Crowning Glory

 

It’s spring in all but the official calendar. The rooks have returned. Both flora and fauna have begun to go wild with excitement. For the past week the air has felt milder, softer, full of energy. Even us olfactorily-challenged humans can perceive and smell delicate and wonderful new scents. So, what myriads of odours beyond our ken can be driving the natural kingdom crazy with the desire to bloom and procreate? A word of warning: this time of year can be very risky, exceedingly precarious. You may find yourself simultaneously galvanised and drained by spring fever. It’s fatally easy to overdo, as new tingling air powers you up and consequently sends you right over the top. And what comes up must infallibly come down.

 

The wonderful Iraqi Kurdish barbers who used to have a shop round the corner from me always said that at home everyone was bled in March, to drain all the corrupt and exhausted winter blood. We used to do the same in this country up to a couple of centuries ago. Should we keep some leeches in a jar downstairs at Les Senteurs? I feel that I at least could benefit from their action. Imagine the relief of drawing off all the stale air, darkness and fug of winter. It would be the corporeal equivalent of laundering one’s entire wardrobe – and the new blood would smell as sweet as a nut.

 

In spring, those old indoor smells which seemed so cosy in the frozen mid-winter now appear frowsty, drab and unclean like the miasma of a serially unmade and rumpled bed. I was rummaging around in Oxfam the other day and I found this gaudy – but very pretty – little tin box all stuck about with pink and violet sequins. When I lifted the lid, it was to find the box stuffed full of human hair. I was absolutely repelled. Such an intrusion of mortality it was, somehow; so intimate and inappropriate on a breezy fresh morning. I cannot tell whether I really smelled oil and sebum or whether it was the power of imagination; but I clapped on the glittering lid like lightning, made an excuse and left the store.

 

I remember the late Elizabeth Jane Howard comparing the odour of a greasy unwashed scurfy head to that of cheap raspberry jam. Both my grandmothers had cut glass pots with silver lids all over their dressing tables. All their contemporaries did. When the ladies had brushed their hair they would pull out the combings from the bristles and stuff them into a pot. This nosey little boy was told that this operation was for the benefit of the birds: to provide them with warm silky linings for their nests. No doubt by the 1950’s this was so. I have since read, however, that in the days when every woman had (infrequently washed) hair to her waist, the combings were collected to be eventually woven into false fronts, falls and the like. These would augment those elaborate nineteenth century coiffures – and of course match their owners’ hair colour and texture perfectly.

 

In our own day of wash-and-go thrice-daily showering all this can seem a bit grubby. Hair can smell quite wonderful – and erotic, too. But we’ve come to think that hair – like everything else to do with our persons and our daily routines – needs always to be squeaky clean to be found attractive. A less than pristine smell nowadays is evidence of the loathly Beast in Man. Especially hair, which is all too akin to fur and the growth of which is therefore encouraged only upon the human head.  Maybe this is why – in the niche sector at least – “dirty” animalic perfumes are currently so perversely popular. It’s a natural reaction to all the disinfecting. Les Senteurs customers go mad for MUSC TONKIN, SALOME and the more advanced and spectacular ouds in our collect.

 

For the less uninhibited, we have some gorgeous hair products to tempt you. Girls who model themselves on Snow White and Rose Red should try the following delectable duo. CARNAL FLOWER Hair Mist creates the illusion that you are crowned with invisible tuberoses. The spicy rosy raptures of PORTRAIT OF A LADY are now available in an oil for both body and hair. And all those who long to lay their weary heads on a pillow of rose buds should invest in a flacon of DANS MON LIT linen spray.

 

In her later years my grandmother produced a curious little rose gold ring which had belonged to her own mother. It looked like a decayed tooth, really – a fragment of shadowy convex glass surrounded by black and crumbling seed pearls. It was worn almost to pieces. It was said to contain human hair, presumably that of my four great aunts and uncles who had died in infancy. My mother had a horror of the thing: she said it was extremely unlucky to preserve hair. I have the ring still. Sometimes I wonder – if it should finally crack from side to side and the web fly wide – just what smells from 150 years ago would emerge…

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!

