New Worlds to Conquer: HOMOELEGANS and others…

 

What about that heat, then? How did it affect you? In some ways it did me a lot of good – I was away from the shop and so able to surrender totally to the mercury, and relax. The intensity and ferocity of the sun put paid to my doing anything; even to the extent of shutting down my brain. It was impossible to worry or even to think very much. Delightful. I turned back to some novels of my youth and “lay on the lounge”, behind drawn curtains, like Elsie in What Katy Did. I also sprayed myself ad lib with alternate scents from the Liquides Imaginaires range: namely the dreamy floaty Roman bath experience of Tumultu and the duskier sweet desires of Fortis. Something about them suited the atmosphere of hypocaust very well.

And I re-read The Good Earth, that seismic best-seller of the 1930’s by the great but now almost forgotten Pearl S. Buck. She writes in stately rhythm, like an Old Testament prophet or a spinner of immemorial fairy tales. The Good Earth is an often horrific story of old rural China  – a real eye-opener. Mrs. Buck had been reared in Asia and she knew the score. (Incidentally, the actress Luise Rainer, who won an Oscar in 1938 for her portrayal of the long suffering drudge O-Lan in the MGM film treatment, was a great friend and loyal customer of Les Senteurs). Pearl Buck reminds us that perfume in the China of more than a century ago was an art, a luxury and a seduction. We read much of hair combed through with oil of sandalwood; frequent scented baths and powderings; ‘the perfuming of the eight orifices’; and the luscious aroma of Eight Jewel Rice when brought steaming to table.

(And Mrs. Buck also reminds us of a fragrance tip I’ve often mentioned to you. Be sure to perfume the palms of your hands).

I am always fascinated by the way writers and other creative artists approach perfume, odours and the sense of smell. I’m intrigued by how they celebrate the olfactory mystery, weaving it willy-nilly into various aspects of their creations. So naturally when Les Senteurs invited the sensational Italian brand HOMOELEGANS into the fold I was mightily intrigued and beguiled.

The first three scents in the HOMOELEGANS sequence – the trio we have right now in the shop – are inspired by the complex personalities and creations of three eccentric and tricky twentieth-century individuals. Namely, Thomas Mann, Francis Bacon and Frida Kahlo – two painters, one writer. Quite a handful!

I’ve written about Mann in this column before. His first great novel Buddenbrooks was published in 1904 – and was a huge best-seller in Germany for thirty years until the Hitler regime burned it. In this immense family saga, the sensual smells of good food and sleek grooming take their place in the repetitive rhythms, small hypnotic pleasures and joyous monotony of daily life. HOMOELEGANS approaches Mann via his much later work, Death In Venice: the stifling emotional atmospherics of the Lido; the fatal entrapment of the Lagoon.

Then, Frida Kahlo and Bacon. Francis Bacon’s paintings make me very sick: the very carnality of them reeks. He sees the Beast in us all and reveals it without mercy. I was advised to keep away from that bio-pic ‘Love Is the Devil’, and I heeded warning. Our English master at school used to tell us that Bacon’s pictures looked and smelled like reportage of slaughter houses. And those Popes! Velasquez was quite upsetting enough without Bacon imposing his own peculiar vision.

Much of Kahlo is bizarrely lovely: vivid, weird and mesmerising. The parrots and monkeys and hummingbirds; the surreal humour of “What I Saw In The Bath”; and Frida’s chthonic pre-Columbian fantasies. But she’s not exactly reassuring – and what about works such as “A Few Small Nips”? Very difficult to send to anyone when included in post-card collections. If you put the card inside an envelope – and the subject matter requires that decency – it seems even worse. As though one is a certain covert understanding with the recipient.

Anyone who is loves the enigma of perfumery will recognise that these three artists offer limited scope for a revolutionary approach to fragrance. Consider the way in which the mainstream media approaches scent. You’ll then appreciate how esoteric and even alien a subject perfume still is to many people. Only the other day a wireless presenter remarked on how difficult it is to talk about scent on air. I thought, now why do you say that? To me radio presentations and perfume have a lot in common: both are unseen, and their appeal lies principally in the magic of one’s own imagination.

So don’t take my word for it but come by and try these new beauties on our shelves. They are quite, quite extraordinary. And – as you would expect – headstrong,  ambisexual, wayward, even slightly perverse. There is an extreme ingenuity and subtlety in the way in which the perfumers have used three very disparate and complex characters & themes to create new life, energy and beauty. Art generating art; artifice breeding artifice.

