaps this is why I’m like a nervous dog or shrinking tot when I see those bins of pumpkins in the supermarket. I have yet to experience a celebration of the festival – I’ve never “embraced” it, as a lady advised on the wireless. It’s doubtful now that I ever shall. No “closure”, therefore.

Our generation ignored Halloween. My mother had been petrified – pre-war – by someone’s chauffeur flapping across the lawn in a sheet. My father thought the supernatural should not be fooled around with. Consequently, any suggestion of a ghoulish treat for us children was a huge no-no. I tasted pumpkin pie once – and our neighbours routinely made pumpkin soup – but these dishes had no connection, olfactory or otherwise, with All Saints’ Eve. When I strain my antennae to re-birth the smell of pumpkin, all that comes through is the pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove that seasoned these recipes. If I have any sort of Halloween odours to fall back on I can proffer only musty wet apples: fallen worm-eaten fruit tipped into buckets of water for the messy game of ducking or bobbing. We were invited to play it once at school – but I had already read the Agatha Christie shocker in which a girl is drowned in the pail, her head held under.

The smell of evil. Who needs it?¤

However, as the Duchess of Windsor said, I’ve had great fun. I’ve been reading about other kinds of odour in the press this week. I suppose the one that made me laugh most was the anecdote of movie star Richard Harris sitting on Elizabeth Taylor’s bed at a party, drinking a cocktail of orange juice spliced with his hostess’s Chanel No 5. (La Liz had just closed the bar downstairs). Imagine the acid indigestion.

Then the Standard ran two small but significant pieces. The more encouraging of the two reassured us that we shoppers generally choose to economise on clothing and even food before we cut down on our perfume purchases. So, for once, smell – theoretically at least – takes priority in the satisfaction of our senses.

The other article was depressing, repeating – inter alia – the old canard that scented accessories are used –  in lieu of washing – to disguise and cover up body odours. That old chestnut again, long hoped to be exploded. This is a most extraordinarily long-lived prejudice: still it lingers on, after centuries, with a knowing chuckle.  We now realise, thanks to the pioneering work of historians such as Ruth Goodman, that our ancestors were by no means as dirty or as evil-smelling as we like to imagine. They worked hard to keep clean and sweet but with methods strange and alien to us¤¤.

There is an atavistic distrust of perfume implicit in this theory of scent as camouflage, besides a species of inverted snobbery. A very British phenomenon I think it is, deriving from many circumstances. Our northern situation & climate, not naturally suited to perfume production due to botanical limitation. Our island mentality, simultaneously attracted to and repelled by the new and exotic; painfully suspicious of the customs of “abroad”¤¤¤. Our leading role in the Reformation five hundred years ago, which led to the new Protestant English Bible being available to all. This depicted fragrance as a manifestation of Divine and the Divinely Appointed, highly unsuitable for use by the ordinary man and woman. The old classical texts revived by Renaissance scholars revealed perfume as a heathen accessory of the decadent ancient civilisations. I remember reading in a very worthy volume, years ago, that the Fall of Rome had much to do with its aristocrats wearing rosewater, and with Roman ladies painting their toenails.

This week will conclude with another curious popular celebration: Bonfire Night with its reeks of gunpowder, treason and plot¤¤¤¤. Aren’t we a peculiar lot In our new secular society? We pull out all the stops to celebrate the triumph of the Protestant Church, the deliverance of one of our most unpopular and egregious kings*, and the barbarous end of a clutch of Catholic gentlemen.  Our folk memories and our attachment to them are as weird and singular as our attitudes to scent.

¤ if you do, take a gander at our new labdanum fragrance ATTAQUER LE SOLEIL: the aura of the highly objectionable Marquis de Sade.

¤¤ water was distrusted. Scented spirits were preferred. Here’s a clue to the ambiguity of perfume.

¤¤¤ the British have this reputation for being tolerant but maybe we are just lazy: quite happy to go along with things until our personal comfort and convenience come under threat.

¤¤¤¤ LES SENTEURS offers a clutch of appropriate perfumes to complement the 5th. Gunpowder in HIMALAYA and LA FIN DU MONDE; roasting chestnuts in CASTANA; the scented smokes of Killian’s triad ADDICTIVE STATE OF MIND.

* “King James 1 was an unpleasant man who was hated and distrusted by many people” – Ladybird History Books, 1967.