A Carpet of Flowers, A Carpet of Tears

 

A clever man on the wireless said that whether or not we are aware of it, sleeping or waking, we are smelling smells ALL the time. Continuously and continually, like animals. And we know how wild beasts are: from shrews & field mice to elephants & polar bears, they are in a perpetual state of agitated nervous tension. The olfactory sense is a constant nagging spur to survival. This past week I have been under a veritable bombardment of smells and thereby living on my nerves in consequence.

 

I saw a man mowing down a patch of huge purple violets. I had to ‘say something’: it was like watching a massacre. Well, it was a massacre. He laughed. He said, ‘I thought they were weeds’. But the strange and wonderful thing is, that within just a few days the musky perfumed carpet was all in bloom once more: violetta triumphans! Shy and dainty violets may be; but they are tough and dogged too. I thought of Napoleon Bonaparte and his adoption of violets as his emblem – the violets and the golden bees. I wondered whether the tiny Emperor¤ saw something of himself in the flowers: diminutive, but strong and irresistible, rising up from exile in Elba to throw Europe back into panic and terror.

 

I came back from church last Sunday still pleasantly be-fogged by incense from the thurifer which swung in great arcs over the congregation. I love the look of the perfumed blue clouds as much I do the smell. The scented smoke billows up into the vaulted arches, and wreathes around the gilded angels and painted gargoyles. The incense slowly invades dark corners of the building and steals into the soul. It cannot be kept out. It purifies, sanctifies, cleans and inspires. It lulls you; and it brisks you up.

 

So I walked up the road and the divine gave way to the mundane but comfortable. An echo of the respective roles of SS Mary and Martha who feature so much in the Christian liturgy just now. The woman of worshipful meditation: and her sister, cumbered with domestic industry. Here was the nostalgic savoury smell of Sunday lunches being brought to table. Quite a rare odour nowadays – roast beef or lamb¤¤, gravy and hot horseradish, mint sauce, fatty potatoes, boiled cabbage, smoking oil. All meshing and contrasting with the spring smells of the first lawn mowings, the chilly fresh air, the trumpeting garish daffodils. And of course, a bonfire – the acrid pungent combustion of winter rubbish, so different from the nostalgic smouldering of autumn leaves. A March bonfire sends you rushing out to get the clean laundry off the line and inside. Mrs Tiggy-Winkle goes mad.

 

Many years ago, of a sunny Sunday morning, I used to be wild for the taste and smell – besides the tonic effect – of Cinzano Bianco. The lust for Cinzano maybe grew in turn from infant experiences of my grandfather’s parlour. We used to toddle round after Sunday school. The house below the church has been demolished these past forty years, but in my memory I can still see the great drinks tray laid out with gin, “It”, Martini, Noilly Prat. The fumes of alcohol mingled with those of turps, oil paints and a damply sputtering log fire. When grandpapa had given a cocktail party he would go round afterwards and tip the dregs from all the glasses into one bottle, shake it up and save it for the next Sunday.

“Thrift, thrift Horatio!” – and with quite a kick.

 

Cinzano and Martini take their distinctive aroma from dozens of herbs and spices: “over sixty”, says one label. I guess it is that which makes these beverages smell and taste very like cheese and onion crisps. (Those same crisps they tell us that Mrs May has forsworn for Lent). What an intoxicating combination of contrasts and sharp savoury green & gold odours: the crunchy and the oleaginous; the salty and the unctuous.

 

Shall we end with another carpet, this time of roses? When I attended the recent Fragrance Foundation Jasmine Awards in Piccadilly, the specactacular flowers by Moyses Stevens were not the least of the attractions. A vast urn filled with roses and lilac towered over a table wrist-deep in exquisitely scented rose petals of every shade. I felt pleasantly similar to the flower-drowned victims of Heliogabalus.

 

Not to mention The Babes In The Wood:

 

“And Robin Redbreast Sorrowing

Covered them with – rose – leaves!”

