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”…
Ever been told by a stay-at-home how your dog knows that you’re on your way back, even though you’re still in transit half an hour away? Maybe he goes to sit by the garden gate or peers, all expectant, from a window. One of our pugs used to squawk like a macaw in the car when we were homeward-bound, albeit miles off. I once escorted a pining peke from Leicester to Cambridge to be reunited with her mistress. I swear, that peke picked up from the moment we boarded the train. Of course, it’s all due to the acute power and versatility of the canine sense of smell. The dog realises that his perception of the owner’s smell is growing fainter: so apparently he reasons that it must be time for an imminent reunion. To put it in crude human metaphor, it works like an olfactory clock; a variation of the ones that Carl Linnaeus and Eugene Rimmel planned with plants and perfume and which never worked properly. But animal senses have perfect timing. They just proved it with “tests”, though I think we all suspected as much.
Smells cross the hours and the years as well as the miles. That dress Marilyn wore to sing ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ has been auctioned off once again. Last time the occasion was all written up at length in a magazine; Vanity Fair, I think it was. The dress was then in a poor state of repair, for MM had been sewn into it for the live performance and cut out of it after. The Jean Louis nude souffle chiffon¤ was so wringing wet with sweat, they had to dry it with a squad of hair-dryers before Marilyn was hastily sewn back into it to go off to a Kennedy dinner. She was rushed and fussed and she fidgeted a lot, so the re-robing caused minor tears and spilled bugle beads. She had insisted on putting it on again -“since when I have worn no other” – and it was well sprayed with No 5, I suppose, to “refresh and sweeten”.
Never cleaned – you couldn’t clean garments like that in 1962 – the dress subsequently decayed badly. I recall a certain Luxury Specialist Cleaners making a disastrous attempt to launder a similar dress even some thirty years later – the thing simply dissolved. Only the trimmings survived. When they opened the drum, there were all the rhinestones and sequins rattling about, but no trace of a golden gown. You wonder, therefore, if there’s much left of the original: I’m imagining extensive expert restoration. Dietrich, as is well-known, used to do running repairs on her Jean Louis stage costumes with hairs pulled from her own head, saying thread or cotton was too coarse.
Expected to fetch $1.5 million this time around, the Monroe gown was finally knocked down at $4.8 million. Amazing. An observant correspondent writes in: “….the thing is, no new icons are being created so the old ones are priceless, like Vermeers…”
I wonder if you can still smell the Chanel.
I thought of that terrible story told¤¤ of Garland during one of her final concert seasons. She was in such a bad way by then that toxic odours gushed from the poor girl’s pores – “stage hands recoiled visibly” – and she had to drench herself in Ma Griffe before, during and after every performance.
Legends of old Hollywood often smelled a bit funny. We’ve all heard about Gable’s teeth and Grable’s nervous incontinence. Crawford had her movie sets kept icy cold, reputedly to control her sweats. Garbo chewed garlic cloves to put a damper on amorous leading men. Returning to Marilyn, do you remember that story of her munching greasy cold cutlets in bed and wiping her hands and lips on the sheets? Gloria Swanson made a point in her memoirs of mentioning Lionel Barrymore’s terrible smell, a reek which offended her super-sensitive (and very beautiful) ski-jump nose. During the filming of ‘Sadie Thompson’, therefore, she had Lionel’s clothes confiscated and destroyed during his lunchtime nap¤¤¤. Apparently thereafter he was a changed man. Maybe as Gloria writes “he’d taken a notion to bathe”.
A tiny tot once shouted out in a crowded department store : “Mummy! There’s the man who smells!” She wasn’t referring to me, thank Heaven, but to a game octogenarian who was always soaked in L’Heure Bleue, even at 8 in the morning. Inevitably, there were terribly hurt feelings. You have to be so careful. Smells – like yawns – are contagious.
Let’s talk some more about this another time.
¤ “a very rude dress” writes a correpondent. She’s right.
¤¤ by biographer Anne Edwards.
¤¤¤ beauty sleep. I remember “going round” after a matinee of ‘Aren’t We All?’ at Birmingham in 1984 to be told firmly: “Miss Colbert and Mr Harrison are asleep”.
The clocks changed last week and I with them. Fiddling around with the time exhausts me – it mucks up my body’s routines. I react like a baby or a dog, uncomprehendingly thrown off course and put thoroughly out of sorts. It’s a species of fright, of course. It’s as John Milton says, it’s “snuffing the scent of mortal change on earth”. It takes me about a fortnight to get back on track; whether it’s “fall back” or “spring forward”, the effect on me is always retrograde. I think my body clock is tuned so precariously that any tinkering about stops me dead in my tracks.
Especially so in autumn when the melancholy winds sweep in with the falling leaves; and the rains dampen us down into a brown study beneath the stripped trees. Brown is my least favourite of all the colours. Draining away light, it lacks the drama of black and the warm elegance of grey. I’m talking about that dreary hue when brown shows flat and unadorned; devoid of any flash of red, blue, copper or gold. Just plain brown. Brown is the true colour of prolonged long-term mourning. Shades of dun, umber, sludge, baked-potato, penny and dirt have – like all colours – their own peculiar odour.
