A Quiet Lie-Down

 

” I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes* and cinnamon….” – Proverbs 7:17

I thought of this when I found a buxom queen wasp emerging from a kitchen curtain, awoken by the brilliant sunshine and the scent of spring. I ushered her out of the window, in the manner of an obsequious Court Chamberlain. Off she flew to build a vast and multi-celled fragrant waxen palace in which to raise a summer tribe¤.

I love to see these creatures about their business. My favourite reassuring sight just now is the blue tit pair, popping in and out of their nesting box like cuckoo clock machinery. They are single minded in their occupation, completely absorbed in the job of propagating the species. In the heat wave of last weekend they both took advantage of the water pans in the yard to have a good bathe. I should think that tit box is more than a little stuffy. Cosily lined with moss, wool and green budgerigar feathers it is probably also crawling with mites. Birds seem not to have much of a sense of smell; but I bet that bath felt so good to itchy little bodies. I replaced the water after the tits had finished, I need hardly remark… it was so warm from the sun.

Perfumed beds remind me also of a client I had many years ago in the big stores. She was an avid collector of scented talcum powder. She bought so prodigally that it was inevitable that a sales assistant would eventually ask what she did with it all.

The lady said, ” I put it down the bed!”

Today you can do the job far more elegantly and efficiently with a flacon of Frederic Malle’s heavenly pillow and linen spray Dans Mon Lit. Richly, intensely yet delicately rosy this wonderfully romantic preparation perfumes your sheets to smell like the bedding of Titania’s bower. Its name reminds me of those saucily crafted movie titles of the early 1930’s, designed to titillate. So the posters might read:

‘Constance Bennett
In
BED OF ROSES
With
Joel McCrea’

That sort of thing.

Incidentally, I must tell you. Remember last week I was describing the chickeny-smells that led to my vegetarian phase? So, I had to smile when on Friday I went into my fabulous award-winning butcher’s – which always smells as sweet as a nut. A diffident customer was in there “looking for ideas for the weekend menu”. Then she announced that she was a vegetarian. I thought this was adorable, if slightly daffy. But spring-fever sends us a little crazy. It expects too much of us. It keeps the nerves at full stretch.

For instance, at this time in Japan folk go breaking their hearts over cherry-blossom-viewing. A regular participant was explaining the bitter-sweet brevity of the festival. One week of buds, one week of full flower, one week of fading and falling¤¤. But this pattern is not peculiar to the cherry. We experience it here in Britain just as poignantly and exquisitely. Since I became a (coarse) gardener I have noticed that few flowers last longer than three weeks. My neighbour has a magnolia tree with huge blooms like pink chiffon dusters, as though specially grown for the set of ‘Madama Butterfly’ or ‘The Mikado’. So spectacular but agonisingly fragile and short-lived: sometimes you can hardly bear to look.

Sprouting, flourishing, dying. All in three’s. That sacred mystic number since the beginning of human civilisation. It gets in everywhere, like King Charles’s head. It began maybe as a symbol of generation when we first started to climb up off all fours: father, mother, child. This was refined into the theology of the divine triads (Osiris, Isis, Horus) and finally degenerated into such petty superstitions as ‘three on a match’¤¤¤.

And think, of course, of perfume. A scent is generally described as having a three-tier pyramid structure of top, heart and base notes. Delicate sparkling accords to attract; full-blown epanouissement; and – with luck and skill – an enduring slow-burning afterglow. We all know about the inextricable meshings of scent and memory. Perfume is the ghost of a hundred springtimes.

* some scholars now read ‘oud’ for ‘aloes’. But then there are bitter aloes, once used to deter nail-biting.

¤ “I look like an elderly wasp in an interesting condition” – Mrs Patrick Campbell, when complimented on a black and yellow stage costume.

¤¤ not for nothing was the cherry blossom a favourite symbol of the kamikaze pilots. And remember Diana Dors reciting ‘A Shropshire Lad’ from the condemned cell in ‘Yield To The Night’?

