“Peace and quiet is for libraries” – Bette Davis

peace-rose-720

Peace Rose

 

Last Remembrance Sunday Our Vicar talked about Peace. She told us about a class of school children who had been asked to write down what Peace might smell like. No one mentioned the now outmoded rose of that name, so popular in gardens of my youth; but one infant had volunteered a bouquet of flowers. Other suggestions included vanilla ice cream, fresh laundry, cinnamon and pop corn.

With Advent now upon us we might all play this little game. I didn’t thrill to any of the above suggestions. For me they are all redolent of comfort, nurture, relaxation and gratification of the senses. No harm in that. Perhaps that’s how most of us define Peace: precious moments of switching off, and a spot of more or less innocent self-indulgence. But clean linen and food scents don’t conjure Peace for me. Not Peace as opposed to war; or divine heavenly Peace; or internal emotional Peace. Bond No.9 perfumes used to make a fragrance called The Scent of Peace – probably they still do. The packaging was designed around a Picasso-style dove and I recall the fragrance as being rather of the crisp, cool aquatic type with a nip maybe of blackcurrant and tea. I thought it a bit numb and vague, actually.

Because, for me, Peace smells of nothing at all. It’s a freedom from all stimulation, including the sensory; a cessation of all the excitement of the perfume cabinet, the scent shop and the sample. It’s as Mrs Patrick Campbell said of marriage – the exchanging of “the hurly-burly of the chaise longue for the deep, deep peace of the double bed”. All passion spent. If I was pressurised to give a sensual attribute to Peace it would be tactile rather than olfactory. Possibly I’m still thinking of that eponymous rose, but I feel Peace would likely be similar to the touch of thick creamy velvet – smooth and having the coolness of petals. But, simultaneously, also healthily firm, well-sprung and grounded. Colour-wise, always in shades of white.

White Painting by Robert Rauschenberg

White Painting by Robert Rauschenberg

J.M. Barrie, like countless others, found a kind of Peace wreathed in the smoky silky brown arms of his Lady Nicotine. “A cigarette – well, it’s like a little friend” someone once said to me, rather tragically I thought. I am lately entranced by vapes, and more especially by vape shops. Suddenly these exotic boutiques seem to be everywhere: the only place to be. I haven’t yet indulged but I look on in wonder. I don’t quite understand vapes yet, and that’s the state of fascination I like best. A little bit of mystery preserved¤.

I must tell you of my vape epiphany. It was an absolute pig of a day – icy rain and it never got light. I was in Richmond, hobbling up a side street in the murk and sodden gloom. Like Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise, I had my salad lunch by me in a string bag. I wondered how our forefathers coped with the old choking London fogs. My father well remembered them from his student days in the late ’40’s; Piccadilly and St James’s cloaked in thick yellow-grey filth. I came by a little shop set rather back from the road. It was like a store in a dream: the Sheep’s shop in “Alice”, or Mrs Corry’s establishment in the “Mary Poppins” books. (D’you remember Mrs Corry? Too frightening for the movie, I guess, she has barley-sugar fingers which she snaps off for children to eat).

I peered through the window and saw only clouds of mist. The door flew open and two gentlemen emerged like Seraphim, absolutely enveloped in perfumed steam and sweet vapours. The grey day was suddenly psychedelic with colour and fragrance: it was a vision from the Arabian Nights; a folk memory of the Temple of Solomon. Warm odours of caramel, grapefruit, chocolate, cherry, strawberry, tobacco, vanilla, pineapple and peach filled the air and rolled up the hill towards those roads aptly named Paradise and Mount Ararat.

Magical! Absolutely. Because so unexpected, do you see? Peaceful? Not exactly, but a vision of another world. Those departing customers put me in mind of the four mythical houris who are said to be made respectively of amber, camphor, saffron and musk. And  of course, at the risk of being accused of cultural appropriation, we shouldn’t forget the ancient Native American concept of Smoking the Pipe of Peace.

Peace to You All!

¤ like the very best sort of perfume. Or friendship.

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.

