A Plum In My Mouth

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Just around about this time my mind and my nose turn to the sweet redolence of plums. I must tell you that for many years we have lived next door to an extensive walled garden. For twenty three Septembers, a gnarled old tree in that plot’s remotest and most picturesque corner was seen to be laden with magnificent plums – never gathered but left to rot on the branches or to provide occasional food for birds and insects. How our mouths watered and how our hearts ached for those wasted luscious fruits. We looked on and languished like Rapunzel’s mother pining for the witch’s blue-flowered rampion. And then – do you know? – the house was sold and we told the new young owners about the plums. “Plum tree? There are no plums here. Just apples….hard little red apples”. So all the greedy longings of decades were wasted and quite in vain: a three minute sermon in a country garden! The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

“Plum blossoms:

Red, red

Red ” ……¤

My mother often described folk whose looks she admired as resembling “a great big beautiful plum”. That is to say:  high-coloured, smooth-skinned, zaftig; apt to be extravagantly exuberant and deliciously scented. And evidently she was not unique in entertaining this fantasy. A lively lady at the Tesco check-out this morning jabbed a lilac-painted finger nail – “Tsarina Mauve” – into a basket of over-ripe scarlet plums saying with a wink, “and this one’s me!”. It was the softest piece of fruit, and the most brilliant.

Plums have a great individuality about them: they are vivid little personalities with their silky iridescent skins, sensually cleft flesh and hard-hearted stones. They grow in a rainbow of wonderful colours: blue, yellow, topaz, crimson, pink, mauve, green, purple and almost white. When you cook them you see a miniature sunset of red and gold blaze at the bottom of your saucepan. Their perfume fills the house; a smell which is sharper when plums are cooked¤¤ than when they hang all velvety and sun-warmed on the tree. Or when their syrupy nectar oozes out as they lie on the grass, ripped open by voracious young wasps.

“Send her Victorias!”, as one of my teachers used to parody the National Anthem. They put him away for two years – though not for that.

The heavenly smell of plums is what used to lead children into orgies of greed, gorging themselves on the pilfered orchard fruit and being terribly ill – “pains” – in the night. And then, at Christmas, the indigestible but irresistible richness of bottled, candied, frosted, and crystallised plums. Plum cake, plum pudding, plum duff and the Sugar Plum Fairy. In these austere days when Expiry Dates and the “Five-A-Day” policy rule the roost these surfeits probably no longer take place. But, in the same way as oranges and nasturtiums, plums have an indefinable but powerful nostalgia about them. Like dahlias, grapes and golden rod they have the glamour of an imperial past, a dazzling hue and the thoughtful bitter-sweet taste & scent of autumn about them. A sense of numbered days.

I first smelled plums – I suppose – in the Madman’s Paradise of my great uncle’s suburban garden. His house was full of the fumes of leaking gas and Players cigarettes. The back garden was a jungle of old man’s beard, of half-wild nose-tingling horseradish and fallen waspy plums heaped up on the old tennis court and all over the cinder paths. Uncle Fred was born only 13 years after the death of the Prince Consort: he gardened like a High Victorian. I think this sepia photo aspect is what makes plum such a popular and powerful note when used in perfumery. It takes you back to a finer age of leisure, succulence and refined self-indulgence.

The plum accord in scent need not be botanically exact. It comes to life in the imagination and perception of the beholder, in a similar way to many people’s definition of musk. Plum notes evoke a mood rather than a precise odour. Plummy scents have a deep dark polished fullness to them; an embraceable roundness; a feeling that every corner has been smoothed away & sanded down leaving a glorious glowing ripeness and volupte. Plum scents whisper – in rich engorged plummy tones – ‘eat me!’. I have only to read that a perfume boasts plum notes for me to want to try it. I associate plum with the sophisticated fruitiness of the classic chypres – the novel peach accord in Mitsouko; the sexy synthetics of Ma Griffe; the grande horizontale seduction  of Parure. Especially I love the infinite and mysterious sweet green lake – “all hung about with fever trees” – that is LE PARFUM DE THERESE, Roudnitska’s star turn from the late 1950’s, bound into softest moss-coloured leather for Editions de Parfums.

