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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“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.

No proper time of day…

john-atkinson-grimshaw-november-morning-1883

 

The clocks changed last week and I with them. Fiddling around with the time exhausts me – it mucks up my body’s routines. I react like a baby or a dog, uncomprehendingly thrown off course and put thoroughly out of sorts. It’s a species of fright, of course. It’s as John Milton says, it’s “snuffing the scent of mortal change on earth”.  It takes me about a fortnight to get back on track; whether it’s “fall back” or “spring forward”, the effect on me is always retrograde. I think my body clock is tuned so precariously that any tinkering about stops me dead in my tracks.

Especially so in autumn when the  melancholy winds sweep in with the falling leaves; and the rains dampen us down into a brown study beneath the stripped trees. Brown is my least favourite of all the colours. Draining away light, it lacks the drama of black and the warm elegance of grey. I’m talking about that dreary hue when brown shows flat and unadorned; devoid of any flash of red, blue, copper or gold. Just plain brown. Brown is the true colour of prolonged long-term mourning. Shades of dun, umber, sludge, baked-potato, penny and dirt have – like all colours –  their own peculiar odour.

Last week, as I fished leaves out of drains and scarified the increasingly sodden lawn, I inhaled the sad scents of vast dim November afternoons half a century ago. Apparently foggier and colder then, the defining redolence of those days was of school playing fields, scratchy hot-smelling serge shorts and, particularly, of a horrible pair of football boots. They looked like something out of The Beano, those boots. Never well-fitting – to allow for growth – they were hideously built-up and laced to well above the ankle-bone, like a clown’s comic footwear. Off the pitch, I clattered and teetered about in them like a geisha on clogs due to the soles having grotesquely high studs. They smelled of caked Dubbin, wet humus, dried mud, damp woollie socks and knotted elastic garters (“not too tight! Don’t cut off the circulation.”). Every now and again you had to work the boots over with an old knife or a stick to clean the dead grass and muck from the soles and crevices. That dreary doleful smell of cracked leather and impacted dead soil: brown, plain and simple.

“To this end we must all come”. The smells of autumn may seem variously depressing or cosy according to temperament. The cult of Danish “hygge” is now all the go but I’m thinking less of spicy spine boughs, mulled wine and perfumed candles and more of a nostalgie de la boue in an animal snuggery. Deep in our suppressed bestial nature there is an innate desire to hibernate; to get down that burrow, earth or bed for the next four or five months. To live off our own fat deposits; to be dopily self-sufficient; comatose-cocooned in the smell of our own kind – fur, skin, hay & feather bedding and nugatory waste. (Those all-important national surveys are always claiming that some 20% of the population change their sheets only three times a year). My father always used to say he would have preferred to live as a hound or a fox. He would chunter this mantra as he snuggled down in his kitchen armchair between sturdy horse blankets and beneath a warm and whiffy wriggling dog or two. Maybe those of us more in touch with our animal side have happier and more sensually comforting autumns than the more spiritually evolved.

“The doubt: can these dry bones live?” Have another look at that painting by Alexander Bowler.

I have mentioned before that my sense of smell goes awol when I’m in a state: so since the clock change it’s been very odd. After administering a brisk haircut, my wonderful barber – who entertains me with fabulous tales, as in the Arabian Nights – rubbed my head with some proprietary barbicide bay rum concoction. It was initially delicious but then reacted very oddly with an ambery frankincense perfume I’d applied on arising. (And perhaps that was a bit advanced for a November dawn).  For the rest of the day (despite changing all my linen and washing my head) I was suffused in an effusion of suffocating fruity musk. It smelled as though it was emanating from the depths of my being, as musks formerly poured from the ancient mosque walls of Samarkand and the Empress Josephine’s bedroom wallpaper.

We probably spend more money in the autumn, just to keep ourselves comfortable – and that’s aside from the Christmas potlatch. Now everyone’s talking about the funny new five pound notes. They haven’t yet had enough circulation to have acquired that characteristic faintly greasy pecuniary smell. “They are very slippery”, remarked an aged gentleman as the fresh fivers slid through his fingers like flying fish. (Same colour, too). Apparently the visually impaired and the blind are having problems with them: the notes feel too similar to receipt slips. A man explained on the wireless that he had been used to identifying all our paper currency by touch – but that the new notes defied this. I should like to have asked him whether identification by smell came into it too. I imagine it might well do so.

