Treats

Elizabeth Taylor

Apparently there is no word in French for “treat” because the concept does not exist: in France life is one long treat. For myself the heyday of the treat was my early childhood in the 1950’s. We had enough money and my parents were far from strict, they were indulgent indeed: but daily life was so circumscribed and low-key that the smallest relaxation of routine seemed hedonistic. John XXIII was then writing of the moral dangers of treats, holidays being especially suspect as Occasions of Sin. Being allowed a glass of milk (generally forbidden) was as exciting as a trip to the pantomime: the magic of “Goldilocks” (the bears lived in a huge revolving house) at Nottingham stayed with me for years. So did a bowl of cauliflower soup and being allowed to float matches down the river at Dovedale the following summer. Reckless extravagance: and I couldn’t get over the exoticism of that hotel soup, billed as creme du Barry. I have been a fan of the eponymous inspiration ever since: the cauliflower is supposed to resemble the great courtesan’s powdered hair, by the way.

Of a Sunday, my father would cut a Mars Bar (had we children been lucky enough to have been given one) into wafer slices and we would be offered one apiece after lunch. The rest was then put away for another time. I was sometimes taken to my maternal grandmother’s to watch half an hour of television; once a year we went to the local zoo or met our cousins at Warwick Castle for a picnic. Until the mid-1960’s the purchase of ice cream (as opposed to ice lollies) was unheard of: my grandmother believed that the commercial version was made and stored under the bed – so that was out.

All these treats were planned, discussed – and remembered for a lifetime. Therefore, we were overwhelmed and over-excited by the Liberty Hall atmosphere at my paternal grandfather’s. He lived with his daughter at the other end of the village: both had a great zest for life. My aunt was – still is – an intensely romantic and glamorous personality and we’d start the afternoon with a game of “Jane Eyre” in her bedroom – aunty being the mad wife roaring & raving in the bed. As she’d bagged the best part there wasn’t much for the rest of us to do except scream, and then explore the dressing table and the wardrobe.

No shortage of treats here: my aunt adored perfume and had many admirers. She is the only woman I have known who once had champagne drunk from her slipper – “messy”. Scent was then the supreme adult treat. It was said to be imported from Paris at ruinous cost, applied with great and cautious ceremony and worn on only the most significant of occasions. A bottle lasted for years: children were not supposed to touch but I remember flacons and their labels being all stained and gummy with drips and drops from what I suppose were now-outlawed ingredients. You knew something monumental was afoot when perfume was in the air, and I think even then I realised that the application of scent implied heightened emotions and consequently tension, if not ructions, in the adult world.

On that fascinating dressing table in the icy blue bedroom I first smelled Coty’s Muguet des Bois, Ma Griffe, Femme, Cabochard, Quelques Fleurs, Tweed (“The Finishing Touch”) and the Grossmith runaway bestseller White Fire which was a novelty then: it was launched 60 years ago this autumn. Dry, flowery, powerful, aldehydic
White Fire gusts through my memories wafting from car coats and accordion pleated skirts, mingling with the smell of hair spray, face powder and setting lotion. One caught a whiff of it at Sports Days, Carol Services and tennis teas. It was not only delicious, exuberant and tenacious, but an empire product, too – “made in Britain” – which to many was an added benefit. To me it is inseparable from those crinolined summer dresses (‘Horrockses Frocks’), white gloves and Aertex shirts which marked the setting forth on a great occasion in the 1950’s, everyone twitching with nerves: “I’ll smack the back of your legs!” Nowadays everyone seems to reel from one treat to another: we have become so blase and spoiled. If someone gave me a treat today I don’t think I’d quite know what to do with it. But a smell of long-ago White Fire – ah! Now, that I would love…

Les Senteurs and Grossmith Invitation

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Spring Lamb

lingosdotco

One of my more sympathetic correspondents – a regular reader – texted me this morning to say that she was motoring into the Cotswolds take lunch at The Lamb at Burford. What a lovely April day out! And how many memories this brought back, though I’ve not put a foot through the door since 1959. My father had an old friend who farmed locally and consequently we occasionally drove down for a meeting at The Lamb. For a great treat we once stayed the night. The farmer was a Parson Woodforde figure: he weighed in excess of 30 stone and when he dined chez lui he would have his housekeeper roast two joints of fragrant home-raised lamb. One for his guests and one for himself. Whenever I smell rosemary for remembrance – “Pray you love, remember!” – I think of these feasts.

