For the Lady of the Camellias…..

Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor

I have a large pink camellia by the back door and it’s just blooming now – two months late, like everything else this year: the astonishing cold has prolonged the snowdrops for a record four months’ flowering. Camellias tend to flourish outside kitchen doors and utility rooms: for all their exotic beauty they are tough creatures and enjoy hot fumey wafts from central heating vents, washing machine drainage and Agas. They flowered like mad in clouds of steam in a grim little patch of dirt under the bathroom windows at school; coming from the hills of Asia they are cold and frost resistant but dearly love a little heat where they can find it.

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Their apparently romantic name is a bit of a disappointment – they are simply called after their European discoverer, the Jesuit botanist George Kamel, and the leaves of the species camellia sinensis brews up for tea. The camellia japonica is a practical beauty: how apt that Dumas should have chosen it as the emblem of the dying courtesan Marguerite Gautier, the grande horizontale up from the country who knows how to catch a swarm of bees and graze a cow. Inevitable that Garbo should take the part on film in 1936: the tall, rather ungainly Swede who began her career in a Stockholm barber shop, counted the sugar lumps in her larder, and chose her five Renoir canvases to match the carpets had a atavistic affinity with the role.

Supposedly a favourite movie of both Hitler¤ and Mme Mao*, Camille is a asphyxiation of studio-bound artifice right from the Valentine card lace of the titles and the cardboard Paris florists of the opening scene. Garbo’s paper camellias crackle and rustle on the soundtrack as she tucks them into her décolletage and woven-in ringlets. She is the only member of the cast who reacts spontaneously, seeming (as always on film) strangely detached from the strenuous acting of her colleagues though amiably humouring them: she chuckles a lot in the first half of the film – in character to be sure, but maybe also amused by the monkey antics of the rest of the MGM prestige troupe.

The stylised look of the camellia – the white cut-out petals, the dark shiny foliage like a child’s drawing of leaves – is visually perfect on film. The nature of the flower is richly symbolic: showy but unscented (fragrance was later bred into certain species) it is a perfect incarnation of a lady of the demi-monde – a creature of showy perfect loveliness but without a heart or human feelings. Camellias are not meant to be picked, when you pluck them they bruise, the petals unravel: take them indoors and they wither and die. You cannot hold them captive any more you can a butterfly or polar bear. Alphonsine Duplessis, the girl upon whose tragic career Dumas based the novel, carried bouquets of camellias to advertise availability: white when free, red when not. This conceit was too much for Hollywood; for Garbo, they are presented more as a floral comfort blanket, an accessory to Adrian’s gorgeous crinolines and those unbecoming hats, too fussy for that wonderful angular face of planes.

Maybe, too, cinema-goers fancied that Garbo was bathed in a fragrance of camellias. Those few scents based on the plant that I recall have picked up the tea leaf note – they’ve been verdant, woody; a fragrance of stems and stalks and sap. Bronnley did one with a bath line; Chanel, a delicious limited edition in the 1990’s, which lasted just long enough for everyone to fall in love with it – and then died. For warm springs and hot summers try Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier‘s Eau de Camellia Chinois – the crispness of camellia sinensis wrapped in cool dark banana leaves and served with ice. Dazzling, refreshing, green and sweet.
The kind of fresh clean fragrance that Garbo herself, a fancier of crisp uncomplicated colognes, might have enjoyed.

¤ Hitler asked Garbo to meet him for one of his famous teas, an invitation which was declined. Later she is claimed to have regretted this, saying she should have taken a revolver with her and shot him.

* A former actress, Mme Mao wore her personal print of Camille literally to a shadow. When it was found after her downfall only a few flickers on celluloid remained. The Sound of Music had received similar treatment.