Last week, as I fished leaves out of drains and scarified the increasingly sodden lawn, I inhaled the sad scents of vast dim November afternoons half a century ago. Apparently foggier and colder then, the defining redolence of those days was of school playing fields, scratchy hot-smelling serge shorts and, particularly, of a horrible pair of football boots. They looked like something out of The Beano, those boots. Never well-fitting – to allow for growth – they were hideously built-up and laced to well above the ankle-bone, like a clown’s comic footwear. Off the pitch, I clattered and teetered about in them like a geisha on clogs due to the soles having grotesquely high studs. They smelled of caked Dubbin, wet humus, dried mud, damp woollie socks and knotted elastic garters (“not too tight! Don’t cut off the circulation.”). Every now and again you had to work the boots over with an old knife or a stick to clean the dead grass and muck from the soles and crevices. That dreary doleful smell of cracked leather and impacted dead soil: brown, plain and simple.
“To this end we must all come”. The smells of autumn may seem variously depressing or cosy according to temperament. The cult of Danish “hygge” is now all the go but I’m thinking less of spicy spine boughs, mulled wine and perfumed candles and more of a nostalgie de la boue in an animal snuggery. Deep in our suppressed bestial nature there is an innate desire to hibernate; to get down that burrow, earth or bed for the next four or five months. To live off our own fat deposits; to be dopily self-sufficient; comatose-cocooned in the smell of our own kind – fur, skin, hay & feather bedding and nugatory waste. (Those all-important national surveys are always claiming that some 20% of the population change their sheets only three times a year). My father always used to say he would have preferred to live as a hound or a fox. He would chunter this mantra as he snuggled down in his kitchen armchair between sturdy horse blankets and beneath a warm and whiffy wriggling dog or two. Maybe those of us more in touch with our animal side have happier and more sensually comforting autumns than the more spiritually evolved.
“The doubt: can these dry bones live?” Have another look at that painting by Alexander Bowler.
I have mentioned before that my sense of smell goes awol when I’m in a state: so since the clock change it’s been very odd. After administering a brisk haircut, my wonderful barber – who entertains me with fabulous tales, as in the Arabian Nights – rubbed my head with some proprietary barbicide bay rum concoction. It was initially delicious but then reacted very oddly with an ambery frankincense perfume I’d applied on arising. (And perhaps that was a bit advanced for a November dawn). For the rest of the day (despite changing all my linen and washing my head) I was suffused in an effusion of suffocating fruity musk. It smelled as though it was emanating from the depths of my being, as musks formerly poured from the ancient mosque walls of Samarkand and the Empress Josephine’s bedroom wallpaper.
We probably spend more money in the autumn, just to keep ourselves comfortable – and that’s aside from the Christmas potlatch. Now everyone’s talking about the funny new five pound notes. They haven’t yet had enough circulation to have acquired that characteristic faintly greasy pecuniary smell. “They are very slippery”, remarked an aged gentleman as the fresh fivers slid through his fingers like flying fish. (Same colour, too). Apparently the visually impaired and the blind are having problems with them: the notes feel too similar to receipt slips. A man explained on the wireless that he had been used to identifying all our paper currency by touch – but that the new notes defied this. I should like to have asked him whether identification by smell came into it too. I imagine it might well do so.
Thomas Hood¤ failed to mention an absence of smell in his famous poem ‘November’. Was this due to the inhibitions of his time or to an underdeveloped olfactory sense? Rather, I think that the wily poet knew that there are always smells, even in the dimmest of months.
Another landmark this week with the death of the King of Thailand after an immensely long reign of seventy years – a stint just short of Louis XIV’s marathon. Once, long ago, I had the honour of helping his widow, the lovely Queen Sirikit, to purchase a number of novelty musical boxes, fashioned in the style of Bavarian chalets. The Queen had the exquisite relaxed courtesy of an ancient royalty – “there is No Hurry At All!”. It was wintertime and she was cocooned in layers of dark silky fur. A wonderful smooth warm fragrance surrounded her person, susurrating & shimmering in almost visible waves in the eternal wraparound heat of Harrods’ ground floor.
An essential new book¤ reviewed in The Times tells us, amongst other things, that celebrated writers have often been stimulated and inspired by their noses. Schiller habitually kept over-ripe apples by him (see also Louisa May Alcott). No doubt Balzac was addicted as much to the scent as to the taste and kick of his fatal coffee. Rudyard Kipling believed that every word should have its own redolence. I’m half way through an extraordinary novel¤¤ by one Ottessa Moshfegh: a Boston writer with a powerfully disturbing vision of life. Ms Moshfegh is blessed – I suppose – with an almost obsessive sense of smell. Spoiled food, body odour, the inevitable sordid consequences of anorexia, alcoholism and chronic constipation are all grist to her mill, pitilessly & pitifully recounted. Ottessa’s heroine distrusts perfume:
“…I often have to leave a room…when a person near to me smells bad. I don’t mean the smell of sweat and dirt, but a kind of artificial, caustic smell, usually from people who disguise themselves in creams and perfumes. These highly scented people are not to be trusted. They are predators. They are like… dogs….”
