That Was The Week That Was

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“Casting always starts on time. Can’t you smell the cheap perfume?” MAD MEN: The Final Season.

You can forget about BREXIT – (someone asked, “is it a type of chocolate?”) –  it’s been a great week for scent and smell. In the tradition of Florence Nightingale and native common sense, Professor Stephen Holgate of Southampton University begged us to open our windows and ventilate our poisoned homes. Fancy needing to be told! We have become a funny lot. Fumes from wood-burning stoves, furniture polish and spray deodorants are all under suspicion; which last concern leads us neatly to all these fascinating newspaper features about the human deodorising gene. It seems that around 2% of us probably don’t need to wear a proprietary deodorant at all, if only we dared to leave it off. We smell naturally sweet and clean, no matter how hot and bothered. The problem is, determining for sure who these lucky people are: for who will take a chance, eschew the roll-on and make sure of the fact?

Maybe Alexander the Great – whose sweat reputedly smelled of violets – was blessed with this gene. I have certainly known certain folk who have always the perpetual aura of a spring garden or the flower shop around them. Possibly this topical gene holds the answer to a mystery I have often pondered: the chain smoker who never has a trace of stale tobacco or cigarette smoke about her person but only a redolence as sweet as a nut, fragrant as a rose, pure as a lily.

Also featured in the press was the amusing case of a serial ‘career’ shoplifter who told the judge after sentencing how handsome he was. Like many of her kind, she was no stranger to the perfume counter and, fascinatingly, a cute reporter noted her preference for Hermes and Hugo Boss creations. I remember that around thirty years ago a huge fragrance warehouse in the Midlands was looted by thieves who had tunnelled in like ancient tomb robbers. They stripped the place methodically, leaving only stacks of Houbigant’s Demi Jour untouched. This was taken as a terrible slight on the dewy jammy-sweet perfume in question.

Well, then we took delivery at the shop of James Heeley’s revelatory new Chypre 21, and this started a lively discussion as to what a chypre fragrance actually is. If you’re looking for an intellectual treat in scent-circles, a symposium of meta-cognition, just propose to those present that they categorise a chypre, concisely and definitively. This most glamorous and alluring type of fragrance has been around for centuries but was only pinned to the butterfly board of perfumery ninety nine years ago when Francois Coty launched his eponymous Chypre. Guerlain’s immortal Mitsouko followed two years later with vast success but chypres, though much admired, have never been the most popular scents with the Lumpen. Maybe the name is too tricky for the Anglo-Saxon tongue. I had to smile, because in pursuit of chypre history I stumbled across the Google fact that in the text of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon (1929/30 ) Mr Joel Cairo’s hankies are soaked in chypre. Evidently Warner Bros jibbed, because in the movie version (1941) Peter Lorre is drenched in gardenia. A more accessible scent for contemporary audiences? (Or was gardenia – as witness Mary Astor’s bath salts in THE GREAT LIE – just more on-point that year? Or did gardenia sound more aptly and obviously pansified).¤

But the greatest event of last week was probably my mail order! I finally got around to answering a most enticing advertisement for tuberose bulbs, as seen in the back pages of a national newspaper. Five bulbs of ‘The Pearl’ for just £8. My imagination ran riot and galloped off, well ahead of itself: as it always does with such ads or with the flowery promise of any seed packet. I imagined the back yard transformed into a tropical terrace, the heavy scent driving me indoors of a summer’s evening, stupefied & moribund with perfume; pink and white tuberoses running riot like a stage garden of tissue paper blossoms. I kept this advertisement on the kitchen table for a full week, gloating over it, but now the cheque’s gone off and when the precious bulbs come I’ll plant them like Jack’s beans and keep you informed of their (indubitably magical) progress.