¤¤¤ a belief supposedly manufactured by the great match companies at the time of the Great War. See the eponymous movie with Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak.

A Carpet of Flowers, A Carpet of Tears

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Not to mention The Babes In The Wood:

 

“And Robin Redbreast Sorrowing

Covered them with – rose – leaves!”

 

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

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

 

…AND NOW:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

To which the Queen-Empress replied,

 

“No, dear Child. Very humble”

 

I must confess to being both.

 

Thank you.

Love

James.

“Are The Feets In?” – Garbo

Guy Bourdin

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But she got it so wrong.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

¤ The Song of Solomon 7:1

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

¤¤¤ S.John 12:3,7.

Crowning Glory

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Cat’s Cradle

mr-kitty

 

Such filthy cold weather as we’ve had! I’ve been boosting my circulation with scalding hot baths and a selection of vanilla & tonka soaps. The Mizensir fragrance Musc Eternel – now selling like hot cakes at Les Senteurs  – echoes this creamy musky heat. Musc Eternel has a beautiful clinging sweetness to it, like a thick fluffed-up bath towel that’s been laid up in the airing cupboard with baby powders, oils and intimate lingerie. Simultaneously comforting, innocent and seductive.

 

What you really need in wet raw weather is a cat or a dog at the end of the bed; or curled up asleep on your chest. I never slept so well in the afternoons as when I had Mr Kitty or Dolly the Pug to hand. It’s not just the entirely relaxed weight and soothing involuntary noises emitted by that furry bundle on your lap. It’s the rhythm of the breathing synchronised with your own; and the perfectly clean smell of a small animal.

 

Now a swanky new hotel and spa for dogs and cats – 7 star, apparently, whatever that may mean in this context  – has opened in Beijing. The hotel has the unusual name of ‘SmellMe’. This strikes me as a bit odd and not especially attractive, but I suppose it is acknowledging the primary greeting between all animals. You know, that apparent “kissing” – or, at least, rubbing of noses; and the uninhibited peering and sniffing beneath tails.

 

Since the nationwide “awareness campaign” for neutering, you don’t smell cat nearly as much as you used to when out and about. I remember childhood sofas which possessed a certain unwished-for redolence. My grandfather had a flock of wilful cats who did as they pleased. Thomas used a Georgian sugar basin as his private amenity. Flowers of the asparagaceae family – bluebells for instance – are used rather warily in perfume because to many people they suggest felines at their least attractive. A bowl of hyacinth bulbs past their best emit a most disconcerting smell. A gardener said recently that she found the heavenly scent of that pink winter vibernum to be unpleasantly similar to that of dog detritus, once the blossom decays.

 

“Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds”.

 

It’s the old story: we howl and shout when our dogs “roll in something” on the beach or down the fields and yet the line between the disgusting and the delightful is so fine. Very few of us would revel in every one of these scents and tastes: Stilton cheese, ripe pheasant, tripe, over-blown lilac, tuberoses, ambergris – and coffee beans that have known the digestive tracts of a civet.

 

A couple of years ago I wrote in this column about the very common city problem of a mouse in the house. I imagined then that scattering cat combings in the place where vermin congregate would have a deterrent effect. Now I learn it is specifically the reek of cat urine that scares off the intruders: so I pass this tip on. Sufferers may wish to re-think their policy – or rely (as previously advised) on peppermint; and the intercession of St Martin de Porres.

 

Several of the most famous fictional cats in our literary culture are creations of Beatrix Potter. Mrs Twitchit and Mrs Ribby are immaculate and industrious animals. They run grocery stores, cook, launder and cuff their kittens when the tinies muss their best bibs and tuckers. They eat mice to be sure (mixing the meat with bacon in pies) and – like Miss Moppet – tie rodents in dusters and “toss them about like a ball”.

