Just Follow Your Nose

Ruskin Spear

 

Another landmark this week with the death of the King of Thailand after an immensely long reign of seventy years – a stint just short of Louis XIV’s marathon. Once, long ago, I had the honour of helping his widow, the lovely Queen Sirikit, to purchase a number of novelty musical boxes, fashioned in the style of Bavarian chalets. The Queen had the exquisite relaxed courtesy of an ancient royalty – “there is No Hurry At All!”. It was wintertime and she was cocooned in layers of dark silky fur. A wonderful smooth warm fragrance surrounded her person, susurrating & shimmering in almost visible waves in the eternal wraparound heat of Harrods’ ground floor.

An essential new book¤ reviewed in The Times tells us, amongst other things, that celebrated writers have often been stimulated and inspired by their noses. Schiller habitually kept over-ripe apples by him (see also Louisa May Alcott). No doubt Balzac was addicted as much to the scent as to the taste and kick of his fatal coffee.  Rudyard Kipling believed that every word should have its own redolence. I’m half way through an extraordinary novel¤¤ by one Ottessa Moshfegh: a Boston writer with a powerfully disturbing vision of life. Ms Moshfegh is blessed – I suppose – with an almost obsessive sense of smell. Spoiled food, body odour, the inevitable sordid consequences of anorexia, alcoholism and chronic constipation are all grist to her mill, pitilessly & pitifully recounted.  Ottessa’s heroine distrusts perfume:

“…I often have to leave a room…when a person near to me smells bad. I don’t mean the smell of sweat and dirt, but a kind of artificial, caustic smell, usually from people who disguise themselves in creams and perfumes. These highly scented people are not to be trusted. They are predators. They are like… dogs….”

I’ll spare you the rest of that sentence, it contains too revolting and vivid an olfactory idea. You’ll need to go and look it up. I know what Kipling was getting at, I think. There is an aspect of synaesthesia that has the printed word not only conveying an image, but actually reeking of that idea or concept. There are many words I prefer not to use either in speech or in writing on account of I find them ugly or, as it were, evil-smelling. They are not in themselves intrinsically offensive but there’s something the very look and sound of them – not to mention the smell – that grates. “Stink”, pretty obviously, is one. “Rip” is, more obscurely, another: as in “don’t you rip that paper!” When I was very small, my grandmother pronounced both of these words as “common” and consequently verboten. Nowadays, I wonder whether she and I do not share this same syndrome. “Common” – with its late Victorian connotations of inappropriate expressions of uncontrolled emotion in all its forms – was perhaps the nearest my grandmother could come to defining her aversion. If being common is to do with bad taste, then it must inevitably have a connection with bad smells as surely as the palate is connected to the nose.

I went to a Conference recently. It was great. There were hundreds of us in the hall. After lunch, a Life Coach came on to lecture the assembled perfume-vendors. He asked each one of us to think, silently, of five words to describe fragrance and scent. Then he pounced at random and asked individuals to tell us their chosen words. Amazing, of course, because of the enormous variety of ideas – “swooning”, “spreadsheets”, “seduction”, “sales”, “sex”, “profits” and “exhaustion”. All human life was there.

When it comes to describing perfume, everyone has difficulties. What sort of scent is one looking for? A Lovely Perfume, of course; an Exciting Perfume; a Different or Delicate Perfume. After that, it gets tricky for nearly all of us. We have to hunt for metaphors, similes and approximate images. Sometimes our limited vocabulary and language fail us completely and like our cousins the great apes we have to use gestures, mimes, squeaks and grunts in desperate efforts to get our ideas across.

