Crowning Glory

 

It’s spring in all but the official calendar. The rooks have returned. Both flora and fauna have begun to go wild with excitement. For the past week the air has felt milder, softer, full of energy. Even us olfactorily-challenged humans can perceive and smell delicate and wonderful new scents. So, what myriads of odours beyond our ken can be driving the natural kingdom crazy with the desire to bloom and procreate? A word of warning: this time of year can be very risky, exceedingly precarious. You may find yourself simultaneously galvanised and drained by spring fever. It’s fatally easy to overdo, as new tingling air powers you up and consequently sends you right over the top. And what comes up must infallibly come down.

 

The wonderful Iraqi Kurdish barbers who used to have a shop round the corner from me always said that at home everyone was bled in March, to drain all the corrupt and exhausted winter blood. We used to do the same in this country up to a couple of centuries ago. Should we keep some leeches in a jar downstairs at Les Senteurs? I feel that I at least could benefit from their action. Imagine the relief of drawing off all the stale air, darkness and fug of winter. It would be the corporeal equivalent of laundering one’s entire wardrobe – and the new blood would smell as sweet as a nut.

 

In spring, those old indoor smells which seemed so cosy in the frozen mid-winter now appear frowsty, drab and unclean like the miasma of a serially unmade and rumpled bed. I was rummaging around in Oxfam the other day and I found this gaudy – but very pretty – little tin box all stuck about with pink and violet sequins. When I lifted the lid, it was to find the box stuffed full of human hair. I was absolutely repelled. Such an intrusion of mortality it was, somehow; so intimate and inappropriate on a breezy fresh morning. I cannot tell whether I really smelled oil and sebum or whether it was the power of imagination; but I clapped on the glittering lid like lightning, made an excuse and left the store.

 

I remember the late Elizabeth Jane Howard comparing the odour of a greasy unwashed scurfy head to that of cheap raspberry jam. Both my grandmothers had cut glass pots with silver lids all over their dressing tables. All their contemporaries did. When the ladies had brushed their hair they would pull out the combings from the bristles and stuff them into a pot. This nosey little boy was told that this operation was for the benefit of the birds: to provide them with warm silky linings for their nests. No doubt by the 1950’s this was so. I have since read, however, that in the days when every woman had (infrequently washed) hair to her waist, the combings were collected to be eventually woven into false fronts, falls and the like. These would augment those elaborate nineteenth century coiffures – and of course match their owners’ hair colour and texture perfectly.

 

In our own day of wash-and-go thrice-daily showering all this can seem a bit grubby. Hair can smell quite wonderful – and erotic, too. But we’ve come to think that hair – like everything else to do with our persons and our daily routines – needs always to be squeaky clean to be found attractive. A less than pristine smell nowadays is evidence of the loathly Beast in Man. Especially hair, which is all too akin to fur and the growth of which is therefore encouraged only upon the human head.  Maybe this is why – in the niche sector at least – “dirty” animalic perfumes are currently so perversely popular. It’s a natural reaction to all the disinfecting. Les Senteurs customers go mad for MUSC TONKIN, SALOME and the more advanced and spectacular ouds in our collect.

 

For the less uninhibited, we have some gorgeous hair products to tempt you. Girls who model themselves on Snow White and Rose Red should try the following delectable duo. CARNAL FLOWER Hair Mist creates the illusion that you are crowned with invisible tuberoses. The spicy rosy raptures of PORTRAIT OF A LADY are now available in an oil for both body and hair. And all those who long to lay their weary heads on a pillow of rose buds should invest in a flacon of DANS MON LIT linen spray.

 

In her later years my grandmother produced a curious little rose gold ring which had belonged to her own mother. It looked like a decayed tooth, really – a fragment of shadowy convex glass surrounded by black and crumbling seed pearls. It was worn almost to pieces. It was said to contain human hair, presumably that of my four great aunts and uncles who had died in infancy. My mother had a horror of the thing: she said it was extremely unlucky to preserve hair. I have the ring still. Sometimes I wonder – if it should finally crack from side to side and the web fly wide – just what smells from 150 years ago would emerge…

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Everybody Out!

Image: guardian.co.uk

Image: guardian.co.uk

Another Tube strike, another adventure! The weather being so glorious on both days I walk to Les Senteurs from Holloway down the Camden Road and so through Regents Park into Baker Street. It takes an hour and having lived in Holloway for nearly 30 years it proves a curious trip down Memory Lane besides being a strike-buster.

