“Touchez-pas mes tomates!” – Josephine Baker

 

I have never yet assisted at an anthropophagous feast. Indeed, despite the occasional voice from the BBC radio archive, many academics now question whether cannibal banquets ever occurred at all. They could be a figment of a warped cultural imagination. (See also: violent Vikings, the various cakes of King Alfred and Marie Antoinette, or even the very existence of the poor old Dolly Sisters). The tomato is such a well-known homely fruit and food-chain-rivet today. It’s hard to imagine it in Pre-Conquest Mexico, served up with marigolds and tuberose on a garnished epergne of human sacrificial flesh.

‘Tomatl’ the old Mexica called the luscious-acid berry. Spookily it’s a member of the nightshade family. We in Britain first wrote the word as ‘tamatah’ or ‘tomata’ – the way many of us still pronounce it.

How the tomatl finished up here is uncertain. It grew wild all over the South American continent and came to London via Italy and Spain, courtesy of Columbus – maybe! – and the Conquistadors. In those days carrots were purple, beetroots were yellow and tomatoes were gold. And the English didn’t take to the novelties at all. The taste was too sharp and sour for a nation already sky-high on sugar. The colour was at first thought amusing for table decoration; but tomatoes, it seems, mostly ended up in animal feed. What people objected to most, was the horrible smell.

Which is odd. Because today the fragrance of ripe warm tomatoes is as much of a delicacy as the fruit itself. I used to know a greenhouse in a walled secret garden. At this time of year, the hothouse would surrounded with huge fleshy bitter-scented scarlet dahlias and a tangle of tarragon, run wild. Push open the swollen glass door and you were embraced by the narcotic perfume of vine peaches, and of ripening tomatoes in their feathery foliage.

I’m growing tomatoes right now, in tubs, and feeding them with Tomorite. Very healthy this year, they are: bug-free and appreciative of last week’s 48 hour deluge. The leaves smell good when pinched: spicy and green and slightly dusty, musty, feral. I guess the scent is not that far removed from that of geraniums. Spiky, aromatic, uplifting. Our wonderful Mona di Orio always remembered from infancy the smell of her grandmother’s geraniums: one of her own key perfume references. Baking summer days – and then watering the flower pots in the cool of the evening: the sharp tang of wet earth and leaves.

We have had one or two tomato scents in the shop over the years; and the occasional tomato candle. They have all been ingenious and rather lovely; though not especially successful sellers. Maybe because – although lusciously redolent – the tomato is too much associated in people’s minds with eating. But then, you exclaim, what nonsense is this? Folk go mad for gourmand perfumes suggestive of cream, chocolate, peaches, apricots, praline, liqueurs. Yes, certainly. But then these are luxurious, voluptuous, often rather unhealthy foods: ergo, erotic. The tomato represents ‘health for all’ and for some perverse reason that is not generally seen as sexy. Or, not as yet. Consider, too, canned tomato soup: it comes very high on comfort lists for the poorly and the exhausted. That too doesn’t sit well with an exuberant sensuality.

When tomatoes were eventually bred as red in hue they still failed to find favour. Great ladies of the Victorian and Edwardian era – most famously Duchess Violet of Rutland – thought them common. The Duchess banned them from Belvoir Castle. I remember it being said that Prime Minister John Major loathed tomatoes, and they were in his day never proffered with the Full English at No.10. My father was wary of them and preferred them skinned. He believed that every tomato skin ingested would one day have to be accounted for: evidently another inherited Victorian food fad.

My grandmother taught me the most amusing way to peel tommies: inexhaustible fun at age five or six. You stuck a skewer into the core, and held the fruit in the gas flame of the stove, rotating it slowly. Sooner or later there came a satisfying ‘POP!’ – and a spitting burst of juice – and a wonderful scent of scorching warm tomato flesh. The skin slid off as easily as on a baking Bank Holiday beach weekend at Bognor!

I saw Jamie Oliver cooking dried beans the other night. He advised popping in a tomato because its acid softens the beans, and stops them from splitting. It occurred to me that you could drop in whole tomatoes and thus loosen their skins in the boil-up. Myself, I don’t bother about peeling. The way I like my tomatoes best is raw – warm from the sun, sliced and tossed in olive oil and black pepper. Let the mix sit – covered – in the sun a while longer. Lots of fresh basil leaves satisfy an urgent need for violent primary colour-clashing and added fragrance. To gild the lily, chuck in peeled and glistening avocado halves. The ultimate quantum of solace.

