Cultural Appropriation: Flesh and Fantasy

sterrett_rosette_

Where do you stand on Cultural Appropriation? It’s the topic of the hour and it’s driving LW crazy because it would seem to have a special relevance to perfume – crucially, one not yet  determined.  One source ( “on line” ) defines it as a culture enjoying or celebrating a sensation that another has known in misery or in otherwise alternative circumstances. As in, say, pizza. An easy example. In the eighteenth century the good pizza succeeded macaroni as the food of the street poor of Naples – the lazzaroni. Ergo, it is morally wrong to enjoy this delicacy in our modern affluence at Pizza Express. But this explanation would not explain the frenzy over a girl dressing up on American TV as “Hello Kitty”. Twiggy voo? Viewers were described as “traumatised”.  Pretty Kitty is an especially controversial figure: there was another quite separate scene recently about whether or not she is bodily and entirely a cat beneath that little pink dress. Then “Around The World in 80 Days” is in trouble; also, the sporting of sombreros at costume parties; and even poor old Monet’s portrait of a French lady – wearing a kimono.

“How shall so grave a problem resolve itself?”

Scent seems to me to epitomise the best of cultural appropriation. (But is that remark in itself oxymoronic?). Every civilisation since time began has revered, created and worn perfume. It has been put to a multiplicity of arcane uses. The ancient Egyptians believed it could raise the dead. At the altars it created a mystic pathway – a Silver Cord – between earth and heaven. How could one doubt it when a trail of incense smoke was plainly visible in the blue, linking the worshippers physically as well as spiritually to the sky gods? Sweet smells led the way into transcendental states, cured disease, initiated adulthood, promoted sexual vigour and sedated the sick mind.

I hope that perfume’s connection with the tribulations, trials and beliefs of our ancestors is not going to get redolence in wrong. For me – as I am sure for millions of fragrance fanciers – the long and varied history of scent and its multiplicity of contexts adds immeasurably to the magic of perfume: that all-powerful gigantic genie in a tiny bottle. Did you ever hear of mellified man? A legend went around in the antique world of certain saintly sages in a far distant country who, for the public good, would volunteer to be embalmed alive….in honey. The eligible martyr would be fed exclusively on honey – gorged with it – until his all bodily systems and fluids were invaded by the nectar. After he died – which was quite soon – his body was set aside to dry & crystallise into a pungent substance rather – I suppose – similar to the inside of a Crunchie Bar. Fragrant fragments of this carnal honeycomb were then broken off and administered to the sick or sold to the highest bidder as a universal panacea.

So this brings us to oud, that mysterious and dramatic oil: the olfactory epitome of the gorgeous east. Startling and even evil-smelling in the raw (some compare it to an over-ripe Stilton cheese), oud is in my mind assuming an almost semi-mythical construct; rather in the fashion of ectoplasm, prana¤, manna, the alchemist’s stone or the elixir of youth. We all enjoy conjuring tricks and illusions: “is it real? Is the magician in fact in league with the Devil?”. We thrill and wonder at a bizarre and apparently magical perfume ingredient: and here it is, incarnated in oud, a substance that defies logic and belief. “Mankind cannot bear too much reality”: and, goodness knows, reality and rationality are stuffed down our throats with a vengeance nowadays. Maybe what we are now taught to call oud is in fact a mood, a style, a stifled desire: a longing, a far distant horizon of the heart.

Ambergris is another substance which prompts similar thoughts. Last year – maybe the year before – there was a wonderful and sobering thirty minute documentary on BBC R4 – an interview with a man who had found this chunk of ambergris on the local beach. As in a fairy tale, all his problems seemed to be at an end. He was profiled in the Press, the amber was apparently proved to be genuine and worth a fortune. But the treasure trove proved a curse, not a blessing. Envious neighbours poisoned his dog, he was ostracised and in the end, the mysterious substance was proved to be nothing but sea-cured palm oil. As apparently is all too often the case. Worthless! Malign fairy gold. The beachcomber said that ambergris had ruined his life.