I’ll spare you the rest of that sentence, it contains too revolting and vivid an olfactory idea. You’ll need to go and look it up. I know what Kipling was getting at, I think. There is an aspect of synaesthesia that has the printed word not only conveying an image, but actually reeking of that idea or concept. There are many words I prefer not to use either in speech or in writing on account of I find them ugly or, as it were, evil-smelling. They are not in themselves intrinsically offensive but there’s something the very look and sound of them – not to mention the smell – that grates. “Stink”, pretty obviously, is one. “Rip” is, more obscurely, another: as in “don’t you rip that paper!” When I was very small, my grandmother pronounced both of these words as “common” and consequently verboten. Nowadays, I wonder whether she and I do not share this same syndrome. “Common” – with its late Victorian connotations of inappropriate expressions of uncontrolled emotion in all its forms – was perhaps the nearest my grandmother could come to defining her aversion. If being common is to do with bad taste, then it must inevitably have a connection with bad smells as surely as the palate is connected to the nose.
I went to a Conference recently. It was great. There were hundreds of us in the hall. After lunch, a Life Coach came on to lecture the assembled perfume-vendors. He asked each one of us to think, silently, of five words to describe fragrance and scent. Then he pounced at random and asked individuals to tell us their chosen words. Amazing, of course, because of the enormous variety of ideas – “swooning”, “spreadsheets”, “seduction”, “sales”, “sex”, “profits” and “exhaustion”. All human life was there.
When it comes to describing perfume, everyone has difficulties. What sort of scent is one looking for? A Lovely Perfume, of course; an Exciting Perfume; a Different or Delicate Perfume. After that, it gets tricky for nearly all of us. We have to hunt for metaphors, similes and approximate images. Sometimes our limited vocabulary and language fail us completely and like our cousins the great apes we have to use gestures, mimes, squeaks and grunts in desperate efforts to get our ideas across.
Mrs Thatcher used to talk a lot about “weasel words”. For me, the artful weasels are the apparently straightforward words that lead us by the nose. Words like “rose”, “jasmine”, “vanilla” and ” violet” seem safe and sufficiently unambiguous. Surely they can be used as solid building blocks when it comes to describing and choosing a scent? Not at all. “Rose”, for instance, is the vaguest of concepts for the aroma of that multi-moleculed flower is only what each person makes of it¤¤¤. Hence the classic and not unusual case of someone who has always lived by the credo that he loathes and abominates rose perfume – but who on a visit to Les Senteurs ends up intoxicated by it.
Providing, of course, that he forgets the preconceptions of the word and concentrates on his own sense of smell: thus discovering a rose interpretation that “clicks”. Again, consider lavender – another word that travels badly: to the Italians it speaks of fresh laundry; to the French a potent masculinity¤¤¤¤; to the British – faded & fragile old ladies. Its no good fixating on any one word in the complex arcane language of scent: we must get behind and beneath that, to the true fragrance hidden in the verbiage.
This week’s tip must therefore be, to ignore the smell of the perfumer’s words; pass over the ingredients – and concentrate on the aura, the mood, the atmosphere of the whole composition. Immerse yourself not in descriptors but in an olfactory, holistic and emotional experience.
¤ How To Write Like Tolstoy: a journey into the minds of our greatest writers by Richard Cohen. Random House 2016.
¤¤ Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. Jonathan Cape 2016.
¤¤¤ So that perhaps Les Senteurs’ fragrance with the wittiest and most acute title is ALTAIA’s soft and subtle By Any Other Name.
¤¤¤¤ witness Caron’s definitive Pour Un Homme: “the world’s first scent for men”. A triumph since 1934.
“Lemon Wedge Is On Holiday”
Nevertheless, like some old music hall artiste, he will appear for you and offer nugatory olfactory comment on the week gone by. As Arthur Marshall used to say in a different circumstance, LW is never off duty unless he’s in bed – and not always then. Besides, no one’s sense of smell can be turned on and off like a tap: we lovers of scent are literally led by the nose, willy nilly. Odours seek us out rather than the other way about. Good smells – and bad.
No doubt it had something to do with that short and very intense wave of heat and humidity which sharpened our sense of smell: for suddenly and very evidently there was a spate of unsavoury references to fetor and malodour in the media¤. These came together, all in a clump and a rush: very odd and remarkable. A propos, do you ever analyse the look of your birthday cards? I have noticed each year it falls out, apparently haphazardly, that the cards group themselves into a definite colour co-ordination and theme. One year they are all variations on green and ochre beer bottles; the next time around, every greeting is a flight of blue butterflies. You have a look: the system works at Christmas, too.
And so it was that – as the heat, my heart and my head pounded in tandem every morning – I was greeted by a battery of sequential, often nauseating, redolent vignettes. There was the intriguing but revolting revelation of how, during WW II, SOE had planned to impregnate (via agents with “perfume atomisers”) the uniforms of high-ranking Nazis with unspeakably awful reeks to spread despondency and disgust in the ranks. I don’t fancy going into details but you can picture for yourselves the sort of things the Allied scientists came up with. Think of emergency moppings-up after both human and animal calamities and the concomitant urgent need for Dettol, a scalding hot bath and clean clothes from the skin out. One can imagine that the filthy scheme would have demoralised the enemy only too well. It’s bad enough to have a terrible chemically-enhanced smell stuck in your nostrils – much worse to realise that it’s emanating from you.
Because I am on vacation I have spent a lot of time with my nose in a book. William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Confessions of Nat Turner” is bursting with the sinister smells of the terrible Old South. The barren fields of Virginia exhausted by promiscuous tobacco planting; wood smoke from sad dying fires; uncontrollable sweating; home-distilled brandy; and a reptilian lawyer whose greasy clothes and person are drenched in sweet apple-blossom cologne – “…..I was unable to tell which I resented more, that doughy voice or the honeyed, overpowering perfume”.
