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

Tobacco Rose

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!

What To Look For In Autumn

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7 modern niche classics to sustain and style you through the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness:

L’Eau d’Hiver by Editions de Parfums

Elusive, transparent, gleaming, mysterious, cashmere-soft.
Honey, caramel, iris, hawthorn and carnation as translucent as morning mist melted by the sun.

Aqua Vitae by Francis Kurkdjian

Throw back your head to catch the warm rays of St Luke’s Little Summer. A last holiday break to stock up on the light and heat radiated by mandarin, tonka, lemon and hedione, the blessed sunshine molecule.

Back To Black by Kilian

A rich store of honey, spicy sweet luxury stolen from the bees of Laos, combined with patchouli, cardomom, olibanum, vanilla + vetiver. The scent of fragrant fresh hay and fertility.

Tabarome by Creed

Crisp, invigorating; virile and bracing. Ginger and tobacco, patchouli and green tea for streamlined vigorous elegance. Summer has gone, autumn is full of promise and adventure.

Dries Van Noten by Editions de Parfums

Creamy vanilla and lemon verbena. Subtle hints of patisserie at a pavement cafe on a bright blue morning: a silky-smooth peaceful start to a perfect day.

Sucre d’Ebene by Huitieme Art

The woody cool grey scent of witch hazel dissipates like autumn rain in a comforting heart of tonka and sugar cane from Barbados. Draw the curtains and stir up the fire: blissful animal comfort.

Rose Anonyme by Atelier Cologne

The last rose of summer darkened with oud, plum and dark notes of the lengthening velvet shadows. Patchouli, ginger and oriental incense notes soaked in a brooding atmosphere of full-blown opulence and seduction.

Play with the Devil

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Just to get you licking your lips and smacking your chops, I’ll tip you the wink as to a gloriously degenerate new scent coming into stock at Les Senteurs at the very beginning  of October. Get your head round this corker. Kilian’s PLAY WITH THE DEVIL is a luscious fruity creation that toys with all sorts of pagan references: the great god Pan, the horned and cloven-hoofed god, let loose and running wild in the autumn woods   “spreading ruin and scattering ban”. Even today in country areas folk say that you must finish gathering blackberries on by 1st October the day on which the Devil poisons them with his spittle.

Kilian and his inspired perfumer Calice Becker dish up an orgiastic banquet of  blackcurrant, peach, lychee and blood orange, all juicy-sweet and flowing like diabolical nectar. Here’s the deadly sin of sensual greed leading you most appetisingly into bosky tangles of jasmine and roses (” no rose without a thorn”) and the dark musky woodiness of the forest floor. Appropriately enough this will be the 4th fragrance in Kilian’s Garden of Good + Evil Collection: Satan storms into Eden…”. Prepare yourself by popping into the shop now and tempting yourself with the entire Kilian range.

A Gentle Glow

Camille Clifford

There’s been more sales of these endless pairs of Queen Victoria’s knickers lately. Can her dimensions really have been so vast, even grotesque? From her underclothes her bust has been reckoned in old age at 66″ inches which means it was considerably greater than her height. Her waist comes in at 50″; I don’t know whether this is with the drawstring of her panties drawn tight or left slack. Her own doctor wrote that she was not a pretty sight undressed – barrel-like – but it seems a terrible thing, even now, to parade all this to her shame in tabloids and on websites. However it must be said that Victoria was more robust about the human form and its functions than is popularly thought, writing admiringly as a young woman of the magnificence of Albert in his cashmere breeches “with nothing underneath”. And the strangest thing is, that her youngest daughter Beatrice who prepared her mother’s journals for posthumous publication after the most stringent bowdlerisation let this particular passage stand.