“Flounder, Flounder in the sea!”

How just exactly like a tale from the brothers Grimm! The origins of both ambergris and oud are a grotesquerie worthy of folk tale or legend. Both are of animal origin and each is the result of a metamorphosis both actual and symbolic that might have been dreamed up by Ovid. Filth, waste, excrement, decay and rot are transmuted by that supreme enchantress Mother Nature into oils of transcendent beauty and great price. Ambergris comes from the waste matter exuded by whales – probably faecal, they now think¤¤. Oud is derived from a dying agar tree as it fights for breath in the forests of far Asia, poisoned by parasites but gallantly defending itself to the last as it pumps out resin in a gummy shield. These tales are as unlikely as those of the miller’s daughter spinning straw into gold; the maiden invited to empty the sea with a sieve; or the boy left with a swan’s wing for an arm.

” Die Wahrheit ist: was ist wahr….ist unwahr!” ¤¤¤

But strange as they are, these scented stories happen to be true, even though many of the details still remain vague and mysterious.  No wonder we talk endlessly about oud and ambergris, speculating on exactly which perfumes contain these oils – which fragrances have the genuine article and which the synthesised. The whole saga is so weird and so wild: a wonderful diversion in our cut and dried world. The scent of both ingredients is ambiguous too: what could be more fitting? Farouche, shattering, disturbing, animalic, two-edged, invasive maybe even frightening, repellent. Oud and ambergris are not easy to work with. Ambergris we have learned to handle after several thousand years, but oud is new to the west.

For decades oud was a generic name given to that heavenly fragrance emanating from the robes and veils of London’s Middle Eastern visitors¤¤¤¤. It surrounded them like the perfumed nimbus that is said to grace saints and angels. Then, just recently, western perfumers discovered raw oud, popped it on their palettes and began wrestling with it. Many lost the struggle. Nevertheless, oud became a craze, the latest “must-have” and “must-do”. Every perfume house demanded an oud scent for their clients. But this is not an easy oil to work with: it is extreme and out of control; hard to subdue, to interpret and to tailor to Western tastes. A few brands have succeeded brilliantly – MFK, Killian, Creed and Ex Idolo for instance have all flourished beyond expectation. Their fragrances  are sculpted and hewn; are superbly wrought; carved, as it were, from the living rock by artists who are not afraid of oud oil but who have dominated and mastered it as though taming tigers. We wear perfume differently in Europe and America – we are shy of it, whereas in the Middle East perfume is treated as a good servant but a poor master. In Britain perfume all too often becomes the tyrannical boss.

Long may perfumery continue to discover new molecules and ancient oils; and to make use of forgotten techniques, contrasting traditions and flourishing hybrids. As the Prince Consort used to say, we need fresh strong blood to invigorate the line, to expand the horizons and boost the vigour of fragrance. Absorption, lending, borrowing, grafting and enriching: not appropriation but a grateful sharing of the mysteries of peoples, perfumes and nations. Somewhat akin to “Mae West’s Plan for World Peace”…but not as rude.

¤ “Living on Prana” – do you remember?
It turned out the high priestess was subsisting on a more mundane diet of digestive biscuits and cold chicken.

¤¤ the point is, they don’t really know. I rather hope they never will.

¤¤¤ Marlene Dietrich – having, as usual, the last word on the nature of reality.