 

¤ did you ever see Bonaparte’s satin shoes, in a glass case at Malmaison? A comfortable fit for a large cat or a hare, I thought.

¤¤ very lean nowadays. Joints look and taste totally different from the gory “marbled meats” of my youth. They look reconstructed, even “dumbed-down”. And do you remember roast mutton? (“Hand onion sauce and redcurrant jelly separately”). Gorgeous: despite the strong smell of wool.

 

…AND NOW:

 

I must enthusiastically and gratefully acknowledge every dear reader, customer and friend of Les Senteurs & of Lemon Wedge who has been so kind as to congratulate this old boy on his recent Jasmine Award.

 

I am so very touched and appreciative of all your warmth, kindness and generosity. THANK YOU, so much.

 

On the day of her Diamond Jubilee, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Princess Marie Louise said to the gallant aged Sovereign:

 

“O, grandmama! How proud you must be!”

 

To which the Queen-Empress replied,

 

“No, dear Child. Very humble”

 

I must confess to being both.

 

Thank you.

Love

James.

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“Are The Feets In?” – Garbo

Guy Bourdin

 

‘How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter!’¤

 

Lemon Wedge can’t help noticing what  a powerful visual role a person’s footwear plays in political and social characterisation. Mrs May’s kitten heels, Gandhi’s sandals, Fascist jackboots, Eva Peron’s armadillo court shoes, Harold Wilson’s Hush Puppies. Barefoot, we are all brought down to earth. Once shod, we step into character, and step out with assurance. There are captains of finance and industry who cut visitors down to size by demanding that they remove their shoes before entering penthouse offices. Remember Mad Men and the boss’s precious corporate carpet? And there’s a scene in ‘Old Acquaintance’ (1943) which a downright literary Bette Davis plays barefoot, and wearing a pyjama jacket. This seems brave for the era, even faintly shocking. Many an actor has claimed that finding the right shoe is vital for the definition of a role. As Louise Brooks once explained in that wonderful high swooping voice:

 

“Out of the character comes the movement; and out of the movement comes the dialogue…”

 

Did you happen to see all that fuss about Kellyanne Conway kneeling on a White House sofa without first kicking off her shoes ? I was fascinated by the vociferous volume of the Press reaction. I have always been repelled by the way that, in modern movies and soap operas, men and women throw themselves on couches and beds while still wearing their street shoes¤¤. You take a look at them clicking about in “East Enders”, bringing indoors all the muck and stink of London. No one says a thing. But poor old Kellyanne in the Oval Office really got it in the neck.

 

Why won’t folk automatically slip off their footwear when they come indoors in an expression of hygiene and courtesy? Some people no doubt resent losing height, poise and posture – but I suspect that the real reluctance is due to a worry that the feet may smell. This not only risks causing offence but also reveals the visitor’s true animal nature in a very uncompromising way. (Think of Red Riding Hood and that Wolf in the bed – “All the better to smell you with, my dear”). I wonder if the old Norse myth about the disastrous marriage of mountain goddess Skaoi and the hoary weird sea god Njoror references this fear. Skaoi had to choose her husband by his feet alone. She saw and smelled such a dazzling pair of flower-feet beneath a curtain that she could imagine them belonging only to Baldur the Beautiful, Master of the Sun.

 

But she got it so wrong.

 

We treat our feet cruelly. For three score years and ten we swaddle them in socks and tights. We jam them like hermit crabs into those curiously wrought shells and cases which we call shoes. I notice increasingly numbers of men tottering along Oxford Street as though their business shoes are far too tight. We teeter and balance our considerable height and weight upon our poor trotters for a lifetime. No wonder feet complain and weep tears of sweat.

 

You should pardon the expression if I mention the egregiously esoteric appeal of the bound lily feet of old China. Evidently it was not only the tiny size that had man-appeal. It was the odour of deformed bone-crushed feet that had been trussed up in bandages throughout the years of growth.