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“…always with his nose in a book…”

 

Good news this week for the publishing trade. The sale of printed books is on the rise once more. I saw only one electronic ‘Kindle’-book up and running on the London/Leicester express last Friday night – and believe me I’d schlepped the length of the train hunting for a seat. Which I found.

I think it’s what we always knew. The redolence of print, new pages, different types of paper, glossy covers and wrappers is an integral part of the pleasure of reading. Then, as you get into a book, it absorbs your own natural oils and DNA molecules: it becomes a part of your persona. ‘L.W. – his book’ as the traditional proprietorial inscription used to read. The volume gradually is saturated with the scent of the reader: her perfume, his embrocation, her food, his hair gel. My mother’s paperbacks were semi-transparent with smears of Nivea and Ambre Solaire. The pages looked like so many medieval windows: sheets of paper soaked in oil. And remember Emily Bronte teaching herself German as she rolled out the pastry? With the grammar propped up against the flour crock and Keeper under the table, hoping for crumbs. The apocryphal tale of finding a dried rasher of bacon (sometimes a kipper) used as a bookmark is told by many librarians.

Like Jean Harlow, I was reading a book the other day¤. It’s the new biography¤¤ of the great Irish novelist Molly Keane, by her daughter Sally Phipps. Keane is probably best remembered for her late “comeback” novel ‘Good Behaviour’ (1981) which starts with an (intentionally) nauseating description of a dish of “quenelles in a cream sauce ……there was just a hint of bay leaf and black pepper, not a breath of the rabbit foundation”. In fact the baby rabbit mousse proves the finish of the bed-ridden old lady to whom it is force fed:

“The smell – I’m – ”

And that’s the end of Mrs St Clair.

The entire suite of Molly Keane’s novels from 1928 to 1989 are required reading – and more than once over.  The books are beautiful, acute, very funny indeed and sometimes horribly sad – you cry ALL the time for one reason or another. Keane is marvellous on food (she adored cooking, finding it not only mouth-watering but therapeutic and fulfilling); and she is unparalleled in her awareness of smells. The first sentence of ‘Good Behaviour’ is all about things olfactory – both emotional and culinary:

‘Rose smelt the air, considering what she smelt…’

For the ‘miasma’ in that seaside Irish house is entirely sinister.

The books are suffused in sensory awareness; especially of colour and of smell. Flowers, clothes, the seasons, perfume, fur, pubs, horses, gardens, food, violet sachets, hair, smoke; the hunting field and the bedroom. Ms Phipps has inherited her mother’s nose – she writes of a butler’s pantry which “smelt rather deliciously of stale coffee grounds and pink silver powder”. She describes an aunt advising Molly before a hunt ball – ‘ “don’t accept presents of scent my darling and don’t talk to any strange men” ‘.

Of course then, back in the 1920’s, a girl who accepted a gift of anything wearable from a gentleman was hopelessly compromised. ‘The coat of shame’ wrote Lady Diana Cooper. And taking perfume from a man was tantamount to wearing
his engagement ring – or admitting you were his mistress. Hence the Mae West
riposte, which today sounds rather vague and harmless:

– “You always have such swell things! How do you do it on your salary?”

– “It’s a gift, honey. It’s a gift.”

I love it when you find one of your own tricks being practised in a book. Jasper throws “bay leaves onto the low ring of the Aga so that the smoke from their curling blackened leaves might quell other smells” ¤¤¤. When I first worked and cooked with an Aga I was fascinated by its secondary use as an altar to the Lares and Penates. Like Vesta’s Flame, it burned perpetually. One could immolate herbs and spices on it at any time, like Pamela Brown ladling the incense into the brazier in Liz Taylor’s ‘Cleopatra’. And the Lady of the Aga used to polish the stove with her own hand cream, lanolin-enriched, which of course lent a very heady redolence to the kitchen and back sculleries.

