Light Of My Life

Gerhard Richter, Two Candles, Oil on canvas, 1983

Gerhard Richter, Two Candles, Oil on canvas, 1983

When I was a tot, I lived in and by the historical biographies of R. J. Unstead: “People In History”. One of many favourite lives was that of the penal reformer Elizabeth Fry: that enthrallingly vivid detail of the young Fry – to the scandal of Norwich – sporting purple boots with scarlet laces. And then her first visit to Newgate, seeing the windmill on the roof of the prison – “to draw off the evil air”, the supposed cause of gaol fever.

At this time of year I freshen the air around the home with abundant scented candles. There’s something about igniting a flame – some principle of physics, I mean – that in itself clears the air. Just observe the effect of striking a match. But, in mid-winter, with the windows so often closed, the stove bubbling and the sun at its lowest, a perfumed candle is a benefit rich in pleasantly practical symbolism.

December 13th is the Feast of St Lucy when the Church – especially in dark Sweden – celebrates the patron of light and clear vision. The Saint descends, crowned with flames. For all of us, a glowing candle signifies comfort, hope, romance, a wish made or a desire fulfilled: a candle flame shines out like a good deed in a naughty world.

About the house I now have two elegantly snug Frederic Malle candles: SANTAL CARDAMOME and the bookishly leathery CHEZ MONSIEUR. In the dusk of late afternoon their scarlet glasses glow like ardent hearts or arctic sunsets. To echo the scent of potted bulbs I’ve got Robbie Honey’s beautiful spicy lily CASA BLANCA set in its suede-textured pearl grey glass; and Tom Daxon’s exquisite WHITE NARCISSUS. I kindle Cloon Keen’s neroli candle SPANISH ARCH to clear my mind and calm me down after too much gift wrapping. Because it’s odd: I enjoy performing ’emballage de luxe’ at the shop, but when I’m at home, in a frazzle over Christmas presents, wrapping drives me absolutely up the wall. I get sharp shooting pains in my head. Apparently, when the late Prince of Wales first met Mrs Simpson he started moaning to her over the cocktail chit-chat about this very thing; and she said, “Oh Sir! That is something I would be very happy to do for you.” And – do you know? – he was dotty about her from that very minute. How well I can understand that.

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My neighbour is having her kitchen painted. She is being very prudent about sealing up all her foodstuffs while the decorators are in. Because, years ago, she had a nasty experience. The ground floor was done out with eggshell emulsion and the pungent smell of the paint got into all the food. It was so bad that for days afterwards she and her family were tasting eggshell emulsion in everything they ate; even to  it after meals. The penetrating reek of paint¤ – like that of petrol – is what they call a ‘Marmite’ polarising experience. It makes me feel slightly sick; though modern paint is much more diminuendo in its aroma. I used to work with a woman who had to go home when the office was being redecorated: her chest played up something shocking, not to mention her nose and eyes. Mind you there was something very wrong with that office: my eyes stung and watered continually for four years. Possibly it had to do with fumes arising from the packed files of old newsprint: no computers, then.

When I was very small – three or four years old –  I got all my senses confused during a period of home improvement. (Some might say my wits have never recovered). Our own kitchen was being spruced up and a new table introduced. This table was covered with a smooth formica. It was bright yellow, lightly freckled in white, very similar to the many dishes of scrambled egg served upon it. I remember having the smell of the paint, the furniture and the eggs all muddled together in my head. I often wonder whether – much as I love them – that is why I rarely eat scrambled eggs, even today without feeling ever so faintly nauseated.

Going back to the idea of filtering the air. During the summer I bought a sheet of poppy-patterned stamps. As I left the post office – gawping at the pictures – a gust of wind tore the paper from my hand and into a thick and closely trimmed privet hedge. Like the Prince in Sleeping Beauty I boldly tunnelled into the foliage: it was SO thick; so dense and so filled with muck and filth and dust and grime. I retrieved my stamps but I had to go home and change from the skin out. Now – and how satisfyingly! – I learn that the Victorians planted privet for this very reason. As well as having sweet-smelling white blossoms, the good privet acts as a natural filter for all the pollution of the streets, trapping dirt in its depths and doing its brave bit to clean the air.

A privet candle would seem to be the next big thing: so many memories trapped among the twigs.

¤ I have remarked before on this page how Sherlock Holmes deduces that the smell of fresh green paint is being used as a red herring to disguise the stink of murder. (See: The Adventure of the Retired Colourman in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, 1927. ‘ “Pooh! What an awful smell of paint!” cried the Inspector.’)