Kilian’s LIAISONS DANGEREUSES is served from a bar in Zola’s Paris – a plum steeped in a shot of brandy or absinthe to brighten a frosty morning in Les Halles. ACQUA FIORENTINA is an Italian orchard where late carnations add a delicate hint of clove to a conception of greengages, plums and apples. LIQUEUR CHARNELLE streams out like liquid apricot velvet: plums and prunes distilled into after-dinner gourmanderie. And then, less literally, I find a dark, discreet but splendid plummy opulence and amplitude in that fabulous duo from Atelier Cologne – ROSE ANONYME and VETIVER FATAL.

In the old days I went several times to the former Jugoslavia. In Split – where the Emperor Diocletian once grew his prize cabbages – I first tasted plum slivovitz. We were recommended by a local to try it spliced with kruskovac: the sharpness of the plums, the sweetness of pears. Greatly daring, I ordered this enticing-sounding drink in a waterfront hotel: there stood the appropriate bottles, all ranked on glass shelves. But the barmaid – vividly similar in appearance to Elsie Tanner  – vehemently refused to serve me. “NO slivovitz! NO kruskovac!” Her hands slammed flat on the bar like fruit pelting down to earth in a high wind.

Plums witheld! Plums verboten! Their glamour was heightened all the more.

¤ Hirose Izen c.1652 – c.1711

¤¤ unless you are jamming of course: copper preserving pans full of red plums; pounds of white sugar slowly staining pink. Then the saucer on the window-sill to test the setting. My mother tended to lose her nerve at this point, but our Paddy who came to help in the garden used to stick his thumb in the sweet goo and judge it to a nicety. He was wonderful at timing when a cake was done, too: just thrust in the cold steel of the bread knife. He was always right.

Fallen Angels

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Such incredible fierce desire to re-watch REBECCA: do you remember the dialogue in the first reel when Joan Fontaine talks of bottling up her memories like perfume? Larry grimly reminds her that those little bottles “sometimes contain demons that have a way of popping out at you just as you’re trying most desperately to forget”. I thought Hallowe’en this year was pretty diabolical in the literal sense. It’s become such a massive occasion (commercially second only to Christmas), and on that mad Friday evening when temperatures in London reached 74 degrees things to me seemed frighteningly out of hand; had gone Too Far. Everything was going curiously awry – Tubes packing up, trains running late, tourists losing their way and fainting in the heat. We were all led astray that night: the popular consciousness had frivolously courted evil and boy! did we reap the wild wind.

As we know, goodness and virtue have a beautiful odour – Alexander the Great’s sweat smelled of violets; the relics of the saints give off an immortal redolence of roses. The corresponding perception is that evil smells corrupt, foul and repellent. And, according to old medical miasma theory, what smells bad will make you sick: disease is transmitted not by germs but by smell. This theory was current even a hundred years ago: my grandmother (her father was a health inspector and recognised smallpox cases by the characteristic smell of apples) certainly subscribed to it. I remember being hurried past stagnant ponds with a hanky drenched in iced lavender cologne clapped over my nose.

Satan, the Fallen Angel of Light, smells of sulphurous fires and excrement. Not for nothing were early matches, soaked in bone-rotting phosphorous, named Lucifers. I used to have dreadful dreams about sensing the demonic presence, not by the smell but by a glimpse of the cloven hoof behind a door or curtain. And of course that hoof takes us back to the notorious smell of goats, the farmyard and the pagan world of satyrs. Kilian chooses to eschew a close encounter with the Evil One. PLAYING WITH THE DEVIL is inspired by ideas of the Great God Pan rioting through lush fruity thickets “spreading ruin and scattering ban”; the old fertility god of the ancient world who was proscribed as a demon by the early Church.