My life is an open book – but who would want to read it? I have often considered conducting a recherché guided tour around London pointing out all the landmarks of my life but I don’t suppose there would be many takers. The streets of Camden are full of souvenirs of the past: a mural of Amy Winehouse, looking like a Mexican Madonna; the days when the great Elizabeth Jane Howard was creating a garden at her home in Delancey Street; emotional meals at the eponymous café in the same road. Do you know the plaque celebrating the martyrdom of St Pancras as you walk up Parkway, and the mysterious hidden garden in a deep valley beneath the bridge as you cross over Park Village East? And that strange stark building almost opposite, which I used to fantasise might be a private lunatic asylum or former workhouse but which is in fact a school – nowadays, at any rate.

Then the Outer Circle around the Park: on a night of freezing fog in 1999 I wandered round and around here for over two hours after a dinner party in Fitzroy Road, unable to break out of the maze. Now it is a mass of pale pink and creamy hawthorn blossom reminding me of Elizabeth Bowen’s darkly comic ghost story “Pink May” and the poltergeist, conjured maybe by a guilty conscience, which destroys a woman’s love affair. Or perhaps the phantom is the scent of the may itself, which has been likened both to the smell of human decomposition and the odour of procreation: the scent of Life and of Death. Bowen lived for many years in the white fortress-palace of Clarence Terrace, over across the lake. In the last days of this warm April the Park is almost vulgar, overwhelmed with blossom and fragrance: rioting over every hedge and railing are cascades of lilac, choisya, clematis and the sea-blue ceanothus which takes me back to its azure waves across the walls of my school quad. I remember staggering up to the Rose Garden with huge picnic baskets in the 1980’s, a memory now stimulated by all the paper beakers of coffee being toted – and slopped and spilled – by fellow walkers.

The Lilac Alley which I recall being planted, timid saplings in a morass of mud, is now a bosky thicket of abundance candled with every shade of flower from imperial purple to delicate blackcurrant mousse. The tulips are blown and lifted, only few snow white camellias remain but in Queen Mary’s Rose Garden an astonishing number of blooms are already out, especially our old English roses. To walk past the beds, reading the names on metal plaques, is like riffling at top speed through a series of encylopaedias and phrase books. Names historic; names whimsical, comic, surreal, banal and dotty – Pensioners’ Voice, Ingrid Bergman, Quaker Star, Princess Alice, Annick (can this be celebrating Mme Goutal?), Mountbatten, Lili Marlene, Diamond Jubilee, Radox Bouquet, Easy Going, Lady of Shallott, English Miss, Royal Philharmonic, Gertrude Jekyll, Singin’ In The Rain, Britannia and dear old Sexy Rexy. The full massed fragrance is yet to come but, as so often in life, the anticipation is often keener than the final experience.
On, on! On towards morning! “Felix kept on walking”: past the irises in their stony beds, flowers of perfumery’s most costly ingredient – the glorious buttery orris powder; past the last of this year’s guelder roses. I fall into a bush, trying to catch the last of their scent, but right myself and set my face towards the rigours of Baker Street and the scented oasis of Seymour Place. Despite the strike, an enchanted passage from one perfumed Paradise to another!

When Toni met Therese

katetattershalldotcom

Well I have to tell you I finally finished Buddenbrooks and the only thing is to do now is embark on a repeat journey through this most seductive of novels.

Meanwhile to clear the palate – though this is maybe an unfortunate metaphor in the circumstances – I re-read Zola’s 1867 shocker Therese Raquin which seemed to me to have gained in horror over the years. I suppose advancing age makes this study of lust, murder, physical and mental decay even more disturbing. I now had to skip certain passages and once felt actually sick.

But there’s a connection with Buddenbrooks: the acute, even neurotic, sensitivity to smell. It surprises me that the party line today is the extreme difficulty of expressing scent and odour in words: publishers tell me they are chary of books on the subject of perfume; television treads a wary path despite sporadic huge success on shopping channels. Yet here we are in the gifted hands and brains of two nineteenth century novelists who use words and images precisely and exquisitely to convey smells.

