More intimate pages from my diary…

 

SUNDAY

Awake too soon. Decide to tidy my handkerchief drawer. Empty it out on the bed. Here’s a rainbow of coloured cottons: every sort of hanky from sturdy spotted indigo bandanas to dainty lexicons of the Language of Flowers. Some have been gifts, others found in the street. Iron, fold and stack. Re-line drawer and spray everything with Papillon’s delectable Dryad. Spend rest of morning opening and shutting drawer for the sheer pleasure of smelling that heavenly Dryad flying out. Take late afternoon train back to London. No seats. Balance myself in the aisles. Write my blog standing, like Florence Nightingale’s papa. Passengers stampede like cattle over one another’s baggage. A bad couple of hours, and to crown all I find I have forgotten my heartburn tablets. Though not my scented hanky.

 

MONDAY

Take Tube down to Richmond for a day in the office. It’s right next door to Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth House. Mrs W. once wrote that poor Katherine Mansfield smelled like a civet cat.

Read a fascinating Times obituary of Frank Sinatra’s last wife. I’ve always found Frankie a most unattractive character, but Marlene adored him; and so did this wonderful woman Barbara Blakeley who stood for no nonsense. “He signed his love letters to her as ‘Charlie Neat’, a reference to his tendency to take several showers a day and to smell of lavender water”.¤

The fondness for lavender is interesting. Too many folk still associate it with ennervated effete old ladies whereas it can be a very virile, invigorating scent. Today I’m working at Creed UK HQ: Sinatra is often said to have had a yen for Creed products. People fixate on knowing which perfume a celebrity wears: but you never know for sure, not really. Stars get sent so many gifts. And, like the rest of us – but on a vaster scale –  they buy stuff but never use it. Or they pass it on, unopened, to the maid and the valet. Nonetheless it’s still a thrill to think that one can smell – more or less – like one’s idol. The purchase of a little sympathetic magic.

 

TUESDAY

Quite a day. Les Senteurs at 71 Elizabeth St is now being wonderfully done up – redecorated and refurbished – so every last stick has to be moved out.

We packed all that could be packed into the van and that’s a fact – then we haul it down into the basement of Les Senteurs at 2 Seymour Place. Here we now congregate like a colony of bower birds. All sorts of flotsam and jetsam from the past drift ashore. Perfume stimulates memory as we all know, so the whole experience is exceedingly overwhelming. For the next couple of months all the staff will be at your service at the one shop in elegant Seymour Place. Plenty of good restaurants nearby; so why not come down and spend the day in Marylebone?

 

WEDNESDAY

Two new scents from Mona di Orio arrive & are unpacked. Pascale – always the perfect House Model for every perfume –  smells swooningly lovely in Dojima. This is a delicate fantasy of rice powder, jasmine, nutmeg and creamy musk. We all go out for supper at ‘Zayna’ in New Quebec Street to console ourselves for Pascale leaving us on August 15th. For the past two and half years she has been not only a dear and irreplaceable Friend, but also a perfect Nose, a witty and perceptive cultural Philosopher, an adroit PR Operative and a conscientious Manager. The loss is irreparable.

Take our places at ‘Zayna’, eat wonderful food – including the best prawns in the world – and feel a bit weepy.

 

THURSDAY

How differently we all interpret the same fragrance – thank Heaven for that! Else, as my father used to say, some of us would be killed in the rush. Enjoy animated chat with a most charming and erudite gentleman who comes to buy a bottle of BOIS D’OMBRIE. I experience this dark woody resinous fragrance as a  sleepy siesta in a deep green velvet armchair. My visitor thinks of it as a wild war-time forest ‘where ignorant armies clash by night’. Fascinating. Just goes to show you need imagination as well as a nose to get the most from perfume.

