Fire Down Below!

Image: Tate.org.uk

Image: Tate.org.uk

The last time I lit a fire was to burn a packet of indiscreet letters in a flower pot – “Ne brulez pas vos lettres d’amour” – but for many years fire raising was my routine daily activity. Like a votress of Vesta I once had a job which revolved around it so I know that part of the appeal of a fire is that each one has its own character: every one is different. Winter mornings began on my hands and knees raking out the warm clinkers and cinders. For wood fires you leave a bed of fragrant powdery silver ash; a coal fire calls for a tidy grate with an empty basket. I had learned the routine at home from infancy: first the ash bucket, then the twisting of scrap paper into wreaths; the construction of a miniature wig-wam of sticks (small hatchet to hand on the hearth) and then the selection of tiny pieces of coal like black pearls, small enough to delicately hand-feed the new flame. There was also the risky trick of holding a double sheet of newspaper over the fireplace to encourage the fire to draw: this was not comme il faut at our house, being considered both dangerous and a bit of a fraud. I know I was petrified the first time I saw it done by Mrs Woodall from up the road. She was not above overcoming reluctance by also splashing a drop of paraffin about.

My father held that a fire should be kindled simply by skilled and simple laying: anything else was cheating. Maybe this was reaction on his part as his own dad was reckless and flamboyant with fire. Astonishing and wonderful noises, smells and colours billowed out from my grandfather’s hearth: squeezed-out tubes of oil paint, stale cocktail snacks, 78rpm records and once even an old radio were all chucked on. Amazing turquoise, green and orange flames roared up the chimney like Pamela Browne’s visionary fires of Isis in “Cleopatra”.

The biggest cheat in my father’s eyes was the use of firelighters: both an unnecessary waste of money and lacking in artistry. I’m not certain of their current retail status but no doubt you can still buy them. There was a type that looked a bit like meat faggots – lumpy bundles of sawdust and twigs: intriguing but not especially incendiary. And then there were ‘Zip’. Ah! ‘Zip’, once the light of my life. Zips came in a black packet licked by stylized flames. The packet somehow felt slightly damp and to me the contents looked like bars of moist, succulent nougat coconut cake: I always longed to lick them, bite and chew them. You could break or slice them in two (leaving oily crumbs) and the smell was addictive and tempting beyond belief – petrol/napthalene/ paraffin – so dense and literally mouthwatering. It lingered deliciously on one’s fingers but o! the punch of it when a new packet was opened. I never did taste, though: perhaps I wouldn’t be writing this now if I had.

Wood smoke is now a perfumery standard and you can smell coal mixed with rose in Nu_Be’s terrific ‘Carbon’. Coal has a great scent. It’s cold with a sooty dustines, an icy purity and the mysteries of a buried eternity. At home we went down steps into the pitch darkness of the coal house smelling the fossilised woods of one million years BC heaped up next to green logs, dry bark and sawdust. Hares, pheasants and the odd side of beef hanging for the table swung from hooks in the shadowed ceiling. There was a metallic tang from two great axes which were propped against the wall like props from a Tudor epic. It was a shed of horrid romance and imagination.

And we also had bonfires in the garden: the cardinal sin was to light one on a Sunday. (It was also said that a cheque written on a Sunday was automatically invalid). Bonfires of household rubbish, garden waste, soiled cat papers and whatever were heaped up on a concrete plaza beneath the apple trees. Fascinating smells filled our hair and clothes as we spent whole days playing around the pyre, the only pleas from the adults being that we didn’t waste too many matches. I think we got a little high on the smell of those too: the initial exciting hit as the flame takes wing. I imagine we smelled terrible but this I do not recall: like so many things the odour of bonfires seems to have changed with the years due I guess to the quality of things burned. We were like little devotees of Moloch, pleasing the nostrils of the gods with dead leaves and cardboard.

 

Don’t forget to book your place at our exclusive Grossmith London event on Sunday 28th September!

Les Senteurs and Grossmith Invitation

An introduction!

Ahead of our anticipated soiree on the evening of Thursday May 8th, here is a brief introduction to each of our guests to whet your appetites!

So read on, discover the creations of these masters of fragrance and join us from 17:30 at:

Les Senteurs, 2 Seymour Place, W1H 7NA

James Heeley

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Born in Yorkshire, James Heeley worked for many years as a designer – taking his inspiration from the world of nature. It was when he moved to Paris and discovered the works of legendary perfumer Annick Goutal that he fell in love with the world of fragrance. James’ contemporary style can be seen in every scent: they are innovative, imaginative but always with a hint of the long tradition of French perfumery.

James will be introducing his latest scent, Coccobello, as well as the rest of his fragrances. Always a joyful, warm fellow to talk to, this will be a rare treat!