Image of Garbo and Taylor from garboforever.com, Image of Camellia by Lemon Wedge

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“Interesting Without Being Vulgar”: The Wily Tuberose

Tuberoses are dangerous demonic flowers. Their oil is one of the great classic natural ingredients of perfume, easy to extract but hard to handle with skill. Tuberoses are said to deflower virgins and heat the blood; they camouflage the scent of death and the dying. Louis XIV planted them out in the gardens of Versailles in Sevres jardinieres; Marie Antoinette’s perfumer relied on them; in her ineffable “A.B.C” Marlene Dietrich told us they not only smell good, they taste delicious. Part of the mystery of the tuberose is that relatively few British people still know precisely what it is. It was unknown in Europe until the seventeenth century when it was introduced from South America and Asia by the British and Spanish colonial fleets. The name which sounds so exotic confuses the unwary and I fell into this trap myself when I first read Gone With The Wind at school and imagined the tuberoses in the girls’ hair at the Atlanta Ball to be tiny tightly coiled rosebuds – or “tubular roses” as you sometimes hear the muddled say. The name is simply French for “tuberous” – a flower grows from a tuber. A disappointingly mundane title for this exotic member of the lily family; but in fact its implications links the flower to the orchid, the avocado, the onion, mandrake, potato and many other plants which because of their growth pattern have graphically sexual connotations.

Orchids and avocados are named because of their supposed resemblance to human testicles; asparagus is explicitly phallic; lettuces and onions bolt in a mad spurt of upward growth, the lettuce exuding a milky juice in the process. Every flower and plant known to our ancestors was imbued with magic, not merely because of its scent and healing or destructive properties but because it symbolised eternal life and reproduction. It died and came again with the seasons; its unstoppable budding, flowering, stalk, leaves, roots and fruit were all illustrative of the human cycle of fertility and reproduction. If it exuded a rich perfume in addition to a suggestive shape it was used as the most powerful of aphrodisiacs. Maybe too the popularity of tuberose in modern perfumery is partially explained by its being such a relatively new scent to Europeans: like Australia and America it is raw, new and still developing, still having the corners knocked off it. We are still coming to terms with it, like vanilla and patchouli; equally ubiquitous oils. Rose, jasmine and iris have had thousands of years for us to get our noses and brains around: tuberose is still to be fathomed. It is a metaphor for the choosing of a perfume in a shop: we keep nipping in day after day for another sniff, still not convinced that we like it but hooked on something in the formula; like moths attracted not to the light but to the deep softness darkness behind the light.

Far too extravagant and showy for all but the most recherche tastes, tuberose was used sparingly by the great perfumers of the early twentieth century: Guerlain and Caron came to it very late in the day. Germaine Cellier first put it on the map with Fracas in 1946, a Robert Piguet scent whose legend continues to glow and evolve. Fracas was said to be an olfactory incarnation of Rita Hayworth – the screen image, not the tragic private personality (“They go to bed with Gilda but they wake up with me…”). Fracas is a dazzling pink champagne burst of fruit blossom, jasmine and tuberose sweetened with vanilla, tonka and musk. Like Rita it is lithe, sinuous, unpredictable and intensely glamorous; unlike her, it has a frilly, girlish side maybe on account of its intense sweetness which set the trend for tuberose perfumes for decades to come. As I write I am wearing the spectacular new Madonna Truth or Dare which releases cerise clouds of thickest tuberose so sweet it seems to be working from a base of Lyons Golden Syrup. There are also fruity hints which seem, as so often with this school of scents, to suggest strawberry tarts or summer jam just beginning to roll to the boil. If you smell pure white tuberose flowers in a hothouse or sheltered garden they are deliciously intense and, like gardenias and tiare, faintly reminiscent of coconut milk, but the ersatz perfumery sweetness is absent. And I rather miss that. I find it brings out the escapist and slightly insane quality of the flower, the bloom from another dimension. Maybe I am simply buying into its magical heritage of tuberose folk lore legend: and I fancy that Fracas and its many successors have done the same. The Gantier offering – Tubereuse – adds another element: a sleek sable animal quality, a damp pelt covered in just-melting snow which suits it to winter wear and the Christmas party spirit: a dance on a volcano spurting black and rosy lava.

