Unpacking Our New Year

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I – and millions like me – have had this dreadful cold germ since Christmas and over the New Year. There’s been an awful smell trapped in my nose. It was something like the incineration of damp cardboard boxes – maybe the former domicile of cats – piled on a winter bonfire and burned like obdurate heretics, “au bois vert”. What a way for a fragrance maven to see in 2017! Heigh ho, there you go: at least I have my imagination and my memories.

And there’s still plenty to read. Now, for instance, there was a long piece in the Times* all about H.G.Wells, to mark his 150th anniversary. Notoriously amorous, he had an affair with the beautiful spy, Moura Budberg¤. Virginia Woolf school-girlishly referred to her as Moura Bedbug. So here’s a neat segue into the curious fact that our word ‘coriander’ is derived from the ancient Greek – ‘koris’ – for this obscene pest. The lovely fragrant herb (currently so fashionable with perfumers) was thought by our ancestors to smell like a bed bug, presumably when the insect was squashed against the walls or bedstead (the only way to catch them) with a deftly wielded cake of primitive soap. I have never yet met a bed bug – but I wonder, just as in the way that humans used to see colour differently¤¤, did Man’s nose also formerly play tricks quite unknown to us? Did the terrible  perfumes of the ancient world suspended in goat fat and rancid wine smell irresistible to Caesar and Cleopatra? Almost certainly, yes.

H.G.Wells himself, so the ladies said, smelled wonderful – even Biblical. He was blissfully redolent of honey and walnuts. (One of my very favourite food combos). We remember Alexander the Great’s natural odour of violets, Queen Victoria’s orange blossom aura and Elisabeth Bourbon’s exhalation of roses. And –  even more inexplicably – the one or two very heavy smokers I have known who exuded nothing but a delicious fragrance of peaches and cream, dewy freshness and flowers. A phenomenon which defies all expectation: and which must yet be explored in one of those expensive extensive ‘surveys’ we are always reading about.

You know I’m often referring to the presentation of perfume in the movies; the way stars play with it and talk about it – but take care never actually to wear it? Well, I have now found for us that powerful exception that proves the rule.

My brother and I exchanged DVDs at Christmas: coincidentally both were from the ‘Cary Grant Collection’. Die-hard Grant fans might have felt a bit let down, for these movies are essentially Mae West and Dietrich pre-Hays Code vehicles respectively, from the early 1930’s. “Cash & Cary” is just the dark young man in the background. But – judge for yourselves – why not run Mae in I’M NO ANGEL one afternoon? You’ll have the pleasure of two scenes in which Tira –  lion-tamer and ‘grande horizontale’ – fools around with an perfume atomiser, and also with a rather suggestive glass wand-applicator. And the camera lingers on Mae applying the perfume – heaviest red italics here – To Her Person. The context leaves the viewer in no doubt that this is the finishing touch of extreme rudeness: the apogee of egregious wilful shameless promiscuity.

And finally – the Brontes! Did you look at the play about them on tv? I was too tired with my cold to sit up: so I went to bed and read about this oddest and most fascinating of families. The smell I always remember in their connection is in that awful detail of the dying Emily trying to dress her hair on the sofa. The comb fell from her nerveless fingers and smouldered on the hearth: the dreadful smell of burning horn filled the Parsonage. Then Charlotte ran up the moors to fetch some flowery bells of heather: but it was all too late…..

The Guardian described this as a “…chronicle….(of)… the extraordinary challenges faced by ordinary people” – which we did find a bit comical. Those Brontes were very far from ordinary, I think.

Here’s hoping YOUR experience of 2017 has been so far extraordinarily good and – of course – sweetly scented.

* Ben McIntyre The Times 29/12/16

¤ Nick Clegg’s great great aunt. Get out your Google Images and wonder at the human gene pool: there is such a likeness between the two.

¤¤ Homer and “the wine-dark sea”; and the poet neither possessing nor needing a word to denote “blue”…

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A Pop-Up/ All-In /Family-Friendly Christmas ….. and the hens laid Brexit eggs!

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“Si jeunesse savait; si veillesse pouvait”. Some of my younger readers may never have tasted – nor yet smelled – an icicle. In the old days you broke them off from a low roof or drainpipe, and licked them gingerly. They took their metallic mineralic redolence from tiles, slates, brickwork and tarred felting. They were full of tang. Sometimes a dead leaf or blades of grass would be embedded in the ice. Do you remember people trying to make snow-filled pancakes, as mentioned on the wireless just the other day. There were squeaks of disbelief in the studio, but I certainly recall rumours of this exotic and rather romantic recipe, though it was never put into practice at ours. Neither did we see dishes of snow topped with cream: surely this is an American idea?

I remember the icicles because they represent the incarnation of so many Christmas Eves. The snow usually came a little later, for New Year. The 24th December was all about the smell of water, rain, dampness, ice. This old ghost of Christmas Past looks back over the decades and sees our kitchen in the twilight. The mopped-out floor is covered in fluttering newspapers marked with gum-boots, paw prints and little kids’ feet. The back door is banging in gusts of unseasonably stuffy wind. The sink is full of my father’s ice trays, and the melting frozen peas forgotten by a neighbour who’d called for a mid-afternoon gin¤. We are waiting for the turkey.