 

FRIDAY

Awake up to find my phone chocka with texts & emails. Have I seen the Daily Mail? No. Apparently I’m ‘in’. Hobble out for a copy, and – o dear! – it’s true. Here is a whole page, lavishly illustrated  – and with a by-line, yet. It’s an article I wrote back in the spring about Diana’s Perfumes. Here at Les Senteurs we stock Houbigant’s legendary QUELQUES FLEURS, the scent the Princess is said to have worn on her wedding day. It has been adored by generations of women since 1912. Said to be perfumery’s first true multi-floral bouquet, Quelques Fleurs (brilliantly understated name) is as fresh and dewy as it was 105 years ago. I like the apple blossom note myself – and the deep musky jasmine shadows.

 

SATURDAY

Awake in my own bed having caught the late train home last night.
Gather a large bowl of blackberries in record time. The gleaming warm fruits
are already tumbling off the briars or being pecked by birds. They are shining and brilliant in the morning sun, almost the colour of iridescent bluebottles – or beryls. This year’s crop has been ripe since July. Abnormally early. The Devil spits on the berries on Michaelmas Day¤¤ – so it’s a long harvest this year.  Poach them briefly in a little sugar and their own juices: a wonderful sweet nutty smell. I think of MOMENT PERPETUEL and how artfully Msr Arnaud blends blackberry with lavender: symphony in violet, purple and mauve.

Eat the blackberries.

 

¤ The Times July 27th 2017

¤¤ St Michael, Leader of the Celestial Armies. Feast of St Michael and All Angels: 29th September.

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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.

A Plum In My Mouth

plums_early_morning

 

Just around about this time my mind and my nose turn to the sweet redolence of plums. I must tell you that for many years we have lived next door to an extensive walled garden. For twenty three Septembers, a gnarled old tree in that plot’s remotest and most picturesque corner was seen to be laden with magnificent plums – never gathered but left to rot on the branches or to provide occasional food for birds and insects. How our mouths watered and how our hearts ached for those wasted luscious fruits. We looked on and languished like Rapunzel’s mother pining for the witch’s blue-flowered rampion. And then – do you know? – the house was sold and we told the new young owners about the plums. “Plum tree? There are no plums here. Just apples….hard little red apples”. So all the greedy longings of decades were wasted and quite in vain: a three minute sermon in a country garden! The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

“Plum blossoms:

Red, red

Red ” ……¤

My mother often described folk whose looks she admired as resembling “a great big beautiful plum”. That is to say:  high-coloured, smooth-skinned, zaftig; apt to be extravagantly exuberant and deliciously scented. And evidently she was not unique in entertaining this fantasy. A lively lady at the Tesco check-out this morning jabbed a lilac-painted finger nail – “Tsarina Mauve” – into a basket of over-ripe scarlet plums saying with a wink, “and this one’s me!”. It was the softest piece of fruit, and the most brilliant.

Plums have a great individuality about them: they are vivid little personalities with their silky iridescent skins, sensually cleft flesh and hard-hearted stones. They grow in a rainbow of wonderful colours: blue, yellow, topaz, crimson, pink, mauve, green, purple and almost white. When you cook them you see a miniature sunset of red and gold blaze at the bottom of your saucepan. Their perfume fills the house; a smell which is sharper when plums are cooked¤¤ than when they hang all velvety and sun-warmed on the tree. Or when their syrupy nectar oozes out as they lie on the grass, ripped open by voracious young wasps.

“Send her Victorias!”, as one of my teachers used to parody the National Anthem. They put him away for two years – though not for that.

The heavenly smell of plums is what used to lead children into orgies of greed, gorging themselves on the pilfered orchard fruit and being terribly ill – “pains” – in the night. And then, at Christmas, the indigestible but irresistible richness of bottled, candied, frosted, and crystallised plums. Plum cake, plum pudding, plum duff and the Sugar Plum Fairy. In these austere days when Expiry Dates and the “Five-A-Day” policy rule the roost these surfeits probably no longer take place. But, in the same way as oranges and nasturtiums, plums have an indefinable but powerful nostalgia about them. Like dahlias, grapes and golden rod they have the glamour of an imperial past, a dazzling hue and the thoughtful bitter-sweet taste & scent of autumn about them. A sense of numbered days.

