Divorced, Beheaded, Died. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.

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“In my time I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of meeting six reigning Queens, each in very different circumstances. I wondered this week how I should conduct myself if the six wives of Henry VIII should suddenly roll up at Les Senteurs, demanding high rare perfumes and scented goods from beyond the seas and the outer realms of Christendom. This unlikely prospect came into my head on account of a book review in The Times which proposed that, of the six, Katharine of Aragon “…is the least sympathetic to us now”. I was a bit thrown by this; couldn’t agree less. Neither could insightful historian Alison Weir on BBC R4: she plumped for Anne Boleyn – I’m with her, there. But the Spanish Queen, the first wife, is one of the most attractive and admirable of the set: she and Katherine Parr, Henry’s eventual widow and Queen Dowager, would get my vote. Together they clocked up twenty five odd years with the old beast. The other four marriages were over and done with in less than ten.

I imagine that, as a former Infanta born into the purple, Katherine would be most in demeanour like our own dear Queen, gracious and dignified; poised and powerful. And already exuding the odour of sanctity and frankincense from her velvets and furs, the exotic perfumes of Moorish Spain. My instinctive choice would be to reach down GRAIN DE PLAISIR on account of its top notes being an accord of majestically crimson pomegranates, the symbol of fertility which graced Katherine’s personal coat of arms: the pomegranates which grew in the gardens of Granada where the princess spent her childhood. Katharine was a blonde fair-skinned Spaniard and might also appreciate a glittering hesperidic beauty to remind her of home: maybe the airy and delicate YU SON with its accords of mandarin, green tea and gaiac wood. The thousand-seeded pomegranate failed to work its blessing of propagation on the luckless Katherine: had she mothered a son, the terrible Boleyn would never have stolen her crown.

I anticipate that “Anne-Sans-Tete” – as she called herself at the end with an hysterical gallows humour – would be tricky; arch, bossy and demanding. She wanted to stick a silver bodkin through any tongue that slandered her; the six fingers on her left hand were the infallible mark of a witch. Her arch-enemy Cardinal Wolsey called her “The Night Crow”; but (remembering that bodkin) would one have the effrontery to propose the all too aptly named L’OISEAU DE NUIT with its sumptuous oriental luxe and creamy notes of liqueur? Alternatively there is ANGELIQUE by Papillon which contains pungent ambiguous addictive hawthorn: otherwise known as (unlucky) may blossom. To the medieval mind the month of May was sacred to the Queen of Heaven and thus fraught with taboos: Anne Boleyn was prepared for Coronation, arraigned and beheaded all in the merry month of May.

Jane Seymour, mouse-meek but cunning as a rat, with strange transparent milk-white skin – and a milk- and-water demeanour: what shall we have for her? Maybe TEINT DE NEIGE – “the colour of snow”. Pure, sweet, delicate and diaphanous: but with powdery depths of suppressed passion – and an immense clinging tenacity.

Then poor Anne of Cleves, “the Flanders mare”: painted as an exquisite fragile beauty by Holbein but reviled on sight by Henry who made unpleasant slurs on what would now be described as her lack of “body toning”. The King also remarked, straight out, that she smelled. The very fact that he said this indicates that the Tudor Court had – and this may surprise some – high standards of hygiene. It strikes me that Henry – himself always well doused in rose-water  – might conceivably have been put off his stroke by the bride’s perfume. Coming from the Low Countries Anne would have been well acquainted with the already legendary alchemical Queen of Hungary Water, said to have been formulated by a Carpathian hermit two hundred years before, and a best-seller ever since all over Northern Europe. But assuming the worst, that Anne exuded a natural ‘bouquet de corsage’, let’s introduce her to the olfactory phenonemon of SALOME, deliciously full of sexy sleaze and grubby animalic tease: enough to awake the beast in any Man.

Katherine¤ Howard was a wayward teenage minx and pathetic hoyden whom the uxurious monarch named his Rose Without A Thorn. There’s no fool like an old fool. And a fat one, to boot, with a waistline by now of over four feet. Kate played Henry false before and during marriage: precocious and voluptuous, she would have carried off UNE ROSE superbly. This intensely fragrant parfum has all the scarlet richness and majesty of the Tudor rose with an underlying earthy darkness. Like her dreadful Boleyn cousin, Katherine Howard was decapitated on Tower Green, in 1542.