Mrs Thatcher used to talk a lot about “weasel words”. For me, the artful weasels are the apparently straightforward words that lead us by the nose. Words like “rose”, “jasmine”, “vanilla” and ” violet” seem safe and sufficiently unambiguous. Surely they can be used as solid building blocks when it comes to describing and choosing a scent? Not at all. “Rose”, for instance, is the vaguest of concepts for the aroma of that multi-moleculed flower is only what each person makes of it¤¤¤. Hence the classic and not unusual case of someone who has always lived by the credo that he loathes and abominates rose perfume – but who on a visit to Les Senteurs ends up intoxicated by it.

Providing, of course, that he forgets the preconceptions of the word and concentrates on his own sense of smell: thus discovering a rose interpretation that “clicks”.  Again, consider lavender – another word that travels badly: to the Italians it speaks of fresh laundry; to the French a potent masculinity¤¤¤¤; to the British – faded & fragile old ladies. Its no good fixating on any one word in the complex arcane language of scent: we must get behind and beneath that, to the true fragrance hidden in the verbiage.

This week’s tip must therefore be, to ignore the smell of the perfumer’s words; pass over the ingredients – and concentrate on the aura, the mood, the atmosphere of the whole composition. Immerse yourself not in descriptors but in an olfactory, holistic and emotional experience.

¤ How To Write Like Tolstoy: a journey into the minds of our greatest writers by Richard Cohen. Random House 2016.

¤¤ Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. Jonathan Cape 2016.

¤¤¤ So that perhaps Les Senteurs’ fragrance with the wittiest and most acute title is ALTAIA’s soft and subtle By Any Other Name.

¤¤¤¤ witness Caron’s definitive Pour Un Homme: “the world’s first scent for men”. A triumph since 1934.

Some smells do linger, Jean…

Circe Invidiosa

Circe Invidiosa

“Sillage”: in French the word means the cleft water and foaming ripples that mark the wake of a ship; it also denotes the trail of an animal. There’s a clue in that, for by the English it is used almost exclusively to mean the waft of perfume left by the presence or passage of a wearer. Everyone demands intense sillage these days: they even measure it. A sillage of three inches is nugatory; a respectable sillage should reach an arm’s length from the body and no further. And so on. Frederic Malle has even, you might reasonably claim, recreated the odour of sillage in his witty and delicious Cafe Society candle and room scent: une sillage de sillage.

Today people are by and large ready to admit (albeit under pressure) that they are wearing perfume, though they might be reluctant to reveal the name of their Chosen One. For centuries, though, the lovely and desirable sought the alluring enchantment of the sillage without the dubious connotations of the scent that gave it birth. To be seen to wear perfume on the skin was meretricious and dingy; yet to smell delicious was the mark of goodness, of moral integrity. The odour of sanctity revealed that a person was pure, benevolent, divine, without spot or stain. And it would continue to manifest even after death, rendering the mortal remains incorruptible, giving off an redolence of sweet myrrh, roses and what have you. So the aim of the fashionable was to create the illusion that scent emanated from one’s own skin, pores and soul – just as Alexander the Great sweated forth the smell of violets – and not from some dubious potation which aped the divine gift on none-to-clean skin.

“From her fragrant robes a lovely perfume was scattered” reads a hymn to the goddess Demeter. For thousands of years men and women strove for this effect: and contemporary literature – poems, plays, novels – colludes in the illusion. Desirable individuals exude scent from a vague, mysterious source. They are surrounded by an aura of perfume which suffuses their clothing, furniture, possessions and which leaves wonderful sillage when they move: “a faint delicious fragrance hung about her…”. Perfume clings to the objects that the beautiful people touch and it lingers in their rooms, their beds, luggage and hair – “she smells all amber!” But the source of the scent remains vague, unspecified: it manifests spontaneously; it seems to transmit from incense burners, herbs & flowers or from the very air. It comes from the purity of the soul. Nothing so vulgar as a bottle of perfume is mentioned: not in connection with sympathetic characters, at any rate.

