Everybody Out!

Image: guardian.co.uk

Image: guardian.co.uk

Another Tube strike, another adventure! The weather being so glorious on both days I walk to Les Senteurs from Holloway down the Camden Road and so through Regents Park into Baker Street. It takes an hour and having lived in Holloway for nearly 30 years it proves a curious trip down Memory Lane besides being a strike-buster.

My life is an open book – but who would want to read it? I have often considered conducting a recherché guided tour around London pointing out all the landmarks of my life but I don’t suppose there would be many takers. The streets of Camden are full of souvenirs of the past: a mural of Amy Winehouse, looking like a Mexican Madonna; the days when the great Elizabeth Jane Howard was creating a garden at her home in Delancey Street; emotional meals at the eponymous café in the same road. Do you know the plaque celebrating the martyrdom of St Pancras as you walk up Parkway, and the mysterious hidden garden in a deep valley beneath the bridge as you cross over Park Village East? And that strange stark building almost opposite, which I used to fantasise might be a private lunatic asylum or former workhouse but which is in fact a school – nowadays, at any rate.

Then the Outer Circle around the Park: on a night of freezing fog in 1999 I wandered round and around here for over two hours after a dinner party in Fitzroy Road, unable to break out of the maze. Now it is a mass of pale pink and creamy hawthorn blossom reminding me of Elizabeth Bowen’s darkly comic ghost story “Pink May” and the poltergeist, conjured maybe by a guilty conscience, which destroys a woman’s love affair. Or perhaps the phantom is the scent of the may itself, which has been likened both to the smell of human decomposition and the odour of procreation: the scent of Life and of Death. Bowen lived for many years in the white fortress-palace of Clarence Terrace, over across the lake. In the last days of this warm April the Park is almost vulgar, overwhelmed with blossom and fragrance: rioting over every hedge and railing are cascades of lilac, choisya, clematis and the sea-blue ceanothus which takes me back to its azure waves across the walls of my school quad. I remember staggering up to the Rose Garden with huge picnic baskets in the 1980’s, a memory now stimulated by all the paper beakers of coffee being toted – and slopped and spilled – by fellow walkers.

The Lilac Alley which I recall being planted, timid saplings in a morass of mud, is now a bosky thicket of abundance candled with every shade of flower from imperial purple to delicate blackcurrant mousse. The tulips are blown and lifted, only few snow white camellias remain but in Queen Mary’s Rose Garden an astonishing number of blooms are already out, especially our old English roses. To walk past the beds, reading the names on metal plaques, is like riffling at top speed through a series of encylopaedias and phrase books. Names historic; names whimsical, comic, surreal, banal and dotty – Pensioners’ Voice, Ingrid Bergman, Quaker Star, Princess Alice, Annick (can this be celebrating Mme Goutal?), Mountbatten, Lili Marlene, Diamond Jubilee, Radox Bouquet, Easy Going, Lady of Shallott, English Miss, Royal Philharmonic, Gertrude Jekyll, Singin’ In The Rain, Britannia and dear old Sexy Rexy. The full massed fragrance is yet to come but, as so often in life, the anticipation is often keener than the final experience.
On, on! On towards morning! “Felix kept on walking”: past the irises in their stony beds, flowers of perfumery’s most costly ingredient – the glorious buttery orris powder; past the last of this year’s guelder roses. I fall into a bush, trying to catch the last of their scent, but right myself and set my face towards the rigours of Baker Street and the scented oasis of Seymour Place. Despite the strike, an enchanted passage from one perfumed Paradise to another!

Taxi!

Blonde Venus

Remember the movie Blonde Venus and the show girl who introduces herself as Dietrich as “Taxi Belle”? “Do you charge for the first mile?” replies Marlene silkily. Eighty years ago taxis were very sexy – listen to that rude French music hall song “Elle a perdu sa comme-a-dit / La pauvre cherie dans un taxi”. They could also be dangerous. Elizabeth Bowen’s short story The Demon Lover is about a woman who hails a very wrong taxi indeed, a taxi to the gates of Hell. Equally horrible is the vehicle in Hilary Mantel’s Winter Break, a tale which may put you off Mediterranean holidays for life. Years ago I got into a night taxi in Tangiers which I then imagined was my doom come upon me: we shot off the main road, charged down unlit lanes and finally bumped into dark woods. I was already imagining the cold steel at my throat when the darling driver cried,”Look!” He’d wanted to show me the best view of the bay and buy me mint tea at his brother’s cafe.
My hands were shaking too much to lift it.

Taxis are not everyone’s cup of tea: some people see them as the acme of metropolitan glamour and romance – “twice round the Park, driver!” – and dancing on the roof like Santos Casani’s Charleston down Regent St. Nostalgia for the era of little glass vases in holders above the seats, full of paper, silk or even real flowers and movie memories of Gary Cooper,Miriam Hopkins and Frederic March a trois on the back seat. Or the Great War troops being taken up to the Front in Paris cabs, in the days when Caron’s perfume N’Aimez Que Moi was the only possible parting gift to the girl left behind.
For others taxis are a dreary and expensive necessity when old, ill, heavy laden, banned from driving or otherwise come to a pretty pass. Then they become a expensive sign of dependency and are resented accordingly.

It’s the putting of yourself in someone else’s power that’s so nerve-wracking: sitting on the hall chair in your coat, suitcase and bag at the ready, compulsively checking tickets, money, keys, phone and watch. Where IS he? Has he forgotten? Should I ring again? then you do ring and the office says “he’s two minutes” away and you’re in for another quarter hour of agony before the car turns up and in the exquisite ensuing relief you and the driver immediately bond as best friends for life.

But it must be said that taxi drivers are usually the best company in the world with pungent opinions, comforting homilies and extraordinary anecdotes of eccentric behaviour and fares. “Your dirty little dog’s fouled my cab” the great Mrs Patrick Campbell, the original Eliza in Pygmalion, was told by a driver as she descended from a taxi clutching her peke. “Nonsense, it was me” said Mrs Pat, sailing into the Stage Door. Taxi drivers are always interested in smells though it worries me if they lower the window immediately after picking me up: I have bartered my fare with fragrance samples in the past and cabbies in general are highly appreciative of good scent. That intimacy of situation and proximity must refine the nose; picking up so many fares tarted up in their best for a treat, still exuding the delights of Duty Free or shopping up West. My Aunt has always smelled memorably delicious of successively Ma Griffe, Fidgi and Anais Anais; once I bought her a bottle of one of Les Senteurs’s former treasures, Cadolle No 9, now alas unavailable. She was dotty about this creamy aldehydic resinous miracle until a driver asked,”Lady are you burning sulphur back there?” Which brings us back to Ms Bowen – this is where we came in.

Image: Torontofilmsociety.org