Riders of the Purple Sage

 

Another strange week! These cheating winds. The blustery gusts of change, all right. Hands up anyone who reflected upon the Dutch Wind of 1688.
Or on Queen Elizabeth’s Armada medal – “God blew with His winds and they were scattered.”

When I Iast left you, I was walking down a long road, following the trail of a strange and lovely smell entwined in the elderflower hedgerows and the early summer grasses. The fragrance was sweet, fruity and faintly powdery. A dear friend has just returned from China after a spell in Guilin, ‘the Forest of Sweet Osmanthus’. Being always suggestible, I entertained the notion briefly that a Tree of Heaven had spontaneously rooted itself and flowered by a Leicester B-road.

It hadn’t, of course. I reached the ‘bus shelter and the odour was suddenly overpowering; and not quite as entrancing. There was a flash of chrome yellow and hyacinth blue on the pavement. But it wasn’t a macaw feather. It was a funny little tree, cut out of cardboard. Not a Money Tree, of which we have heard so much lately; but a Magic Tree, with a blue thread loop attached – a “Pina Colada” room fragrance. I hadn’t seen one of these Trees for years, not close up. I view them from afar though, hanging in cars. I suppose someone had flung the Tree from a passing vehicle, overwhelmed by the smell.

Because, from the look of it, the Tree had lain there for days in the wind and rain¤, but it was still belting out a mighty redolence of synthetic pineapple, rum and coconut together with an eerie hint of Parmesan cheese. I wrapped the novelty up in a plastic bag and took it home to wipe, wash and study: “I do it for you. For nobody else!” It’s now in the back passage, wildly scenting the utility room and usual offices. My word, it’s pungent and seemingly indestructible. I  don’t think I shall keep it for ever, but I am confident that it will keep pumping out perfume to the end of time. Remarkable what can now be achieved in the laboratory.

Well, then I had a letter from a friend who had been spiritually cleansing his house with sage. I was absolutely fascinated. Apparently this ritual removes all negative energies and generally refreshes and purifies your own sacred space. I looked up the whole business on Google: there are masses of ads for things called “smudge sticks”. These seem to be little bundles of dried herbs which you burn and wave about. (Lots of Health and Safety warnings regarding flushing them down the loo after use). I have no money to squander on smudge sticks but I was determined to have a go. There’s plenty of sage in the garden: I dried some leaves on the Aga overnight and kindled them while I brewed the morning tea.

They took light like tissue paper! I suddenly appreciated the Health & Safety advice. Dried sage burns very well and gives off plenty of smoke. I blew out the flame and waved my little charred bunch about. The budgie seemed to approve, as he does when he senses the approach of rain. I also ground some of the herbal ashes into a light paste with a little water and rubbed them into my skin. That seemed to work quite well. The smell is what you would expect – dark, aromatic, burnt, not especially exciting – but I felt well-exorcised and (up to a point) purged.

A colleague at work told me he was going to clean out his washing-machine with a cup of vinegar in the cycle. Vinegar is wonderful: it kills miasmas, but its own very strong aroma doesn’t hang around for long if diluted. So it’s great for wiping out the fridge or the sink.

I love these old natural hygiene tips – they are cheap, efficient and they smell good. Softer and subtler than the Magic Tree. I save all the old lemon and lime skins from the drinks trolley for scouring pots, pans and the sink. (Someone used to say that you should stick your bare elbow into a used lemon-half, for a spot of instant skin conditioning). Cleaning with food product leftovers inculcates a feeling of virtue and a wholesome spirit of responsibility. And it’s much more fun than relying on bleach – though that’s a cruel and savage smell which I sometimes enjoy. “If life hands you a lemon – then make a cleaning aid!”

¤ maudlin memories of Nancy Mitford’s “little homeless match”; Enid Blyton’s “poor little strawberry plants”; Hans Christian Andersen’s forgotten fir tree.

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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?