All In The Mind

garbo
“The desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” ¤ 
Round about this time the sluggish torpor of mid-winter begins to lift. You realise that, despite all expectations, a new energy is charging you up, to – hopefully – see you through another year. The sunshine and anticipatory tingle of a single perfect blue day is a promissory note of spring. The light now lasts till after tea. The pink clouds of shepherd’s delight – last night, spreading like an explosion of rose petals – don’t spatter across the sky till gone half past five. The dark begins to retreat, and chilly fresh flowery smells start to emerge once more in the garden. The snowdrops have come, and the first crocus are open. As I grow older, February – formerly loathed and despised¤¤ – now seems one of the more hopeful of months.
They were talking about the wild life and hard times of Lionel – “OLIVER!” – Bart on the wireless. I remember he had a great love of Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, that perfumed dying of the light. In the lean years of his old age, the composer would come into Harrods for a spray-up on the Guerlain counter. In those generous days, the kindly staff would rummage in the bins and the stock-rooms for exhausted L’Heure Bleue testers from which a final precious drop might be squeezed.
Perfume is, above all, a wilful creature of moods, impressions and fantasy. We talk a great deal about sillage, tenacity, batch numbers, raw ingredients and projection: but in the final analysis the magic of fragrance is all in the mind. Most of us interpret scent in an entirely subjective way. The creamy waxen glory of sambac or ylang ylang is, for some, redolent more of bicycle tyres or penny bubblegum than the secret gardens of the Jungle Princess. Remember Giorgio Beverley Hills? The party line described it as an explosion of jasmine and gardenias. I always smelled pineapple sorbet. And that, I liked. One takes whatever one chooses from a scent, and revels in it. The rest doesn’t matter.
Mr Bart’s L’Heure Bleue is notorious for the wildly different associations it evokes. To many it represents the apogee of Edwardian opulence, the frou frou of a lost golden age. This is a view which gains assurance from the continued availability of L’Heure Bleue’s cousins – Apres L’Ondee and (proudly at Les Senteurs) – Grossmith’s feathery powdery Shem-El-Nessim. Other people smell L’Heure Bleue as cakey feasts of almond marzipan; dusty clove carnations in the dentist’s waiting room; or the exhausted sadness of shadowy funerals. None of these images define the perfume: they are the fantasies (sometimes shared) of individuals.
One of the great liberating joys of experiencing perfume is that you can do with it exactly as you will. When we have the joy of welcoming new clients to Les Senteurs, I often say to our visitors, “everyone here does just as he likes”. By which I mean, that we are always on hand – if required – to help, advise and explain: but, in the final analysis, every visitor must feel free to interpret, choose and wear fragrance exactly as she or he chooses. That’s the only work required.
It is possible – I hope not, but it is conceivable – that occasionally the way we describe a fragrance may jar uncomfortably with the image in a client’s mind. It is inevitable, really. The old rigour and definition of the traditional perfume families have long since flown out the window. Nowadays (and, wonderfully) perfumers have access to such a plethora of raw materials that their combinations and formulae are both startling and infinite. A consequent ‘semi-floriental gourmand fougere’ is almost impossible to categorise definitively. And to pick it apart atom by molecule would be to break a butterfly on a wheel. Perfume language still being in the olfactory Stone Age, I prefer to speak in metaphor, if not in tongues. One can only suggest; and paint a personal picture.
But, of course:
 “I say to-MAH-toes
You say to-MAY-toes…”
As my dear father used to remark, it’s as well we all think differently or some of us would be killed in the rush. People discover fragrance in the most unlikely places. When Anne Baxter first goes backstage to meet Bette Davis in reel two of All About Eve the camera lingers on all the friendly dusty squalor behind the scenes – and on the lady hoovering in the Stalls out front.
Says Baxter:
‘You can smell it, can’t you? Like some magic perfume…’
You pays your money and you takes your choice. But always with pleasure – and, of course, always at Les Senteurs.
Thank you.
¤ Isaiah 35.
¤¤ “Messieurs janvier et fevrier sont mes meilleurs genereaux!” – Tsar Nicholas 1st.
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Shop Till You Drop

royal-jelly-lipstick-ad

 

I was just ending last week’s piece on Regency shopping habits when I bethought me of Mme Du Barry, nee Jeanne Becu, the most notorious courtesan of her day. This gorgeous girl from Champagne began her amorous – and retail – career during the 1760’s. She came up to Paris from the country and found herself a nice little job on the counter at ‘A la toilette’, otherwise the Maison Labille, situated on the rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs.