 

But, now that I know what I know, I wonder about the passage in ‘Johnny Town-mouse’ in which the cat plays a darker and more realistic role¤. Johnny offers a  his guest from the country a place to lay his tiny head:

 

‘The sofa pillow had a hole in it. Johnny Town-mouse quite honestly recommended it as the best bed, kept exclusively for visitors. But the sofa smelt of cat. Timmy Willie preferred to spend a miserable night under the fender’.

 

O! Those well-remembered old couches of my youth: ‘I believe there’s been a cat on here…..”

 

¤ the mice feel faint at the thought of this diabolical cat. She kills the canary and we can see her kittens (naked as nature intended) capering all over the scullery table.

All In The Mind

garbo
“The desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” ¤ 
Round about this time the sluggish torpor of mid-winter begins to lift. You realise that, despite all expectations, a new energy is charging you up, to – hopefully – see you through another year. The sunshine and anticipatory tingle of a single perfect blue day is a promissory note of spring. The light now lasts till after tea. The pink clouds of shepherd’s delight – last night, spreading like an explosion of rose petals – don’t spatter across the sky till gone half past five. The dark begins to retreat, and chilly fresh flowery smells start to emerge once more in the garden. The snowdrops have come, and the first crocus are open. As I grow older, February – formerly loathed and despised¤¤ – now seems one of the more hopeful of months.
They were talking about the wild life and hard times of Lionel – “OLIVER!” – Bart on the wireless. I remember he had a great love of Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, that perfumed dying of the light. In the lean years of his old age, the composer would come into Harrods for a spray-up on the Guerlain counter. In those generous days, the kindly staff would rummage in the bins and the stock-rooms for exhausted L’Heure Bleue testers from which a final precious drop might be squeezed.
Perfume is, above all, a wilful creature of moods, impressions and fantasy. We talk a great deal about sillage, tenacity, batch numbers, raw ingredients and projection: but in the final analysis the magic of fragrance is all in the mind. Most of us interpret scent in an entirely subjective way. The creamy waxen glory of sambac or ylang ylang is, for some, redolent more of bicycle tyres or penny bubblegum than the secret gardens of the Jungle Princess. Remember Giorgio Beverley Hills? The party line described it as an explosion of jasmine and gardenias. I always smelled pineapple sorbet. And that, I liked. One takes whatever one chooses from a scent, and revels in it. The rest doesn’t matter.
Mr Bart’s L’Heure Bleue is notorious for the wildly different associations it evokes. To many it represents the apogee of Edwardian opulence, the frou frou of a lost golden age. This is a view which gains assurance from the continued availability of L’Heure Bleue’s cousins – Apres L’Ondee and (proudly at Les Senteurs) – Grossmith’s feathery powdery Shem-El-Nessim. Other people smell L’Heure Bleue as cakey feasts of almond marzipan; dusty clove carnations in the dentist’s waiting room; or the exhausted sadness of shadowy funerals. None of these images define the perfume: they are the fantasies (sometimes shared) of individuals.
One of the great liberating joys of experiencing perfume is that you can do with it exactly as you will. When we have the joy of welcoming new clients to Les Senteurs, I often say to our visitors, “everyone here does just as he likes”. By which I mean, that we are always on hand – if required – to help, advise and explain: but, in the final analysis, every visitor must feel free to interpret, choose and wear fragrance exactly as she or he chooses. That’s the only work required.
It is possible – I hope not, but it is conceivable – that occasionally the way we describe a fragrance may jar uncomfortably with the image in a client’s mind. It is inevitable, really. The old rigour and definition of the traditional perfume families have long since flown out the window. Nowadays (and, wonderfully) perfumers have access to such a plethora of raw materials that their combinations and formulae are both startling and infinite. A consequent ‘semi-floriental gourmand fougere’ is almost impossible to categorise definitively. And to pick it apart atom by molecule would be to break a butterfly on a wheel. Perfume language still being in the olfactory Stone Age, I prefer to speak in metaphor, if not in tongues. One can only suggest; and paint a personal picture.
But, of course:
 “I say to-MAH-toes
You say to-MAY-toes…”
As my dear father used to remark, it’s as well we all think differently or some of us would be killed in the rush. People discover fragrance in the most unlikely places. When Anne Baxter first goes backstage to meet Bette Davis in reel two of All About Eve the camera lingers on all the friendly dusty squalor behind the scenes – and on the lady hoovering in the Stalls out front.
Says Baxter:
‘You can smell it, can’t you? Like some magic perfume…’
You pays your money and you takes your choice. But always with pleasure – and, of course, always at Les Senteurs.
Thank you.
¤ Isaiah 35.
¤¤ “Messieurs janvier et fevrier sont mes meilleurs genereaux!” – Tsar Nicholas 1st.

