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.
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.’)