I remember, I remember memorable encounters with sillage. I recall the girl with magnificent mahogany hair buying postcards in the National Gallery shop some 20 years ago, and she suffused in a cloud of Guerlain’s Samsara. I have never smelled that lovely but tricky scent so beautifully interpreted. I remember Chanel No 5 at a Covent Garden matinee, stealing over the stalls from a golden-shouldered matron in white linen: far more beguiling than discordant old Prokofiev. Some 30 years ago the ground floor at Harrods always smelled subtly and sweetly of gardenias as though left in the wake of generations of exquisite shoppers dipped in the Floris house exclusive. And most of all I recall midsummer midnight at Luxor in 1992 and the temple of Rameses on the Nile waterfront: everywhere the faint but insistent odour of Oscar de la Renta’s Volupte, the osmanthus & violet hit of the day. It was the scent and epicentre of the hot blue night.

“Some smells do linger, Jean!” as that careful lady in the tv ads used to say. And thank goodness for that. There was a woman picking over Cheddar in the Co-Op the other day who left a gorgeous powdery floral mist behind her – I don’t know what it was; dry, faintly spicy, it hung in the air like a sparkling iridescent bubble. And for sillage connoisseurs everywhere let me put in a word for Andy Tauer’s Sotta la Luna Gardenia – la Stupenda, indeed! Here is a massive and glorious gardenia scent enhanced with all the creamy sandalwood, tonka and vanilla notes exuded by the flower itself; and there’s a mossy, dark, jungly quality that expands its gender relevance. But the volume, the expansion! I like to wear just a drop of this one and follow its progress as it expands and inflates like a great balloon of fragrance. It opens up like the flower which inspires it, from a tight green bud to a voluptuous all-encompassing mantle. This is a case where less is definitely more.

Christmas Reading

whatkatydid

One of the first references to perfume I came across in print was in “What Katy Did”. Enthused by the very young Susan Hampshire in the TV series I read my first copy to rags, and my current surviving edition is an Armada paperback from 1967 with crumbling pages now the colour of gravy. In this text the adorable Clover Carr’s stated preference for “eau de cologne” is rendered as “scent”. She’s playing grown-ups and planning on having a large pool full of cologne in the back yard into which she can dip the hankies of passing schoolchildren. As an infant I was foxed by this term, pronouncing it to myself as “eau de kol-JEAN”. Which may have been a common problem, thus leading to Armada’s editorial alteration.

When I grew up and went to work at Harrods I met Lana, the glorious Houbigant Girl, who came from the Balkans and looked exactly like a larger than lifesize Victorian wax doll with huge blue eyes like coat buttons and ringlets nearly to her waist. She was there to sell Quelques Fleurs & did it with unique panache because she had exactly the same fantasy as Clover Carr. O! she had the gift all right, and after listening to Lana’s silvery-voiced fantasies of cathedral aisles running with conduits of Quelques Fleurs and guests holding up blue silk parasols against scent pouring from the skies, every customer was begging for the 100ml size.

Every December when the parcels start to come, I think of the Christmas Eve in “What Katy Did At School”. Snowbound in New England, Clover + Katy receive two wonderful elaborately assembled crates of gifts and food parcels from their family back home in Burnet, Ohio. The smaller box is filled with flowers, wadded in cotton wool against the freeze – roses, geraniums, heliotrope and carnations. Beneath, exquisitely packed, are two quilted satin glove cases “delicately scented”, one mauve, one lilac. It’s a marvellous image; the flowers being carefully removed and revived from their long chilled journey, placed in glasses of water and distributed around the school with pears, apples, prunes and crunchy jumbles. What is a jumble?

