Blood and Sand: Part Two

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‘APPROPRIATE’: a doom-laden word of today. So, is it appropriate to use the smell of blood – the essential fluid of life – as a  perfume accord or a fragrance theme? I’d say it was permissible, interesting, provocative, adventurous – if risky. To others it remains weirdly and wholly inappropriate. The problem is, that blood – which could and should be perceived as awesome, sacred, even mystical – evokes in many people a sense of fright, revulsion and disgust.  The very thought of it, coursing hotly within us all at this very minute, is upsetting or repellent. Blood is all too intimately relevant to birth and (of course) to death. The circulation of the blood is inevitable, involuntary and universally applicable, but is best ignored whenever possible; or distanced by the conventions of cinema, Hallowe’en grotesquerie or gallows humour. Those avant garde perfumers who have so far “had a go” with blood, have therefore so far tended to trade on shock value, rather than contemplating the austere beauties of the metaphysical.

The splendidly polarising and revolutionary ‘Secretions Magnifiques‘ is probably still the best-known and most startling example of this small and recherche fragrance family. And here’s an interesting thing: in the ten years since its launch, the perception of this startling impressionistic blend of various intimate human body fluids has somewhat tamed and softened. People do still come into Les Senteurs to smell the bottle at arm’s length and to shudder & scream; but a younger generation has now grown up who consider ‘Secretions’ more thoughtfully and analytically.

Many of us have now come to recognize in ‘Secretions’ those molecules which give the perfume a curious similarity with certain crisp florals. Like the Aztecs¤ we may subconsciously make a connection between brilliantly coloured flowers¤¤ and hot spurting blood. For it remains vital that – for now – a sanguinary fragrance accord should display a certain clinical freshness. The reek of stale blood that so repelled the Conquistadors in those Mexican temples, and which stampeded the cattle herded past the guillotine in Revolutionary Paris, is really still too awful to think about. This is the stench which helped to drive Lady Macbeth out of her mind:

“Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh! Oh! Oh!”

Our olfactory decadence has yet some way to go. Sweat may play a role in ‘Secretions’ – but clots of black blood.. not at all, thank you.

Don’t forget, the ‘Secretions’ are still described – ironically or not – as ‘Magnifiques’. There is still somehow the suggestion of a divinely created grandeur. “The blood is the life, Mr Renfield.” Out in the commercial world you can enjoy Lady Gaga’s similarly themed fragrance: this is called “Fame”. You can read that name as bathetic or irrelevant – or alternatively, as a rather splendid invocation of the multi-tongued Roman goddess, proclaiming the perfume and its awe-ful contents to the nations. The veins of the Old Gods ran not with red blood but with ichor, a golden fluid redolent of fragrant honey and nectar. “Bloody Wood” by Liquides Imaginaires suggests something of this lyrically poetic theme: the scarlet succulence of a libation of richly symbolic wine, roses, cherries and raspberries. A Bacchanalian banquet before the Maenads of Dionysus run murderously berserk.

Last week we pondered the scented lure of the desert. The connection of blood & sand begins with the terrifying Egyptian myth of the attempted destruction of Mankind by the lioness goddess Sekhmet, “The Lady of the Bloodbath, the Ruler of the Chamber of Flames”. Enraged by the sins of men, Sekhmet came ravening out of the Western Desert and was stopped in her awful mission of slaughter only by making her dead drunk on jugs of red barley and pomegranate beer. This the lioness lapped, believing it to be the gore of her blasphemers.

Blood and sand coagulated in the Roman amphitheatres beneath awnings of violets and showers of rosewater. A shadow of this vanished ambience still mingles in the bull rings of southern Spain. Vierges et Torreros with its dusky musky accords of leather and tuberose is the corrida sanitised for lovers of “Ferdinand the Bull”, the dear little beast who loved to “sit quietly and smell the flowers” in “all the lovely ladies’…hair”. You might try Tom Daxon’s Vachetta too, a deep, rounded profound leather once described by an admirer as “beefy”. (All that fine Spanish leather is sourced in the ring; and the meat goes to the best restaurants in town).

I am acquainted with the metallic tang  of hot blood as I grew up with my father’s veterinary surgery just across the passage from our kitchen. And in those far-off days, tots seemed to fall over and bloody themselves almost constantly: of course, we all wore shorts to a remarkably advanced age and romped about outside for much of the time. Health and Safety was in its infancy. (I remember having to have the section on First Aid in my Enid Blyton Diary slowly explained to me. “But what does it MEAN?”). The smell of blood is sharp, metallic, rather like the iodine with which all those injuries were agonisingly daubed.¤¤¤

It doesn’t panic me, as it does animals – and many humans – but it inspires me with a certain awe and I think perfume-wise it deserves to be treated with respect. And, so: this is where we came in!
¤ a percipient sociologist, whose name I cannot recall, once famously noted that civilizations who appreciate liberal blood-letting are usually keen flower gardeners, too.