Carnal Flower is tuberose re-invented for the 21st century: uber-green tuberose, leaf and loam and all. This is tuberose stripped bare, reconstructed, throwing Fracas and her syrupy sisters out of the pram. Carnal Flower shakes off the more sinister aspects of the fragrance while preserving the erotic: this is a cool morning tuberose full of fresh air, warm rain and dew. There is nothing of the funeral parlour or the exhibitionist actress about it, those aspects which Billy Wilder exploits so brilliantly when he has Norma Desmond boiling with claustrophobic tuberose in Sunset Boulevard. Carnal Flower is the plant dissected with the botanist’s scalpel and reassembled as geometric perfume. On the skin it slowly grows and glows, like the opening of a wild orchid in a marshy field; its movements are delicate and unexpected, sometimes hard to follow: a sensory revolution. Maybe this presentation of an open air wholesome glowing tuberose is the secret of its success: while it continues to mesmerise and enthral it lacks the beaded curtain and Tiffany lamp oppressiveness of its predecessors. Tuberose pruned back and growing fresh from the root: a walk in a morning garden rather than crawling into bed between old-rose velvet draperies. It could almost be bridal, a first for this type of fragrance. Nonetheless, the essential spice of danger still lurks in the title: making you think of those obscene scarlet veined gamboge pitcher plants waiting in boggy meadows for unwary insects. Tuberose is a flower which must always be handled with discretion.

Image from Wikimedia commons

Madeleine Smith: a vignette

I have mentioned before the case of Madeleine Smith and the excellent film based thereon made by David Lean in 1950 starring his then wife, Ann Todd (variously described by contemporary PR as “the British Garbo” or “the Pocket Garbo”). I never met Miss Todd though I saw her once in rural Suffolk of all places (adjoining holiday houses) and heard her announced over the tannoy backstage at Stratford Upon Avon – “Miss Tutin and Miss Todd for Dame Peggy!” Though I have always imagined her brunette, Madeleine Smith is perfectly incarnated by the glacial almost albino blonde Todd, wearing probably the most authentic crinolines ever seen on screen. The facts of the case presented are also reliable and accurate, if necessarily telescoped.

The eldest daughter of a prosperous Glasgow family, Smith was tried in 1857 for the murder of her former lover, a Frenchman named L’Angelier by whom she had been seduced and to whom she had written indiscreet letters with which he attempted to blackmail her. L’Angelier died in agonies of arsenic poisoning: Madeleine Smith was said to have administered this in a cup of cocoa. The defence claimed she had purchased the poison only to whiten her skin. The uniquely Scottish verdict of the court was Not Proven; David Lean’s presentation of characters and case is so detached and remote that the viewer is inclined to concur, foxed by Smith/Todd’s elegant inscrutability. The costume design complements the enigmatic character of Madeleine remarkably. I have discussed her shoes in an earlier piece but we should also note her headgear, a succession of plumed and furred hats and toques: is she a trapped animal, enmeshed by the predatory L’Angelier? Or is Madeleine herself the bird of prey? A wild animal turning in ferocious panic on her persecutor? Even when finally trapped in the dock,her severe if chic bonnet is trimmed with a feather. Only in her introductory scene, before we know anything of her intrigues, do we see a young girl crowned with flowers.

Those who relish the ciphers and codes and short-hand of old cinema, so adroitly used by directors to circumvent the censor, will find a great deal to appreciate here. Note the frequent close-ups of L’Angelier’s cane with which he makes much swagger. Look out for the scene where after an evening in the drawing-room with her parents and prospective fiancee, Madeleine surreptitiously puts on scent before slipping out into the sodden basement area to meet her lover.

“Madeleine…you are wearing perfume..” he says throatily; the rain comes down in stair rods in a sudden storm, and it is immediately clear in those four words that he sees her (and maybe she is) as a completely abandoned woman – and treats her as such. Wearing perfume in middle class Victorian Glasgow is akin to wearing the scarlet letter

Lean and his team were of a generation almost within touching distance of the case: Madeleine Smith had only been dead for some 20 years (she went to the USA after the trial and is said to have invented the table mat). They knew how significant it was for a respectable girl then to put on perfume. Remember the chapter in Little Women in which Meg goes to a dance at a wealthy friend’s and is induced to “polish..her neck and arms with some fragrant powder” to Laurie’s intense disapproval and her own subsequent deep shame. Even as late as 1922/23, as her inspired biographer Rene Weis notes, during the uproar surrounding the trial and execution of Edith Thompson lurid tabloid pieces made much of her prodigious use of perfume and scented baths: a sure sign of supposed depravity. L’Angelier’s line in the movie is a masterstroke of compression and allusion: audiences in 1950 probably read it more clearly than those today. Like Deborah Kerr’s clipping on of an earring in The End of the Affair; and Fred MacMurray kicking the rug straight in Double Indemnity it speaks volumes of passionate and ultimately tragic illicit sex.

