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.

‘A Pocketful of Miracles’ : 30 Fragrance Tips You MUST Try!

 

A wee frivolity for The Glorious First Of June.

Possibly the professional question I am asked most frequently is –

‘Where may I spray my fragrance? How should I apply my parfum?’

Behind the ears, upon the throat – and always with pleasure. But you can cast your net so much wider than this. Be always open-minded to experiment and adventure.

Accept this nosegay of handy hints to help you enhance your aura and exaggerate your ambience. Be remembered and well-beloved for the fragrance and harmony in your wake.

“I did but inhale her passing by:
And yet I love her till I die” ¤

Here we go.

* They say the canny Parisienne – “pas folle, la guepe!” – applies scent behind each KNEE. A hangover from the 1920’s, when the female knee was exposed and fetishised for the first time in history. Knees were not only perfumed, but rouged and powdered. And before the knee, the ANKLE. Hot air rises so the wearer – and those very close to her – should appreciate her own delicious odour all the more. By the same token, perfume on dress (and trouser) HEMS works well, too.

* Newly-washed porous HAIR¤¤ is a great conductor of scent for both sexes. Some  old roues and voluptuaries might  recommend that the EYEBROWS should also be anointed with a discreet dab. We are told that Assyrian ladies & gents daubed their LASHES too – but I wouldn’t try that. Follically-challenged males should apply their cologne to the SCALP – and/or to the inside of their CAPS and HATS. On a lady’s elaborate chapeau it’s amusing to perfume artificial flowers, feathers and veiling.

* Team your TRIMMINGS & ACCESSORIES with your own signature scent. Use fragranced artificial flowers for a home-made tropical LEI – or weave a fresh garland of real flowers. Marigolds and jasmine are traditional – and the marigolds¤ will also repel noxious insects in a healthier way than CIGARETTES. (You CAN dip the tips of your 20 Players in fragrance though – as did all those depraved Noel Coward characters, aeons ago).

* Mary Queen of Scots went to the scaffold wearing hollow golden rosary BEADS stuffed with ambergris. Avid rummagers in bric-a-brac shops still  occasionally discover beads that be filled – or soaked – with perfume. Amateur potters can make their own and string them as bracelets and necklaces. Or simply scent lengths of RIBBON to adorn a well-turned wrist and swan-like neck.

* FANS – as long predicted in this column – are now madly back in fashion. Make up a perfumed collection to cool and seduce on the Tube, the street or in the ballroom. Fans look so glamorous when held in beautiful GLOVES. The trend for scented Spanish leather gloves and gauntlets goes back to Tudor and Jacobean times. Back then, the raw material – tanned in human excrement – needed to be sweetened a little. Now you can afford to be more sophisticated.

* And inside the glove, do spray your not only your WRIST but also your PALM. You’ll leave your mark on everyone you touch. I noted that Marlene Dietrich had perfected this trick when I got to kiss her little hand back in ’72. Her perfume was mine for the night.

* With your redolent hand, now write a billet-doux on perfumed PAPER with scented INK. The first, you can prepare yourself. The ink you may have to search for, but quite a variety are still available. Put your flaming heart on paper in notes of lily, lilac and leather.

* Of course, before you dress, you’ll have added a few drops of essence or extrait to your BATH; and blended some more into a neutral skin CREAM. That’s if your favourite fragrance House does not supply bath and body products. Layering is the way forward for richness, tenacity and depth.

* Washable natural-fibre CLOTHING can be sprayed with most fragrances once you’ve done a discreet patch test. FUR is a delicate and controversial issue but – like hair, of course – it does carry superbly. A whole race of long-ago perfumes were created especially to be worn on and with pelts. Your great great grandparents’ preference for scented HANDKERCHIEFS should also be noted. Spray a hanky liberally and make great play with it or let it trail from your pocket.

* If you have your own long-term favourite CUSHION or PILLOW and can’t face breaking in a new one to fit the exact angle of your sleepy head, then you’ll need to freshen the inner pads. Air them in hot sunshine, toss them up to make the feathers fly; then spritz with your favourite scent.

