The Pot Pourri of Life and Death

Anna Atkins, Poppy, 1852

 

Wasn’t it funny when Ms Sturgeon “channelled Kellyanne Conway” (BBC R4) but nonetheless kicked off her shoes before sitting on that now famous sofa? Maybe she’d read our chat on this page the other week about going barefoot in the house. I’m so glad this theme has gone viral: it’s a social etiquette that needs defining in Britain once and for all. As a dear regular correspondent observes regarding the removal of shoes:

“… it is of course de rigueur in many Asian countries. Moreover, I do not lose my poise or posture: should I find it difficult to bend down there is usually someone around to undo my shoe laces…”

Now, there’s a class act!

Just now I am bombarded with divine spring smells. All weekend the sun has shone, drawing out the perfume of the narcissi and hyacinths in the garden. Indoors there is a wonderful blend of delicate scents opening and flowering in the new April warmth and light. A phial of the new Frederic Malle triumph SUPERSTITIOUS, gleaming with glass-green aldehydes, is the star performer. Its sophisticated glossy authority enhances the soft creamy sweetness exuding from my lovely stephanotis, Coty’s gift without parallel. And then I was given a tin of Kusmi tea from Paris: aren’t I spoiled? Kusmi is ‘Le thé des tsars’¤, brought from the Champs-Elysees. My present is the new ‘Euphoria’ blend – there are many others.

‘Euphoria’ is well named. When you open the tangerine & gold tin you may think that there’s been a muddle in the shop. You seem to be looking at a bouquet of the most exceptional pot pourri. Pieces of fragrant orange peel – generous chunks! – rub shoulders with cacao and roasted mate. That’s the official party line but I can see, smell and taste other things in there: jasmine? vanilla?  I mashed two large pots of this blissful blend yesterday and the exquisite aroma filled the house. Should you be lucky enough to be gifted by Kusmi my tip would be, don’t be in a hurry to throw out the dregs: let them sit and perfume your sacred space. And the tea also tastes delicious served cold, on a hot afternoon of transplanting, digging and weeding.

I keep thinking about St Martha¤¤ and the holy house at Bethany, also filled with odours. Martha’s cookery; her sister Mary’s precious ointment of spikenard; the smell of their brother Lazarus’s sudden illness and death. Yesterday’s deeply disturbing – and lengthy¤¤¤ – Gospel reading was the story of Lazarus’s rising from the tomb. His sister Martha is appalled – as we should all be – as the listener is – by the prospect of the opening of his grave: “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days”. The smell of death is truly terrifying: so final, so uncompromising. You can fool yourself no longer. No wonder certain highly-scented flowers give people the horrors – it is not so much the perfume of the blooms but the grim knowledge of what the fragrance is intended to conceal.

Lazarus, however, walks forth from his cave in the rock. He is sound and sweet and presumably redolent of burial oils and spices, though still terrifyingly wrapped with cere cloths. “…And his face was bound about with a napkin”. What dread there must have have been when that napkin was removed. Yet – and here was the miracle – all was well. Lazarus was alive and whole again;  later he is said to sailed with his sisters to evangelise Provence and the pagan Gauls. But, as Our Vicar said, he knew he must die – and rise – a second time.

From my long-ago cooking days in a City restaurant, I remember a terrible crisis one morning. The butcher never turned up with the poultry – but the boss refused to alter the menu and remove the featured Chicken Dish of the Day: he really did have a death wish, that one. This was the great occasion on which St Martha – urgently solicited – worked a true miracle. For – see! – the long-delayed chicken finally went into the oven well after noon: and not a soul thought to order The Dish of of Day until the chooky-chook was beautifully cooked and wondrously savoury. Although we were very crowded that lunchtime, everyone mysteriously preferred to choose cold quiche.

However, this episode marked for me the beginning of five years of vegetarianism. I had cooked enough chickens¤¤¤¤. The sight of all those pallid-pink joints and their post-feathery chilly smell nauseated me. Chicken in the raw. I was like King Lear with his hand:

“Let me wipe it first. It smells of mortality.”

And after that things were really never quite the same again.

¤ though I think that most of the Tsars of the Kusmi era ( the firm was founded in St Petersburg in 1867) had an anglophile preference for imported Liptons and Twinings.

¤¤ the name Martha and the word ‘myrrh’ probably have the same semantic origins. Once again, the motif of smell.

¤¤¤ permission given to sit, if necessitated by bodily frailty.

¤¤¤¤ remember Garbo on being asked why she retired at age 36? “I had made enough faces”.