So what perfume is Madeleine wearing for her lover? Who can say? She buys rosewater for her younger sister in a later scene; has money in her pocket and access to her father’s account at the chemist-apothecary. Her own taste in dress is shown to be impeccable; she is elegant, fastidious and in the fashion. I think the scent would be chosen to please the lover rather than herself. Miss Smith might have shared her sister’s rose or perhaps lavender water: she takes a bottle of the latter to court with her. Madeleine (L’Angelier’s passionate “Mimi”) probably chooses musk, civet or ambergris, the legendary aphrodisiacs of antiquity. I do not think a perfume that would have been available in 1857 now exists in its original form: animal rights and health and safety legislation have outlawed so many of the old ingredients, and our tastes in fragrance have radically changed. But let’s compose a theoretical formula for Madeleine. Something of the creamy soft muskiness of Musc Ravageur; the pungent civet of the original Jicky and Mouchoir; the animal leatheriness of Knize Ten; the density and richness of Phul Nana; the hot powdery voluptuousness of Ambre Precieux. And finally the narcotic intensity of the Bulgarian roses of Creed’s Fleurs de Bulgarie: a perfume that in its prototype form originated in the 1840’s. Cruel, peppery, lascivious roses not baby-pink buds. Just as posterity and Lean’s film leaves us in suspense as to Madeleine Smith’s guilt or innocence, so must her fragrance: but, as my grandmother always used to say, “they can’t hang you for thinking”.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Our Vegetable Love…

“You’ll fall into the flames of hell if you dig any deeper” said our gardener Mr Sarson as I grubbed about in my own little patch of garden aged 5 or so. Mr Sarson must have been in his eighties but was lean and wiry after a lifetime working as a railway ganger. He had once found a severed human head on the line – “it took three men to lift, it weighed so heavy”. And I wondered how the executioner had coped with Mary Queen of Scots who we had learned about at school: the infant curriculum was very different in the 1950’s. After Mr Garner died, eating a pickled onion, Mr Cannon came to help: he had sailed German POW’s down the Rhine in a caged barge in 1919; been a professional dancing master, and as a boy had pinched the behind of Violet, Duchess of Rutland in the shrubbery at Belvoir Castle: “I took her for the parlour maid”.

These two gentlemen introduced me to the vegetable world which flourished exceedingly in my father’s garden since so many of his animal patients were buried there. Vegetable lore we learned, and the smell of all the old favourites. Radishes are easy and quick for even the youngest child to grow, though their leaves may sting a bit; and their rose pink hue is as vivid and exciting as their cracked-ice peppery scent and tart hot/cold taste. Our neighbours, elderly maiden ladies, lived on radish sandwiches and dripping: it sufficed.(Their brother was a morphine addict, in the nonchalant respectable style of a Victorian bachelor).

So many vegetables have the most bewitching scents: the dry hot spiciness of celery; the rubbery, flowery earthiness of purple sprouting broccoli; the searing sweet and sour pungency of wild garlic especially on a cliff patch in bluebell season. Carrot has been recently added to the perfumer’s palette as a sweetener, and can contribute to an excellent synthetic fleshy fruit accord. Tomato leaf has something of the same magic as geranium – hot, green, spicy, and dusty. It is replete with the nostalgia of those ruined walled kitchen gardens, frost-cracked glasshouses and stagnant water butts that you sometimes discover abandoned beyond the formal gardens of a minor stately home. Now, I know tomato is a fruit, but in the minds and habits of most of us it is treated as veg. It was probably Annick Goutal who pioneered its use in her Eau de Camille – a perfume smelling of broken flower stems and the inner pale flesh of wild grasses.

Yet vegetables and man have until the twentieth century had a wary relationship: for millenia vegetables were the preserve of the poor, served up like animal swill while the rich dined on white bread, meat and sugar. The onion and the lettuce may have been sacred emblems of fertility in Ancient Egypt (due to their propensity to run to seed in a phallic bolt) but they still fed the pyramid toilers rather than grace Pharaoh’s table. When the Americas were first colonised, the treasure fleets brought back potatoes, avocados and tomatoes; all snapped up in the West as intriguing novelties but just as quickly abandoned. They took centuries to fully assimilate as part of the food chain; and for westerners to learn how to cook and season them.