One of the subtle images that only becomes apparent as you read the final chapters of Buddenbrooks is that the smell of death – strange yet familiar as Mann keeps reminding us – is continually abroad in the house of this once prosperous thriving family. It comes to the nose on odd currents of air, despite the heaps of tuberoses, violets and roses heaped up in the Sterbzimmer; it manifests even when the family is apparently whole and healthy. Evidently there is a rottenness in German society – and of course this is the theme that so enraged Hitler later on.

Zola fills Therese Raquin with the stench of corruption that breeds and fructifies in extremes of heat and cold. The characters’ bodies burn with desire, avarice, greed and delirium. When Therese ( born under the hot sun of Algeria ) are not writhing in bed they’re sweating and baking in the suburban countryside, eating in cheap restaurants smelling of burned fat, sour wine and dust; or stifling in hackney cabs. They live in a subterranean passage, in a terrible cavern of a shop with claustrophobic flat above. All is gloom, darkness, damp, the cold perspiration of guilty terrors. Everything is horribly softly wet and bloated like the flesh of their drowned victim, hosed down in cold water on the slabs of the Paris morgue – freely open to the public as a place of entertainment.

One of Zola’s masterstrokes is to have Therese’s seductive body smell of violets – that musky indolic note that is often compared to the scent of death. Elizabeth Jane Howard comments on this in her memoir “Slipstream” – her deceased mother’s room seemed filled with the delicate scent of the flowers though none were there. The roses with which Therese’s aunt thinks to purify the murderers’ nuptial bedroom wilt in the heat of the fire, becoming not bridal but bestial and we remember that chemists have noted the molecular similarity of rose extract to human sweat.

By a final irony Zola himself perished in 1902 as a result of a curious accident which he might well have relished as one of his own plot devices: he died of monoxide poisoning, caused by the the malfunctioning bedroom chimney.

Image: katetattershall.com

St. Valentine

vintageholidaycraftsdotcom

My Oxford Dictionary of Saints is informative but confused on the subject of St Valentine: there may have been two Roman martyrs of the same name, both male clergymen of the early Christian Church. Fascinatingly there is no British church with this dedication which may hint that in this country at least there were always doubts as to the Valentines’ authenticity. How the saints became associated with lovers and carnal love is by no means clear though it is interesting that the name can be used by both sexes: Valentine is universally applicable, and how apt is that. There’s Val Doonican of course, and remember Valentine Dyall “The Man In Black”? And Maurice Chevalier’s saucy song “Valentine” about a light of love who spectacularly loses her looks:

” Hier, sur le boulevard, je recontre une grosse dame
Avec des grands pieds, une taille d’hippopotame…”

Talk about laugh!

Most authorities seem to think that our feverish red rosey modern celebration is all tangled up with the old belief that birds mate in mid-February and that this became associated with the reputed martyrdom of the saints around this date, at a time of Roman festival. This, I think, gives a wonderfully optimistic twist to 14th February even if one is crossed in Love and sitting all alone by the gas fire. It’s a day of starting afresh, of recommencement; late winter sunshine shining out just for a day, if only symbolically; a token of life renewed; the beginning of the end of winter.

For see how the days are drawing out already and the energising earthy smell of early spring is just perceptible; the chthonic scent that galvanises the instincts of the animal kingdom and which has such a powerful subliminal effect on us humans. I saw my first powdery green daffodil on February 6th ( a personal record) and delicately musky snowdrops are lighting up the garden in clumps of pearls. The tang of new parsley is once again in the air.

Do you know Thomas Hardy’s wonderful poem The Darkling Thrush – recently recited to great effect on The Archers. Hardy comes across this poor old bird ” ..frail, gaunt and small ” singing his heart out in the bleakest blackest winterscape. And thinks that no doubt

” …there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.”

Need one say more? Be my Valentine?

