Nasty Smells

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Because the olfactory sense is a safety mechanism to alert us to danger, the memory of a really bad pong can last a lifetime. Twenty years ago I went off to explore the middle east, spending the first night in the beautiful port of Aqaba, as blue as a Hockney swimming pool, on the Red Sea. As we tourists were then going into Syria we were rigorously chaperoned, with a good deal of luggage checking. When I retrieved my case to get on the Damascus ‘bus I all too soon became aware that the handle was now the source of a most appallling smell: something dead and rotten was smeared on it. Exactly what or how I could never tell; but of course it was impossible to remove, or appeared to be so. Hot water, soap, salt scrubs, perfume went only so far – talk about Lady Macbeth. The horror lingered behind and below all the cleansing: out of the sweetness came forth stench. The experience to some extent poisoned the whole expedition; and when I later became very ill indeed after a dish of humous at Aleppo, the infection seemed somehow to have more to do with the now much-swabbed suitcase than the chickpeas.

Many of us conduct infant experiments with water and rose petals. Aged maybe four, I took apart a plastic bracelet of multi-coloured flowers (remember “pop-beads”?) and floated them artistically in a screw-top jam jar of water which I put on the nursery shelf, enchanted by the effect. Now, whether I added something else I do not now know, but I do recall being shocked and repelled by the nauseating stagnant smell when this piece of juvenile conceptual art was revisited some time later. And here’s an apercu I spared you in Valentine’s week:
“The soul of a man in love smells of the closed-up room of a sick man – its confined atmosphere is filled with stale breath”. ¤

Our ancestors, of course, believed that evil smells indicated demonic presence. Some of us can certainly pick up the foxy sharp smell of fear; and I think that occasional inexplicable aversions to places and people may be explained by emanations that we do not logically comprehend or even consciously smell but which are detected if not fully interpreted by our limbic systems. My mother had a superstitious – or was it? – dread of cut flowers that lasted too long in a vase. She believed that this indicated the presence of death; and said that flowers in a room where someone had died would flourish indefinitely.

When I get hyper-stressed I smell burned toast or crispy bacon, my head seems full of it. If you look on-line you’ll see this is a well-known phenomenon and the most fevered even frightening explanations are given for it. I have got used to it now after some ten years and have stopped constantly throwing open the kitchen windows. Besides, I was always told as a child that charred toast helps to develop a beautiful singing voice.

"Narzisse" by Martin Hirtreiter - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Narzisse.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Narzisse.jpg

“Narzisse” by Martin Hirtreiter

But let’s end on an upbeat note: what of the loveliest smells? The Book of Revelations reports St John’s vision of “four and twenty elders…having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints…”. I shall always remember the billows of a sublime silvery oud shimmering from two Middle Eastern ladies in the Fortnum and Mason lift – the scent of angels in black veils. On a more prosaic level, having just bought two more bunches of early daffodils in the supermarket – (now carefully positioned well away from the onions & Chinese veg: did you read that tommy-rot?) – I am minded to ask whether you can beat the greeny gassy honey gold of these bitter-sweet pollen-spilling trumpets?

¤ Jose Ortega y Gasset, died 1955 – just as Lemon Wedge arrived.

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The Splendour of Splendours

Pharaoh Hatshepsut

Pharaoh Hatshepsut

 

They were talking about the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut on the radio the other day and I was taken back 20 years to my visit to her mortuary temple on the West Bank of the Nile. To the ancient Egyptians this was the land of the dead, the domain of the setting sun. From a distance the Splendour of Splendours looks like an Art Deco cinema or a 3,000 year old shopping complex rising in three pillared tiers and terraces hewn out of the rockface backing the Valley of the Kings.

On the silver-blue and apricot early morning of my visit the air was full of the scent of fresh mint and sweet basil. 3,500 years ago it was here that Hatshepsut planted the myrrh trees brought back from the Land of Punt, the Realm of the Gods beyond the Red Sea: the guides still show you the plots where the bushes grew between the paving slabs. Among them flowered fragrant henna: strands of hair dyed with the leaves can still be seen on the skulls of certain mummies, though the body of the Woman-King has vanished, probably for ever. Myrrh was a sacred substance in Egypt as in so many other ancient middle eastern cultures. Today we recognise it as a powerful beneficial antioxidant (once prescribed for my mouth ulcers) and a natural preservative, so it is not surprising that the Egyptians used it in embalming, believing it to be the scent of their gods’ immortal flesh, the flesh that was all of gold.

Hatshepsut had it recorded that she was herself semi-divine, conceived by the supreme god Amun. Her royal mother recognised the intrusive deity by the heavenly scent of myrrh emitted by his gilded skin. The legend of the phoenix originated or at any rate was elaborated in Egypt: the unique gold and crimson bird that lived for 500 years and nested in cinnamon, cassia, spikenard and myrrh, dieting on drops of frankincense. When the old bird died its offspring was said to enclose the corpse in an egg of pure myrrh and bring it for burial at the temple at Heliopolis, the former City of the Sun now prosaically incorporated into the suburbs of Greater Cairo.

Anyone who thrills to these old tales will love Papillon’s ANUBIS by perfumer Elizabeth Moores, a poem in perfume to the arcane beliefs of the ancient world. It is also very apt for Christmas by the way: as one of its central ingredients is – you’re sure to have guessed it! – myrrh, the gift brought by the Magi to presage Christ’s suffering and entombment. “Myrrh is mine / Its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom…” . And don’t forget that genial old Santa started life as St Nicholas of Myra, the city in modern Turkey where his sarcophagus was said to weep miraculous tears of sweet-scented myrrh resin: which is why the saint is now the official patron of perfumers and all things fragranced.

Anubis from Papillon Artisan Perfumes

Anubis from Papillon Artisan Perfumes

ANUBIS is not Liz Moore’s only scent – there are two other beauties – but it is perhaps the most exotic. Anubis was the god of embalming & mummification, the guardian of cemeteries, the conductor of souls to the afterlife. At the core of his perfume is absolute of pink Nile lotus, not flowery and pretty but dark, vegetal and virile like the vital sediment of the inundation which fertilised the green East Bank of the Nile. Then around this Liz wraps a series of powerful pungent oils, as intricately as the linen bandages swathing a dead monarch. One can almost hear the funerary priests in their black jackals’ head masks intoning the ritual names of benzoin, castoreum, opoponax, saffron, labdanum, tolu and sandalwood. There’s jasmine too, like the dried flower wreaths sometimes found by archaeologists in the tombs. ANUBIS is a precious and unique thrill: don’t start worrying that it might be a touch morbid – the Egyptians believed that all the joy they found in life would be redoubled after death. So with this scent: ANUBIS is an explosion of life-affirming energetic delights!

You can meet the wonderful Elizabeth Moores at our Seymour Place shop on Weds 10th December, alongside two other incredibly talented British perfumers.

 

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