New Worlds to Conquer: HOMOELEGANS and others…

 

What about that heat, then? How did it affect you? In some ways it did me a lot of good – I was away from the shop and so able to surrender totally to the mercury, and relax. The intensity and ferocity of the sun put paid to my doing anything; even to the extent of shutting down my brain. It was impossible to worry or even to think very much. Delightful. I turned back to some novels of my youth and “lay on the lounge”, behind drawn curtains, like Elsie in What Katy Did. I also sprayed myself ad lib with alternate scents from the Liquides Imaginaires range: namely the dreamy floaty Roman bath experience of Tumultu and the duskier sweet desires of Fortis. Something about them suited the atmosphere of hypocaust very well.

And I re-read The Good Earth, that seismic best-seller of the 1930’s by the great but now almost forgotten Pearl S. Buck. She writes in stately rhythm, like an Old Testament prophet or a spinner of immemorial fairy tales. The Good Earth is an often horrific story of old rural China  – a real eye-opener. Mrs. Buck had been reared in Asia and she knew the score. (Incidentally, the actress Luise Rainer, who won an Oscar in 1938 for her portrayal of the long suffering drudge O-Lan in the MGM film treatment, was a great friend and loyal customer of Les Senteurs). Pearl Buck reminds us that perfume in the China of more than a century ago was an art, a luxury and a seduction. We read much of hair combed through with oil of sandalwood; frequent scented baths and powderings; ‘the perfuming of the eight orifices’; and the luscious aroma of Eight Jewel Rice when brought steaming to table.

(And Mrs. Buck also reminds us of a fragrance tip I’ve often mentioned to you. Be sure to perfume the palms of your hands).

I am always fascinated by the way writers and other creative artists approach perfume, odours and the sense of smell. I’m intrigued by how they celebrate the olfactory mystery, weaving it willy-nilly into various aspects of their creations. So naturally when Les Senteurs invited the sensational Italian brand HOMOELEGANS into the fold I was mightily intrigued and beguiled.

The first three scents in the HOMOELEGANS sequence – the trio we have right now in the shop – are inspired by the complex personalities and creations of three eccentric and tricky twentieth-century individuals. Namely, Thomas Mann, Francis Bacon and Frida Kahlo – two painters, one writer. Quite a handful!

I’ve written about Mann in this column before. His first great novel Buddenbrooks was published in 1904 – and was a huge best-seller in Germany for thirty years until the Hitler regime burned it. In this immense family saga, the sensual smells of good food and sleek grooming take their place in the repetitive rhythms, small hypnotic pleasures and joyous monotony of daily life. HOMOELEGANS approaches Mann via his much later work, Death In Venice: the stifling emotional atmospherics of the Lido; the fatal entrapment of the Lagoon.

Then, Frida Kahlo and Bacon. Francis Bacon’s paintings make me very sick: the very carnality of them reeks. He sees the Beast in us all and reveals it without mercy. I was advised to keep away from that bio-pic ‘Love Is the Devil’, and I heeded warning. Our English master at school used to tell us that Bacon’s pictures looked and smelled like reportage of slaughter houses. And those Popes! Velasquez was quite upsetting enough without Bacon imposing his own peculiar vision.

Much of Kahlo is bizarrely lovely: vivid, weird and mesmerising. The parrots and monkeys and hummingbirds; the surreal humour of “What I Saw In The Bath”; and Frida’s chthonic pre-Columbian fantasies. But she’s not exactly reassuring – and what about works such as “A Few Small Nips”? Very difficult to send to anyone when included in post-card collections. If you put the card inside an envelope – and the subject matter requires that decency – it seems even worse. As though one is a certain covert understanding with the recipient.

Anyone who is loves the enigma of perfumery will recognise that these three artists offer limited scope for a revolutionary approach to fragrance. Consider the way in which the mainstream media approaches scent. You’ll then appreciate how esoteric and even alien a subject perfume still is to many people. Only the other day a wireless presenter remarked on how difficult it is to talk about scent on air. I thought, now why do you say that? To me radio presentations and perfume have a lot in common: both are unseen, and their appeal lies principally in the magic of one’s own imagination.

So don’t take my word for it but come by and try these new beauties on our shelves. They are quite, quite extraordinary. And – as you would expect – headstrong,  ambisexual, wayward, even slightly perverse. There is an extreme ingenuity and subtlety in the way in which the perfumers have used three very disparate and complex characters & themes to create new life, energy and beauty. Art generating art; artifice breeding artifice.

But if that suggests something sterile and contrived then I am greatly misleading you. One of the key aspects of these three perfumes is their forceful impact; their visceral vivacity and vigour; their originality. All the elements that enthrall and disturb in the works of Kahlo, Mann and Bacon are evoked in the scents. A cruel beauty, a beautiful cruelty; fleshy textures and fleshly desire; colour; self-indulgence; pride; confidence and terror.

“…always with his nose in a book…”

 

Good news this week for the publishing trade. The sale of printed books is on the rise once more. I saw only one electronic ‘Kindle’-book up and running on the London/Leicester express last Friday night – and believe me I’d schlepped the length of the train hunting for a seat. Which I found.