Poetry In Motion

amaterasu_cave

 

Spring air –
Woven moon
And plum scent.¤

 

Who should pop up on R4 the other morning but the great Juliet Stevenson, brought before the microphones to celebrate the Equinox She read Keats’s Ode to Autumn – beautifully, of course – said a few words, and was off. A casual, almost throw-away recital: It reminded me of Myra Hess’s lunch-time concerts during the War; Sarah Bernhardt or Lillie Langtry making brief appearances in barns and tents on the American frontier. It was just how a performance should be. A sudden splurge of splendour going up like a firework in the gloom; a few transient seconds of glamour and beauty in the darkness.

The Ode was a brief moment of uplift in a busy day. Poetry should illuminate the path, jolly us along, stimulate the ear and the brain. It presents emotions and situations in a certain way – a new way. Poetry offers revelations and, sometimes, solutions. Its pleasure should be taken for granted, easily and frankly like a music hall song. We needn’t wait for a poetry class or a formal recital  –  tags and lines and refrains can inspire and buck us up at any time, whether formally declaimed or just chuntered under your breath.

Now, doesn’t this sound remarkably like the role of perfume in life? A scent which may be startling, delicious, sprightly or hypnotic by turns but which seizes our attention and beguiles our senses. Price, value, composition and provenance really need not come into the matter. What’s vital is the sum of the thing: how the scent speaks to you, and how it affects your mind. Smell it, grab it, wear it. Stop analysing and start smelling. It’s like the sense of taste: quit taking those selfies of your dinner – eat it up!

When I was at school, aged ten or so, we had to learn a set poem weekly – “Home Thoughts From Abroad”, “Upon Westminster Bridge” and the like. No piece thrilled me much. All one’s energies and attention went into getting the thing into one’s noddle and then regurgitating the verses correctly, so as to avoid being snubbed by teacher in front of the precariously smug class. However, then as now, individual words, sounds and ideas of colour & smell caught the ear and excited the mind. The first line of Shakespeare that ever caught my fancy was Lady Macbeth’s wailing of the smell of blood and the perfumes of Arabia.

Presently one went up the school and a more enlightened schoolmistress got us writing haiku in lieu of learning other people’s masterpieces. That was kind of liberating – firstly because the haiku form is so short;  and because observing the 5-7-5 syllable structure made us far less self-conscious about what we were composing. We were too busy trying to make the thing ‘fit’.

I see now that the essence of the haiku is in its moment of generation; those ideas it evokes in the exhalation of a breath. There is no analysis, no set or intended meaning: all is sensation and emotion, a moment of observation and insight as clear but transient as a dew-drop. Sometimes you see something akin to this in the PR blurb written by French perfume houses: translated into English the evocations are meaningless and bathetic. In the original they have a certain haphazard poetry to them. Same like the haiku.

Here are two observations of an orchid, by Basho¤ and Buson¤¤ respectively:

Evening orchid-
The white of its flower
Hidden in its scent

Orchid –
Breathing incense
Into butterfly’s wings

Haiku can be not only surreally lovely but as droll, rude and scatalogical as a good limerick.

Issa¤¤¤, who lived a rather dreadful life of poverty and loss, wrote much about love and death but was also fascinated by the yowling of mating cats, bodily smells, soiled clothes & bedding, effluvia and excrement – “flies on the porridge…..piddle pattering down…the wild iris…”

Here’s another Basho haiku which smells both aspects of our fleeting existence:

In the garden
A sweaty shoe
Scent of chrysanthemum

You may take these two observations separately or link them as you will: but it’s true, chrysanthemums do have the sharp tang of perspiration to them. As Issa noted, they are redolent of tea, sake and urine. And here’s the typically ironic haiku paradox: they are also the Japanese national flower, quasi-sacred as they symbolise the Sun goddess Amaterasu-o-mi-kami, the divine ancestress of every Emperor. There have never been many chrysanthemum-based perfumes on the market. Maybe that’s because of this sour ambiguity and (in the West) the association of the flower with the dying of the year and hard-wearing funeral tributes.  The Crown Perfumery once did a little gem – I forget it’s name; it’s long time ago. Serge Lutens De Profundis – a ‘Paris Only’ Exclusive – is probably the one to seek out.

How often will a neophyte come to try a much-touted new scent and exclaim –

“But it smells of my father’s bike! – like a cement mixer – like cleaning the baby’s bath..”

And there you are: to her, the perfume is defined for ever, caught in a flash of perception like a spider in amber. You can explain about the ingredients till you are blue in the face but it is the customer’s instantaneous and unique characterisation which is so striking: much more interesting than praising the quality of the jasmine oils. An integral part of haiku language is the use of an exclamation to punctuate a line  – “ah!” – “o!” – “but!” – “pop!”. How rewarding and fascinating to hear these gasps and squeals at the shop as one reveals the latest treasure.

