Fallen Angels

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Such incredible fierce desire to re-watch REBECCA: do you remember the dialogue in the first reel when Joan Fontaine talks of bottling up her memories like perfume? Larry grimly reminds her that those little bottles “sometimes contain demons that have a way of popping out at you just as you’re trying most desperately to forget”. I thought Hallowe’en this year was pretty diabolical in the literal sense. It’s become such a massive occasion (commercially second only to Christmas), and on that mad Friday evening when temperatures in London reached 74 degrees things to me seemed frighteningly out of hand; had gone Too Far. Everything was going curiously awry – Tubes packing up, trains running late, tourists losing their way and fainting in the heat. We were all led astray that night: the popular consciousness had frivolously courted evil and boy! did we reap the wild wind.

As we know, goodness and virtue have a beautiful odour – Alexander the Great’s sweat smelled of violets; the relics of the saints give off an immortal redolence of roses. The corresponding perception is that evil smells corrupt, foul and repellent. And, according to old medical miasma theory, what smells bad will make you sick: disease is transmitted not by germs but by smell. This theory was current even a hundred years ago: my grandmother (her father was a health inspector and recognised smallpox cases by the characteristic smell of apples) certainly subscribed to it. I remember being hurried past stagnant ponds with a hanky drenched in iced lavender cologne clapped over my nose.

Satan, the Fallen Angel of Light, smells of sulphurous fires and excrement. Not for nothing were early matches, soaked in bone-rotting phosphorous, named Lucifers. I used to have dreadful dreams about sensing the demonic presence, not by the smell but by a glimpse of the cloven hoof behind a door or curtain. And of course that hoof takes us back to the notorious smell of goats, the farmyard and the pagan world of satyrs. Kilian chooses to eschew a close encounter with the Evil One. PLAYING WITH THE DEVIL is inspired by ideas of the Great God Pan rioting through lush fruity thickets “spreading ruin and scattering ban”; the old fertility god of the ancient world who was proscribed as a demon by the early Church.

But this is an innocent if indulgent scent. Go a shade darker with Nu_Be’s burning lake of SULPHUR which conjures up night’s dark angels with black angelica, cinnamon, the eternal fires of ginger, opoponax and pimento. It’s one of a series of perfumes celebrating the elemental and generative elements of the universe: SULPHUR separates the Creationists from the Darwinians and has a certain theatrical fiery flash to it. Blue flames to light up Christmas and to dress you as the Demon King for the panto matinee.

CUIR VENENUM by Parfumerie Generale has long been an object of veneration and curiosity to collectors of the bizarre. A fathomless abyss of soft musky leather illuminated with burning sulphur and bitter myrrh; and perversely sweetened with innocent orange blossom – Satan before and after the Fall. And finally try the Serge Lutens curiously mesmerising VITRIOL D’OEILLET, which brings out the love/hate metallic sharpness of pinks and carnations hiding beneath their peppery sweetness, as a vitriol thrower conceals her sulphuric acid in a posy of flowers.

Devil take the hindmost: why not come by, come buy?

Tell them about the honey, Mummy


I did not glean all my experience of the magic of honey from its great late prophetess Barbara Cartland but I was always fortified and entranced by her views. She wrote of perfectly preserved honey found included in ancient Egyptian burials and painted the rooms of her own house pink and turquoise inspired by the lapiz and terracotta of the tombs, which colours she believed promoted eternal youth and vigour.

Honey is instant nursery nostalgia, a reward for good behaviour; a healthy food that is also delectable – sticky fingers, buttered soldiers, a lost Golden Age: “and is there honey still for tea?” Those old-fashioned jolly teas where a super-abundance of sucrose, caffeine and spices which had the eaters drunk and reeling on food. Like vanilla honey offers comfort and reassurance. Honey is toddling around the garden in infancy, talking to the bees and imagining a riot of colour and floral glory realised on the Sissinghurst scale from a single packet of gaudily packaged Woolworth seeds: and I’m still pottering and fantasising like this, pushing sixty. Honey’s the food of the old pagan gods, healing and nutritious, promising health and immortality – a land flowing with milk and honey. St John the Baptist lived on it in the wilderness; the carcass of Samson’s lion became a bees’ nest. Just like perfume, honey is a talisman, handily bottled and perfectly portable; magically symbolic and still eminently practical.