Thomas Hood¤ failed to mention an absence of smell in his famous poem ‘November’. Was this due to the inhibitions of his time or to an underdeveloped olfactory sense? Rather, I think that the wily poet knew that there are always smells, even in the dimmest of months.

¤1799-1845

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.

Poetry In Motion

amaterasu_cave

 

Spring air –
Woven moon
And plum scent.¤

 

Who should pop up on R4 the other morning but the great Juliet Stevenson, brought before the microphones to celebrate the Equinox She read Keats’s Ode to Autumn – beautifully, of course – said a few words, and was off. A casual, almost throw-away recital: It reminded me of Myra Hess’s lunch-time concerts during the War; Sarah Bernhardt or Lillie Langtry making brief appearances in barns and tents on the American frontier. It was just how a performance should be. A sudden splurge of splendour going up like a firework in the gloom; a few transient seconds of glamour and beauty in the darkness.

The Ode was a brief moment of uplift in a busy day. Poetry should illuminate the path, jolly us along, stimulate the ear and the brain. It presents emotions and situations in a certain way – a new way. Poetry offers revelations and, sometimes, solutions. Its pleasure should be taken for granted, easily and frankly like a music hall song. We needn’t wait for a poetry class or a formal recital  –  tags and lines and refrains can inspire and buck us up at any time, whether formally declaimed or just chuntered under your breath.

Now, doesn’t this sound remarkably like the role of perfume in life? A scent which may be startling, delicious, sprightly or hypnotic by turns but which seizes our attention and beguiles our senses. Price, value, composition and provenance really need not come into the matter. What’s vital is the sum of the thing: how the scent speaks to you, and how it affects your mind. Smell it, grab it, wear it. Stop analysing and start smelling. It’s like the sense of taste: quit taking those selfies of your dinner – eat it up!

When I was at school, aged ten or so, we had to learn a set poem weekly – “Home Thoughts From Abroad”, “Upon Westminster Bridge” and the like. No piece thrilled me much. All one’s energies and attention went into getting the thing into one’s noddle and then regurgitating the verses correctly, so as to avoid being snubbed by teacher in front of the precariously smug class. However, then as now, individual words, sounds and ideas of colour & smell caught the ear and excited the mind. The first line of Shakespeare that ever caught my fancy was Lady Macbeth’s wailing of the smell of blood and the perfumes of Arabia.

Presently one went up the school and a more enlightened schoolmistress got us writing haiku in lieu of learning other people’s masterpieces. That was kind of liberating – firstly because the haiku form is so short;  and because observing the 5-7-5 syllable structure made us far less self-conscious about what we were composing. We were too busy trying to make the thing ‘fit’.

I see now that the essence of the haiku is in its moment of generation; those ideas it evokes in the exhalation of a breath. There is no analysis, no set or intended meaning: all is sensation and emotion, a moment of observation and insight as clear but transient as a dew-drop. Sometimes you see something akin to this in the PR blurb written by French perfume houses: translated into English the evocations are meaningless and bathetic. In the original they have a certain haphazard poetry to them. Same like the haiku.

Here are two observations of an orchid, by Basho¤ and Buson¤¤ respectively:

Evening orchid-
The white of its flower
Hidden in its scent

Orchid –
Breathing incense
Into butterfly’s wings

Haiku can be not only surreally lovely but as droll, rude and scatalogical as a good limerick.

Issa¤¤¤, who lived a rather dreadful life of poverty and loss, wrote much about love and death but was also fascinated by the yowling of mating cats, bodily smells, soiled clothes & bedding, effluvia and excrement – “flies on the porridge…..piddle pattering down…the wild iris…”

Here’s another Basho haiku which smells both aspects of our fleeting existence:

In the garden
A sweaty shoe
Scent of chrysanthemum

You may take these two observations separately or link them as you will: but it’s true, chrysanthemums do have the sharp tang of perspiration to them. As Issa noted, they are redolent of tea, sake and urine. And here’s the typically ironic haiku paradox: they are also the Japanese national flower, quasi-sacred as they symbolise the Sun goddess Amaterasu-o-mi-kami, the divine ancestress of every Emperor. There have never been many chrysanthemum-based perfumes on the market. Maybe that’s because of this sour ambiguity and (in the West) the association of the flower with the dying of the year and hard-wearing funeral tributes.  The Crown Perfumery once did a little gem – I forget it’s name; it’s long time ago. Serge Lutens De Profundis – a ‘Paris Only’ Exclusive – is probably the one to seek out.