I was fascinated by Molly Keane’s biography and it is beautifully done. However, it upset me in the way that only biography sometimes can; in this case, I can’t tell quite why. Brian Master’s book about Marie Corelli had the same effect on me, decades ago.  Mrs Keane lost her husband early in very tragic circumstances; but she led a long and in many ways blessed life. She was a perfectionist and that is a state that always frets me because I guess I am one myself. However, I’m so despairing of achieving any sort of perfection that I often give up before I try. Maybe the strong sense of smell that dominates Ms Phipps’s book panics me in some primeval animal way, as I am an individual who also lives through scents and odours and the complicated sensations they arouse. Could that be so? Having worked so long with perfume, I am fully aware of its strange and uncanny powers. However, I’m still prepared to be surprised and shocked by their manifestations!

¤ “reading a book?” gasps Marie Dressler, doing the double-take to end all: DINNER AT EIGHT (1933).

¤¤ ‘Molly Keane: a life’ by Sally Phipps, 2017

¤¤¤ ‘Time after Time’ 1983

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.

Perfume That Hurts. Part 2: The Scent That Stings

indian-bee-goddess

 

Life is so very fluid and uncertain that there’s great comfort to be found in the Eternal Truths of the primeval cosmic myths. The contemplation of the planting of a Garden, east of Eden; or the Laying of the Cosmic Egg by the Cosmic Goose. These stories have the great calm of an eternal inevitability. There was a riveting, if slightly grumpy, discussion of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi on the wireless last week: a fresh churning of that ocean of perfumed milk and white lotus flowers from which the deity sprang, entire and perfect, like Athene or Aphrodite. I was enchanted by the description of the cosmic elephants trumpeting golden largesse and wearing garlands of impossibly lovely blossoms of unearthly fragrance. The animals were maddened by the sound of the scent. The pachyderms were bombarded by the vibration of the intoxicating perfume, in itself the sound of Creation. At this point the studio experts disputed as to whether the noise was coming from the flowers themselves or from the bees swarming on their nectar. But what an image! We have all in our time been deafened by fragrance; and stung too, as by a merciless horde of insects.

I’ve been re-reading Hilary Mantel’s magnificently upsetting Beyond Black: a novel of the grotesque, cruel and comic supernatural, replete with invasive, disturbing and disorienting smells. These are the kind of reeks that muck up your powers of hearing – and thus your balance – just as the ungodly voices of fiends gibber on the psychic Alison’s tape recorder. In vain she tries to repel them with hot scented baths and liberal applications of her sweet signature perfume, pregnant with meaning: Je Reviens.

An early lost work by Rembrandt has recently been rediscovered in the USA. This is one of a series of paintings illustrating the five senses. Rembrandt’s depiction of the sense of smell is perhaps the last thing you would expect: nothing lyrical nor sentimental here. We see the eponymous Unconscious Patient in a swoon, during the course of some minor and doubtless dubious surgery. The man is being brought round with pungent smelling salts: consciousness being revived by the shocking sting of sal volatile. When I first saw images of the painting I instinctively thought, with my foolish modern sensibilities, ah! now here is a patient being given a whiff of merciful ether prior to treatment. I was, of course, ahead of blessed anaesthetics by two centuries. Rather the artist is taking a very grim look indeed at the power of smell: its use to restore that consciousness lost through pain in order that the victim may endure more – possibly efficacious – agony.

All this bearing in mind that, as was appreciated even then, the healing arts of the seventeenth century killed more than they cured. Our ancestors used perfume for pleasure, to be sure: but scent then was far more to do with awe, magic, alchemy and enchantment – and that’s enchantment in the witchy – rather than the QVC or Disney – sense of the word.

I have been stung – literally; not in the monetary sense¤ – several times by fragrance. By crude pot pourri that burned the nose – “don’t get it near your face” – and which roughened the hands as though you were laying carpets; by liquid perfumes that scorched my neck and peeled my ears. These items I have avoided at point of sale. It is trickier when you are assaulted by scent worn by others. I don’t subscribe to the general execration heaped on Dior’s Poison – I think it’s an ingenious and pioneering creation. However, some quarter century ago, I worked for a whole year standing next to a girl who apparently swam in Poison and washed her clothes in it. I was comprehensively worked over by Poison; pounded and force-fed by that curious smell that is so like that of old Russia: spicy fermenting bruised apples.

