A Pop-Up/ All-In /Family-Friendly Christmas ….. and the hens laid Brexit eggs!

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“Si jeunesse savait; si veillesse pouvait”. Some of my younger readers may never have tasted – nor yet smelled – an icicle. In the old days you broke them off from a low roof or drainpipe, and licked them gingerly. They took their metallic mineralic redolence from tiles, slates, brickwork and tarred felting. They were full of tang. Sometimes a dead leaf or blades of grass would be embedded in the ice. Do you remember people trying to make snow-filled pancakes, as mentioned on the wireless just the other day. There were squeaks of disbelief in the studio, but I certainly recall rumours of this exotic and rather romantic recipe, though it was never put into practice at ours. Neither did we see dishes of snow topped with cream: surely this is an American idea?

I remember the icicles because they represent the incarnation of so many Christmas Eves. The snow usually came a little later, for New Year. The 24th December was all about the smell of water, rain, dampness, ice. This old ghost of Christmas Past looks back over the decades and sees our kitchen in the twilight. The mopped-out floor is covered in fluttering newspapers marked with gum-boots, paw prints and little kids’ feet. The back door is banging in gusts of unseasonably stuffy wind. The sink is full of my father’s ice trays, and the melting frozen peas forgotten by a neighbour who’d called for a mid-afternoon gin¤. We are waiting for the turkey.

Our flightless bird used to be delivered at the very last minute, usually on Christmas Eve night, when a certain anxiety might well be setting in. A florid old man would come round around eight o’clock, half-blotto – demanding more whisky: and he’d sling the bird on the kitchen table. So then my dad had to sort it out. The smells of turkey preparation from the feathered stage are enough to put you off for life. Also, in those days, there was a lot of controversy about the stuffing. The preliminaries involved great scrubbings-out, and then prolonged sniffings, of the cavity. Was everything sufficiently clean and sweet? (Nowadays many people go in for turkey “crowns” – a cropped, trimmed & sanitised format – and no wonder)¤¤.

Christmas morning came round all too soon: time for the full ritual of turkey worship to begin with the lighting of the oven. After which the phantasmagoria of Christmas smells went crackers : “open that window!”

New Year’s Eve we had beef.

Of course, we had a few words of warning from those ubiquitous seasonal surveys this past week¤¤¤. When choosing your New Year champagne, go for a brand that offers bigger bubbles. I tend to keep off the champagne; it’s too acid for my tum. But now it appears that larger bubbles – once considered vulgar – produce a finer scent and therefore a superior flavour. The findings of another scientist-gang suggest that a fragrantly frugal champagne breakfast is, after all, likely to do more you good than oats, fruit and eggs. Defying the conventions of centuries, dieticians now propose that fasting from supper right through to next day’s lunch is the way forward to perfect health. No more savoury smells of The Full English (“served all day”). I haven’t eaten a regular breakfast since the 1970’s so I ought to be as fit as a buck.

“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the cold, cold tomb”

My mother used to say they sang this in the air raid shelter. But even in church today we note some diminution of traditional smells. The verse above has been “adjusted” in some modern hymn books. The Three Kings are apparently more likely to have brought “incense” than the more specific frankincense. For myself this refinement of translation comes too late for me: I’m leaving my nose be and keeping to the old ways.

On behalf of L.W. and of everyone at Les Senteurs may I now wish you the Happiest, Most Peaceful and Prosperous of New Years? And, Thank You All!

¤ “two rounds of the best hot gin punch” is what Cratchit children drink in the 1951 British movie ‘Scrooge’.

¤¤ but my Canadian cousin now writes to me of her sister-in-law’s bird:

“…listen to this!… She put it in the oven FROZEN and PRESTUFFED – and only had to roast for 6 hours…!??  From FROZEN?!?!” It turned out perfect!”.

¤¤¤ , only the other day, a MORI pollster came round the village just after dark. No one would admit him.

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Compliments Of The Season

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Last week began with Gaudete Sunday, the mid-Sunday of Advent when, as our vicar said, we give thanks for having made it half-way to Christmas. I am ashamed to say that this festival of progression was a new one to me. Mind you, I have got to the stage when I might just have forgotten about it. I was struck by the roses-in-the-snow motif – that timeless emblem of hope; and a recurring theme of folk and fairy tale. About her neck the vicar wore a deep dusky pink stole – a stylised damask garland of the Mystic Flower. Roses represent such a complex kaleidoscope of symbols – everything from perpetual immaculate virginity to raging passion. No wonder every perfumer wants to have a least one crack at a rose fragrance.

