How Hyssop Healed My Hand

 

There I was last week, grizzling on about the drought; and then, look at the rain! “Talking about it brings it on”, as Alan Bennett used to say. When I was eleven or twelve years old, a boy at school taught me a supposed Native American rain dance. As I loathed sport – laid on for us daily – I did a lot of dancing in the hope of water-logged pitches. The creepy thing was, the ritual usually worked.

I soon took fright and abandoned it.

The torrential May rains have released the most sumptuous scents, especially on muggier days. The combined odours of may blossom, lilac and lacy cow parsley outdo for loveliness anything you’ll smell on the place Vendome or the rue de la Paix. Heady, heavy, floral-animalic, damply powdery, sweet with honey and musk. Imagine a Caron boutique of a century ago, relocated in a country lane or a roundabout on the ring road.

Charged up with a false and flower-intoxicated energy, I overdid it sadly in the back yard. Fellow gardeners will know what I mean. You don’t notice at the time, but you tug at a stubborn root too vigorously; or pull a weed from the wrong angle. Twenty four hours later you’re in agony. This time it was the second finger of my left hand. Blew up like a pound of sausages. Couldn’t move it. Throbbing in the night. Every colour of the rainbow. Because I was traumatised decades ago by Daniel Day Lewis dying abruptly of tetanus in ‘My Brother Jonathan’ on the TV, I always jump to the worst conclusions. Once I’d calmed down I had a rummage in the bathroom cupboard. With my right hand.

I found the oil of hyssop: the magic purgative plant; the holy healing herb of the ancients. The late great Angela Flanders used to keep my mother supplied with it, for her arthritis. Of course, I should have greatly diluted the hyssop: Angela’s strict instructions are still written on the bottle. However I was reckless with pain, so I rubbed the oil in neat for three days. It made my skin peel like a sloughing python, but – combined with ice baths – it brought out the bruising, reduced the swelling in short order, and worked a miracle within 72 hours.

Hyssop is much mentioned in the Old Testament – “purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be white as snow” ¤. On account of the endless translations and re-translations of the ancient texts we do not know whether the plant named as hyssop in the Bible is the same mauve or electric blue flowered herb that we recognise today. Scientific botanical classification is less than 300 years old¤¤. Distilled hyssop smells exceedingly lemon-like; green, dark and medicinal. The fragrance is pure, still and calming. Hyssop is integral to the brewing of Chartreuse; and is associated with the bitter herbs of the first Passover. The Pentateuch mentions it in connection with its use as a sprinkler of blood or water or perfume. Long before we sprayed, we sprinkled.

So, always anxious to investigate on your behalf, I went down to consult with my local herb man. Regular readers will remember that this was the fascinating fellow who last year told me all about feverfew, to which he is violently allergic.

I rang the bell.

He said he’d not seen hyssop for years. As I had thought, it seems to be out of style. But he gave me a pot of flagrantly strong, smoky – even slightly minty –  hot Greek oregano. Which was very apt because many modern horticulturalists think it probable that the old Biblical hyssop was the herb we now know as Syrian oregano. I could see at once that a bunch of densely leaved, slightly furry oregano would make an ideal natural aspergillum. If only to bless a tomato salad with the good olive oil.

Which I duly did. And two hours later the wonderful aroma of the oregano still hung in the afternoon kitchen air.

Mahlzeit!

¤ Psalm 5, verse 7

¤¤ spikenard is another example of these ancient & modern botantical confusions. And look at the harebell – “the bluebell of Scotland”. Not to mention geraniums and pelargoniums.

