The Sunshine of Your Smile

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“Sunshine is the best disinfectant” pipes up Dr Serena in Holby City and I thought, I know that line. The purifying healing effect of sunlight is one of the many subjects explored in Florence Nightingale’s vastly entertaining “Notes on Nursing”, first published in 1859 and an immediate best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic. This slim volume – just over 130pp – is energising and fresh as a breezy spring day: packed with practical advice and acute psychology, spiced with Miss Nightingale’s sarcastic and pawky humour. I love this book: you see at once how magnetic the great reformer was, and how very tricky to work with. “Notes” is invaluable for incidental and usually horrific insights into mid-Victorian domestic life. We hear about the uncovered and brimming chamber pot left under the bed for twenty four hours – and not in a poor household; the arsenic-soaked wallpapers, fatally inhaled; disastrously inflammable starched petticoats and the “indecency” of the crinoline”¤.

“A respectable elderly woman, stooping forward, invested in crinoline, exposes quite as much of her own person to the patient lying in the room as any opera dancer does on the stage”¤¤ – F.N.

Sunlight, writes Miss Nightingale, sweetens a room, revives the sick and invigorates all forms of life. The chronically ill perk up as they turn their faces, like a row of heliotropes, towards the sun. Nightingale loves sunshine because it shows up dust (source of all evils)¤¤¤; it dries up the foul air and vapours which she believes – no doubt with good reason – cause disease. Her theories on light are certainly very persuasive and easily proven. An otherwise unscented room, well-aired and then filled with sunshine for an afternoon, has a wonderful cleanth and purity about it. By the accident of its positioning, my own bedroom basks in sun through nearly the whole of a clear February day. So I draw back the bedcovers – Nightingale has some dreadful things to say about mattresses and valances – and lay out all my linen and woollens for a sun bath. As I may have mentioned before in this column, intense exposure to spring sunlight when the ultra-violet rays are at their most intense is the only sure prevention  against moth. Unlike most eggs, which thrive on heat and incubation, those deposited by the noxious insects will infallibly shrivel and perish in the sunbeams. So, you see, the ancient Egyptians were on to something when they saw their solar goddess Sekhmet as both the bringer and the expunger of disease. And look at ‘Sunlight Soap’!

A dear friend tells me that before, during and after the frying of fish she opens simultaneously her front and back doors for a great through-rush of fresh air. Keeping one’s house sweet is a problem that has not lessened since 1859: the causes of lingering odours are much the same as those listed in the “Notes”. Viz: stale carpets, curtains, loose covers, “sanitary arrangements” and cooking. I must say, I am all for a ban on the wearing of outdoor shoes in the private intimacy of the home. The full implications of the muck trekked in to multiply on floor coverings do not bear thinking of. And I wonder if you’ve noticed that when people in films and on tv fling themselves on sofas and beds they never ever remove their shoes, encrusted with all the filth of the streets. I think it must be because shoes are currently so sexy and on point: the directors want them kept on show at all times.

I’ve had so much correspondence lately on one especial topic: the finding of a reasonably priced house plant or bunch of flowers to sweeten and scent a room in late winter. It’s a tricky one: there really isn’t much choice. The first daffodils are now in the shops – average supermarket price £1 for a good twenty or so stems. If you blow a fiver and place the massed flowers in a warm room, or where the sunshine will illuminate them, then that powdery, faintly rubbery greenish smell is absolutely divine, though fleeting. But a word of warning, in recent years I think the commercial florists have treated daffs as the Walrus and the Carpenter did the Oysters – “brought them out so far/ and made them trot so quick”. The flowers, delivered like Richard III before their time into the world, seem frail and pale in scent. I think they must suffer from too long in the cold store because bunch after bunch now wither and die before the blooms – sunshine on stems – are fully open. Shame.