Ise’s shrine –
What tree can give
Such perfume?¤

¤ Matsuo Basho 1644-1694; translations by Lucien Stryk

¤¤ Yosa Buson 1716 – 1784; translation by Stephen Addiss

¤¤¤  Kobayashi Issa 1763-1827; translations by Lewis Mackenzie.

Flowers Of The Bone

Diego Rivera Xochiquetzal

Xochiquetzal, the Aztec goddess of love and fertility, wearing a headress of lillies in this mural by Diego Rivera. Her name comes from ‘xochiti’ meaning flower, and ‘quetzalli’, meaning precious feather.

 

‘Then as she once walked up and down in the White Friars’ church at Lynn, she felt a wonderfully sweet and heavenly savour, so that she thought she might have lived by it, if it would have continued. And in that moment, our Lord said to her, ‘Daughter, by this sweet smell you may know that there shall in a short time be a new Prior in Lynn…” ¤
At this uncertain time I’ve been reading this most marvellous Book of Margery Kempe, said to be the first autobiography in the English language. Mrs Kempe was the mother of fourteen, a mystic and sometime brewer of Kings Lynn: she was born around 1373. She travelled all over England and Europe, glorifying God; she even reached Jerusalem. Her book deals extensively with the Divine ravishment of the human senses, including that of smell. Margery, like all her contemporaries, equated sweet smells with the treasures and revelations of Heaven.

Hasn’t it been a peculiar week, though? Perhaps the strangest yet in this oddest of years. I have been glued to the wireless and the BBC News on the hour. I’ve been like that Imperial nursemaid, obsessed with l’affaire Dreyfuss, who came close to letting the Tsarevich drown in the bath: away in a world of my own. I have noted such curious portents in the natural world, too: a heart-shaped ring of toadstools sprouting in the night on the public highway; a lone buzzard circling overhead; a frost in Scotland; unnatural levels of rain and clouds of flies. Despite all the eccentric and dismaying weather, the weather office now announces that this June has been much warmer than the average. The earth seems to have shifted on its axis: we used to sit out in the back yard on midsummer evenings, bathed in sunshine till supper time. No longer: even if the rains stop in time the bench under the kitchen window is now deep in chilly shadow by 6.30pm. Curiouser and curiouser!

I wonder what’s going on. Some things are as ever. The Constance Spry roses, though battered, have flowered according to their meticulously allotted span: three and a half weeks. All finished and put away by 4th July: regular as clockwork. The privet hedges are now in flower; all too often overlooked or taken for granted, but smelling as exotic and penetrating as Spanish orange blossom.  The garden is intensely luxuriant, even jungly; and my sense of smell is slightly skewed, as always in times of crisis.

After the Book of Margery Kempe I went on to Jill Dawson’s engrossing and ingenious new novel – ‘The Crime Writer’: an episode in the life of Patricia Highsmith. (Ms Dawson is always adroit as to matters olfactory: she has poor Mrs Thompson smelling of Chanel No 5 in her study of a notorious 1922 murder case, ‘Fred & Edie’). A leitmotif of the narrative is the insistent, invasive and slightly sinister fragrance of Coty’s L’Aimant; and the ‘atrocious’ smell of Pat’s pet snails, kept in pockets and handbags. I’d never thought of snails as having a smell – naïve of me: for everything does if you concentrate upon it.

Now you remember those tuberose bulbs – ‘The Pearl’ – I told you back in February? They duly arrived by post and I potted them up and put them in my bedroom window, one of the sunniest places in the house. Very fascinating to watch. First of all graceful arcs of slender lily leaves sprouted. And then – and my! are they thirsty plants, soaking up water like insatiable sponges – the leaves became wilder; more luxuriant and untidy. I moved the pot to the garden and “The Pearl” is now living mostly outside, coming indoors only on a few unusually chilly nights or when the rain reaches monsoon proportions. The flower buds are emerging – fat messy bundles on sturdy stems, almost like miniature corn on the cob. I shall let you know what happens next: Meanwhile I spin wild fantasies of the garden filled with a scent so strong I am driven indoors.

All thoughts of tuberoses lead one back to Fracas, still ineffably stylish and poised on the Les Senteurs shelves. The Collins Robert French-English dictionary defines ‘fracas’ thus:

“..crash…roar…din..,’annoncer une nouvelle a grand fracas’: to create a sensation with a piece of news..”