I can think of nothing more delicious and festive than the gift of perfume. This year I have received one such already. It’s lovely! I was warming a bowl of soup at noon. There was a terrific double knock at the door like the arrival of Marley’s ghost: and there stood a special postie carrying the most perfect cardboard box you ever saw – it was all stuffed with golden paper and in the depths of all the gleam and glitter was a heavenly little bottle. You know, at Les Senteurs when someone purchases scent as a present, we always offer an accompanying sample so that the recipient can try the fragrance from the phial first, in case the gift doesn’t suit. But personally I am so touched by the thought that a kind friend has chosen me something, that I am invariably disposed to be crackers about the incoming perfume.

Also, I am rarely given scent because, of course, people think, “look at him, surrounded by hundreds of the world’s most glorious scents! Why should he want another one?” But life works the other way about. I remember years ago at work we were looking for a leaving gift for a dressy lady, and I voted strongly for a thick silk twill scarf. My mates all cried out, ‘But, no! Joycie already has hundreds of scarves” – and I said, “so evidently they must be her favourite thing!” Fragrance lovers will always be panting for the next one, that I can assure you. Impossible to overdo it.

The University of Prague has produced a survey. They did this test, and they found that if you want to choose the perfect scent for a man – I mean, as a Christmas surprise – then bring along his sister and ask her to pick it out. “The reason may be that brothers and sisters smell the same”; and “that sisters prefer odours that match products of their own genes”¤. For, to really work, a fragrance should compliment the natural odour of one’s own skin. I think we all know that by now. We’re chasing  the beautiful phenomenon whereby a scent seems to bloom on the skin, coming apparently not from the bottle but from the very pores of the wearer. A million molecules of body and perfume blending exquisitely in one perfect reaction.

Reading this newspaper report caused me to think about the fragrances I’ve worn over the years that have provoked a reaction: the rare and much-desired audible, vocal reaction I mean. I can’t answer for what secret thoughts have gone on in people’s heads, thank goodness. A kind friend once told me I should be “very careful” in what I wear, and I appreciated that. It’s sage advice that has resonated down the years.

It’s evidently the oriental tribe that work best for me. The warmest compliments I’ve had in years have been for Malle’s MONSIEUR. (mobbed in the library – and at the butcher’s): and Tauer’s INCENSE EXTREME – solicited in the street. Most gratifying. I remember from thirty years ago the “oooh’s” and “aah’s” in a train carriage on a foggy damp New Year’s Day. These gasps were apparently prompted by a spray of Shalimar – in the eau de toilette concentration. There were those more ambiguous squeaks at the National Gallery indicating strong reactions to that very intense rose-coloured Joop! And – a Warning To The Curious – unmistakable sounds of disapprobation in the stalls during a cinema showing of ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, indicating that I’d sadly overdone Chanel’s Coco.

But, what the hell? Any kind of reaction brings a perfume to life, and slightly too much scent is always preferable to rather too little. Otherwise, what is the point?

Wishing You All a Very Merry and Joyous Christmas filled with Sweet Smells and Happy Thoughts.

¤ see The Times Tuesday 13/12/16; report by Tom Whipple on p.3.

Light Of My Life

Gerhard Richter, Two Candles, Oil on canvas, 1983

Gerhard Richter, Two Candles, Oil on canvas, 1983

When I was a tot, I lived in and by the historical biographies of R. J. Unstead: “People In History”. One of many favourite lives was that of the penal reformer Elizabeth Fry: that enthrallingly vivid detail of the young Fry – to the scandal of Norwich – sporting purple boots with scarlet laces. And then her first visit to Newgate, seeing the windmill on the roof of the prison – “to draw off the evil air”, the supposed cause of gaol fever.

At this time of year I freshen the air around the home with abundant scented candles. There’s something about igniting a flame – some principle of physics, I mean – that in itself clears the air. Just observe the effect of striking a match. But, in mid-winter, with the windows so often closed, the stove bubbling and the sun at its lowest, a perfumed candle is a benefit rich in pleasantly practical symbolism.

December 13th is the Feast of St Lucy when the Church – especially in dark Sweden – celebrates the patron of light and clear vision. The Saint descends, crowned with flames. For all of us, a glowing candle signifies comfort, hope, romance, a wish made or a desire fulfilled: a candle flame shines out like a good deed in a naughty world.

