Toes Like A Monkey

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I once had a wonderful Swedish friend who worked for Oscar de la Renta. She had rippling tawny-gold hair and beautiful freckled hands with dark crimson lacquered nails. For winter parties she’d rub Body Shop vanilla oil into her skin, top it up with a veil of Chopard’s Casmir (in the lotus bottle, remember?) and pull a thick white fisherman’s sweater over the lot. The effect, I’m here to tell you, was devastating. “Ah”, she’d reply to all compliments “but I have a flaw: toes like a monkey!” She pronounced the word to rhyme with ‘donkey’, so these prehensile digits acquired for me their own esoteric glamour.

Heading the chapter on symmetry in our O level maths book at school was the Congreve quotation “I could never look long upon a monkey without very mortifying reflections”. For centuries monkeys and apes were used in art as symbols of folly, lust, greed and all the weaknesses of a creature that was seen as man degraded: parodies of humans who had fallen from grace and metamorphosed into graceless slaves of their own bestial appetites. Post-Darwin, the monkey assumed a different role in the scheme of evolution while artists such as Picasso, Rousseau, Matisse and Gaugin explored on canvas the animal urges inherent in man.

In the early 1930’s there was a craze for screen apes – King Kong and Cheetah course, but also the orangutan in The Murders in the rue Morgue and Mae West’s pet monkeys; Hans Albers and Luise Rainer dancing and singing the comic paso doble Mein Gorilla Hat ‘Ne Villa im Zoo. Especially we remember the huge gorilla shambling in chains onto the cabaret stage in Blonde Venus, then tearing off one of its own paws to reveal Dietrich’s luminously white hand garlanded in diamonds. (Was Billy Wilder maybe satirising all this singerie with the burial of Norma Desmond’s chimp in Sunset Boulevard?). Curiously but not coincidentally, this was also the era of such farouche leather scents as Knize Ten; the tanneries of all those variations on a theme of cuir de Russe; the animalic musks & pelts of Caron. And what was the best-dressed grande horizontale then wearing? Black satin, a string of pearls & monkey fur.

Have you met any monkeys, eyeball to eyeball? My grandmother knew one, next door, that spent his winters singeing his fur on the kitchen range. Her own mother had a peculiar horror of simians: the melody of the barrel organ coming down the street would prompt her to fly upstairs burying her head under the pillows until man and red-bolero’d marmoset could be bribed to take themselves off. As a child, I knew a monkey that lived in a pub and sipped stout; and I recall a beautiful blonde who nurtured two baby capuchins in her abundant golden hair – you’d see these minute hands like four spiders emerging from the roots, waving above the lady’s noble forehead.

The capuchins were immaculate, though I remember the ale-monkey whiffing a bit and of course the powerful smell of the monkey house at the zoo still lingers in the mind. Pungent animalic smells are of course by no means a turn-off for everyone: one of Louis XV’s early mistresses Pauline de Vintimille was said to reek like a monkey and the king was intoxicated by her. Perfumes that for me have hovered on the edge of the nauseous include Olivia Giacobetti’s famous Dzing! with its circus theme of civet and damp sawdust; and Weil’s peculiar but once greatly-loved Antelope which I found just too reminiscent of animal skin. It was rather like sitting in the back of a very expensive old car, beautifully hide- upholstered and a little too smooth in motion.

Just now we have taken delivery of the new Parfum d’Empire Musc Tonkin, a recreation of the traditional soiled old musk accords via floral, woody and fruity notes. Very convincing, highly disturbing. Gosh, how this scent clings, permeates and soaks in! My esteemed manager Mr Callum came into the shop the other day and caught my aura: “Aha! Wearing Musc Tonkin are we?” In fact I had merely held up the bottle to show a customer; I’d not even sprayed it. That’s musk in the old grand manner: musky monkey business.

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Some smells do linger, Jean…

Circe Invidiosa

Circe Invidiosa

“Sillage”: in French the word means the cleft water and foaming ripples that mark the wake of a ship; it also denotes the trail of an animal. There’s a clue in that, for by the English it is used almost exclusively to mean the waft of perfume left by the presence or passage of a wearer. Everyone demands intense sillage these days: they even measure it. A sillage of three inches is nugatory; a respectable sillage should reach an arm’s length from the body and no further. And so on. Frederic Malle has even, you might reasonably claim, recreated the odour of sillage in his witty and delicious Cafe Society candle and room scent: une sillage de sillage.