I think it’s what we always knew. The redolence of print, new pages, different types of paper, glossy covers and wrappers is an integral part of the pleasure of reading. Then, as you get into a book, it absorbs your own natural oils and DNA molecules: it becomes a part of your persona. ‘L.W. – his book’ as the traditional proprietorial inscription used to read. The volume gradually is saturated with the scent of the reader: her perfume, his embrocation, her food, his hair gel. My mother’s paperbacks were semi-transparent with smears of Nivea and Ambre Solaire. The pages looked like so many medieval windows: sheets of paper soaked in oil. And remember Emily Bronte teaching herself German as she rolled out the pastry? With the grammar propped up against the flour crock and Keeper under the table, hoping for crumbs. The apocryphal tale of finding a dried rasher of bacon (sometimes a kipper) used as a bookmark is told by many librarians.

Like Jean Harlow, I was reading a book the other day¤. It’s the new biography¤¤ of the great Irish novelist Molly Keane, by her daughter Sally Phipps. Keane is probably best remembered for her late “comeback” novel ‘Good Behaviour’ (1981) which starts with an (intentionally) nauseating description of a dish of “quenelles in a cream sauce ……there was just a hint of bay leaf and black pepper, not a breath of the rabbit foundation”. In fact the baby rabbit mousse proves the finish of the bed-ridden old lady to whom it is force fed:

“The smell – I’m – ”

And that’s the end of Mrs St Clair.

The entire suite of Molly Keane’s novels from 1928 to 1989 are required reading – and more than once over.  The books are beautiful, acute, very funny indeed and sometimes horribly sad – you cry ALL the time for one reason or another. Keane is marvellous on food (she adored cooking, finding it not only mouth-watering but therapeutic and fulfilling); and she is unparalleled in her awareness of smells. The first sentence of ‘Good Behaviour’ is all about things olfactory – both emotional and culinary:

‘Rose smelt the air, considering what she smelt…’

For the ‘miasma’ in that seaside Irish house is entirely sinister.

The books are suffused in sensory awareness; especially of colour and of smell. Flowers, clothes, the seasons, perfume, fur, pubs, horses, gardens, food, violet sachets, hair, smoke; the hunting field and the bedroom. Ms Phipps has inherited her mother’s nose – she writes of a butler’s pantry which “smelt rather deliciously of stale coffee grounds and pink silver powder”. She describes an aunt advising Molly before a hunt ball – ‘ “don’t accept presents of scent my darling and don’t talk to any strange men” ‘.

Of course then, back in the 1920’s, a girl who accepted a gift of anything wearable from a gentleman was hopelessly compromised. ‘The coat of shame’ wrote Lady Diana Cooper. And taking perfume from a man was tantamount to wearing
his engagement ring – or admitting you were his mistress. Hence the Mae West
riposte, which today sounds rather vague and harmless:

– “You always have such swell things! How do you do it on your salary?”

– “It’s a gift, honey. It’s a gift.”

I love it when you find one of your own tricks being practised in a book. Jasper throws “bay leaves onto the low ring of the Aga so that the smoke from their curling blackened leaves might quell other smells” ¤¤¤. When I first worked and cooked with an Aga I was fascinated by its secondary use as an altar to the Lares and Penates. Like Vesta’s Flame, it burned perpetually. One could immolate herbs and spices on it at any time, like Pamela Brown ladling the incense into the brazier in Liz Taylor’s ‘Cleopatra’. And the Lady of the Aga used to polish the stove with her own hand cream, lanolin-enriched, which of course lent a very heady redolence to the kitchen and back sculleries.

I was fascinated by Molly Keane’s biography and it is beautifully done. However, it upset me in the way that only biography sometimes can; in this case, I can’t tell quite why. Brian Master’s book about Marie Corelli had the same effect on me, decades ago.  Mrs Keane lost her husband early in very tragic circumstances; but she led a long and in many ways blessed life. She was a perfectionist and that is a state that always frets me because I guess I am one myself. However, I’m so despairing of achieving any sort of perfection that I often give up before I try. Maybe the strong sense of smell that dominates Ms Phipps’s book panics me in some primeval animal way, as I am an individual who also lives through scents and odours and the complicated sensations they arouse. Could that be so? Having worked so long with perfume, I am fully aware of its strange and uncanny powers. However, I’m still prepared to be surprised and shocked by their manifestations!

¤ “reading a book?” gasps Marie Dressler, doing the double-take to end all: DINNER AT EIGHT (1933).

¤¤ ‘Molly Keane: a life’ by Sally Phipps, 2017

¤¤¤ ‘Time after Time’ 1983

Breathe Deeply: 100 Scents you need to smell…


Image: Atlantisqueen.co

Image: Atlantisqueen.co

Everyone loves a list.

Here is my own riposte to all those endless ‘must do’s’ – 100 things to see/read/eat before you die – always so popular in the Bank Holiday Newspapers.

Yet so many of those recommended experiences are curiously passive, depressingly automatic: they involve buying a ticket, taking out a subscription, visiting some sort of restaurant, theatre or other place of entertainment. “You pays your money & you takes your choice”. A bit lifeless, maybe? 