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You spoke of a room, a lovely room…

Jean Harlow - Bombshell Lola in bed

Which is your favourite room of the house? I was told many years ago by a woman in analysis that my preference for living in the bedroom was a Bad Sign. She took me to task for making it a retreat from life, an opting out, exacerbated by my bedroom being at the rear of the flat, looking out over gardens and remote from the world. I should have been in the sitting-room, gazing down on a busy street, my blood thrumming in harmony with the traffic: not lulled by Hungarian goose feathers and muffled by pillows, a bottle of cologne tucked under the coverlet.

Well, at least I wasn’t living in the bathroom as Maria Callas did in her final years. I delighted in defying all these Freudian strictures and still love to make a cocoon of my bedroom which I can arrange exactly as I choose with all my favourite things about me and all my perfumes stacked in a deep dark drawer. It’s good to come in and find a memory of your current favourite hanging in the air. I like the informality of a bedroom, in the manner of an C18th print: an artful dishevellment, a private laxity in a room where shoes are not worn – or never should be, though I am constantly amazed that when folk throw themselves on beds or sofas on tv or in films they NEVER remove the footwear which has trekked in the muck of the streets.

You can see from the makeover shows and the magazines (not to mention the estate agents) that the kitchen is now more than ever the heart of the house. I’m all for this, although in this eccentric world of ours it seems to me that the bigger and better the kitchen the less people use it to actually cook in. Kitchens should be full of delicious smells, not just of meals in preparation but of warmth, stored ingredients, spicy dry goods, flowering plants, cleanliness and fresh air. We still bottom through here, with mop and bucket – I always get a Pavlovian jolt at the clang of a metal pail and the hot tang of Flash (or Flash-type cleanser) which takes me back over 50 years. Flash used to come in powder form in a packet: sodden, gritty and lumpy, emitting a strong smell of damp cardboard and bleach. Nowadays it streams liquid gold, the colour and scent of lemons, full of citronella, easy-to-pour from the bottle.

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Kitchen windows: keep them open! Florence Nightingale was a a great one for stressing the importance of having rooms sufficiently warm for health but simultaneously well-aired at all times. Nowadays there is a pleasing vogue for aptly scented candles in the kitchen – mint, lemon, herbs ,woods all go good. Don’t – obviously- burn a candle in a draught or by an open window: it will flare and sputter and the wax will burn unevenly. But what you can do is, create a little protective niche away from the air flow and have your candles there, quite still and safe, while the outdoors streams in and blends in. The scent of a coming meal in a kitchen is a perfect heaven; the odour of one long gone is a most unappetising thing. And I have noticed that since ‘No Smoking’ became the rule even the grandest of fine dining eateries often smell dismayingly of old stale food: the staff no longer throw the doors & windows wide to sweeten the place as they were happy to do in the days of brimming ashtrays and cigar butts. Nowadays when I enter a restaurant what I first take notice of is not menu, decor or staff promptitude but the smell.

I wonder if all the above has something to do with my wariness of a dining room. This is the room I have always instinctively avoided in a house. When I was a tot, the dining room had an alien remoteness about it: children ate there only on Christmas Day; adults occasionally held mysterious dinner parties, heard from the stairs but never actually witnessed. Dinner parties announced by peals of over-excited laughter, fumes of drink and loud exotic perfumes floating upwards to the bedroom landings. One might find short-lived traces of strange feasts in the dining room next day – a bowl of walnuts; rich crumbly forbidden Roka biscuits in a sharp-edged blue and yellow tin which hurt small fingers (“it does serve you right: those are for your father”); muddied decanters covered in stars like the ones that go mad in “Alice”. Otherwise the room reverted to its chilly solitary state. We ate in the kitchen: the dining room was used an occasional study by my father’s typist, a storage space and, in the very early days, as a television room.

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So there’s an eye-opener! – and I remember other households like ours in the late 1950’s. A tv set was (with qualms) subscribed to, but – as something slightly shameful – was hidden away in the dining room for limited viewing. “We have it for the children”: the children who were reluctant to sit in that unwelcoming chamber – a room as unnatural, unfriendly and stiff as best clothes – to watch it. It was only when Coronation Street and That Was The Week That Was arrived post-1960 that the television was promoted to the sitting room and the old social contract crumbled. Meanwhile the dining room was left abandoned once more.

The gloom of this room has nothing to do with decor or lighting – I have known dining rooms flooded with sunlight through French windows, opening onto gardens and terraces, furnished in ice-blue satin or pink leather and hung with ivy-patterned chintz. Some of them lovely and elegant but few of them exactly welcoming or inviting one to linger. The ones that do work are what I’ll call supper rooms, intimate cosy snuggeries just by the kitchen. Does anyone have an unnatural aversion to a particular room? I think my dislike of state dining rooms has something to do with an over-solemn approach to food, a business that’s always irritated me. More practically, the dinner loses essential heat as it is trundled down the draughty hall. And maybe too there’s a essential tristesse about a room devoted entirely to eating and the sustenance of the body but lacking the creativity and bustle of the kitchen.

‘Shall we join the ladies?’