Fusion and Confusion

Brocks Fireworks Poster From The Museum of British Folklore

Brocks Fireworks Poster From The Museum of British Folklore

 

By the time you read this, the dread Halloween will have come and gone and we shall be speeding on to Bonfire Night. Halloween’s over and done with for another year, thank Heaven. A gentleman visitor to Les Senteurs told me that if its commercial growth continues at its current rate, in another five years this feast of spirits unleash’d will be bigger than Christmas. I for one am tired of lying on the floor with all the lights off to elude the Trick-or-Treaters. I am repelled by skull racks in people’s gardens and skeletons in book shops. I avert my eyes from cakes iced with gore and witches flying round Tube stations. I find it all terribly unwholesome; and I now wonder, could this be because I have no personal experience – no heritage – of Halloween to draw upon? Maybe it’s relevant that I have no memory bank of associated smells to reassure me, animal-fashion, that it’s all quite tame and safe. Perhaps this is why I’m like a nervous dog or shrinking tot when I see those bins of pumpkins in the supermarket. I have yet to experience a celebration of the festival – I’ve never “embraced” it, as a lady advised on the wireless. It’s doubtful now that I ever shall. No “closure”, therefore.

Our generation ignored Halloween. My mother had been petrified – pre-war – by someone’s chauffeur flapping across the lawn in a sheet. My father thought the supernatural should not be fooled around with. Consequently, any suggestion of a ghoulish treat for us children was a huge no-no. I tasted pumpkin pie once – and our neighbours routinely made pumpkin soup – but these dishes had no connection, olfactory or otherwise, with All Saints’ Eve. When I strain my antennae to re-birth the smell of pumpkin, all that comes through is the pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove that seasoned these recipes. If I have any sort of Halloween odours to fall back on I can proffer only musty wet apples: fallen worm-eaten fruit tipped into buckets of water for the messy game of ducking or bobbing. We were invited to play it once at school – but I had already read the Agatha Christie shocker in which a girl is drowned in the pail, her head held under.

The smell of evil. Who needs it?¤

However, as the Duchess of Windsor said, I’ve had great fun. I’ve been reading about other kinds of odour in the press this week. I suppose the one that made me laugh most was the anecdote of movie star Richard Harris sitting on Elizabeth Taylor’s bed at a party, drinking a cocktail of orange juice spliced with his hostess’s Chanel No 5. (La Liz had just closed the bar downstairs). Imagine the acid indigestion.

Then the Standard ran two small but significant pieces. The more encouraging of the two reassured us that we shoppers generally choose to economise on clothing and even food before we cut down on our perfume purchases. So, for once, smell – theoretically at least – takes priority in the satisfaction of our senses.

The other article was depressing, repeating – inter alia – the old canard that scented accessories are used –  in lieu of washing – to disguise and cover up body odours. That old chestnut again, long hoped to be exploded. This is a most extraordinarily long-lived prejudice: still it lingers on, after centuries, with a knowing chuckle.  We now realise, thanks to the pioneering work of historians such as Ruth Goodman, that our ancestors were by no means as dirty or as evil-smelling as we like to imagine. They worked hard to keep clean and sweet but with methods strange and alien to us¤¤.

There is an atavistic distrust of perfume implicit in this theory of scent as camouflage, besides a species of inverted snobbery. A very British phenomenon I think it is, deriving from many circumstances. Our northern situation & climate, not naturally suited to perfume production due to botanical limitation. Our island mentality, simultaneously attracted to and repelled by the new and exotic; painfully suspicious of the customs of “abroad”¤¤¤. Our leading role in the Reformation five hundred years ago, which led to the new Protestant English Bible being available to all. This depicted fragrance as a manifestation of Divine and the Divinely Appointed, highly unsuitable for use by the ordinary man and woman. The old classical texts revived by Renaissance scholars revealed perfume as a heathen accessory of the decadent ancient civilisations. I remember reading in a very worthy volume, years ago, that the Fall of Rome had much to do with its aristocrats wearing rosewater, and with Roman ladies painting their toenails.

This week will conclude with another curious popular celebration: Bonfire Night with its reeks of gunpowder, treason and plot¤¤¤¤. Aren’t we a peculiar lot In our new secular society? We pull out all the stops to celebrate the triumph of the Protestant Church, the deliverance of one of our most unpopular and egregious kings*, and the barbarous end of a clutch of Catholic gentlemen.  Our folk memories and our attachment to them are as weird and singular as our attitudes to scent.

¤ if you do, take a gander at our new labdanum fragrance ATTAQUER LE SOLEIL: the aura of the highly objectionable Marquis de Sade.

¤¤ water was distrusted. Scented spirits were preferred. Here’s a clue to the ambiguity of perfume.