This often seems to cause the British unreasonable difficulties: one thinks of traditional Christmas brussels boiled to mossy mush,and marrows cooked to rags. My grandfather used to say that his favourite way to prepare a cucumber was to cut in half and put in dustbin. Highly distrusted by European doctors, American produce became notorious for other qualities. Avocado is a Mexican Nahuatl word for “testicle” – as “orchid” is in Greek – and so could be choked down as a flavourless if stimulating aphrodisiac. Potatoes turned out to be of the same family as the enchanters’ nightshades, clearly poisonous and possibly diabolic; and as for the colour of these “love apples”, these tomatoes! Painted like harlots and obviously to be avoided. According to Lady Diana Cooper, her mother Violet (the same woman who was goosed by our gardener) banned tomatoes from her dinner table as impossibly common. This prejudice is still not entirely extinct in some circles, I can assure you.

Vegetables are still, I suppose, generally thought dull and worthy; your dreary 5 a day to keep you regular and minimise the household bills: one can still live very cheaply live on roots. Therefore the scents of their leaves and flowers, though often delicious, lack the psychological glamour demanded by perfumers: though the scent of field of broad beans in flower rivals Grasse jasmine, and see how a bed of scarlet runners (grown in Tudor gardens purely for their gaudy flowers) drive the bees wild with their fragrance. Even the wonderful scents from vegetable-related flowers (the cabbage-cousin wallflower; the sweet pea) rarely make it into the commercial perfume bottle; maybe unconsciously rejected on account of their humble relations.

Be that as it may, our niche perfumers continue to garner a little romance from the kitchen garden: try The Unicorn Spell where an eccentric and beguiling top note of dawn-picked runner bean leads into frosty violets. The cucumber in En Passant helps to spangle the white lilac with rain. Gorge on Gantier‘s sweet, rich, outre Grain de Plaisir, a presentation of celery as aphrodisiac – as used so famously by Mme de Pompadour and her eighteenth century contemporaries, brewed up with ambergris, chocolate, truffles and vanilla. I think the 21st century will continue to see fascinating new experiments with the odours of the vegetable kingdom just as our cooks soldier on promoting their vitality and potential excitement in our diet.

Image from wildaboutgardens.org.uk

Ask Your Dad!

Guy Robert

When I was a boy there was no Father’s Day (at least in the UK) but now it’s a Big Thing which tries to bridge a great yawning gap in the shops between the window displays of Easter chicks and the ominous threats of “Back To School!”. Well now we’re stuck with this new festival and really, what’s not to like? Men need more celebration and spoiling. So why not make the most of it and treat your old dad to some scent? Though nowadays Dad is more likely to be a Colin Firth or David Beckham type than Wilfred Brambell or Mr Barrett of Wimpole Street. So much the better: the modern man is making up for lost time and enjoying the pleasure of fragrance that so many previous male generations have missed.

My last gift to my father on The Day was a biography of Rasputin (one of his hero-villains: he’d seen the Barrymores in “Rasputin and the Empress” as a child) which made him feel sick. I’d have done far better to have stuck with his regulation Grain de Plaisir, Gantier’s modern take on a eighteenth century rake’s love potion, full of reliable aphrodisiacs such as vanilla, celery and amber: woody, sexy with a dry spiciness and the sweetness of barley sugar. He adored this, preferring to splash it all over (in the phrase of the day) his bald head and face so that it clung to his hats and flannel scarves. He came late to the joys of scent, well into his sixties, but then developed a rapacious pleasure in it recalling the extravagant applications of much earlier generations.