Maison Labille was a sort of luxury milliners-cum-drapers and was lavishly stocked with all things perfumed and scented. The vendeuses were as widely advertised as the toiletries. Mlle Jeanne was very soon whisked from the glittering vitrines and mirrored shelves to be installed in a private suite at Versailles¤. Here for six years she reigned as the last and most spectacular of Louis XV’s mistresses.
Mme Du Barry was always in the very van of fashion and subscribed to the new health & hygiene fads of Dr Tronchin. As a young woman she was warned against stepping out in her satin shoes lest they be damaged. But she grew out of this nonsense; and later set great store by cold baths, long walks in the fresh air and loose light clean clothing. Her only cosmetics were said to be roses and milk.

Then, in her middle age, the Revolution and a terrible Fate overtook the Du Barry and she was hauled to the guillotine. The often-told tale of her dreadful end has her tumbril passing under the windows of the Maison Labille. All the grisettes, midinettes and coquettes were out on the balconies and peering from behind shutters in the sleety December dusk. All of them pausing at the height of the Christmas trade to see their old colleague going to her death. (We often recalled this – probably apocryphal – story in the perfumery department at Fortnum and Mason, gazing down on Piccadilly from the great sash windows of the second floor).

It was in Paris that the department store was said to have been invented: the first proper example being the Bon Marche, which opened in 1838. Some social historians reckon that the impact of the new railways coupled with the building of decent public lavatories led directly to the development of the big stores. Now elaborately and inconveniently dressed ladies were able to travel long distances and stay away from home all day, without embarrassment, discomfort or inconvenience.

Perfumes and toiletries were from the first well represented on the counters. The birth of modern commercial perfumery coincided perfectly with this revolution in shopping: the ideal lure for the honey-traps of the ground floor. Though older sources suggest that the earliest fragrance and cosmetic departments were slow to make a profit. Shoppers had formerly bought their aids to nature at more discreet outlets. To be spot-lit at their furtive purchases by gas and – rather later – brilliant electric illumination was, for some, all too much.

So many Continental and British nineteenth century novels paint a dismal picture of working conditions in the retail. The sales assistants were drilled like soldiers under the terrible eye of the Buyer and the Shopwalker. Counter staff were regarded as lower than dirt, and dismissed their posts for as much as raising their eyes to greet a customer. (“Dumb insolence”). They must never initiate a conversation. They had to walk around the vast and terrible Floor, never across it. Staff often “lived in”: sleeping in dormitories on the top floor or down in the basement. They were fed in a communal refectory; and rigidly chaperoned when off-duty. The pay was usually nugatory. No wonder that so many of these decorative drudges were not averse to earning a little more in other ways, thanks to the only people they ever met: lonely customers.

Most stores considered moral turpitude as a reason for instant dismissal. Less scrupulous employers might consider an especially presentable “counter-jumper” as a lure, to be beautifully set off among the crystal flacons and perfumed powders. For memories of the Du Barry have lingered long in the retail memory. She became a kind of secular patron saint of “intimate requisites”, her name commemorated in innumerable lingerie, make up, fragrance and hair products¤¤.

Immortality is often granted in the most extraordinary manner. I once saw a portrait of Marie Louise, the youngest daughter of Du Barry’s royal lover, decorating a very dirty wastepaper bin in a motorway lavatory outside Cambridge. Marie Louise was not only a Daughter of France but a Carmelite nun. To what a very strange and degraded destiny had her image come.

¤ and at Versailles, by a curious coincidence, she ran into old Monsieur Labille’s daughter Adelaide, by then one of France’s leading portrait painters.

¤¤ as well as in the luscious “creme Du Barry” – a cauliflower soup supposedly named because of the fanciful resemblance of the Comtesse’s elaborate hairstyle to the blond whorls of the vegetable.