It was in the dark saloon bar (or possibly the Residents’ Lounge) of The Lamb that I first met Miss Twine, a rich and elderly heiress who wore an item of clothing quite new to me: a small & squashy black velvet hat with a spotted net veil above a very wide and lavishly carmined mouth. I was about two, I suppose, and was presented to Miss Twine to be inspected and admired as she sipped her Bristol Cream. The veil rather foxed me and had to be explained away: not a deformity but a fashion accessory. I remember the warm scent of abundant face powder on her huge soft face, the syrupy luscious sherry and fumes of something which I imagine was a Caron, Coty or Weil masterpiece sprayed generously over the furs and other upholstery of her person.

The final visit to The Lamb was marred by a faux pas on the part of my younger brother. I don’t know what had happened to the roast lamb that day but we lunched at the hotel. The farmer joined us; both my parents were there too, and my grandmother, fragrant in her signature Blue Grass which sat so well with her Players cigarettes. We forget how children notice everything: nearly 60 years later I remember a certain froideur in the atmosphere. My grandmother was an advocate of healthy eating: maybe the obesity upset her. I don’t know.

But possibly it was this slight tension which caused the subsequent disaster. We ordered shepherd’s pie, made in those days with mutton. I can smell that, too: rather dry and grey, like minced up india rubbers. There seemed to be no gravy. We sat on great carved wooden chairs, rather low; I somehow managed to reach the table, but my brother had to be perched on cushions. We never got to the pudding: I can’t remember who noticed first but we suddenly became aware of a great spreading pool beneath my brother’s chair. The cushions were sodden. All I recall after that was my grandmother’s whispered “I think we should leave – now…” And so we did, me enthralled by the drama.

And oddly enough I’ve never tasted a shepherd’s pie since: it’s always been cottage pie, the beef variant. Smells nicer, tastes better. Besides where do you get mutton these days? But ah! The stinging fragrance of capers and creamy onion sauce. Another story, entirely.

Kiss me, my fool.

ThedaBarawikimedia

To celebrate the centenary of its release I sat down and watched ‘A Fool There Was’ on the You Tube: the great sex shocker of 1914 which propelled Theda Bara upon the world, the first screen femme fatale: The Vamp. Hard to believe that an almost mythic movie has played for 100 years. Bara (nee Goodman) died, not old, the year I was born. Refused a certificate in Great Britain, the movie still retains the power to shock, not by its prurience but in the final shots of a man reduced to human wreckage and total physical & psychological degradation. I squeaked aloud in my chair. ‘Some of him lived / but the most of him died’ reads the title card. It’s a theme that von Sternberg and Dietrich returned to with even greater effect some 15 years later: a pillar of society reduced by sex to a baying, dying beast.

Theda Bara has less to do in the film than I had imagined: she is taller, too, and rather more attractive. She was probably the cinema’s first brunette leading lady, the original wicked dark-haired temptress, a creature of the Night destroying the daughters of Light and their lawful wedded husbands. Her wide mouth is covered in lip rouge which photographs as black, and her huge inky eyes are liberally smeared with Vaseline and candle smoke. She is heaped with clothes in the especially hideous styles of the day; in one sequence her feet become entangled in her fish tail train. I can’t decide whether this is a cute device to give the viewer an eyeful of her ankles or whether the director either didn’t notice or couldn’t be bothered to cut.

