Everybody Out!

Image: guardian.co.uk

Image: guardian.co.uk

Another Tube strike, another adventure! The weather being so glorious on both days I walk to Les Senteurs from Holloway down the Camden Road and so through Regents Park into Baker Street. It takes an hour and having lived in Holloway for nearly 30 years it proves a curious trip down Memory Lane besides being a strike-buster.

My life is an open book – but who would want to read it? I have often considered conducting a recherché guided tour around London pointing out all the landmarks of my life but I don’t suppose there would be many takers. The streets of Camden are full of souvenirs of the past: a mural of Amy Winehouse, looking like a Mexican Madonna; the days when the great Elizabeth Jane Howard was creating a garden at her home in Delancey Street; emotional meals at the eponymous café in the same road. Do you know the plaque celebrating the martyrdom of St Pancras as you walk up Parkway, and the mysterious hidden garden in a deep valley beneath the bridge as you cross over Park Village East? And that strange stark building almost opposite, which I used to fantasise might be a private lunatic asylum or former workhouse but which is in fact a school – nowadays, at any rate.

Then the Outer Circle around the Park: on a night of freezing fog in 1999 I wandered round and around here for over two hours after a dinner party in Fitzroy Road, unable to break out of the maze. Now it is a mass of pale pink and creamy hawthorn blossom reminding me of Elizabeth Bowen’s darkly comic ghost story “Pink May” and the poltergeist, conjured maybe by a guilty conscience, which destroys a woman’s love affair. Or perhaps the phantom is the scent of the may itself, which has been likened both to the smell of human decomposition and the odour of procreation: the scent of Life and of Death. Bowen lived for many years in the white fortress-palace of Clarence Terrace, over across the lake. In the last days of this warm April the Park is almost vulgar, overwhelmed with blossom and fragrance: rioting over every hedge and railing are cascades of lilac, choisya, clematis and the sea-blue ceanothus which takes me back to its azure waves across the walls of my school quad. I remember staggering up to the Rose Garden with huge picnic baskets in the 1980’s, a memory now stimulated by all the paper beakers of coffee being toted – and slopped and spilled – by fellow walkers.

The Lilac Alley which I recall being planted, timid saplings in a morass of mud, is now a bosky thicket of abundance candled with every shade of flower from imperial purple to delicate blackcurrant mousse. The tulips are blown and lifted, only few snow white camellias remain but in Queen Mary’s Rose Garden an astonishing number of blooms are already out, especially our old English roses. To walk past the beds, reading the names on metal plaques, is like riffling at top speed through a series of encylopaedias and phrase books. Names historic; names whimsical, comic, surreal, banal and dotty – Pensioners’ Voice, Ingrid Bergman, Quaker Star, Princess Alice, Annick (can this be celebrating Mme Goutal?), Mountbatten, Lili Marlene, Diamond Jubilee, Radox Bouquet, Easy Going, Lady of Shallott, English Miss, Royal Philharmonic, Gertrude Jekyll, Singin’ In The Rain, Britannia and dear old Sexy Rexy. The full massed fragrance is yet to come but, as so often in life, the anticipation is often keener than the final experience.
On, on! On towards morning! “Felix kept on walking”: past the irises in their stony beds, flowers of perfumery’s most costly ingredient – the glorious buttery orris powder; past the last of this year’s guelder roses. I fall into a bush, trying to catch the last of their scent, but right myself and set my face towards the rigours of Baker Street and the scented oasis of Seymour Place. Despite the strike, an enchanted passage from one perfumed Paradise to another!

Vignettes of Old Marylebone: No. 9 – House of Wax

France Robespierre's FaceWhen you’ve stimulated your imagination with gorgeous perfume why not float up to Baker St and excite a little more fantasy at the Waxworks? Back in the 1960’s when I first visited Mme Tussauds the place was filled with glamorous gloom, potted ferns and elaborate tableaux behind plate glass. People still squealed and fainted in the Chamber of Horrors: all those rows of butter-coloured murderers wearing clothes supposedly bought from their familes even before the condemned were hanged.

Maybe visitors still swoon upon occasion but the last time I went to Mme Tussauds, 10 years ago, the atmosphere was greatly sanitised. Too few shadows, and far fewer exhibits. Diana Dors in gold lame (fresh off the cover of “Sergeant Pepper”) was gone and the Royal Family looked less convincing under brilliant spotlights. But it was still great fun. For you could now grope or kiss the models if so inclined and so pose for a saucy snap. The Sleeping Beauty was still elegantly palpitating under her lace veil, her breath quickening at a touch.

Maybe you read about the true face of Robespierre being recently reconstructed from a death mask cast by the Madame in 1794? And an ugly old phiz it is, too. I have my doubts: his portraits show a neat fastidious little face whereas this is that of a toad-like pockmarked brute. Maybe Tussaud took the wrong head out of the basket? And you know, from the state Robespierre was in when he was guillotined – botched suicide attempt with a pistol, smashed jaw – would the taking of a mask have been possible or desirable?

What loses the truth game at Tussauds is that the glass-eyed throng all lack a smell, whether of hair, perspiration, fear, or the jonquil & rose waters of eighteenth century France. Or even, as if in some fairy tale her creatures should suddenly grow hot hearts of flesh and blood, the intoxicating odour of hot melting wax: the scent that excited De Sade.

Image: huffingtonpost.com

Vignettes of Old Marylebone 3: You know my methods, Watson

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When I leave Seymour Place of an evening, my head full of shop cares, I’m often pleased to fancy myself as a client of Mr Sherlock Holmes, hastening up to 221B Baker St to pour out my heart. How reassuring to be ushered upstairs by the vague but cosy figure of Mrs Hudson and have Dr Watson offer strong waters while the great man listens intently to your knotty problems. I’m proud to say I’ve read every one of his cases and no doubt you have too. Which is the most compelling?
Hardly coincidentally, I remember the ones featuring strong scents. The type of lady to be found at 221B is not likely to be a perfume wearer though of course Holmes’s curious habits fill his rooms with fumes of shag tobacco (kept in a Persian slipper), violin rosin and the tang of opium poppy. I remember the reek of chloroform in Lady Frances Carfax’s unusually and suspiciously large coffin (they get the pad off her face just in time). Scent is the vital clue to murder in the horrible Adventure of the Retired Colourman: he’s gassed his wife and her lover and then repainted the house to disguise the tell-tale smell. And then there’s the tragic Veiled Lodger who at Holmes’s behest surrenders her means of suicide: “I send you my temptation”. There on the mantlepiece is a vial of prussic acid: ” a pleasant almondy odour rose when I opened it”…

But my favourites are The – alas! unscented –  Speckled Band: the snake posted through the bedroom vent and down the bellpull – and poor Miss Violet Hunter’s perils in The Copper Beeches, forced to cut off her luxuriant chestnut hair and sit in the parlour window of a morning wearing a borrowed dress in a peculiar shade of electric blue…nip up to Baker St after your trip to Les Senteurs and find out why.