But if that suggests something sterile and contrived then I am greatly misleading you. One of the key aspects of these three perfumes is their forceful impact; their visceral vivacity and vigour; their originality. All the elements that enthrall and disturb in the works of Kahlo, Mann and Bacon are evoked in the scents. A cruel beauty, a beautiful cruelty; fleshy textures and fleshly desire; colour; self-indulgence; pride; confidence and terror.

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The Poisoned Chalice

 

A charming young person wrote to me recently to ask for my views on
Poison, that succès de scandale created  by Edouard Flechier¤ for Dior in 1985. How unorthodox was Poison really, in its own time? That was my student’s question.

Well, 32 years ago it was highly unusual. Half-crazed. Kind of running wild. Nowadays, however, Poison has no end of competition. Just think – for instance – of Etat Libre d’Orange’s Sécrétions Magnifiques* with all its sour and sick bodily fluids. Even that has mellowed with the years, to the extent of sometimes being described as an aquatic floral, cool and fresh.

We have become hard to outrage. Schiaparelli’s Shocking wouldn’t cut much ice nowadays. And indeed Yves St Laurent’s provocative Opium (1977) had predated Poison by eight years. Now that perfume really did raise Cain, what with the concomitant controversial adverts and the insistent connotations of drugs and degradation. Before then, perfumes were given pretty names – or risque, naughty, sexy names. ‘Poison’ and ‘Opium’ were seen as very strange: as deliberately and offensively egregious. Of course that was the intention and the whole point. The subsequent publicity was immense. Like Giorgio, these were perfumes everyone TALKED about, at the water-cooler and elsewhere: perfumes it became the fashion to loathe.

No doubt the colours of the Poison packaging – the pantomime-evil green and purple – plus the name had a great deal to do with Dior’s runaway success. As I wrote back to my young friend: “You perhaps can’t imagine how shocked and baffled people were back then. We were still very innocent.”

Folk said wonderingly, “O! How could they call a perfume that? Poison, indeed! Perfume should be a beautiful thing…. And Dior, too, of all Houses, so chic and elegant! This scent must SMELL awful to be given a name so wicked.”

And they went on and on like this, whipping themselves up, and daring each other to sniff Poison; to try it, even.

The name was so diabolically clever. It preyed on all sorts of deep but rather dreadful ancient prejudices drawn from  legendary horrors, fairy tales and infamous crimes. Poison: always the coward’s weapon, the woman’s weapon. The tool of the foreigner, the outsider, the witch and the jealous rival. Medea, Snow White’s stepmother, Anne Boleyn, Agrippina, Livia, Madeleine Smith, Dr Pritchard, William Palmer,  Mme de Brinvilliers, Crippen. Horrible people who instead of calling out their adversaries for an honest fight doomed them to an agonising death: betraying their victims while feigning care and  nurture. “A buttered scone? Excuse fingers!” – remember Major Armstrong of Hay-on-Wye?

Yes. It was quite a scenario!

I thought in 1985 that Poison was horrible – too visceral, too dirty, a smell of rot. Now I still don’t like it but I can see that the formula is daring and venturesome and what we used to call “amusing” – that basic blend of tuberose (the eternal ancient florid aphrodisiac that has always had a reputation for boldness and sex) and red chilli pepper (ditto). Flagrant, if you like.

I do go back from time to time and try Poison. I’m much older – I still don’t like Poison but I can admire its nerve somewhat. It’s a small child in all of us who loves to shock. For to shock is to be getting all the attention.

But is Poison sexy? Is it voluptuous? Is it – as the judge said – fragrant? I think it misses, if only by a whisker. It tries too hard. It’s probably changed somewhat too – same as I have. Few perfumes stay exactly the same over 32 years.

Nowadays perfume is taken very seriously by the consumer – this was not so, back then. Allergies had not been invented; ingredients had not been purged by European committee; money went so much further. Scent came in small sizes, too, so you could buy all the time without being left short. If you fancied a fragrance – if it seemed fun – “amusingly vulgar, delightfully common” – you bought it, wore it, and chucked it. Scent was full-blooded, hot-blooded. It was much more heedless, more animal, more instinctive.

And yet….and yet…..Like those tiny mammals creeping around in the undergrowth while dinosaurs ruled the earth: even while Poison and its confreres were at their zenith the early niche/artisan/artistic scents were evolving. Annick Goutal, L’Artisan Parfumeur and Diptyque were tunnelling like moles under the great Power Perfume edifice. Like so many great ancient empires, those magnificently unhinged power perfumes were rotting even at their apogee.