What an inspired name for a pretty wild scent, unique and outrageous in its time; a 1948 revival of the rococo tuberose oils that had once delighted Marie Antoinette and the Du Barry. A loud blaring scent to some; to others as frivolous, frilly and frothy as a wired Dior crinoline petticoat. I see it as most intensely pink perfume, of an almost ersatz shade: potentially more shocking than Shocking, but, withal, of a pearly petalled delicacy like the flowers that die so that their fragrance might live. It hangs over every subsequent tuberose perfume created, like the shadow of Rebecca de Winter – or Mrs Rochester, overhead in the attic: an exotic myth-bound memory; a threat to all newcomers in the field.

I have never met anyone who had the means or the daring to wear Fracas in its early days. It is not a provincial scent. Until I came to London I had never met this eminently metropolitan belle. She has had her up and downs over the past 70 years, la Fracas. Elderly fans tell me that like other legends – Ma Griffe, Je Reviens, Tabu – Fracas has known lean times. And then, in the late ’80’s, maybe in the wake of the new and increasingly audacious power perfumes, Fracas was reborn, with elegant new packaging and a price to match. I remember a Japanese gentleman, a quarter of a century ago, coming to the Harrods counter to buy eight bottles of the parfum concentration. He had a charming interpreter with him: when she relayed the total bill, the customer squealed and actually leapt into the air.

“Don’t worry,” said the interpreter. “He pay!”

And he did.

¤ The Book of Margery Kemp. Translated by B.A.Windeatt. Penguin edition 2004

From Here To Eternity

Time, Death and Judgement 1900 George Frederic Watts 1817-1904 Presented by the artist 1900 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01693

Time, Death and Judgement 1900 George Frederic Watts 1817-1904 

 

Surely we are all haunted by time; its cruelties and mysteries. When, on her accession in 1558, Elizabeth Tudor rode into London she paused – mystified – before an elaborate tableau of infants and ancients, all wreathed & garlanded in tinsel and out of season flowers (for the month was November). “Madam”, explained an Alderman, “it is an Allegory of Time.” “Ah” said the Queen “And Time hath brought me hither”.

The scary thing is, as far as we know – and as we are too well aware – Father Time travels one way only, and that’s not a comforting direction. To conflate the words of Lewis Carroll and George III’s daughter Elizabeth, this “vile old gentleman … he won’t stand for beating!”. Each of us learned at his mother’s knee how terrified Elizabeth Tudor was of the bony old fellow – the stopped clocks, the banished mirrors, the elaborate wigs and maquillage. One of our favourite ‘heritage monarchs’ has become almost a national symbol of the vanity of struggling against Time and his remorseless ravages.

There was a rather creepy piece in the newspapers this month all about the latest techniques in making cut flowers last longer via a technique “which muffles the DNA responsible for producing ethylene, the gas that ripens fruit and rots petals”*. I was a bit amazed, really: we nowadays already get a sachet of that funny syrupy preservative bound, gratis, to the cellophane wrappers of most shop blooms. Either that or inherent breeding seems to semi-embalm them. I have mentioned before that, in any case, I mistrust flowers that last too long in water: three weeks – with chrysanthemums¤ – being my record. When I was small it was always said that flowers that kept beyond their natural span were a sign that a death was imminent in the family circle. Blossoms that had stood by a death-bed never perished.

So I am instinctively averse to this new idea, a process known apparently as “RNA interference”¤¤. Why should we want plants to last for (nearly) ever? What a horrible idea. Classicists will recall the Trojan prince, Anchises, for whom his lover Aphrodite secured the gift of eternal life. She forgot to ask for concomitant youth; so that eventually – centuries later – she had to solicit her divine confreres once again, this time to beg for the poor shrivelled chirping husk to be transformed into a grasshopper.

Everlasting flowers direct our thoughts to the notion of perpetual perfume. There’s nothing new in the idea. Three centuries B.C. Theophrastus (“The Father of Botany”) was writing that “what women require is perfume that will last”. (And Greek men did too, to be sure; but they were not supposed to be interested in such stuff). Another ancient, Apollonius, wrote a treatise on about where to source the finest perfume oils in the Mediterranean region¤¤¤ – “insist on the best!” As we – and he – would say.

But the development of a fragrance that lingers for ever on the skin still remains elusive – thank goodness. The beauty of a scent is – almost by definition – fleeting and fugitive.  A lovely scent must fade naturally like a flower or a piece of music: we try in vain to catch or detain its fleeting passage; its transience is an essential part of its appeal. Bitter-sweet. Should a “fine-dining” meal last for ever? Or the act of love? A poem? So why a beautiful scent?¤¤¤¤ How unnatural that would be. When I was a tot I used to lie in bed and my grandmother would come in to say goodnight and plant a kiss on the palm of each hand. Then she’d fold my fingers over it. “Hold tight! Don’t let those kisses escape!”

