Nor poppy nor mandragora nor all the drowsy syrups of the world….


A kind reader and interlocutor asks for my thoughts on insomnia: a nightmare, is my oxymoronic response. I am not an habitual sufferer but some of my nearest and dearest suffer tortures from les nuits blanches. As ever, in her ineffable “ABC” Marlene Dietrich offers some practical German lore: prior to retiring prepare a dark rye sandwich filled with sardine and chopped raw onion. Eat it in bed. It will knock you out like a blow from a sandbag. I’ve never had the nerve to try this remedy, as inevitably raw onion plays hell with me but there’s no doubt that ingestion of food at 3am (a biscuit, a spoonful of honey, warm milk- Nature’s own proven sleeping draught) can work wonders. Which is why a touch of gourmand perfume on wrist and pillow may help to induce sleep: I’m thinking of the creamy white chocolate of Musc Maori, a velvety syrup of tonka, vanilla and cocoa to lull the brain and unwind the knotted nerves.

But as sufferers know there’s a difference between temporary sleeplessness and the writhing agonies of an insomniacs white night: the racing mind, the sweats, the anxiety, desperation and angry despair. The bedside clock leering at you as it races towards its predestined pre-dawn shrilling. I associate this condition with extremes of temperature, tangled bedclothes and those terrible peppermint green nylon fitted sheets that were all the go in the 1970’s and which shot forth static sparks as your restless feet pedalled the bed: the scent of perfume stimulants like Mad Madame and Malaise of the 1970s – the electric tuberose of Madame being so thrilling and hyper that it banishes forever the thought of sleep. The purple hearts of perfume which bring back memories of a Fulham cafe called “Up All Night”: an ironically ambiguous name I always thought.

For, as sleep inexorably recedes, the nervous system becomes so unbearably taut that any loud smell may amplify unbearably like the ticking of that cruel clock. Try time-honoured lavender to soothe: Tauer’s Reverie Au Jardin reminds me of my grandmother’s excellent advice to meditate on the colour and texture of a sapphire velvet curtain. Here’s a translucent blue-green breeze of Alpine lavender which cools your hand and guides you to a soft cool bed of roses and soporific scented woods. Just deeply inhaling and rolling your eyes upwards at its beauty may help. First World War shell-shocked patients were advised to roll up their eyeballs as far back as they’d go. This I have tried: it causes involuntary yawning, and this infallibly – eventually – promotes sleep. It worked last night. Try it while you’re waiting for Santa this Christmas Eve…

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Forever Amber

The Amber Room

“Sabrina fair,
Listen where thou art sitting
Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave,
In twisted braids of lilies knitting
The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair ..”

One of perfumery’s most ancient ingredients, amber is also one of the most mysterious and most confusing due to the semantics of its name. “An amber scent of odorous perfume” may have a variety of origins.

Firstly there is the resin exuded by certain trees to heal damage to their bark. This is the amber which catches vegetation and insects in its path and thousands of years later may end up, fossilised, as jewellery or used in interior decoration. Think of the vanished Amber Room in the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo: a golden chamber entirely plated with sheets of amber, vanished since 1945.

“Pretty! In amber to observe the forms
Of hairs, or straws, or dirt, or grubs, or worms!
The things we know are neither rich nor rare,
But wonder how the devil they got there.”

Gathered from incense trees and bushes this aromatic resin is deliciously complex in scent – warm, woody, spicy, sweet, smoky, creamy – and has been used for millenia to perfume the body and sweeten the air. At the desert mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Luxor you can see the terraces of incense bushes laid out 3,500 years ago, having been brought by ship up the Red Sea from Arabia.

The Egyptians originated that concept of the amber perfume that is still widely used in perfumery today, the word being loosely used to cover a wide spread of even vaguely oriental fragrances.

Then we have ambergris, or “grey amber” – that dingy waste matter of sperm whales, embalmed by sea salt and found occasionally floating on the surface of the oceans, or washed up by the tide anywhere between China and Wales. Named because its unique and pungent scent (when heavily diluted) is reminiscent of tree amber, ambergris was a wonder and a mystery to the ancients. They seem to have instinctively known it to have been of animal origin (the visceral smell) but classified it as dragon’s eggs, the sweat of the Titans or the tears of nymphs changed into birds:

“Around thee shall glisten the loveliest amber
That ever the sorrowing sea-bird hath wept.”

