April – Spring Forward!

Loie Fuller dancing

Loie Fuller dancing

April really is the cruellest month: just look at her now!

Warned of the great coming frost on April 16th I spent three hours that evening swathing my poor magnolia in voluminous veils of fine white protective fleece¤: as fast as I wrapped the tree, another rogue wind would whip the fabric off again. The dryad of the magnolia yearned for freedom. The neighbours must have thought me a sight as I teetered on a step ladder, manipulating the cloths with long bamboos like Loie Fuller doing her butterfly dance. The sky turned a terrible frightening livid yellow and pink, like one of the Selznick sunsets in Gone With The Wind. Hail and sleet came down in fierce spurts. People next day said they had feared the Ragnarok was imminent. In the end I pulled all the swaddling bands tight with pins, rubber bands and clothes pegs – they held! And the magnolia flowers were saved to delight and fret, in equal measure, for another day.

magnolia james
This shrub really is a torment to the gardener – so lovely but so fragile. I only wonder that after so many million years of existence – scientists believe it to be the oldest flowering tree on the planet – it’s not toughened up a bit. No doubt the extreme susceptibility of the magnolia adds to its appeal but it plays Old Harry with its keeper’s nerves.¤¤
I say ‘keeper’, not owner: like a faery tree, the magnolia owns he who grew it.

Take heart all you chastened horticulturalists! At Les Senteurs you can now enjoy all the beauty of the flower with none of the angst; pleasure with no pain.¤¤¤ Tom Daxon’s latest, the creamy MAGNOLIA HEIGHTS, now blooms on the shelves alongside Eau d’Italie’s Magnolia Romana and Editions de Parfums’s Eau de Magnolia. Each fragrance in this triptych of waxy blossoms has its own discrete mood – the romantic, the stylised, the stately, the botantical. Tom’s interpretation is maybe the most impressionistic and the prettiest; exhaling suggestions of creamy gardenia petals blended with deeper tropical fumes of ylang ylang and intoxicating jasmine sambac. All three of these magnolia perfumes have a delicious lightness and airy quality – a soft spangled rainy generosity – which make them perfect for spring.

This is such an emotionally exciting, vividly raw and startlingly disjointed season. After that terrible frost came hot sun, melting old bones in  deckchairs.  April is full of new beginnings and personal revolutions, intended or involuntary. So it’s an excellent time to recall what I’ve always told you – all the dusty classic perfume rules are there only to be broken: the important thing is to ENJOY scent, not to agonise about it. Follow your instincts, cultivate a sense of humour and let yourself go. LW can throw out tips, hints and modest advice until he’s blue in the face; but scent is ultimately all about you, your emotions and finding your pleasures in and through your nose. Remember! The sense of smell sends signals to that part of the brain that deals solely with emotion – not rational sense.

Maybe this year you might like to experiment with the wearing of scent in different ways? I always used to say that spraying too much is better than too little: perfume by definition is there to be smelled. But, like many people, as I grow older I’m coming to prefer the idea of a waft rather than a blast. As with food, you can always come back for more. I’m getting to prefer eau de toilette – even cologne – to parfum. I now enjoy a light misting about the neck or head rather than a real dousing from top to toe. Apart from anything else, decreasing the amount of application seems to sharpen my sense of smell. I’ve abandoned the idea of a signature scent: instead, I dabble. A little something new, every day. I’ve also gone back to the practice of putting scent on a clean hanky and keeping fragrance about my person in that way.

It’s fine to spray scent on your garments, but try to limit this to clothes that are regularly laundered. Summer time is best, when most of us are togged up in readily washable cotton or linen fabrics. (Always do a patch test, first.) Scented clothing can be wonderful but it does need frequent washing to avoid any suggestion of staleness, so I do not recommend spraying onto heavy woollens, leather etc. Keep it fresh and light – and natural fibres always work best.

And you can have fun with fragrance combining. The ancient Greeks – said to have invented perfume in its liquid form – loved to scent each part of the body with a different oil. I have tried this: it’s kind of cute but you cannot fully absorb or enjoy any of the perfumes. You end up in something of a muddle – a broken kaleidoscope of smells. It’s more productive to combine just two or three creations. Many perfume lovers swear by the practice – and some achieve very striking and effective results. My non-pareil colleague at Les Senteurs is a mistress of the art: a Circe of Combinations.

Apply the heavier scent first – let it dry –  then spray the lighter one on top. If desired you can perform a non-binary gender re-assignment on a perfume with a deft spray or two – though I think it is maybe easier to “man up” a fragrance than to feminise it. You will need to bring on the darker, woodier notes, the animalics, the dense greens – to drown the flowers or candies in virile darkness.