But this is an innocent if indulgent scent. Go a shade darker with Nu_Be’s burning lake of SULPHUR which conjures up night’s dark angels with black angelica, cinnamon, the eternal fires of ginger, opoponax and pimento. It’s one of a series of perfumes celebrating the elemental and generative elements of the universe: SULPHUR separates the Creationists from the Darwinians and has a certain theatrical fiery flash to it. Blue flames to light up Christmas and to dress you as the Demon King for the panto matinee.

CUIR VENENUM by Parfumerie Generale has long been an object of veneration and curiosity to collectors of the bizarre. A fathomless abyss of soft musky leather illuminated with burning sulphur and bitter myrrh; and perversely sweetened with innocent orange blossom – Satan before and after the Fall. And finally try the Serge Lutens curiously mesmerising VITRIOL D’OEILLET, which brings out the love/hate metallic sharpness of pinks and carnations hiding beneath their peppery sweetness, as a vitriol thrower conceals her sulphuric acid in a posy of flowers.

Devil take the hindmost: why not come by, come buy?

Treasures: Lost and Found

Faberge is back in the news; once again there’s been a re-division of the limited spoils via the world’s salerooms and auctions. And – did you see? –  a spectacular dental plate of gold and platinum has turned up in a grave near St Petersburg? Only some 40 of the Imperial Easter Eggs survive; I found my old Catalogue of the huge 1977 London Faberge exhibition the other day and was surprised to tot up how many I have seen over the years. The Eggs were less well-known when I was young. I think it was the Nicholas and Alexandra craze of 40 years ago that first put the word about; and then when Bing Crosby died on a Spanish golf course it came out that he was a great collector. I could write my own I Spy book of Faberge (Big Chief I-Spy, Wigwam-by-the-Water, remember?). I get 40 points for seeing the old St Petersburg shop – now, needless to say, a Macdonalds; and I’ve seen the almost absurdly symbolic but chillingly uncanny Twilight Egg.

The Twilight Egg for the twilight of the gods! It makes you shiver. As Russia began her fatal participation in the Great War Carl Faberge continued to supply his Easter trophies to the Imperial ladies. In a rather mad kind of way, and with no dimunition of expense, they were adapted to the austere spirit of the time: the Birchwood Egg, the  Red Cross Egg and the sinister polished steel of the Munitions Egg – the bomb-like Easter kiss of 1916. The Twilight Egg never reached the Empress: by then the Revolution had broken out and the Imperial Family were under house arrest at Tsarskoye Selo. What curious premonitions inspired this toy of lapis lazuli, diamonds and moonstones? What thoughts of Rasputin’s last prophecy before he went under the ice, his fearful vision of the end of the Romanovs and Russia drowning in blood? The photograph of his battered murdered face was the first thing the Tsarina Alexandra saw when she awoke: it hung at the foot of her bed. The Empress was accustomed to shower the Faberge workshop with ideas and suggestions; deeply pious though obsessed with the occult, numerology and portents Alexandra’s agitations and fears are captured in this shell of midnight blue. All Faberge’s Eggs contained within a “Surprise” – an ingenious precious novelty, as in a superior cracker. The Suprise is lost from the Twilight; the Surprise was to be the slaughter house at Ekaterinburg.

For 30 years Faberge solved the gift problem for the royal families of Russia and of England. A branch of the store opened in London; Edward VII and Queen Alexandra commissioned jewel portraits of their animals and plants at Sandringham. One of the most fascinating pieces in the Royal Collection is an midnight blue enamel cigarette case inlaid with a great diamond serpent biting its own tail, the symbol of unbroken love. Edward VII’s mistress, Alice Keppel, commissioned it for her chain-smoking bronchitic royal lover; when he died Queen Alexandra offered it to Alice as a keepsake. Twenty years later, Queen Mary received it back from Mrs Keppel whose great grand daughter is now married to the Prince of Wales. Another touch of the Twilight Egg here; eerie Faberge magic.