Simon Sebag Montefiore’s monumental history of the Romanovs is in great demand at the library (there were 17 readers ahead of me). Here I read about the extraordinary family letters of Nicholas and Alexandra on the subject of breaking wind¤¤. More to be expected were details of Alexandra’s dainty custom of perfuming her letters to the Front with Atkinson’s White Rose. “‘The scent excites me and quite drew me to you'” – wrote the Tsar by return¤¤¤.
And there’s a brand new book out, all about George Orwell’s sense of smell; his perception of redolence and mephitis; and the impact of it all on his writing. I remember his late sister’s shop – “Avril’s” – at Southwold, though, alas! I missed Avril herself by some years. Under later management, the store sold Annick Goutal perfumes – wafts of Passion and Folavril mingling with the ambrosial succulence of salty samphire and dressed crabs at the late fish shop next door.
You have to be careful with these reminiscences, though. Careful how you filter them. Last weekend I went to a wonderful show put on by the local history society. There was all my infancy and early life in the villages, laid out in post cards, posters and photos in the Methodist Hall. There was the flowering almond tree in our garden; the dusty old library with the dark creaking stairs; the cheesey-bacon-coffee-smelling grocery. There was the tiny shoe shop full of new leather, raw canvas, rubber soles, chalky whitening paste and Cherry Blossom Shoe-Shine. That night I woke myself up at 3am, shouting my head off in nightmare and alarming the neighbours. Emotional indigestion. Too many memories stirred up. And I remembered then how, as a tot, I had got very muddled in myself over the tale of Moses in the rushes. I knew the reedy smell and velvety texture of bulrushes from walks down the water meadows. Moses’s floating cradle, caulked with pitch and tar, I could relate to our newly creosoted fence and the steamrollers¤¤¤¤ that surfaced the roads. The thuriferous fragrance of the Egyptian princess’s palace must have been like that of our very high church.
And I was the first-born son.
Consequently, I often fancied I saw Pharaoh in his blue war crown peering in at me through the tiny window at the back of our sitting-room.
No wonder I yelled out…..eh?
Yes, you have to watch your step with smells. Such power!
¤ even to an endlessly re-run trailer for a vintage episode of The Likely Lads on Channel 19 – “she’s so stuck-up, you’d think her backside was a perfume factory”. Honestly…..!
¤¤ very strange, you might think, in view of the usual perception of the Empress as a parody of bourgeois narrow-mindedness. But then, Alix was used to the strong emanations of Rasputin – onions/garlic/alcohol/sweat/vodka/sebum – and his rustic mystic predecessors. She’d worked in military operating theatres; her husband had chronic dental problems; and she had grown up at the court of Queen Victoria who, contrary to the belief of many, took a pretty robust view of the Schattenseite of life.
¤¤¤ Note to our friends and colleagues at Atkinsons: is this romantic perfume not due for an exciting revival?
¤¤¤¤ when did all the steamrollers vanish from our streets? There was a drama! There was a smell to thrill!
“And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon…she came to prove him with hard questions…And she gave the king an hundred and twenty talents of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones: there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the queen of Sheba gave to king Solomon ..” ¤
So we see that both Balkis, Queen of Sheba and Solomon the Great were early curators and collectors of perfumes: maybe the first of their type actually recorded. The Book of Kings goes on to mention Solomon’s unique hoard of precious almug – probably red sandalwood – from which were carved divinely scented pillars for the great Temple at Jerusalem. “There came no such almug trees, nor were seen unto this day.” ¤¤
Nowadays we are all curators. Curating is what they call a sexy – if lazy – concept: it has come to mean whatever you want it mean. The word “curate” (both the noun and the verb) derive from the Latin root ‘cura’ – ‘care’. When I was a little boy the word made me somewhat wary. I didn’t like the look of it, written down. It had a hardness to it; and of course it also had a medical association. The cure of patients and the cure of souls. Hence those flocks of curates in church circles – those strange unfledged semi-vicars, as they seemed to a child. Then, curates still had an air that was partially sinister and partially foolish¤¤¤. And of course I found it hard to differentiate the word ‘curate’ from that infallibly deadly poison – ‘curare’ – which supposedly tipped the arrows of Amazonian savages. Then there were those vague and alarming – though usually unseen – curators in museums. “The Curator will have you!” was almost as powerful a threat as that of the Policeman coming to get you or – in public gardens – the “Parky”.
I would say that we at Les Senteurs curate our perfumes in the true sense. We select, display, preserve and care for them. We may choose to edit judiciously certain brands from time to time, just as the Man at the Museum relegates the stuffed polar bear to the basement for a spell and replaces him with a Meissen monkey orchestra. We protect, clean, promote and exhibit our scents to their best advantage. Like guardians of antique fabrics or paintings we try to protect fragrances from excessive illumination, but unlike an art gallery we are keen on the hands-on approach. All our hundreds of scents have a tester bottle and that tester is there to be sprayed. So come on in and have a go. Benefit from our curation to build your own collection.
For collecting is quite a different thing.
Speaking only for myself, collecting is haphazardly amassing. In my old Dutch Booke of Magicke¤¤¤¤ I read a most accurate and disconcerting insight into my astrological traits. Folk born on my day are “…generally open to less conventional art forms, diversions and entertainments…they are often art or antique collectors with an eye for those apparently ordinary items from bottle caps to brass door knobs..” My father, also an Aries, left behind boxes of crab & scallop shells, pipe cleaners and feathers.