Big Shopper

jane-austen

 

A lovely lady wrote to me this week. She is writing an historical novel, and was curious to know more about shopping for perfume, as it would have been at the time of the Regency. We are talking of a period exactly 200 years ago when the whole etiquette of modern retail was really getting into its stride in Britain. The cities were growing like mad, the roads were improving, the railways were almost in sight. We read about Jane Austen’s aunt shop-lifting lace in Bath – a mysterious episode! – and Mr Bronte’s purchases for the children in Leeds, specifically that famous box of toy soldiers. The Haworth stationer in old age remembered how the Bronte girls were always his best customers, and how grumpy they were if ever he ran out of paper.

 

In the great cities ‘going shopping’ was already one of the favourite pastimes of the well-to-do and the bored. So, in 1817, with Napoleon recently banged-up on St Helena, and with peace declared after a quarter-century of war, where would you have bought scent?

 

Remember that at this time perfume was not really defined or sold by gender – ‘male’ and ‘female’ perfumes would not become classified as such for another century. Scent was sold promiscuously. Perfume lovers at the time of the Regency bought whatever was fashionable and “comme il faut”  wherever they found it. Manners then were less inhibited in some ways (chamber pots in the dining room sideboard); more so in others. For refined wearers of perfume their entire ambience was perfumed: their furniture, clothes and accessories, their bath water – but not their actual flesh. Neat scent applied direct to the skin was considered injurious to health, playing havoc with the volatile humours of the body.

 

The concept of the department store was yet to be thought of. A few names familiar to us today were already current. Although they were not then primarily perfumers, the tailors Creed of Conduit Street were already creating small amounts of exclusive bespoke fragrance for favoured clients. Perfume was also much sold in apothecaries’ shops – this is because it was regarded also as a healing, medicinal preparation. Sometimes you would find it also being sold in the patisseries and confectionery boutiques of the Regency era, alongside jellies and cordials. If this seems odd, think of the way we cook today with orange flower water, rose-water, saffron, edible flowers and the like.

 

Many folk would have ingested herbal or citrus colognes as health remedies on the principle that what smells good will do you good. Consequently perfume would also have been sold by wise women, charlatans, healers, fairground hucksters, pedlars, quacks, witches, fortune-tellers and others of like ilk.

 

These shady characters aside, there was always something suspect about nearly all shop-workers. Anyone “in trade” was automatically degraded. Retailers were necessarily perpetually “on show” and therefore immodest, pushy and mercenary. They perforce mixed with all sorts, with no regard to station or social “place”. They might well be religious dissenters (shop work and nonconformity often went together) and so were doubly suspect. Shopkeepers in many early novels are hideously evil-tempered, crabbed and misanthropic: trying to prove their respectability while chasing a hard-earned crust. Those retailers who sold magical, seductive, luxurious perfume were likely to be of a especially ambiguous reputation.

 

Perhaps it was safer to make perfume at home. Girls of all classes – if leisure and money permitted – would have been taught by their mothers to prepare herbal and floral waters in the still-room of the family home. There, they would have also made fragranced salves, pot pourri, soaps, moisturisers, washes, pomanders, candles and ointments. Raw materials would have been grown in the garden, or bought in the markets or from merchants and travelling pedlars.

 

Perfumery began to be used in a more modern way during the Regency era. This reflected the way that clothes and costume had changed in the last years of the 18th century. Garments for both sexes became much more simple. Cotton and light woollen fabrics became enormously fashionable. These were washable, so people became cleaner. False hair was abandoned after being widely used for over a century: hair hygiene and fastidious personal cleanliness became all the style.

 

Therefore heavy musky perfumes which covered, masked and camouflaged body odours went out; and light citric/flowery colognes came in. Napoleon – “The Corsican Ogre” – was the Great National Enemy but he was still admired in Britain with a kind of horrified fascination – and his passion for drenching himself in bright crisp colognes was much copied by those who could afford it. There was a brief lull in the fighting in 1802 following the Peace of Amiens. Anyone who could afford it dashed across the Channel to Paris to study Napoleon, his elegant consort¤ and the latest styles of the Consulate.

 

After George IV (formerly the Regent) died in 1830, the drawers in his apartments were found to be crammed with all sorts of interesting things. Flasks of opium, laudanum and cherry brandy with other stimulants and painkillers. And also, endless locks of women’s hair, long-preserved love tokens from years gone by. All powdered and stuck up with grease and dressings; all reeking of long-ago scents.