Roses, cruelly used, are her leit motif. We first see the Vamp smelling two flowers, then tearing them to pieces: the destruction of her prey, the denial of her own femininity, the end of innocence. In one sequence of startling phaliic symbolism she disarms a rejected admirer who draws a gun on her by stroking the the revolver – now detumescent and redundant – with the rose she carries. Whereat the wretched man shoots himself.

The Vamp and her confreres play cards, loll around half-dressed, let down their back hair and indulge in a lot of what my mother used to call ‘posturing’. But interestingly perfume is not part of the picture. Scent does not appear though the viewer rather anticipates shots of atomisers and drenching showers of musky fragrance as an additional sign of shameless sin. After all this film was made in a Golden Age of perfume: L’Heure Bleue, Jicky, Quelques Fleurs, Narcisse Noir, Phul Nana, Shem-El-Nessim and the early Coty repertoire were all by then on the dressing tables of the rich & fashionable.

Maybe Theda Bara’s director – Frank Powell – felt that his Vamp should exude her own seductive and noxious aroma, like a night-blooming flesh-eating flower; that she should lure men to their doom by an involuntarily secreted deadly & delectable unnatural odour. Writings and novels of this period describe scent as being emitted by hair, clothing, furs, fabrics and furnishings rather than by the skin …” a faint delicious fragrance hung about her..”. But perfume actually poured onto the skin? Or oozing from it? A subject then ‘too difficult even to talk about’ as the adverts used to say. Too animal, too raw, too downright carnal: ideal for Theda Bara.

Now all you have to do is run the movie!

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Blue Afternoon

One can admire and revere a perfume without having a desire to wear it and the last of the great Edwardian scents, L’Heure Bleue, is not to everyone’s taste. The great modern perfumer Francis Kurkdjian hates it, thinks it smells of burning rubber. Others, including myself, find the core of the scent more reminiscent of food – almond pastries, glutinous black cherry conserve and the clove of orange pomanders or pink Italian carnations. The heavy cloying food which piled all that creamy flesh onto the picture postcard beauties of the day: how they stride out these girls,charged up with calories, still lively on ancient newsreels of Ascot, the Gaiety Theatre, Longchamps and the Bois de Boulogne. A thoroughly emancipated walk heralding a new era, though still hampered by hobble skirts,
stays and no vote. L’Heure Bleue likewise falls between two worlds – more majestic and assertive than the swoon-away mauve boudoir ambience of Apres L’Ondee, Shem el Nessim and L’Origan; less mad than than the frenzied exaggerations and bizarrie of Narcisse Noir, Tabac Blond and the noisy novelty scents of Ragtime and the Jazz Age.

For a scent which ostensibly celebrates the hour of love, the twilit time of assignation when Paris as Nancy Mitford wrote looks as though “made of opaque blue glass”, L’Heure Bleue is a strangely robust perfume. It reminds me of Lillie Langtry whose exquisite face is from certain angles disconcertingly strong and powerful; her jaw square and bold; her body curiously muscular and masculine in that famous photograph of her marching down Sloane Street from the palace built for her by the Prince of Wales behind the Cadogan Hotel. Maybe this aspect of the perfume is what attracted the late Queen-Empress Elizabeth whose signature scent it is said to have been. It seems an odd choice for the ever smiling chiffony-powdery-petally Queen Mum, but more suitable for George V1’s steely consort and mentor, the Enriye of David and Wallis, the bombed-out consort who could look the East End (and no doubt Hitler, had needs be) in the face.

For at the heart of L’Heure Bleue’s grandeur is an intense melancholy and sense of tragedy which appealed so much to the neurotic literary genius Jean Rhys; and the lyrical perfumer Mona di Orio who confessed to being reduced to tears by the scent. I don’t know if Lady Duff Gordon and Mrs Astor took bottles aboard Titanic but the ship and the perfume both made their debut in 1912, and all too soon the best selling L’Heure Bleue became associated in the mind of its generation with the horror of the Great War, the collapse of old Europe, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919-20. It had caught the Zeitgeist to perfection and in a way, it transmuted into one of those superstitions that grew organically from the War: like “three on a match” and the ill-omened mixing of red and white hospital flowers.