My own collection of perfumes, by virtue of my being in the business for so long, is extensive but rambling. The current bottles are decently stored, in that I keep them in the dark, well padded and at a pretty constant temperature. Empty flacons are moved on to a somewhat primitive Cabinet of Curiosities where they sit alongside grit from the Valley of the Kings and a dried rose from Samarkand. But I am not one for ordering, labelling and precise regimentation. I love the idea of all that – I admire it – but in practice I like to be fooling around with my treasures; having them about me like toys and talismans. I like them portable and accessible. I like them “live”. Also, I am messy.
People are kind enough to show me wonderful exuberant photos of their own perfume collections. Here one sees literally hundreds – often thousands – of filled bottles, heaped up before mirrors or on glass tables like the treasures of King Solomon’s mines or the contents of the late Queen Mary’s Faberge vitrine. “Stuff it all in!” as my dear friend Felicia used to say. I feel these collectors have the right spirit. Perfume may be a form of poetry but it’s got to be poetry in motion. A working collection is the right collection. Perfumes cannot be pinned to boards like poor dried bees or butterflies.
It’s rather like that other modern craze: that of tracing your ancestors. Some do this as an academic mathematical exercise. Others are primarily interested in the characters, individuals and human oddiities they unearth: the magic and mystery of the ever-developing gene pool.
And so with fragrance. A great part of its fascination lies in how each perfume relates to another: how the perfume families first defined over a century ago grow increasingly diffuse and more elaborately defined. Amazing hybrids and mutations appear as off-shoots but the great pure-blooded ancestors still stand in the background, albeit face-lifted, dieted and genetically modified. The good curator and the devoted collector know that the essence of perfume is just that: using it and smelling it. As for instruction, let the fragrance speak for itself.
¤ 1 Kings, 10. Passim.
¤¤ I also remember ‘La reine de Saba’ tea rooms in the shadows of Chartres Cathedral, decades ago: scented with madeleines, saffron buns, ginger bread, fine teas – and, of course, the eponymous cakes.
¤¤¤ from Charlotte Bronte – and Mr Punch’s notorious egg – to Enid Blyton.
¤¤¤¤ THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF BIRTHDAYS by Goldschneider and Elffers, Viking Penguin 1994.
“In my time I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of meeting six reigning Queens, each in very different circumstances. I wondered this week how I should conduct myself if the six wives of Henry VIII should suddenly roll up at Les Senteurs, demanding high rare perfumes and scented goods from beyond the seas and the outer realms of Christendom. This unlikely prospect came into my head on account of a book review in The Times which proposed that, of the six, Katharine of Aragon “…is the least sympathetic to us now”. I was a bit thrown by this; couldn’t agree less. Neither could insightful historian Alison Weir on BBC R4: she plumped for Anne Boleyn – I’m with her, there. But the Spanish Queen, the first wife, is one of the most attractive and admirable of the set: she and Katherine Parr, Henry’s eventual widow and Queen Dowager, would get my vote. Together they clocked up twenty five odd years with the old beast. The other four marriages were over and done with in less than ten.
I imagine that, as a former Infanta born into the purple, Katherine would be most in demeanour like our own dear Queen, gracious and dignified; poised and powerful. And already exuding the odour of sanctity and frankincense from her velvets and furs, the exotic perfumes of Moorish Spain. My instinctive choice would be to reach down GRAIN DE PLAISIR on account of its top notes being an accord of majestically crimson pomegranates, the symbol of fertility which graced Katherine’s personal coat of arms: the pomegranates which grew in the gardens of Granada where the princess spent her childhood. Katharine was a blonde fair-skinned Spaniard and might also appreciate a glittering hesperidic beauty to remind her of home: maybe the airy and delicate YU SON with its accords of mandarin, green tea and gaiac wood. The thousand-seeded pomegranate failed to work its blessing of propagation on the luckless Katherine: had she mothered a son, the terrible Boleyn would never have stolen her crown.
I anticipate that “Anne-Sans-Tete” – as she called herself at the end with an hysterical gallows humour – would be tricky; arch, bossy and demanding. She wanted to stick a silver bodkin through any tongue that slandered her; the six fingers on her left hand were the infallible mark of a witch. Her arch-enemy Cardinal Wolsey called her “The Night Crow”; but (remembering that bodkin) would one have the effrontery to propose the all too aptly named L’OISEAU DE NUIT with its sumptuous oriental luxe and creamy notes of liqueur? Alternatively there is ANGELIQUE by Papillon which contains pungent ambiguous addictive hawthorn: otherwise known as (unlucky) may blossom. To the medieval mind the month of May was sacred to the Queen of Heaven and thus fraught with taboos: Anne Boleyn was prepared for Coronation, arraigned and beheaded all in the merry month of May.
Jane Seymour, mouse-meek but cunning as a rat, with strange transparent milk-white skin – and a milk- and-water demeanour: what shall we have for her? Maybe TEINT DE NEIGE – “the colour of snow”. Pure, sweet, delicate and diaphanous: but with powdery depths of suppressed passion – and an immense clinging tenacity.
