Cat’s Cradle

mr-kitty

 

Such filthy cold weather as we’ve had! I’ve been boosting my circulation with scalding hot baths and a selection of vanilla & tonka soaps. The Mizensir fragrance Musc Eternel – now selling like hot cakes at Les Senteurs  – echoes this creamy musky heat. Musc Eternel has a beautiful clinging sweetness to it, like a thick fluffed-up bath towel that’s been laid up in the airing cupboard with baby powders, oils and intimate lingerie. Simultaneously comforting, innocent and seductive.

 

What you really need in wet raw weather is a cat or a dog at the end of the bed; or curled up asleep on your chest. I never slept so well in the afternoons as when I had Mr Kitty or Dolly the Pug to hand. It’s not just the entirely relaxed weight and soothing involuntary noises emitted by that furry bundle on your lap. It’s the rhythm of the breathing synchronised with your own; and the perfectly clean smell of a small animal.

 

Now a swanky new hotel and spa for dogs and cats – 7 star, apparently, whatever that may mean in this context  – has opened in Beijing. The hotel has the unusual name of ‘SmellMe’. This strikes me as a bit odd and not especially attractive, but I suppose it is acknowledging the primary greeting between all animals. You know, that apparent “kissing” – or, at least, rubbing of noses; and the uninhibited peering and sniffing beneath tails.

 

Since the nationwide “awareness campaign” for neutering, you don’t smell cat nearly as much as you used to when out and about. I remember childhood sofas which possessed a certain unwished-for redolence. My grandfather had a flock of wilful cats who did as they pleased. Thomas used a Georgian sugar basin as his private amenity. Flowers of the asparagaceae family – bluebells for instance – are used rather warily in perfume because to many people they suggest felines at their least attractive. A bowl of hyacinth bulbs past their best emit a most disconcerting smell. A gardener said recently that she found the heavenly scent of that pink winter vibernum to be unpleasantly similar to that of dog detritus, once the blossom decays.

 

“Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds”.

 

It’s the old story: we howl and shout when our dogs “roll in something” on the beach or down the fields and yet the line between the disgusting and the delightful is so fine. Very few of us would revel in every one of these scents and tastes: Stilton cheese, ripe pheasant, tripe, over-blown lilac, tuberoses, ambergris – and coffee beans that have known the digestive tracts of a civet.

 

A couple of years ago I wrote in this column about the very common city problem of a mouse in the house. I imagined then that scattering cat combings in the place where vermin congregate would have a deterrent effect. Now I learn it is specifically the reek of cat urine that scares off the intruders: so I pass this tip on. Sufferers may wish to re-think their policy – or rely (as previously advised) on peppermint; and the intercession of St Martin de Porres.

 

Several of the most famous fictional cats in our literary culture are creations of Beatrix Potter. Mrs Twitchit and Mrs Ribby are immaculate and industrious animals. They run grocery stores, cook, launder and cuff their kittens when the tinies muss their best bibs and tuckers. They eat mice to be sure (mixing the meat with bacon in pies) and – like Miss Moppet – tie rodents in dusters and “toss them about like a ball”.

 

But, now that I know what I know, I wonder about the passage in ‘Johnny Town-mouse’ in which the cat plays a darker and more realistic role¤. Johnny offers a  his guest from the country a place to lay his tiny head:

 

‘The sofa pillow had a hole in it. Johnny Town-mouse quite honestly recommended it as the best bed, kept exclusively for visitors. But the sofa smelt of cat. Timmy Willie preferred to spend a miserable night under the fender’.

 

O! Those well-remembered old couches of my youth: ‘I believe there’s been a cat on here…..”

 

¤ the mice feel faint at the thought of this diabolical cat. She kills the canary and we can see her kittens (naked as nature intended) capering all over the scullery table.

“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.

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.