Of course, the dimensions of these voluminous underclothes of the past had a secondary purpose. Up until the 1920’s any decent woman of any class was rigidly corseted in stays. These were tightly laced over chemises cut very generously to protect the skin from chafing by buckram and whalebone, and also to soak up the abundant perspiration concomitant on all this restriction and compression of the flesh. My Victorian grandmother and her contemporaries used to hold forth on the unending efforts of their youth to keep clean: the home-made borax deodorants, the sewn-in underarm sweat pads, the dust braid tacked on to skirt hems, the endless brushing and laundering of petticoats. Anyone wishing for a very full and frank evocation of domestic middle class hygiene in the 1890’s should study the Lizzie Borden murder case: the fly -blown mutton soup served up five days running in a Fall River heat wave; the unmentionables soaking in buckets in the scullery.

In my department store days I used to work with a little lady who kept her black uniform in her locker and change into her own clothes to go home. She said that uniform had never been washed in over 20 years – “it doesn’t require it”. In her wonderful novel “The Women In Black” Madeleine St John pin points the quintessential store sartorial smell of talcum powder and sweat; to which I would add the odour of old  perfume embedded in repetitively dry-cleaned fabric. None of this is exactly unpleasant: fresh sweat in itself is not offensive, the problems set in as it ages and reacts with bacteria. And even that niff has its fans: we all know the story of Napoleon’s letter to Josephine to the effect that he is starting home from Italy and inviting her not to wash. Which must have been a peculiar ordeal for Josephine, one of the cleanest individuals in history, always in the bath, washing her hair (a new fashion) and changing her lingerie four times daily.

More of us that might care to admit are aroused by apparently offensive smells. A fascinating note in the Telegraph last month revealed that my favourite hawthorn blossom emits the scent of sex and secretes triethylamine besides, a chemical also produced by decaying human corpses. For millenia, perfumers used matter from the digestive and reproductive systems of animals to add tenacity and punch to their products. And this summer there is a chic new fad of not washing overmuch, of cultivating a piquant tang of bouquet de corsage; maybe to show in this time of recession and fear that one is with the people, that “we’re all in this together” as someone said. No time to bathe, no time to launder: there’s a big job to do, though no one is sure quite what it might be. It’s reminiscent of French duchesses during the Revolution having greasy red caps of Liberty incorporated into their powdered coiffures, and perhaps this summer’s damp coolth has given the bon-ton the courage to join this grubby trend. It’s certainly delightfully apparent on the light luncheon and dinner-dance circuit.

But if you haven’t quite the nerve to go out without a preliminary dab wash and application of Sure you can fake it much more happily with perfume on immaculately clean skin. There are fresh crisp scents straight out the shower scents, quite devoid of erotic appeal; and then there are the sexy voluptuous fragrances with just a hint of smuts, of unbuttoned come-hither negligence. Perfumes that smell within half an hour or so as though you’ve worn them all day while living life to the full. Rich dark orientals that have moistened under a hot sun; petal-dropping waxy white florals with a musky worm i’ the bud; earthy chypres with a hint of luscious fruit on the edge of rot. Charogne by Etat Libre d’Orange takes this idea to the limit; Editions des Parfums Musc Ravageur is a legend of the genre. But do try also Kilian‘s best-sellers Good Girl Gone Bad – the clue’s in the title – and In The City of Sin. Good Girl is a stupendous white bouquet of jasmine, osmanthus, tuberose and narcissus which suddenly plunges into a honey trap of woody amber. City of Sin has a delicate creamy spiciness that reminds me of those large and now rare white pinks, a scent that recently wafted from a garden, stopped me dead in my tracks in the lane. Recently our dear friend the perfumer Ruth Mastenbroek gave a masterclass in up-to-the-minute ingredients at Les Senteurs and put a name to so many of the smells we recognise but cannot always identify. It was the amber variant, tresamber, which hit the nail for me. I seem to detect its magic in both of these Kilian show-stoppers. It’s right down there at the sultry base beneath the warm, soft slightly fruity odour which I visualise as the colour of the Duchess of Malfi’s apricots (the fruits of City of Sin, mixed with rose and plum). A dusky gold, ripened in sun and humus on the walls of a stable. Sweetish, faintly fleshy, definitely animalic, disturbing in the best sense and very very sexy.