Blood and Sand: Part Two

val-blood-sand

 

‘APPROPRIATE’: a doom-laden word of today. So, is it appropriate to use the smell of blood – the essential fluid of life – as a  perfume accord or a fragrance theme? I’d say it was permissible, interesting, provocative, adventurous – if risky. To others it remains weirdly and wholly inappropriate. The problem is, that blood – which could and should be perceived as awesome, sacred, even mystical – evokes in many people a sense of fright, revulsion and disgust.  The very thought of it, coursing hotly within us all at this very minute, is upsetting or repellent. Blood is all too intimately relevant to birth and (of course) to death. The circulation of the blood is inevitable, involuntary and universally applicable, but is best ignored whenever possible; or distanced by the conventions of cinema, Hallowe’en grotesquerie or gallows humour. Those avant garde perfumers who have so far “had a go” with blood, have therefore so far tended to trade on shock value, rather than contemplating the austere beauties of the metaphysical.

The splendidly polarising and revolutionary ‘Secretions Magnifiques‘ is probably still the best-known and most startling example of this small and recherche fragrance family. And here’s an interesting thing: in the ten years since its launch, the perception of this startling impressionistic blend of various intimate human body fluids has somewhat tamed and softened. People do still come into Les Senteurs to smell the bottle at arm’s length and to shudder & scream; but a younger generation has now grown up who consider ‘Secretions’ more thoughtfully and analytically.

Many of us have now come to recognize in ‘Secretions’ those molecules which give the perfume a curious similarity with certain crisp florals. Like the Aztecs¤ we may subconsciously make a connection between brilliantly coloured flowers¤¤ and hot spurting blood. For it remains vital that – for now – a sanguinary fragrance accord should display a certain clinical freshness. The reek of stale blood that so repelled the Conquistadors in those Mexican temples, and which stampeded the cattle herded past the guillotine in Revolutionary Paris, is really still too awful to think about. This is the stench which helped to drive Lady Macbeth out of her mind:

“Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh! Oh! Oh!”

Our olfactory decadence has yet some way to go. Sweat may play a role in ‘Secretions’ – but clots of black blood.. not at all, thank you.

Don’t forget, the ‘Secretions’ are still described – ironically or not – as ‘Magnifiques’. There is still somehow the suggestion of a divinely created grandeur. “The blood is the life, Mr Renfield.” Out in the commercial world you can enjoy Lady Gaga’s similarly themed fragrance: this is called “Fame”. You can read that name as bathetic or irrelevant – or alternatively, as a rather splendid invocation of the multi-tongued Roman goddess, proclaiming the perfume and its awe-ful contents to the nations. The veins of the Old Gods ran not with red blood but with ichor, a golden fluid redolent of fragrant honey and nectar. “Bloody Wood” by Liquides Imaginaires suggests something of this lyrically poetic theme: the scarlet succulence of a libation of richly symbolic wine, roses, cherries and raspberries. A Bacchanalian banquet before the Maenads of Dionysus run murderously berserk.

Last week we pondered the scented lure of the desert. The connection of blood & sand begins with the terrifying Egyptian myth of the attempted destruction of Mankind by the lioness goddess Sekhmet, “The Lady of the Bloodbath, the Ruler of the Chamber of Flames”. Enraged by the sins of men, Sekhmet came ravening out of the Western Desert and was stopped in her awful mission of slaughter only by making her dead drunk on jugs of red barley and pomegranate beer. This the lioness lapped, believing it to be the gore of her blasphemers.

Blood and sand coagulated in the Roman amphitheatres beneath awnings of violets and showers of rosewater. A shadow of this vanished ambience still mingles in the bull rings of southern Spain. Vierges et Torreros with its dusky musky accords of leather and tuberose is the corrida sanitised for lovers of “Ferdinand the Bull”, the dear little beast who loved to “sit quietly and smell the flowers” in “all the lovely ladies’…hair”. You might try Tom Daxon’s Vachetta too, a deep, rounded profound leather once described by an admirer as “beefy”. (All that fine Spanish leather is sourced in the ring; and the meat goes to the best restaurants in town).

I am acquainted with the metallic tang  of hot blood as I grew up with my father’s veterinary surgery just across the passage from our kitchen. And in those far-off days, tots seemed to fall over and bloody themselves almost constantly: of course, we all wore shorts to a remarkably advanced age and romped about outside for much of the time. Health and Safety was in its infancy. (I remember having to have the section on First Aid in my Enid Blyton Diary slowly explained to me. “But what does it MEAN?”). The smell of blood is sharp, metallic, rather like the iodine with which all those injuries were agonisingly daubed.¤¤¤

It doesn’t panic me, as it does animals – and many humans – but it inspires me with a certain awe and I think perfume-wise it deserves to be treated with respect. And, so: this is where we came in!
¤ a percipient sociologist, whose name I cannot recall, once famously noted that civilizations who appreciate liberal blood-letting are usually keen flower gardeners, too.

