Paradise Regained

The Butterfly that Stamped - Rudyard Kipling

When we were studying Paradise Lost for English A Level, I remember Mr Edwards expounding on the nature of the fruit that ruined Eve. The idea of it being an apple was all wrong, he thought. The fatal fruit should have been a luscious peach, a satin-skinned nectarine or a furry-velvet apricot – soft, tactile, fragrant; dropping sweet perfumed nectar, and of a rosy golden colour, blushing at the cosmic shame of the Fall. It’s not just that most of us today have the image of an apple as a hard green waxed ball sat in the supermarket: the early Church fathers suspected the intrinsic perversity of apples and this is why the fruit was stigmatised as the undoing of Eve and Adam. Apples grow harder as they mature, unlike respectable soft fruit; they are indecently slow to decay, defying the Divine Law. To put the tin hat on it, the Latin name for an apple is the same as that for evil. (“Malo I would rather be/ Malo in an apple tree/ Malo is a wicked man/ Malo in adversity” – remember?).

I recalled all this when reading The Song of Solomon, preparing a talk on perfume in the Ancient World. Here is a wonderful meditation of the sensual hypnosis of perfume: let the poetry stupefy you with scent. Once again, the 1907 “Helps To The Study of the Bible” suggests that we might more accurately read “apricot” for apple; the trouble (and joy) of all these ancient texts is that repeated translation may confuse such a precise science as modern botany. What the Old Testament calls a rose may have been what we know as a lily, a crocus or a narcissus. The ‘lilies of the field’ were probably the same scarlet anenomes that I saw one February bursting from the bare and snowy hills above Jericho.

But let each judge for himself as to the odour of his loved one:

” …Thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine; and the smell of thy nose like apples…who is it that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant? A garden enclosed is my sister…thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire* with spikenard. Spikenard and saffron; calamus¤ and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense ; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices…”

And then we read of the skin oozing, dripping with impossibly delicious and expensive perfumes; limbs slathered in precious oils:

“I rose up to open to my Beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock”.

Spikenard is an evocative word; it now usually refers to an extract of a root of the valerian family but, once again, the ancients may have known it as another fragrance entirely. We meet it also in the New Testament brought – “very precious” – in an alabaster box for the anointing of Christ. I have smelled it only once, I think, and it was not at all as I had expected being not creamy, spicy and sweet but dark, earthy rebarbative. In this it reminds me of the pink lotus absolute that Elizabeth Moores uses today in her perfume Anubis; a scent which leads us back into the fragrance world of 4,000 years ago.

For here is a phenonemon that links us directly with our ancestors; the sense of smell and the timeless palette of perfumers’ oils. Whereas air pollution, chemicals, saturation of odours and an increasing remoteness from the natural world may imply that we experience smells differently from our forebears, the traditional natural constituents of perfume remain largely the same. Perfumers of 2014 AD use juniper, hyssop, artemisia, iris, mint, coriander, anise and galbanum just as their predecessors did in 2014 BC. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” and despite the confusion of nomenclature we still enjoy the spices, resins, incense and perfumed woods known to the Israelites, Greeks and Egyptians when Rome was still unknown.

* thought to be an oil of lemon grass

¤ the heady fragrance of henna flowers

Treats

Elizabeth Taylor

Apparently there is no word in French for “treat” because the concept does not exist: in France life is one long treat. For myself the heyday of the treat was my early childhood in the 1950’s. We had enough money and my parents were far from strict, they were indulgent indeed: but daily life was so circumscribed and low-key that the smallest relaxation of routine seemed hedonistic. John XXIII was then writing of the moral dangers of treats, holidays being especially suspect as Occasions of Sin. Being allowed a glass of milk (generally forbidden) was as exciting as a trip to the pantomime: the magic of “Goldilocks” (the bears lived in a huge revolving house) at Nottingham stayed with me for years. So did a bowl of cauliflower soup and being allowed to float matches down the river at Dovedale the following summer. Reckless extravagance: and I couldn’t get over the exoticism of that hotel soup, billed as creme du Barry. I have been a fan of the eponymous inspiration ever since: the cauliflower is supposed to resemble the great courtesan’s powdered hair, by the way.

Of a Sunday, my father would cut a Mars Bar (had we children been lucky enough to have been given one) into wafer slices and we would be offered one apiece after lunch. The rest was then put away for another time. I was sometimes taken to my maternal grandmother’s to watch half an hour of television; once a year we went to the local zoo or met our cousins at Warwick Castle for a picnic. Until the mid-1960’s the purchase of ice cream (as opposed to ice lollies) was unheard of: my grandmother believed that the commercial version was made and stored under the bed – so that was out.

All these treats were planned, discussed – and remembered for a lifetime. Therefore, we were overwhelmed and over-excited by the Liberty Hall atmosphere at my paternal grandfather’s. He lived with his daughter at the other end of the village: both had a great zest for life. My aunt was – still is – an intensely romantic and glamorous personality and we’d start the afternoon with a game of “Jane Eyre” in her bedroom – aunty being the mad wife roaring & raving in the bed. As she’d bagged the best part there wasn’t much for the rest of us to do except scream, and then explore the dressing table and the wardrobe.

No shortage of treats here: my aunt adored perfume and had many admirers. She is the only woman I have known who once had champagne drunk from her slipper – “messy”. Scent was then the supreme adult treat. It was said to be imported from Paris at ruinous cost, applied with great and cautious ceremony and worn on only the most significant of occasions. A bottle lasted for years: children were not supposed to touch but I remember flacons and their labels being all stained and gummy with drips and drops from what I suppose were now-outlawed ingredients. You knew something monumental was afoot when perfume was in the air, and I think even then I realised that the application of scent implied heightened emotions and consequently tension, if not ructions, in the adult world.

On that fascinating dressing table in the icy blue bedroom I first smelled Coty’s Muguet des Bois, Ma Griffe, Femme, Cabochard, Quelques Fleurs, Tweed (“The Finishing Touch”) and the Grossmith runaway bestseller White Fire which was a novelty then: it was launched 60 years ago this autumn. Dry, flowery, powerful, aldehydic
White Fire gusts through my memories wafting from car coats and accordion pleated skirts, mingling with the smell of hair spray, face powder and setting lotion. One caught a whiff of it at Sports Days, Carol Services and tennis teas. It was not only delicious, exuberant and tenacious, but an empire product, too – “made in Britain” – which to many was an added benefit. To me it is inseparable from those crinolined summer dresses (‘Horrockses Frocks’), white gloves and Aertex shirts which marked the setting forth on a great occasion in the 1950’s, everyone twitching with nerves: “I’ll smack the back of your legs!” Nowadays everyone seems to reel from one treat to another: we have become so blase and spoiled. If someone gave me a treat today I don’t think I’d quite know what to do with it. But a smell of long-ago White Fire – ah! Now, that I would love…

Les Senteurs and Grossmith Invitation