Last week – anticipating LES SENTEURS’ paradoxical new scent ATTAQUER LE SOLEIL – I said a little about the pain in pleasure of certain perfumes. These You Have Loathed – Yet Loved. I remember now my tormented relationship with Fahrenheit – is there some curious anti-bond between me and Dior? – in the late ’80’s. People today say Fahrenheit has an unnatural strength and vigour: but back then – o my! Those wild accords of leather, mandarin¤¤ and violet and I don’t know what. It was something akin to the buzz you may get from the smell of fresh petrol on the garage forecourt. I adored it and had a standing order with the Dior girls for empty testers from which I could wring a few more drops. The precious odour of Fahrenheit kind of hurt my teeth: it made my gums ache and my mouth water¤¤¤. I think it’s the closest I ever came to a perfume addiction.

Perfume is an exciting and nerve-wracking business: occasionally even the most ardent of lovers needs to take stock. Every once in a while a fragrance-free weekend, naked as nature intended, rests the nerves – while simultaneously sharpening the appetite for more. The technique of the true epicure and the connoisseur of sensations.

¤ In 50 years of purchasing power I’ve always felt I’ve had my money’s worth from perfume. I have bought into the dream all my life and never yet awoken.

¤¤ ‘mandarin’ – or ‘man-darr-INN’ as everyone pronounces it these days.

¤¤¤ Lancome’s Tresor – once the cult fragrance of Holloway wardresses – had something of the same effect. A compulsive acidic juiciness.

Divorced, Beheaded, Died. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.

blog henry viii

 

“In my time I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of meeting six reigning Queens, each in very different circumstances. I wondered this week how I should conduct myself if the six wives of Henry VIII should suddenly roll up at Les Senteurs, demanding high rare perfumes and scented goods from beyond the seas and the outer realms of Christendom. This unlikely prospect came into my head on account of a book review in The Times which proposed that, of the six, Katharine of Aragon “…is the least sympathetic to us now”. I was a bit thrown by this; couldn’t agree less. Neither could insightful historian Alison Weir on BBC R4: she plumped for Anne Boleyn – I’m with her, there. But the Spanish Queen, the first wife, is one of the most attractive and admirable of the set: she and Katherine Parr, Henry’s eventual widow and Queen Dowager, would get my vote. Together they clocked up twenty five odd years with the old beast. The other four marriages were over and done with in less than ten.

I imagine that, as a former Infanta born into the purple, Katherine would be most in demeanour like our own dear Queen, gracious and dignified; poised and powerful. And already exuding the odour of sanctity and frankincense from her velvets and furs, the exotic perfumes of Moorish Spain. My instinctive choice would be to reach down GRAIN DE PLAISIR on account of its top notes being an accord of majestically crimson pomegranates, the symbol of fertility which graced Katherine’s personal coat of arms: the pomegranates which grew in the gardens of Granada where the princess spent her childhood. Katharine was a blonde fair-skinned Spaniard and might also appreciate a glittering hesperidic beauty to remind her of home: maybe the airy and delicate YU SON with its accords of mandarin, green tea and gaiac wood. The thousand-seeded pomegranate failed to work its blessing of propagation on the luckless Katherine: had she mothered a son, the terrible Boleyn would never have stolen her crown.

I anticipate that “Anne-Sans-Tete” – as she called herself at the end with an hysterical gallows humour – would be tricky; arch, bossy and demanding. She wanted to stick a silver bodkin through any tongue that slandered her; the six fingers on her left hand were the infallible mark of a witch. Her arch-enemy Cardinal Wolsey called her “The Night Crow”; but (remembering that bodkin) would one have the effrontery to propose the all too aptly named L’OISEAU DE NUIT with its sumptuous oriental luxe and creamy notes of liqueur? Alternatively there is ANGELIQUE by Papillon which contains pungent ambiguous addictive hawthorn: otherwise known as (unlucky) may blossom. To the medieval mind the month of May was sacred to the Queen of Heaven and thus fraught with taboos: Anne Boleyn was prepared for Coronation, arraigned and beheaded all in the merry month of May.

Jane Seymour, mouse-meek but cunning as a rat, with strange transparent milk-white skin – and a milk- and-water demeanour: what shall we have for her? Maybe TEINT DE NEIGE – “the colour of snow”. Pure, sweet, delicate and diaphanous: but with powdery depths of suppressed passion – and an immense clinging tenacity.