I first smelled plums – I suppose – in the Madman’s Paradise of my great uncle’s suburban garden. His house was full of the fumes of leaking gas and Players cigarettes. The back garden was a jungle of old man’s beard, of half-wild nose-tingling horseradish and fallen waspy plums heaped up on the old tennis court and all over the cinder paths. Uncle Fred was born only 13 years after the death of the Prince Consort: he gardened like a High Victorian. I think this sepia photo aspect is what makes plum such a popular and powerful note when used in perfumery. It takes you back to a finer age of leisure, succulence and refined self-indulgence.

The plum accord in scent need not be botanically exact. It comes to life in the imagination and perception of the beholder, in a similar way to many people’s definition of musk. Plum notes evoke a mood rather than a precise odour. Plummy scents have a deep dark polished fullness to them; an embraceable roundness; a feeling that every corner has been smoothed away & sanded down leaving a glorious glowing ripeness and volupte. Plum scents whisper – in rich engorged plummy tones – ‘eat me!’. I have only to read that a perfume boasts plum notes for me to want to try it. I associate plum with the sophisticated fruitiness of the classic chypres – the novel peach accord in Mitsouko; the sexy synthetics of Ma Griffe; the grande horizontale seduction  of Parure. Especially I love the infinite and mysterious sweet green lake – “all hung about with fever trees” – that is LE PARFUM DE THERESE, Roudnitska’s star turn from the late 1950’s, bound into softest moss-coloured leather for Editions de Parfums.

Kilian’s LIAISONS DANGEREUSES is served from a bar in Zola’s Paris – a plum steeped in a shot of brandy or absinthe to brighten a frosty morning in Les Halles. ACQUA FIORENTINA is an Italian orchard where late carnations add a delicate hint of clove to a conception of greengages, plums and apples. LIQUEUR CHARNELLE streams out like liquid apricot velvet: plums and prunes distilled into after-dinner gourmanderie. And then, less literally, I find a dark, discreet but splendid plummy opulence and amplitude in that fabulous duo from Atelier Cologne – ROSE ANONYME and VETIVER FATAL.

In the old days I went several times to the former Jugoslavia. In Split – where the Emperor Diocletian once grew his prize cabbages – I first tasted plum slivovitz. We were recommended by a local to try it spliced with kruskovac: the sharpness of the plums, the sweetness of pears. Greatly daring, I ordered this enticing-sounding drink in a waterfront hotel: there stood the appropriate bottles, all ranked on glass shelves. But the barmaid – vividly similar in appearance to Elsie Tanner  – vehemently refused to serve me. “NO slivovitz! NO kruskovac!” Her hands slammed flat on the bar like fruit pelting down to earth in a high wind.

Plums witheld! Plums verboten! Their glamour was heightened all the more.

¤ Hirose Izen c.1652 – c.1711

¤¤ unless you are jamming of course: copper preserving pans full of red plums; pounds of white sugar slowly staining pink. Then the saucer on the window-sill to test the setting. My mother tended to lose her nerve at this point, but our Paddy who came to help in the garden used to stick his thumb in the sweet goo and judge it to a nicety. He was wonderful at timing when a cake was done, too: just thrust in the cold steel of the bread knife. He was always right.

Cultural Appropriation: Flesh and Fantasy

sterrett_rosette_

Where do you stand on Cultural Appropriation? It’s the topic of the hour and it’s driving LW crazy because it would seem to have a special relevance to perfume – crucially, one not yet  determined.  One source ( “on line” ) defines it as a culture enjoying or celebrating a sensation that another has known in misery or in otherwise alternative circumstances. As in, say, pizza. An easy example. In the eighteenth century the good pizza succeeded macaroni as the food of the street poor of Naples – the lazzaroni. Ergo, it is morally wrong to enjoy this delicacy in our modern affluence at Pizza Express. But this explanation would not explain the frenzy over a girl dressing up on American TV as “Hello Kitty”. Twiggy voo? Viewers were described as “traumatised”.  Pretty Kitty is an especially controversial figure: there was another quite separate scene recently about whether or not she is bodily and entirely a cat beneath that little pink dress. Then “Around The World in 80 Days” is in trouble; also, the sporting of sombreros at costume parties; and even poor old Monet’s portrait of a French lady – wearing a kimono.