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Tulips – gorgeous but no scent. Shop carnations no longer smell. Potted gardenias are heaven, provided you can rear them. I’ve fiddled about with distilled water and rain water and what not, but with no success. One glorious coconut-smelling cream velvet blossom, and then a tragic succession of dropped buds. I think gardenias are allergic to gas, draughts and central heating. In my case, it must be the draughts. Jasmine is lovely, but a bit pricey for what you get, and doesn’t last long. Excellent value is to be had for a basic bowl of three hyacinths which, if you buy the bulbs in tight green bud, should see you through a month in a temperate house. That’s as long as you are not one of those who find that hyacinths smell of cat. Personally I love them: the flowers like the carved hair of a Roman statue; the clear strong colours; the bewitching, heady, fruity and yes – faintly iffy – perfume.¤¤¤¤ For years I set hyacinth bulbs in water glasses every autumn and shut them up in a cupboard: the roots grew like so much vermicelli, and they bloomed in January.  But last winter neither I nor my neighbour had any success with our individual attempts. The bulbs failed and short-circuited. I suspect another case of mutated breeding has taken place. Freesias are still lovely but the overpowering fragrance seems to have been sacrificed for longevity and brilliance of colour. Occasionally I find an exceptionally pungent spray of the golden variety, and when the rays of the sun play on these you get a cloud of that well-remembered perfume of the past.

Florence Nightingale was ahead of her time in not being afraid of having flowers in a bedroom – “…they actually absorb carbonic acid and give off oxygen”. However, she would disapprove of my final recommendation: the smell of lilies, she writes,”depresses the nervous system”.  Certainly I would have nothing to do with lilies if you keep a cat: they affect the feline respiratory system badly. But, for the cat-free, their exotic scent is probably the most powerful and penetrating of all shop-boughten blooms.

One final thought. Decades ago I walked into a chilly winter drawing room: there was a smoky whiff from an unenthused log fire but dominating everything was a clear sweet fresh floral smell like that of a beautiful perfume. It was intoxicating and slightly woody; it came not from a crystal flacon but from a tiny sprig of pink vibernum, tucked into a liqueur glass of water on the mantlepiece. Worth investigating.

¤ another reason why she and Queen Victoria, also a crinoline-hater, hit it off so well. Victoria also had a horror of over-heated rooms, demanding open windows at all times.

¤¤ and maybe more. Knickers had still not yet become general.

¤¤¤ even as I write, a treasured correspondent tells me of a recent Daily Mail piece about a pillow fungus that feeds off dust mite feces. Florence Nightingale was righter than she knew.

¤¤¤¤ Guerlain’s Chamade: in its original form the best and most sophisticated hyacinth perfume ever, blended with blackcurrant and vanilla.

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Nasty Smells

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Because the olfactory sense is a safety mechanism to alert us to danger, the memory of a really bad pong can last a lifetime. Twenty years ago I went off to explore the middle east, spending the first night in the beautiful port of Aqaba, as blue as a Hockney swimming pool, on the Red Sea. As we tourists were then going into Syria we were rigorously chaperoned, with a good deal of luggage checking. When I retrieved my case to get on the Damascus ‘bus I all too soon became aware that the handle was now the source of a most appallling smell: something dead and rotten was smeared on it. Exactly what or how I could never tell; but of course it was impossible to remove, or appeared to be so. Hot water, soap, salt scrubs, perfume went only so far – talk about Lady Macbeth. The horror lingered behind and below all the cleansing: out of the sweetness came forth stench. The experience to some extent poisoned the whole expedition; and when I later became very ill indeed after a dish of humous at Aleppo, the infection seemed somehow to have more to do with the now much-swabbed suitcase than the chickpeas.

