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.’)

Fusion and Confusion

Brocks Fireworks Poster From The Museum of British Folklore

Brocks Fireworks Poster From The Museum of British Folklore

 

By the time you read this, the dread Halloween will have come and gone and we shall be speeding on to Bonfire Night. Halloween’s over and done with for another year, thank Heaven. A gentleman visitor to Les Senteurs told me that if its commercial growth continues at its current rate, in another five years this feast of spirits unleash’d will be bigger than Christmas. I for one am tired of lying on the floor with all the lights off to elude the Trick-or-Treaters. I am repelled by skull racks in people’s gardens and skeletons in book shops. I avert my eyes from cakes iced with gore and witches flying round Tube stations. I find it all terribly unwholesome; and I now wonder, could this be because I have no personal experience – no heritage – of Halloween to draw upon? Maybe it’s relevant that I have no memory bank of associated smells to reassure me, animal-fashion, that it’s all quite tame and safe. Perhaps this is why I’m like a nervous dog or shrinking tot when I see those bins of pumpkins in the supermarket. I have yet to experience a celebration of the festival – I’ve never “embraced” it, as a lady advised on the wireless. It’s doubtful now that I ever shall. No “closure”, therefore.

Our generation ignored Halloween. My mother had been petrified – pre-war – by someone’s chauffeur flapping across the lawn in a sheet. My father thought the supernatural should not be fooled around with. Consequently, any suggestion of a ghoulish treat for us children was a huge no-no. I tasted pumpkin pie once – and our neighbours routinely made pumpkin soup – but these dishes had no connection, olfactory or otherwise, with All Saints’ Eve. When I strain my antennae to re-birth the smell of pumpkin, all that comes through is the pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove that seasoned these recipes. If I have any sort of Halloween odours to fall back on I can proffer only musty wet apples: fallen worm-eaten fruit tipped into buckets of water for the messy game of ducking or bobbing. We were invited to play it once at school – but I had already read the Agatha Christie shocker in which a girl is drowned in the pail, her head held under.

The smell of evil. Who needs it?¤

However, as the Duchess of Windsor said, I’ve had great fun. I’ve been reading about other kinds of odour in the press this week. I suppose the one that made me laugh most was the anecdote of movie star Richard Harris sitting on Elizabeth Taylor’s bed at a party, drinking a cocktail of orange juice spliced with his hostess’s Chanel No 5. (La Liz had just closed the bar downstairs). Imagine the acid indigestion.

Then the Standard ran two small but significant pieces. The more encouraging of the two reassured us that we shoppers generally choose to economise on clothing and even food before we cut down on our perfume purchases. So, for once, smell – theoretically at least – takes priority in the satisfaction of our senses.

The other article was depressing, repeating – inter alia – the old canard that scented accessories are used –  in lieu of washing – to disguise and cover up body odours. That old chestnut again, long hoped to be exploded. This is a most extraordinarily long-lived prejudice: still it lingers on, after centuries, with a knowing chuckle.  We now realise, thanks to the pioneering work of historians such as Ruth Goodman, that our ancestors were by no means as dirty or as evil-smelling as we like to imagine. They worked hard to keep clean and sweet but with methods strange and alien to us¤¤.

There is an atavistic distrust of perfume implicit in this theory of scent as camouflage, besides a species of inverted snobbery. A very British phenomenon I think it is, deriving from many circumstances. Our northern situation & climate, not naturally suited to perfume production due to botanical limitation. Our island mentality, simultaneously attracted to and repelled by the new and exotic; painfully suspicious of the customs of “abroad”¤¤¤. Our leading role in the Reformation five hundred years ago, which led to the new Protestant English Bible being available to all. This depicted fragrance as a manifestation of Divine and the Divinely Appointed, highly unsuitable for use by the ordinary man and woman. The old classical texts revived by Renaissance scholars revealed perfume as a heathen accessory of the decadent ancient civilisations. I remember reading in a very worthy volume, years ago, that the Fall of Rome had much to do with its aristocrats wearing rosewater, and with Roman ladies painting their toenails.

This week will conclude with another curious popular celebration: Bonfire Night with its reeks of gunpowder, treason and plot¤¤¤¤. Aren’t we a peculiar lot In our new secular society? We pull out all the stops to celebrate the triumph of the Protestant Church, the deliverance of one of our most unpopular and egregious kings*, and the barbarous end of a clutch of Catholic gentlemen.  Our folk memories and our attachment to them are as weird and singular as our attitudes to scent.