* Dining at home? A quick dab on CURTAIN linings and under the RUGS works wonders. Then, make like the ancient Greeks, and rub your wooden kitchen FURNITURE with a bunch of fresh mint, parsley, marjoram or thyme. The aroma of bruised herbs will sweeten the air, stimulate the appetite and appease the household spirits.

* Gather ye rosebuds and other edible FLOWERS while ye may, to garnish the FOOD. Orange flower or rose water is wonderfully luxurious when discreetly added to your cooking. Try delicately perfuming your creams, jellies, custards and rice dishes.  Kindle your scented beeswax CANDLES, add a sprig of lavender to the mint sauce and you’re ready for anything. Hand rose, violet and geranium chocolates separately. Go so far as to taste your own scent on the TONGUE as recommended by Pierre Guillaume of Parfumerie Generale; or lightly touch your GUMS. You’ll remember, too, Scarlett O’Hara lurching downstairs to the parlour after gargling eau de Cologne – and brandy.

Tomorrow IS another day – and another perfume!

¤ Thomas Ford 1580-1648 (arr. LW)

¤¤ Editor’s note: we have just heard that the Maison Francis Kurkdjian hair mists will be arriving from the city of light in June

How Hyssop Healed My Hand

 

There I was last week, grizzling on about the drought; and then, look at the rain! “Talking about it brings it on”, as Alan Bennett used to say. When I was eleven or twelve years old, a boy at school taught me a supposed Native American rain dance. As I loathed sport – laid on for us daily – I did a lot of dancing in the hope of water-logged pitches. The creepy thing was, the ritual usually worked.

I soon took fright and abandoned it.

The torrential May rains have released the most sumptuous scents, especially on muggier days. The combined odours of may blossom, lilac and lacy cow parsley outdo for loveliness anything you’ll smell on the place Vendome or the rue de la Paix. Heady, heavy, floral-animalic, damply powdery, sweet with honey and musk. Imagine a Caron boutique of a century ago, relocated in a country lane or a roundabout on the ring road.

Charged up with a false and flower-intoxicated energy, I overdid it sadly in the back yard. Fellow gardeners will know what I mean. You don’t notice at the time, but you tug at a stubborn root too vigorously; or pull a weed from the wrong angle. Twenty four hours later you’re in agony. This time it was the second finger of my left hand. Blew up like a pound of sausages. Couldn’t move it. Throbbing in the night. Every colour of the rainbow. Because I was traumatised decades ago by Daniel Day Lewis dying abruptly of tetanus in ‘My Brother Jonathan’ on the TV, I always jump to the worst conclusions. Once I’d calmed down I had a rummage in the bathroom cupboard. With my right hand.

I found the oil of hyssop: the magic purgative plant; the holy healing herb of the ancients. The late great Angela Flanders used to keep my mother supplied with it, for her arthritis. Of course, I should have greatly diluted the hyssop: Angela’s strict instructions are still written on the bottle. However I was reckless with pain, so I rubbed the oil in neat for three days. It made my skin peel like a sloughing python, but – combined with ice baths – it brought out the bruising, reduced the swelling in short order, and worked a miracle within 72 hours.

Hyssop is much mentioned in the Old Testament – “purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be white as snow” ¤. On account of the endless translations and re-translations of the ancient texts we do not know whether the plant named as hyssop in the Bible is the same mauve or electric blue flowered herb that we recognise today. Scientific botanical classification is less than 300 years old¤¤. Distilled hyssop smells exceedingly lemon-like; green, dark and medicinal. The fragrance is pure, still and calming. Hyssop is integral to the brewing of Chartreuse; and is associated with the bitter herbs of the first Passover. The Pentateuch mentions it in connection with its use as a sprinkler of blood or water or perfume. Long before we sprayed, we sprinkled.

So, always anxious to investigate on your behalf, I went down to consult with my local herb man. Regular readers will remember that this was the fascinating fellow who last year told me all about feverfew, to which he is violently allergic.