How Bitter the Holly Smells!

Elizabeth Jane Howard telegraph

A Very Happy & Prosperous Peaceful New Year to you all!

I left you in December with memories of Susan Coolidge’s Katy books. I come back to you in January saddened by the unexpected death of the great Elizabeth Jane Howard, and gladdened by the genius of Thomas Mann.

Elizabeth Jane Howard would have been 91 in March: she was an Aries, born the day that Sarah Bernhardt died and maybe some of that artist’s glamour, energy and allure was reincarnated in her. Anything by Elizabeth Jane is an inspiring and deeply satisfying read: memoirs, anthologies, cookery books, novels, ghost stories, psychological thrillers. She’s marvellous on fabrics, cats, colours, textures, clothes, food, gardens, smells. I remember the luscious seductive aphrodisiac summer dinners in “Odd Girl Out”, the pinks, reds and greens of fruits, cold salmon and fruits. There is always lots of perfume around; opening a book now at random, I find almost at once references to Evening In Paris and Caron. She loves heat, sunshine, hot afternoons – “the caramel scent of hay”. There’s an unforgettable apercu ( in, I think, “Something In Disguise” ) of a dandruffy scalp smelling of cheap raspberry jam. In “The Light Years” Howard suggests rather than describes the aroma of an elderly governess who finds the getting of food, baths, washing and laundry all prohibitively expensive. She writes of a haunted dressing case reeking of rotting roses in “Left Luggage” and the stench of a car filled with a supernatural smell of death (“Mr Wrong”). I saw Elizabeth Jane lecture once in the 1970’s with her then husband Kingsley Amis: she wore crimson velvet and her glorious hair unbound in a magnificent glossy tawny mane. It was as though a goddess had come down from Olympus to the humdrum halls of Loughborough University.

Thomas Mann’s first novel – published in 1904 and a huge best-seller until Hitler burned it – was “Buddenbrooks”. I’ve just read it: a modern paperback of a 1924 translation was given to me last summer and something told me to save it for a ripping Christmas read. My instinct was dead right: 600 pages of perfect bliss, the sort of novel that makes you cry out at intervals ” this is the best book I ever read!” I wish I’d found it years ago; I want to read it again, on a beach or in a wet holiday hotel, eating digestive biscuits and drinking tea on the bed, in those long afternoons perfectly described by Elizabeth Bowen. Warm, funny, wise, sad – and so leisurely, so smooth, so confident: “Buddenbrooks” is a family saga that spans the central portion of the nineteenth century, set in a provincial town (maybe Lubeck?) near Hamburg within easy reach of the coast and the salty tang of the Baltic.

Lord! Germany then sounds a lovely place; better than Victorian France, Italy or Britain for my money. Full of sun and light, sea and sand, flowers, music and abundant wholesome meals. Houses smelling wonderfully of coffee; everyone filling their faces at the second breakfast and doing ample justice to sausages in ginger, ham with sour onion sauce, raspberry trifle, bacon broth, fruit soups, boiled carp in red wine, apple jelly, lemon buns with smoked goose, grilled chops, green cheese, currants, bread and butter, sugar and chocolate. Has any other novel featured such delicious good food?

The family house smells of cologne, used to brisk up, freshen and revive. Scent hints at the autobiographical origins of the novel, the tricks and hooks of memory: a Buddenbrooks matriarch wears heavy silk gowns smelling soothingly and aromatically of the patchouli in which they are stored; her son, when young strong and confident, perfumes his moustaches with wax. Both Howard and Mann implicitly remind us that perfume is a innate sensual pleasure that should develop organically as part of the human condition, an aesthetic and psychological enhancement of life not a disassociated pursuit of scented fluid in a bottle. The Buddenbrooks sense of smell takes its place in the repetitive rhythms and joyous monotony of family life – and plays its part in one of the most disturbing but underplayed death scenes you will ever read.

I cannot bear to finish it!

Image: telegraph.co.uk