Then poor Anne of Cleves, “the Flanders mare”: painted as an exquisite fragile beauty by Holbein but reviled on sight by Henry who made unpleasant slurs on what would now be described as her lack of “body toning”. The King also remarked, straight out, that she smelled. The very fact that he said this indicates that the Tudor Court had – and this may surprise some – high standards of hygiene. It strikes me that Henry – himself always well doused in rose-water  – might conceivably have been put off his stroke by the bride’s perfume. Coming from the Low Countries Anne would have been well acquainted with the already legendary alchemical Queen of Hungary Water, said to have been formulated by a Carpathian hermit two hundred years before, and a best-seller ever since all over Northern Europe. But assuming the worst, that Anne exuded a natural ‘bouquet de corsage’, let’s introduce her to the olfactory phenonemon of SALOME, deliciously full of sexy sleaze and grubby animalic tease: enough to awake the beast in any Man.

Katherine¤ Howard was a wayward teenage minx and pathetic hoyden whom the uxurious monarch named his Rose Without A Thorn. There’s no fool like an old fool. And a fat one, to boot, with a waistline by now of over four feet. Kate played Henry false before and during marriage: precocious and voluptuous, she would have carried off UNE ROSE superbly. This intensely fragrant parfum has all the scarlet richness and majesty of the Tudor rose with an underlying earthy darkness. Like her dreadful Boleyn cousin, Katherine Howard was decapitated on Tower Green, in 1542.

Katherine Parr went on to take a fourth husband – Jane Seymour’s sexy brother Thomas – after Old Harry’s death¤¤ in 1547. She subsequently died tragically in childbirth at Sudeley Castle. What then could be more appropriate for this warm, erudite and sympathetic woman than BY ANY OTHER NAME inspired by the magnificent rose gardens of that same Gloucestershire property. The same heraldic flower as UNE ROSE but rendered with such a difference – a silky petal-soft prettiness and lighter than sunny summer air.

And for “Bluff King Hal” himself? Let’s wean him off that rosewater. It HAS to be Creed, and probably AVENTUS – the mark of the Confident Conqueror! Well, don’t you agree? Vive le roi!

¤ all these Katherines! The eponymous saint – She of the Wheel – was one of the most popular in the pre-Reformation calendar. Nowadays the Vatican pronounces that St Katherine of Alexandria “may have never existed”. And see “The Corner That Held Them” by Sylvia Townsend Warner for intriguing details of the once popular convent game of “Flying St Katherine”.

¤¤ his coffin exploded due to inefficient embalming. The stench was appalling and Catholic clerics grimly noted that, as in the case of the Biblical tyrant King Ahab, “dogs licked his blood”.

Keep Your Hair On!

THE PUMPKIN EATER, Anne Bancroft, Yootha Joyce, 1964

Memorable elegiac passages have been written by the great and the good on infant perceptions and idealised memories of the Scented Mother Figure. She tends to materialise as the light fails, irradiating the shadows with her own luminous brilliance. Winston Churchill remembered that Jennie Jerome “shone for me like the Evening Star – but at a distance”. The glowing gleaming goddess-like figure at the end of the little white nursery bed, suffused in heavenly perfumes, appears over and again in memoirs, like the metamorphosis of a redolent guardian angel. Peter Pan’s Mrs Darling, James James Morrison’s mother in her golden gown¤, even the deliciously fragrant virgin saints who appeared in the meadows to Jeanne d’Arc, all contribute to the mythic image, the mystic experience. The scent is key, the exotic alien perfumes which waft into a room: mother and child both in different ways waiting for the party – but also for the parting. The child is left with a fleeting kiss, clasped in the hand like a crumpled butterfly, and the clouds of scent which last longer than mama’s retreating shadow.

I certainly remember my own mother in these circumstances: in those days to be smelled wearing Rubinstein’s Apple Blossom, Diorissimo or Youth Dew. Quelques Fleurs she sprayed on the pug. I think that in her youth, growing up during the Midlands during the Depression and the War, perfume meant nothing very much to her. As I knew her, she had a great knack with clothes: she’d cannily put together one expensive and stylish outfit and wear it to death for a couple of years. And then she’d buy another. It was the same with scent. Much later in the day when I made perfume my profession she grew more adventurous, growing passionately fond of Serge Lutens A La Nuit and Caron’s Eau de Reglisse. But, in fact, infant memories concerning my mother and delicious smells have little to do with fine fragrance. They are much more connected with my tagging along with her to the hairdresser.