I rang the bell.

He said he’d not seen hyssop for years. As I had thought, it seems to be out of style. But he gave me a pot of flagrantly strong, smoky – even slightly minty –  hot Greek oregano. Which was very apt because many modern horticulturalists think it probable that the old Biblical hyssop was the herb we now know as Syrian oregano. I could see at once that a bunch of densely leaved, slightly furry oregano would make an ideal natural aspergillum. If only to bless a tomato salad with the good olive oil.

Which I duly did. And two hours later the wonderful aroma of the oregano still hung in the afternoon kitchen air.

Mahlzeit!

¤ Psalm 5, verse 7

¤¤ spikenard is another example of these ancient & modern botantical confusions. And look at the harebell – “the bluebell of Scotland”. Not to mention geraniums and pelargoniums.

“Too kind..”

vanity

 

I believe it was “Dizzy” Disraeli who opined to the effect that: “We all love flattery: and when you come to royalty, then you should lay it on with a trowel.”

Certainly the widowed Victoria purred  like a cat under her Prime Minister’s assiduous attentions. Rotund and querulous in black bombazine and crepe, the Empress of India revelled in being cast as Disraeli’s dainty “Fairy” and “Fairy Queen”.

Elizabeth Tudor demanded to be assured that she was the Fairest Princess in Christendom. Not even the grossest flattery was excessive for her: was it a game? Did she secretly enjoy seeing statesman and intellectuals making fools of themselves over a tragic old lady? Perhaps she saw that the demanding and obtaining of continual irrational praise was a measure not of her beauty but of her power. And that was why the horrible ( and boring ) Earl of Essex who surprised her, balding and undressed in her own bedroom, had to die. Elizabeth knew that after that experience – shattering to both Queen and courtier – Essex would never be able to lie convincingly, eyeball to eyeball, again.

I’ve been thinking about all this a lot and I’ll tell you why. My spies in the department stores tell me that currently the most frequently-heard complaint from perfume purchasers is that the fragrance brought the wearer no compliments. No one said a word. The crash of silence! – to coin a phrase.

It used to be widely said that if you could not smell your own perfume then it was the perfect match for you. There is something in this apparent paradox. As we all know, the more you are in love with a scent the less you pick it up. The brain and the nose are all at peace and they don’t need to keeping registering the fragrance. They know you are happy and safe with it. So they simply switch off and worry about something else.

Frederic Malle told us that he knew he’d got a hit with iconic Musc Ravageur when he sent his P.A. down the Metro doused in the new scent, and the Paris commuters went wild. It certainly is a rousing accolade to be told you smell marvellous but I don’t think we should either panic or grouse when we don’t get the compliments.¤

The compliments don’t come largely because many people are still shy about scents. Smell is a very intimate thing. Smelling bad is, as we know, something even your best friend may not be able to tell you. I would hesitate to comment on a stranger’s gorgeous scent unless asked specifically for an opinion. Men can’t help acting on Impulse – but I’d be very wary of stopping someone in the street to pass a remark on their redolence. Especially in these strange days! I wished someone a good morning recently and the sky fell in. “WHAT did you say to me??”

I am just old enough to remember a time when my elders thought it intolerably gauche, tasteless and bad form to praise anything. You thanked your hostess for entertaining you, but you would never single out the food, or her dress, her hair, her jewels or her perfume for specific comment. Diana Mitford’s old nanny told her on her wedding day to stop fussing at the glass, for:

“Nobody’s going to be looking at you, dear”.

Drawing attention to oneself; seeking attention or approbation was then beyond the pale.

This may not have been altogether healthy; but, in any case, do we not wear perfume primarily for our own private delight? When lovely customers come to the shop to find themselves something new, they often worry that their partners may not care for the chosen prize. I always advise them as I’m now advising you. Say Absolutely Nothing to your Loved One; just wear the perfume with quiet confidence. Don’t canvass opinions. Asking others for their views on what you are wearing always makes folks nervous – and consequently “predicates the answer ‘no'” as we used to learn in French grammar lessons. Never explain and never complain.