So when I saw the white and gold snake caskets of Kilian’s Garden of Good and Evil collection I thought of all these back stories and I was captivated. The luxurious Kilian ethos has enticing echoes of Faberge; one of his motifs is the key, that uber-symbol of sex and secrecy, the locking and disclosure of the mysteries of this and other worlds. Kilian’s tiny keys to his seductively gleaming lacquer boxes (the boxes of a new Pandora) remind us of the velvet shells that protected the Tsar’s eggs; the key that Alice finds on a glass table to open Wonderland; and of the key to Marlene’s eternal enigma. The surname, Dietrich, means in German a skeleton key in German – the device against which no lock is proof.

Kilian‘s “Straight To Heaven” – where St Peter waits with the golden Keys of the Kingdom and St Zita finds those you have mislaid – is a lyrical shimmering streak of flaming rum and psychotropic nutmeg which fires you up like a rocket, reminding me of those neo-Gilray cartoons of 1997 depicting Diana and Mother Theresa whizzing like shooting stars to Paradise. Kilian loves the scent and symbolism of soft fruits – apricots (female beauty), peach and especially plum (perpetual youth) which appears – candied and crystallised and darkly oozing in Liaisons Dangereuses and In The City of Sin. The fruits of the Garden of Eden: my English teacher, when holding forth on Paradise Lost always held that Eve was more likely betrayed less by an apple than by a peach  – the key note of Kilian’s cool green celadon  “Flower of Immortality” –  the Chinese emblem of eternal life and fidelity. For in tandem with these high ideals the sweet golden flesh of the fruit, its intoxicating juices and delicious odours are deeply sensual and carnal: an irresistible invitation to voluptuous reverie and amorous intercourse, the exchange of a spiritual heaven for a more robustly physical one. “Here’s the key to my heart/ Don’t lose it/ Use it” as Alice Faye used to sing.

I haven’t been so captivated by a perfume range for a long time as I am by the smooth and silky Kilian line. Polished, vivid and easy to wear the fragrances are also mysterious and adventurous. Fewer in number than the Imperial Eggs, they are the products of a similar genius and devotion to artistic luxury, perfection for its own sake. Every one a gem and like Faberge’s treasures, they are destined to delight future generations beyond our own. But judge for yourselves: why not pop round?

A Fine Baby Boy

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I didn’t write about royal baby joy at the time as everyone was complaining of saturation coverage: I enjoyed it very much myself, something cheerful for a change. And now that Prince George has gone home, we may perhaps take a little look at him. Baby Cambridge’s appearance on July 22, day of stupendous, stupefying heat, the most intense of the year, seemed richly mystically symbolic: a Son of the Sun, grandson of Diana of the Moon. A ray of the Sun in Splendour, device of his distant Plantagenet ancestors. Astrologically Prince George is just caught within the watery Cancerian net as demonstrated by the breaking of tropical electric storms and deluges over London within hours of his birth, but he’s on the cusp of fiery Leo too, a creature of heat, passion and flame. I should think he’ll run rings round his Gemini papa and lock budding horns with his tough and charismatic Capricorn mother. A perfect amalgum for a future King: proud, loyal, economical, charming, creative, magnetic, sensitive, gentle, empathetic and responsible. And with enough of the deep crustacean shell and native caution to preserve his regal distance. Sharing the day: Mama Rose Kennedy, Terence Stamp, Oscar de la Renta, Bryan Forbes and –  supposedly – Alexander the Great.

Always excepting the unfortunate Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor, this baby is the first Heir to the British throne since the Conquest to be born under the sign of Cancer. All things being equal, he’ll be the first crowned Cancerian monarch in 1000 years. We’ve had plenty of mighty Leos and glittering mercurial Geminians, stubborn dutiful Taureans and balanced, impartial Librans – “affable, suave and dapper” – but no King Crabs. Our Cambridge infant should prove to be a revelation in kingship, though probably long after the last juice has been squeezed from Lemon Wedge and his rind consigned to the recycling. However, one must not presume or assume. Like Nostradamus I looked into my basin of dark waters on your behalf, and now wonder, after all this continuing uninformed talk of abdications, whether it will not be William who in the end springs a surprise. Will he maybe decide to take a rain-check on kingship and hand the reins, untried, over to George VII? After all, William too is on the Cancerian cusp.

