I bought a delicious Mizensir candle to brighten the home this Christmas. Foret de Roses smells like the bower of the Sleeping Beauty – garlands of heavy velvety crimson roses blossoming in a dark wood, rambling across an earthy mossy forest floor and throwing green tendrils against a turret wall. A bit of seasonal magic. It’s been my refuge against the warm winds constantly banging and buffeting around the East Midlands, smelling not of the soft refreshing rain which seldom came, but of damp and moisture, like half-dried laundry. Then the freeze set in and the roses had a second flowering, blooming like wine-red snow crystals.
My other reliable comfort is, as you know, is a good read. I found the cult thriller “Gone Girl” at Oxfam just before Christmas so, having been told at the library that there was a 3 month waiting list, I snapped it up with relish. Now I’m only glad I didn’t pay full retail: here’s a book with a bad smell to it and not only in its unsparing lists of chewing gum, stale beer, carry-out polystyrene coffee, cheese fritos and endless bodily secretions and effluvia. Maybe the authorial intention is satirical but – to use an old fashioned phrase – I found the whole tone of the novel objectionable and it’s not a volume I shall keep on my shelves: it can return to the nothingness from which it came. As in the past with tarot cards, a ouija board and terrible fake movie star biographies I feel happier with it out of the house. So what next? I’ve got the memoirs of Hitler’s secretary from the library – flatulence, halitosis, herbal tea, stewed apple and Bavarian ozone. A wonderful friend has sent me Defoe’s ”Roxana”; and my brother needs help with a talk for the bi-centenary of Waterloo.
Colourful details, he asks for. I tell him about Napoleon’s prodigious use of Farina cologne, exhausting a couple of bottles a day, a true perfume alcoholic. He and his Marshals had it packaged in slender flasks which they slid down inside their glassily polished boots so that they could carry scent with them – “Globe Trotter”-style – to the ends of occupied Europe. The Emperor was rubbed down, washed and massaged in cologne, as were Louis XIV and James 1 before him: monarchs who, cat-like, avoided water while still intent on keeping themselves nice. Though, as we know, Napoleon notoriously preferred his inamoratae on the grubby unbathed side, despite – or because of – his two empresses running up huge perfumery bills chez Lubin and Rance.
The other, more gruesome, thing I always remember about Waterloo is the business of the teeth. Thousands of dead young soldiers lay unburied on the battlefield for weeks while enterprising ghouls pillaged their corpses for sound healthy teenage teeth which kept international dentists supplied with denture material for the next 40 years.
Christmas – like scent – is all about memories. This year we saw the last of Billie Whitelaw – who once played Josephine to Ian Holm’s Napoleon in a 70’s tv series I recall being shot on tiny box sets almost entirely in shades of mauve and green. Mandy Rice Davies’s obituaries were illustrated with cut-out- and-keep photos of an unbelievably poised teenager (18 then was today’s 40) striding into court in the summer of ’63 as fresh and fragrant as her petalled hat. And we said goodbye to dressy tennis champion Dorothy Cheney aged 98 who leaves us on a most apposite note:
“The girls today don’t look like girls when they’re on the court… For me there’s never too much perfume or lace!”
A very happy and healthy New Year to You All!