 

¤ Josephine Bonaparte, by the way, spent far more on perfume than any person in the whole of French history: and that includes such famous fragrance-fanciers as Henri III and Marie Antoinette. Mme Bonaparte had her own creations specially prepared at companies such as Rance, Houbigant and Lubin – all still extant today.

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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From Blackpool to Havana.

Sarah McCartney

Sarah McCartney of 4160 Tuesdays

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, wettest 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!

What I Did On My Holidays

What I Did On My Holidays

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 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.”

I wrote the above two summers ago and my love affair with 4160 Tuesdays and the ineffable creator has proved far from a brief holiday romance. I am fathoms deep in love. Sarah McCartney has not only brilliant eccentric talent, but you sense that she has the most enormous fun in creating her perfumes: she appears to get a hell of a kick out of her own products and this I find quite irresistible in an over-serious world. Sarah’s scents are full of joy and wit; laughter, memory, imagination and fantasy – all those things that we perfume-pickers constantly reference as fundamental foundations of a great fragrance. She composes like a bold Fauvist painter – using brilliant gemmy colours; great bold strokes camouflaging insightful subtlety. Sarah is eclectic, weaving all kinds of symbols, totems, allusions and glittering ephemera into a magical web: she is the Shena Mackay of fragrance, a mordant mistress of illusion. 4160 is a wardrobe of highly sophisticated scents which one can also play with – in the same way that Carl Faberge’s jewels are also the most fantastic toys ever made.

Two more crackers have just arrived at Les Senteurs – The Dark Heart of Havana and Doe in the Snow. Now the first is a riff on Carmen Miranda, Hemingway, Zarah Leander in “Cuba Cubana” – everything you ever heard about desire and indulgence and stifled laughter in the starry tropics. It takes me back to the sodden New Year of 1968 and flying off to Bermuda to visit my aunt, house-sitting in a pearly villa surrounded by groves of grapefruit which we kids noshed straight from the tree. We sipped the unheard-of delicacy of rum and cokes on the pink shell beaches, my mother bought a fabulous pair of tortoiseshell Raybans and it was fairyland after shopping for school uniforms in gritty downtown Leicester. But the best bit of all was the arrival, stepping off the BOAC flight into warm balmy midnight air and the Hamilton terminal full of scarlet hibiscus, mauve oleander and a battery of new and unknown smells. We went crazy, like dogs pursuing aniseed or sex. “Havana” brings it all back. My heart wells up at all the green and marmaladey peachy citrus, the soft brown sugar, the tobacco (Aunty’s 60-a-day Lucky Strikes – or Craven A if available), the first properly made coffee we’d ever tasted. And encircling everything like a lei, the waxy spicy floral scents of Prospero’s island.

Doe In The Snow was originally created for the intellectual perfume connoisseur’s Dream Girl, She-Who-Needs-No-Introduction: Miss Odette Toilette. Like all masterpieces of bespoke fragrance Doe catches its subject to perfection, an insightful and moving portrait in scent. So maybe it’s partly because I love Odette so well that this bottled avatar enthralls me: Sarah McCartney writes that she “stirred woods, fruits and flowers with an icicle” – like the wand of the Snow Queen. Doe is all about contrasts and illusions, a Dance of the Seven Veils which discreetly retains a final diaphanous drapery and a pellucid enigma. Classic Paris notes of oak moss and jasmine contrast with frosty yuzu, peach aldehyde and creamy-golden tonka. To me, Doe In The Snow has something of the great scent-stars of the past about it – murmurs of Mitsouko, Ma Griffe and Femme: a generous, all-embracing hommage to the chypres, that smallest, most select and genuinely glamorous of fragrance families. And how about a medal for the name, too!

I’ll finish as I began by revisiting an earlier appreciation of 4160 Tuesdays, this time a salute to The Lion Cupboard. Sarah named this wonderful scent after her father’s personal treasure cupboard – it’s redolent of tooth powder, cashmeres and silk scarves laid up in herbs against the moth, dark fragrant woods, leather-bound diaries, half-forgotten colognes and the assurance of the past. Mint, juniper oil, aniseed, patchouli and lavender on the shelves are as transient but powerful as memories, regrets and reminiscences. The ideal perfume for winter hibernation, comfort and reflection: what the best-dressed polar bear is wearing this Christmas!