*currently on show at the exhibition Perfume at Somerset House

¤ we at Les Senteurs know Msr Flechier best for his two sublime creations for. FM – Une Rose and Lys Méditerranée.

¤¤ Tuberose is wild, vegetal, animalic and unhinged enough already without mixing it with the sweet hot chilli succulence. Chilli seemed to many to be a spanking new innovative ingredient but in fact had been given a run-around in the early 1950’s by Caron, in the notorious Poivre.

Riders of the Purple Sage

 

Another strange week! These cheating winds. The blustery gusts of change, all right. Hands up anyone who reflected upon the Dutch Wind of 1688.
Or on Queen Elizabeth’s Armada medal – “God blew with His winds and they were scattered.”

When I Iast left you, I was walking down a long road, following the trail of a strange and lovely smell entwined in the elderflower hedgerows and the early summer grasses. The fragrance was sweet, fruity and faintly powdery. A dear friend has just returned from China after a spell in Guilin, ‘the Forest of Sweet Osmanthus’. Being always suggestible, I entertained the notion briefly that a Tree of Heaven had spontaneously rooted itself and flowered by a Leicester B-road.

It hadn’t, of course. I reached the ‘bus shelter and the odour was suddenly overpowering; and not quite as entrancing. There was a flash of chrome yellow and hyacinth blue on the pavement. But it wasn’t a macaw feather. It was a funny little tree, cut out of cardboard. Not a Money Tree, of which we have heard so much lately; but a Magic Tree, with a blue thread loop attached – a “Pina Colada” room fragrance. I hadn’t seen one of these Trees for years, not close up. I view them from afar though, hanging in cars. I suppose someone had flung the Tree from a passing vehicle, overwhelmed by the smell.

Because, from the look of it, the Tree had lain there for days in the wind and rain¤, but it was still belting out a mighty redolence of synthetic pineapple, rum and coconut together with an eerie hint of Parmesan cheese. I wrapped the novelty up in a plastic bag and took it home to wipe, wash and study: “I do it for you. For nobody else!” It’s now in the back passage, wildly scenting the utility room and usual offices. My word, it’s pungent and seemingly indestructible. I  don’t think I shall keep it for ever, but I am confident that it will keep pumping out perfume to the end of time. Remarkable what can now be achieved in the laboratory.

Well, then I had a letter from a friend who had been spiritually cleansing his house with sage. I was absolutely fascinated. Apparently this ritual removes all negative energies and generally refreshes and purifies your own sacred space. I looked up the whole business on Google: there are masses of ads for things called “smudge sticks”. These seem to be little bundles of dried herbs which you burn and wave about. (Lots of Health and Safety warnings regarding flushing them down the loo after use). I have no money to squander on smudge sticks but I was determined to have a go. There’s plenty of sage in the garden: I dried some leaves on the Aga overnight and kindled them while I brewed the morning tea.

They took light like tissue paper! I suddenly appreciated the Health & Safety advice. Dried sage burns very well and gives off plenty of smoke. I blew out the flame and waved my little charred bunch about. The budgie seemed to approve, as he does when he senses the approach of rain. I also ground some of the herbal ashes into a light paste with a little water and rubbed them into my skin. That seemed to work quite well. The smell is what you would expect – dark, aromatic, burnt, not especially exciting – but I felt well-exorcised and (up to a point) purged.

A colleague at work told me he was going to clean out his washing-machine with a cup of vinegar in the cycle. Vinegar is wonderful: it kills miasmas, but its own very strong aroma doesn’t hang around for long if diluted. So it’s great for wiping out the fridge or the sink.

I love these old natural hygiene tips – they are cheap, efficient and they smell good. Softer and subtler than the Magic Tree. I save all the old lemon and lime skins from the drinks trolley for scouring pots, pans and the sink. (Someone used to say that you should stick your bare elbow into a used lemon-half, for a spot of instant skin conditioning). Cleaning with food product leftovers inculcates a feeling of virtue and a wholesome spirit of responsibility. And it’s much more fun than relying on bleach – though that’s a cruel and savage smell which I sometimes enjoy. “If life hands you a lemon – then make a cleaning aid!”

¤ maudlin memories of Nancy Mitford’s “little homeless match”; Enid Blyton’s “poor little strawberry plants”; Hans Christian Andersen’s forgotten fir tree.

Summer days should be served hot..

 

Do you still recall how hot it was two weeks ago? In that sort of weather I feel like a creature in the Reptile House. Sort of slumped and comatose. But if a person taps on the glass of my tank they sometimes see an involuntary twitch and they can then be confident that I’m not a rock or a coral but a – more or less – sentient being. Alive to smell but not much else.