How often will a neophyte come to try a much-touted new scent and exclaim –

“But it smells of my father’s bike! – like a cement mixer – like cleaning the baby’s bath..”

And there you are: to her, the perfume is defined for ever, caught in a flash of perception like a spider in amber. You can explain about the ingredients till you are blue in the face but it is the customer’s instantaneous and unique characterisation which is so striking: much more interesting than praising the quality of the jasmine oils. An integral part of haiku language is the use of an exclamation to punctuate a line  – “ah!” – “o!” – “but!” – “pop!”. How rewarding and fascinating to hear these gasps and squeals at the shop as one reveals the latest treasure.

Ise’s shrine –
What tree can give
Such perfume?¤

¤ Matsuo Basho 1644-1694; translations by Lucien Stryk

¤¤ Yosa Buson 1716 – 1784; translation by Stephen Addiss

¤¤¤  Kobayashi Issa 1763-1827; translations by Lewis Mackenzie.

Fish Pie Makes You Cry/ Custard Drives You Mad

Odilon Redon - The Egg, 1885

Odilon Redon – The Egg, 1885

 

The 10th Earl of St Germans died on July 15th. His long and idiosyncratic obituary in The Times (July 19th) observed:

‘He led a full life and would present all his female companions with bottles of Fracas perfume.”

It’s nice to know, isn’t it? As Kay Walsh used to say.
And, aside from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the heat? It nearly did for me. As usual, I turned for empathetic comfort to that first chapter of ‘What Katy Did At School’, in which the highly-strung Elsie Carr goes nearly off her head during an especially hot and prolonged Ohio Indian summer. It’s a baking, dried-up October and Elsie begs to be sent out of town to stay with a family friend – Mrs Worrett – in the country. Alas! The experience turns out to be a nightmare, and there’s the moral: be careful what you wish for. Be wary of what you set your heart on: even if it’s a bottle of Fracas.

“Sometimes the truest kindness is in giving people their own unwise way.”

It all begins well with the journey out – “part of the road ran through woods…the dense shade kept off the sun, and there was a spicy smell of evergreens and sweet fern.” But as we all know, it is better to travel than to arrive, and Mrs Worrett’s stark pumpkin-coloured house is a dreary disappointment. “The spare chamber was just under the roof. It was very hot, and smelled as if the windows had never been opened since the house was built.” The food is worse. Susan Coolidge does not exactly describe its smell but she brings it right under our noses:

“..the room felt stiflingly warm, and the butter was so nearly melted that Mrs Worrett had to help it with a teaspoon. Buzzing flies hovered above the table, and gathered thick on the plate of cake….they sat in the dusk; Mr Worrett smoking his pipe and slapping mosquitoes outside the door…”.

Elsie is weepy and “her head ached violently”. By next morning she is in a state of prostration – we hear all about the horrors of a feather bed in a heat wave –  and is advised to “lie on the lounge in the best room, and amuse herself with a book”.

Can the sense of smell drive one mad I wonder? I think it might. If all the other senses can affect the mind adversely, then why not scent? Elsie’s experiences always remind me of a “true life” criminal case which took place in Fall River, Massachusetts, just twenty years  after ‘Katy’ was written.

I first heard about Lizzie Borden in an episode of The Munsters on TV when I was a tot. Grandpa Munster produced an axe from a trunk and muttered something about the Bordens, whereat my Victorian grandmother laughed uproariously. Lizzie was a large and rather attractive New England girl: a pillar of the community who lived with her sister, father and stepmother in a clapboard house in New England. One terrible and boiling hot August morning in 1892, while Lizzie claimed to be occupied with chores in the barn, her parents were horribly hacked to death in the house. Miss Borden was subsequently arrested, tried for their murder but acquitted.