 

I was always told never to wear the same pair of shoes two days running; and to change them during the day. Keep a spare pair in the workplace for after lunch when the feet begin to swell. I remember the foot-baths at school; wouldn’t it be lovely to have them – or a foot spa – at the shop? It is a heavenly feeling to soak your feet – far more refreshing than dabbling your hands; more like bathing your face.

 

Right up until 1688 the Kings of England washed the feet of the deserving poor on Maundy Thursday. William III briskly abolished this custom and to date it has not been revived. There is much mention of the washing of feet in the Christian Gospels: it was a hospitable ritual offered to honoured guests and it became a metaphor for Christ’s Ministry: “The Master of All is the Servant of All”. This was a subject I remember very well being told off to draw at school and at Sunday classes. For example, at the supper at Bethany at the house of SS. Martha and Mary:

 

“Mary therefore took a pound of ointment of spikenard, very precious, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment……..Jesus therefore said, Suffer her to keep it against the day of my burying…”¤¤¤

 

Smells and perfumes: omnipotent, beautiful – but sometimes ominous.

 

¤ The Song of Solomon 7:1

¤¤ things were different in the old days. Remember Margaret Diamond taking off her pumps and placing them on the coffee table in ‘Victim’ (196I)? Then, of course, shoe removal on-screen often indicated some sort of covert sexual activity.

¤¤¤ S.John 12:3,7.

Crowning Glory

 

It’s spring in all but the official calendar. The rooks have returned. Both flora and fauna have begun to go wild with excitement. For the past week the air has felt milder, softer, full of energy. Even us olfactorily-challenged humans can perceive and smell delicate and wonderful new scents. So, what myriads of odours beyond our ken can be driving the natural kingdom crazy with the desire to bloom and procreate? A word of warning: this time of year can be very risky, exceedingly precarious. You may find yourself simultaneously galvanised and drained by spring fever. It’s fatally easy to overdo, as new tingling air powers you up and consequently sends you right over the top. And what comes up must infallibly come down.

 

The wonderful Iraqi Kurdish barbers who used to have a shop round the corner from me always said that at home everyone was bled in March, to drain all the corrupt and exhausted winter blood. We used to do the same in this country up to a couple of centuries ago. Should we keep some leeches in a jar downstairs at Les Senteurs? I feel that I at least could benefit from their action. Imagine the relief of drawing off all the stale air, darkness and fug of winter. It would be the corporeal equivalent of laundering one’s entire wardrobe – and the new blood would smell as sweet as a nut.

 

In spring, those old indoor smells which seemed so cosy in the frozen mid-winter now appear frowsty, drab and unclean like the miasma of a serially unmade and rumpled bed. I was rummaging around in Oxfam the other day and I found this gaudy – but very pretty – little tin box all stuck about with pink and violet sequins. When I lifted the lid, it was to find the box stuffed full of human hair. I was absolutely repelled. Such an intrusion of mortality it was, somehow; so intimate and inappropriate on a breezy fresh morning. I cannot tell whether I really smelled oil and sebum or whether it was the power of imagination; but I clapped on the glittering lid like lightning, made an excuse and left the store.

 

I remember the late Elizabeth Jane Howard comparing the odour of a greasy unwashed scurfy head to that of cheap raspberry jam. Both my grandmothers had cut glass pots with silver lids all over their dressing tables. All their contemporaries did. When the ladies had brushed their hair they would pull out the combings from the bristles and stuff them into a pot. This nosey little boy was told that this operation was for the benefit of the birds: to provide them with warm silky linings for their nests. No doubt by the 1950’s this was so. I have since read, however, that in the days when every woman had (infrequently washed) hair to her waist, the combings were collected to be eventually woven into false fronts, falls and the like. These would augment those elaborate nineteenth century coiffures – and of course match their owners’ hair colour and texture perfectly.