Well, I was amazed to be told by a teacher that even in such great heat classroom windows are not nowadays to be opened beyond a couple of inches. It’s a Health and Safety thing. In case great boys and girls of 17 and 18 fall out, or escape. But how do the young people concentrate? How do they keep awake? What about the teachers? I grew up at a time when fresh air was de rigueur. This was because it was rightly thought both healthy and stimulating and the answer to everything. It was then also admitted that schoolchildren en masse, with their curious adolescent habits and hectic routines, might easily be a bit whiffy.

Certain summer temperatures and scents trigger an immediate connection with the past. All my yesterdays float in the muggy air. Not necessarily fresh and clean scents – some with a certain nostalgie de la boue. For instance that battered wheeled device that marked out the lines for Sports Day, staining newly shorn grass, leaving sour and burning trails. I’m sure we were told it was filled with lime although I don’t know if that was true. Maybe the groundsman said that merely to keep us from smudging it. He used to trudge up and down the field, one shaking hand on the handle, the other cupping the butt end of a cigarette – the way they used to say convicts hold a gasper. Doesn’t tobacco smoke smell extraordinarily good in the heat, by the way?

Or does it? Suddenly I’m not so sure. There’s a repellent new smell in a lot of cigarettes – is it the formaldehyde we’re always being warned about? Do you think the Health and Safety have added a stench to put us off, like the awful pictures on the packets? I’ll tell you one thing, they were mending the roads down our way and when I saw the tar lorry I inhaled deeply and involuntarily. We used to be told that the hot carbolic smell was a sovereign preventative against T.B. and bronchitis. In addition to which, it was a wonderful odour in its own right.

But this wasn’t. This was quite abominable and I almost retched. It’s not just old perfumes that don’t smell the same any more.

Something in the air lately – the damp watery smell from the brook, maybe  – reminded me of being taken to tea some sixty years ago with a very grand lady. Her hall had a sweeping staircase to the landings – just like in Gone With The Wind. The stairwell was heaped up like a flower shop with hydrangeas and lilies, all cool and dewy and fragrant. The hostess took a fancy to me and led me through a vast garden to her pond. There she gave me a stick, with a wired silk stocking attached as an impromtu net, and taught me how to fish for orange-spotted newts. Once we’d peered at the creatures and smelled their cold newty smell¤, back they went into their deep and weedy depths. I have never seen a newt since: strange how this afternoon came back with such force.

In early summer there’s this strange fragrant dust in the yards and on the pavements. The scent of those warm dust baths I used to love to sit in as a small child, like a sparrow or a grooming cat. That nostalgic blend of pollen, earth, diesel, petrichor, geosmin, spicy wisteria and deadly sulphurous laburnum. Above all, a waft of powdery orris from the bearded iris that now blows in every other suburban garden. Blue, brown, yellow and mauve: all breathing out that incredibly emotive fragrance from the silky flowers that flutter like prayer flags. The exhalation of the rainbow goddess. The radiant iris perfumes at Les Senteurs¤¤ draw their hypnotic power from the roots of the plant. But the scent of the garden iris comes from the fragile blooms. It’s a more delicate smell: every year I try to analyse it, to pin it down. Is it something like living human skin? Yes, maybe. Perhaps this is what gives the early summer dust such a heart-stopping quality – filling it with uncanny traces of every person who has come and gone in one’s life. Like those thundering countless footsteps outside Dr Manette’s Soho garden, on that sultry rainy evening in A Tale of Two Cities. Dust to perfumed dust.

Time rushes on. Before nostalgia gives way to maudlin sentiment I’ll tell you a bracing anecdote. Walking to the shops under a long road a-winding under flowery hedges, I smelled a rich and fruity scent. The air was thick with it. Like the aura of a  tropical isle.”Isles of the southern seas/ Deep in your coral caves….”

I think I’ll keep you on pins until next week before I reveal what the smell was. Try to guess?

¤ for those who’ve never smelled a newt – well, it’s somewhat like a toad.

¤¤ such as:

¤ IRIS POUDRE by Frederic Malle
¤ SHEM-EL-NESSIM by Grossmith
¤ ANGELIQUE by Papillon Perfumery
¤ IRIS DE NUIT by Heeley
¤ IRIS PALLADIUM by Les Eaux Primordiales
¤ 23 JANVIER 1984 by Pozzo di Borgo

…Every one a gem!