The Wearing of the Green

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There can be no doubt of it: green scents are back – and leading the pack. Indeed, contrary to rumour, they never went away but merely sank back like fainting dryads into the groves and thickets, while more ostentatious fragrances filled the air. You don’t have to be synaesthesic to appreciate a green scent, a term I’m using here¤ to describe any perfume which exhales a sense of leafy freshness, tender buds, new grass, rainy air, country lanes: “…praise for the sweetness/ Of the wet garden”¤¤. The first cousins of the greens are the fougeres which are the evocation of ferny woodland, aromatic heath and moor. Kissing cousins are the city-dwelling chypres which owe their special magic to – amongst other things – the now controversial oak moss. But chypres have a far more sophisticated, knowing, glossy aura. Chypres are experienced; greens are naïve.

Or so the story goes, and therein lies the problem. Here’s the thing: the idea has got about that greens are without sex, and this has led in its turn to the vague notion that they are cold, uninspiring, dull, insipid. Nothing could be more misleading nor further from the truth. A green scent is in many ways the most magical of fragrances. Its lack of the animalic may reduce its obvious eroticism; but by the same token the omission, or at any rate the soft-pedalling, of those oils which so closely resemble our own DNA heighten the exquisite escapism and vivacity of this family.

For a green perfume transports us into a world of flowers and plants, the realm of the pastoral, the idyll of the fete champetre. To many people a green fragrance is what they really mean when they talk of a ‘natural’ perfume; a thing of air and fields, the morning smell of a well-stocked florists’ shop. A green scent eschews sultry sexual allure in favour of sprightly uplift, energy and confidence – none of these qualities being by any means unattractive. Health and efficiency, an upsurge of animal spirits and vitality rather than the earthy sensuality of the den or sett.

Green perfumes usually come to the fore in the aftermath of difficult times: those refreshing eaux de toilette and colognes popular after the Napoleonic Wars had distant but natural successors in the sea of green that lapped the West in the years immediately after World War II. Carven’s Ma Griffe, Vent Vert by Balmain, Green Water by Jacques Fath were all seminal and widely copied. It might possibly be claimed that Germaine Cellier’s iconic Bandit for Robert Piguet – a perverse verdigris leather launched in 1944 – actually started the trend but whereas Bandit was louche, perverse and kinky, the pure floral greens were wholesome, joyous and liberating to wear. And rich with symbolism, too: embodying a youthful crispness cleanliness and rebirth after six years of hell.

The new scents let in light and air after the dark claustrophobia of conflict: their themes were the spring wind blowing over fields of unripe corn, wild flowers and living waters. Today green fragrance is equally escapist, offering an idealised alternative experience in our bewildering, sterile, threatening and threatened world. The apparent naivety of a green fragrance fosters the illusion that it is somehow more honest and artisanal: an authentic link with a simpler pristine past. And there’s something in this. A really accomplished green scent – in much the same way as a hesperidic or a soliflore rose – is almost impossible to bluff or fake. Its luxurious simplicity demands the most cunning and resourceful of hands and noses.

Maybe there is another subconscious key to their appeal: that within the perception of apparently innocent green scents there is an alluring, even troubling ambiguity, a twist in the forked tail. Like all colours, the concept and use of green is packed with suggestion and implication. Mirth, health, growth, joy, abundance are all logically represented by the colour of spring and burgeoning vegetation. Liturgically, green is the colour of hope and resurrection. But there is a reverse side: the green-eyed monster, the witchy face, the colour that is said to be unlucky in apparel¤¤¤. Actors used never to wear it, despite their hanging about in the Green Room. Green clothes often end up on the sale racks – you notice, next time – and Harrods once had an informal policy of not stocking green ties. The Buyer told me, “we can’t shift them”. In the novel of Gone With The Wind, the ambivalent anti-heroine has green eyes and dresses almost exclusively in the shade. Wallis Simpson shamelessly presented herself at Buckingham Palace in green lame sashed with violet. Ancient art used green as the colour of the dead¤¤¤¤; the jade and emerald goddesses of ancient Mexico demanded sustenance of beating human hearts. All this adds a certain spice to what is by no means a bland colour nor a humdrum fragrance family. You have to watch your step with green – and what is more thrilling than a spice of danger?