Our flightless bird used to be delivered at the very last minute, usually on Christmas Eve night, when a certain anxiety might well be setting in. A florid old man would come round around eight o’clock, half-blotto – demanding more whisky: and he’d sling the bird on the kitchen table. So then my dad had to sort it out. The smells of turkey preparation from the feathered stage are enough to put you off for life. Also, in those days, there was a lot of controversy about the stuffing. The preliminaries involved great scrubbings-out, and then prolonged sniffings, of the cavity. Was everything sufficiently clean and sweet? (Nowadays many people go in for turkey “crowns” – a cropped, trimmed & sanitised format – and no wonder)¤¤.

Christmas morning came round all too soon: time for the full ritual of turkey worship to begin with the lighting of the oven. After which the phantasmagoria of Christmas smells went crackers : “open that window!”

New Year’s Eve we had beef.

Of course, we had a few words of warning from those ubiquitous seasonal surveys this past week¤¤¤. When choosing your New Year champagne, go for a brand that offers bigger bubbles. I tend to keep off the champagne; it’s too acid for my tum. But now it appears that larger bubbles – once considered vulgar – produce a finer scent and therefore a superior flavour. The findings of another scientist-gang suggest that a fragrantly frugal champagne breakfast is, after all, likely to do more you good than oats, fruit and eggs. Defying the conventions of centuries, dieticians now propose that fasting from supper right through to next day’s lunch is the way forward to perfect health. No more savoury smells of The Full English (“served all day”). I haven’t eaten a regular breakfast since the 1970’s so I ought to be as fit as a buck.

“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the cold, cold tomb”

My mother used to say they sang this in the air raid shelter. But even in church today we note some diminution of traditional smells. The verse above has been “adjusted” in some modern hymn books. The Three Kings are apparently more likely to have brought “incense” than the more specific frankincense. For myself this refinement of translation comes too late for me: I’m leaving my nose be and keeping to the old ways.

On behalf of L.W. and of everyone at Les Senteurs may I now wish you the Happiest, Most Peaceful and Prosperous of New Years? And, Thank You All!

¤ “two rounds of the best hot gin punch” is what Cratchit children drink in the 1951 British movie ‘Scrooge’.

¤¤ but my Canadian cousin now writes to me of her sister-in-law’s bird:

“…listen to this!… She put it in the oven FROZEN and PRESTUFFED – and only had to roast for 6 hours…!??  From FROZEN?!?!” It turned out perfect!”.

¤¤¤ , only the other day, a MORI pollster came round the village just after dark. No one would admit him.

Santa Claus (& other festive smells)

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I heard a little tot go singing ‘neath the General Post Office windows by the church; it was just before Christmas. He was worried about Santa getting  scorched when the old gentleman came down the chimney on the Eve. His parents kept reassuring him: “we’ll both make sure the fire is quite out – and raked out – before we go to bed. Now don’t you fret!” I thought, how lovely to still have a real smoky-woody fire. When I was an infant I never worried about such things, but I was terrified that I might SEE Santa; that I might awake and find him there filling both the room and my knitted stocking; huge and scarlet and alien. My father reassured me with a dryness that now makes me laugh: “I can promise you faithfully that you’ll Never Ever see him!”
Or smell him. But then, maybe you did just that, last weekend? Wouldn’t it be lovely if – like the great St Nicholas that he actually is – Santa smelled of incense and the purest most costly myrrh? After all the Patron of Perfume is not the often wrongly attributed St Mary Magdalene with her costly jar of nard¤, but St Nicholas of Myra whose medieval tomb at Bari was said to perfume the Adriatic coast with divine fragrance. I’m often surprised that the perfume industry has not more openly and widely embraced Nicholas as its own: he’d be something rather different and inspiring in those interminable seasonal advertisements. Presumably, like Mr Blair& Mr Campbell, perfume “en corporation” does not “do God”: which is supremely odd on account of the whole fragrance phenonemon being entirely religious in origin and concept.

Anyway, sublime to ridiculous. I suppose what Santa REALLY smells of is:

Soot – in those chimblies where acrid bitter soot still happens

Crusted port wine and old sweet sherry

That juicy flaky greasy tang of mince pies

Perspiration and unwashed hair; camphor and cobwebs

Reindeer – a sort of venison smell, I imagine, which would kind of meld with the fur trim on the rather tired old hot velvet and cracked leather boots

Then there are all those oranges to stuff into the toes of a billion stockings. Not forgetting the lumps of coal and the fresh cut green willow switches for bad children. All these must cling to the Saint’s presence, oozing from his great oakum canvas sack.