“How shall so grave a problem resolve itself?”

Scent seems to me to epitomise the best of cultural appropriation. (But is that remark in itself oxymoronic?). Every civilisation since time began has revered, created and worn perfume. It has been put to a multiplicity of arcane uses. The ancient Egyptians believed it could raise the dead. At the altars it created a mystic pathway – a Silver Cord – between earth and heaven. How could one doubt it when a trail of incense smoke was plainly visible in the blue, linking the worshippers physically as well as spiritually to the sky gods? Sweet smells led the way into transcendental states, cured disease, initiated adulthood, promoted sexual vigour and sedated the sick mind.

I hope that perfume’s connection with the tribulations, trials and beliefs of our ancestors is not going to get redolence in wrong. For me – as I am sure for millions of fragrance fanciers – the long and varied history of scent and its multiplicity of contexts adds immeasurably to the magic of perfume: that all-powerful gigantic genie in a tiny bottle. Did you ever hear of mellified man? A legend went around in the antique world of certain saintly sages in a far distant country who, for the public good, would volunteer to be embalmed alive….in honey. The eligible martyr would be fed exclusively on honey – gorged with it – until his all bodily systems and fluids were invaded by the nectar. After he died – which was quite soon – his body was set aside to dry & crystallise into a pungent substance rather – I suppose – similar to the inside of a Crunchie Bar. Fragrant fragments of this carnal honeycomb were then broken off and administered to the sick or sold to the highest bidder as a universal panacea.

So this brings us to oud, that mysterious and dramatic oil: the olfactory epitome of the gorgeous east. Startling and even evil-smelling in the raw (some compare it to an over-ripe Stilton cheese), oud is in my mind assuming an almost semi-mythical construct; rather in the fashion of ectoplasm, prana¤, manna, the alchemist’s stone or the elixir of youth. We all enjoy conjuring tricks and illusions: “is it real? Is the magician in fact in league with the Devil?”. We thrill and wonder at a bizarre and apparently magical perfume ingredient: and here it is, incarnated in oud, a substance that defies logic and belief. “Mankind cannot bear too much reality”: and, goodness knows, reality and rationality are stuffed down our throats with a vengeance nowadays. Maybe what we are now taught to call oud is in fact a mood, a style, a stifled desire: a longing, a far distant horizon of the heart.

Ambergris is another substance which prompts similar thoughts. Last year – maybe the year before – there was a wonderful and sobering thirty minute documentary on BBC R4 – an interview with a man who had found this chunk of ambergris on the local beach. As in a fairy tale, all his problems seemed to be at an end. He was profiled in the Press, the amber was apparently proved to be genuine and worth a fortune. But the treasure trove proved a curse, not a blessing. Envious neighbours poisoned his dog, he was ostracised and in the end, the mysterious substance was proved to be nothing but sea-cured palm oil. As apparently is all too often the case. Worthless! Malign fairy gold. The beachcomber said that ambergris had ruined his life.

“Flounder, Flounder in the sea!”

How just exactly like a tale from the brothers Grimm! The origins of both ambergris and oud are a grotesquerie worthy of folk tale or legend. Both are of animal origin and each is the result of a metamorphosis both actual and symbolic that might have been dreamed up by Ovid. Filth, waste, excrement, decay and rot are transmuted by that supreme enchantress Mother Nature into oils of transcendent beauty and great price. Ambergris comes from the waste matter exuded by whales – probably faecal, they now think¤¤. Oud is derived from a dying agar tree as it fights for breath in the forests of far Asia, poisoned by parasites but gallantly defending itself to the last as it pumps out resin in a gummy shield. These tales are as unlikely as those of the miller’s daughter spinning straw into gold; the maiden invited to empty the sea with a sieve; or the boy left with a swan’s wing for an arm.