I think you’ll find the choice of green this season energising, surprising and rewarding; so make a change for spring by choosing a new perfume and a new outlook. Let greens take you by surprise, boost your energies and broaden your horizons. Here’s 7 of the best from our sumptuous shelves:

ABSTRACTION RAISONNEE – tingling textured unripe passion fruit, mango and shocking pink rhubarb melding into soft leather. Sit up and smell me.

ANGELIQUES SOUS LA PLUIE –  a tempestuous spring day as March goes out like a lion: rainy breezes blowing over newly-turned earth.

EN PASSANT – pale and hypnotic creamy lilac buds, reflected back as cucumber green in the emerald waters of the Seine.

GERANIUM POUR MONSIEUR  – immaculately fresh as the dawn of creation. Pristine peppermint and the ineffable fragrance of spicy coral-streaked geranium leaves.

GREEN IRISH TWEED – the living legend. It’s all in the name!

JARDIN DU POETE – the umbrageous herb gardens of Sicily peeping out at the sun.

MEMOIRE DU FUTUR – a dazzling green floral bouquet fizzing with aldehydes and sophisticated seduction.

¤ “when I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less” – Lewis Carroll

¤¤ Eleanor Farjeon

¤¤¤ green is not a primary colour: maybe this has given it a reputation for being ‘unnatural’? Just as early monkish scholars mistrusted the (green) apple that seemed to go against Nature and which had been the instrument of The Fall.

¤¤¤¤ see, for instance, the Egyptian depictions of the murdered god Osiris with his skin of eau de Nil.

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Vignettes of Old Marylebone 2: The Land of Smiles

wikimedia richard tauber

I went out for a little walk at lunchtime, feeling a need for air after a morning at the keyboard. I came out of Seymour Place and crossed the Edgware Road into Connaught Square which has fascinated me ever since the Blairs moved in a few years back. It feels strangely remote from all the hustle and noise only seconds away, very leafy with tall shadowy trees and an appealing air of old-fashioned leisure and calm. There was a cheerful bobby on duty on Tony and Cherie’s step, beaming and friendly like a walk-on from “Mary Poppins”. It’s a tranquil homely place. My headache lifted after one circuit and I strolled on past the Duke of Kendal pub, which prompted memories of Ehrengard Melusine, the first Duchess and domineering mistress of King George 1st. She was tall, scraggy, scrawny and grasping: irreverent Londoners called her The Maypole, appreciating the piquant contrast with her enormous rival The Elephant, otherwise known as the Countess of Darlington.

An old friend hailed me from a cafe terrace in Connaught Street which was nice (fancy her recognising me after all these years), and I walked back via West Park where I was entranced to find a Blue Plaque informing me that the Austrian tenor Richard Tauber had spent the last year of his life in Flat 297, a long way from his birthplace in Linz and the final stage of his sad exile from Hitler’s outrages. I’ve always loved Tauber, especially when he belts out “You Are My Heart’s Delight” and “Das Lied ist Aus” . At his last performance, weeks before his death, he sang full pelt on only one lung. Decades later his old Berlin co-star Marlene Dietrich would pay him tribute during her London concerts. One of his early hits was that wonderful song about the lilacs “Wenn die Weisse Flieder Wieder Bluhn”. And that reminds me: we have a delicious white lilac perfume for you at the shop – Frederic Malle’s ineffable EN PASSANT, the breath of white lilac buds on a pale green breeze.