Royal births used to be, almost by definition, harrowing and terrible affairs. It was not until our own Queen’s lifetime that the custom of having the Home Secretary on hand to witness the legitimacy of the baby was done away with. This precaution started after the widely believed rumour that James II’s son and heir was a changeling, smuggled within a warming pan into the bed of Mary Beatrice of Modena – incidentally, one of our few truly beautiful Queen Consorts.

Royal mothers-to-be were secluded in their apartments weeks before and after the birth; rooms closed and shuttered against perilous light and dangerous fresh air. Goats and cows were brought to the bedside so that their fresh milk would lose no time nor potency in nourishing the young mother; other animals – sheep and lambs and hares – might be slaughtered in situ after a difficult delivery so that the Queen and offspring could be cosied up in freshly flayed warm skin. Can you even begin to imagine the state of the stale foul air, further heated and corrupted with blood, sweat, wine (to wash baby), a blaze of candles and braziers of disinfecting herbs and incense? Queen Jane Seymour never recovered. We know that in 1778 Marie Antoinette nearly died in labour at Versailles for want of fresh air: the King himself smashed the windows, all sealed up for winter, and revived her with the bite of a frosty December morning. And what about the horror story of Queen Mary Tudor? She was immured in her darkened sweltering rooms for month after month after month till it finally had to be horribly admitted that there was no baby coming, that the whole pregnancy had been a fearful illusion. In her memoir, Catherine the Great paints an awful picture of her baby son Paul, his tiny face puddled in sweat, swaddled in a cradle packed with velvet and furs on the direct orders of the Tsarina Elizabeth, herself beautiful, massive and always wine-purple in the face.

The modern baby is marketed as a creature of pure and pretty scents, smelled to advantage on a plumply hydrated uncorrupted baby skin. Do baby worshippers still pay the ultimate accolade of declaring their intention of eating the new arrival? This must somehow connect with the well-known phenonemon of all new-borns looking, however briefly, like their fathers so that papa does not doubt his paternity – and like Saturn (or an animal) devour his own progeny. I like that baby smell, and without sentimental illusion: I’ve changed many nappies, and cleaned up sick in my time. Every healthy baby has an sweetly innocent odour about it, no matter how much of a mess it’s temporarily gotten itself into.

And this smell is what? Well: milky, biscuity, rusky, slightly sicky sometimes, a whiff of ammonia, skin, hair, soap. And  a lavishly powdered bottom, which is why perfumes such as the increasingly rare Narcisse Noir, Villoresi’s Teint de Neige and Kilian’s Love (…Don’t Be Shy) are so much in demand: these confections of orange flower, vanilla, marshmallow, iris and rice have a sweet and nostalgic powderiness which I guess spells nourishment, nostalgia, nursery security, Mummy’s perfume, Nanny’s solid bosom. Narcisse Noir has the slightly citric clogged dampness of Johnsons Baby Powder: a note that emerges in the heart of the scent as the orange hits the orris. Caron has now brought out My Ylang, a creamy white floral, dusted with icing sugar: meringue or derriere? Kurkdjian’s Cologne Pour le Matin is far from infantile but its wonderfully woozy evocation of daytime naps – clouds of thyme, lavender, neroli – lays you down in a doll’s bassinet like Gulliver in Brobdignag.  There is always the faintest hint of wet nappy in orange blossom and mock orange, especially when overblown; not exactly unpleasant but disconcerting and attractively disturbing – a reminder that babyhood is strictly limited; that the serpent has already entered Eden. Which is where the intrinsic corruption of Divin Enfant comes in with its bizarrie of tobacco, cassie, mocha and rose: leading by inference to George’s Christening : the next big photo opportunity.