For the whole culture of scent began with men: men as perpetuators of the  life-cycle in their role as incarnators and placators of the gods. The latin phrase per fumus – through the smoke – gives us the clue. The smoke of burnt offerings opening a visible scented path to the skies, pleasing the nostrils of Heaven and linking men with the Divine.The odours of the pyres developed into the sacred oils worn by the King-Priests and thus into secular use by the privileged laity and aristocracy. A leading example of  the old peacock theory – the male in full feather: gaudy, scented and resplendent to indicate readiness to mate and attract the healthiest and fairest of women to ensure the breeding and survival of the fittest. Perfume as an adjunct to divine procreation: the Pharoah fertilising the Nile sanitised in the Christian era into the ceremonies of the marriage of Venice with the sea, and the Russian Tsars blessing the waters of the Neva. An emblem too of the transfer of divine power – British monarchs right through to our present queen being anointed with holy chrism at their coronation.

It is only with modern history (beginning abruptly in 1714 according to the old text books) that the martial peacock alpha-male starts to fade, only to rise again, phoenix-like, some 150 years later. Brilliant colours and flamboyant dress go undercover as industrialisation, urbanisation, the first stirrings of female emancipation and the middle class work ethic transform Europe: perfume for men fades from fashion if not from use. Even Oliver Cromwell (“Lord protect us from Protectors”) had not disdained to anoint himself with unguents of rose and orange flower, but then a certain drabness creeps in as men are tamed and caged by a more sober society.

When Victorian males use scent it has to accentuate not fertile virility but a man’s prowess as earner, responsible worker and sober father. Male scents loose their heady and hedonistic floral and animal aspects and mirror what a man does with his respectably ordered life: he starts to smell of an idealised version of his environment,occupation and pastimes: leather, woods, herbs and citrus evoke agriculture, farming, gardening, travel and the outdoors. Hygiene is another factor: people start to wash their hair and bodies so that fragrance no longer needs to camouflage bad smells but au contraire emphasises freshness, health and a healthy mind in a healthy body. The Fata Morgana of the “natural” perfume is born.

Today, thanks to a succession of social scientific and sexual revolutions,perfume for men is more rich, varied, eccentric and eclectic than it has ever been. At Les Senteurs men account for a good third of our customers; and very eloquent, passionate and well-informed they are too. The taboos are broken, the barriers are down: modern men are realising there is only no such thing as a “correct” or appropriate male perfume. The only essential is that it should amplify, reflect and enhance the wearer, become part of his very essence and personality. Perfume does not make the man…but a man can certainly make the perfume, transmuting it through his own skin,hormonal balance and definition into a unique signature and statement.

Les Senteurs would like to dedicate this blog to the life and memory of a wonderful man and inspired perfumer, the late Guy Robert who died on 28 May. Guy was the grandson, nephew and son of perfumers and of course the father of our dear friend and colleague Francois Robert. One of the greatest creators of the second half of the 20th century, Guy leaves a legacy of superlative richness, elegance and variety. Caleche dominated the 1960’s, to be followed by L’Equipage, two great classic beauties for Hermes. Guy made the original and unsurpassed Amouage, the sublime Mme Rochas and a treasury of exquisite scents which place him among the Immortals of the art of perfumery. Irreplaceable as a great gentleman and individual, Guy Robert will live forever in his galaxy of classic and unforgettable creations.

Image from 1000fragrances.blogspot.co.uk

… A Damp Bed

Vile Bodies

I have written before about cruel bitter winter cold and the scent of snow but now I am going to examine another sort of cold, not peculiar to winter and infinitely more sinister and enervating: the damp cold that has the chill of the grave about it. A cold with no zest nor vigour, no promise of growth or sense of imminent germination but the musty desolate dismal smell of an unaired bed, a disused church or an empty house. A cold that freezes you in any season, a void of gloom, nausea and despair. In Vile Bodies (a novel that is very perceptive about smells) Evelyn Waugh has poor Agatha Runcible spending the night in a pub en route for the motor races. Next morning she comes to the hero’s room:

“Darling,” she said, “there’s no looking-glass in my room and no bath anywhere, and I trod on someone soft and cold asleep in the passage,and I’ve been awake all night killing bugs with drops of face lotion,and everything smells, and I feel so low I could die.”

This passage impressed me so much in my teens that I wrote it at the head of every page of that year’s calendar. It seemed then a remarkably acute summation of my adolescence.
Agatha was dead right: everything smells sad and bad in such weather.