You can smell all of the fragrances from 4160 Tuesdays, as well as have the chance to chat with Sarah McCartney, on Wednesday 10th December at our Festive Soiree!

christmas-flyer-dWEB

Back to School!

mymumdomdotcom

It looks so threatening, that uncompromising late summer notice in the windows of school outfitters and stationers, even to those who left school forty years ago. Can the headmaster really have the power to haul us back, even now? I don’t doubt it, not if he really desired it. How remote and terrifying he was; each one a little Hitler, the monster pike in his own small pond. And each taught his staff his repertoire of cruel tricks: twisted ears, deftly thrown blackboard rubbers (mounted on very hard wooden blocks), pulled hair and burning sarcasm. Do you remember all those poor souls who wet themselves or threw up over their desks because they daren’t leave the room without permission? An increasingly desperate raised hand cruelly ignored. Maybe it was you? Not waving but drowning. And yet overall I loved the drama and Grand Guignol of my schooldays, the extremes of emotions that blew up and over like thunderstorms. Each day was a terrific adventure, you can say that all right.

Because I started boarding at school from the age of eight, the stomach-churning smell of the new term is also the odour of a particular trunk into which my life was regularly packed for ten years. It was already old when I first knew it, bound in moss green canvas and stuck all over with expired railway labels. It closed with a massive clasp which always reminded me of the lock which decapitates the child in The Juniper Tree, that Grimm classic of dysfunctional families and cannibal cookery. The interior of the trunk was upholstered in cream linen, with a removable tray that held a second layer. All was equipped with buckled straps for tidy packing and full of the smell of naphthalene moth balls looking like peppermint creams strung on violet silk threads. It was also redolent of old faded tissue paper, shoe leather, dry cleaning and tinder-dry canvas. Above all there was that remarkable scent of new clothes, a mixture of bleached cotton, detergent and a slightly metallic tang especially noticeable in the “dark suit for Sunday wear” and the itchy-scratchy navy football shorts made of a curious fabric which I have never seen nor felt since 1968. Whether wet or dry they smelled intensely of coarse damp wool: were they maybe the final expression of serge?

The ritual of the trunk’s being brought out and set up in the spare bedroom like a Moloch to be filled was a grim reminder of the sands of time running out. It was like that gaudily tricked out skeleton in the painted coffin which we are told graced the top table at Egyptian banquets, dispersing the scent of mortality amongst the spicy kyphi oils and fragrance of blue lotus. The Black Monday of the Return raced towards us despite prayers for the school to burn down or the outbreak of plague. My grandfather referred us to his favourite novel, F W Anstey’s Vice Versa, and a passage which I am always pleased to recall today:

‘…we cannot escape school by simply growing up, and…even for those who contrive this, and make a long holiday of their lives, there comes a time when the days are grudgingly counted to a blacker Monday than ever made a school-boy’s heart quake within him.’

Would you not love to see that thought set up upon a toy easel in the windows of Ryman and WH Smith? O! the blanched faces!

Then there was the ceremony of the caking of the plimsolls, this performed with a thick white solution which dried to a high gloss that later cracked and peeled. It reminded me of the fuller’s earth which the Romans applied to their gleaming togas: “candida” = shining white. This stuff smelled good, slightly addictive indeed, and no doubt it was harmful by today’s exacting standards of health and safety. You dabbed it on by degrees with a tiny sponge on a little stick – it was grainy, viscous and gave off an odour of chalk, nail varnish and wet rubber. Like every other item the plimsolls had also to be “clearly marked with pupil’s name”. To my intense mortification and anxiety my grandmother neatly Indian inked my name and school number across the uppers of my first pair: in fact, this set a trend. My shoes were never stolen and no teacher could find a reason to object.

Everything else was supposed to be identified with a Cash’s name tape. These were ordered as required from the local haberdashery and rarely arrived in time: another occasion for terror and panic. They were available in every colour and script. We had ours in red and they were stitched by hand onto every item including the “two dozen large white handkerchiefs” by our grandmother (my mother couldn’t and wouldn’t sew) or by ourselves. Like Edward VIII and his brothers we were all taught to sew and knit, skills which have come in very handy ever since. But even the hasty replacement of a shirt button for work still takes me back to that bedroom, full of late August sunshine, littered with paper and fabrics impregnated with the smell of Doom.

Image from: mymumdom.com

Cake or Pastry?