Discover Heeley

 

Marina Sersale and Sebastian Alvarez Murena

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Eau d’Italie hails from the beautiful sun-drenched coast of Positano, and Le Sirenuse hotel which is wonderfully apparent in their fragrances. Marina and Sebastian, who have spoken at Les Senteurs before, are both incredibly charming and passionate – always a complete joy to talk with, one can’t help but fall in love with them and Eau d’Italie!

They will be presenting their upcoming fragrance, Graine de Joie, for the first time in the UK; a brilliant, sparkling scent with notes of red currant, pomegranate, freesia and a slightly musky drydown. Sure to be a favourite in the coming summer months!

Discover Eau d’Italie

Alberto Borri

nu_beEDOT

Nu_be are a relatively new addition to Les Senteurs, and they have been met with great enthusiasm. Contemporary, stylish and enticing: the fragrances are each inspired by Chemical elements, including Hydrogen, Carbon and Sulphur, and created by some of the best noses working today.

Alberto created the brand in order to combine the modern artistic approach to fragrance with traditional perfumery. He has a strong familial background in fragrance: his grandfather founded Morris Profumo, and has an undeniable passion in scent, which shows in the fragrances of Nu_be. Alberto will introduce Mercury and Sulphur, the two latest additions to the Nu_be range, as well as showing the short film inspired by the collection.

Discover Nu_be

If you would like to attend our evening on Thursday May 8th, please RSVP to:

pr@lessenteurs.com | 020 7183 5842

Smells of the Old Midlands

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When I was an infant in the 1950’s my grandmother regaled me with endless stories of her own childhood back in the ’90’s. So eager was I for these tales and so deeply I drank from the well of reminiscences that the sights and smells of late Victorian Leicester seem still just within my reach. What is lost, though, is the atmosphere of the 1840’s when my great grandparents were born. They seem to have sealed up their childhoods from their own young so I have no conception of working class Nottingham at the time of the Crimean War and the Great Exhibition.
My great grandfather’s elder brother Jack is supposed to have been stupefied with brandy before having a leg amputated at Scutari. He would then have been only in his early teens. His sisters (as well as his mother, Sophia) were all in the lace industry from a very young age, whether at home or in the factories: the census lists them as tighteners, straiteners and carders. Lace girls were said to be proud of their hands (whitened sometimes with arsenic washes) and came in for much stick from the moralists for blowing their earnings on cheap perfumed hair pomades, ribbons and skin lotions. Maybe we can still catch a whiff of crudely scented bear grease, perspiration and sebum from the little terraced house in St Mary’s. No doubt Sophia brewed up herbal tisanes to be offered with six penn’orth of laudanum to alleviate the pains in her son Jack’s stump when it throbbed in the damps from the Trent. Her husband was a cobbler from a long line of boot repairers so a reek of leather and twine hung in the air, mixed with the metallic tang of nails, oil and bodkin; the steam from the copper, the lines of wet laundry, the endless cooking.
My great grandfather Francis seems to have gone first into the army and then the police before finding his life’s work in public health. He moved to Leicester, married the spirited dressmaker Emma and fathered 11 children. Francis devoted much of his career to the eradication of smallpox epidemics, being all too familiar with the smell of rotting apples that was said to announce the presence of the disease. He reported unfit food & sour or watered milk in local shops, and worked until he died on the job aged 78. For relaxation he fished, and raised auriculas and profusely scented pheasant’s eye narcissi in the back garden .
My grandmother remembered her mother’s horror of monkeys: the arrival of a barrel organ in the road, with a fez’d marmoset aloft, sent Emma shrieking to her bedroom to bury her head in the pillows. There was a monkey next door too, prone to scorching its behind on the kitchen range. From further down the road came the tang of green apples and blood on that famous day when a neighbour severed her finger while making pies. There were favourite mint and dripping sandwiches for supper; and the whiffy gas lighting which turned everyone’s face a spectral greyish green after dark. Even in the early 1930’s my mother remembered the lamp-lighter coming down the streets through the dusk.
I was both tickled and impressed when I reread Beatrix Potter’s miniature novel of Gothic horror – The Tale of Mr Tod (1912) – to recognise my great grandfather’s anti-smallpox tactics in Tod’s policy to eradicate the stench of badger. Potter critics are always saying she got her facts wrong here: that badgers are famously clean creatures. So they may be, but they do have a distinctly piggy smell which has nothing to do with dirt. My father kept one some 50 years ago: she was a dear and used to run up the sitting room curtains, but she exuded a very pungent aroma, that’s for sure. Anyway, here is Mr Tod’s fumigation plan, almost identical to grandfather’s methods at exactly the same date:
‘ I will get soft soap, and monkey soap, and all sorts of soap; and soda and scrubbing brushes; and persian powder; and carbolic to remove the smell. I must have a disinfecting. Perhaps I may have to burn sulphur.’
Before you ask, we don’t stock monkey soap at Les Senteurs. But we can supply the smell of sulphur!