¤¤ flowers scream when they are picked, as Ian Fleming reminded us. I well remember my mother and grandmother shrieking aloud when they reached this line in a Bond novel. Naturally we children were enthralled.

¤¤¤ but why does modern iodine not sting as it once used to? Have they ‘taken something out’? I bought a bottle recently, and had a dab for old time’s sake. The formula is now strangely mild. My aunt used to say it was added to my orange juice to calm my infant agitations: a suggestion my parents hotly denied.

Lion’s Maid

Mekhmet

Don’t know about you but this recent heat has been all too much for me; far too much, desiccating Lemon Wedge to a piece of shrivelled if still sweet candied peel. Can’t sleep, can’t think clearly, pacing about like a mad dog. And why do I crave sugar (“Pure, White and Deadly”) during hot weather? Extra salt as we know is a sound precaution but why the sucrose? When many years ago I spent a boiling summer on the buses all my breaks were spent in the cool crypt cafe of St Martin-in-the-Fields eating iced Chelsea buns and drinking pots of scalding syrupy tea: it was all I could fancy and it pulled me through. Boosts your energy level, I suppose: I always remember H Rider Haggard recommending cold tea as the most refreshing drink in the world. Served hot it has a peculiarly attractive smell on a broiling day – maybe fighting like with like, in a homeopathic manner. The slightly bitter leaf infusion, the hot china or (even better) the metal of the pot: flip up the lid to inspect the brew and your face is steamed in fragrance. The body, heated up by the liquid, steps up its own cooling mechanism: that’s why it’s best to avoid cold baths which tell the good body that it’s in danger of becoming chilled and needs to turn up the inner thermostat.

The ancient Egyptians, baked on the banks of the Nile, personified the sun as a whole galaxy of deities each with different characteristics and properties. Sekhmet is my favourite: the Divine Lioness Lady who represents the destroying power of her father the sun, and who in that capacity also burns out disease and plague and incinerates the enemies of Pharoah. In one of those bewildering theological complexities of the Egyptians, Sekhmet also assumes the aspect of the goddess Hathor and has to be turned aside from murdering mankind by being made drunk on red barley beer, which she laps believing it to be human blood.

Yet her images and statues are lovely to look upon. In the British Museum (if you journey no further) there is a gallery of Sekhmets carved from black basalt, a beautiful female form with the head of a handsome and serene lioness. When I spent a week in Luxor I used to go up to the temple complex at Karnak most evenings (always smelling of dried herbs, woodsmoke, dried horse dung and a million cigarettes) and inspect the guardian lionesses there. Rather beyond the ruins spread a whole field of Sekhmets, lopsided and leaning among reeds and grasses: very picturesque but said to be blessed with their own guardians – nests of cobras ( Cleopatra’s holy asp) – so I kept my distance.

But I combed the bazaars and curio shops for my own image of the goddess who had taken my fancy and in the end I found one, about a foot high and made I suppose of painted plaster. Not expensive, and I took her back to the hotel ignominiously wrapped in old newspaper. But it’s a curious thing: that statue began to prey on my mind and over the next couple of days it began to assume the properties of a demon. Its face appeared to change from benevolently feline to malevolently diabolical and in the terrific Luxor heat (it was over 120) I persuaded myself that carrying it on the flight home would cause the plane to crash. Sekhmet had to be jettisoned. As perhaps you know, it is very difficult to lose things on purpose – they keep being returned by kindly people. (As I had once found with a redundant copy of Moby Dick in Tunis ). But in the end, once again swaddled in layers of old paper, She of The Chamber of Flames was successfully buried and abandoned beneath the cushions of a banquette in the hotel main lobby. Even then I worried that the outraged lioness might burn out the Luxor Imperial during the night. Of course, had the weather been cooler and I saner, I should have just smashed the thing on the bathroom floor and binned the pieces.

Heat has its own smell but it is very difficult to tell it from the appurtenances of heat: the cigarettes which taste toastier and nuttier, the panicky deodorant, the dry pavements, sticky tarmac. Panting dogs and ice cream vans reeking pleasantly of vegetable fat, frosted vanillin, saccharine and petrol; a stuffiness as though of a huge feather pillow over the face. Heat accentuates every odour – doesn’t cooking smell brazen in a hot spell? Aren’t barbecues aggressive? For me all sorts of perfume, liberally applied, go good in a heat wave. I have a pet theory that the heavier and more exotic the better: applying a blast of amber, incense, waterlily, ylang ylang or jasmine seems to return those oils to their native element and the extreme climates that bred them.  In the freakish British summer they once more bloom again in all their florid magnificence on the sticky air, turning heads in more ways than one. A bit like Marilyn – “She started this heat wave / By making her seat wave”. Go wild: the dog days are upon us.

