Crackling Like Ice: “The Holly & The Ivy”

*ATT22089 (1)

If any of you out there don’t know the glorious G. More O’Ferrall 1952 movie of “The Holly And The Ivy” you should scoot out now and lay in a copy of the DVD for the Christmas holidays. Demand a print which includes the mixed infants’ Nativity Play, inexcusably cut from my version. Among other delights this little-known film catches perfectly the suggestions of seasonal scents in a rambling and none too prosperous Norfolk parsonage, sunk in snow drifts, memories and stifled emotions. “How bitter the holly smells…it’s in the stems when you break it…as bitter as any gall..” murmurs Celia Johnson at the Christmas Eve family dinner table.

The house smells so cold, it comes off the celluloid in waves. A damp East Anglian bitter freeze whose bleakness is emphasised rather than diminished by the odours of old musty furniture undoubtedly permeated with cat. The fatty juiciness of roast goose; National Service army uniform itching like doormats; the duck pond and the dodgy duck eggs; unending washing up; over-worn woollens full of kitchen smells and insufficiently rinsed of Lux flakes; coal dust and soot; Woolworth toiletries; popping crackers; badly foxed bibles; gritty threadbare carpets; the vicar’s galoshes. And of course, “dark green and glittering, the Christmas tree”: presiding over all, doom-laden, like the Yggdrasil.

Then, heralded by woozy music, Celia’s screen sister Margaret Leighton staggers in half-cut from the London train – a svelte sequinned refugee from her Kensington flat and the impossibly glamorous world of the Associated Fashion News. Margaret exudes intoxicating fumes of Scotch, cigarettes, haute couture, expensive cosmetics and some gorgeous Paris chypre perfume. We imagine great rolling waves of fragrance, something quintessentially of the 1950’s like Malle’s Le Parfum de Therese (first formulated in 1959) full of plummy rose, pepper, clove, soft leather. Leighton was just on 30 when she made “The Holly and the Ivy”, but is so brittle, so thin, so heavily enamelled and so angstlich that she could pass for a 60 year old of today. Absolutely of her period, she is wearily and impossibly sophisticated, beautifully dressed and made up ( all from a tiny overnight grip) – apparently as exquisite and frail as an animal from a glass menagerie but much tougher than her little fur boots might suggest. Celia Johnson smells wonderfully clean I am sure, a cool dry skin moisturised with Ponds Cold Cream faintly overlaid with Vim, Dot and Ajax – but her younger sister is redolent of the world, the flesh and the devil.

I’m sure Leighton’s skin never frets and chafes with winter cold; it looks matte, hydrated and peachy – we are confident that her creamy complexion smells angelic and tastes almost edible, even when the lady is wiping the dishes where an ironically placed mirror hangs behind the kitchen door, next to the greasy range. (Is this looking glass a reminder of the mysteries of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini wedding portrait?). And then, Margaret Leighton’s eyes! Even in black and white: those Paul Newman/ Ginger Rogers hypnotic swimming blue eyes.

This amalgam of opposites is what the scent of Christmas is all about for me: this sense of being buffeted and sometimes overwhelmed by contrasts and memories; fair and foul, sweet and sour. Christmas sends many of us over the top with its emotional demands, the effluvia of memory; and the stress of unrealistic anticipation which reaches meltdown on New Years Eve. No wonder that the animal and the Old Adam in us goes crazy with the bombardment of odours. It sometimes feels as though a kaleidoscope of smells is being shaken up inside our heads and falling into the most unlikely patterns. Unusual circumstances can and do play havoc with our noses. So don’t judge a scent over the holiday period, whether it be a surprise gift of a new perfume, an old fragrant favourite or the smell of a new venue. Wait till your senses cool down after Twelfth Night and then take stock.

Perfume Shops Pt. 2: Health and Efficiency

Rosalind Russell 'The Women' 1939

Rosalind Russell ‘The Women’ 1939

No one has yet made a movie about the life and times of Les Senteurs but there are numerous examples of perfumeries on film. In British pictures they used to be discreetly referred to as “beauty shops”, maybe to distance them from the dubious sort of apothecary’s which Margaret Lockwood patronises to procure poison – and perhaps other services? – in “The Wicked Lady”. Celia Johnson tells us how much she loves the smell of a chemist’s shop but we also remember the sinister establishment in “Pink String and Sealing Wax”, a hot-house of frustration, vivisection, blackmail and poisoning. No, “Beauty Shop” is preferable – clean within and without: a healthy mind in a healthy body. This has a more reassuring ring about it, especially in the coded symbolism of 1940’s cinema.

But it’s a funny thing: as we have noted in this column before, once a screenwriter brings perfume into a script it usually heralds the advent of some kind of calamity. Diana Dors’s sale of a bottle of “Christmas Rose” in “Yield To the Night” is her first step to the gallows. How inspired it was of Wilder to have Norma Desmond sitting on the sofa in “that grim Sunset castle” smelling of some anonymous tuberose, maybe bought at Schwabs Pharmarcy along with her Egyptian cigarettes. I don’t suppose it was frothy Fracas ( though that was already in the shops in 1950), but rather a dark predatory tuberose with all its folkloric connotations of madness, narcotic stupefaction, obsession and lust: a thumbnail sketch of Norma’s personality that would fit on the bottle’s label. Joe Gillis tells us tuberose is not his favourite scent – not by a long shot. He would do well to heed his animal instinct (as we should all do with scent) and get the hell of there before overtaken by the havoc bred by that voracious and invasive scent.