¤ if you do, take a gander at our new labdanum fragrance ATTAQUER LE SOLEIL: the aura of the highly objectionable Marquis de Sade.

¤¤ water was distrusted. Scented spirits were preferred. Here’s a clue to the ambiguity of perfume.

¤¤¤ the British have this reputation for being tolerant but maybe we are just lazy: quite happy to go along with things until our personal comfort and convenience come under threat.

¤¤¤¤ LES SENTEURS offers a clutch of appropriate perfumes to complement the 5th. Gunpowder in HIMALAYA and LA FIN DU MONDE; roasting chestnuts in CASTANA; the scented smokes of Killian’s triad ADDICTIVE STATE OF MIND.

* “King James 1 was an unpleasant man who was hated and distrusted by many people” – Ladybird History Books, 1967.

Total Immersion

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As you know, at Les Senteurs we make rather a good job of finding a fragrance to complement a particular occasion. A woman came in the other day looking for a perfume to wear as godmother at a christening. Now I suppose the imagination at once goes to something light, crisp, fresh and florally green – new life, new hope; “we blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree”, you know? One thinks of Malle’s Lys Mediterranee or Cloon Keen’s Bataille des Fleurs.  However, I’d been to a baptism myself only the previous day and had been overwhelmed in the chancel by a spontaneously generated redolence of myrrh, the godfathers’ smooth spicy scent and vases of crimson & cream late roses, with just a hint of pure clean baby.

So for my visitor – who was dramatically brunette with fine clear olive skin (for such things will alter the perception and wearing of a scent) – I chose the following. Parfum Sacre from Le Selection de Caron is a new translation of the classic mix of roses, pepper, cinnamon and incense. Alamut by Lorenzo Villoresi is a fantasy tour of the Persian Castle of the Assassins : the perfume is a head-turning and head-spinning kaleidoscope of sweet incense oils, rose, tuberose, amber,narcissus and orange blossom. My new friend took away a sample of each to ponder: we await her decision with interest.

Image from: thetimes.co.uk

Fairest of All

snowwhite

“In winter a Queen sat at a window sewing..”: the classically simple first line of the folktale Snow White as told by the Brothers Grimm. To me, it resonated in the Arctic freeze of the past winter like the tolling of a bell, calling out over the snowbound land. We know exactly what is to follow: the words have an incantatory invocation, like the reciting of a spell, or the singing of a hymn. They release the power of the story afresh by setting out its elements in a formal familiarity from which one cannot deviate without losing essential magic.

Snow White is a parable of innumerable layers, exploring elements and psychoses of the human condition, sexuality, death and the toxic family. There is also the pervasive theme of vanity: seen not only in the jealousy of the step-mother, but in the desire of Snow White’s own mother for a perfect child in red, white and black; the baby that costs her her own life. On the first two visits of the wicked Queen to Snow White at the dwarves’ house she lures the girl with laces for her stays (pulled tight to asphyxiate her) and a poisoned comb for Snow White’s hair. Presumably even the humblest eighteenth century German peasant girl could identify with the desire for these modest luxuries: a fatal flask of perfume would maybe have been too rare ambiguous and arcane a treasure to feature in a fireside tale. Having failed to slay Snow White through vanity, the Witch-Queen then turns to another deadly sin, greed: and the fatal apple – the fruit that undid Eve.

But all through the tale you can smell scents – snow-bound castles and forests, glittering mountain peaks, flowering woods and pastures, fine leather and fabrics, snug little cottages fragrant with woodsmoke and beeswax polish. Cloon Keen‘s new fragrance Lune de Givre has a corresponding ethereal fantasy quality about it: a pale silvery green frosted moon shining over a winter landscape but stimulating warmth and growth in the earth below, budding with seeds and new life. Sharp fresh galbanum underlines the arcane chthonic qualities of vetiver and the magnificent delicate pepperiness of angelica.

prod_5148There is another Grimm tale in which an enchantress gives a poor girl three seeds or tiny nuts: in each is a dress, successively magnificent, outshining the stars, the moon, the sun. Lune de Givre has this opulence about it too, graced with a soft embracing cloud of orris which unites the fragrance in a surge of twilit passion, under the darkness of the night sky or the eternal starlit forests. And like a fairy tale, Lune de Givre has a universality to it: perfect for princes as well as princesses. As Tynan said of Marlene Dietrich, it has sex but no gender: a warm and hypnotic experience both calming and arousing, glamorous and serenely timeless.

Image from candlelightstories.com