Well, doesn’t it make sense? Please yourself and then at least someone’s happy.

Have a joyously perfumed week!

¤ “She’s wearing TRAMP – and everybody loves her!” was a wonderfully ambiguous advertising line some 40 years ago.

Just Follow Your Nose

Ruskin Spear

 

Another landmark this week with the death of the King of Thailand after an immensely long reign of seventy years – a stint just short of Louis XIV’s marathon. Once, long ago, I had the honour of helping his widow, the lovely Queen Sirikit, to purchase a number of novelty musical boxes, fashioned in the style of Bavarian chalets. The Queen had the exquisite relaxed courtesy of an ancient royalty – “there is No Hurry At All!”. It was wintertime and she was cocooned in layers of dark silky fur. A wonderful smooth warm fragrance surrounded her person, susurrating & shimmering in almost visible waves in the eternal wraparound heat of Harrods’ ground floor.

An essential new book¤ reviewed in The Times tells us, amongst other things, that celebrated writers have often been stimulated and inspired by their noses. Schiller habitually kept over-ripe apples by him (see also Louisa May Alcott). No doubt Balzac was addicted as much to the scent as to the taste and kick of his fatal coffee.  Rudyard Kipling believed that every word should have its own redolence. I’m half way through an extraordinary novel¤¤ by one Ottessa Moshfegh: a Boston writer with a powerfully disturbing vision of life. Ms Moshfegh is blessed – I suppose – with an almost obsessive sense of smell. Spoiled food, body odour, the inevitable sordid consequences of anorexia, alcoholism and chronic constipation are all grist to her mill, pitilessly & pitifully recounted.  Ottessa’s heroine distrusts perfume:

“…I often have to leave a room…when a person near to me smells bad. I don’t mean the smell of sweat and dirt, but a kind of artificial, caustic smell, usually from people who disguise themselves in creams and perfumes. These highly scented people are not to be trusted. They are predators. They are like… dogs….”

I’ll spare you the rest of that sentence, it contains too revolting and vivid an olfactory idea. You’ll need to go and look it up. I know what Kipling was getting at, I think. There is an aspect of synaesthesia that has the printed word not only conveying an image, but actually reeking of that idea or concept. There are many words I prefer not to use either in speech or in writing on account of I find them ugly or, as it were, evil-smelling. They are not in themselves intrinsically offensive but there’s something the very look and sound of them – not to mention the smell – that grates. “Stink”, pretty obviously, is one. “Rip” is, more obscurely, another: as in “don’t you rip that paper!” When I was very small, my grandmother pronounced both of these words as “common” and consequently verboten. Nowadays, I wonder whether she and I do not share this same syndrome. “Common” – with its late Victorian connotations of inappropriate expressions of uncontrolled emotion in all its forms – was perhaps the nearest my grandmother could come to defining her aversion. If being common is to do with bad taste, then it must inevitably have a connection with bad smells as surely as the palate is connected to the nose.

I went to a Conference recently. It was great. There were hundreds of us in the hall. After lunch, a Life Coach came on to lecture the assembled perfume-vendors. He asked each one of us to think, silently, of five words to describe fragrance and scent. Then he pounced at random and asked individuals to tell us their chosen words. Amazing, of course, because of the enormous variety of ideas – “swooning”, “spreadsheets”, “seduction”, “sales”, “sex”, “profits” and “exhaustion”. All human life was there.

When it comes to describing perfume, everyone has difficulties. What sort of scent is one looking for? A Lovely Perfume, of course; an Exciting Perfume; a Different or Delicate Perfume. After that, it gets tricky for nearly all of us. We have to hunt for metaphors, similes and approximate images. Sometimes our limited vocabulary and language fail us completely and like our cousins the great apes we have to use gestures, mimes, squeaks and grunts in desperate efforts to get our ideas across.