And so back to the Edgware road and the wonderful aroma of shisha pipes billowing along the pavements in a warm perfumed cloud: strawberry, mint, rose and amber. On the corner of Seymour Place was the final treat: our local ironmongers, with a fine new window display of various rat-traps in “traditional style” . I had to smile and thought wistfully of Beatrix Potter and the terrifying Samuel Whiskers. What a wonderful refreshing walk, packed with interest, and all in under 30 minutes. Marylebone really is a village, or rather a series of them: all enchanting and pulsating with life.

 

Coronation Chicken

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It must have been in the early summer of 1963 that we found the official souvenir copies of the Coronation. These included the full order of the Abbey service ten years before, and heavily retouched portraits of all the royal ladies which struck us children as highly comic. Princess Margaret’s face was enamelled like a waxwork and much stuck about with roses, her mouth the very image of Swinburne’s venomous flower. The Queen Mother’s throat looked weighed down with giant rubies like jam tarts. My grandfather had died the year before and his old trunks were filled with fascinating relics, these books among them. His things smelled earthily of camphor, leather and the past; there was a framed list of faded autographs, mostly in pencil – his comrades in the trenches at Ypres. He had been the only man of his platoon to survive.

We had just moved to a new house and decided to reconstruct the Coronation in the garden. Everyone wanted the key role of the Archbishop. We discovered that pilfered rolls of kitchen foil were ideal for creating a facsimile regalia. Fragile crowns were easy, stuck with plasticine gems. The Sceptre was a bamboo rolled around with foil topped with a golden bird from the Christmas tree ornaments;  the Orb a silvered tennis ball. My grandfather’s old apple cart was a godsend: perfect as a tumbril for games involving the French Revolution or the martyrdom of Joan of Arc (Wendy from next door), it served here draped in old curtains as the Irish State Coach. My mother and grandmother in deckchairs were the silent London crowds and somnolent congregation.

Our top lawn was bordered on one side by a small orchard, full of Beauty of Bath apple trees and one gnarled old Victoria plum. In the late summer this was a heaving drunken wasp orgy of golden ripped flesh, oozing juice and bursting purple skins. The insects rolled around in the grass, scrapping like sailors in a Portsmouth gutter. Under these trees my father kept hens; their bran mash, doled out hot and steaming, had a unique sour smell which hung around the humid nesting boxes and echoed in their droppings. There was a huge mauve rhododendron behind the hen house. This we plundered recklessly for Coronation bouquets and garlands.

There was also a purple double lilac bush. It was smelling a lilac this morning that brought back all these memories. I stuck my nose into a great frothy ice cream cone of blossom and it was as though I’d been hit with a tiny petally thunderbolt. It was like the time the Duke of Windsor’s former nurse – a woman of remarkable healing powers  – touched my forehead and I recoiled involuntarily against the wall as though electrocuted, charged up with purging energies. Fifty years rolled away with one inhalation of lilac. I was back in that apple cart.

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That scent! And it’s never the same twice over; like a rose, lilac plays hundreds of variations on a theme. This was an intense dewy morning sweetness – like Vimto, cherryade or pear drops – with a green muskiness in the depths. In its fruity hints I caught a waft of Guerlain’s heavenly (and now discontinued) Parure which blessed a mauve powderiness with a touch of plum blossom. Lilac scents are rare. Perfumers are cautious of a flower whose aroma can be overwhelming, with a certain grubbiness at its heart when scientifically reconstructed. And besides, lilac is unlucky in a house: we were never allowed to bring it indoors. Crabtree and Evelyn used to make a fresh and delicious Persian Lilac line; the The Body Shop a penetrating White Lilac oil – in those wee plastic bottles, do you remember? I once wore it into the papery dryness of a Learned Society’s library, with devastating results. It was like letting loose a fox in a chicken coop.
If you love lilac as I do, try Olivia Giacobetti’s En Passant: just a suggestion of the flowers as borne on a breeze. White, cream and palest green, faintly wheaten and with a cooling suggestion of cucumber. Green grow the lilacs,o! – miraculously, on your skin.