Begin your experiments with your existing collection; don’t spend a fortune doubling up on fragrances until you have got your eye/nose in. Combining does take a certain knack but can be so rewarding: and of course if it works for you, you end up with a unique and personalised fragrance, thus saving a bespoke outlay of up to £40,000 – or considerably more.

When you think of fragrance this spring – and you are sure to do so, frequently I trust – cross all limits, every boundary. Be expansive!

¤ available in great quantity at very modest price at Wilkinsons. Ideal to wear, too, if you were attending a costume ball as Marie Stuart. Then all you’d need are the pearls.

¤¤ it’s rather like the terrible night vigil before an execution.

¤¤¤ but – “if it isn’t pain/ It isn’t love.

Caron Cocktail

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I don’t know about you, but the recent hot weather has left me craving a scent that’s exuberantly floral. Something cool and white and petally to spray liberally of an evening, after a tepid bath or a cold shower & before the first sundowner. A perfume to calm the fever of heat and complement one’s loosest linen slops, bleached out and soft by constant launderings. This is really the only time of year when it’s permissible to spray fragrance on your easy-wash clothes, knowing they’ll be back in the Bendix and up on the line again in a couple of hours.

Tiare, gardenia and magnolia are all perfect on a langourous summer evening but I’ve been really knocked for six – and not for the first time – by Caron’s 1933 stunner FLEURS DE ROCAILLE. Isn’t it interesting how perfume crushes go in cycles? I’ve been in and out of this one for the past thirty years at least. Maybe not one of the cult Carons, FLEURS is one of the easier to wear. In its day it was as influential and significant as Tabac Blond or Narcisse Noir, letting in light, sunshine and air to a perfume public stifled and oppressed by world recession and Depression. FLEURS DE ROCAILLE was the olfactory equivalent of Jean Harlow’s blindingly monochrome cut-on-the-bias satin; Crawford’s dazzlingly crisp ruffles and the ubiquitous Syrie Maugham cream decor of everyone’s new drawing room. And it’s not just stylish, its witty & fun – in the style of Beatrice Lillie’s surrealist telephone connection via two lilies.

A dazzling whoosh of aldehydes makes the initial hit smell like a foam of iced champagne cascading from a celebratory Nebuchadnezzar. Roses, violets, ylang ylang, lilac and muguet de bois pop pop pop in the pale gold bubbles like wedding confetti while underneath lies a damp green darkness of oakmoss and woods. Maybe the heady signature musk helps to brings out the alcoholic accord, too: Caron had been expert at creating the illusion since their gorgeous 1923 bath essence Royal Bain de Champagne. And here’s a thing: a couple of years ago I blew £1.00 on a bottle of Musk and had been fooling around with it when a visitor called and complained of the smell of flat stale champagne in the apartment. What can I say?

And there’s the hint of another scent in FLEURS DE ROCAILLE, too: a lovely Swedish girl once put her finger on it – “pigs!” she said. “Nice clean pigs!”: the sort of animals, all bathed and scrubbed, that Marie Antoinette might have herded on blue ribbons at the Trianon. It is this audacious whiff of the animalic that gives FLEURS its unique and unforgettable fascination: delicate fairytale flowers in a well-manured, very urban, rockery.

ATT15710Meanwhile I’ve had the rare chance to smell the flower that inspired Frederic Malle’s EAU DE MAGNOLIA: a huge grandifloria bloom the size of a Sevres soup bowl has opened in a neighbour’s garden and overhangs the pavement like Goblin Market fruit. I keep going to have another inhalation: very strange and fascinating, like green lemons rubbed on a metal grater but with an additional curious backnote which is as disconcerting as those pigs but less attractive. It’s as though the citrus is cupped in old dry plastic, a cracked basin from the back of the cupboard – or one of those plastic water beakers we gnawed at school. Truth is stranger than fiction: Editions de Parfums have retained and developed the lovely hesperidics – but wisely left the plastic accord for Mother Nature’s personal use.

Blue Tits

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We are still officially in winter for another three weeks but these last days of February have their own loveliness. Every year without fail we always have a brief foretaste of spring round about now as if to tide us over until the real thing takes over, a little picture preview to get us through the last bit of winter. It’s already light until six o’clock, the air smells young again: the older I get the more I think I prefer these unique days at the turn of the season to the rather uncontrolled frenzy of the true spring which often feels overpoweringly passionate, making unreasonable demands of the stunned admirer.

The first daffodils came very early in February this year and now the garden foliage is the colour of the blue tits pecking at the peanuts suspended in my still skeletal magnolia. Have you noticed how uncannily and exactly the plumage of these little birds echoes and blends with the winter jasmine, the crocus, lungwort, the washed or stormy sky, and the blue grey yellow-green of all the young shoots? Only as they dart from branch to branch does movement render the tits fleetingly visible. And once April comes they appear to vanish altogether, swallowed up by golden verdance and blue sky. I never see one during the summer; colour absorbs them.