 

In our own day of wash-and-go thrice-daily showering all this can seem a bit grubby. Hair can smell quite wonderful – and erotic, too. But we’ve come to think that hair – like everything else to do with our persons and our daily routines – needs always to be squeaky clean to be found attractive. A less than pristine smell nowadays is evidence of the loathly Beast in Man. Especially hair, which is all too akin to fur and the growth of which is therefore encouraged only upon the human head.  Maybe this is why – in the niche sector at least – “dirty” animalic perfumes are currently so perversely popular. It’s a natural reaction to all the disinfecting. Les Senteurs customers go mad for MUSC TONKIN, SALOME and the more advanced and spectacular ouds in our collect.

 

For the less uninhibited, we have some gorgeous hair products to tempt you. Girls who model themselves on Snow White and Rose Red should try the following delectable duo. CARNAL FLOWER Hair Mist creates the illusion that you are crowned with invisible tuberoses. The spicy rosy raptures of PORTRAIT OF A LADY are now available in an oil for both body and hair. And all those who long to lay their weary heads on a pillow of rose buds should invest in a flacon of DANS MON LIT linen spray.

 

In her later years my grandmother produced a curious little rose gold ring which had belonged to her own mother. It looked like a decayed tooth, really – a fragment of shadowy convex glass surrounded by black and crumbling seed pearls. It was worn almost to pieces. It was said to contain human hair, presumably that of my four great aunts and uncles who had died in infancy. My mother had a horror of the thing: she said it was extremely unlucky to preserve hair. I have the ring still. Sometimes I wonder – if it should finally crack from side to side and the web fly wide – just what smells from 150 years ago would emerge…

Imitation of Life

 

I have been brought a wonderful gift from the other side of the world. A dear friend has been vacationing in Grenada, one of the Lesser Antilles, the Windward Islands that fall like a shower of shooting stars into the western Caribbean. On the map, Grenada is one of a string of jewels that form a crescent moon sparkling in the sea between Puerto Rico and South America.

 

And my present is gem-like too. It is a lei or necklace made of the principal wealth of Grenada: sweet-smelling spices. My garland is about 36″ long and structured with seeds, tiny gourds and a few scarlet beads strung on thread. But the principal glory of the necklace lies in its scent. Between the beads, as on a rosary, are strung larger ornaments: dried spices, cut and shaped like weird precious stones. Gnarled pebbles of root ginger, cloves like tiny fingers of black coral, bay leaves folded in the shape of fairy envelopes. There are pieces of cinnamon and whole nutmegs dabbed and daubed with painted raindrops. There are bits of pimento and sweety-buttery tonka and little twisty whirls which I have yet to identify. Possibly they are the arils of nutmeg which, when dried, become golden mace.

 

The magic of the thing…the perfume! The concept is so simple: the effect is so stunning. As I write I have the necklace hanging by my bed. It could be worn round the neck, but it is fragile. I might wear it on summer evenings to come, while sitting quiet and still in the garden. I’m thinking it would permeate my clothes, as it has the green and white cotton bag in which it travelled back to London. For now the string of treasures is suspended where it can catch the nearly-spring breeze from the window and boost my sleep hygiene.

 

The whole room is now gently but emphatically suffused by a sweet warm fragrance which seems to be gradually and deliciously invading the entire house. I am told that, as and when the spices start to fade, their scent can be revived by spraying them with a little warm water as one does with pot pourri.(Or I do, at any rate: it seems to work).

 

I wonder for how many centuries these wonderful necklaces have been made. For ever, I guess. In the West, too, we know that hollow or porous beads have often been used as perfume vehicles. Women in the ancient world filled clay beads with scent and hung them in their hair or their ears; or stitched them to their clothing. Marie Stuart went to the scaffold wearing a golden perforated rosary stuffed with ambergris: the odour of the sanctity of Catholic martyrdom.

 

Les Senteurs is filled with ‘les oiseaux des îles’: a flight of exotic fragrances that are inspired by various islands. They combine two contradictory yet complementary kinds of magic – a world in miniature surrounded by (usually) warm seas, plus an olfactory experience without limits.