Ol’ Man River

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Someone was chuntering on in a Radio 3 discussion lately, lamenting that there are so few pieces of music inspired by water. Did he get a wrong number! Starting with Handel we launch a flotilla of family favourites featuring the Blue Danube, Old Father Thames, A Life on the Ocean Wave, Moon River and even Gertie Gitana’s signature tune There’s An Old Mill By The Stream, Nellie Dean. Water is the essence of life; from the seas we all came, and is not our biological makeup only slightly less liquid and aqueous than that of the cucumber family?

Perfumes celebrating seas and pools and rivers tend to brilliance, clarity and freshness. Silver Mountain Water, Au Lac, En Passant and Fath’s late lamented Green River glitter and rush over rocky beds, sparkling with light as they brush aromatic foliage hanging low over the water. Or they sit cool and tranquil, reflecting immense changing skies and the scented gardens on their banks. Angeliques Sous La Pluie irrigates a burgeoning spring plantation with soft refreshing rain, while Erolfa and Sel Marin celebrate sunny breezy beaches, the sea-green glassy tang of ozone and lips kissed with sea salt. Discreet hints of iodine and seaweed, tar and deck varnish enhance these fascinating shell-pictures of marine life.

All these perfumes have spirit, elegance and style: but they tend to soft-pedal sex. Fluid as regards gender, they are romantic rather than voluptuous, ethereal not earthy. Let’s turn to an altogether more complex even sinister composition, Caron’s Yatagan. Officially inspired by a Turkish dagger, it suggests to me something quite different – a vast bottomless forest pool, home of sprites and water nixies. Or a still, brooding flooded slate quarry with sheer shiny sides, the colour of a pigeon’s breast and gilded with chips of mica, hung about with bracken and aromatic pungent herbs; the scent of dark icy green water, peat, woods and the sharp woody bitterness of vetiver. With its dangerous gleams of hidden honed steel, Yatagan arouses memories of those fathomless depths in the South American jungles into which the Inca and the Maya cast maidens adorned with emerald quetzal plumes, loaded with gold and jewels to carry to the next world, hidden beyond the pool. A journey of no return to appease implacable deities who ruled empires of water and rain. Yatagan is a virile fragrance, clean but dusky, metallic yet full of spice and warmth. Slightly hesitant with blonds, it’s perfect on an olive or dark skin, confident yet mysterious. Its disturbing notes ripple with echoes of underground lakes (“The Phantom of the Opera”) and subterranean fountains: linger with it on the banks of the Styx or the shores of the nine lost rivers of London, still invisibly feeding the Thames with the scents of of our heritage.

Image from silentsandtalkies.tumblr.com

Our Vegetable Love…

“You’ll fall into the flames of hell if you dig any deeper” said our gardener Mr Sarson as I grubbed about in my own little patch of garden aged 5 or so. Mr Sarson must have been in his eighties but was lean and wiry after a lifetime working as a railway ganger. He had once found a severed human head on the line – “it took three men to lift, it weighed so heavy”. And I wondered how the executioner had coped with Mary Queen of Scots who we had learned about at school: the infant curriculum was very different in the 1950’s. After Mr Garner died, eating a pickled onion, Mr Cannon came to help: he had sailed German POW’s down the Rhine in a caged barge in 1919; been a professional dancing master, and as a boy had pinched the behind of Violet, Duchess of Rutland in the shrubbery at Belvoir Castle: “I took her for the parlour maid”.

These two gentlemen introduced me to the vegetable world which flourished exceedingly in my father’s garden since so many of his animal patients were buried there. Vegetable lore we learned, and the smell of all the old favourites. Radishes are easy and quick for even the youngest child to grow, though their leaves may sting a bit; and their rose pink hue is as vivid and exciting as their cracked-ice peppery scent and tart hot/cold taste. Our neighbours, elderly maiden ladies, lived on radish sandwiches and dripping: it sufficed.(Their brother was a morphine addict, in the nonchalant respectable style of a Victorian bachelor).