About the house I now have two elegantly snug Frederic Malle candles: SANTAL CARDAMOME and the bookishly leathery CHEZ MONSIEUR. In the dusk of late afternoon their scarlet glasses glow like ardent hearts or arctic sunsets. To echo the scent of potted bulbs I’ve got Robbie Honey’s beautiful spicy lily CASA BLANCA set in its suede-textured pearl grey glass; and Tom Daxon’s exquisite WHITE NARCISSUS. I kindle Cloon Keen’s neroli candle SPANISH ARCH to clear my mind and calm me down after too much gift wrapping. Because it’s odd: I enjoy performing ’emballage de luxe’ at the shop, but when I’m at home, in a frazzle over Christmas presents, wrapping drives me absolutely up the wall. I get sharp shooting pains in my head. Apparently, when the late Prince of Wales first met Mrs Simpson he started moaning to her over the cocktail chit-chat about this very thing; and she said, “Oh Sir! That is something I would be very happy to do for you.” And – do you know? – he was dotty about her from that very minute. How well I can understand that.

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My neighbour is having her kitchen painted. She is being very prudent about sealing up all her foodstuffs while the decorators are in. Because, years ago, she had a nasty experience. The ground floor was done out with eggshell emulsion and the pungent smell of the paint got into all the food. It was so bad that for days afterwards she and her family were tasting eggshell emulsion in everything they ate; even to  it after meals. The penetrating reek of paint¤ – like that of petrol – is what they call a ‘Marmite’ polarising experience. It makes me feel slightly sick; though modern paint is much more diminuendo in its aroma. I used to work with a woman who had to go home when the office was being redecorated: her chest played up something shocking, not to mention her nose and eyes. Mind you there was something very wrong with that office: my eyes stung and watered continually for four years. Possibly it had to do with fumes arising from the packed files of old newsprint: no computers, then.

When I was very small – three or four years old –  I got all my senses confused during a period of home improvement. (Some might say my wits have never recovered). Our own kitchen was being spruced up and a new table introduced. This table was covered with a smooth formica. It was bright yellow, lightly freckled in white, very similar to the many dishes of scrambled egg served upon it. I remember having the smell of the paint, the furniture and the eggs all muddled together in my head. I often wonder whether – much as I love them – that is why I rarely eat scrambled eggs, even today without feeling ever so faintly nauseated.

Going back to the idea of filtering the air. During the summer I bought a sheet of poppy-patterned stamps. As I left the post office – gawping at the pictures – a gust of wind tore the paper from my hand and into a thick and closely trimmed privet hedge. Like the Prince in Sleeping Beauty I boldly tunnelled into the foliage: it was SO thick; so dense and so filled with muck and filth and dust and grime. I retrieved my stamps but I had to go home and change from the skin out. Now – and how satisfyingly! – I learn that the Victorians planted privet for this very reason. As well as having sweet-smelling white blossoms, the good privet acts as a natural filter for all the pollution of the streets, trapping dirt in its depths and doing its brave bit to clean the air.

A privet candle would seem to be the next big thing: so many memories trapped among the twigs.

¤ I have remarked before on this page how Sherlock Holmes deduces that the smell of fresh green paint is being used as a red herring to disguise the stink of murder. (See: The Adventure of the Retired Colourman in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, 1927. ‘ “Pooh! What an awful smell of paint!” cried the Inspector.’)

“Goodnight, Irene”

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“I sleep only in two drops of French perfume…”. It’s Anita Ekberg guying herself in La Dolce Vita but – as a certain great lady of today would say in sonorous swooping tones – “remind you of anybody?” Obviously, here’s a reference to Marilyn and her preferred nightwear of Chanel No 5. Or maybe MM adopted the line from Anita and polished it up? And does anyone yet know, by the way, what Mrs May wears to set off her leather trousers and kitten heels? I always understood that Margaret Thatcher made a slave of Rochas’ Femme, that most gorgeous and assured of peachy chypres. Mae West’s perfume, too. Surely not without significance? ” The eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe”.

A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that we might return and take a second inhalation of old Hollywood smells. Back in the last century when perfume was still so great and arcane a luxury, it was a popular idea for studio photographers to snap the great female stars posing with their collections of perfumes and scent bottles. It always frets me a little when I look at these old portraits. There are never any sign of the packaging, and the perfumes are already evaporating and fading (I think to myself) under the glare of the savage klieg lights: those all-revealing bulbs which are as cruel to fragrance as they are to waning beauty.