¤¤¤ the British have this reputation for being tolerant but maybe we are just lazy: quite happy to go along with things until our personal comfort and convenience come under threat.

¤¤¤¤ LES SENTEURS offers a clutch of appropriate perfumes to complement the 5th. Gunpowder in HIMALAYA and LA FIN DU MONDE; roasting chestnuts in CASTANA; the scented smokes of Killian’s triad ADDICTIVE STATE OF MIND.

* “King James 1 was an unpleasant man who was hated and distrusted by many people” – Ladybird History Books, 1967.

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Fallen Angels

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Such incredible fierce desire to re-watch REBECCA: do you remember the dialogue in the first reel when Joan Fontaine talks of bottling up her memories like perfume? Larry grimly reminds her that those little bottles “sometimes contain demons that have a way of popping out at you just as you’re trying most desperately to forget”. I thought Hallowe’en this year was pretty diabolical in the literal sense. It’s become such a massive occasion (commercially second only to Christmas), and on that mad Friday evening when temperatures in London reached 74 degrees things to me seemed frighteningly out of hand; had gone Too Far. Everything was going curiously awry – Tubes packing up, trains running late, tourists losing their way and fainting in the heat. We were all led astray that night: the popular consciousness had frivolously courted evil and boy! did we reap the wild wind.

As we know, goodness and virtue have a beautiful odour – Alexander the Great’s sweat smelled of violets; the relics of the saints give off an immortal redolence of roses. The corresponding perception is that evil smells corrupt, foul and repellent. And, according to old medical miasma theory, what smells bad will make you sick: disease is transmitted not by germs but by smell. This theory was current even a hundred years ago: my grandmother (her father was a health inspector and recognised smallpox cases by the characteristic smell of apples) certainly subscribed to it. I remember being hurried past stagnant ponds with a hanky drenched in iced lavender cologne clapped over my nose.

Satan, the Fallen Angel of Light, smells of sulphurous fires and excrement. Not for nothing were early matches, soaked in bone-rotting phosphorous, named Lucifers. I used to have dreadful dreams about sensing the demonic presence, not by the smell but by a glimpse of the cloven hoof behind a door or curtain. And of course that hoof takes us back to the notorious smell of goats, the farmyard and the pagan world of satyrs. Kilian chooses to eschew a close encounter with the Evil One. PLAYING WITH THE DEVIL is inspired by ideas of the Great God Pan rioting through lush fruity thickets “spreading ruin and scattering ban”; the old fertility god of the ancient world who was proscribed as a demon by the early Church.

But this is an innocent if indulgent scent. Go a shade darker with Nu_Be’s burning lake of SULPHUR which conjures up night’s dark angels with black angelica, cinnamon, the eternal fires of ginger, opoponax and pimento. It’s one of a series of perfumes celebrating the elemental and generative elements of the universe: SULPHUR separates the Creationists from the Darwinians and has a certain theatrical fiery flash to it. Blue flames to light up Christmas and to dress you as the Demon King for the panto matinee.

CUIR VENENUM by Parfumerie Generale has long been an object of veneration and curiosity to collectors of the bizarre. A fathomless abyss of soft musky leather illuminated with burning sulphur and bitter myrrh; and perversely sweetened with innocent orange blossom – Satan before and after the Fall. And finally try the Serge Lutens curiously mesmerising VITRIOL D’OEILLET, which brings out the love/hate metallic sharpness of pinks and carnations hiding beneath their peppery sweetness, as a vitriol thrower conceals her sulphuric acid in a posy of flowers.

Devil take the hindmost: why not come by, come buy?

Autumn Leaves

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Following that earlier walk down the autumn garden path, here are 10 super scents to gladden your hearts on crisp frosty mornings and gloomy damp evenings. Scents with uplift, comfort and a whole heap of style; perfumes that make a nod to the season but are not governed by it. Nor is this selection made with any reference to gender. All of the following fragrances are great for both men and women, though some seem angled somewhat by their names; and one or two may work better on those of riper years. But that’s something I’d love you readers to comment on: so please, as ever, do write in. Meanwhile: enjoy, taste and try:

1. Vetiver Fatal by Atelier Cologne

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Vetiver grass has been used in perfumery for millennia: it has a rather rough male reputation but women love the scent so here’s a perfume to suit everyone: sophisticated, easy-going, clean but with a touch of winter comfort. Oud emphasises vetiver’s greenery; cedar and violet leaf bring out the earthiness. Effortlessly charming.