But the kisses always managed to fly away.

Perfumers – expert perfumers – will temper the concentration of their creations to reflect mood. Take the Frederic Malle masterpiece Angeliques Sous La Pluie: perfect example. This is an evocation of a March breeze blowing over newly-turned earth; a passing inhalation of early spring shoots and of an awakening garden. People love it but many complain that it does not last well. Jean-Claude Ellena, the creator of this heavenly scent, conceived it as the lightest of eaux de toilette precisely to enhance & reflect that vision of exquisite fragile elusiveness. Desiring it to be robustly tenacious is as paradoxical as nursing a butterfly into ripe old age.

How heartening to reflect that we are after all – just like the Book of Genesis and that famous hymn always said – “frail children of dust”. Professor Brian Cox was telling the tale yet again on tv last night: we are all of us born from the dust of dying stars. And in turn we duly return to the stars. Our ancestors knew this instinctively: we modern know-it-alls have to have it demonstrated by science.

As Marie Stuart’s father said, “it came with a lass; it will go with a lass”. Let’s end as we came in with the attempts of a British Queen to hold back Time. One of Victoria’s grand daughters remembered how the old lady smelled so deliciously of orange blossom imported from the Riviera. Others remembered her aura of immaculate cleanliness. When the Queen was young, she had her babies’ tiny arms, legs, hands and feet cast in marble to have about her, laid on cushions. A sweet idea in some ways; but now, with those nine children all long gone, there is something faintly macabre in the sight, rather reminiscent of the upsetting cadavers of Pompeii. Especially as, at the time, Victoria had found all those babies a sad and fretting trial. Like many a modern tourist, she concentrated more on capturing the image than relishing the actuality.

Those cold stone limbs remind me of a bottle of scent, romanticised and idealised but never used: lovingly preserved for an special occasion that never comes. Today – as regards perfume as with everything else – HAS to be the day! Sufficient to the day is the perfume thereof.

* The Times –  4/6/16

¤ “such serviceable flowers” – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

¤¤ all readers of Enid Blyton will jar at the connotations of the word “interference”. Very similar to “meddling”.

¤¤¤. Crocus oil from Rhodes; spikenard from Tarsus; frankincense at Pergamon…

¤¤¤¤ years ago I remember in Harrods seeing a party of nuns in fits and tucks as they examined a bottle of “Eternity”. ‘Cheap at the price!’ cried one.

Doing The Flowers

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“Come here Barrett… Barrett, do you use a deodorant?
Susan’s (Wendy Craig) blunt interrogation of Dirk Bogarde in THE SERVANT (1963; screenplay by Harold Pinter) is an abruptly shocking cinema moment. Appallingly outspoken, the ultimate humiliation: one of the last taboos is to even imply that someone smells bad. It is what your best friend won’t tell you. Susan and Barrett loathe one another from their first meeting, with the instinctive unreasoning hatred of two animals. Red in tooth and claw they fight for the domination of boyfriend/employer Tony (James Fox). Barrett whips round with air freshener as Susan prepares to leave the house. Her inquisition of his personal hygiene is accompanied by her savage way with a bouquet of flowers, thrusting javelins of iris¤, carnations and daffodils into a vase like so many poisoned darts. Susan handles them as though she hates flowers as much as she hates – and fears – the manservant.

The first half of THE SERVANT is set in a perpetual bleak midwinter. Within doors, stylised and expensive flower arrangements are everywhere: an artificial deceiving hothouse spring which mirrors Tony’s idle fantasies of a career in the Brazil jungle. No sooner has Susan positioned a vase than Barrett is removing it. Needless to say, the arrangements in Tony’s bedroom are those most vigorously disputed. As regards interior decoration, Bogarde is given a wonderful Pinter line, drolly delivered –

“…mandarin red and fuschia’s a very chic¤¤ combination this year, sir”

This is fruity-floral extravaganza at its most florid¤¤¤, especially effective in a black and white movie whose monochrome is so much a part of its whole Gestalt. Outside Tony’s bijou Chelsea home, London is all darkness, wind, rain, snow and arid cold. Whereas the interiors are full of the smell of plants, tobacco, clothes, paint, sex, food and drink: all of them expensively chosen weapons in the armoury of domination¤¤¤¤.

Tony owns a spectacularly large bottle of cologne, guarded as possessively as a child’s teddy bear. It’s kept in his private bathroom which is duly invaded by the sluttish Vera (Sarah Miles) and Barrett. Once Tony has left the house the abandoned pair disport themselves (“splash it all over!”) with the master’s perfume in an orgy which is the more startling and disturbing for being left vague, enigmatic, still guarded by ’60’s censorship.