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“Kann denn Parfum Sunde Sein?” Perfume Prohibited!

keep-calm-and-wear-perfume-7

We may think that our present Royal Family has a hard time of it with the Press, but it is nothing to that which the Queen’s ancestors had to endure. When poor Victoria went over to Paris in the 1850’s the hacks had a high old time sneering at her bag embroidered with poodles and at the sprays of geraniums (as bonny a scarlet as her cheeks) that trimmed her dress. Above all they carped at the “regrettable trace of musk” evident in Victoria’s perfume. Our Royal Duchesses & Princesses must be mightily relieved that this sort of sniping is in abeyance; though admittedly it is a loss to cultural observers as well as to the common or garden nosey parker.¤

CAN the use of perfume ever be wrong? Apparently so. This autumn’s UKIP¤¤ Conference banned fragrance to all comers. “No liquids no perfumes no powders…ladies and gentlemen, please discard your perfumes” read the notice at the entrance. (Which reminded me of those old cards at the cinema – “Ladies! Please remove your hats. Gentlemen! Please adjust your dress.”). I don’t know why the delegates were obliged to attend in an olfactory state of nature: presumably it was part of this “nice” (in the Jane Austen sense) new sensibility regarding the “space” – and potential allergies – of others.

I had always suspected that the notorious ban on the use of Giorgio¤¤¤ in certain New York restaurants – establishments which were never actually named – was an urban myth or an artful advertising ploy. But then a few years ago, our colleague Laura at Les Senteurs told us about the prohibition on wearing perfume in any public place in her home town of Halifax, Nova Scotia. She had therefore to have an unscented wedding. Strange! When you think of the millennia of perfume use by humankind, this is an unprecedented idea indeed. For anthropologists now think that even cavemen probably rolled themselves about in sweet-smelling resinous goo or stuck flowers in their fur.

Council reports are still being compiled on the case of a man in the West Midlands who bludgeoned his wife to death with a bottle of perfume. And only last week an attacker was identified by his victim’s having noted his characteristic reek of toluene. Meanwhile, back in the New World, doctors in the Canadian Medical Association Journal have recommended that all fragrance be banned from hospital wards because it can affect asthma sufferers, promote allergies (again) or arouse “sensitivity”. This reminded me of the old tale of the death of Marie Antoinette’s son in 1789: he begged the duchesse de Polignac, then in attendance, not to torment him with the intrusion of her heavy scents. But she was wearing no perfume: it was the effects of the disease on his poor exhausted nervous system.

In many department stores nowadays a worker’s having a quick spray from a tester of perfume to cheer herself up is counted as theft. You can just about get away with using the bottles on your own counter but from no one else’s. Spoilsports. Which brings me to the following bizarrie. I quote the following verbatim from The Times of a fortnight ago:

” A teenage girl was reported … after a domestic argument in which she used her mother’s perfume before running out of the house. Although the bottle remained intact, her puff (sic) was recorded as theft because officers are told to enforce Home Office rules which require criminal complaints to be recorded … Simon Hayes, the area’s elected crime chief, said: ‘The officers were never going to be able to prove whether or not the daughter did help herself to the perfume. So the crime also remains unsolved.'”

There is a particularly unsettling Sherlock Holmes story – The Adventure of the Retired Colourman – in which a vile crime and its detection revolves around smell. The eponymous villain gasses his wife and her lover in his strongroom and then gets out “a great pot of green paint” to touch up the woodwork.

” ‘That was our first clue,’ said Holmes. ‘Why should this man at such a time be filling his house with strong odours?
Obviously, to cover some other smell which he wished to conceal – some guilty smell which would suggest suspicions…’ ”

Ending – as we began – with the Queen, we are given to understand that she never wears scent when visiting the royal stables: it frightens the horses. There’s been much discussion about this in the equine world. Many owners agree with her: other equestrians find their animals quite unmoved by perfume. And a third party claim that stallions are often sexually aroused by deliciously (artificially) scented humans. Time to change the subject. As we often note in this column, perfume brings out the brute beast in us all.

¤ Queen Alexandra seems to be the only other recent monarch known for her sillage – a signature blend of roses and violet powder. No doubt her dreadful deafness accentuated the sensibility of her other senses: she adored the silent cinema. Her two favourite stars, before you ask, were Lillian Gish and Eddie Polo.

¤¤ “You kip if you want to. The lady’s not for kipping.”

¤¤¤ recently seen, greatly diminished, at a provincial branch of Wilkinsons priced at under £15. Tempi passati: a far cry from the glory days of a sales team of twelve Valkyries in canary-striped blazers; twenty girls playing twenty pianos with the glamorous participation of Miss Scotland.