Katherine Parr went on to take a fourth husband – Jane Seymour’s sexy brother Thomas – after Old Harry’s death¤¤ in 1547. She subsequently died tragically in childbirth at Sudeley Castle. What then could be more appropriate for this warm, erudite and sympathetic woman than BY ANY OTHER NAME inspired by the magnificent rose gardens of that same Gloucestershire property. The same heraldic flower as UNE ROSE but rendered with such a difference – a silky petal-soft prettiness and lighter than sunny summer air.

And for “Bluff King Hal” himself? Let’s wean him off that rosewater. It HAS to be Creed, and probably AVENTUS – the mark of the Confident Conqueror! Well, don’t you agree? Vive le roi!

¤ all these Katherines! The eponymous saint – She of the Wheel – was one of the most popular in the pre-Reformation calendar. Nowadays the Vatican pronounces that St Katherine of Alexandria “may have never existed”. And see “The Corner That Held Them” by Sylvia Townsend Warner for intriguing details of the once popular convent game of “Flying St Katherine”.

¤¤ his coffin exploded due to inefficient embalming. The stench was appalling and Catholic clerics grimly noted that, as in the case of the Biblical tyrant King Ahab, “dogs licked his blood”.

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Keep Your Hair On!

THE PUMPKIN EATER, Anne Bancroft, Yootha Joyce, 1964

Memorable elegiac passages have been written by the great and the good on infant perceptions and idealised memories of the Scented Mother Figure. She tends to materialise as the light fails, irradiating the shadows with her own luminous brilliance. Winston Churchill remembered that Jennie Jerome “shone for me like the Evening Star – but at a distance”. The glowing gleaming goddess-like figure at the end of the little white nursery bed, suffused in heavenly perfumes, appears over and again in memoirs, like the metamorphosis of a redolent guardian angel. Peter Pan’s Mrs Darling, James James Morrison’s mother in her golden gown¤, even the deliciously fragrant virgin saints who appeared in the meadows to Jeanne d’Arc, all contribute to the mythic image, the mystic experience. The scent is key, the exotic alien perfumes which waft into a room: mother and child both in different ways waiting for the party – but also for the parting. The child is left with a fleeting kiss, clasped in the hand like a crumpled butterfly, and the clouds of scent which last longer than mama’s retreating shadow.

I certainly remember my own mother in these circumstances: in those days to be smelled wearing Rubinstein’s Apple Blossom, Diorissimo or Youth Dew. Quelques Fleurs she sprayed on the pug. I think that in her youth, growing up during the Midlands during the Depression and the War, perfume meant nothing very much to her. As I knew her, she had a great knack with clothes: she’d cannily put together one expensive and stylish outfit and wear it to death for a couple of years. And then she’d buy another. It was the same with scent. Much later in the day when I made perfume my profession she grew more adventurous, growing passionately fond of Serge Lutens A La Nuit and Caron’s Eau de Reglisse. But, in fact, infant memories concerning my mother and delicious smells have little to do with fine fragrance. They are much more connected with my tagging along with her to the hairdresser.

Miss Ribstone’s salon was across two streets from us, occupying the coverted ground floor of a Victorian terraced house. Miss R was a sweet and tiny scuttling woman, with green combs in her foxy hair. She had something of Marie Lloyd about her – I mean to say, always merry, with large teeth and full of what they now call banter. She must have been fond of small children – or remarkably tolerant – as the place was crawling with them. Tots could have their hair cut on the premises. They were also haphazardly entertained as though in a creche. Allowed to play with the scissors, combs and curlers and all that¤¤. I remember sitting on the lino amid all the hanks of hair (and no doubt splashes of peroxide). I do not recall a single window in the place: they must have been boarded up to allow numerous cubicles of hardboard to be erected in a kind of warm damp labyrinth. A client sat in each one, robed in a sea-green bib, like a Queen Bee in her airless waxen cell. Miss Ribstone ran like a rabbit, in and out the dusty bluebells, sectioning, wrapping and combing out.

The entire establishment was painted a boiled shrimp pink and had something of the atmosphere of a seraglio in old Constantinople¤¤¤ – all those ladies in negligent and relaxed deshabille, surrounded by children and attendants. Ladies “letting their hair down”, indeed. The place smelled so exciting, so strange, so very unlike home. An intoxicating cloud of hair spray, setting lotion, bleach, shampoo, hot water, perfumed steam, soap, conditioners, nail polish and wet hair. A frisson of fright was provided by alarming singey smells which added to the horror of those hideous hooded hair dryers. Sinister wires and cables trailed about as in some gruesome American execution chamber.