” Die Wahrheit ist: was ist wahr….ist unwahr!” ¤¤¤

But strange as they are, these scented stories happen to be true, even though many of the details still remain vague and mysterious.  No wonder we talk endlessly about oud and ambergris, speculating on exactly which perfumes contain these oils – which fragrances have the genuine article and which the synthesised. The whole saga is so weird and so wild: a wonderful diversion in our cut and dried world. The scent of both ingredients is ambiguous too: what could be more fitting? Farouche, shattering, disturbing, animalic, two-edged, invasive maybe even frightening, repellent. Oud and ambergris are not easy to work with. Ambergris we have learned to handle after several thousand years, but oud is new to the west.

For decades oud was a generic name given to that heavenly fragrance emanating from the robes and veils of London’s Middle Eastern visitors¤¤¤¤. It surrounded them like the perfumed nimbus that is said to grace saints and angels. Then, just recently, western perfumers discovered raw oud, popped it on their palettes and began wrestling with it. Many lost the struggle. Nevertheless, oud became a craze, the latest “must-have” and “must-do”. Every perfume house demanded an oud scent for their clients. But this is not an easy oil to work with: it is extreme and out of control; hard to subdue, to interpret and to tailor to Western tastes. A few brands have succeeded brilliantly – MFK, Killian, Creed and Ex Idolo for instance have all flourished beyond expectation. Their fragrances  are sculpted and hewn; are superbly wrought; carved, as it were, from the living rock by artists who are not afraid of oud oil but who have dominated and mastered it as though taming tigers. We wear perfume differently in Europe and America – we are shy of it, whereas in the Middle East perfume is treated as a good servant but a poor master. In Britain perfume all too often becomes the tyrannical boss.

Long may perfumery continue to discover new molecules and ancient oils; and to make use of forgotten techniques, contrasting traditions and flourishing hybrids. As the Prince Consort used to say, we need fresh strong blood to invigorate the line, to expand the horizons and boost the vigour of fragrance. Absorption, lending, borrowing, grafting and enriching: not appropriation but a grateful sharing of the mysteries of peoples, perfumes and nations. Somewhat akin to “Mae West’s Plan for World Peace”…but not as rude.

¤ “Living on Prana” – do you remember?
It turned out the high priestess was subsisting on a more mundane diet of digestive biscuits and cold chicken.

¤¤ the point is, they don’t really know. I rather hope they never will.

¤¤¤ Marlene Dietrich – having, as usual, the last word on the nature of reality.

¤¤¤¤ though I have not smelled a Western treatment that captures that especial esoteric fragrance. Maybe, as is often suggested, it results from the smoking of clothes over a brazier filled with oud. Or perhaps it comes from an oil not yet known here. We shouldn’t let in all the daylight on magic…

The Coconuts

coconut-palm

When I was a tot we had a annual fair come to our village. It was held in the scrubby fields before the railway bridge, long since built over with offices and warehouses. Naturally, we never saw it all lit up by night; it was said to be unspeakably dangerous¤ after dark, and besides my mother had three children of five and under. My father hated fairs and had his work to do. So we went in the afternoon, in convoy: the pushchair, the pugs on leads continually underfoot, and Mrs Sarson bringing up the rear, full of dire warnings about carny folk, kidnapped kiddies and faulty machinery. We were allowed to go on no rides except the Dodgems and the Merry-Go-Round. Waltzers and the like (to my guilty relief) were strictly out of bounds. I was 23 before I took my first and only trip on the Big Wheel and at once wished I hadn’t.

Of course we were forbidden to eat any fairground goodies: the sugary-sizzling toffee apples, frizzly fries or clouds of tawdry-glamorous rosy candy floss. And of course we grizzled and whined until a taste was finally allowed – “you won’t like it, you’ll see!” – only to find it so much Dead Sea Fruit: the hard green apples so sour, the gleaming shellac coating so perilous to teeth and the floss sticking creepily to one’s face and clothes like shocking pink ectoplasm. Funny to remember how sticky hands drive small children mad. We were told to spit on an adult’s hanky and were then roughly wiped down like Mrs Tabitha Twitchit’s kittens.

