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.

Vignettes of Old Marylebone: No 6. A Taste of India

commons voluptuary

When I hobble up to Sainsbury’s for a Simply Ham sandwich on sliced white, I am entranced by the leisurely Arab diners on the terrasses of the glorious restaurants of the Edgware Road. They look so effortlessly graceful and elegant on their cushioned benches and basket chairs, with all the time in the world for good food, ruminative chat and an inhalation of perfumed narghil smoke. Some of these establishments have the charming addition of caged exotic birds beside the tables, chirping, singing and chatting along with the clientele: another therapeutic aid to relaxation.

Portman Village has always been a pioneering centre of exotic dining ever since the Romans marched down Watling Street to where Marble Arch now stands, with their barrels of oysters and pots of garam. Around 1810, as England was consolidating her Indian Empire, the Hindoostanee Coffee House opened just north of Les Senteurs at 34 George Street: it’s now renumbered as 102 if you want to make a little pilgrimage. The owner was the enterprising Sake Din Mahomet newly arrived from Patna ( famous for its fine rice), and for a couple of years he kicked up a great stir with his provision of hookahs, sumptuous seating arrangements and native delicacies. English adventures in India had led to a curry mania at home during the Napoleonic period: remember Becky Sharp choking half to death on a chili at Joss Sedley’s over-spiced dinner in “Vanity Fair”?

On the corner of Duke Street, in the now vanished Edward Street, was Parmentier’s: this was not the Parmentier who pushed the potato as health for all, but a namesake who sounds as though he kept the most magical confectionery in the world for the beau monde and Royal Family. Preserves and conserves both “wet and dry”, ice creams and superior macaroons (just like Laduree) all piled on the health problems which Mr Din Mahomet then alleviated while wearing his other professional hat of “shampooing and vapour surgeon” to two Kings and the Quality.

I suppose we at LES SENTEURS might also consider ourselves as vapour surgeons of a sort – and our collection of gourmand perfumes are second to none. Come by and sample the Indian Raj tea party as interpeted in Parfum d’Empire’s “Fougere Bengale”: truly in Portman Village there is nothing new under the sun!

It isn’t raining rain, you know – It’s reigning violets!

A little while back I wrote to you about violets and promised a second look to examine their political and historic significance. Now that they have withered from the hedgerows let’s examine their eternal symbolism.

There are numerous perfumes on the market today which are associated with Napoleon Bonaparte and his family. Although I was much enthralled by the Emperor when doing my History A levels, I’ve since found the gilt has fallen off the gingerbread: I got extra marks once from a no doubt very bored teacher for remarking in an essay that Bonaparte cheated at cards and kept diamonds sewn in the lining of his coach in case of the need for hasty flight.
“Pourvu que ca dure”, Letizia Buonaparte, “Mme Mere”, kept kibbitzing and krechtzing in her Ajaccio market accent, and no doubt it got her son down and unnerved him. Now my attitude is something between the opinions of his two wives. Josephine’s “Bonaparte est bon a rien” and bouncy Marie Louise’s ingenuous remark on their first meeting, “you’re better looking than your portraits!”

Napoleon took the violet as one of his symbols along with the Imperial Bees and Eagles; but a coded emblem this time, a ciphered encouragement to Bonapartists during his first exile on Elba. The Little Corporal was dubbed “Caporal Violette”, his supporter wore sprigs of the flower and whispered round the double password, “Aimez vous la violette?” “Elle revient le printemps..” And of course he did come back with the violets in the spring of 1815, riddled with the haemorrhoids which lost him Waterloo. When they brought the news to the Empress Marie Louise, the messengers found her more interested in a new pair of shoes than the massacre in Belgium which kept the denture market supplied with the teeth of the fallen for decades to come.

But why the violet? Maybe because a drawing of a stylised flower bears a resemblance to an Imperial Bee, which in turn some said was an inverted Royalist fleurs de lys. Was there an irony to it? The tiny apparently modest violet, clad in imperial purple, who turns out to be the universal conqueror . You can’t help wondering if somewhere there is not a tenuous cross-Channel link with the colloquialism “coming up smelling of violets”. Bonaparte women found the symbolism handy for personal adornment. The botanising Josephine loved violets; after the fall of the Empire Marie Louise propagated them in her Duchy of Parma. Winterhalter’s group portrait of Eugenie, Empress of Napoleon 3rd ( Bonaparte’s nephew and keeper of the flame) shows her in a crinoline in the colours of white and purple violets with a posy of the flowers in her hand, the central focus of the painting.

Maybe Bonaparte was saluting the glory of Ancient Greece in his choice. Violets sprang from the blood of the warrior Ajax; the sweat of Alexander was said to be sweet-smelling as violets; and Athens, the Queen of Greece, was the Violet – Crowned City, thanks to a word-play on the name of her legendary king Ion (“a violet”).

Whether violet-scented or not, Napoleon was a prodigious user of cologne, splashing it around in lieu of a good wash I’m inclined to think, since he certainly preferred his women on the grubby side. (Here Josephine failed him, changing her linen four times a day.) Both 4711 and Roger + Gallet claim a connection; at Les Senteurs we have modern niche perfumer Marc-Antoine Corticchiato’s Eau de Gloire an evocation of the Emperor’s native Corsica. Its pendant portrait is Eau Suave, a souvenir of Josephine’s childhood tropical gardens on Martinique, and the Malmaison Redoute roses of her maturity. Creed of course owed a great debt to the patronage of the Empress Eugenie in the 1850’s and 60’s, though their stupendous oriental violet fragrance Love in Black, had to wait until the 21st century to be born.

Though the most poignant story of all concerning the Bonapartes and flowers is told of not a violet but a tulip. In extreme old age, just after the Great War, the widowed Eugenie revisited Paris and walked in the gardens of her former home, the Tuileries: the palace was long gone, burned fifty years before, but she reached over a railing to pick a tulip only to be checked by an officious park-keeper who failed to recognise his former Empress. “Mme, it is forbidden to pick the flowers”.