A dear friend and correspondent reminds me of “that smell of the old fashioned hair lacquer that used to be in a plastic bottle – you had to pump it out. That took a lot of strength! Masses of it went on, until the hair was helmet hard; and the smell – reminiscent of old fashioned carnations – lasted for days”. My interlocutor tells me, too, that today the burning smells – to do with the straightening of frizzy barnets  – have got much worse.

Like the breeching of little boys of 400 years ago, the day of my eventual graduating to the barber’s shop came as a terrible shock. “I’ve brought a bag for the ears” said the larky young man who took my younger brother and I to our initiation. It was a real horror. A dark bleak room, full of cigarette butts; sour old men sitting about, snarling at one another; smutty talk not fully understood, but confusing and disturbing; the agony of the rusty hand clippers nipping your neck. Things have changed now – somewhat – but half a century ago you would barely have known that the hairdresser and the barber and were in the same trade. It was pampering versus character building, then. There was no attempt at “styling”. The virile odours at the sign of the red and white pole came from barbicide – a dubious liquid in which the scissors and combs were disinfected; Brylcream; and a rough sort of hair oil which smelled like the bus station. “Pleasant pongs” – as The Beano called them –  were strictly for ladies only.

When us kids came home, our parents screamed at the sight of us – “Why did you let him do that to you?”

We’d had no say in the matter.

There’s something about the scent of hairspray which I still enjoy. The aldehydes which wreathe around some of Les Senteurs’s loveliest scents like luminous rainbow bubbles have a discreet and dazzling champagne memory of hair lacquer. Aldehydes give a perfume an escapist lift, an airy varnish, a fairy finish – a perfect “set”. They lift and elevate, lending their host fragrance a gleaming artifice and glamour. Next time you come by, try Noontide Petals, Dries Van Noten, Memoire du Futur, Lipstick Rose, Nocturnes or Lady Caron: each one a triumphant glossy crowning glory.

¤ this poor woman “.. .drove right down to the end of the Town……” & “hasn’t been heard of since” – terrifying.

¤¤ I once cut all my own hair off with a pair of paper scissors. Not at Miss R’s but early one morning, in bed. Had to go to school, though, just the same.

¤¤¤ try Parfum d’Empire’s Cuir Ottoman for sensual evocations of the hidden world of the Sultana Valideh – jasmine oil, and soft leather boots sewn with pearls padding down the passages…

Vignettes of old Marylebone No 13: How Green Was My Valley

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Supermarkets rarely have much  romance about them these days; now, 50 years ago, when I was taken shopping at the ‘Piggly Wiggly’ in Hamilton, Bermuda it was another matter. I’d never seen such a store at home and the ‘P.W.’ was not only embowered in mauve bougainvillia but sold unheard-of exotica like deep fried battered jumbo prawns, maple syrup and Hershey bars. 

Nowadays you have to look to the Arabic and Asian cultures to bring a little fantasy and imagination into the aisles. Both touch the everyday with  magic. There’s a glorious establishment in Leicester which is best seen at night when it’s lit up like an Edwardian toy theatre in scarlet, coral, turquoise and pink lights. These shops have wonderful names too: the Ishtar, the Baalbec and the fabulous Astarte Mart. In Tunis I have the happiest memories of the Jasmine Superstores. The Jasmine was tiny with a staff of one, but was packed with Jaffa cakes, cheap cigarettes, tangerines, perfume oils, painted pots & candles all spilling over onto the pavement in a madman’s paradise of abundance.

Now we at Les Senteurs love our local Lebanese GREEN VALLEY store at 36-37 Upper Berkley Street W1. First of all it is irresistible because it shares its name with a lost Creed floral fragrance. Here I will advise that lovers of the discontinued Green Valley Millesime may care to smell Atelier Cologne’s Trefle Pur when passing No 2 Seymour Place. This sweet pure clover fragrance has something of the same meadow-sweet mood: come by and try. 

You’ll love the smell of the Green Valley store, too: a delicate aromatic temptation of mouth-wateringly fresh herbs, fruit and vegetables that look as though just culled from the gardens of the world. Then there are tiers of potted, pickled and preserved eggplant, chillis, peppers, mushrooms and every sort of cucumber you can think of. There’s sour cherry jam, hibiscus tea, myriad coffee blends and a dozen varieties of honey. You’ll be tempted by apricot nougat done up in frills of pink lace, baklava, pistachios and turkish delight all set out on great brass and silver chargers. And what makes all this bounty irresistible is the warmth and cheer of the lovely staff, all smiles and kindness. I guess that’s another reason why the Les Senteurs personnel like the Green Valley so well: it’s home from home!