There was a coconut shy. I don’t know if the nuts were glued on in the traditional way, but our infantile bombardment never shifted one. Then one year the publican’s son came with us and knocked off a prize and presented it to my mother on whom I think now he probably had a crush. We took it home, all rough and hairy like a shrunken head, and marvelled at it. No one had the faintest idea what to do with the thing beyond exhibiting its trophy status. The adults thought the contents were likely to be not particularly good for us: they had been through the privations of the World Wars, remember, and I think probably had very little idea what coconuts were, outside of the South Seas ads for Bounty bars (which nobody liked anyway).

“Oh! That poor Coconut!” It ended up cracked open with a hammer in the back yard, and then we gnawed the white flesh from the larger of the gritty fragments – a slow, messy and disappointing business. But the smell was good and I’ve loved any sort of coconut accord ever since, whether in soap, shampoo, hand cream, scent or mixed with raspberry jam in maids of honour. I find it sensuous and calming and fun.

It’s a tricky oil to play with in perfumery as an excess of coconut can be overwhelming & suffocating and too much reminiscent of sun tan lotion: however, a perfumer of imagination like the great Sarah McCartney makes a virtue of this with her witty trip to a very lickable seaside in WHAT I DID ON MY HOLIDAYS. Coconut is a quintessential perfume paradox: it often appears to be where it is not. As Miss Dietrich used to say: “Ich habe den Eindruck gegeben, nicht wahr? Aber ich war es nicht!”¤¤

In glorious tropicana scents like ASHOKA and COCCOBELLO an accord of fig trees or fig milk creates an olfactory illusion of coconut palms; and of the fragrant water contained inside the young green fruits that is suddenly the preferred health drink of the moment. Don’t say it was I that told you, but apparently the water is so pure and blessed that you can at a pinch use it in an emergency as a substitute for human plasma. And of course it is quite a different substance to the coconut milk which is prepared by human hands from the mature fruit, and which tastes and smells so good in a green Thai curry.

If you prefer your coconut served more sweet and gummy, try E.Coudray’s gourmand life-enhancer VANILLE & COCO.  BIJOU ROMANTIQUE on the other hand uses the accord as delicately and transparently as a piece of frosted sea glass through which you glimpse a triton’s garden of jewelled underwater flowers. Please also bear in mind that – as Frederic Malle and Dominique Ropion found when they created CARNAL FLOWER – the tuberose flower secretes a molecule very reminiscent of coconut. This adds a delicious ambiguity to many perfumes, notably Creed’s VIRGIN ISLAND WATER which reveals itself in many guises, rather like the antics of the Wizard of Oz: are you smelling waxen narcotic flowers or a Malibu cocktail – or a sparkling decoction of limes?

We’re all nuts for coconuts, us perfume knuts!

¤ fairgrounds certainly had a very alarming odour then – the sweating screeching barkers and their high-perfumed ladies; the oily engines; gaseous fumes; greasy illicit wads of paper money; fear.

¤¤ “I gave that impression, didn’t I? But I wasn’t!” ( Of her attributed eroticism )

My Grapefruit and I

grapefruit-tree1

Sixty years ago grapefruit were still rather exotic. They hadn’t been around for all that long, the first canned specimens arriving Britain via Florida in the 1880’s, well in advance of the fresh fruits hitting the shops. Grapefuits are a hybrid fruit derived, either by deliberate grafting or by chance mutation, from the pomelo a.k.a. the shaddock. The eponymous Captain Shaddock is said to have brought the original seeds from Java and sown them at Barbados. A romantic tale; and grapefruit are suitably glowing and glamorous in their native orchards, hanging like great golden suns among the leaves, a fructose solar system in the Garden of the Hesperides. I remember eating them once in Bermuda, sun-kissed and warm, straight from the tree in January. Succulent and sweet, they bore little resemblance to the pithy sour old things we were used to at home.

I could see then why grapefruit have been called one of the Seven Wonders of Barbados. (I have no idea what the other six are, though one of them certainly ought to be the movie star Claudette Colbert. She spent her declining years as queen of the island, telling Vanity Fair magazine that her greatest disappointment would to be denied the eating of sorbet “EVERY day”).