Many of us conduct infant experiments with water and rose petals. Aged maybe four, I took apart a plastic bracelet of multi-coloured flowers (remember “pop-beads”?) and floated them artistically in a screw-top jam jar of water which I put on the nursery shelf, enchanted by the effect. Now, whether I added something else I do not now know, but I do recall being shocked and repelled by the nauseating stagnant smell when this piece of juvenile conceptual art was revisited some time later. And here’s an apercu I spared you in Valentine’s week:
“The soul of a man in love smells of the closed-up room of a sick man – its confined atmosphere is filled with stale breath”. ¤

Our ancestors, of course, believed that evil smells indicated demonic presence. Some of us can certainly pick up the foxy sharp smell of fear; and I think that occasional inexplicable aversions to places and people may be explained by emanations that we do not logically comprehend or even consciously smell but which are detected if not fully interpreted by our limbic systems. My mother had a superstitious – or was it? – dread of cut flowers that lasted too long in a vase. She believed that this indicated the presence of death; and said that flowers in a room where someone had died would flourish indefinitely.

When I get hyper-stressed I smell burned toast or crispy bacon, my head seems full of it. If you look on-line you’ll see this is a well-known phenomenon and the most fevered even frightening explanations are given for it. I have got used to it now after some ten years and have stopped constantly throwing open the kitchen windows. Besides, I was always told as a child that charred toast helps to develop a beautiful singing voice.

"Narzisse" by Martin Hirtreiter - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Narzisse.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Narzisse.jpg

“Narzisse” by Martin Hirtreiter

But let’s end on an upbeat note: what of the loveliest smells? The Book of Revelations reports St John’s vision of “four and twenty elders…having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints…”. I shall always remember the billows of a sublime silvery oud shimmering from two Middle Eastern ladies in the Fortnum and Mason lift – the scent of angels in black veils. On a more prosaic level, having just bought two more bunches of early daffodils in the supermarket – (now carefully positioned well away from the onions & Chinese veg: did you read that tommy-rot?) – I am minded to ask whether you can beat the greeny gassy honey gold of these bitter-sweet pollen-spilling trumpets?

¤ Jose Ortega y Gasset, died 1955 – just as Lemon Wedge arrived.

Blue Tits

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We are still officially in winter for another three weeks but these last days of February have their own loveliness. Every year without fail we always have a brief foretaste of spring round about now as if to tide us over until the real thing takes over, a little picture preview to get us through the last bit of winter. It’s already light until six o’clock, the air smells young again: the older I get the more I think I prefer these unique days at the turn of the season to the rather uncontrolled frenzy of the true spring which often feels overpoweringly passionate, making unreasonable demands of the stunned admirer.

The first daffodils came very early in February this year and now the garden foliage is the colour of the blue tits pecking at the peanuts suspended in my still skeletal magnolia. Have you noticed how uncannily and exactly the plumage of these little birds echoes and blends with the winter jasmine, the crocus, lungwort, the washed or stormy sky, and the blue grey yellow-green of all the young shoots? Only as they dart from branch to branch does movement render the tits fleetingly visible. And once April comes they appear to vanish altogether, swallowed up by golden verdance and blue sky. I never see one during the summer; colour absorbs them.

Delicious powerful scents are now lured forth by the first brief burst of warm sunshine. I haven’t seen violets in February for many years but there are stars of purple set in glowing green leaves by the bus stop – and that incredible mesmerising fragrance of musk and sugary petals: yesterday as I knelt in the muddy grass the violets smelled as sweet as though crystallised on a wedding cake. Maybe no other flower but the rose has such a familiar aroma. But be patient, push your nose beyond cliche – violets are fleshy & carnal and also reveal a faintly smoky note deep within them. They emit an echo of Frederic Malle’s Rubber Incense, a sheet of which I keep in my writing box to scent the stationery with “Saint des Saints”.

The vibernum flowers look like clots of mashed up raspberries and cream against emerald black leaves; their sharp spicy fragrance is faintly peppery, mingled with the damp earth & mould under the wall where the snowdrops’ luminous pearliness illuminates the dark purple hellebores and the mauve primulas. Those early daffodils exude the weird soaring excitement of a Sarah McCartney scent: a penetrating, exuberant and flagrant fragrance. The thrilling rubbery polleny yellow powderiness blown from satin trumpets is one of springtime’s most characteristic yet neglected perfumes.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”! For the rain is back again and the forecast for the weekend predicts sharp frosts, hail and does not rule out snow. Hold back on your planting! But spring will keep and its scents continue to discreetly herald its coming.