What aroused much comment at the time – and continues to do so – was the curious life style of the Bordens. Despite it being an exceptionally hot week, the family – and the maid – had dined on the same boiling of mutton soup every day for a week. The house was full of flies and in the back kitchen were found soaking pails and tubs of “ladies’ unmentionables”. Everyone in the house – unsurprisingly – seemed to be suffering from gastric and other “upsets” at the time of the crime. At least one writer has wondered as to whether the appalling concomitant smell in the family home – especially of that mutton broth, perpetually on the simmer in sweltering temperatures – may have altered the balance of Lizzie’s mind, to the point of turning her homicidal.

We shall never know now; but the scent of certain plants has been said, at different times and in various cultures, to drive you crazy. Oleanders, daturas, cypresses and tuberoses all have their various effects. And think of Sherlock Holmes and that terrifying root-derived Devil’s Foot powder. I write this in a garden full of the evening perfumes of mint, tomato plants, lavender, marjoram – and, especially, lilies smelling of sweet lemon vanilla cream. All is perfection. But from time to time I get a particular scent on the brain, to an oppressive and infuriating extent. The key point is, that this is normally and nominally a pleasing fragrance: an odour I love. But something then short-circuits and renders it so grating, invasive and throbbingly insistent that I feel exactly like Sir John Gielgud at that famous Mozart operatic rehearsal: “O DO stop that TERRIBLE music!” Like an animal, I have to plunge into water to be rid of the smell, as a fox is said to escape his fleas.

The fox’s fleas sail off downstream on a hank of hair: likewise, by this time, the smell has become its own entity. I have written before in this column of once going after work to the swimming baths; doing a length; and then disconcertingly meeting a cloud of my own fragrance brooding above the waters as I made the return. “Meeting Myself Coming Back”.

There’s nowt so queer as folk – thank Heaven! Nor so strange and unpredictable as scent.’

WAIT FOR THE MOMENT WHEN: Orson Welles…

touch-of-evil-stillb

… rolls & staggers into sex worker Marlene Dietrich’s establishment in TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) in search of Tanya’s pianola, chili and crystal ball. Hank Quinlan is an obscenely obese police chief on the U.S. / Mexican border: bloated, pocked and crippled by bitterness, prejudice, hate, alcohol and food.

“Have you forgotten your old friend?”.

Dark-eyed semi-gypsy Tanya glares at him blankly over the stained enamel cooking pot:

“I didn’t recognise you…you should lay off the candy bars …you’re a mess, honey”.

Tanya is a dusky cigar-smoking chili-brewing madam who offers all kinds of obscure pornographic services:

” The customers go for it. It’s old it’s new…we got the television too…we run movies…” (and the way in which she says this! Lewdness of lewdery!)”…what can I offer you?”.

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Dietrich and Welles were old friends – “when I’m with him I’m like a plant that’s been watered” – and he was fascinated by her, though apparently not sexually. She complained that he liked only blondes¤ but hinted that he saw her in a new light once she’d got Tanya’s black wig fitted.

That wig! Marlene apparently went through the wardrobe department and assembled her own costume of bits and bobs (a kind of hommage to Frida Kahlo). The wardrobe girls told her the wig had originally been worn by La Liz in RAINTREE COUNTY. Well, thought MD, it was made for a tart and I’m playing one so how apt. She loathed Taylor who had a disturbing trend of making off with her own lovers – Fisher, Todd, Wilding, maybe Burton…¤¤. Tanya has only four short scenes in TOUCH OF EVIL (all said to have been shot on location in a single night) – Dietrich and Welles were in high spirits improvising her role as they went along and giving Tanya the final (and best?) shot of the movie.