Mrs Thatcher used to talk a lot about “weasel words”. For me, the artful weasels are the apparently straightforward words that lead us by the nose. Words like “rose”, “jasmine”, “vanilla” and ” violet” seem safe and sufficiently unambiguous. Surely they can be used as solid building blocks when it comes to describing and choosing a scent? Not at all. “Rose”, for instance, is the vaguest of concepts for the aroma of that multi-moleculed flower is only what each person makes of it¤¤¤. Hence the classic and not unusual case of someone who has always lived by the credo that he loathes and abominates rose perfume – but who on a visit to Les Senteurs ends up intoxicated by it.

Providing, of course, that he forgets the preconceptions of the word and concentrates on his own sense of smell: thus discovering a rose interpretation that “clicks”.  Again, consider lavender – another word that travels badly: to the Italians it speaks of fresh laundry; to the French a potent masculinity¤¤¤¤; to the British – faded & fragile old ladies. Its no good fixating on any one word in the complex arcane language of scent: we must get behind and beneath that, to the true fragrance hidden in the verbiage.

This week’s tip must therefore be, to ignore the smell of the perfumer’s words; pass over the ingredients – and concentrate on the aura, the mood, the atmosphere of the whole composition. Immerse yourself not in descriptors but in an olfactory, holistic and emotional experience.

¤ How To Write Like Tolstoy: a journey into the minds of our greatest writers by Richard Cohen. Random House 2016.

¤¤ Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. Jonathan Cape 2016.

¤¤¤ So that perhaps Les Senteurs’ fragrance with the wittiest and most acute title is ALTAIA’s soft and subtle By Any Other Name.

¤¤¤¤ witness Caron’s definitive Pour Un Homme: “the world’s first scent for men”. A triumph since 1934.

“…give him the air!”

bride_of_frankenstein_167

 

Sometimes after a busy day in our shop I feel absolutely soaked and saturated in scent. I am exuding fragrance from every pore, like a dying agar tree or a sticky cistus bush. Scent seems to be within me as well as without. I am, as the French say, wonderfully  “embalmed”¤ in perfume, like the ancient Egyptian procedures evoked in ANUBIS. I am pleased to remember that the necromancer sorcerers and priests of Karnak & Thebes used fragrance as a spell to reconstitute flesh and to renew life. Being pickled in perfume can be a rather attractive sensation, although it is disconcerting when taxi drivers lower the windows during the ride home; or if people look askance and shift themselves on the Tube. Mind you, the most unsettling thing on the Underground nowadays is that I need only step into a carriage to have kind young people leap to their feet, proffering seats. It is very kind but also a memento mori.

The other day, I was given a lift to the shops. At the traffic lights I looked over into the car drawn up alongside. Despite it being a warm sunny morning all the windows were sealed. The driver stubbed out one cigarette and in a single smooth fluid movement lit another. “Kid like you shouldn’t smoke so heavy”. Quite a rare sight these days, to see someone so kippered in tobacco smoke. I thought of all those post-war British movies which revel in the evocation of claustrophobic smells. Remember a badly hung-over Jean Kent frowsting between grubby sheets with a caged parrot at the end of her bed?  There are bottles of every sort all over the place, and a quarter ounce of “Seduction” is ungraciously slammed down on the dressing table as the woman In question¤¤ examines her furred tongue in the glass and lards on more lipstick.

How the camera lingers over the slovenly antics of Susan Shaw in ‘It Always Rains on Sunday’ (1947). She comes home from a dance at 3am, too drunk to undress, and falls into bed in her clothes: later we see her hanging up her crumpled frock, evidently preparatory to another outing. No question of the dry cleaners: maybe a dab with a petrol-soaked rag later. Presently, she has a bath in front of the kitchen range and washes out her undies in the dirty water. As I watch these films over and again, I notice all the open doors and windows¤¤¤. People then believed in fresh air, and the directors and set dressers never forgot it. Considerably more recently – 30 years ago – I remember my father, purple in the face, wrenching open sealed windows (like Louis XVI at Marie Antoinette’s bedside) in over-heated restaurants. They’d have the police on him, now.