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A highlight of creepy sensory horror is the restaurant sequence: here’s an establishment that smells as though never aired. “Too posh to wash”, all right. This fine diner could do with some fresh flowers about and a window open.  A sinister bishop* guzzles with his chaplain, the pair of them simultaneously sticking their noses into brandy snifters. Harold Pinter in person is glimpsed in the background, dining with a girl who simultaneously eats, drinks and smokes: holistic sensual indulgence – “gorgeous! Simply gorgeous!” A strong-minded woman in a pot hat, gnawed with jealousy, dresses salad with lemon juice while interrogating her young female companion.

Even in 1963, flower arranging as a leisure activity and the employment of designated servants were beginning to seem a bit dated. Rather earlier, I  remember my mother being reluctantly enrolled on the Church Flower Rota. Specifically, I can smell the old brass tap set in the exterior south wall at just about my height. We were careful to walk round the church clockwise to the tap: if you went round a church widdershins terrible things happened, as a little book of fairy tales in the nearby library bore witness. I remember the smell of icy water gushing into a huge earthenware pitcher that I vaguely imagined having something to do with the Wedding at Cana; and the green sharp tang of brown and gold chrysanthemums unwrapped from rough brown paper to have their woody stems cut and trimmed with steely secateurs.

I am told that today it’s getting harder to fill the quota for the Rota. Flowers are expensive and “tricky”; no one has the time nor inclination to choose and display them. The old ideal of a geisha spending a day positioning a single spray of cherry to its best effect seems bizarre. I notice at the supermarket that spring bulbs now come ready potted in cardboard so you don’t even have to choose a bowl for them once you get home. I’ll tell you one thing: Florence Nightingale would be relieved. There exist exasperated letters written in the late 1850’s by the great reformer, then bottled up in a baking London summer at the Burlington Hotel, writing reports on army hospitals. She was rarely free of background grizzlings from her mother and sister whose “whole occupation…was to lie on two sofas and tell one another not to get tired by putting flowers into water…I cannot describe to you the impression it made on me.”

Surely as lovers of fragrance we can find a Middle Way?

¤ “so spikey and unfriendly” as Ann Todd remarks in another context.

¤¤ pronounced, of course, “chick”

¤¤¤  the in-house workman tries to catch his mate’s eye.

¤¤¤¤ be sure not to miss Barrett’s washing of Tony’s feet in scalding water laced with Stag salt. The censor asleep again.

* the “Vicar of Hell”, indeed

Spring Fever!

Image: BFI

Image: BFI

Though I say it myself, my little patch of back garden looks a treat just now. I’ve just mowed the grass for the first time in honour of my brother’s birthday: along with the clock change, having the lawn neat again really does mark the return of spring. Newly cut grass is to a garden as the application of lipstick is to a woman’s maquillage, or a tidy bed to a bedroom – it sets a certain seal and a sense of completion. And of course the smell of that juicy aromatic greenery heightens the seasonal mood. I like to have the beds a jigsaw of colour, a riot of hues – pink, blue, mauve, crimson, orange, white and most of all yellow. Hyacinths, crocus, hellebores, scillas, windflowers, daffodils, lungwort and camellias are all out. A little more warmth will bring on the crown imperials with their exotic interior pearls and sour bitter perfume; the intoxicating bridal crown narcissi; and the dazzling waxen tulips.

What I cannot get going in this garden are violets: the soil is wrong, or the light or something. They flourish down the fields and even by the bus stop – but not here. This morning I passed a magnificent patch of big purple violets set glossy emerald leaves by an old medieval mud wall; even in a cold wind the scent was sensually powerful, arousing and passing strange. More like perfectly fresh sweet meat than flowers: not modest nor shrinking at all, but exotic and disturbing – brutally beautiful.

You know me and my synaesthesia: do you, too, maybe think that spring is the noisiest of the seasons? Winter is still and muffled; autumn rattles & rustles; summer sings and hums like a kettle or beehive, but spring is raucous. I always think of Virginia Woolf in one of her fragile states hearing the birdies singing in Greek: the season can be very loud, insistent, aggressive. There is no softness to spring, but a rather wild unstoppable gallop that only slows down and peters out in the drowsy days of midsummer. Highly invigorating and exciting; but challenging and demanding too.

No wonder we perfume fanciers start looking for fresh fragrances around this time: with the return of spring and the light everything can seem a little stale – clothes feel faded & rather too heavy; dull winter complexions need a toner; we fluff up our feathers like sparrows in a sunny dust bath, and turn out our dwellings like broody fertile animals. Watching all the bulbs and buds bursting open makes us want to slough off our old skins and burst forth with a new brilliance and sheen, smelling uninhibitedly pristine and delicious.