Though I’m also exceedingly fond of the company of the March girls, the Katy books are freer, easier, funnier and less moralising. More modern, shorter, crisper. Even the saintly and somewhat enigmatic Cousin Helen doesn’t grate, being sufficiently self-indulgent as to wear bracelets, and to travel with her own flower vase – luxuries at which Marmee, I think, would have had a fit. As does Mrs Hall next door – “Ma said she fears your cousin is a worldly person”. “Katy” has something for everyone and every situation. Anyone who has suffered the discomfort of an overly protracted summer should read the first chapter of “What Katy Did At School” and spend the night with Elsie and Johnny in their terrible feather bed at Mrs Worrett’s baking, fly-blown, pumpkin-coloured farmhouse. “Mrs Worrett never mounted in hot weather”. Completely unrelated to the rest of the book, this short section is worthy of Elizabeth Bowen at her most comically sinister. It’s one of my favourite passages of the entire canon.

Noel Coward slept on into eternity after a quiet Jamaican evening in bed with eggs on a tray and an E Nesbit. Maybe Susan Coolidge’s books will provide the same rite of passage for me. And I’d prefer the eggs scrambled.

FOOTNOTE: the Cosmic Scrambled Egg.

Scrambled eggs are immortalised on film by being messed around by a lovelorn Joan Fontaine in the first reel of REBECCA.

An Harrods recipe of my time, much circulated in Perfumery, called for a dollop of mayonnaise to be dropped into the eggs at the moment of serving. Very rich – but excellent after a late evening on counter.

A Very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to You All!

Yours, most Warmly & Gratefully,
LW

Great Big Lips

Eddie Redmayne's Great Big Lips

As Eddie Redmayne mania continues to sweep the nation so does the preoccupation with those voluptuously pillowy lips, unprecedented in the male since the heyday of Mick Jagger and Michael Portillo. Big generous mouths are the new craze: have you read about that star cricketer whose party piece is to pop a tennis ball into his mouth? With women its a more familiar story; long pre-dating Gloria Grahame, “the girl with the novocaine lips”.

In my Harrods days, hundreds of years ago, the Cheese Counter was run by an egregious film-fan who was much preoccupied by the appearance of British movie star Valerie Hobson. By then, as Mrs John Profumo, she was a regular Harrods shopper and evidently blessed with great patience besides exquisite manners, as her appearance in Cheese was inevitably greeted with a barrage of verbatim dialogue from “Blanche Fury” or “Kind Hearts and Coronets”. “My word,” Mrs Profumo would say mildly, “WHAT a memory, David…perhaps a little Stilton,today?”. As she left, David’s admiring “Great Big Lips!” shouted rather than murmured, followed her to the lifts.

Because the mouth + lips have such obvious sexual + sensual connotations, the fashion in mouths was for centuries discreet for both sexes. A small mouth + narrow lips denoted wisdom, prudence, discretion + continence. Two of our best looking kings (in their golden youth) Edward IV and his grandson Henry VIII had mouths like neat buttonholes; theoretically, the perfection for every boy and girl was a mouth like a tiny rosebud.

As late as the 1920’s the ideal was a mouth smaller than one’s eyes: look at those old silent stars and post card beauties like Lady Diana Cooper, Edward VIII and Ivor Novello. Only when Wall St crashed (IS there a connection?) did what Vogue then called the “bow-tie mouth” begin to manifest. Garbo, Crawford, Gable, Dietrich, Davis, Gary Cooper + Fred MacMurray, thanks to better dentistry and an increasing sexual openness, set a new trend for wide mouths and full, generous well-glossed kissable lips.

Old Hollywood stars of both sexes were generously lipsticked: Ralph Schwieger‘s glorious perfume Lipstick Rose is unconventional but supremely feminine. This is a paean to the scent, the colour and connotations of a gorgeously shiny deep rose lipstick – a child’s memory of his mother dressed for the evening; a waxy pink waft from an expensive bag filled with cosmetics,scent and the scent of suede. It’s a warm fresh flirty scent which perfectly encapsulates that delicious frontier of the senses where smell and taste meet. The rose and the violet (think of the colours as well as flowers) overlap with raspberry and grapefruit; velvety textures are overlaid with a sparkling effervescence. Gorgeous – to coin a phrase: two lips like tulips. Kiss me quick!