Fish Pie Makes You Cry/ Custard Drives You Mad

Odilon Redon - The Egg, 1885

Odilon Redon – The Egg, 1885

 

The 10th Earl of St Germans died on July 15th. His long and idiosyncratic obituary in The Times (July 19th) observed:

‘He led a full life and would present all his female companions with bottles of Fracas perfume.”

It’s nice to know, isn’t it? As Kay Walsh used to say.
And, aside from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the heat? It nearly did for me. As usual, I turned for empathetic comfort to that first chapter of ‘What Katy Did At School’, in which the highly-strung Elsie Carr goes nearly off her head during an especially hot and prolonged Ohio Indian summer. It’s a baking, dried-up October and Elsie begs to be sent out of town to stay with a family friend – Mrs Worrett – in the country. Alas! The experience turns out to be a nightmare, and there’s the moral: be careful what you wish for. Be wary of what you set your heart on: even if it’s a bottle of Fracas.

“Sometimes the truest kindness is in giving people their own unwise way.”

It all begins well with the journey out – “part of the road ran through woods…the dense shade kept off the sun, and there was a spicy smell of evergreens and sweet fern.” But as we all know, it is better to travel than to arrive, and Mrs Worrett’s stark pumpkin-coloured house is a dreary disappointment. “The spare chamber was just under the roof. It was very hot, and smelled as if the windows had never been opened since the house was built.” The food is worse. Susan Coolidge does not exactly describe its smell but she brings it right under our noses:

“..the room felt stiflingly warm, and the butter was so nearly melted that Mrs Worrett had to help it with a teaspoon. Buzzing flies hovered above the table, and gathered thick on the plate of cake….they sat in the dusk; Mr Worrett smoking his pipe and slapping mosquitoes outside the door…”.

Elsie is weepy and “her head ached violently”. By next morning she is in a state of prostration – we hear all about the horrors of a feather bed in a heat wave –  and is advised to “lie on the lounge in the best room, and amuse herself with a book”.

Can the sense of smell drive one mad I wonder? I think it might. If all the other senses can affect the mind adversely, then why not scent? Elsie’s experiences always remind me of a “true life” criminal case which took place in Fall River, Massachusetts, just twenty years  after ‘Katy’ was written.

I first heard about Lizzie Borden in an episode of The Munsters on TV when I was a tot. Grandpa Munster produced an axe from a trunk and muttered something about the Bordens, whereat my Victorian grandmother laughed uproariously. Lizzie was a large and rather attractive New England girl: a pillar of the community who lived with her sister, father and stepmother in a clapboard house in New England. One terrible and boiling hot August morning in 1892, while Lizzie claimed to be occupied with chores in the barn, her parents were horribly hacked to death in the house. Miss Borden was subsequently arrested, tried for their murder but acquitted.

What aroused much comment at the time – and continues to do so – was the curious life style of the Bordens. Despite it being an exceptionally hot week, the family – and the maid – had dined on the same boiling of mutton soup every day for a week. The house was full of flies and in the back kitchen were found soaking pails and tubs of “ladies’ unmentionables”. Everyone in the house – unsurprisingly – seemed to be suffering from gastric and other “upsets” at the time of the crime. At least one writer has wondered as to whether the appalling concomitant smell in the family home – especially of that mutton broth, perpetually on the simmer in sweltering temperatures – may have altered the balance of Lizzie’s mind, to the point of turning her homicidal.

We shall never know now; but the scent of certain plants has been said, at different times and in various cultures, to drive you crazy. Oleanders, daturas, cypresses and tuberoses all have their various effects. And think of Sherlock Holmes and that terrifying root-derived Devil’s Foot powder. I write this in a garden full of the evening perfumes of mint, tomato plants, lavender, marjoram – and, especially, lilies smelling of sweet lemon vanilla cream. All is perfection. But from time to time I get a particular scent on the brain, to an oppressive and infuriating extent. The key point is, that this is normally and nominally a pleasing fragrance: an odour I love. But something then short-circuits and renders it so grating, invasive and throbbingly insistent that I feel exactly like Sir John Gielgud at that famous Mozart operatic rehearsal: “O DO stop that TERRIBLE music!” Like an animal, I have to plunge into water to be rid of the smell, as a fox is said to escape his fleas.

The fox’s fleas sail off downstream on a hank of hair: likewise, by this time, the smell has become its own entity. I have written before in this column of once going after work to the swimming baths; doing a length; and then disconcertingly meeting a cloud of my own fragrance brooding above the waters as I made the return. “Meeting Myself Coming Back”.

There’s nowt so queer as folk – thank Heaven! Nor so strange and unpredictable as scent.’