It’s all very different from a tv ad I saw last night – a strange thing! A young woman is unaware that her lovely home reeks of dog. Her guest is repelled. A huge title flashes up to announce she’s become “NOSE BLIND”. (I gather there’s another version featuring a chap whose furniture is impregnated with the smell of beefburgers: other people’s lives…!).  Our parents and grandparents were only too aware that they had to be on the lookout for unwelcome odours, and so they took natural precautions. If you fried fish, then you opened the house doors fore and aft for a cleansing through-draught. But the poor confined girl with the bulldog has become complacent and anosmic in a world where everything is ruthlessly deodorised, disinfected and hermetically sealed: and in which no one now expects to eat a peck of dirt before they die.¤¤¤¤

When I’m drenched in scent like a pre-Revolutionary Marquis  – last Friday it was with LITTLE BIANCA, our new rosy and romantic Exclusive by Alberto Morillas – I like to pass the fragrance on. And one does so, willy nilly, like the coloured dust from a butterfly’s wing. If you are well perfumed the sillage will lightly and persuasively invade the auras of those you meet, greet and embrace. Greek courtesans, it is said, used to immerse their sandals in fragrance and so lay an enticing trail in the dust. A perfumed scarf or handkerchief will pass on a Chinese whisper of scent. No doubt I leave traces on those Underground banquettes or cab seats. Should you be intrigued by this idea, let me remind you that the palms of the hand are wonderful conductors of scent: spray them with your fragrance and you will leave a little of yourself on everyone & everything you touch.

There was a most amusing man on the wireless recently, talking about the connection of hands across history and peoples. Apparently when Barry Humphries shook hands with Arthur Miller all he could think was, “This was the hand that once caressed Marilyn”. Well – I have shaken hands with Daniel Day Lewis – Miller’s son-in-law – so I’m now a tiny link in that immortal adamantine chain.

I have mentioned before that when I clasped Marlene Dietrich’s hand back in ’72 – the nails painted to match the gold and rose Balenciaga trouser suit – the hand was curiously and wonderfully perfumed. In fact it dripped & dropped perfume, like the myrrh so sensually described in the Song of Solomon. If you have a sense of romance, picture that gallant inventive little German hand – frost-bitten from the War – passing on its redolence to Piaf, Alexander Fleming, General Patton, Jean Gabin, Moshe Dayan, the Beatles, Gary Cooper, Noel Coward, Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Princess Margaret, Orson Welles,  JFK, Fred Perry, Audrey Hepburn, the Burtons ….and on & on. It’s a glorious metaphor for the irresistible pervasiveness of smell and scent. Doors and windows cannot keep perfume out: as Nancy Mitford wrote of the Duc de Richelieu, if you put him out of the door he comes back down the chimney.

Pass it on!

¤ “embaumer 1.vt to embalm 2. vt to give out a fragrance, be fragrant; l’air embaumait le lilas – the air was balmy with the scent of lilac..” – Collins Robert French Dictionary.

¤¤ in the film of the same name: 1950.

¤¤¤ take a look at Fred and Laura’s well-aired house in ‘Brief Encounter’.

¤¤¤¤ LW has already consumed his share, and keeps on munching.

All Hold Hands!

marlene palm

Well, this has been a dismal week that has led us a weary way to midsummer and to the Referendum. Strange auguries!¤ The scent of the roses has been blotted out by the constant rain: the inundation of the Midlands has been terrible. All I can smell are water and damp; bubbling drains, wet conifers and woody bonfire smoke.

“Praise for the sweetness
Of the wet garden..”

But things can go too far; get out of hand. It is more like October than June. The downpours have bleached the landscape to a uniform shade of dun, like very old cotton garments. I’ve been watching greedily the rose buds thicken and proliferate on the bushes since March and now they have burst indeed, but into only poor sodden rotting sponges. I’ve been waiting for the perfume of those Constance Spry’s for eleven months and now I’ve all but missed it. Like Ayesha, I must wait a small eternity for the pillar of living flame to come rolling round again.   “Chastening work, gardening!” – a terrible reminder of the vanity of human hopes. The only thing to hold onto is, that the garden ultimately rights itself in an eternal cycle, and certainly not solely by the agency of human hands.