Open to the navel: the Virgin Queen

ATT67181

“She was strangely attired in a dress of silver cloth, white and crimson…lined with red taffeta. She kept the front of her dress open, and you could see the whole of her bosom, and passing low, and often she would open the front of her dress with her hands, as if she were too hot…”

This is Elizabeth Tudor in her sixties, exposing her flushed yet withal “white and delicate” flesh like a pagan goddess to the French ambassador, de Maisse. Was the Queen’s stomach painted like her face with white lead and egg whites? Was this apparent revelation all a titillating illusion like Dietrich’s nude souffle stage dresses and Mme Recamier’s damped muslins and flesh-coloured tights? Other visitors to the English court in the 1590’s confirm this ritualised exhibitionism and, after a second audience, de Maisse writes of Elizabeth’s gown being plucked “open even to the navel”. It conjures the most bizarre image and what are we to make of these reports, so much at odds with the image of the Queen received from her portraits in old age? These show her in gowns which are low cut (as an unmarried woman she was entitled to a certain decolletage) but of decent and immense stiffness, bejewelled rigidity, built on corseted foundations of wood and iron. Sometimes she has a fresh rose pinned to her dress, a flower which seems frail, inappropriate and out of place amidst such geometric splendour as coruscating and hard as a Byzantine mosaic. The simplicity of the rose is almost perverse and unnatural by contrast.

Elizabeth’s portraits were intentionally stylised and her image defined and controlled by law. Therefore they can be taken at face value by neither the biographer nor the costume historian. I well remember that the designers for Glenda Jackson’s portrayal of Elizabeth in the early 1970’s – “I had to learn to breathe through my back” – found that certain apparel was impossible to reconstruct. The ruffs flopped, the airy jewelled butterfly collars and veils would and could not support themselves, the farthingales would not hang right. Tudor painters, it was concluded, had constructed on canvas what was impossible to create from fabric. Moreover for the sake of both comfort and economy rich Elizabethans (especially the women) spent a great deal of their time en neglige, informally dressed in the equivalent of dressing gowns and housecoats. The torturing discomfort of formal dress was only for portraits, visits to Court and other great occasions. There was a certain vogue for being painted in bed, or even the bath. Both Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More went to the scaffold in loose bedgowns whilst the awe aroused by the appearance of Marie Stuart at her execution was in part due to the magnificence and drama of her attire – “dressed as for a festival”.

Elizabeth defined her own appearance and became defined in turn by her clothes. As a teenager she had a black velvet gown cut to pieces on her body while her step-mother Katherine Parr held her and Parr’s husband wielded a dagger, the three of them torn between tears and laughter. This “romp” (in my day an amusing anecdote of children’s history books) is now most uncomfortable to read about and sounds horribly like the symbolic rape of a minor. And it has a pendant episode 50 years later in the spiritual ravishment of the aged Queen by the young Earl of Essex bursting unannounced into her bedroom to find her undressed and “her hair about her ears”. Unarmoured, unprepared: clothes made the woman, maybe even the monarch. Essex had found her out. She never forgave him, and maybe he too felt the betrayed resentment of a film-fan who meets his Star at last only to be horrified and disillusioned by the egregious wig, the Pawnee make-up, the tiny stature. Some of the nastiest talk I’ve ever heard has been among the “loyal fans” at stage doors. “Putting more make-up on, I suppose”; and, from a group of English ladies (all clones of their heroine) waiting to see Liz Taylor,”if she doesn’t sign for us we’ll kill her.”

And what did Essex tell his friends of Elizabeth. Words to the effect that “her mind is as crooked as her carcase”. He lost his head – in both senses – and two years later the Queen herself died. We are told that 300 gowns were found in her wardrobe and the new queen consort, the buxom blonde Anne of Denmark, chopped them all to pieces for masques and plays: the illusion of majesty feeding the fantasy of the stage. Art imitating life, and how.
Had the exhibitionism of Elizabeth been the reverse? A homage to the nudity of classical statues, to the celestial virgins Diana and Artemis upon whom she modelled herself? A depressed lonely and “intrinsically disordered” old woman’s fantasy of herself as Eve before the Fall: pure, fertile but undefiled? Or a sad and senile attempt at seduction?

What do we really know of our sartorial past? It has been suggested that the graceful folds shown in frescos of gauzy Egyptian draperies may be in fact a primitive artist’s attempt to show a crumpled creased bundle of coarse linen. For decades now it has become a lazy shorthand for 1920’s chic to stick a bandeau’d feather, Red Indian-style, on a girl’s head, a fashion that had by then long gone by as I heard from a woman who’d lived the period – “that was the 1912 look for Heaven’s sake”. (And she’d been in the Ziegfeld Follies, as a matter of fact: she knew whereof she spoke). I defy anyone to find me a contemporary picture of this “flapper” (sic) look. But there, it’s become a factoid, indestructible misinformation.