Today people are by and large ready to admit (albeit under pressure) that they are wearing perfume, though they might be reluctant to reveal the name of their Chosen One. For centuries, though, the lovely and desirable sought the alluring enchantment of the sillage without the dubious connotations of the scent that gave it birth. To be seen to wear perfume on the skin was meretricious and dingy; yet to smell delicious was the mark of goodness, of moral integrity. The odour of sanctity revealed that a person was pure, benevolent, divine, without spot or stain. And it would continue to manifest even after death, rendering the mortal remains incorruptible, giving off an redolence of sweet myrrh, roses and what have you. So the aim of the fashionable was to create the illusion that scent emanated from one’s own skin, pores and soul – just as Alexander the Great sweated forth the smell of violets – and not from some dubious potation which aped the divine gift on none-to-clean skin.

“From her fragrant robes a lovely perfume was scattered” reads a hymn to the goddess Demeter. For thousands of years men and women strove for this effect: and contemporary literature – poems, plays, novels – colludes in the illusion. Desirable individuals exude scent from a vague, mysterious source. They are surrounded by an aura of perfume which suffuses their clothing, furniture, possessions and which leaves wonderful sillage when they move: “a faint delicious fragrance hung about her…”. Perfume clings to the objects that the beautiful people touch and it lingers in their rooms, their beds, luggage and hair – “she smells all amber!” But the source of the scent remains vague, unspecified: it manifests spontaneously; it seems to transmit from incense burners, herbs & flowers or from the very air. It comes from the purity of the soul. Nothing so vulgar as a bottle of perfume is mentioned: not in connection with sympathetic characters, at any rate.

I remember, I remember memorable encounters with sillage. I recall the girl with magnificent mahogany hair buying postcards in the National Gallery shop some 20 years ago, and she suffused in a cloud of Guerlain’s Samsara. I have never smelled that lovely but tricky scent so beautifully interpreted. I remember Chanel No 5 at a Covent Garden matinee, stealing over the stalls from a golden-shouldered matron in white linen: far more beguiling than discordant old Prokofiev. Some 30 years ago the ground floor at Harrods always smelled subtly and sweetly of gardenias as though left in the wake of generations of exquisite shoppers dipped in the Floris house exclusive. And most of all I recall midsummer midnight at Luxor in 1992 and the temple of Rameses on the Nile waterfront: everywhere the faint but insistent odour of Oscar de la Renta’s Volupte, the osmanthus & violet hit of the day. It was the scent and epicentre of the hot blue night.

“Some smells do linger, Jean!” as that careful lady in the tv ads used to say. And thank goodness for that. There was a woman picking over Cheddar in the Co-Op the other day who left a gorgeous powdery floral mist behind her – I don’t know what it was; dry, faintly spicy, it hung in the air like a sparkling iridescent bubble. And for sillage connoisseurs everywhere let me put in a word for Andy Tauer’s Sotta la Luna Gardenia – la Stupenda, indeed! Here is a massive and glorious gardenia scent enhanced with all the creamy sandalwood, tonka and vanilla notes exuded by the flower itself; and there’s a mossy, dark, jungly quality that expands its gender relevance. But the volume, the expansion! I like to wear just a drop of this one and follow its progress as it expands and inflates like a great balloon of fragrance. It opens up like the flower which inspires it, from a tight green bud to a voluptuous all-encompassing mantle. This is a case where less is definitely more.

A Fine Baby Boy

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I didn’t write about royal baby joy at the time as everyone was complaining of saturation coverage: I enjoyed it very much myself, something cheerful for a change. And now that Prince George has gone home, we may perhaps take a little look at him. Baby Cambridge’s appearance on July 22, day of stupendous, stupefying heat, the most intense of the year, seemed richly mystically symbolic: a Son of the Sun, grandson of Diana of the Moon. A ray of the Sun in Splendour, device of his distant Plantagenet ancestors. Astrologically Prince George is just caught within the watery Cancerian net as demonstrated by the breaking of tropical electric storms and deluges over London within hours of his birth, but he’s on the cusp of fiery Leo too, a creature of heat, passion and flame. I should think he’ll run rings round his Gemini papa and lock budding horns with his tough and charismatic Capricorn mother. A perfect amalgum for a future King: proud, loyal, economical, charming, creative, magnetic, sensitive, gentle, empathetic and responsible. And with enough of the deep crustacean shell and native caution to preserve his regal distance. Sharing the day: Mama Rose Kennedy, Terence Stamp, Oscar de la Renta, Bryan Forbes and –  supposedly – Alexander the Great.