My grandfather’s house in Soar Street was idyllic in its way, with French windows from all the reception rooms opening onto a rose garden, orchard and meadows but it was a house designed more for a Greek island or Tangiers rather than the climate of the East Midlands. All the books were foxed and the leather bindings damply pungent (the smell has only intensified over the intervening years); and in the annexe across the yard poorly cured badger skins,dried hard and curling, served as bedside mats. Even today I think of musty damp as the Soar Street Smell, and a disconcerting hint of it lurks in Pierre Guillaume‘s Psychotrope, a perfume based on accords of leather and iris, leading to thoughts of St Margaret’s jewelled manuscript Bible lying in the river, the illuminations glowing like exotic water weeds in the current.

Certain holidays stand out in my memory and define this phenomenon. Venice in February, staying in a budget out of season hotel on the abandoned Lido and having to bribe the reluctant maid for gritty dusty horse blankets – then while we were out during the day she’d whip them back to her store cupboard. She also stole my nightshirt, a wonderful shroud-like garment bought years before in Luxor. I felt so sick with cold amid the streaming stones of St Mark’s Square that nothing would do but to stop for another pungent Negroni to settle my stomach and get the blood coursing. There was none of the legendary canal stench, just a dark and infinitely sad whiff of icy water like bitter bottle-green ink, which oozed from the rodent decay of ancient plaster the colour of sugared almonds splotched with mould. And in the great churches, the hangover of stale cold incense embedded in dank stone for 1000 years; a scent that was uncannily recreated in Etro’s Messe de Minuit, a fragrance that had a certain vogue a few years ago: too chilly and forbidding by half for me, though it bewitched many.

And so to Berlin on the marshy Prussian plain, packing a new bottle of Chanel 19 which proved a vexing frustration since my flesh was too chilled to animate it. We schlepped out to Potsdam to see the old Imperial palaces: the summery idyll of the Shell Grotto seemed to mock our dumb damp freeze as the guide trailed us from one royal Sterbzimmer to the next: “here the daughter of your Queen Victoria suffered torments; now we see the very bed in which where the Emperor choked to death..” And afterwards, in the rail station forecourt, gluhwein, the spicy reek of currywurst, fried onions and popcorn permeated our mildewed coats as thoroughly as food odours can in only this sort of weather.
(Think of those leather jackets in the Tube, radiating a thousand and one kebabs).

Back in England, I remember icy rain coming down in stair-rods on June Speech Days, drenching unsuitable clothes; huddled in a steamed up car smelling powerfully of soaked cotton dresses and wool suits, hair, dog and doubly damp cucumber sandwiches. And a stay in a seaside Cornish guest-house where as the April sky was blue and the sun blazing on the spotless windows, the landlady had decided to turn off all heat and hot water. The clammy cold sheets stuck to our legs; the rugs in the breakfast room were slimy with damp, as in Mr Jeremy Fisher’s house – “all slippy-sloppy in the back passage” – and there was a terrible scene when a guest asked for a boiled egg. “Hot food not served”. Women’s hairspray hung in droplets, like lacquered sea mist.

But not everyone finds these conditions a mere sodden misery; for some they arouse gothic and romantic sensations, smacking of Jane Eyre, The Woman in White and the works of Bram Stoker. Or the grim exhilaration of Damia’s song, Pluie, as the singer contemplates the soaked and rotted garden that reflects her life. For these connoisseurs of tristesse, Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier created Route du Vetiver. Maybe nowadays it is somewhat less dramatic, having perhaps frightened itself; but at its peak it was a wonderful wallow in vaults, cellars, crypts and abandoned Anderson shelters drawing its power from an extreme use of the earthy damp roots of vetiver grass that seemed to shake off soil and grit into the very bottle.

Image from wikimediacommons

I’ve always been a great one for my shoes…

Who can forget poor old Barbie Batchelor in The Jewel in the Crown dumping a huge suitcaseful of shoes on Clarissa Peplow’s bed after having had to leave home in a hurry. An early example of shoe addiction which is now Topic A in the popular fashion world. The once notorious collections of Imelda Marcos and Eva Peron (armadillo ankle-straps with jewelled heels) seem old hat as every girl worth her salt now accumulates her hoard of peep-toes, pumps, flats, ballets, platforms and torturing Louboutin stilettoes: “High heels are pleasure with pain” says Msr L.

