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
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.

Tell them about the honey, Mummy


I did not glean all my experience of the magic of honey from its great late prophetess Barbara Cartland but I was always fortified and entranced by her views. She wrote of perfectly preserved honey found included in ancient Egyptian burials and painted the rooms of her own house pink and turquoise inspired by the lapiz and terracotta of the tombs, which colours she believed promoted eternal youth and vigour.

Honey is instant nursery nostalgia, a reward for good behaviour; a healthy food that is also delectable – sticky fingers, buttered soldiers, a lost Golden Age: “and is there honey still for tea?” Those old-fashioned jolly teas where a super-abundance of sucrose, caffeine and spices which had the eaters drunk and reeling on food. Like vanilla honey offers comfort and reassurance. Honey is toddling around the garden in infancy, talking to the bees and imagining a riot of colour and floral glory realised on the Sissinghurst scale from a single packet of gaudily packaged Woolworth seeds: and I’m still pottering and fantasising like this, pushing sixty. Honey’s the food of the old pagan gods, healing and nutritious, promising health and immortality – a land flowing with milk and honey. St John the Baptist lived on it in the wilderness; the carcass of Samson’s lion became a bees’ nest. Just like perfume, honey is a talisman, handily bottled and perfectly portable; magically symbolic and still eminently practical.

Honey is the product of a society akin to ours: the teeming world of the hive with its hierarchy and queen, its drones and workers. Napoleon took the bee, like the violet, as his imperial symbol: intended as emblems of industry and diligence the golden bees were depicted by cynics as his rapacious family swarming on the thrones and riches of Europe. Sceptics pointed out that reversing the old royalist fleur de lys on carpets and fabrics made a rough and ready stylised bee without undue expense.

Why have the flowers in a fragrance without the nectar? Beeswax and honey both add a depth and a pungent back note to perfume; old perfumers used honey to add sweetness to simple flower waters. Mixed with hay, beeswax contributes to the characteristic musky woody leatheriness at the base of such Caron classics as N’Aimez Que Moi where it warms and illuminates the fragrance. Lutens’ Miel de Bois manifests in a grassy greeny tobacco-like haze which reminds me of an old admiral I once knew whose pipe smelled like a carpet of spring flowers on the Greek islands. And then there’s Vohina, the Huitieme Art fragrance which sounds like a bee-queen Roman deity, maybe the sister of Melissa the honey-goddess.

Vohina is peach blossom, lavender honey and hay. The intense pink and mauve sugariness of the flowers and the crisp but cloying wax comb melt in aching sweetness on the tongue as well as in the nose before deepening into the aromatic depths of viscous honey from an sleepy August harvest field of summer herbs and grasses. The rosy gold of juicy fruit flesh alternates with the crushed stalks of lavender and the musty heady grainy odour of pollen and unrefined honey, still full of the natural detritus of the bee colony. It is this contrast of the hot stifling organic claustrophobia of the hive with pristine peachiness and the faint sweatiness of lavender oil which makes Vohina so mesmerising. Rather than pinned to a pyramid structure of notes, Vohina revolves in a kaleidoscope, like sun-dazzled eyes, flashing its different facets in dizzy rotation and exuding the scents of a rural heatwave. Too hot to sleep, lying the hay in a midday stupor, sense overwhelmed by sensuality.

Image from Wikimedia commons