2. Monsieur by Huitieme Art

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Rocks, streams, stones, trees – the forests of the Auvergne or Wordsworth’s Lakes. Aromatic and woody – full of patchouli, cedar, sandalwood, poplar, dry papyrus and smoky incense. All the invigorating freshness of cool damp forest air but also comforting, warm and perfectly poised.

3. Bois Du Portugal by Creed

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An old personal favourite which never palls: an unjustly forgotten Creed scent but still one of the best. Like sinking into a huge green velvet armchair inhaling lavender, mosses, bark, scented woods and memories of hot summer suns.

4. Oud Cashmere Mood by Maison Francis Kurkdjian

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I adore the loudness, the flamboyance and blatancy of oud. This cracker is wildly animalic, faintly rude, always animalic with sweet oils of labdanum, vanilla and benzoin. A fabulous contrast to the delicate cashmere fibres of Musc Ravageur – see below.

5. Musc Ravageur by Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle

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This is a beautifully dressed continental gentleman wearing soft supple tweeds and the finest, lightest cashmere scarf smelling subtly and deliciously of lavender, bitter orange, spices, woods….and clouds of warm sexy musks.

6. Tobacco Rose by Papillon

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The last rose of summer; the one still blooming in the sere garden on Christmas Day. Deep, dark, pourri’d and arousing; full of wonderful non-floral notes such as aromatic beeswax, musk, ambergris as well as the lushness of spicy Bulgarian rose oil.

7. Intoxicated By Kilian

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To give you courage on dark cold wet mornings; to stimulate you at night. A gorgeous warm spicy coffee fragrance laced with rose, cinnamon, nutmeg and green cardamom. Exciting, addictive, satisfying. Can’t live without it.

8. Vanille by Mona di Orio

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Beautiful fantasies of the South Seas and the Caribbean: a spangled veil thrown across the sky to catch diamond stars. Natural oil of vanilla laced with leather, gaiac wood, vetiver and a hint of rum. A landmark vanilla fragrance: exotic, never ersatz; modest but unconsciously overwhelming

9. Gardenia Sotto La Luna by Andy Tauer

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Tropical splendour from your own hot houses, brought to table with the forced peaches and melons. A boutonniere or bouquet for the winter balls and galas: massed creamy gardenias & white roses with incredible depth and almost vegetal richness. For me, currently Best in Show at Les Senteurs.

10. Sienne L’Hiver by Eau d’Italie

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The city of Siena in dead of winter: stone cold without, sumptuously heated and indulgent within. This little-known fragrance plays with colours, recreating the rich earthy tones of Siena’s architecture with truffle, frankincense, golden hay, labdanum, violet and geranium. A classic jewel!

Ghost Stories

I remember years ago hearing about a candle maker, an artist one should say, who was able to conjure up the spirit of a loved one in scented wax: he had recreated the perfume aura of Rita Hayworth so that her daughter should feel her presence about the house upon the striking of a match. There is something essentially ghostly and ethereal about all perfume with its electric stimulation of memory: maybe this is why many people find it hard to throw away empty bottles, why they cherish old flacons as they would clothes and accessories of loved ones, still faintly and intimately scented after long years, the occupants having long since departed and fled.

Perhaps all perfume is the alluring ghost of plants, woods, blossoms – like Hiawatha’s rainbow of all the flowers of the prairie: “When on earth they bloom and perish / Blossom in the sky above us”. Distilled in elixir and more powerful than they were in their first life they flower again, a marvellous parallel of rebirth and regeneration. Like a ghost, the magic of a perfume does not always reveal itself to everyone; it appears in a different manifestation to each. It mysteriously changes smell and personality according to your moods and health. In her wonderful story “Poor Girl” Elizabeth Taylor writes of a malevolent lubricious haunting by a perfume, a dry musky scent, which fills a house with disturbing seductive fumes, a ghost from the future rather than the past.

This is a brilliant inversion of the traditional association of the reek of cold decay with phantom manifestations. (Think of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s monstrous-smelling car in “Mr Wrong”). “Pink May” is Elizabeth Bowen’s sinister/comic tale of a poltergeist wrecking a war time love affair (and marriage) by mercilessly disrupting a woman’s early evening beauty routine at her dressing table as she makes herself lovely for sin. J Clayton’s 1961 movie The Innocents (based on Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw”) refutes the cliche that film cannot translate a sense of smell: in the midsummer gardens of Bly luxurious white roses grow in profusion and fill the vases of the house. Never have sun-drenched perfect flowers seemed so sinister nor adorned such horrors

I think of all our stock at Les Senteurs Pierre Guillaume’s Louanges Profanes (untranslatable really: but “evil praises” comes close) is the most other-worldly, both in name and substance: a shimmering summoning of the supernatural; a glamorous ambiguous translation into the jener Velt.

Image from user tony’s pics on flickr.