 

“As on our shelves your beauteous eyes you bend”¤, your nose will whisk you off to Capri, the Virgin Islands, Corsica, Île Poupre, Sicily, the Seychelles and Jamaica. Revel in our stock of chypre perfumes, all paying homage to Cyprus the birthplace of Aphrodite. The goddess of love and desire was born from the waves of the Mediterranean and blown ashore at Cyprus in an aura of roses and spice.

 

“No man is an island”. Our entwined scents bring us all together in harmony. Further bonding may be achieved by a generous tot of aromatic Spiced Gold Rum – “a smooth warm spirit with rounded flavours of vanilla”. It tastes just the same as my necklace smells.

 

Cheers!

¤ with apologies to Susan M. Coolidge

Making An Impression

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Last week I talked about those who wear scent in the hope of earning a compliment. Since then I’ve been thinking about the application of perfume in order to make one’s mark; not quite the same thing, though sometimes the two conditions may coincide.

Years ago there used to be seen around Town a spry little old lady who habitually wore a large grey hat, shaped, coloured and textured like a mushroom. In the shade of its wide felt brim her deep-set eyes were shadowed in brilliant malachite green. It was she who told me that visitors found their way to her door merely by following the heavy trail of Shalimar across the city plains of cement. Another exotic, whose hair sprang from her head like a fountain, soaked herself and her furniture in Woods of Windsor’s Wild Orchid. Neither of these women sought compliments on their fragrance: but they used perfume to state their presence and to demand recognition. Not to define themselves, exactly; they were both very emphatic personalities. But perhaps scent was needed to bolster their confidence and even to provide company in a solitary existence. As someone said to me once of a cigarette, a bottle of perfume can be a little friend. (“You’re Never Alone With A Strand!”).

Both sexes will usually admit that they are not at all averse to compliments on their fragrance: any praise comes as a massive bonus to their own private enjoyment. But men and women approach this quest from a different viewpoint.

In the animal world, it is the male who marks his territory and defines his dominion by use of his bodily oils and secretions. His consequent and evident strength attracts a mate. The female uses her odour to allure this powerful partner. So when a man demands he be praised for his fragrance, is it actually an acknowledgement of his power, intellect and virility that he is seeking? A woman on the other hand wants simply to be loved for herself and for her delicious aura.

After a lapse of almost two centuries modern men can’t seem get enough of perfume. Here’s a neat little paradox: nineteenth century males played down scent for fear of seeming effeminate¤. The man of today, “en revers”, emphasises his masculinity and beefs it up by wearing an appropriate fragrance, just as his warrior ancestors did 3,000 years ago. It was men after all who began the whole culture of scent, right back at the dawn of civilization.

So are we to think that men now demand more perfume for themselves because of a current crisis in male confidence ? Could well be. Nearly 90 years ago a very comical little book came out¤¤ which described ‘A Wave of Beards’ settling over Europe in Elizabethan times. Presently the fashion died out and for at least 200 years Western men were clean-shaven. And then – significantly in the long emotional reign of Victoria – back the beard came, much heavier and thicker than before. And look at us now. Elizabeth II has celebrated her Emerald Jubilee and never was there such a wave of facial hair among her subjects. Same like the scent.

“Our sense of smell evolved in a very rich landscape” says Dr Kara Hoover, a professor of olfactory evolution¤¤¤. This global landscape is now spoiled by pollution of every kind which is in turn damaging our sense of smell. If we are all truly wild and bestial at heart, you can see how, in turn, this corruption of our most instinctive and basic animal sense can probably affect our gender identity too.

As our own dear Queen so often says
“It’s interesting, isn’t it!”

¤ but originally the word effeminate had a quite different meaning, describing the kind of men who ingratiated themselves with women the better to seduce them.

¤¤ ‘1066 and All That’ by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman:1930

¤¤¤ as reported in The Times last week.