Health and Efficiency

dryad

 

Everyone’s throwing themselves into the New Year with abandon. It’s good to see. It’s a fine thing to be alive. We are planning various sprees at Les Senteurs. Out in the wider world, folk are getting fit and fleet. Each year, directly after Christmas, you see a great hatch-out of runners pounding the pavements – all resplendent and glowing in brand new fluorescent togs. Many of them (somewhat shy) emerge only under the cover of the kindly darkness. As the weeks of January fly by, the runners seem to fade away.

Others have already managed to lose weight, even when sedentary. A colleague of my youngest brother was recruited to play Father Christmas at the office party. By the end of the evening – underneath all the red velveteen, cotton wool and spirit gum – he’d sweated off five pounds.

So this got us all at the shop thinking and reflecting. We pondered on how many little kids (some adults too) get the horrors at the sight of Santa and have to be taken out, shrieking. I remember saying to my father on Christmas Eve, “please let Santa come…..but not while I’m awake!” Pa said, “don’t worry. That will never happen!”

I’d just had a shock in our local toy shop. All I remember now is the smell of hot linoleum on a walkway around an atrium; and a dreadful blaze of spot-lit, roaring, guffawing crimson at the end of an enfilade. It was Father Christmas – in his Grotto – but it might as well have been the Devil. I had to be taken out.

Now we had this little pow-wow as I say, and one of our dear customers – a very perspicacious and sophisticated gentleman – suggested that it might be the smell of Santa that upsets some children so terribly. The smell of a grubby hot hired costume, and of the perspiring stressed creature inside. Especially if the secret Santa were not over fond of regular hot water and soap. Very likely on his uppers, career-wise, Mr Claus might well emit a rank and feral odour to catch unthinking and instinctive infants at their most vulnerable; a most pungent plangent scent of unfamiliar danger.

Perhaps this might also account for panic attacks at the circus, too. The reek of the ring, the sawdust, the detritus, the canvas, the hysterical audience, the wild beasts. The performers, above all, exuding their own tensions and fears through their paws and pores. I was taken out – once again – aged about three. There was something about the entry of a troupe of poodles dancing on their hind legs which set me off. This led in turn to a series of nightmares which lasted for years. These dreams featured blue dogs bearing basins, their entry into my bedroom inevitably heralded in sleep by a spectral drum roll.

Maybe the smell of “lovely rice pudding for dinner again” is what made Mary Jane scream so wildly. Hallucinogenic nutmeg, the aroma of boiled milk and the brown baked mackintosh topping does make some people queasy. Surely there can be few things more disturbing than having a foodstuff that the nose rejects pushed into your mouth with a cold and remorseless metal spoon. Almost five years ago I discussed rice pudding in this column. I mentioned then the phantom farinaceous smell that used to hang over a certain quarter of Leicester. Was the nose of my younger self trying to send me a message? It is very odd. I now discover that a set of relatives of whom I then knew nothing once lived there. Since to me this nursery dessert has such a homely comforting fragrance, I can only suppose that like was calling to like.