Fan of the Fans

‘ And lest our beauty should be soiled with sweat
We with our ayrie fans dispel the heat’

This summer’s suffocating weather turned each London Tube car into a fluttering aviary of captive butterflies as folding fans came back into their own, in every fabric from painstakingly pleated newspaper and sequinned silk to “Souvenir de Palma” nylon lace. The Tube trend has been quietly established over the past few years but this summer I’ve noted with satisfaction that men have taken it up too, not a whit abashed: and sober middle-aged gents at that, tucking a black fan back into their jacket pocket before swiping out their Oysters. Jolly good: for fans – like perfume – began in the Orient as an exclusively male accessory, used for signalling in battle and to whack the heads of recalcitrant school children. For centuries, western women used the fixed, rigid fan shaped like a leaf or a flag – sometimes feathered, set with a looking glass or used as a screen to protect the face before the fire. In the 1580’s the more romantic folding fan arrived in Europe from China: an early example, closed and set with huge pearls, is seen in the Ditchley portrait of Elizabeth 1st. The Queen, like many another woman, welcomed fans as an opportunity to display her etiolated spider-web white hands.

Some men of fashion adopted fans in the 17th and 18th centuries. You may spot them in use in the odd print, and the Royal Collection possesses a Chinese ivory fan presented to George IV – but they had a taint of the dandy and the rake. It’s good to see such practical yet attractive items coming back into the male wardrobe. I remember BOAC paper fans being handed out in-flight during the 1960’s and some of my older readers may remember their spectacular use at the Vatican: in the days when it was customary to take telephone calls from the Pontiff upon one’s knees, the Pope’s public appearances, borne upon a palanquin, were attended by long-handled feather fans as exotic as any in an Alma Tadema tableau.

Thus they caught the imagination of Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

          And the eyes in the peacock fans
          Winked at the Alien Glory.

The great Edith Evans had much to say about fans – if an actress was lumbered with one as a prop she should scratch her head with it, use it to poke the fire, in short do anything but cool herself with it. By then it had been a ubiquitous female accessory for 400 years. The Empress Elisabeth of Austria carried a large leather fan in the hunting field to protect her complexion; others had quizzing glasses and lorgnettes concealed in the leaves and guards. Even when degraded and imprisoned, the widowed Marie Antoinette was supplied gratis with a mourning fan after her husband’s execution. Like a head covering, the fan had become an essential accoutrement of upper class female respectability.

Nothing looks worse than a badly handled fan being clawed open, crushed and waved about like a ping-pong bat: it should be shimmered, agitated and vibrated like a pigeon’s tail with or without reference to the sign language that once informed every twitch of the sticks.The accomplished user can talk with a fan: I’ve always collected them so each one speaks of a memory and an experience, a souvenir of people, places and emotions.

          Where is the Pompadour now?
          This was the Pompadour’s fan.

There’s magic in the way a fan opens: a whole story, a moving picture is revealed at a flick of the wrist. I think that was what attracted me as an infant – the secrecy and subsequent revelation, trying to guess the pattern on the leaf from the cryptic ciphers when folded. Then the thrill of hearing it open with a flourish and a crack (memories of a visit to The Mikado); feeling it revert again to a neat bundle of flat sticks. A fan has the charm that used to be found in those wonderful sealed shells we found in our Christmas stockings: you chucked them into a glass of water and they slowly opened to release a string of paper flowers, floating to the surface in every colour. I became fixated on the half-moon shape manifesting in anything from fan-lights to scallops, pompadour wafers, palms and Spanish combs. Even geometry sets – thanks to plastic protractors – acquired a certain mystique.

So you see that fans like perfumes, another intimate portable accessory, tell a tale and create a mood. They can float beautiful scents upon the breeze and dissipate a miasma. Perfumed fans have always been a feature of the business. You can easily scent your own either by wrapping it in a perfumed cloth when not in use, by perfuming its case, or (after a preliminary patch test) impregnating the leaf. Better stick to one fragrance per fan, mixing does no favours. 50 years ago I was given a glorious black and red paper fan from Bermuda: the scent still lingers in my mind – patchouli, orris and incense – though the fan is long gone, lost in a move. I remember the odour far more vividly than the vanished visuals. Fans were always about fragility, as transient as those butterflies; maybe this is one of the many reasons why their universal use rapidly declined post-1918 as women’s social role became more powerful and emancipated. It was no longer thought necessary to carry a fan to revive a swooning maiden. Instead women found empowerment and new tools of seduction in the new exploding perfume market, marking their pioneering trail with scent rather than fluttering, mothily modest, into the shadows.