Our hands! The hands that will duly inscribe the ballot paper on June 23rd now tie up the shattered lupins and collect the snails in a pail. Hands that speak a second language, and reveal in their marks and movements, their opening and closing, all the secrets of their owner’s character. What the Chinese admiringly call “orchid hands”.

And those “pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar…pale hands, pink tipped, like Lotus buds that float …pale dispensers of my Joys and Pains…”. Or, as it may be: dry, cracked and crinkled like autumn leaves or baby armadillos¤¤.

Hands – like our noses and sense of smell – are even more individual than we once thought. Pathologists can now identify a person by the whorls, flecks and lines on the back of a hand as definitively as by finger prints. And look at your palms, lined like miniature maps of the universe – the tracks of the stars and of your tears. “All human life is here”.

Years ago, long before I came to work at Les Senteurs, I lived for a season in Germany. An aged neighbour, with whom I used to drink Advocaat and eat Spekulos biscuits of a Friday evening, told me I had hands like the Madonna. I have never had such an extravagant – fanciful, even – compliment, before or since. The dear lady still had very sharp eyes: she must have seen something that neither I nor anyone else ever has. She also told me that during the War her husband – a relative of Chekov’s – had obliged her to wear a certain perfume simply because it was endorsed by the actress Zarah Leander for whom the late Herr Zirkenbach had had “ein Schwarm”.

We were looking at the shop the other day at a French phrase book published by the Daily Mail in 1930 – “Conversations of Real Use”. There is included a charming vignette “At The Perfumery”: interestingly, the vendeuse sprays the scent on Mme Dupont’s palm, not her wrist or the back of the hand. The fleshy palm (often a cannibal treat in times gone by) is an excellent reflector of perfume: it holds and disperses fragrance well and tenaciously. In addition, the palm is convenient and highly accessible for smelling while one is assessing the effect. And besides, if you wear scent on your palms, you will leave your exotic invasive imprint on everything – and everyone – you touch. A delicious memory, a fragrant echo left in your wake: an act of possessing – “I belong to Mme Bonaparte”.

It may well be that for us reticent British this is going just a little too far; a disconcerting act of intimacy. And I daresay the wrist is also a more practical and democratic area for testing: putting perfume on the palms is a bit like growing six inch Manchu finger nails. Unless you lead a life of complete luxurious leisure, the palms are going to be speedily corrupted by the countless smells of daily life, one rapidly succeeding the other. On the other hand, once your choice is made why not try the trick, at least for one enchanted evening? If you jib at spraying direct onto the hand – and, ladies! watch your nail polish! – then add your scent to a spot of unfragranced hand cream and so apply. I have been on the receiving end of this style of vampery: it is quite intoxicating. We are so sensitive to new smells that you only have to shake hands – at the very least – to seem subsumed in the other’s aura, drenched in their personality. ¤¤¤

You all remember what Chanel said – “wear perfume wherever you wish to be kissed”. The romantic novelist Elinor Glyn – the original identifier & curator of “It” – is said to have suggested to Rudolph Valentino that he kissed the palm of his leading lady’s hand rather than the conventional back. The result is well known – fans jumped into live volcanoes. Enjoy your perfume responsibly!’

¤ yesterday a great buzzard soared overhead in the vasty and briefly blue empyrean: now what does that signify?

¤¤ remember Madge, the outspoken manicurist of the Fairy Liquid ads?

– “Sorry I’m late, Madge, they were mending the roads!”

– “Looks like you stopped to lend a hand..”

¤¤¤ I am thinking of Dietrich’s hands exuding Youth Dew outside the Stage Door of the Queen’s Theatre: June 1972. (And see also today’s illustration, as above).