¤¤ flowers scream when they are picked, as Ian Fleming reminded us. I well remember my mother and grandmother shrieking aloud when they reached this line in a Bond novel. Naturally we children were enthralled.

¤¤¤ but why does modern iodine not sting as it once used to? Have they ‘taken something out’? I bought a bottle recently, and had a dab for old time’s sake. The formula is now strangely mild. My aunt used to say it was added to my orange juice to calm my infant agitations: a suggestion my parents hotly denied.

Blood And Sand: Part One

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The stirring emotional scent of wet earth and newly-turned soil – “the red earth of Tara” or the aubergine-purple ploughed fields of the Midlands – has influenced many fragrances. Eighty years ago Jean Patou’s Colony explored the swampy forest floor of Indo-China. But what of the smells of apparently barren terrain? Eternal wastes of wilderness; the endless deserts – burning hot by day, penetratingly cold after the nightly drama of the death of the sun. Icy conditions numb, shrink and diminish smells and their perception. Antarctic explorers tell us of months in the snows, smelling nothing at all except the occasional pungent whiff of guano from a colony of exceptionally fishy sea birds. Extremes of temperature do perfume no favours, as all good fragrance curators know.

Yet the romance of the bare eastern desert – “on your far hills, long cold and grey” – has inspired many strange, beautiful and remarkable scents. The magic of these lies in the shifting shimmering sands which ensnare and capture elusive and deceptive odours, yielding them up as a Fata Morgana, sporadically and reluctantly, under the probing and teasing of the perpetual winds. Each grain of sand is a minute particle of a lost desiccated civilisation; of primeval rocks; of vanished lives. Each is the tiny crystalline cocoon of an infinity of odiferous molecules: a perfume paradox of the quick and the dead. A master perfumer can create a living dream from a handful of desert dust: an expansive gorgeous butterfly crawling from a wizened brown chrysalis. A marvellous dream born of a gusty void.

The desert – “the face of the infinite” – represented the apogee of exotic eroticism to our great grandparents. The expansion and refinement of the science of archaeology awoke the hearts and minds of the late Victorians to the romance of the enigmatic sands. Those drifting dunes which had silently and implacably engulfed cities and empires in preservative powder now began to give up their secret lives & smells. The canopic jars, dried flowers and perfume phials found in the tombs demonstrated how important scent had been to these lost civilisations. It is not coincidental that the modern oriental family of fragrances was classified around the time of the Tutankhamun mania of the early 1920’s. Novels such as The Sheikh, Beau Geste and The Garden of Allah dropped the historical connections and ran with the raw appeal of the desert and its wild hot-blooded denizens, crazed by sun, wind and sand.

Some of my readers may remember Vallee des Rois, the heady Harrods perfume exclusive of the 1980’s: in its lapis blue sea-glass flacons, Vallee was more Nile than desert nullah. It was very sweet, and to me smelled of hot lemon & honey with a twist of tuberose. Elizabeth Moore’s Anubis captures the perfume of the Egyptian dead more dramatically and exactly. Here we smell kings and courtiers laid out for eternity in those spices, resins and incense oils which, through their own intrinsic magic restored the embalmed to the delights of The Second Life.

The moods of the ever-changing desert are sketched in Andy Tauer’s bewitching pair: L’Air du Desert Marocain and Le Maroc Pour Elle. If L’Air is the cool night wind of the Maghreb desert, then Pour Elle with its passionate musky jasmine is more reminiscent of Arab or Berber myth. Its heady odour is like that of a seductive succubus whirled into some semblance of human shape by wreathed blown sands, leading a man to perdition in a far mirage. It is the scent a cinema audience may imagine emanating from Marlene Dietrich as she kicks off her high heels at the climax of MOROCCO¤ to follow Gary Cooper and the Legion into the Sahara, bare headed and barefoot in a wispy cocktail dress.

Pierre Guillaume, too, has an affinity with the desert. Maybe perfumers love  this wilderness theme because it is as mutable, enthralling and elusive as fragrance itself. One’s mouth waters at the crimson oasis earth of Dhjenne, fertile with palms, green wheat and cocoa beans: “as pants the hart for cooling streams…”. Guillaume’s earlier fragrance, the graceful Harmatan Noir, is delicate and wistful – faint but pervasive trails of mint tea, white jasmine, cedar and salt carried on the air currents across the northern wastes of the Dark Continent.

The Romans – who inadvertently created the Sahara by the extinction of the once vast forests of North Africa – brought the desert back to the Seven Hills in the sinister shape of the sandy arena of the Colisseum: a miniature landscape peopled with African beasts and the condemned from all over the known world. It was here – “lit by live torches” and saturated by the smells of roses, incense, excrement and the “sweaty nightcaps” of the mob – that the concept of blood and sand was first horribly born. We shall consider this in more detail next week.