Then poor Anne of Cleves, “the Flanders mare”: painted as an exquisite fragile beauty by Holbein but reviled on sight by Henry who made unpleasant slurs on what would now be described as her lack of “body toning”. The King also remarked, straight out, that she smelled. The very fact that he said this indicates that the Tudor Court had – and this may surprise some – high standards of hygiene. It strikes me that Henry – himself always well doused in rose-water – might conceivably have been put off his stroke by the bride’s perfume. Coming from the Low Countries Anne would have been well acquainted with the already legendary alchemical Queen of Hungary Water, said to have been formulated by a Carpathian hermit two hundred years before, and a best-seller ever since all over Northern Europe. But assuming the worst, that Anne exuded a natural ‘bouquet de corsage’, let’s introduce her to the olfactory phenonemon of SALOME, deliciously full of sexy sleaze and grubby animalic tease: enough to awake the beast in any Man.
Katherine¤ Howard was a wayward teenage minx and pathetic hoyden whom the uxurious monarch named his Rose Without A Thorn. There’s no fool like an old fool. And a fat one, to boot, with a waistline by now of over four feet. Kate played Henry false before and during marriage: precocious and voluptuous, she would have carried off UNE ROSE superbly. This intensely fragrant parfum has all the scarlet richness and majesty of the Tudor rose with an underlying earthy darkness. Like her dreadful Boleyn cousin, Katherine Howard was decapitated on Tower Green, in 1542.
Katherine Parr went on to take a fourth husband – Jane Seymour’s sexy brother Thomas – after Old Harry’s death¤¤ in 1547. She subsequently died tragically in childbirth at Sudeley Castle. What then could be more appropriate for this warm, erudite and sympathetic woman than BY ANY OTHER NAME inspired by the magnificent rose gardens of that same Gloucestershire property. The same heraldic flower as UNE ROSE but rendered with such a difference – a silky petal-soft prettiness and lighter than sunny summer air.
And for “Bluff King Hal” himself? Let’s wean him off that rosewater. It HAS to be Creed, and probably AVENTUS – the mark of the Confident Conqueror! Well, don’t you agree? Vive le roi!
¤ all these Katherines! The eponymous saint – She of the Wheel – was one of the most popular in the pre-Reformation calendar. Nowadays the Vatican pronounces that St Katherine of Alexandria “may have never existed”. And see “The Corner That Held Them” by Sylvia Townsend Warner for intriguing details of the once popular convent game of “Flying St Katherine”.
¤¤ his coffin exploded due to inefficient embalming. The stench was appalling and Catholic clerics grimly noted that, as in the case of the Biblical tyrant King Ahab, “dogs licked his blood”.
Memorable elegiac passages have been written by the great and the good on infant perceptions and idealised memories of the Scented Mother Figure. She tends to materialise as the light fails, irradiating the shadows with her own luminous brilliance. Winston Churchill remembered that Jennie Jerome “shone for me like the Evening Star – but at a distance”. The glowing gleaming goddess-like figure at the end of the little white nursery bed, suffused in heavenly perfumes, appears over and again in memoirs, like the metamorphosis of a redolent guardian angel. Peter Pan’s Mrs Darling, James James Morrison’s mother in her golden gown¤, even the deliciously fragrant virgin saints who appeared in the meadows to Jeanne d’Arc, all contribute to the mythic image, the mystic experience. The scent is key, the exotic alien perfumes which waft into a room: mother and child both in different ways waiting for the party – but also for the parting. The child is left with a fleeting kiss, clasped in the hand like a crumpled butterfly, and the clouds of scent which last longer than mama’s retreating shadow.
I certainly remember my own mother in these circumstances: in those days to be smelled wearing Rubinstein’s Apple Blossom, Diorissimo or Youth Dew. Quelques Fleurs she sprayed on the pug. I think that in her youth, growing up during the Midlands during the Depression and the War, perfume meant nothing very much to her. As I knew her, she had a great knack with clothes: she’d cannily put together one expensive and stylish outfit and wear it to death for a couple of years. And then she’d buy another. It was the same with scent. Much later in the day when I made perfume my profession she grew more adventurous, growing passionately fond of Serge Lutens A La Nuit and Caron’s Eau de Reglisse. But, in fact, infant memories concerning my mother and delicious smells have little to do with fine fragrance. They are much more connected with my tagging along with her to the hairdresser.
Miss Ribstone’s salon was across two streets from us, occupying the coverted ground floor of a Victorian terraced house. Miss R was a sweet and tiny scuttling woman, with green combs in her foxy hair. She had something of Marie Lloyd about her – I mean to say, always merry, with large teeth and full of what they now call banter. She must have been fond of small children – or remarkably tolerant – as the place was crawling with them. Tots could have their hair cut on the premises. They were also haphazardly entertained as though in a creche. Allowed to play with the scissors, combs and curlers and all that¤¤. I remember sitting on the lino amid all the hanks of hair (and no doubt splashes of peroxide). I do not recall a single window in the place: they must have been boarded up to allow numerous cubicles of hardboard to be erected in a kind of warm damp labyrinth. A client sat in each one, robed in a sea-green bib, like a Queen Bee in her airless waxen cell. Miss Ribstone ran like a rabbit, in and out the dusty bluebells, sectioning, wrapping and combing out.
The entire establishment was painted a boiled shrimp pink and had something of the atmosphere of a seraglio in old Constantinople¤¤¤ – all those ladies in negligent and relaxed deshabille, surrounded by children and attendants. Ladies “letting their hair down”, indeed. The place smelled so exciting, so strange, so very unlike home. An intoxicating cloud of hair spray, setting lotion, bleach, shampoo, hot water, perfumed steam, soap, conditioners, nail polish and wet hair. A frisson of fright was provided by alarming singey smells which added to the horror of those hideous hooded hair dryers. Sinister wires and cables trailed about as in some gruesome American execution chamber.