¤¤¤¤ though I have not smelled a Western treatment that captures that especial esoteric fragrance. Maybe, as is often suggested, it results from the smoking of clothes over a brazier filled with oud. Or perhaps it comes from an oil not yet known here. We shouldn’t let in all the daylight on magic…

Cold Winds, Warm Words

snowdrops

I know that the meaning of words changes all the time and that “silly” once signified “holy”; and that this slow corruption adds to the richness of the language. But laziness with vocabulary leads to precise and valuable words being made redundant. Take the invaluably precise “effete” which is now almost universally degraded to a synonym for “effeminate” (merely on account of the weasel coincidence of letters), or even “epicene”. The Times last week referred to a Cabinet minister’s manner seeming “effete, borderline camp” . I think we all know what The Thunderer was implying; but “effete” by derivation actually means drained, tired, worn out as though by childbirth (from the Latin “ex fetus”). A journalist once described me as being “marvellously effete” and I was entranced that she had apparently seen me in a state of fascinating exhaustion like the prostrate Melanie fleeing Atlanta in Rhett’s wagon, or King Arthur floating moribund in the barge to Avalon. If this indeed was my visitor’s intended meaning…

Anyway I was in a highly effete state as January changed to February and I thought gloomily of Nicholas I’s threat to British troops in the Crimea “Messieurs janvier + fevrier sont mes meilleurs generaux!” (The months that kill). My mood was lifted by two things. The first was that lucky man’s dog (“Madge”) finding the lump of ambergris on the beach at Morecambe. As I write, its estimated value continues to rise – from 45 to 50 to 100 thousand pounds. A dog returns to its vomit – or in this case the waste matter and stoppages of a sperm whale – and a fortune of fairy gold is made from filth; “gaudy tulips raised from dung”; the sweet bees’ nest and honeycomb found in the corpse of the lion. No wonder that over the centuries ambergris (like oud) has exerted such a mystical power over the imagination: “out of the strong came forth sweetness”; out of rot comes resurrection and redolence. This week’s discovery is the fable of dross into gold come to literal life on a beach that has the same sort of banal music-hall associations as Skegness or Blackpool. No wonder the world’s Press was so fascinated and every perfumer’s phone rang off the hook. It reminded me of Quentin Crisp’s line,”No sooner is the breath out of Miss Dietrich’s body than my phone starts ringing…”. By the way, do you remember that similar furore when they found one of Marlene’s earrings during the helter-skelter repairs at Blackpool some years ago?

So much for ambergris. And then one morning, quite suddenly, the first crop of snowdrops flowered in the garden, looking as though a hand had rifled Queen Elizabeth’s jewel case and scattered her pearls across the black soil and the last of the decayed autumn leaves. Snowdrops fainting like Garbo and then, revived by an hour of the first warm sun of 2013, exuding their delicate scent of nectar and revival; tough little characters actually – within twenty-four hours they were subjected to ice and howling winds but they have no intention of surrender. And what’s more, last summer’s ghastly rains have proved a blessing in the end: the sodden ground has encouraged all the flower bulbs to spread and proliferate across the beds.

As always, the new year has started to come to life after a comatose first few weeks. The sense of smell has been sharpened by the olfactory sorbet of midwinter as the imagination is revived by dormant hibernation. Maybe time to start looking for a new scent? Make mine ambergris, an efficacious effluvial emanation that’s far from effete.

Image from scientificillustration.tumblr.com

We shall all be changed…

Nathalie Priem and Wooden Horse's egg for The Big Egg Hunt

Eastertide is upon us with all its symbolism of change, rebirth, metamorphosis and immortality all neatly symbolised by the ancient symbol of the Egg. The Cosmic Egg from which some believe the whole universe was hatched; the fertile Egg for which Good and Evil fight for possession; and the humble hen’s egg which Carl Faberge turned into a impossibly luxurious celebration of the Orthodox Easter for the delectation of the last two Russian Tsars. Enamelled in pink, yellow, mauve, blue and emerald; encrusted with jewels on frameworks of gold and platinum; these gorgeous toys celebrated the Easter miracle with an extra symbolic twist – the touch of a tiny switch or rotation of a pearl would reveal a surprise, an interior wonder: miniature portraits, orange trees in flower, the Trans-Siberian Express, cathedrals, laying hens would rise up or burst forth from deep within the egg, a glittering child-like metaphor of rebirth + resurrection.