Its arousing and disturbing scent led to its being prized as an aphrodisiac to be taken internally as well as applied. Elizabeth Tudor’s favourite Robert Dudley is said to have swallowed ambergris with powdered pearls to increase his ardour. Two centuries later, Mme de Pompadour relied on it blended with celery and vanilla.

Ambergris is today the only animal ingredient legally used in Western perfumery as it is gathered with no risk or harm to the whale who has deposited his leavings and long sailed on.

“…the hollow seas that roar
Proclaim the ambergris on shore..”

But of course, due to the rarity of these whales, ambergris is today magnificently and prohibitively expensive. Its use in perfumery as a fixative gives wonderful tenacity – “her fingers touched me, she smells all amber” –  as well as acting as a catalyst, bringing out the fullest potential of its fellow oils in a rich animalic sensual glow. A drop is all that is required, and may be amplified and backed up by other amber oils, both natural and synthetic.

Ambroxan is a synthetic molecule – “a strange, invisible perfume” – isolated in 1955 and (now branded as Cetalox) much used in the base notes of amber scents. What brought it to recent popular fame was Romano Ricci’s Not a Perfume which audaciously uses Ambroxan as its sole ingredient. A bold conception and highly effective.

Lastly, don’t get confused by the prescence of ambrette in a scent: this is an oil extracted from hibiscus seeds, used as a natural plant substitute for musk and because of its bitter-sweet, earthy animal odour has also been tarred with the amber brush.

No wonder that  the 1940’s Kathleen Winsor named her bawdy Restoration heroine Amber – the word is redolent of luxurious sensual indulgence. I have to repeat in this context Joan Hickson’s discovery of a cat in the contemporary movie ’24 Hours To Noon’: “ah! there’s Amber: she’s forever in the beds….” .

The ancient Greeks called amber “elektron” from which we derive our word “electricity”, on account of the resin’s magnetic properties:

“Bright amber shines on his electric throne”.

Magnetic and electric it certainly is when stirring and warming the base of a sumptuous perfume.

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Miss Host and the Ferret Man: A Note on the Animalic

Civet Cat, Animalic Perfumes, A note on the Animalic, Les Senteurs, Blog, London

My late father was a country vet of the old school and a great collector and raconteur of bizarre experience, both animal and human. The eponymous Miss Host was a gentlewoman of some means who in late middle age conceived a passion for the ferret man who controlled the rabbit population on her land. My father said it was the distinctive sour ferrety smell which clung to his person which gave Miss Host’s lover his irresistible appeal.

We might not all of us go to this extreme, but animalic notes in perfumes give them an extremely sexy, carnal and aphrodisiac edge. Animals depend upon smell to avoid danger, find food and to signal a readiness to mate. So (think Darwin!) when we naked apes pick up notes of civet, musk and castoreum in a fragrance we find all our most basic instincts aroused and thrown into turmoil. The animalic scent is all about survival and perpetuation of the species: a heady concoction to keep in pocket or handbag.

Natural animal notes used in Western perfumery have been illegal for some decades now, so we can explore this erotica with a clear conscience. Anyone who still thinks synthetic materials are inferior and ineffectual should spent an evening with a wearer of Musc Ravageur, Cuir Venenum, Knize Ten or Lady Vengeance. The crucial point is of course how the aphrodisiac oils in the fragrance meet, mingle and blend with those of one’s own skin; how they accelerate, develop and take on an individual life of their own so that the wearer appears to be exuding a delicious odour entirely from their own pores.

No wonder that so many perfume fanciers are as Father would have said, “mad for the dumb!” There is a sensual delight in smelling in these scents something akin to the fur of a pet cat or rabbit. Or, of course, a luxurious fur coat: something that Revillon recognised in the 1950’s when they produced Detchemar to wear as a complement to fur. (It is also the scent that Mia Farrow wears in Rosemary’s Baby to drown the reek of witches’ tannis root).

All the dogs of my life have had their own distinctive delicious smell. Dolly the pug was a beautiful ash blonde, with mink-soft fur which smelled delicately of custard creams. If there is indeed a canine Happy Hunting Ground it will be well stocked for her with grated carrot and Marmite toast. Poppy the black lab was redolent of summer hay fields; and Lucy the poodle like a pure white cashmere sweater. They were none of them much meat eaters; a carnivorous diet tends to imbue dogs with a definite meaty odour on hair, skin and breath. Just as vegetarians detect on human consumers of flesh.

So, radiate a little animal magnetism!

Image from Wikipedia