For me, the finishing charming touch is that when you come to the check-out there’s not the usual racks of horrible plastic sweets but strings of worry beads, umbrellas & sunshades, tiny packets of dried pink rosebuds. The Green Valley lifts the heart: it’s only 2 minutes’ walk from Les Senteurs so do make us both part of your essential Marylebone lifestyle routine!

Vignettes of old Marylebone No 12: A Dream of Fair Women

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As we have seen so often in our vignettes, Marylebone has always been always noted for its lovely ladies. Emma Hamilton, one of the great beauties of her age was married to Sir William Hamilton, diplomat and antiquarian at Marylebone parish church ( St Mary ) in 1791 having been “sold to the old man for £20,000” by his nephew.

Almost ten years later – and much stouter – Emma was back at St Mary’s for the christening of Horatia, her illegitimate daughter by England’s greatest hero, Lord Nelson. To avoid outraging public decency mother and father posed as Horatia’s godparents and even in adulthood the girl refused to believe that she was the offspring of the once Divine Emma.

Despised and disliked by most of her contemporaries, Emma seems much more attractive to us: Romney’s glorious paintings show a beauty that still resonates in the 21st century – all that magnificent hair and a gorgeous mouth; attractive too is Emma’s love of food and drink – to the point of falling off her chair at table and at the cost of her figure. Extravagant, loyal, outspoken (in a broad Cheshire accent) and generous, Emma Hamilton doted on Nelson to the point of mania. She even celebrated him in her dress, devising nautical fantasies of sea blue, golden anchors and saucy sailor hats. How she would have revelled in Sel de Marin by Heeley Parfums – the sun, the sea, the salt spray…alas! Too late for her – but a unique opportunity for you. Why not pop round to Les Senteurs this afternoon?

 

And you have the chance to meet Mr. Heeley, creator of sel Marin, himself! Please join us at our Seymour Place branch on May 8th from 17:30 to meet James Heeley, as well as the creative minds behind Eau d’Italie and Nu_be.

RSVP to pr@lessenteurs.com

Image: Wikimedia commons

Be Like Dad: Keep Mum

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In the old times, when Mothering Sunday was a feast of honouring one’s mother church, children brought home a posy of wild flowers for mamma. I remember as a tot that my grandmother was still keen on this idea. When I made a fuss about the problem of finding them in our streets she allowed that flowers picked from the garden would just about do. I was wary of this as there had recently been a row about helping myself to daffodils but I remember gathering a small bunch of sea blue sillas from beneath the sitting room windows and these went down well.

So I have been scanning the shelves here at Les Senteurs looking for the fragrance of wild flowers that might intrigue you and please your mum. You can cheat a bit if you want to, as so many of our garden blooms started off in hedgerows, fields and streams before being refined for the garden. You can always blur the edges and fall back on iris, rose, jasmine and tuberose if you must. Meanwhile the more creative can use their imaginations to romantic effect.

James Heeley’s L’Amandiere is an enchanting visualisation of a perfect spring day. An orchard of almond blossom spreads a pink and white canopy over a carpet of hyacinths and bluebells while a note of linden florets suggests the imminence of summer while evoking the sweet green lushness of new grass. Almonds and their flowers are loaded with appropriate symbolism – the Mystery of the Virgin Birth, hope, fertility, life’s sweetness & bitterness, the path of righteous living, the passing of the years. Maybe to emphasise the intensity of spring, L’Amandiere is conceived as an extrait, a parfum: concentrate and compressed vitality, the richness and bounty of the two Universal Mothers: Earth & Nature.

Now wander barefoot into a field of red and white clover. Are children still taught to suck nectar from the flowers as we used to do? Atelier Cologne’s Trefle Pur continues a tradition of clover fragrances which began with Piver’s barnstorming Trefle Incarnat nearly 120 years ago. This new 21st century clover is a fragrance simultaneously lush and innocent, rainy and sunny, with touches of violet leaf, basil, moss and neroli. Knee high in buttercups, “when the fields are white with daisies” as Florrie Forde used to sing.

Lorenzo Villoresi’s Yerbamate is another perfumed pasture, this time revolving around sharp green galbanum oil. This plant, related to our cow parsley & fennel, grows wild in the mountains of Iran but this scent to me is very English: emerging from a deep dark wood into open meadows under a clear blue cloudless sky. It’s like wading through trefoil, camomile, ferns and sorrel surrounded with flowering trees rampant with sap & spring vigour.