Image: http://www.bbc.co.uk

DAFFS

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The daffodils have been late in coming this year. In one of those strange warm non-winters earlier this century I noted on my calendar that they were in full blow in the London parks on February 9th, which makes them now two months behind. But in the supermarkets and flower stalls they’re freely obtainable, wonderfully cheap and you can turn your home into a glowing golden glade with minimum outlay. At Easter I filled a room with bowls of hyacinths, narcissi and six vases of daffs, spending no more than on a moderate bottle of wine. The cream and tangerine narcissi smelled as pungent and heady as tuberoses, while the daffodils sprinkled motes of pollen in the sunbeams which lit up every shade of yellow in those petals like silky waxed paper.

Daffodils are such accommodating plants – cheap and easy to grow, long lasting when cut – that they are often underrated and taken for granted. Over the centuries they have been bred and developed from a modest wild flower to showy flaunting beauties. Pilgrims to Wordsworth’s lakeside daffodils are often taken aback by their delicacy, miniatures in beige or sepia rather than the giant blooms of the horticulturists in every colour of sunshine and sunset, fire and flame, pink grapefruit, raspberry and orange. Even my Tesco’s three dozen, opening slowly in a sunny cold room, attained a remarkable size. They were rightly marvelled at as though,with their frilled trumpets, weird subtle fragrance and slender jade leaves they might have been sulphurous canary cattleya orchids against a sky as blue as that of Brazil.
Hence the acuteness of Elizabeth Bowen’s short story “Daffodils” which delicately probes this ambiguity in a tale of a school mistress’s past.

The scent is wonderful, though easily missed and not a little strange. You have to be looking out for it; like that of many flowers it is perhaps not quite what you imagined. Daffodils smell dry and green and slightly peppery; a trifle rough and lightly feral – gorged with pungent raw spring pollen. They smell of growing and pulsating life, the urgent uncontrolled resurrection of the spring; of rubber gloves and gas and crisp chilled white wine. For many of us this is the first garden fragrance of the year, especially if you can no longer get down on your knees to smell the honeyed snowdrops and musky, fleshy, powdery violets. It’s a colder, fresher, more bracing scent than the swooning jasmine odour of vibernum, or the piercing sweetness of hyacinths which for some people is unpleasantly redolent of cat world – a touch of domestic civet in the herbaceous border.

Daffodil is only occasionally used as a note in perfume, sometimes peeping from older twentieth century creations. I think the flower’s familiarity works against it psychologically; it seems lacking in exoticism though rich in scent. Like the blossoms of potatoes, beans both broad and runner, wallflowers, gorse, pansies and petunias the daffodils are maybe perceived as too humble to mingle with ambergris, ylang ylang and gardenia in a crystal flacon or sprayed on ivory shoulders. For perfumers who have dared to experiment it has yet yielded effective results. Bronnley once made a delicious cologne, perfect for splashing around after a bath, sweet and naïve and refreshing. Daltroff used daffodil to add a sly faux-innocence to the top notes of Narcisse Noir, and it turns up in Jean Patou’s devastating Adieu Sagesse of 1925.

One of the dozen corkers later marketed by Patou as “Ma Collection” Adieu Sagesse (and what a name!) is a worthy sister of such weird masterpieces as Chaldee, Colonie and Moment Supreme. It was coming to the end of its long story when I knew it, one of its fans being Prime Minister’s wife and poet, Lady Mary Wilson. The Wilsons owned a house in the Scilly Islands and no doubt the scent of the warm daffodil air of the isles chimed with Lady Wilson’s favourite perfume. “Is she fragrant?” as a contemporary High Court judge famously asked of quite another political spouse of that era. This was a time when Prime Minister’s wives often seemed vague and remote; the charming, enigmatic and discreet Baroness perhaps reveals as much about herself in this lost musky floral as she does in her poems.