So many vegetables have the most bewitching scents: the dry hot spiciness of celery; the rubbery, flowery earthiness of purple sprouting broccoli; the searing sweet and sour pungency of wild garlic especially on a cliff patch in bluebell season. Carrot has been recently added to the perfumer’s palette as a sweetener, and can contribute to an excellent synthetic fleshy fruit accord. Tomato leaf has something of the same magic as geranium – hot, green, spicy, and dusty. It is replete with the nostalgia of those ruined walled kitchen gardens, frost-cracked glasshouses and stagnant water butts that you sometimes discover abandoned beyond the formal gardens of a minor stately home. Now, I know tomato is a fruit, but in the minds and habits of most of us it is treated as veg. It was probably Annick Goutal who pioneered its use in her Eau de Camille – a perfume smelling of broken flower stems and the inner pale flesh of wild grasses.

Yet vegetables and man have until the twentieth century had a wary relationship: for millenia vegetables were the preserve of the poor, served up like animal swill while the rich dined on white bread, meat and sugar. The onion and the lettuce may have been sacred emblems of fertility in Ancient Egypt (due to their propensity to run to seed in a phallic bolt) but they still fed the pyramid toilers rather than grace Pharaoh’s table. When the Americas were first colonised, the treasure fleets brought back potatoes, avocados and tomatoes; all snapped up in the West as intriguing novelties but just as quickly abandoned. They took centuries to fully assimilate as part of the food chain; and for westerners to learn how to cook and season them.

This often seems to cause the British unreasonable difficulties: one thinks of traditional Christmas brussels boiled to mossy mush,and marrows cooked to rags. My grandfather used to say that his favourite way to prepare a cucumber was to cut in half and put in dustbin. Highly distrusted by European doctors, American produce became notorious for other qualities. Avocado is a Mexican Nahuatl word for “testicle” – as “orchid” is in Greek – and so could be choked down as a flavourless if stimulating aphrodisiac. Potatoes turned out to be of the same family as the enchanters’ nightshades, clearly poisonous and possibly diabolic; and as for the colour of these “love apples”, these tomatoes! Painted like harlots and obviously to be avoided. According to Lady Diana Cooper, her mother Violet (the same woman who was goosed by our gardener) banned tomatoes from her dinner table as impossibly common. This prejudice is still not entirely extinct in some circles, I can assure you.

Vegetables are still, I suppose, generally thought dull and worthy; your dreary 5 a day to keep you regular and minimise the household bills: one can still live very cheaply live on roots. Therefore the scents of their leaves and flowers, though often delicious, lack the psychological glamour demanded by perfumers: though the scent of field of broad beans in flower rivals Grasse jasmine, and see how a bed of scarlet runners (grown in Tudor gardens purely for their gaudy flowers) drive the bees wild with their fragrance. Even the wonderful scents from vegetable-related flowers (the cabbage-cousin wallflower; the sweet pea) rarely make it into the commercial perfume bottle; maybe unconsciously rejected on account of their humble relations.

Be that as it may, our niche perfumers continue to garner a little romance from the kitchen garden: try The Unicorn Spell where an eccentric and beguiling top note of dawn-picked runner bean leads into frosty violets. The cucumber in En Passant helps to spangle the white lilac with rain. Gorge on Gantier‘s sweet, rich, outre Grain de Plaisir, a presentation of celery as aphrodisiac – as used so famously by Mme de Pompadour and her eighteenth century contemporaries, brewed up with ambergris, chocolate, truffles and vanilla. I think the 21st century will continue to see fascinating new experiments with the odours of the vegetable kingdom just as our cooks soldier on promoting their vitality and potential excitement in our diet.

Image from wildaboutgardens.org.uk