Perfumes absorb the spirit of an age as well as reflect them: Chanel No 5 (1921) is a world reborn, glossy and adventurous and full of confident sexuality. L’Heure Bleue is death and decay, fading and lost love, a product of imperial luxury and complacence and the decadence inherent in that last flowering in the years before 1914 when the fruits were rotting from inside out. Within 5 years of the Romanov Tercentary Celebrations of 1913 the bodies of the Imperial family were ground into mud and ashes in a Siberian forest; the Prussian and Austro-Hungarian emperors gone into exile.
L’Heure Bleue rolled on, marked by its experiences and the wounds of its wearers: the only Guerlain scent that is indelibly dated; an unmistakable child of a century ago.

No wonder so many find it sad, even depressing: it is often smelled at funerals as it lulls mourners into a stupor of black poppies, spices, jasmin and those almost oppressively lush Bulgarian roses redolent of pepper and musk. It wraps you not in a veil, but a cloak of midnight blue velvet and musquash and sable. It stifles thought, it brings on the comforting warm darkness,it tempers the blues with the blue in almost homepathic principle. Hardly erotic, it is romantic, introverted,narcotic and sentimental. Reassuring and calming like the camouflage of mourning weeds, it muffles feeling and numbs thought like intravenous diazepam.

If you wear it, go easy or it will overcome you and your surroundings with an almost anaesthetic redolence with hints of camphor and menthol before the stained glass floral notes boil over like rose petal syrup – “…such sweet jams as God’s own Prophet eats in Paradise.” And to read as you wear it, William Boyd’s “The Blue Afternoon”, another masterpiece of doomed love.

The Best Smell of All

Tsarina Alexandra Aroma Folio Les Senteurs Blog

“Delicious cool air” wrote the poor Tsarina Alexandra in her diary during her final imprisonment at Ekaterinburg. Over and over again she and the Tsar write about the smells dominating the last months of their lives in the hot Russian spring + summer of 1918.

Cooped up on the first floor of the Ipatiev House with their five children, residual staff of servants and a battery of Bolshevik guards Nicholas and Alexandra were oppressed by claustrophobia as a double palisade was erected to shield the “House of Special Purpose” from the outside world. The final horror was the whitewashing and then sealing of all the windows, to be opened only as a special privilege after much bargaining, pleading and resolutions of the local Soviet.

All the Imperial Family felt the heat dreadfully and the Tsarina was most afflicted by the constant miasma of cooking and food prepared on oil stoves. The Tsar chain- smoked which exacerbated halitosis caused by chronically bad teeth, neglected for twenty years due a phobia of the dentist’s chair, despite the Russian Imperial dental service being  the finest  in the world. The guards reeked of alcohol, sweat,unwashed hair and clothes, stale tobacco; there was an insufficiency of lavatories;a couple of Imperial dogs romped around; while a group of dusty stuffed bears moulted and shed on the staircase. The days when the window sashes were dropped a few inches were recorded in ecstasy in the prisoners’ diaries

The Tsar writes lyrically of a June thunderstorm which cleared the air, the rain bringing the scent of all the gardens of Ekaterinburg into the rooms. Outside in the garden bloomed lilac and honeysuckle which the Romanovs were allowed to pick during their brief periods of exercise. The Grand Duchesses still had the last of their favourite Coty perfumes, each of the four girls her own flower scent; the Tsarina used her personal white rose perfume. Lights burned in front of the ikons: had Alexandra managed to bring the attar of roses which always scented the holy images at Tsarskoye Selo?

That image of the rain-soaked gardens is so powerful; the desire for this kind of perfume experience is so popular,so instinctive. Matin d’Orage recreates a thicket of gardenia flowers and foliage scenting the air after a storm; the sublime Lys Mediterranee evokes a springtime garden on the Riviera, on a morning spangled with dew and the breath of the sea. Find your own freedom and refreshment – and escape – in scent.

Image from Wikimedia commons