Miss Ribstone’s salon was across two streets from us, occupying the coverted ground floor of a Victorian terraced house. Miss R was a sweet and tiny scuttling woman, with green combs in her foxy hair. She had something of Marie Lloyd about her – I mean to say, always merry, with large teeth and full of what they now call banter. She must have been fond of small children – or remarkably tolerant – as the place was crawling with them. Tots could have their hair cut on the premises. They were also haphazardly entertained as though in a creche. Allowed to play with the scissors, combs and curlers and all that¤¤. I remember sitting on the lino amid all the hanks of hair (and no doubt splashes of peroxide). I do not recall a single window in the place: they must have been boarded up to allow numerous cubicles of hardboard to be erected in a kind of warm damp labyrinth. A client sat in each one, robed in a sea-green bib, like a Queen Bee in her airless waxen cell. Miss Ribstone ran like a rabbit, in and out the dusty bluebells, sectioning, wrapping and combing out.

The entire establishment was painted a boiled shrimp pink and had something of the atmosphere of a seraglio in old Constantinople¤¤¤ – all those ladies in negligent and relaxed deshabille, surrounded by children and attendants. Ladies “letting their hair down”, indeed. The place smelled so exciting, so strange, so very unlike home. An intoxicating cloud of hair spray, setting lotion, bleach, shampoo, hot water, perfumed steam, soap, conditioners, nail polish and wet hair. A frisson of fright was provided by alarming singey smells which added to the horror of those hideous hooded hair dryers. Sinister wires and cables trailed about as in some gruesome American execution chamber.

A dear friend and correspondent reminds me of “that smell of the old fashioned hair lacquer that used to be in a plastic bottle – you had to pump it out. That took a lot of strength! Masses of it went on, until the hair was helmet hard; and the smell – reminiscent of old fashioned carnations – lasted for days”. My interlocutor tells me, too, that today the burning smells – to do with the straightening of frizzy barnets  – have got much worse.

Like the breeching of little boys of 400 years ago, the day of my eventual graduating to the barber’s shop came as a terrible shock. “I’ve brought a bag for the ears” said the larky young man who took my younger brother and I to our initiation. It was a real horror. A dark bleak room, full of cigarette butts; sour old men sitting about, snarling at one another; smutty talk not fully understood, but confusing and disturbing; the agony of the rusty hand clippers nipping your neck. Things have changed now – somewhat – but half a century ago you would barely have known that the hairdresser and the barber and were in the same trade. It was pampering versus character building, then. There was no attempt at “styling”. The virile odours at the sign of the red and white pole came from barbicide – a dubious liquid in which the scissors and combs were disinfected; Brylcream; and a rough sort of hair oil which smelled like the bus station. “Pleasant pongs” – as The Beano called them –  were strictly for ladies only.

When us kids came home, our parents screamed at the sight of us – “Why did you let him do that to you?”

We’d had no say in the matter.

There’s something about the scent of hairspray which I still enjoy. The aldehydes which wreathe around some of Les Senteurs’s loveliest scents like luminous rainbow bubbles have a discreet and dazzling champagne memory of hair lacquer. Aldehydes give a perfume an escapist lift, an airy varnish, a fairy finish – a perfect “set”. They lift and elevate, lending their host fragrance a gleaming artifice and glamour. Next time you come by, try Noontide Petals, Dries Van Noten, Memoire du Futur, Lipstick Rose, Nocturnes or Lady Caron: each one a triumphant glossy crowning glory.

¤ this poor woman “.. .drove right down to the end of the Town……” & “hasn’t been heard of since” – terrifying.

¤¤ I once cut all my own hair off with a pair of paper scissors. Not at Miss R’s but early one morning, in bed. Had to go to school, though, just the same.

¤¤¤ try Parfum d’Empire’s Cuir Ottoman for sensual evocations of the hidden world of the Sultana Valideh – jasmine oil, and soft leather boots sewn with pearls padding down the passages…

Blood And Sand: Part One

marlene-dietrich-in-garden-of-allah

 

The stirring emotional scent of wet earth and newly-turned soil – “the red earth of Tara” or the aubergine-purple ploughed fields of the Midlands – has influenced many fragrances. Eighty years ago Jean Patou’s Colony explored the swampy forest floor of Indo-China. But what of the smells of apparently barren terrain? Eternal wastes of wilderness; the endless deserts – burning hot by day, penetratingly cold after the nightly drama of the death of the sun. Icy conditions numb, shrink and diminish smells and their perception. Antarctic explorers tell us of months in the snows, smelling nothing at all except the occasional pungent whiff of guano from a colony of exceptionally fishy sea birds. Extremes of temperature do perfume no favours, as all good fragrance curators know.