Incidentally, did you see that curious “slow television” turkey – ‘SLEIGH RIDE’ – over Christmas? I felt sorry for those poor reindeer in their clearly very uncomfortable blue dog-leads, being yanked along by two rather unsympathetic girls through the eternal twilight. I could smell that scrubby tundra all right: the snow, the frozen black twigs, the damp, the scanty fires and the pathetic reindeer supper of frozen moss chunks.

One common, yet often forgotten, Christmas smell is that of glue: vital for inventive fancy gift-wrap, for botching up decorations and for mending that odd breakage that will happen in all the excitement. But hasn’t the odour of glue gone off? We all know why this is, I suppose, but it really has lost its punch. Do you remember Copydex? It was made I believe from boiled up fish heads. And, of course, there was that white paste – what was it called? – in blue pots, smelling deliciously of almonds. Appropriately, each pot had an inner wax lid exactly like a Mr Kipling Bakewell tart icing, minus the cherry. I know some of us tasted it. Then there was messy old Gloy which used to encrust its red rubber stopper like clear nail varnish, and which soaked through newspaper clippings, ruining them even as you compiled the scrapbook.  Each adhesive had a very distinct character. Being a child of Leicester, I liked crystal-clear Bostik best. There was a boy at school who played a sort of Russian roulette with Bostik. He’d spread a thick layer over the lenses of his very expensive spectacles. If the glue was allowed to set undisturbed, it would eventually set and peel off in a perfect film; incidentally – or so Kenneth said – efficiently cleaning the glasses. But, of course, if the glue was tampered with as it dried – total disaster. We all had time to waste in those days.

As we still do at Christmas, leading remorselessly to a waist of time.

I wish you all that you wish for yourselves in the fullness of 2016. “Time! And time hath brought us hither!” Happy New Year to One and All.

¤ nor SS. Therese, Dorothy and Rose of Lima with their cornucopias of roses, flowers and fruits.

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At the turn of the year… Pt 1

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I bought a delicious Mizensir candle to brighten the home this Christmas. Foret de Roses smells like the bower of the Sleeping Beauty – garlands of heavy velvety crimson roses blossoming in a dark wood, rambling across an earthy mossy forest floor and throwing green tendrils against a turret wall. A bit of seasonal magic. It’s been my refuge against the warm winds constantly banging and buffeting around the East Midlands, smelling not of the soft refreshing rain which seldom came, but of damp and moisture, like half-dried laundry. Then the freeze set in and the roses had a second flowering, blooming like wine-red snow crystals.

My other reliable comfort is, as you know, is a good read. I found the cult thriller “Gone Girl” at Oxfam just before Christmas so, having been told at the library that there was a 3 month waiting list, I snapped it up with relish. Now I’m only glad I didn’t pay full retail: here’s a book with a bad smell to it and not only in its unsparing lists of chewing gum, stale beer, carry-out polystyrene coffee, cheese fritos and endless bodily secretions and effluvia. Maybe the authorial intention is satirical but – to use an old fashioned phrase – I found the whole tone of the novel objectionable and it’s not a volume I shall keep on my shelves: it can return to the nothingness from which it came. As in the past with tarot cards, a ouija board and terrible fake movie star biographies I feel happier with it out of the house. So what next? I’ve got the memoirs of Hitler’s secretary from the library – flatulence, halitosis, herbal tea, stewed apple and Bavarian ozone. A wonderful friend has sent me Defoe’s ”Roxana”; and my brother needs help with a talk for the bi-centenary of Waterloo.

Colourful details, he asks for. I tell him about Napoleon’s prodigious use of Farina cologne, exhausting a couple of bottles a day, a true perfume alcoholic. He and his Marshals had it packaged in slender flasks which they slid down inside their glassily polished boots so that they could carry scent with them – “Globe Trotter”-style – to the ends of occupied Europe. The Emperor was rubbed down, washed and massaged in cologne, as were Louis XIV and James 1 before him: monarchs who, cat-like, avoided water while still intent on keeping themselves nice. Though, as we know, Napoleon notoriously preferred his inamoratae on the grubby unbathed side, despite – or because of – his two empresses running up huge perfumery bills chez Lubin and Rance.

The other, more gruesome, thing I always remember about Waterloo is the business of the teeth. Thousands of dead young soldiers lay unburied on the battlefield for weeks while enterprising ghouls pillaged their corpses for sound healthy teenage teeth which kept international dentists supplied with denture material for the next 40 years.

Christmas – like scent – is all about memories. This year we saw the last of Billie Whitelaw – who once played Josephine to Ian Holm’s Napoleon in a 70’s tv series I recall being shot on tiny box sets almost entirely in shades of mauve and green. Mandy Rice Davies’s obituaries were illustrated with cut-out- and-keep photos of an unbelievably poised teenager (18 then was today’s 40) striding into court in the summer of ’63 as fresh and fragrant as her petalled hat. And we said goodbye to dressy tennis champion Dorothy Cheney aged 98 who leaves us on a most apposite note:

“The girls today don’t look like girls when they’re on the court… For me there’s never too much perfume or lace!”

A very happy and healthy New Year to You All!