Coronation Chicken

lilac

It must have been in the early summer of 1963 that we found the official souvenir copies of the Coronation. These included the full order of the Abbey service ten years before, and heavily retouched portraits of all the royal ladies which struck us children as highly comic. Princess Margaret’s face was enamelled like a waxwork and much stuck about with roses, her mouth the very image of Swinburne’s venomous flower. The Queen Mother’s throat looked weighed down with giant rubies like jam tarts. My grandfather had died the year before and his old trunks were filled with fascinating relics, these books among them. His things smelled earthily of camphor, leather and the past; there was a framed list of faded autographs, mostly in pencil – his comrades in the trenches at Ypres. He had been the only man of his platoon to survive.

We had just moved to a new house and decided to reconstruct the Coronation in the garden. Everyone wanted the key role of the Archbishop. We discovered that pilfered rolls of kitchen foil were ideal for creating a facsimile regalia. Fragile crowns were easy, stuck with plasticine gems. The Sceptre was a bamboo rolled around with foil topped with a golden bird from the Christmas tree ornaments;  the Orb a silvered tennis ball. My grandfather’s old apple cart was a godsend: perfect as a tumbril for games involving the French Revolution or the martyrdom of Joan of Arc (Wendy from next door), it served here draped in old curtains as the Irish State Coach. My mother and grandmother in deckchairs were the silent London crowds and somnolent congregation.

Our top lawn was bordered on one side by a small orchard, full of Beauty of Bath apple trees and one gnarled old Victoria plum. In the late summer this was a heaving drunken wasp orgy of golden ripped flesh, oozing juice and bursting purple skins. The insects rolled around in the grass, scrapping like sailors in a Portsmouth gutter. Under these trees my father kept hens; their bran mash, doled out hot and steaming, had a unique sour smell which hung around the humid nesting boxes and echoed in their droppings. There was a huge mauve rhododendron behind the hen house. This we plundered recklessly for Coronation bouquets and garlands.

There was also a purple double lilac bush. It was smelling a lilac this morning that brought back all these memories. I stuck my nose into a great frothy ice cream cone of blossom and it was as though I’d been hit with a tiny petally thunderbolt. It was like the time the Duke of Windsor’s former nurse – a woman of remarkable healing powers  – touched my forehead and I recoiled involuntarily against the wall as though electrocuted, charged up with purging energies. Fifty years rolled away with one inhalation of lilac. I was back in that apple cart.

lilac 2

That scent! And it’s never the same twice over; like a rose, lilac plays hundreds of variations on a theme. This was an intense dewy morning sweetness – like Vimto, cherryade or pear drops – with a green muskiness in the depths. In its fruity hints I caught a waft of Guerlain’s heavenly (and now discontinued) Parure which blessed a mauve powderiness with a touch of plum blossom. Lilac scents are rare. Perfumers are cautious of a flower whose aroma can be overwhelming, with a certain grubbiness at its heart when scientifically reconstructed. And besides, lilac is unlucky in a house: we were never allowed to bring it indoors. Crabtree and Evelyn used to make a fresh and delicious Persian Lilac line; the The Body Shop a penetrating White Lilac oil – in those wee plastic bottles, do you remember? I once wore it into the papery dryness of a Learned Society’s library, with devastating results. It was like letting loose a fox in a chicken coop.
If you love lilac as I do, try Olivia Giacobetti’s En Passant: just a suggestion of the flowers as borne on a breeze. White, cream and palest green, faintly wheaten and with a cooling suggestion of cucumber. Green grow the lilacs,o! – miraculously, on your skin.

A Study in Scarlet

popeleo

If you key “images Cardinal” into your search engine you will be visually bombarded by a beautiful barrage of scarlet, vermilion and crimson good enough to print, cut out and keep. Interestingly, pictures of cute American birds materialise first, seguing into a surreal juxtaposition of images avian and clerical. It’s the venerable Princes of the Church that intrigue me more: that magnificent title which combines the temporal and spiritual and which evokes the promise of a world of immense exoticism and arcane power. Also, being synaesthetic, I find just pronouncing the word of power is both satisfying and fun – “cardinal” conjures up a great blood red splash of rustling crackling coruscating satin and silk.

Wonderful names, too: the historic Cardinals Fleury (a great lover of cats); and Mazarin, the uncle – or maybe father – of the beautiful “Mazarinettes” who so entranced the young Sun King. Was Mazarin the lover of Louis XIV’s mother, as once widely rumoured? We remember Cardinal Richelieu, familiar to readers of “The Three Musketeers”; Cardinal Spellman, intimate of the Kennedy’s; and Cardinal Rohan who longed for the favour of Marie Antoinette and precipitated the Diamond Necklace Scandal which did so much to undermine the French monarchy and hasten the Revolution. Rohan’s arrest in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles while robed incarnadine for Mass, is one of the great images of eighteenth century France. The saintly English prelates Newman (author of the so-called Fragrance Prayer) and Manning altered the face of the Victorian Church; Thomas Barham set the Cardinal Archbishop to rhyme in The Jackdaw of Rheims; while in our own time we have seen the media resound to the evocative and beguiling names of their eminences Biffi, Casserole, Martini and Sin.

Coming from Leicester I grew up with the story of Cardinal Wolsey’s demise in that fair city – “Father Abbot I come to lay my bones among you”. He died here providentially and peacefully before he could reach London and a hanging trial for treason. (A butcher’s son from Ipswich he had set himself up as richer and mightier than the King, and was once said to have infected Henry VIII with syphilis by whispering in his ear). He lies in what is now Abbey Park in the shadow of the old knitwear factory, the Wolsey Works, from which he still stares forth, portrayed on a magnificent plaque. His scarlet biretta’d head looks over the roofs towards his tombstone among the old abbey ruins, the ducks and boating lake. When I was 8 or 9 he was my favourite figure in games of “dressing up” – simple enough to do in an old red dressing gown and hat cut down from a fez. I carried in my hands (gloved and bejewelled) an orange stuck with cloves which my mother assured me was the very essence of the man.

Today I should recommend a bottle of Heeley’s fragrance Cardinal to complete the picture. Many perfumers have experimented with incense, but James Heeley subtly portrays the man enveloped in the fragrance, a warm breathing human presence in red soutane and blue smoke, rather than an impersonal and impassive cathedral interior. So Cardinal is fresh and warm, rather than redolent of candles, woodwork and venerable cold stone. Cardinal has the delicacy and crispness of rochet lace and fine clean linen, pristine watered silk and taffeta scented with fumes of finest frankincense. Aldehydes and orange exult and exalt in the top notes, surging into woody, spicy resinous folds. Cardinal is the odour of sanctity, suave and uplifting: but, suitably for the 21st century, it welcomes women into the Church too, and the accent is on youthful fervour and exuberance rather than sombre venerability.

Image from famous-artists.net