A dear friend and correspondent reminds me of “that smell of the old fashioned hair lacquer that used to be in a plastic bottle – you had to pump it out. That took a lot of strength! Masses of it went on, until the hair was helmet hard; and the smell – reminiscent of old fashioned carnations – lasted for days”. My interlocutor tells me, too, that today the burning smells – to do with the straightening of frizzy barnets – have got much worse.
Like the breeching of little boys of 400 years ago, the day of my eventual graduating to the barber’s shop came as a terrible shock. “I’ve brought a bag for the ears” said the larky young man who took my younger brother and I to our initiation. It was a real horror. A dark bleak room, full of cigarette butts; sour old men sitting about, snarling at one another; smutty talk not fully understood, but confusing and disturbing; the agony of the rusty hand clippers nipping your neck. Things have changed now – somewhat – but half a century ago you would barely have known that the hairdresser and the barber and were in the same trade. It was pampering versus character building, then. There was no attempt at “styling”. The virile odours at the sign of the red and white pole came from barbicide – a dubious liquid in which the scissors and combs were disinfected; Brylcream; and a rough sort of hair oil which smelled like the bus station. “Pleasant pongs” – as The Beano called them – were strictly for ladies only.
When us kids came home, our parents screamed at the sight of us – “Why did you let him do that to you?”
We’d had no say in the matter.
There’s something about the scent of hairspray which I still enjoy. The aldehydes which wreathe around some of Les Senteurs’s loveliest scents like luminous rainbow bubbles have a discreet and dazzling champagne memory of hair lacquer. Aldehydes give a perfume an escapist lift, an airy varnish, a fairy finish – a perfect “set”. They lift and elevate, lending their host fragrance a gleaming artifice and glamour. Next time you come by, try Noontide Petals, Dries Van Noten, Memoire du Futur, Lipstick Rose, Nocturnes or Lady Caron: each one a triumphant glossy crowning glory.
¤ this poor woman “.. .drove right down to the end of the Town……” & “hasn’t been heard of since” – terrifying.
¤¤ I once cut all my own hair off with a pair of paper scissors. Not at Miss R’s but early one morning, in bed. Had to go to school, though, just the same.
¤¤¤ try Parfum d’Empire’s Cuir Ottoman for sensual evocations of the hidden world of the Sultana Valideh – jasmine oil, and soft leather boots sewn with pearls padding down the passages…
…Noel Coward (Dr Christian Faber) and Margaret Leighton (Leonora Vail) slope out of a crowded West End theatre in THE ASTONISHED HEART (1950). Off they go to dance the samba (a notorious celluloid euphemism)¤ and drink “Stingers”¤¤ as a “prelude to adulterous criminal intimacy” – as the Divorce Courts reports used to say. The fleeting but triumphantly lascivious look on Leighton’s face as she makes sure of Nolly’s sexual infatuation is one of the few authentic reactions in a film of almost total glittering artifice. In a certain mood – perhaps slightly inebriated or incubating flu – THE ASTONISHED HEART is diverting if ultimately unsatisfying, but it was a disaster with post-war audiences on both sides of the Atlantic who at this period wanted grit not gloss.
The huge appeal of BRIEF ENCOUNTER in 1945 inevitably led to attempts by its creators to duplicate its success. That movie’s director David Lean achieved another – unaccountably neglected – masterpiece with THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS (1949), while Coward developed the screenplay of THE ASTONISHED HEART from his own one act play of 1935. Noel sacked Michael Redgrave after several days’ filming, and took over the role of the tragic hero, the sexually obsessed suicidal psychiatrist Chris. He admitted later that he was unconvincing¤¤¤ but blamed this on the inadequacies of the part – which after all he’d written himself. Ironically one can imagine the tortured and twitchy Redgrave making rather a hit of the part whereas Noel is far too smug, stiff and middle aged in quite the wrong sort of way. He never for a moment forgets that he is The Master, relishing self-indulgent lines that enable him to enunciate words such as “grotesque” and “cataclysmic crisis” like an ENSA impersonator of himself. He and everyone else appear to live on a diet of cigarettes and cocktails: no wonder that the wonderful Amy Veness – as Alice the cook – although third-billed has her role cut to 2 lines.
The cast are Coward friends, lovers, pensioners and regulars; all great names but (especially boyfriend Graham Payn) rather strained and jumpy, not quite at their best, maybe on account of the sudden Redgrave departure and consequent presence of “Ole Nole” (Nancy Mitford’s soubriquet) amongst them on the studio floor. Leighton was initially shy of Celia Johnson, and Joyce Carey was dependent on Noel for all that she had. Yet the sheer abundance and extravagance of star quality and star “turns” in this frivolous and perhaps silly little movie is what makes it nevertheless so interesting and entertaining. A bad film but superbly done. As Coward remarked years later, they had all needed a stronger director than Anthony Farnborough to keep them in check: he would have preferred the iron hand of Carol Reed. (Or so he said in safe retrospect).