Yet the romance of the bare eastern desert – “on your far hills, long cold and grey” – has inspired many strange, beautiful and remarkable scents. The magic of these lies in the shifting shimmering sands which ensnare and capture elusive and deceptive odours, yielding them up as a Fata Morgana, sporadically and reluctantly, under the probing and teasing of the perpetual winds. Each grain of sand is a minute particle of a lost desiccated civilisation; of primeval rocks; of vanished lives. Each is the tiny crystalline cocoon of an infinity of odiferous molecules: a perfume paradox of the quick and the dead. A master perfumer can create a living dream from a handful of desert dust: an expansive gorgeous butterfly crawling from a wizened brown chrysalis. A marvellous dream born of a gusty void.

The desert – “the face of the infinite” – represented the apogee of exotic eroticism to our great grandparents. The expansion and refinement of the science of archaeology awoke the hearts and minds of the late Victorians to the romance of the enigmatic sands. Those drifting dunes which had silently and implacably engulfed cities and empires in preservative powder now began to give up their secret lives & smells. The canopic jars, dried flowers and perfume phials found in the tombs demonstrated how important scent had been to these lost civilisations. It is not coincidental that the modern oriental family of fragrances was classified around the time of the Tutankhamun mania of the early 1920’s. Novels such as The Sheikh, Beau Geste and The Garden of Allah dropped the historical connections and ran with the raw appeal of the desert and its wild hot-blooded denizens, crazed by sun, wind and sand.

Some of my readers may remember Vallee des Rois, the heady Harrods perfume exclusive of the 1980’s: in its lapis blue sea-glass flacons, Vallee was more Nile than desert nullah. It was very sweet, and to me smelled of hot lemon & honey with a twist of tuberose. Elizabeth Moore’s Anubis captures the perfume of the Egyptian dead more dramatically and exactly. Here we smell kings and courtiers laid out for eternity in those spices, resins and incense oils which, through their own intrinsic magic restored the embalmed to the delights of The Second Life.

The moods of the ever-changing desert are sketched in Andy Tauer’s bewitching pair: L’Air du Desert Marocain and Le Maroc Pour Elle. If L’Air is the cool night wind of the Maghreb desert, then Pour Elle with its passionate musky jasmine is more reminiscent of Arab or Berber myth. Its heady odour is like that of a seductive succubus whirled into some semblance of human shape by wreathed blown sands, leading a man to perdition in a far mirage. It is the scent a cinema audience may imagine emanating from Marlene Dietrich as she kicks off her high heels at the climax of MOROCCO¤ to follow Gary Cooper and the Legion into the Sahara, bare headed and barefoot in a wispy cocktail dress.

Pierre Guillaume, too, has an affinity with the desert. Maybe perfumers love  this wilderness theme because it is as mutable, enthralling and elusive as fragrance itself. One’s mouth waters at the crimson oasis earth of Dhjenne, fertile with palms, green wheat and cocoa beans: “as pants the hart for cooling streams…”. Guillaume’s earlier fragrance, the graceful Harmatan Noir, is delicate and wistful – faint but pervasive trails of mint tea, white jasmine, cedar and salt carried on the air currents across the northern wastes of the Dark Continent.

The Romans – who inadvertently created the Sahara by the extinction of the once vast forests of North Africa – brought the desert back to the Seven Hills in the sinister shape of the sandy arena of the Colisseum: a miniature landscape peopled with African beasts and the condemned from all over the known world. It was here – “lit by live torches” and saturated by the smells of roses, incense, excrement and the “sweaty nightcaps” of the mob – that the concept of blood and sand was first horribly born. We shall consider this in more detail next week.

¤”She’s not half stuck on herself” murmured a girl sat behind the young Quentin Crisp at a London showing in 1930. You can rendezvous with Marlene, back in the desert & swathed in white chiffon, in the movie version of the GARDEN OF ALLAH, shot in beautiful 1936 Technicolor. “…In the silence you’ll hear a box-office record crashing..” ran the ambiguous ads.