Curating The Curators

The Bookworm

 

“And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon…she came to prove him with hard questions…And she gave the king an hundred and twenty talents of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones: there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the queen of Sheba gave to king Solomon ..” ¤

So we see that both Balkis, Queen of Sheba and Solomon the Great were early curators and collectors of perfumes: maybe the first of their type actually recorded. The Book of Kings goes on to mention Solomon’s unique hoard of precious almug  – probably red sandalwood – from which were carved divinely scented pillars for the great Temple at Jerusalem. “There came no such almug trees, nor were seen unto this day.” ¤¤

Nowadays we are all curators. Curating is what they call a sexy – if lazy –  concept: it has come to mean whatever you want it mean. The word “curate” (both the noun and the verb) derive from the Latin root ‘cura’ – ‘care’. When I was a little boy the word made me somewhat wary. I didn’t like the look of it, written down. It had a hardness to it; and of course it also had a medical association. The cure of patients and the cure of souls. Hence those flocks of curates in church circles – those strange unfledged semi-vicars, as they seemed to a child. Then, curates still had an air that was partially sinister and partially foolish¤¤¤. And of course I found it hard to differentiate the word ‘curate’ from that infallibly deadly poison – ‘curare’ – which supposedly tipped the arrows of Amazonian savages. Then there were those vague and alarming – though usually unseen – curators in museums. “The Curator will have you!” was almost as powerful a threat as that of the Policeman coming to get you or – in public gardens – the “Parky”.

I would say that we at Les Senteurs curate our perfumes in the true sense. We select, display, preserve and care for them. We may choose to edit judiciously certain brands from time to time, just as the Man at the Museum relegates the stuffed polar bear to the basement for a spell and replaces him with a Meissen monkey orchestra. We protect, clean, promote and exhibit our scents to their best advantage. Like guardians of antique fabrics or paintings we try to protect fragrances from excessive illumination, but unlike an art gallery we are keen on the hands-on approach. All our hundreds of scents have a tester bottle and that tester is there to be sprayed. So come on in and have a go. Benefit from our curation to build your own collection.

For collecting is quite a different thing.
Speaking only for myself, collecting is haphazardly amassing. In my old Dutch Booke of Magicke¤¤¤¤ I read a most accurate and disconcerting insight into my astrological traits. Folk born on my day are “…generally open to less conventional art forms, diversions and entertainments…they are often art or antique collectors with an eye for those apparently ordinary items from bottle caps to brass door knobs..” My father, also an Aries, left behind boxes of crab & scallop shells, pipe cleaners and feathers.

My own collection of perfumes, by virtue of my being in the business for so long, is extensive but rambling. The current bottles are decently stored, in that I keep them in the dark, well padded and at a pretty constant temperature. Empty flacons are moved on to a somewhat primitive Cabinet of Curiosities where they sit alongside grit from the Valley of the Kings and a dried rose from Samarkand.  But I am not one for ordering, labelling and precise regimentation. I love the idea of all that – I admire it –  but in practice I like to be fooling around with my treasures; having them about me like toys and talismans. I like them portable and accessible. I like them “live”. Also, I am messy.

People are kind enough to show me wonderful exuberant photos of their own perfume collections. Here one sees literally hundreds – often thousands – of filled bottles, heaped up before mirrors or on glass tables like the treasures of King Solomon’s mines or the contents of the late Queen Mary’s Faberge vitrine. “Stuff it all in!” as my dear friend Felicia used to say.  I feel these collectors have the right spirit. Perfume may be a form of poetry but it’s got to be poetry in motion. A working collection is the right collection. Perfumes cannot be pinned to boards like poor dried bees or butterflies.

It’s rather like that other modern craze: that of tracing your ancestors. Some do this as an academic mathematical exercise. Others are primarily interested in the characters, individuals and human oddiities they unearth: the magic and mystery of the ever-developing gene pool.

And so with fragrance. A great part of its fascination lies in how each perfume relates to another: how the perfume families first defined over a century ago grow increasingly diffuse and more elaborately defined. Amazing hybrids and mutations appear as off-shoots but the great pure-blooded ancestors still stand in the background, albeit face-lifted, dieted and genetically modified. The good curator and the devoted collector know that the essence of perfume is just that: using it and smelling it. As for instruction, let the fragrance speak for itself.

¤ 1 Kings, 10. Passim.

¤¤ I also remember ‘La reine de Saba’ tea rooms in the shadows of Chartres Cathedral, decades ago: scented with madeleines, saffron buns, ginger bread,  fine teas – and, of course, the eponymous cakes.

¤¤¤ from Charlotte Bronte – and Mr Punch’s notorious egg – to Enid Blyton.

¤¤¤¤ THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF BIRTHDAYS by Goldschneider and Elffers, Viking Penguin 1994.