An honourable mention here too for Ophelia by Heeley Parfums. Think of Millais’s painting of Elizabeth Siddal floating downstream on a current of flowers. Though here you must permit a certain poetic licence for we smell not rosemary, pansies and rue but the tropic elegance of tuberose, ylang ylang and jasmine. However these heady scents are treated with a freshness, lightness and modesty which are the special charms of a wild flower.

As for the charms of your own wonderful mother find them all reflected in the 1001 myriad magical perfumes of Les Senteurs. Why not pop round?

Vignettes of Old Marylebone: No. 11 – The Ballad of John and Yoko

thetimesdotcodotukjohnandyokoDuring the Tube strike I rediscovered the short cut from Camden Town to Marble Arch via Regents Park. I remembered Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s maid Wilson taking this route to visit her parents on her day off. Door to door ( I live near the site of the Crippens’ house in Upper Holloway) it took me just 60 minutes to Les Senteurs, stepping out briskly. Not bad. The rain held off and I saw some interesting addresses.

For instance, just north of Marble Arch (and with a wonderful enfilade view of that landmark via Cumberland Place) I happened upon Montague Square. Here at No 34 (Flat One) John Lennon and Yoko Ono resided briefly in 1968: apparently they were not fastidious housekeepers. At that time I developed a sort of joint crush on the pair and longed for their Wedding Album LP with all its enclosed paraphernalia which included, I think, a photo of the bridal cake. A grubby hoard of reviews torn from Melody Maker and NME was the nearest I got to it: the album seemed unimaginably expensive. (This was before the luxury picture book Four Fabulous Faces was published. A book which cost £20? The nation’s eyes were on stalks).

I was dotty about the Lennons’ all-white wardrobe, Yoko’s nutty hair and picture hats, her wailing rendition of “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s only looking for a hand in the snow)” on the B side of the Ballad of John and Yoko. And then those Bed-Ins and Bagism (sic). Do you remember? With Liz Taylor and Mrs Onassis Mr + Mrs Lennon dominated the “Mail” and “Express” – one’s preferred schooldays reading.

Now I read that Yoko – suddenly and unbelievably 81 – spars with Andy Murray’s mum on Twitter. “Time! And Time hath brought me hither.” I have no idea what perfume she wears but I always associate her with gardenias – pale, interesting, intense, complex; apparently frail but essentially powerful and intense. Do you catch my drift? Come by Les Senteurs and have a smell…

Image: thetimes.co.uk

Vignettes of Old Marylebone: No. 10 – Marble Arch

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As children in the faraway Midlands we sang a nonsense song about the Marble Arch into which you could slot the name of any celebrity of your choice:

“Around the Marble Arch
X used to march
He tumbled into a box of eggs
All the yellow ran up his legs..”

So when I finally got to touch the beautiful if slightly foxed chunks of white Italian marble I still saw all those spattered yolks in my mind’s eye. It’s a funny old thing and tunnelled with little rooms, apparently. Marooned in the middle of the traffic since Park Lane was widened over half a century ago the Arch is now scratched by graffittists and, as the London papers keep pointing out, is on occasion used as a loo.

Even before it became a traffic island Marble Arch was a displaced wanderer. It started life in 1827 as the gateway to Buckingham Palace but was brought up in sections to Marylebone when the Palace was enlarged, to be rebuilt as the ceremonial entrance to the Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park in the summer of 1851. The bronze statue of George IV – that heavily-perfumed consumer of cherry brandy, opium and pork pies – originally designed to ride atop the Arch now prances in Trafalgar Square.

May 1st 1851 was the Marble Arch’s finest hour: Queen Victoria in pink satin and lace swept through in her carriage to open the Crystal Palace ( erected near to where the Albert Memorial now stands ). The great glass conservatory was filled with birds, living cedars, vast organs and choirs whose voices could scarcely be heard for the sheer size and scale of it all. Prince Albert, whose brainchild the exhibition was, stood resplendent in scarlet gazing at the tribute of the Empire; a mysterious Mandarin in blue silk and peacock feathers who was later said to be someone’s cook made the ritual kow tow.

And perfume was present. Fragrance was featured. Our Grossmith friends won medals. Eugene Rimmel’s huge baroque fountain of living scents was one of the star attractions during the six month run of the show. Perfume has always drawn the crowds: renew your own acquaintance Les Senteurs.

Image: Wikimedia Commons