Maybe because her father had been a Leicester food inspector in the 1880’s, my grandmother had very definite views on food: Bovril, Italian ice cream, Mother’s Pride and Birds Instant Whip were all streng verboten. Milk was always suspect. Bemax, P.L.J., muesli, raisins, wholemeal bread and grapefruit were strongly recommended. When I stayed with her as child we shared a grapefruit for breakfast, with the addition of unlimited brown demerara sugar. (The same dish, popped under a hot grill until the sucrose bubbled & caramelised, used to be a popular starter at dinner parties of the period). To drink there would be tinned grapefruit juice which bore no relation to the modern carton drink. It was very thick, viscous and (as I recall) a dark yellow colour, the colour of a chrysanthemum. My grandmother would hack and tear the can with a heavy Victorian opener shaped like a black bull’s head, with a blade like that of a miniature guillotine below the animal’s jaw. I think now that maybe it was made of lead. It had a very distinctive smell, rather like dill, maybe the result of being impregnated with decades of fruit and other juices . The grapefruit nectar had a not unpleasant musty dusty taste: I drank it from a thick white china mug decorated with a picture of a jovial Yorkshire yokel in a blue smock. I wish I had that mug now.

fanny

Grapefruit in the 1960’s was ubiquitous. The juice – or alternatively, segments in heavy syrup¤ – was served as an appetiser in hotels & fancy restaurants (‘fine dining’ was then unheard of). We were shown (on Blue Peter, I think – or maybe in the Blue Peter Annual) how to use the empty fruit rinds as growing pots for bonsai trees. “Burn off the roots as they emerge through the skin to keep the plant dwarfed…”. My mother was very sceptical and we had an entirely unsuccessful attempt with acorns before all rotted. Fanny Cradock ( pronouncing them “grrrrapefruit” ) dolled them up for the dinner table, filling the half shells with coloured brandy butter – “a harmless food dye” – stuck with crystallised fruit. There was also a very popular reducing diet – you ate grapefruit before every meal to kill your appetite – and I seem to remember a variant whereby one lived exclusively on hard boiled eggs¤¤ and the said fruit.

pomelo lo-res

So grapefruit has “previous” and a rich “back story”. Grapefruit can also work well as a delicious perfume accord if you fancy something a little bracing and original. With more body to it than lemon and less sweet than orange or mandarin, grapefruit has a challenging, more assertive even faintly sweaty (ergo erotic) aroma. See if you can track down a bottle of Caron’s Alpona, said to be the first fragrance in the world to blend flowers with this particular fruit. Grapefruit accords can also demonstrate sophisticated froideur, a coolness well illustrated by Creed’s Royal Water which is as frosty as though fresh out the ice box, then spiced with a slow burn of black pepper, cumin and peppermint. Try Atelier Cologne’s new Pomelo Paradis – with its juicy sweetness which makes the mouth water as though with wine gums; and smell the intriguing grapefruit-like molecules emanating from the woody earthy depths of Heeley’s Vetiver Veritas.

A immaculately elegant and perceptive colleague said to me just the other day: “Grapefruit? It’s the new black!” There can be no safer guide to chic.

Finally, there is also a huge and unlooked-for bonus in the wearing of a grapefruit fragrance which has been pointed out to me by a dear friend and expert of many years in this very tough business. And that is, “scientists have proved ” that a grapefruit accord on the skin can make you appear years younger than your actual age. Can you imagine it? Lemon Wedge is no chemist (though he may be something of a psychologist) so he’ll refer you to the abundant material germane to this absolutely fascinating theory on Google. Oh, see for yourselves as Frankie Howerd used to say.

¤ indeed “grapefruit segments” became something of a catchphrase in Private Eye magazine. We also ate them for breakfast at school as a Sunday treat – these were of a more austere type, presented therefore either in a “light syrup” or stewing in “their own natural juices”.

¤¤ a nutty theory went the rounds to the effect that hard boiled eggs require so many calories to digest that if you eat enough you ultimately starve to death.

That Glittering Night At The Ball

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Only a century ago a parade of unending entertainments was considered essential for the making of upper class marriages. In every European capital the arrival of the summer Season saw flocks of girls in white muslin and tulle herded by their chaperones to Court presentations and Society balls, opera galas, luncheons, dinners, teas, recitals, picnics and garden parties.