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Andy Tauer’s new Tubereuse fragrance – of the Sotto la Luna tribe – is sumptuously ample, eye-poppingly opulent, like the chasuble of a Spanish Conquistador bishop. A vestment woven of black cloth-of-gold; then sewn with black opals, jet and black diamonds strung on human hairs. Beneath the coruscating magnificence there lurks a profoundly earthy quality which puts me in mind somewhat of the rootiness of Annick Goutal’s long-vanished tuberose experiment. The crystal Tubereuse grown in Tauer’s nursery – dusky top notes of cinnamon, galbanum, clove and prickly green geranium – slowly rises through the chthonic darkness of earth and cinders like an exhumed Pre-Columbian American statue of the Divine. A massive ornately carved idol, resurrected from chasms of wandering shadows, to bring ambiguous greetings from the Lower World of Mictlan. As Tubereuse warms, it sings – as the Colossi of Memnon were said to do when hit by rays of the rising sun – emitting chords of sweet rose, jungly ylang and the bitterness of patchouli. Tuberose perfumes come in many moods –  natural, green, frothy and frilly, smoothly syrupy, fruity, sensual, erotic and brash. But this Tauer creation is unique, startingly original: an iridescent ruby-throated hummingbird scent from the nectar of a sooty lily. A pure white flower – a sacrificial “blossom of the bone” – reflected in a sorcerer-priest’s obsidian mirror: “through a glass darkly”. Disturbing, weirdly beautiful, mesmerising.

So: why not pop round?

¤ more inexplicable changes in movie translations: can anyone tell us why Melanie’s reading from Les Miserables in the book of Gone With The Wind is switched to David Copperfield in the film? And why the name of the sculptor of Mrs Mingott’s hands in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is (seemingly pointlessly) altered by Martin Scorsese?

Vignettes of Old Marylebone 4: “King to Abdicate” – December 1936

Duchess of Windsor in Sleeveless Dress on Lawn

Two minutes walk to the north of Les Senteurs is the imposing but discreet bulk of Bryanston Court, such a solid but withal modest dowager that it has taken me nearly two years to find. From here – Flat 5B 1st floor – Wallis Warfield Simpson sallied forth to win the heart of a king; here, she and her second husband Ernest entertained; here, the Ladies Colefax, Cunard and Cooper knocked back Sidecars and Martinis to oil their repartee; and to this flat Cecil Beaton bustled round with proofs of his latest flattering snaps. ” Quite a Wallis Collection”, quipped Mrs Simpson and the King Edward fell about with that curious yelping bark of a laugh.

Even before she became France’s hostess with the mostest, Wallis was getting her hand in with natty little dinners at Bryanston Court. Stick-thin and coruscating with Cartier she’d maybe sport Schiaparelli’s Surrealist lobster gown (brought over from Paris in the diplomatic bag) to serve her Aunt Bessie’s recipe for chicken Maryland (a big ‘hit’), salad leaves graded to identical size and never, ever soup: “you can’t build a meal on a lake”. Every afternoon Mrs Simpson would be off down to the German embassy at Carlton Terrace for tea with the Ribbentrops and it was said that whatever was discussed in Cabinet in the morning would thus be the talk of Berlin by the cocktail hour. It was this curious friendship which some 70 years later led to the blocking of a Blue Plaque on Bryanston Court, it being argued that the “traitress” deserved no such memorial. A short-sighted decision, for surely one of the most influential women of the last century deserves to have her presence marked as well as felt. In a piquant contrast, the original lavatory pedestal at Flat 5B was recently reported to be still in place.

If you are curious to know how Mrs Simpson smelled – Beaton disloyally recorded a trace of halitosis, no doubt due to the rigid dieting – come round to Les Senteurs and inspect Caron’s 1930’s best-seller “French Can Can”. This fragrance first appeared in the year of the Abdication and was created originally for export sales only, expressly designed to suit Anglo-Saxon women especially those of the Simpson type; slim, brunette, burnished and ultra-chic. A rich floral chypre it is less outre than many of the Caron classics and is quite at home in the modern West End: brittle, sparkling, emerald-green and teaming perfectly with fine tweeds, furs, patent leather and loads of chutzpah. A strange thought that Mrs Simpson may well have known our little shop in Seymour Place, though not as a perfumery: 30 years after her death it still carries her sillage.