“…always with his nose in a book…”

 

Good news this week for the publishing trade. The sale of printed books is on the rise once more. I saw only one electronic ‘Kindle’-book up and running on the London/Leicester express last Friday night – and believe me I’d schlepped the length of the train hunting for a seat. Which I found.

I think it’s what we always knew. The redolence of print, new pages, different types of paper, glossy covers and wrappers is an integral part of the pleasure of reading. Then, as you get into a book, it absorbs your own natural oils and DNA molecules: it becomes a part of your persona. ‘L.W. – his book’ as the traditional proprietorial inscription used to read. The volume gradually is saturated with the scent of the reader: her perfume, his embrocation, her food, his hair gel. My mother’s paperbacks were semi-transparent with smears of Nivea and Ambre Solaire. The pages looked like so many medieval windows: sheets of paper soaked in oil. And remember Emily Bronte teaching herself German as she rolled out the pastry? With the grammar propped up against the flour crock and Keeper under the table, hoping for crumbs. The apocryphal tale of finding a dried rasher of bacon (sometimes a kipper) used as a bookmark is told by many librarians.

Like Jean Harlow, I was reading a book the other day¤. It’s the new biography¤¤ of the great Irish novelist Molly Keane, by her daughter Sally Phipps. Keane is probably best remembered for her late “comeback” novel ‘Good Behaviour’ (1981) which starts with an (intentionally) nauseating description of a dish of “quenelles in a cream sauce ……there was just a hint of bay leaf and black pepper, not a breath of the rabbit foundation”. In fact the baby rabbit mousse proves the finish of the bed-ridden old lady to whom it is force fed:

“The smell – I’m – ”

And that’s the end of Mrs St Clair.

The entire suite of Molly Keane’s novels from 1928 to 1989 are required reading – and more than once over.  The books are beautiful, acute, very funny indeed and sometimes horribly sad – you cry ALL the time for one reason or another. Keane is marvellous on food (she adored cooking, finding it not only mouth-watering but therapeutic and fulfilling); and she is unparalleled in her awareness of smells. The first sentence of ‘Good Behaviour’ is all about things olfactory – both emotional and culinary:

‘Rose smelt the air, considering what she smelt…’

For the ‘miasma’ in that seaside Irish house is entirely sinister.

The books are suffused in sensory awareness; especially of colour and of smell. Flowers, clothes, the seasons, perfume, fur, pubs, horses, gardens, food, violet sachets, hair, smoke; the hunting field and the bedroom. Ms Phipps has inherited her mother’s nose – she writes of a butler’s pantry which “smelt rather deliciously of stale coffee grounds and pink silver powder”. She describes an aunt advising Molly before a hunt ball – ‘ “don’t accept presents of scent my darling and don’t talk to any strange men” ‘.

Of course then, back in the 1920’s, a girl who accepted a gift of anything wearable from a gentleman was hopelessly compromised. ‘The coat of shame’ wrote Lady Diana Cooper. And taking perfume from a man was tantamount to wearing
his engagement ring – or admitting you were his mistress. Hence the Mae West
riposte, which today sounds rather vague and harmless:

– “You always have such swell things! How do you do it on your salary?”

– “It’s a gift, honey. It’s a gift.”

I love it when you find one of your own tricks being practised in a book. Jasper throws “bay leaves onto the low ring of the Aga so that the smoke from their curling blackened leaves might quell other smells” ¤¤¤. When I first worked and cooked with an Aga I was fascinated by its secondary use as an altar to the Lares and Penates. Like Vesta’s Flame, it burned perpetually. One could immolate herbs and spices on it at any time, like Pamela Brown ladling the incense into the brazier in Liz Taylor’s ‘Cleopatra’. And the Lady of the Aga used to polish the stove with her own hand cream, lanolin-enriched, which of course lent a very heady redolence to the kitchen and back sculleries.

I was fascinated by Molly Keane’s biography and it is beautifully done. However, it upset me in the way that only biography sometimes can; in this case, I can’t tell quite why. Brian Master’s book about Marie Corelli had the same effect on me, decades ago.  Mrs Keane lost her husband early in very tragic circumstances; but she led a long and in many ways blessed life. She was a perfectionist and that is a state that always frets me because I guess I am one myself. However, I’m so despairing of achieving any sort of perfection that I often give up before I try. Maybe the strong sense of smell that dominates Ms Phipps’s book panics me in some primeval animal way, as I am an individual who also lives through scents and odours and the complicated sensations they arouse. Could that be so? Having worked so long with perfume, I am fully aware of its strange and uncanny powers. However, I’m still prepared to be surprised and shocked by their manifestations!

¤ “reading a book?” gasps Marie Dressler, doing the double-take to end all: DINNER AT EIGHT (1933).

¤¤ ‘Molly Keane: a life’ by Sally Phipps, 2017

¤¤¤ ‘Time after Time’ 1983

Advertisements

Health and Efficiency

dryad

 

Everyone’s throwing themselves into the New Year with abandon. It’s good to see. It’s a fine thing to be alive. We are planning various sprees at Les Senteurs. Out in the wider world, folk are getting fit and fleet. Each year, directly after Christmas, you see a great hatch-out of runners pounding the pavements – all resplendent and glowing in brand new fluorescent togs. Many of them (somewhat shy) emerge only under the cover of the kindly darkness. As the weeks of January fly by, the runners seem to fade away.