Prior to these outings the young ladies were prepared like lambs for the slaughter in a sensual ritual and with a faintly prurient glee that recalls the films of Max Ophuls and the novels of Stefan Zweig. Firstly the clothes: one began with a voluminous shift. Then in the Naughty Nineties knickers, which were just coming to be seen as decent and desirable rather than racy whorish accessories. Over the stays and countless starched boned & lacy petticoats, a girl’s dress must be white and made of virginal light fabrics such as muslin, gauze and tarlatan. The waist was tiny – even after having six children Queen Alexandra kept a waist that never exceeded 23″. A maiden’s decolletage should be generous, but jewellery was minimal: a christening gift maybe or a present from mama and papa – seed pearls, corals, a silver bangle and a tiny turquoise brooch in the shape of a dove. Long skin-tight buttoned kid gloves and a small posy of flowers in a filigree holder were de rigueur. Later, after a proposal of marriage, a bouquet might be sent round by the lucky gentleman concerned, but otherwise any gift to a decent young woman from a man outside the family was regarded as presumptuous indecency. Virtuous women prided themselves on never accepting presents.

Then the ingenue required a fan, ordered from Duvellroy or Faberge (London, Paris and St Petersburg). Her dancing shoes, with the soles carefully powdered, were laid out by the lady’s maid: she being lent by mama for the evening and in a mood both sentimental & archly suggestive. A tiny vial of sal volatile was tucked into the palm of a new glove in case of faintness after a brisk polka or vertiginous waltz. Sometimes an admirer might press a hand too ardently and the glass would break, emitting pungent fumes. For the face, just a touch of barely tinted lip salve, a film of papier poudre on the cheeks and maybe a hint of rouge if the excitement of the occasion was causing unbecoming pallor. Then a swansdown wrap round the shoulders, a scarf to protect the intricately piled hair and maybe a serviceable mackintosh cloak, even a sheet, draped over all to protect the finery in the carriage, to be thrown off at the last moment before the shy entry into the ballroom.

And what of scent? It is no more than a hint, a whisper, an echo of Pear’s or Cusson’s soap. Maybe a Coty floral water (as worn by the Russian Imperial Grand Duchesses) sprinkled on the handkerchief, a drop of rose attar in the hand cream or a glistening in the hair pomade. But nothing actually on the skin. Scented flesh is, for the late Victorians, highly risque, the mark of a Naughty Lady, a very Merry Widow, a barmaid, a strumpet. A strong-minded nobly-born lady can just about get away with it, though few will dare. They won’t run the risk of being banned from Court or the houses of their dear friends.

But the holistically perfumed woman is yet flamboyant and magnificent in sequinned violet, mauve, magenta and rose satin, fragrant from its sandalwood chest and herb-lined cedar closet. She is crowned with osprey aigrettes and bird of paradise plumes. Her scarves, handkerchiefs and gloves are soaked in oils of ambergris, Russian leather, jasmine and musk. Her hair, gleaming with bear grease scented with ylang ylang, has been conditioned with the Empress of Austria’s own blend of a bottle of brandy and a dozen egg yolks. She wears a corsage of mauve orchids, and trails two yards of train (lined with crumpled tissue paper to rustle the louder) with the intoxicating sillage of Houbigant’s Fougere Royale, Grossmith’s Phul Nana, the mauve powdery Jasmin Imperatrice Eugenie or an early Caron masterpiece. The Merry Widow’s redolent hummingbird fan is used not to conceal her blushes but to cool her after too much iced champagne or too sprightly a hop in the mazurka. Perspiration is her only enemy, to be combated with sweat pads, borax, vinegar and rice powder. But oh! the horror when a certain dampness appears around the waist line after working through a full dance card or too many oyster patties. Fortunately the gentlemen,too,are all wearing gloves, too. Or – as in the notorious case of Lillie Langtry’s new pink gown being ruined in the waltz by the dripping hands of a teenage Archduke Rudolph – not!