There’s a stimulating sequence in the Joan Crawford silent OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS (1928) where, robed and ready for a wild party, the hedonist heroine ‘Dangerous Diana’ peeks into her mother’s perfume closet. It’s a huge and slightly sinister Art Deco marvel by art designer Cedric Gibbons, built like a medieval tomb, or perhaps a gigantic reliquary. Shadowy and rather grotesque bottles repose within, like Dr Praetorious’s laboratory specimens. The mother seems a gracious, possibly slightly dowdy, woman who looks to appreciate her treasures more than she might successfully wear them. Joan seizes an especially elaborate flacon and unstops it.

Up flashes the title:

“Mother- how vicious!  You’re too young to use such perfume. I’ll take it.”

Presumably the Gibbons cabinet made a big impression on the young Joan, for over 40 years later Crawford ran a photo of her own vitrine in her unique guide to gracious living¤. The focus is not sharp enough to identify the stock within but we may fancy there’s maybe a bottle of Fracas there. Which would accord perfectly with Joan’s earlier penchant for tuberose-gardenia fragrances.

There’s a sharp little scent sequence in the British wartime propaganda classic MILLIONS LIKE US. I’ve written about this film before; but, until my latest viewing, I’d missed the bit with Anne Crawford’s perfume atomiser. These old films are always meticulously busy; there’s masses going on in each shot; lots of background detail. Consequently it’s easy to get distracted. The bonus is, you find something new in the mixture every time¤¤.  Crawford’s character Jennifer is a rich, spoiled and pointless¤¤¤ Society girl who is reluctantly drafted into munitions. On her first evening at the Carton Heath workers’ hostel she’s dolling herself for bed as though off to a ball, much to the bafflement of her room mate Annie, a stolid and sunny Lancashire mill girl. We begin to notice the most unsuitably enormous and elaborate perfume flacon looming up on Jennifer’s dressing table. This is suddenly brought into sharp focus in her looking glass. And then, of course, we remember those essential motifs of movie short-hand. Objects seen in a mirror – the true character revealed; the other self, its obsessions and preoccupations.  Here’s an economical symbol of an empty-headed blonde – “War Effort’s caught it in the neck again…” – who’s fiddled her coupons, “stocked up before war broke out” and puts cosmetics before country. Was ever a perfume spray such a damning indictment of character?

Cary Grant – who’d worked with nearly all the greats – said in later life that of his leading ladies Irene Dunne smelled the sweetest¤¤¤¤. By then Cary was on the board of Faberge Cosmetics and Perfumes, so he’d gained an educated nose: he knew whereof he spoke. He recalled Irene sitting there between takes, playing with her collection of scents and oils; layering and blending and mixing to devastating effect. She was a Southern girl from Kentucky, and delicately reared: she knew about the pleasures of killing time slowly, elegantly and deliciously.

Perfume aside, if you’ve never seen Irene Dunne on the screen then why not make her acquaintance in your Christmas leisure time? Slightly older than most of her Hollywood contemporaries*, she was expert in drama and weepies; she sang like a nightingale; as a comedienne she was peerless. She delivered her lines with a wonderful freshness, as though she was inventing her witty dialogue as she went along. She had a way of setting her teeth while laughing knowingly and throatily. Irene Dunne had – appropriately – a beautiful nose; a classic profile; perfect legs; and was always wonderfully shod. While every inch a lady she could be exceedingly suggestive in the most sophisticated manner. To give only one instance, watch the flirtation (that goes so wrong) with the shoe shop salesman in MY FAVOURITE WIFE – “I’ve been running around without my shoes on for quite some time…..kind of running wild….”

And then comes that laugh.

All this – and she smelled like a flower garden, too.

¤ ‘Portrait of Joan’ 1972.

¤¤ rather like wearing your favourite scent.

¤¤¤ but don’t have a fit, she comes right in the end, and – it is implied – marries plain-speaking factory foreman Charlie (Eric Portman)

¤¤¤¤ quite a claim – seeing as how C.G. had played opposite both Hepburns, Mae West, Dietrich, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Ingrid, Rita, Grace Kelly, Ginger Rogers and Leslie Caron – amongst others.

* 1898 – 1990