So if we follow his hint, which is more of a turn-on, the shoe or the unconfined foot ? I think the average bunion’d fashionista would come down on the side of the Manolos. Both foot and covering can be highly sexualised and are perhaps the best-known of fetishistic objects: we all have access to them. Much etymic energy has been devoted to the question of whether Cinderella wore slippers of glass (verre) or fur (vair), and appropriate psychological and pathological conclusions drawn thereby. Not to mention the detail of her sisters slicing off portions of their own feet to fit the delicate slipper so admired by the Prince. But from my own observation, correct fittings do not seem to be an important aspect of the current shoe frenzy: Mrs Beckham appears to have set a trend for wearing a size or two overlarge, the old Minnie Mouse look. A recherche fetish of its own, something akin to the painful hobble and totter of the bound feet of Imperial China.

The varied symbolism of the foot is as old as man. The Mexican god Tezcatlipoca had the foot eaten by a jaguar replaced by a smoking obsidian mirror through which he dimly observes the world. Jason loses a sandal carrying the goddess Hera across a stream and, half-barefoot, fulfils King Pelias’s foretold doom. Oedipus is exposed with pierced ankles. Norse mythology tells of the Frost Giant’s daughter Skadi allowed to choose a husband from the gods but only on the evidence of their feet. Luck was not with her: the fragrant white feet she picked belonged not to Baldur the Beautiful but to the hoary and disagreeable old sea god Njord. Greek courtesans, who paid especial attention to the perfuming of their feet, stalked in studded sandals which left erotic suggestions, somewhat blurred I should think, in the Athenian dust. An idea illustrated by that long gone 20’s scent, Suivez-Moi Jeune Homme.

The removal of the shoes is the first steps towards intimacy write Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant in their classic Dictionary of Symbols. But besides denoting possession, it is paradoxically a sign of humility, subservience to man or the divine: “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground”. The first rule of etiquette in the East is never to cross your legs lest you insult your companions by displaying your sole.

“And whosoever shall not receive you…when ye depart out of that house or city shake off the dust of your feet…” Matt 10:14.

The quintessence of sexy shoes,the nude shoe, the flesh-coloured shoe is back in style: first recommended by Marlene Dietrich in her ABC as flattering the length and line of the leg. She was clever with her shoe tactics. People who knew her back-stage told me two stories which I hope are true. She lined up identical shoes in the wings, a pair for each song: if she saw a smut on her beaded champagne slippers as she bowed, she could slip into the next pair under cover of the applause. And a dressing-room habitue remembered that if Marlene became aware of a prying scrutiny of her face she would advise her guest “look out for the shoes! Mind where you’re walking, the floor is covered with my shoes…”

Like a glove the shoe sexualises and transforms a socially acceptable part of the body by veiling and concealing and thus simultaneously calling attention to it. Think of Rita Hayworth’s single glove striptease in Gilda and those Toulouse Lautrec posters of Yvette Guilbert who made long black gloves an integral part of her diseuse act. David Lean uses continual and remarkable shoe (and clothing) imagery throughout his film Madeleine to demonstrate his heroine’s ambiguous morality as a seductress and probable poisoner in 1850’s Glasgow. Awaiting the jury’s decision in her cell, Madeleine slips on a pair of new black shoes, and the camera lingers on her feet as it has at key moments of the movie. Her concealment (maybe even from herself) is complete + the verdict naturally is “Not Proven”.

So what of the scent of the shoe? Apparently the foetid smell of those grotesque trotter-like slippers which encased the Chinese lily-foot was part of their peculiar appeal. But we’re not going down that particular trail – for now. I’m thinking more in terms of a shoe of kid suede so fine it would double for a glove; new and exciting from the boutique in a great rustle of tissue papers and varnished card box, all with stimulating electric scents of their own. A shoe just gently warmed by an exquisitely painted, moistured, powdered and pedicured foot: the warm muskiness of skin and flesh mixing with the peardrop bittersweet of nail polish, animalic soft leather, brushed black suede,a metallic tang of tiny gilt buckle and the dark smooth night of the sole. If this appeals, go smell Gantier’s Cuir Fetiche: it has it all, and more…