From ilovemuffins.es

“If the people have no bread then let them eat cake”. How that apocryphal royal recommendation dominated my childhood. My grandmother thought that Marie Antoinette had come out with it completely straight-faced, dumb blonde style: a Rococo Marilyn Monroe trying to be helpful. The diminutive droll, Charlie Drake (big on ’60’s tv), took it up as his catchphrase, even making a little song of it, as perhaps my older readers may remember. How mad was that? We know the Queen never actually said it, yet – strange but true – Marie Antoinette’s nutty advice now has a new resonance: if you look at the supermarket shelves you’ll see that cake is often the cheaper these days. Slabs of Battenberg, railway fruit loaf, angel cake and boxes of garish fondants come in at well under the price of a large sliced loaf.

Now why? Cake has undergone a cultural metamorphosis. It once used to be rather common, a dish to treat servants and the lower middle classes, eschewed by ladies and served stale to children when some of the richness was thought to have burned off (as calories are said to fall out of broken biscuits). Regency slang for “daft”, it later became the Mitford nickname for the late Queen Mother, apparently on account of that great lady’s enthusiasm for wedding cake. Rasputin’s assassins tried to poison him with tiny cream cakes, playing on greed like that of a mad dog. Today cake is the order of the day: cook books, tv shows, coffee shops all breast the recession with the cult of cooking – and more importantly, eating – Cake.

Cake is comforting and it satisfies with fats and sucrose; I have a sweet tooth myself but the modern store-boughten gateau is often quite overpoweringly inedibly sweet. Is this an act of infantilised defiance in an austerity society where health and health-foods are constantly preached? Baking is  a miniature act of creation and much emphasis is placed on the “look”; often there seems more emphasis on the filling, icing, colour and decoration than on the cake itself.  All the goods in the shop-window, as it were. One might theoretically get just as much of a kick (and more nutrition) from bread-making, but this is a less showy art. One cook I spoke to thinks we’re seeing a deeply guilty pleasure dressed up and disguised as an art form: animal greed masked by deft decoration. A sociologist might regard the phenonemon as ritualised obsessive self-loathing; compulsive baking, prettifying and eating of something which does the body no good and which can only lead to the most despised and dreaded affliction of the neurotic Western world: weight gain. Hence the obsession with “soggy bottoms” I guess.

It’s hardly coincidental that gourmand perfumes are booming again: ice creams, fruits, citrus coupes and above all patisserie. This is a trend in scent that goes right back to that black cherry and almond mood at the back of L’Heure Bleue a century ago, and the Guerlains’ love of vanilla. Sometimes the foodie note appears almost accidentally, not evident to every nose: I’m thinking for instance of the smell of lemon drizzle cake in Songes, Goutal’s cornucopia of tropical flowers. Or the ginger biscuits at the heart of Love in Black, the powdered icing sugar of Teint de Neige, the candied pineapple in Une Crime Exotique. Cakey perfumes which appear comforting and innocent are by definition deeply sexy in intention: the wearer is proposing herself as a dainty dish to devour, despoiled and wolfed down with the fragile raspberry meringue of Brulure de Rose or the dripping melted butter (so sticky and tactile) of Jeux de Peau. And gourmand scents are increasingly accessible to men; the feral tiger’s tea in Fougere Bengale, the sacrasol and Flemish pastries of the latest Malle, Dries Van Noten, and the smoky toffee bonfire of Aomassai. All reminiscent of that ultimate compliment paid to a bonny baby,”I could eat him!”

Talk about having your cake and eating it…No danger of piling on the pounds with these, just the teasing of the senses and the flirting with naughty urges promoted by that close relationship between memory, nose and tongue.  Some gourmand fanciers even claim that these fragrances satisfy forbidden appetites; others find they stimulate the desire for sugar melting on the lips, and not only vicariously on the skin. Maybe the scents are more fully satisfying than the cakes: they certainly last longer and leave nothing on the hips. All in the mind: and this where we came in – a fantasy world of cakie-baking, as at Marie Antoinette’s toy hamlet at Trianon. Playing at shepherdess and poultrymaid in couture gauze; patting out cheeses and butter in a Sevres china dairy. All the beguiling accoutrements and a great appearance of productive activity but finally just a delicious illusion.”

Picture from: ilovemuffins.es