Always excepting the unfortunate Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor, this baby is the first Heir to the British throne since the Conquest to be born under the sign of Cancer. All things being equal, he’ll be the first crowned Cancerian monarch in 1000 years. We’ve had plenty of mighty Leos and glittering mercurial Geminians, stubborn dutiful Taureans and balanced, impartial Librans – “affable, suave and dapper” – but no King Crabs. Our Cambridge infant should prove to be a revelation in kingship, though probably long after the last juice has been squeezed from Lemon Wedge and his rind consigned to the recycling. However, one must not presume or assume. Like Nostradamus I looked into my basin of dark waters on your behalf, and now wonder, after all this continuing uninformed talk of abdications, whether it will not be William who in the end springs a surprise. Will he maybe decide to take a rain-check on kingship and hand the reins, untried, over to George VII? After all, William too is on the Cancerian cusp.

Royal births used to be, almost by definition, harrowing and terrible affairs. It was not until our own Queen’s lifetime that the custom of having the Home Secretary on hand to witness the legitimacy of the baby was done away with. This precaution started after the widely believed rumour that James II’s son and heir was a changeling, smuggled within a warming pan into the bed of Mary Beatrice of Modena – incidentally, one of our few truly beautiful Queen Consorts.

Royal mothers-to-be were secluded in their apartments weeks before and after the birth; rooms closed and shuttered against perilous light and dangerous fresh air. Goats and cows were brought to the bedside so that their fresh milk would lose no time nor potency in nourishing the young mother; other animals – sheep and lambs and hares – might be slaughtered in situ after a difficult delivery so that the Queen and offspring could be cosied up in freshly flayed warm skin. Can you even begin to imagine the state of the stale foul air, further heated and corrupted with blood, sweat, wine (to wash baby), a blaze of candles and braziers of disinfecting herbs and incense? Queen Jane Seymour never recovered. We know that in 1778 Marie Antoinette nearly died in labour at Versailles for want of fresh air: the King himself smashed the windows, all sealed up for winter, and revived her with the bite of a frosty December morning. And what about the horror story of Queen Mary Tudor? She was immured in her darkened sweltering rooms for month after month after month till it finally had to be horribly admitted that there was no baby coming, that the whole pregnancy had been a fearful illusion. In her memoir, Catherine the Great paints an awful picture of her baby son Paul, his tiny face puddled in sweat, swaddled in a cradle packed with velvet and furs on the direct orders of the Tsarina Elizabeth, herself beautiful, massive and always wine-purple in the face.

The modern baby is marketed as a creature of pure and pretty scents, smelled to advantage on a plumply hydrated uncorrupted baby skin. Do baby worshippers still pay the ultimate accolade of declaring their intention of eating the new arrival? This must somehow connect with the well-known phenonemon of all new-borns looking, however briefly, like their fathers so that papa does not doubt his paternity – and like Saturn (or an animal) devour his own progeny. I like that baby smell, and without sentimental illusion: I’ve changed many nappies, and cleaned up sick in my time. Every healthy baby has an sweetly innocent odour about it, no matter how much of a mess it’s temporarily gotten itself into.

And this smell is what? Well: milky, biscuity, rusky, slightly sicky sometimes, a whiff of ammonia, skin, hair, soap. And  a lavishly powdered bottom, which is why perfumes such as the increasingly rare Narcisse Noir, Villoresi’s Teint de Neige and Kilian’s Love (…Don’t Be Shy) are so much in demand: these confections of orange flower, vanilla, marshmallow, iris and rice have a sweet and nostalgic powderiness which I guess spells nourishment, nostalgia, nursery security, Mummy’s perfume, Nanny’s solid bosom. Narcisse Noir has the slightly citric clogged dampness of Johnsons Baby Powder: a note that emerges in the heart of the scent as the orange hits the orris. Caron has now brought out My Ylang, a creamy white floral, dusted with icing sugar: meringue or derriere? Kurkdjian’s Cologne Pour le Matin is far from infantile but its wonderfully woozy evocation of daytime naps – clouds of thyme, lavender, neroli – lays you down in a doll’s bassinet like Gulliver in Brobdignag.  There is always the faintest hint of wet nappy in orange blossom and mock orange, especially when overblown; not exactly unpleasant but disconcerting and attractively disturbing – a reminder that babyhood is strictly limited; that the serpent has already entered Eden. Which is where the intrinsic corruption of Divin Enfant comes in with its bizarrie of tobacco, cassie, mocha and rose: leading by inference to George’s Christening : the next big photo opportunity.