As so often Coward uses the rivalry/friendship of two women as the axis of the plot. Chris Faber’s sensible wife Barbara (Johnson) runs into an old schoolfriend, the flighty and unhappily divorced Leonora (Leighton) in a London hat shop: “Darlingtons, in the Fulham Road” – you know. Over their subsequent tea – “no biscuits, Madam” – Leonora becomes immediately, obviously and entirely unconvincingly fixated on the as yet unseen character of Chris, determining to seduce, dominate and possess him. She succeeds all too well, ruins him and he jumps to his death (not instantaneous) from the roof of his very ugly Park Lane apartment building (“70 Chester House”).
The theme of sexual obsession – “The Lord shall smite thee with madness and blindness and the astonishment of heart”¤¤¤¤ – is (according to that durable star Joan Blondell, who should have known) the only plot in the movies. Margaret Leighton is – as usual – quite extraordinary and one can almost believe in her driving a “plain straightfoward alienist” nuts. Leighton’s current Wikipedia entry celebrates her sense of “exquisite grandeur and refinement”. It’s a good line – and one of the reasons why she always seemed years older than her true age (she was 28 in THE ASTONISHED HEART, looking and behaving like a glamorous 65 year old). Robert Stephens, who worked with her, described her in his memoirs as screamingly funny and common beyond belief. In private life she had terrible eating problems: she was also unusually tall* – 5’10” – in a profession of the tiny, and the height accentuates her sometimes alarming thinness. There are scenes in THE ASTONISHED HEART where her sumptuous and heavy Molyneux satin evening gowns seem to be falling off her, and her poor chest bones stick out alarmingly. Leighton has an alluring and varied repertoire of mannerisms and tricks to keep the viewer’s eye on her – a vertical butterfly flutter of her right hand, a slurring of her r’s as though tipsy, the word ‘extraordinary’ pronounced with at least seven syllables and ‘my’ said as “m’ . It’s all supremely actressy but perfectly suited to her character and put across with brio. Leighton is unrivalled at playing self-absorbed manipulative neurotic beauties with tragic secrets in their past**
And Celia Johnson, very crisp & snappy – though not above some rather rich eye rolling – is a perfect foil for her. Certainly Johnson is the most adroit of the three leads at suggesting the bleak tragedy of the situation behind the cocktail party banter and tomfoolery. THE ASTONISHED HEART, BRIEF ENCOUNTER and THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS have certain curious tropes in common: a flight from a stale chilly marriage, adultery-as-escapism, illicit sex as a cure for ennui. This risky game of make-believe is counterpointed and emphasised in each instance with rendezvous in the furtive scented darkness of masked balls, cinema balconies or theatre stalls *** plus real or imagined flight to exotic holiday locations in the guilty footsteps of Vronsky and Anna Karenina: Venetian canals, palmy tropical islands, Alpine lakes. And each film relies on a elaborate structure of flashbacks: these distance the guilt and enhance the fantasy, which is perhaps why we tend to forget in a casual review that all three pictures culminate in an attempted or successful suicide – and showy “public” suicides, too: under trains (Karenina, once again) or jumping from high places. The species of self-destruction that amateur psychologists say springs from a deep loathing of the human race.
But – for Heaven’s sake! – to happier thoughts. Coward was highly sensitive to smell and a born lover of perfume. It was an essential part of the theatrical act and celebrity persona. One of his short stories is entitled “Ashes Of Roses” and he famously makes extensive reference to Caron’s Narcisse Noir in his early shocker “The Vortex”. A later personal Coward favourite was Guerlain’s Vetiver. In the saucy tale “Me and The Girls” he pithily describes a nightclub – “the name of the joint was La Cumparsita & it smelled of fresh paint and piddle…”. In his only novel “Pomp and Circumstance” he memorably describes one Ursula Gannet as looking “…like an only slightly effeminate matador…her eyes…had an intense, almost hypnotic quality, and she’d put on a little too much ‘Arpege'”. Throughout his life, reporters and friends noted that, when receiving, Noel was as invariably surrounded by scent bottles as by cigarette holders, cocktail shakers and a piano. Actress friends in clinics were showered with flowers and perfume. Elaine Stritch remembered Coward giving her a nearly empty flacon of parfum as a first night gift: Noel told her it was so delicious he’d used most of it himself. Despising anything relating to ‘The Method’, he would douse himself before going on stage in his favourite scent of the moment : a habit other members of the cast might find off-putting, as when he played the working class patriot and pater familias Frank Gibbons in “This Happy Breed” drenched in Chanel. “Get on with it!” was his only response to tentative objections. As his friend the Queen Mum used to say,” And why not?”. Perfume, like life, is for the living.
¤ just as “dance hall proprietresses” are not always quite what they seem.
¤¤ “brandy and creme de menthe, mixed”.
¤¤¤ his mother, with bland maternal candour, told him she hated the film and that she thought he looked hideous in it.
# Coward regretted that the alienist is not shown at work: on the contrary, Dr Faber is presented in a succession of scenes with a variety of patients discussing their complex, lurid and eminently distressing sex lives
¤¤¤¤ “Deuteronomy 28… I think”. Noel’s text for his important lecture on Jung’s concept of the inferior function. Guess who’s gazing up from the floor with huge soft-focus swimming eyes?
* in long shots with Noel she wears large flat shoes which look strange beneath those opulent couture gowns.
** maybe most effective of all as David Niven’s sociopathic but fatally irresistible wife in CARRINGTON V.C.
*** with the concomitant opportunity for sly parodies of various genres.