If you know THE BLUE ANGEL it is clear that Tanya is a sketch of Lola Lola grown well…not old, but ageless. She now has not only a pianola at home – “zu Haus in mein’ Salon” – but chili too : “Better be careful! It may be too hot for you.” Maybe she emigrated to Mexico pre-war or, more likely, was chased out of Germany in ’45 as a Mitlaufer. Lola is just the sort of little chancer who would have gone along with Hitler if she thought there was anything in it for her. Tanya’s cluttered dusty apartment is crammed with beaded fringed lamps, kitschy knick-knacks and even a stuffed bull’s head** that all remind us of BLUE ANGEL props. There are toys and so-shy’s (including a facetious plaster chipmunk) that echo the presence of Marlene’s own dolls that sat around in so many of her pictures in the early days. Above all there is the haunting rippling wonderful music (Henry Mancini’s finest hour) of the pianola (“at home my pianola Is played for all its worth”) echoing spectrally through the dusty, boiling hot-windy night which heaves with corruption, vitriol throwings, rapists and drug gangs; luring men and women to their doom like Lola’s burning moths.

This is still a shocking film, despite (or because of) being stuffed with outrageous black comedy – the Galgenhumor in which Orson and Marlene both revelled. Director as well as star, Welles has a lot of ironic fun with the placing & wording of signs – one of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s strippers, Zita, is blown to bits by a car bomb as her street wall poster – “ZITA: For this week only!” – is obliterated by acid. Back at Zsa Zsa’s joint there’s a sign prominently reading ‘Dining Room’ – presumably not an overused part of the house except for the proprietress’s preying on young flesh and the frailty of dirty old men. A dining room for vultures & vampires.

Charlton Heston (the good cop to Welles’s fiend: his face stained with the same walnut juice as used on Marlene) makes a call from a drugstore and the camera lingers on the placard “If you’re mean enough to steal from the blind help yourself “. Meanwhile the visually challenged proprietress exudes in close up a chumbling motiveless menacing
malevolence. At the climax of the movie Hank Quinlan commits murder in a hotel bedroom and fatally leaves his incriminating cane behind on the bed rail as the ” Stop! Forget Anything?” sign swings unseen on the door.

LW might write a dozen blogs on TOUCH OF EVIL without ever exhausting its wit and febrile fascination. But, for now, to touch on smells – if ever a movie stank it’s this; and there’s another Wellesian irony here because one of the main preoccupations of the camera is a knowing prurient voyeurism. The camera becomes the lubricious evil eye of Quinlan as Janet Leigh gratuitously lolls on her motel bed in boned white satin underwear – one of several prognostications of Hitcock’s PSYCHO. Then as Leigh is (apparently)*** gang-raped by Mercedes McCambridge’s leather gang – “I wanna watch!” growls the voice that later dubbed Linda Blair’s possession in THE EXORCIST. Mercedes was another chum of Welles and Dietrich – she doesn’t even get a credit for her terrifying cameo. All done just for fun. And so, to complement this voyeuristic motif, we have simultaneously a bombardment of words and images to conjure a powerful sense of smell and corruption: “it stinks in here! It’s a mess, a stinking mess!”. Choking clouds of marijuana; stained sweaty clothes; corrosive acid; chili; old perfume; grubby old beds; tobacco; blood; hair lacquer; Uncle Joe’s greasy toupee – “you lost ya rug!”; heat; petrol; cordite; electricity; leather jackets; hair cream; burning flesh; sex; fear; panic. And finally, the dark river choked with rot and ordure and refuse, with Hank Quinlan floating dead on his back in the black oil-slicked ooze. Tanya, lured from her den, wrapped in a coat that might be black silk or leather, watches like an omniscient ambiguous Aztec spirit of the night wind:

“What does it matter what you say about people? He was some kind of a man…”

Not half.

ORSON WELLES 1915 – 1985
MARLENE DIETRICH 1901 – 1992

¤ but what of his marriage to Rita Hayworth? Her famous red hair was of course dyed but Welles also had a long affair with gleaming brunette Dolores del Rio. Maybe MD was barking up the wrong tree here.

¤¤ a piece of paper was found in the avenue Montaigne apartment after her death “Open letter to Elizabeth Taylor … why don’t you swollow (sic) your diamonds and shut up?” Paris Match at once published it. MD was certainly dotty about Burton, though if they had an actual physical affair this has yet to come to light. “I’m behind you, Marlene!” – remember?

# and wait for the wonderful shot of Welles posed beneath the bull and its halo of banderillas – Quinlan’s own vision of himself as the brave old beast martyred in the pursuit of his duty.

* the naïve censor is placated by a weasel line of dialogue later on: Welles laughing up his sleeve again.