Delicious powerful scents are now lured forth by the first brief burst of warm sunshine. I haven’t seen violets in February for many years but there are stars of purple set in glowing green leaves by the bus stop – and that incredible mesmerising fragrance of musk and sugary petals: yesterday as I knelt in the muddy grass the violets smelled as sweet as though crystallised on a wedding cake. Maybe no other flower but the rose has such a familiar aroma. But be patient, push your nose beyond cliche – violets are fleshy & carnal and also reveal a faintly smoky note deep within them. They emit an echo of Frederic Malle’s Rubber Incense, a sheet of which I keep in my writing box to scent the stationery with “Saint des Saints”.

The vibernum flowers look like clots of mashed up raspberries and cream against emerald black leaves; their sharp spicy fragrance is faintly peppery, mingled with the damp earth & mould under the wall where the snowdrops’ luminous pearliness illuminates the dark purple hellebores and the mauve primulas. Those early daffodils exude the weird soaring excitement of a Sarah McCartney scent: a penetrating, exuberant and flagrant fragrance. The thrilling rubbery polleny yellow powderiness blown from satin trumpets is one of springtime’s most characteristic yet neglected perfumes.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”! For the rain is back again and the forecast for the weekend predicts sharp frosts, hail and does not rule out snow. Hold back on your planting! But spring will keep and its scents continue to discreetly herald its coming.

Image: http://www.bbc.co.uk

Magnolia

magnolia

O, the exquisite torture of cultivating a magnolia tree! Fatally easy to grow in the English climate and a cliche of every suburban garden, its beautiful flowers are nonetheless peculiarly susceptible to the vagaries of our weather. Ruin can come upon you within hours. Last year the great moon blossoms opened overnight in a burst of late March warmth, only to be nipped within the week by a savage frost which reduced the white velvet petals to rags of brown shrivelled canvas. These unsightly tragedies clung to the tree for weeks, like traitors’ heads on old London Bridge, enough to make you weep and a grim warning against the vanity of human hope. This year’s cold late spring kept the magnolias back another month and my tree escaped the frosts only to fall victim to the winds. But a respectable number of flowers have survived, weirdly late in the season, and the fallen petals look wonderful on the grass, glowing and gleaming in the gloaming. Strange they should be so fragile. These trees have been on the planet since the end of the Jurassic Period: their blooms were among the first flowers to appear on Earth. But a chilly English night is still too much to ask of them.

If you own a magnolia you’ll maybe wonder every spring if it’s worth the agony – this huge anticipation of a few days of loveliness; and hopes so often dashed. But then, which spring flowers and shrubs do last? Lilacs and guelder roses, cherry and apple blossom are all the more exquisite for their fleeting appearances. An uncertain two week flowering period is the norm and the brevity is surely part of the bitter sweet appeal, a mordant metaphor of the human condition.

“Man that is born of woman is of a few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower and is cut down: he flees also as a shadow and continues not.” Job had it right.

Do we want anything to last for ever? Mythology tells us of Anchises, father of Aeneas, who was granted the gift of immortality by the goddess Aphrodite. But he forgot to ask for the complementary blessing of eternal youth and grew unimaginably shrivelled and decrepit over the centuries until the goddess, unable to withdraw her divine favour, turned him into grasshopper,crazily chirping – and easily squashed, one supposes.

Everyone thinks he wants a perfume that will last indefinitely on the skin; to me this sounds a nightmare comparable to other putative perpetual sensory experiences – a meal that never ends; a concert with no finale; eyes that never close. Spring is so emotionally demanding that we cannot bear too much of its verdant reality, its explosive bursting into life.  And fragrance, like flowers, should catch the nose, delight the brain, dissipate – then come again, alternately dying down and reviving like a plant, all the more enchanting for its transitoriness.

In Rome, fifteen years ago, I made a chilly spring pilgrimage to the gardens of the Villa Borghese only to find them closed so I never did see the famous magnolia avenue. However we can all smell an impression of it in Eau d’Italie’s cool and stylish fragrance Magnolia Romana. The scent of a magnolia will vary according to type; but it’s a cool, white perfume which fits the look of the flower perfectly. Soft, clean, mellow – something like the very finest soap but without undue sweetness. Slightly reserved, discreet: you’ll not usually find the smell by lingering near the tree. You need to poke your nose into a low-growing flower, like a pollinating bee. (Or questing beetle, since bees did not exist when magnolias first evolved). Magnolia Romana catches the fragrance wonderfully, weaving together accords of hay, basil, cedar and watery lotus
into a fresh newly-washed perfume which has a faint damp green earthiness beneath the petals. The new grass and the spring rains shine through the petals. Quite simple, quite delicious. And no Angst at all.