Others have already managed to lose weight, even when sedentary. A colleague of my youngest brother was recruited to play Father Christmas at the office party. By the end of the evening – underneath all the red velveteen, cotton wool and spirit gum – he’d sweated off five pounds.

So this got us all at the shop thinking and reflecting. We pondered on how many little kids (some adults too) get the horrors at the sight of Santa and have to be taken out, shrieking. I remember saying to my father on Christmas Eve, “please let Santa come…..but not while I’m awake!” Pa said, “don’t worry. That will never happen!”

I’d just had a shock in our local toy shop. All I remember now is the smell of hot linoleum on a walkway around an atrium; and a dreadful blaze of spot-lit, roaring, guffawing crimson at the end of an enfilade. It was Father Christmas – in his Grotto – but it might as well have been the Devil. I had to be taken out.

Now we had this little pow-wow as I say, and one of our dear customers – a very perspicacious and sophisticated gentleman – suggested that it might be the smell of Santa that upsets some children so terribly. The smell of a grubby hot hired costume, and of the perspiring stressed creature inside. Especially if the secret Santa were not over fond of regular hot water and soap. Very likely on his uppers, career-wise, Mr Claus might well emit a rank and feral odour to catch unthinking and instinctive infants at their most vulnerable; a most pungent plangent scent of unfamiliar danger.

Perhaps this might also account for panic attacks at the circus, too. The reek of the ring, the sawdust, the detritus, the canvas, the hysterical audience, the wild beasts. The performers, above all, exuding their own tensions and fears through their paws and pores. I was taken out – once again – aged about three. There was something about the entry of a troupe of poodles dancing on their hind legs which set me off. This led in turn to a series of nightmares which lasted for years. These dreams featured blue dogs bearing basins, their entry into my bedroom inevitably heralded in sleep by a spectral drum roll.

Maybe the smell of “lovely rice pudding for dinner again” is what made Mary Jane scream so wildly. Hallucinogenic nutmeg, the aroma of boiled milk and the brown baked mackintosh topping does make some people queasy. Surely there can be few things more disturbing than having a foodstuff that the nose rejects pushed into your mouth with a cold and remorseless metal spoon. Almost five years ago I discussed rice pudding in this column. I mentioned then the phantom farinaceous smell that used to hang over a certain quarter of Leicester. Was the nose of my younger self trying to send me a message? It is very odd. I now discover that a set of relatives of whom I then knew nothing once lived there. Since to me this nursery dessert has such a homely comforting fragrance, I can only suppose that like was calling to like.

A Day at the Races

ascotposter

A perfumer was probing the other day asking for my earliest memories of smell, a topic which regular readers will know is one of my favourite themes. The more you talk about it, the more the memories return. 55 years rolled away and I remembered the notorious Strawberry Elephant. This was a toy given to my baby brother by his godfather. About the size of a generous teddy it was made, as I recall, of some kind of foam rubber in a brilliant shocking pink and its smell was as startling as its colour. It was very very heavily impregnated with the scent of vanilla and ersatz strawberries – but a bad vanilla, that terrible artificial vanilla that has undertones of parmesan cheese mixed with candyfloss. You occasionally meet it in those hanging air fresheners that come in the form of cardboard fir trees, sold in packets of 3. The strawberry was deadly sweet even to my two year old’s nose and seemed to cling unnaturally to the skin if you caressed the animal. The house was filled with the smell: visitors were repelled by the miasma, the baby was terrified of the toy and Jumbo rapidly ended up in the caring arms of the Red Cross. He was a watchword for offensive smells for many years.

On early spring Saturday afternoons we all set off for the local point to point races; my veterinary father was usually on duty to treat equine injuries. The rest of us climbed on straw bales to take the bracing air, huddled in the car if wet, grizzled, squabbled, ate and drank Vimto through straws. It was at a point to point that another child taught me the dangerous trick of licking batteries to feel an electric jolt through the tongue. As I got older I took to safer thrills and brought along the latest library book. Our elders laid bets, gossiped, flirted, consumed a lot of gin, smoked, dodged well-known bores and walked the course with the dogs. Everyone had problems with the appalling lavatory arrangements and the more fastidious sought out hedges and copses. By 5 o’clock on a bad day the grass would be so sodden and swampy that cars had to be hauled out by tractors.

The smells were fantastic and various, not just juniper gin, cigars, cigarettes and pipes but a hillside covered with cowslips in full yellow bloom; fried onions, hot dogs and wet dogs; latrines, petrol, sweating horses, fresh earth and new trampled grass; crushed violets, damp tweed, gum boots, leather saddles and boots. There were draughts of heavy penetrating perfume and make up. Horsey ladies in those days wore extra heavy make-up of almost operatic flamboyance to counteract the effects of winds and weather as they tucked into succulent pork pies, whiffy sardine sandwiches and hot tomato soup. Tupperware boxes exuded the green crispness of tomato, cucumber and shredded lettuce drenched in the tangy “liquid sunshine” of bottled salad dressing. And you smelled money – great greasy wads of pound notes and fivers; the bitterness of old coppers and silver sourly handed out by bitter old bookies, and through chicken-wire grilles in the more refined atmosphere of the Tote. And how that tent smelled after a couple of hours on a busy sodden March day.

It was lovely, even rolling home with hangovers of various kinds and everyone cold, over excited and inclined to be fractious. One last stop at a pub on the way and then back for supper – someone sent down the garden to cut a cabbage, its great purple-grey-green outer leaves full of raindrops and exuding that strange scent that is something between mackintoshes and vegetable sap. All safe in the knowledge of another outing the next weekend.