Theology, myths, legends, folklore and fairy tales of every culture celebrate change: of form, of circumstance, of luck, of fate. Classical mythology abounds in tales of luckless individuals who for punishment, reward or escape from suffering, danger, old age or death are changed into statues, kingfishers, fountains, frogs, butterflies, grasshoppers, lizards and spiders, peacocks and sunflowers. Gods assume other forms to court mortal maidens: a white bull, a swan, a shower of gold. Girls pursued by these lecherous gods become laurel trees, rivers, heifers and heavenly constellations. Goddesses (like fairy godmothers and angels) turn themselves into old crones to test the piety and charity of mortals: I used to work with a girl who was always very very careful to be nice to any battered old lady who came near the counter lest she turn out to be a fairy in orthopaedic shoes; or an angel unawares, soliciting a free sample of Houbigant. We all remembered Grimms’ Diamond and Toads: it should be mandatory reading for all in the retail sector. A peasant girl speaks soft and sweet to a beggar-woman: her reward is to have roses and diamonds pouring from her lips with every utterance. Her malevolent sister, envious and rude, is doomed to spew out vipers and toads for eternity.

Brilliantly coloured and scented plants are natural inspirations for tales of transmutation. Scarlet anenomes were said to the blood of Venus’s lover Adonis, sprinkled with nectar by the grieving goddess. I’ve seen them in the deserts of Jordan, springing up from the brown wastes in warm February sun and there, rather than on the florist’s street stall,the legend seems entirely plausible. Lilies of the valley sprang from the Virgin’s tears at the Crucifixion: white violets from the deathbed of St Serafina; the bread in St Elizabeth’s apron was changed into roses. Hyacinths are all that remains of Apollo’s beautiful Spartan lover, accidentally slain by a discus: think of the shape of hyacinth flowers and then the arabesque curls of hair on an antique marble head. Cupid’s wounds of Love left by his arrows become sweet-smelling rose buds, while the self-obsessed cruel Narcissus turns into one of spring’s most fragile flowers, forever gazing into ponds and streams.

Good comes out of evil + pain; beauty and renewal from death. The fragility of humanity is compensated for by the perpetual cycle of the natural world, like the seamless shape of those cosmic eggs: no beginning and no end. And with just a little imagination we can also see perfume as a symbolic part of this cycle: look at oud, a perfect example. A great forest tree becomes infected by a parasite and in its death-struggles exudes this fragrant resin which breathes its own life and mythology. Again, with ambergris, foul waste matter is turned into something precious, mesmeric and aphrodisiac: it promotes life. A roomful of dying rose petals yield a few drops of precious vital essence. The Roman poet Ovid tells us the tale of Myrrha, the Eastern princess who conceived a monstrous passion for her own father and found escape in her metamorphosis into an incense tree, weeping bitter-sweet tears of myrrh for eternity.

“A bundle of myrrh is my well-beloved unto me: he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.” The erotic connotations of the resin in the Song of Solomon then transmute into manifestations of Divine Love in the Christian tradition. The costly bitter perfume is offered at the Nativity by the Three Magi, a Zoroastrian caste, said to have been devoted, incidentally, to the cult of the Egg. This foreshadows Christ’s embalming 33 years later by the Myrrophores, the Three Marys who bring myrhh to the Holy Sepulchre during the three days in the Tomb.
Note all the 3’s : one of the great symbolic numbers of religious numerology.

All of which helps to explain why the patron saint of perfume and perfumers is St Nicholas, one of the most famous saints in the calendar though not usually in this context; he is better known in his stocking-stuffing role as Santa Claus. His tomb at Bari was said to drip with aromatic myrrh, a sure sign of holiness and the resistance of a pure body to decay. The odour of sanctity, in fact. All perfume lovers owe him a lighted candle.

Wishing you all a very happy and relaxing Easter: rest up for renewal!