Remember Proserpine in the timeless myth: kidnapped in the bright springlight by Pluto in his roaring chariot and sable steeds dyed black (Ovid’s curious detail), the goddess of vegetation was dragged down into Hades and the earth closed over her in perpetual permafrost. Finally returned to the surface by divine decree, Proserpine unwrapped a spring that was brighter than ever for its long absence though we still feel Pluto’s pursuing malevolence in the frosts that nip the magnolia and the winds that strip apple blossom in a night. And, like A. E. Housman & the cherry trees hung with snow, once we begin to feel the draughts of eternal winter blowing round our shoulders the spring is even more precious and more unsettling. We must enjoy every moment.

Bodhi and Birch

Bodhi and Birch

A jolly good reason then to seize the day and celebrate with the fabulous all- English products of Bodhi and Birch. Les Senteurs always has an extensive range of their Bath & Shower Therapies in stock. I love the scents which, as the label says, are “100% pure indulgence”: Bodhi & Birch have a depth, richness and earthiness which make the senses reel – try for instance the sharp crisp aromatherapeutic tang of rosemary and bitter camomile; the languorous sensuality of jasmine or ylang ylang blended with incense. There’s ginger too, black pepper and mint tea. There is also an powerfully authentic artisanal quality about this gorgeous brand which is – and get this! – entirely FREE of petrochemicals, sulphates, parabens, phthalates, animal ingredients (apart from honey), poor old palm oil AND synthetic colours & fragrances. Fabulous: no wonder the Therapies smell so gorgeous and feel so pure and soothing on the skin. Elegantly packaged, Bodhi & Birch cry out to be bought as a personalised gift for yourself or a loved one. Founder Elijah Chooh draws inspirations for his creations from the healing power of nature and traditional botanical healing. Reviving,calming,relaxing,invigorating…whatever you lack or need, Bodhi and Birch have the perfect balancing product to put your mind, your skin and whole being right back at the top of your form. Stop by and buy one!

Bodhi and Birch at Les Senteurs Invite

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.

Be My Valentine?

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What’s one of the very nicest things you can buy your loved one on Valentine’s Day?

“Perfume” I hear you murmur, with quiet confidence. Quite right.

I’ll tell you why.

Perfume smells lovelier than store-boughten flowers which nowadays seem to have sacrificed scent for gorgeousness of colour and immensity of size.

It will smell even more delicious than a fine dining experience or a designer box of chocs; and fragrance carries none the concomitant risks to health and fitness.

And it lasts so much, much longer than either of the above. You always get your money’s worth with scent; besides which, you can personalise it in witty and exquisite ways.

Look, I’ll show you:

To make a successful gift of perfume you have to give a lot of yourself and that is always the best gift of all. You need to plan your purchase to fit your loved one as snugly as a pair of hand-made shoes. Get into his (or her) head – take a tour around his personality and choose a scent accordingly. Staff at Les Senteurs are always happy to help you translate ideas into actions if you need a little assistance.

Think laterally: consider, say, your partner’s favourite movie, colour or flower and pick a perfume to reflect that. If you were going down the cinematic route you might choose a fragrance notably worn or inspired by your inamorata’s favourite star ( Frederic Malle & Dominique Ropion created Carnal Flower with Candice Bergen in mind; Catherine Deneuve was Francis Kurkdjian’s inspiration for Lumiere Noire). Or you could select a perfume worn in a much-loved film. Think of Norma Desmond’s tuberoses in Sunset Boulevard or Caron’s Fleur de Rocaille in The Scent of a Woman. If you wept over Titanic, then track down a scent that was captivating the world in 1912. We have several such treasures – cast your eye and nose over the great Houses of Houbigant, Grossmith and, once again, the inevitable and unique Caron.

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Candice Bergen in Carnal Knowledge

Matching flowers is easy to do, but so romantic and adorable if you take the trouble to discover what she really loves: we have luscious rose perfumes of all types ( dark, dewy, spicy, fruity, innocent, lascivious, smoky, waxy ); but Les Senteurs also holds captive the most beautiful examples of gardenia, ylang ylang, lily of the valley, magnolia and orange blossom. A married gentlemen may like to remember what his wife carried in her bridal bouquet and match those blooms in fragrance. Ladies, you can do the same with your husband’s boutonniere or the favourite plants he cultivates for the garden show. Don’t forget: men love flowers too.

A rose that's perfect for men and women.

A rose that’s perfect for men and women.