And we see something of the same in romantic histories of scent. There is much raving over the lost treasures of Cleopatra’s toilet under the waters off Alexandria. Of Mme de Pompadour’s bank of hyacinth perfumes; of Greek courtesans perfuming each limb with a different fragrance. Of Marie Antoinette betrayed in the act of escape by her luscious perfume. Speculative scents which have long evaporated, dried up and gone. From what we know of perfumes prior to the 1880’s I can’t imagine any of them actually amounted to much – clunky masses of expressed oils suspended in primitive alcohol spirits or animal fats with no structure, consistency or expansion. Elizabeth Tudor had a keen nose and maybe her preference for fresh herbs, roses and meadowsweet tells us something about the horrid perfumes of her time, all too often used to disguise a worse odour. The glamour of the wearers, burnished by the centuries, imbues their unknown scents with a spurious sheen. We must not rewrite the past (as my brother always says as funerals) but we may admit that it is an entirely unknown quantity…and quality.

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

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.

Magnolia

magnolia

O, the exquisite torture of cultivating a magnolia tree! Fatally easy to grow in the English climate and a cliche of every suburban garden, its beautiful flowers are nonetheless peculiarly susceptible to the vagaries of our weather. Ruin can come upon you within hours. Last year the great moon blossoms opened overnight in a burst of late March warmth, only to be nipped within the week by a savage frost which reduced the white velvet petals to rags of brown shrivelled canvas. These unsightly tragedies clung to the tree for weeks, like traitors’ heads on old London Bridge, enough to make you weep and a grim warning against the vanity of human hope. This year’s cold late spring kept the magnolias back another month and my tree escaped the frosts only to fall victim to the winds. But a respectable number of flowers have survived, weirdly late in the season, and the fallen petals look wonderful on the grass, glowing and gleaming in the gloaming. Strange they should be so fragile. These trees have been on the planet since the end of the Jurassic Period: their blooms were among the first flowers to appear on Earth. But a chilly English night is still too much to ask of them.

If you own a magnolia you’ll maybe wonder every spring if it’s worth the agony – this huge anticipation of a few days of loveliness; and hopes so often dashed. But then, which spring flowers and shrubs do last? Lilacs and guelder roses, cherry and apple blossom are all the more exquisite for their fleeting appearances. An uncertain two week flowering period is the norm and the brevity is surely part of the bitter sweet appeal, a mordant metaphor of the human condition.

“Man that is born of woman is of a few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower and is cut down: he flees also as a shadow and continues not.” Job had it right.

Do we want anything to last for ever? Mythology tells us of Anchises, father of Aeneas, who was granted the gift of immortality by the goddess Aphrodite. But he forgot to ask for the complementary blessing of eternal youth and grew unimaginably shrivelled and decrepit over the centuries until the goddess, unable to withdraw her divine favour, turned him into grasshopper,crazily chirping – and easily squashed, one supposes.

Everyone thinks he wants a perfume that will last indefinitely on the skin; to me this sounds a nightmare comparable to other putative perpetual sensory experiences – a meal that never ends; a concert with no finale; eyes that never close. Spring is so emotionally demanding that we cannot bear too much of its verdant reality, its explosive bursting into life.  And fragrance, like flowers, should catch the nose, delight the brain, dissipate – then come again, alternately dying down and reviving like a plant, all the more enchanting for its transitoriness.

In Rome, fifteen years ago, I made a chilly spring pilgrimage to the gardens of the Villa Borghese only to find them closed so I never did see the famous magnolia avenue. However we can all smell an impression of it in Eau d’Italie’s cool and stylish fragrance Magnolia Romana. The scent of a magnolia will vary according to type; but it’s a cool, white perfume which fits the look of the flower perfectly. Soft, clean, mellow – something like the very finest soap but without undue sweetness. Slightly reserved, discreet: you’ll not usually find the smell by lingering near the tree. You need to poke your nose into a low-growing flower, like a pollinating bee. (Or questing beetle, since bees did not exist when magnolias first evolved). Magnolia Romana catches the fragrance wonderfully, weaving together accords of hay, basil, cedar and watery lotus
into a fresh newly-washed perfume which has a faint damp green earthiness beneath the petals. The new grass and the spring rains shine through the petals. Quite simple, quite delicious. And no Angst at all.