Smells are different. They are trickier to seek out; they take you by surprise at unexpected moments; they rocket you across time and space; they resist control or manipulation. With smell you must take your pleasures where you find them.

Most of the following scents are delicious; some are startling. A few are revolting but arresting. Only one I have not yet smelled…

Even as I write, reports are coming in from Australia that the Duchess of Cambridge ‘recoiled’ at the smell of a koala: the eucalyptus oil comes out through the koala’s pores, you see, intensified by its own natural odour. Smells never fail to amaze: if you let them.

Tell us what you think of this list.

Here we go:

Box… & phlox: pink & white phlox was introduced into Europe by the Empress Josephine – a hot white peppery scent; the smell of childhood.

Phox: directgardening.com

Phox: directgardening.com

A new bar of soap

A traditional eau de cologne

Orange peel & marmalade

Clean sheets – laid up in lavender or simply air dried.

Fresh cut spring grass

Cowslips

Cowslips: plantlife.org.uk

Cowslips: plantlife.org.uk

Pigs

The silk lining of a vintage fur coat

Apple blossom

New books: hardback &  limp edition smell quite different.

New Books: radionorthland.org

New Books: radionorthland.org

Chanel No 5 – it changes all the time like so many classics. Our wonderful Sarah McCartney,  recently smelled the 1929 version: curiously like Lux soapflakes.

Jasmine – in a pot, in the garden or on the streets of Damascus. 

The hills of home – that indefinable smell of your native air. I can smell Leicester coming a mile off.

Lilac

Ether

Ether: Wikimedia commons

Ether: Wikimedia commons

Fried onions

Russian airports – once redolent of over-ripe apples, cigarettes & petrol. Have they changed ?

Toast

A glasshouse of ripening tomatoes

Sweet peas – which is lovelier? The colour or the perfume?

White sugar – a nasty smell. Used to make me feel quite sick as a child.

Tom cats

Tomcat - Walt Disney (comicvine.com)

Tomcat – Walt Disney (comicvine.com)

Hyacinths – though to some they smell of tom cats.

Scarlet geraniums – more properly called pelargoniums but you know the plant I mean.

Christmas and Easter – something indefinable in the air. Unmistakable, impossible to pin-point.

Privet hedges

Shalimar by Guerlain- at least in its glory days. See Chanel No 5, above.

Suede gloves

Vinegar

The sea

Icy iron – an iron railing with a hard January frost on it.

Image by Sharon Wilkinson: kingstonphotographicclub.ca

Image by Sharon Wilkinson: kingstonphotographicclub.ca

Horseradish – the hotter the better.

Honeysuckle

Lily of the valley

A convent chapel – inner cleanliness.

Prison – I have yet to smell this and trust I never shall; but the awful miasma is something that everyone who has been banged up infallibly mentions.

New shoes

Ripe pineapples – warm fragrant golden sweetness. 

Bluebells & wild garlic

Bluebells and Wild Garlic: Wikimedia commons

Bluebells and Wild Garlic: Wikimedia commons


Backstage – of any theatre.

Syringa on a June evening.

Olive oil

Snuffed candles – in the second they are extinguished; hot wax & burned wick.

Rosemary, lavender, thyme – the glory of the herb patch.

Cocoa butter

Fear –  a sour, foxy reek.

Jonquils in a sunny beeswax-polished hallway.

Camomile – though not camomile tea.

Bacon, coffee; cigarettes at the moment of lighting: all notoriously smelling better than they taste.

Coffee and cigarettes

Coffee and cigarettes

A gardenia + a magnolia flower – often talked about; seldom experienced for real.

An iris bed in bloom: the flowers DO have a scent, an unforgettable smell.

Daffodils

Laburnum 

Stargazer lilies

Hot tar

Indian basil

Creosote

Narcisse Noir de Caron

Guelder rose –  that gorgeous vibernum shrub reminiscent of expensive vanilla & peach ice cream.

Broad bean flowers

Methylated spirits

Tuberose

Vanilla pods

Gorse – coconut frosted with sea salt in May sunshine.

Incense

Lemons –  like the sweet peas, the colour and scent are mutually enhancing.

Clove pinks

Fresh oysters on ice

Oysters on ice: theguardian.com

Oysters on ice: theguardian.com

Celery 

Nail polish remover

Hot custard

Marlene’s hands, 1972 – covered in Youth Dew

Linseed oil

Violets

Bonfires – in small doses

A well-soaked sherry trifle

Rain

Marigolds

New potatoes boiling with mint

“Iles Flottantes” – that exquisite delicacy first tasted at a French service station. 

Steaming hen mash

Kaolin & morphia

A rose

Sealing wax 

Newly washed hair

Hot mince pies

The bitterness of poppies

Scalding hot tea

Hot Tea: misslopez.se

Hot Tea: misslopez.se

Linden blossom

The inside of handbags

Myrtle – always a cutting in a royal bride’s bouquet.

Raspberries

Anything from LES SENTEURS….

Les Senteurs - Seymour Pl

Les Senteurs – Seymour Place