Now I mentioned colour which may surprise some of you. I don’t mean the colour of the packaging or the bottle (though this may play its part). I’m talking about a factor that’s rather more subtle. By and large, if a person likes brilliant, strong vibrant hues then that individual will go for expressive rich perfumes too. Contrary wise, admirers of white, beige, cream and pastels will tend to prefer lighter airier fragrances. So consider the colours your beloved wears, the shades your lover paints his rooms and let your instinct guide you like a bee to the honey.

Bette Davis in 'Now, Voyager'

Bette Davis in Now, Voyager

Nothing stimulates memory like the sense of smell so another cute idea would be to conjure up thoughts of a special time you have enjoyed together and celebrate it in scent. If the earth moved for you, try Nu_Be’s explosive and elemental dawn-of-the-universe fragrances. Recreate a day at the sea; an ocean voyage; a holiday in Havana, Istanbul, London, China or Morocco; an evening at the ballet. Or, more modestly, an afternoon in the vegetable garden, a shared creamcake, a romantic breakfast – even the wicked intimacy of a shared cigarette. “O Jerry don’t let’s ask for the moon, we have the stars.”
Getting the idea? Choosing a romantic gift should and can be such a pleasure: and I think I can promise that the more you enjoy the selection, the more delight the chosen perfume will give to the recipient.

Happy Valentines from all at LES SENTEURS!

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.

Magnolia

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O, the exquisite torture of cultivating a magnolia tree! Fatally easy to grow in the English climate and a cliche of every suburban garden, its beautiful flowers are nonetheless peculiarly susceptible to the vagaries of our weather. Ruin can come upon you within hours. Last year the great moon blossoms opened overnight in a burst of late March warmth, only to be nipped within the week by a savage frost which reduced the white velvet petals to rags of brown shrivelled canvas. These unsightly tragedies clung to the tree for weeks, like traitors’ heads on old London Bridge, enough to make you weep and a grim warning against the vanity of human hope. This year’s cold late spring kept the magnolias back another month and my tree escaped the frosts only to fall victim to the winds. But a respectable number of flowers have survived, weirdly late in the season, and the fallen petals look wonderful on the grass, glowing and gleaming in the gloaming. Strange they should be so fragile. These trees have been on the planet since the end of the Jurassic Period: their blooms were among the first flowers to appear on Earth. But a chilly English night is still too much to ask of them.

If you own a magnolia you’ll maybe wonder every spring if it’s worth the agony – this huge anticipation of a few days of loveliness; and hopes so often dashed. But then, which spring flowers and shrubs do last? Lilacs and guelder roses, cherry and apple blossom are all the more exquisite for their fleeting appearances. An uncertain two week flowering period is the norm and the brevity is surely part of the bitter sweet appeal, a mordant metaphor of the human condition.

“Man that is born of woman is of a few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower and is cut down: he flees also as a shadow and continues not.” Job had it right.

Do we want anything to last for ever? Mythology tells us of Anchises, father of Aeneas, who was granted the gift of immortality by the goddess Aphrodite. But he forgot to ask for the complementary blessing of eternal youth and grew unimaginably shrivelled and decrepit over the centuries until the goddess, unable to withdraw her divine favour, turned him into grasshopper,crazily chirping – and easily squashed, one supposes.

Everyone thinks he wants a perfume that will last indefinitely on the skin; to me this sounds a nightmare comparable to other putative perpetual sensory experiences – a meal that never ends; a concert with no finale; eyes that never close. Spring is so emotionally demanding that we cannot bear too much of its verdant reality, its explosive bursting into life.  And fragrance, like flowers, should catch the nose, delight the brain, dissipate – then come again, alternately dying down and reviving like a plant, all the more enchanting for its transitoriness.

In Rome, fifteen years ago, I made a chilly spring pilgrimage to the gardens of the Villa Borghese only to find them closed so I never did see the famous magnolia avenue. However we can all smell an impression of it in Eau d’Italie’s cool and stylish fragrance Magnolia Romana. The scent of a magnolia will vary according to type; but it’s a cool, white perfume which fits the look of the flower perfectly. Soft, clean, mellow – something like the very finest soap but without undue sweetness. Slightly reserved, discreet: you’ll not usually find the smell by lingering near the tree. You need to poke your nose into a low-growing flower, like a pollinating bee. (Or questing beetle, since bees did not exist when magnolias first evolved). Magnolia Romana catches the fragrance wonderfully, weaving together accords of hay, basil, cedar and watery lotus
into a fresh newly-washed perfume which has a faint damp green earthiness beneath the petals. The new grass and the spring rains shine through the petals. Quite simple, quite delicious. And no Angst at all.