The Blood is the Life

Fascinating to me that in both the original Ira Levin novel and also the film version of Rosemary’s Baby, perfume is used to make a very definite point. From the start, the apartments we see in the company of Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse at “Black Bramford” are forcing houses of herbs and soi-disant medicinal plants. As both Rosemary and her unfortunate acquaintance Terri Genofrio are drawn into the garrulous old Castavets’ sabbats they are embraced by the foul bitter reek of the diabolical tannis root (“can a root be an herb?”) in its exquisite silver Renaissance pendant: pungent, earthy, sharp and repellent. “You’ll get used to the smell before you know it,” chuckles Laura Louise, the jolly witch from the 12th floor, and the strange thing is that Rosemary does. She becomes anosmic and I think this is a metaphor for her shutting her eyes to her instinctive suspicions of the supreme horror approaching, and one hint of many that ultimately she will become another Minnie Castavet, a perfect mother to the infant Satan at the ambiguous conclusions of the movie.

However once Rosemary discovers that she is indeed in the clutches of a nest of devil-worshippers and the time for the baby’s delivery approaches she drops the stinking root – “what IS it? A – a chemical thing?” ( a nice little in-joke, if unintentional, for perfume lovers) – down the drain and sprays herself heavily and refreshingly with Revillon’s 1953 Detchema. Now, why this scent? Possibly it was Ira Levin’s own particular favourite or maybe there’s a more pointed implication. Detchema is floral and heavily aldehydic – roses, jasmine and ylang ylang; iris, muguet and vetiver. About as far from sinister tannis as you can get, as the doctor’s receptionist comments. Its a bit middle-aged for Rosemary, though; and Revillon, being a fur company, originally commissioned it to complement the wearing of pelts. Perhaps a hint of the all the treasures of the world coming from Guy’s demonic bargain (“suddenly he’s very hot!”), but maybe too its a nudge to think animal; to imagine exactly what kind of baby poor Mrs Woodhouse is about to deliver….covered in fur, coated with scales? (“It won’t bite you…”).

As she slowly realises the Castavets’ game, Rosemary develops other understandable fears – “they use blood in their rituals”. This moves us into to quite different territory – the appeal of the vampire. Vampires have never really been out of style since the publication of Dracula in 1897, but they seem especially in vogue again now: there was even one running in this year’s Marathon. Amusing to read about Tim Burton’s new movie of Dark Shadows: I remember watching this as an late afternoon tv show in Bermuda in 1968, in a tiny house set in a grove of grapefruit and banana trees, with hibiscus flowering round the porch. Our hostess Barbara was a retired Ziegfeld Follies girl who had grown up next door to Joan Bennett, the pre-war Hollywood star who was now queen of the show, hence the obligatory daily viewing with the first stiff rum + coke. There was also the smell of electricity and faint scorching in the air as Barbara had to hold wires from the tv set to her head as a primitive conductor: reception was truly terrible on the island.

Why have vampires such a perennial appeal? If it’s just the smell of blood you’re after, pay attention next time you fall out with a can of beans and a faulty opener: sharp, metallic, hot, salty and of course alarming. Or try Etat Libre‘s Secretions Magnifiques: an extraordinary recreation and evocation of blood and other intimate fluids. An interesting and mesmeric scent (even if the mesmerism is one of repulsion or disgust) but to me, it lacks the necessary warmth of its human ingredients: there is corpse-like cold – or is it surgical coolth? – instead of a palpitating heat. And also a suggestion of decay; the accords seem to represent secretions from a body not entirely healthy, or having otherwise staled.

Vampires and their renewed popularity are a macabrely acute metaphor for the apathetic and fatalistic malaise into which society has fallen, just as they symbolised the decadence of the Naughty Nineties. We feel out of control, drained morally, financially and responsibly by the terrifying drift of the world. It seems impossible for the average individual, preoccupied by his own survival and that of his family to do anything to influence the general drift of events. Where once religion provided an anchor and a rationale there is now often a void, or a Church that itself that sometimes seems to have lost its way and fallen into schism. The notion of being sucked dry of the life force, of falling into a paralysed state of partially languorous torpor while initiative and vitality is inexorably drained away by a figure of supernatural authority (and erotic appeal) can be powerfully attractive as a fantasy to those without faith or hope. Stoker’s Dracula and many of his type are presented as possessing a hideous kind of attraction for their prey, being involuntarily welcomed in by their victims who become willing partners in their own destruction.

And ironically though many smells thought hitherto unpleasant or inappropriate have been transmuted by the perfumer’s organ (cigarette smoke, Stilton cheese, bubblegum) no one has yet unfortunately risen to the challenge of breaking the olfactory taboo of garlic.

Image from cinerarium.wordpress.com