We never learn the name of Norma’s perfume, not that of the haunting mimosa scent in “The Uninvited”. And when Ann Todd wants to keep her sister on side in “Madeleine” while purchasing arsenic ( “a rat in the cellar” ) she buys her silence with anonymous rosewater. An unexpected and mordant add-on purchase is that! A nameless fragrance makes its reference infinitely more effective, each member of the audience imagining the redolent plot device in his own terms. Naming a scent is a tricky task and, once named, fragrance is forever fixed in certain mould.

Fictional names are usually pretty uninspired: “Persian Rose”, ” Jungle Venom”, “Love Kiss”, “Summer Rain” and of course the ghastly “Seduction” which shop-girl Susan Shaw brings as a gift to slatternly sister Jean Kent in “The Woman in Question”. Here the name is all too obviously matched to the outlandish Kent character who snuffs at the bottle in a piggy kind of way before banging it down on her filthy dressing table. “Seduction” comes from Shaw’s Beauty Shop: has she nicked it, as Jean Kent rudely suggests? It comes unboxed which is odd – maybe a tester? A customer return? Faulty goods? A manufacturer’s sample? The risk here is that the viewer gets carried away with the retail conundrum and consequently misses vital details of plot.

I was once asked to propose a name for a simple floral scent created for a department store. I came up with more than 500 over-elaborate suggestions and none was quite right: in the end they called it just “Rose”: the answer was right under my nose. From the back list of classics, favourite names include “Magie Noire”, “Shalimar”, “Teint de Neige”, “My Sin”, “Moment Supreme”, “Crepe de Chine”, “Shocking”, “Vega” and “Ciao!” My current rave is Tom Daxon’s “Crushing Bloom” – an absolutely inspired title for a glorious green spicy rose weighed down with raindrops, nectar and gorgeous perfume. The first word makes you think of pashes & Schwarmerei & ardent swoonings; it has a wonderful onamatopeic quality and it rhymes with “lush”, a quality it has in abundance. “Crushing”: it’s kind of fun to say the word out loud, rolling it around the tongue, thinking of crush bars, fresh fruit drinks, Imperial Roman revellers crushed under tonnes of petals. Then “bloom”, a great silky flower pinned in one’s hair or in a corsage; or lowering, vast and heavy and outsize in a flower bed: I’m sure if we could hear a huge flower opening it would make a sound like this, a whooshing resonant noise as great velvet petals roll back like theatre curtains or lilies trumpet forth nectar and pollen. Bloom / zoom / va va voom. What’s in a name? Everything.

Perfume Shops Pt. One: Little Chemists

john-rogers-in-the-prescription-room-of-his-old-fashioned-pharmacyOne of my greatest pleasures on a home-grown holiday is to shuffle around unfamiliar little shops: no obligation to buy but the easy delights of a good nose around Buddha markets, second hand book stalls, antique attics, gift boutiques and Oxfam. Fusty, musty, dusty smells and all sorts of unexpected and delicious finds: a Spanish fan reeking of Maja, butterfly wing art deco jewellery, the Ladybird Book of Garden Flowers, Gainsborough Studio illustrated film scripts, old scent bottles and once even a rusty Floris soap tin advertised as “Georgian Lady’s Snuff Box: very rare. £75”.

For the open-minded and adventurous, a chemist’s shop can be fun and richly rewarding. “It’s such a mixture of nice things: herbs and scent and soap.” Celia Johnson tells us in Brief Encounter as she browses in Boots, which in those days also ran the famous lending library. Keep your eyes peeled for small old-fashioned chemists, usually deep in the provinces where forgotten treasures still lurk forgotten on the shelves, the sort of place where you can find ancient editions of Ma Griffe, Tabu, Hartnell’s My Love and Je Reviens going for under a tenner. These are the fast-disappearing stores where sea sponges, bath cubes and salts still bring in the money; plastic striped sponge bags have drawstrings and inserts of matching soap cases; vanilla-scented suppositories are still de rigueur and rubber bathcaps sprout riotous flowers like Suttons seed catalogues. You can still ask unblushingly for smokers’ tooth powder without being offered reformatory leaflets and disapproving looks.

Requests for Carnation corn plasters, elastic stockings and Snowfire Jelly are sympathetically understood without having to spell out the names – or pantomime the products’ homely function. Nivea and Yardley are brought out for Christmas on tiny rickety tables jammed in the aisles and piled with hand-painted fir cones, lewdly grinning Santas and cottonwool angels. Bars of soap (rare as hens’ teeth in London) are easily come by, and occasionally razor blades and aspirin are still sold individually like wartime cigarettes. A rainbow of face flannels, almond oil hand creams, pastel cotton wool balls and sticks of frozen lavender cologne for headache relief: impossible not to get your purse out.

And there’s always this wonderful warm ( a baby’s bath not a Moloch’s furnace) comforting fragrance in the air. Soapy, vaguely mentholated and medical: Johnsons Baby Powder blended with the divine scent of Euthymol tooth paste, Universal Embrocation, Bronnley bath oils and boxes of novelty soap shaped like lemons and smelling of verbena,citrus and their dry wooden containers. Pumice stone, face flannels, nail brushes and Wrights Coal Tar radiate reassurance and the indefinable smell of calm and security, as tranquillising to us as to other animals. The dispenser in his immaculate white cotton coat is wise as a doctor and discreet as a priest but less alarming than either: one of us and not one of them. Try 4160’s The Lion Cupboard to evoke all this discreet and irresistible pleasure. The mixture as before: mint absolu and and a ginny juniper; aniseed, lavender and patchouli. Sarah McCartney named this wonderful scent after her father’s personal treasure cupboard – it’s redolent of tooth powder, cashmeres and silk scarves put up in herbs against the moth, dark fragrant woods, leather-bound diaries, half-forgotten colognes and the safe assurance of the past. I’ll take two bottles, Mr Pharmacist, please!