Image of Nathalie Priem with Wooden Horse’s egg from thebigegghunt.co.uk

Forever Amber

The Amber Room

“Sabrina fair,
Listen where thou art sitting
Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave,
In twisted braids of lilies knitting
The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair ..”

One of perfumery’s most ancient ingredients, amber is also one of the most mysterious and most confusing due to the semantics of its name. “An amber scent of odorous perfume” may have a variety of origins.

Firstly there is the resin exuded by certain trees to heal damage to their bark. This is the amber which catches vegetation and insects in its path and thousands of years later may end up, fossilised, as jewellery or used in interior decoration. Think of the vanished Amber Room in the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo: a golden chamber entirely plated with sheets of amber, vanished since 1945.

“Pretty! In amber to observe the forms
Of hairs, or straws, or dirt, or grubs, or worms!
The things we know are neither rich nor rare,
But wonder how the devil they got there.”

Gathered from incense trees and bushes this aromatic resin is deliciously complex in scent – warm, woody, spicy, sweet, smoky, creamy – and has been used for millenia to perfume the body and sweeten the air. At the desert mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Luxor you can see the terraces of incense bushes laid out 3,500 years ago, having been brought by ship up the Red Sea from Arabia.

The Egyptians originated that concept of the amber perfume that is still widely used in perfumery today, the word being loosely used to cover a wide spread of even vaguely oriental fragrances.

Then we have ambergris, or “grey amber” – that dingy waste matter of sperm whales, embalmed by sea salt and found occasionally floating on the surface of the oceans, or washed up by the tide anywhere between China and Wales. Named because its unique and pungent scent (when heavily diluted) is reminiscent of tree amber, ambergris was a wonder and a mystery to the ancients. They seem to have instinctively known it to have been of animal origin (the visceral smell) but classified it as dragon’s eggs, the sweat of the Titans or the tears of nymphs changed into birds:

“Around thee shall glisten the loveliest amber
That ever the sorrowing sea-bird hath wept.”

Its arousing and disturbing scent led to its being prized as an aphrodisiac to be taken internally as well as applied. Elizabeth Tudor’s favourite Robert Dudley is said to have swallowed ambergris with powdered pearls to increase his ardour. Two centuries later, Mme de Pompadour relied on it blended with celery and vanilla.

Ambergris is today the only animal ingredient legally used in Western perfumery as it is gathered with no risk or harm to the whale who has deposited his leavings and long sailed on.

“…the hollow seas that roar
Proclaim the ambergris on shore..”

But of course, due to the rarity of these whales, ambergris is today magnificently and prohibitively expensive. Its use in perfumery as a fixative gives wonderful tenacity – “her fingers touched me, she smells all amber” –  as well as acting as a catalyst, bringing out the fullest potential of its fellow oils in a rich animalic sensual glow. A drop is all that is required, and may be amplified and backed up by other amber oils, both natural and synthetic.

Ambroxan is a synthetic molecule – “a strange, invisible perfume” – isolated in 1955 and (now branded as Cetalox) much used in the base notes of amber scents. What brought it to recent popular fame was Romano Ricci’s Not a Perfume which audaciously uses Ambroxan as its sole ingredient. A bold conception and highly effective.

Lastly, don’t get confused by the prescence of ambrette in a scent: this is an oil extracted from hibiscus seeds, used as a natural plant substitute for musk and because of its bitter-sweet, earthy animal odour has also been tarred with the amber brush.

No wonder that  the 1940’s Kathleen Winsor named her bawdy Restoration heroine Amber – the word is redolent of luxurious sensual indulgence. I have to repeat in this context Joan Hickson’s discovery of a cat in the contemporary movie ’24 Hours To Noon’: “ah! there’s Amber: she’s forever in the beds….” .

The ancient Greeks called amber “elektron” from which we derive our word “electricity”, on account of the resin’s magnetic properties:

“Bright amber shines on his electric throne”.

Magnetic and electric it certainly is when stirring and warming the base of a sumptuous perfume.

Image from thehistoryblog.com