¤”She’s not half stuck on herself” murmured a girl sat behind the young Quentin Crisp at a London showing in 1930. You can rendezvous with Marlene, back in the desert & swathed in white chiffon, in the movie version of the GARDEN OF ALLAH, shot in beautiful 1936 Technicolor. “…In the silence you’ll hear a box-office record crashing..” ran the ambiguous ads.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.

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I am dotty about What I Did On My Holidays, Sarah McCartney‘s preservation of past summers like so many flies in sweet-smelling amber. Highly original, devastatingly pretty: here’s an elegant scent that’s cunning and clever, amusing, witty and a treat to wear. A jeu d’esprit, a tonic, a irresistible pick-me-up even on the weariest and wickedest of August days. WIDOMH is a  hand-tinted picture postcard album of seaside nostalgia; what Charlie Drake used to call “a world of toffee and tears”. Take a pierrot line of melting Neapolitan ices, creamy whorls of dusty pink, pistachio, gold and vanilla. Then fold in green cucumbery notes of sea breeze, rock pools and crab teas; pink sticky watch-your-fillings peppermint rock; coconut suntan oil from the pre-SPF era; and the yellow haze of sunshine filtered through Bank Holiday traffic fumes and serenaded by the melancholy Sunday afternoon chimes of the Mr Softee van. Does this have you reaching for your purse? I’ll take two,please!

I’m told that my first sight of the dark North Sea aged two and a half prompted no response other than “I want my tea!”. I remember the kitchen curtains of our holiday house, patterned in a very 1950’s whimsy of trams and trains; and the sensual pleasures of popping seaweed between the fingers – the sun-baked black sort like dried currants and the slithery greenery yallery ropes of what looked and felt like strings of sultanas, smelling of harbour water and mud. I recall our pointer dog finding the remains of a dead seal on the early morning beach, his ecstatic and comprehensive roll and the subsequent reeking chaos. And I remember stumping over the quaggy marshy waste between sand dunes and street through clumps of red and yellow bird’s foot trefoil which my mother told me was called the bacon and eggs plant. For years I used to smell the savoury odours of the family fry pan billowing from this tiny flower: now the the trefoil seems to have vanished and the full English with it.

Then one Whitsun we went to Bognor, so beloved of George V : Bognor in a heat wave and a bright yellow house called Easter Cottage, with a piano and a window seat for the pugs to scratch; a house made even hotter by a kitchen boiler with live coals and cinders to be raked out every morning. This was my first encounter with holiday crowds, great heat, vinegary wasp traps and the prodigality of holiday ice creams, the latter very carefully rationed. My parents were dubious about cornets (made under the bed, said my grandmother, and using the cheapest sort of lard); but a choc ice might be occasionally allowed (safely wrapped, you see), and brought home before being cut into slices and shared out by degrees. Years later I got into terrible trouble with a teacher at school for being seen to eat ice cream in the street. The front and the beach at Bognor were too crowded to attempt,  and what I remember best is pottering endlessly round a tiny zoo of which my grandmother rightly disapproved, fascinated by an African crested crane. The bird looked elegant and cool under the dusty trees and didn’t have the disturbing, even frightening, smell of the monkeys and chimps. Neither did it shriek and chitter, nor wave a shaming pink behind at the bars.

In the 1960’s we made excursions to Wales, to the coast and the mountains; I developed what was either meningitis or sunstroke, the doctors could never decide. But the walls of my bedroom melted into crumbling india rubber and my splitting head was, for months after, full of the scent of the liver paste sandwiches which we were eating on the sands the day the horror struck. Indeed, I can still smell them, 50 years on. On a subsequent visit, we children all went down with chicken pox (which my brother had been told by his school nurse was a flea infestation) so the classic fougere of the wet bracken is forever mixed in my mind with the chalky kiss of kalomine lotion on red burning skin. That was the time when in my fever I fancied Satan was outside the bedroom window: the cow with the crumpled horn scratching herself against the wall of the house.

Holiday memories are the sharpest, because one is living out of the ordinary for a week or two; and because the camera that we all carry with us is so tuned up by anticipation if not apprehension to snap a sharp succession of new experiences. I used to hate those intrusive essays demanded on the return to school: “What I Did on My Holidays” seemed absolutely no one’s business but my own. Yet, here are 4160 Tuesdays and I  sharing these long-ago experiences, caught in this extraordinary scent which  smells elusive, heart-tugging and hilarious in turn. It has a whiff of that most comical and grotesque of trips, Dora Bryan and Robert Stephens lugging a sullen Rita Tushingham (“be nice to him, love, he’s brought you chocolates”) along Blackpool Pier in A Taste of Honey. And it has the melancholy dreamy beauty of a faded water colour in an old bedroom looking out to sea, a room I’ve not seen for more than half a century; where if I stood on top of the water tank I could just about make out the grey waves and the sand dunes away across the marshes.