Coronation Chicken

lilac

It must have been in the early summer of 1963 that we found the official souvenir copies of the Coronation. These included the full order of the Abbey service ten years before, and heavily retouched portraits of all the royal ladies which struck us children as highly comic. Princess Margaret’s face was enamelled like a waxwork and much stuck about with roses, her mouth the very image of Swinburne’s venomous flower. The Queen Mother’s throat looked weighed down with giant rubies like jam tarts. My grandfather had died the year before and his old trunks were filled with fascinating relics, these books among them. His things smelled earthily of camphor, leather and the past; there was a framed list of faded autographs, mostly in pencil – his comrades in the trenches at Ypres. He had been the only man of his platoon to survive.

We had just moved to a new house and decided to reconstruct the Coronation in the garden. Everyone wanted the key role of the Archbishop. We discovered that pilfered rolls of kitchen foil were ideal for creating a facsimile regalia. Fragile crowns were easy, stuck with plasticine gems. The Sceptre was a bamboo rolled around with foil topped with a golden bird from the Christmas tree ornaments;  the Orb a silvered tennis ball. My grandfather’s old apple cart was a godsend: perfect as a tumbril for games involving the French Revolution or the martyrdom of Joan of Arc (Wendy from next door), it served here draped in old curtains as the Irish State Coach. My mother and grandmother in deckchairs were the silent London crowds and somnolent congregation.

Our top lawn was bordered on one side by a small orchard, full of Beauty of Bath apple trees and one gnarled old Victoria plum. In the late summer this was a heaving drunken wasp orgy of golden ripped flesh, oozing juice and bursting purple skins. The insects rolled around in the grass, scrapping like sailors in a Portsmouth gutter. Under these trees my father kept hens; their bran mash, doled out hot and steaming, had a unique sour smell which hung around the humid nesting boxes and echoed in their droppings. There was a huge mauve rhododendron behind the hen house. This we plundered recklessly for Coronation bouquets and garlands.

There was also a purple double lilac bush. It was smelling a lilac this morning that brought back all these memories. I stuck my nose into a great frothy ice cream cone of blossom and it was as though I’d been hit with a tiny petally thunderbolt. It was like the time the Duke of Windsor’s former nurse – a woman of remarkable healing powers  – touched my forehead and I recoiled involuntarily against the wall as though electrocuted, charged up with purging energies. Fifty years rolled away with one inhalation of lilac. I was back in that apple cart.

lilac 2

That scent! And it’s never the same twice over; like a rose, lilac plays hundreds of variations on a theme. This was an intense dewy morning sweetness – like Vimto, cherryade or pear drops – with a green muskiness in the depths. In its fruity hints I caught a waft of Guerlain’s heavenly (and now discontinued) Parure which blessed a mauve powderiness with a touch of plum blossom. Lilac scents are rare. Perfumers are cautious of a flower whose aroma can be overwhelming, with a certain grubbiness at its heart when scientifically reconstructed. And besides, lilac is unlucky in a house: we were never allowed to bring it indoors. Crabtree and Evelyn used to make a fresh and delicious Persian Lilac line; the The Body Shop a penetrating White Lilac oil – in those wee plastic bottles, do you remember? I once wore it into the papery dryness of a Learned Society’s library, with devastating results. It was like letting loose a fox in a chicken coop.
If you love lilac as I do, try Olivia Giacobetti’s En Passant: just a suggestion of the flowers as borne on a breeze. White, cream and palest green, faintly wheaten and with a cooling suggestion of cucumber. Green grow the lilacs,o! – miraculously, on your skin.

Nicholas + Alexandra

Nicholas & Alexandra - Tsar & Tsarina

They called one another Nicky and Alicky, Sunny and Lovey-dear, hubby and wifey: they were the last Emperor and Empress of Russia (a title they preferred to Tsar and Tsarina) and all they really wanted was a recreation of English bougeois family cosiness amid the snows and barbaric splendours of Old Muscovy. We looked at their terrible last days in an earlier blog: now let’s inhale the ambience of their lives in splendour.

Alexandra (our Queen’s great great aunt; and Prince Philip’s great aunt) was largely brought up by her grandmother Queen Victoria to whom perhaps she owed her love of fresh air and extreme cold: Victoria suffered so terribly from hot flushes all her life that she would have fires lit by Balmoral staff abruptly doused with buckets of water; she drove out daily whatever the weather; and like two other great sovereigns, Maria Theresa and Catherine the Great liked the windows flung wide at all times. As Empress (as we can see from numerous photos) Alexandra loved spending snowy sub-zero afternoons wrapped in furs on her balcony at Tsarskoye Selo: her sinister friend, Anna Vrubovya, the introducer of the serpent Rasputin into Eden, lived in a damp cottage in the palace grounds so cold that visitors kept their feet drawn up on divans from the icy floors.

Like many depressives, Alexandra was much affected by extremes of temperature and when not out in the cold she would retreat to her claustrophobic bedroom, furnished by Maples Ltd of the Tottenham Court Road. Here twin beds were pushed together under a tent-like canopy and battalions of ikons hung over and opposite the sleepers. Later, a photo of Rasputin’s mutilated corpse would be hung at the end of the Empress’s bed. The air, already laden with the attar of roses burning perpetually for 23 years in the ikon lamps, was heavy with Alexandra’s own white rose perfume and that of her full English breakfasts: Nicky was long up + dressed before his wife’s tray of bacon and eggs appeared, with toast and Coopers Oxford, a pot of very strong tea and a packet of 20 Players.

Having demolished all this (she suffered agonies from heart palpitations) Alex would often paint, sitting up in bed; or else, dressed in loose drifts of white silk, withdraw to a sofa in her Mauve Boudoir, decorated in her favourite colour with the exception of the pale green carpet. Everything else was mauve and cream, and the room filled with vases of immense size, crammed with violets, roses, lilac, wisteria, peonies and stocks brought daily by train across thousands of miles from the Imperial hothouses in the Crimea.

Here her five children would visit her, and Nicholas join her for tea and cigarettes from exquisitely coloured and jewelled Faberge boxes: he chain-smoked of course, and was always redolent of birch-cured Russian leather from his boots. When he had courted Alex in England, Queen Victoria remarked she always knew when he was in the palace from the scent of his leather luggage. If you take a look at the list of monarchs supplied by Creed (its on the lid of every box) you will see the Emperor’s name though details of commodities delivered are lost.

The offensive smells of Rasputin – the stale garlic, the drink, the sweat – left Alexandra  untroubled. Maybe she thought them subsumed by what she saw as his holiness. We know from her letters to the Tsar that just before the Revolution she visited an aged mystic, bed ridden in a country hovel – “but NO SMELL!” said the Empress. Perhaps that too she could see as a sign of sanctity.

Poor hysterical deluded Alexandra: this old woman gave her a magic comb and a magic apple to avert the coming cataclysm of 1917. A strange and weird combination of Snow White, the Gotterdammerung and Mr Pooter….