Honey is the product of a society akin to ours: the teeming world of the hive with its hierarchy and queen, its drones and workers. Napoleon took the bee, like the violet, as his imperial symbol: intended as emblems of industry and diligence the golden bees were depicted by cynics as his rapacious family swarming on the thrones and riches of Europe. Sceptics pointed out that reversing the old royalist fleur de lys on carpets and fabrics made a rough and ready stylised bee without undue expense.

Why have the flowers in a fragrance without the nectar? Beeswax and honey both add a depth and a pungent back note to perfume; old perfumers used honey to add sweetness to simple flower waters. Mixed with hay, beeswax contributes to the characteristic musky woody leatheriness at the base of such Caron classics as N’Aimez Que Moi where it warms and illuminates the fragrance. Lutens’ Miel de Bois manifests in a grassy greeny tobacco-like haze which reminds me of an old admiral I once knew whose pipe smelled like a carpet of spring flowers on the Greek islands. And then there’s Vohina, the Huitieme Art fragrance which sounds like a bee-queen Roman deity, maybe the sister of Melissa the honey-goddess.

Vohina is peach blossom, lavender honey and hay. The intense pink and mauve sugariness of the flowers and the crisp but cloying wax comb melt in aching sweetness on the tongue as well as in the nose before deepening into the aromatic depths of viscous honey from an sleepy August harvest field of summer herbs and grasses. The rosy gold of juicy fruit flesh alternates with the crushed stalks of lavender and the musty heady grainy odour of pollen and unrefined honey, still full of the natural detritus of the bee colony. It is this contrast of the hot stifling organic claustrophobia of the hive with pristine peachiness and the faint sweatiness of lavender oil which makes Vohina so mesmerising. Rather than pinned to a pyramid structure of notes, Vohina revolves in a kaleidoscope, like sun-dazzled eyes, flashing its different facets in dizzy rotation and exuding the scents of a rural heatwave. Too hot to sleep, lying the hay in a midday stupor, sense overwhelmed by sensuality.

Image from Wikimedia commons

Out + About

Let me recommend a really good comical read; no longer in the shops but undoubtedly out there on Amazon: the works of Betty Macdonald, author of The Egg and I + that anecdotal account of the Great Depression “Anybody Can Do Anything”. In the latter she describes the morning commute on the Seattle street-car: a woman wearing a coat that looked “as though she’d dipped a collie in water + slung it round her neck”; and inhales the “crowded morning smells of wet raincoats, hard-boiled egg sandwiches, bad breath and perfume”.

Anybody Can Do Anything

Some of our most memorable encounters with scent are fleeting olfactory glances in the street: I remember a Nile cruise in 1992 and disembarking at a midnight Luxor to find the wharf in a blue cloud of the scent of the moment, Volupte. Yesterday’s sprint into M + S (I only wanted the loo) was enlivened by a waft of Youth Dew insinuating itself through the main doors: like running into an old childhood friend. And remember poor old Al Pacino bewitched by Caron‘s immortal Fleurs de Rocaille in the movie “Scent of a Woman”?

The moral maze: if you are bewitched by a passing scent, should you stop the wearer and say something? I mean: should you praise, or enquire? Most women ( and men too for that matter) love to be asked: whether they will give you a truthful answer is another matter. My mother was a great ambassador for Serge Lutens‘ pearly jasmine masterpiece A la Nuit, attracting attention with it wherever she went…but she could never remember the name. Others prefer to keep their own secret and will fob off the questioner with temporary memory loss or deliberate misinformation. I love the way that perfume encountered on the wing can spring a surprise and alter your whole perception of a scent. Chance encounters with two very famous but tricky scents metamorphosed for me in a magical and unexpected manner that stays with me still: a beautiful mahagony-haired girl in black fur and Samsara buying postcards at the National Gallery about 12 years ago. And even more distant but just as bewitching, a trail of Chanel No 5 wafting across the stalls at an otherwise uninspired afternoon at the ballet, traced to a pair of honey-tanned shoulders above white linen.

My favourite anecdote is of Frederic Malle‘s pre-launch testing of Musc Ravageur: famously, he sent out his P.A. sprayed with the prototype and found her pursued on the Metro like a vixen by hounds. Paris had voted on her feet: formula confirmed!

Image from Amazon.co.uk