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.