At the turn of the year… Pt 1

1301012957_2

I bought a delicious Mizensir candle to brighten the home this Christmas. Foret de Roses smells like the bower of the Sleeping Beauty – garlands of heavy velvety crimson roses blossoming in a dark wood, rambling across an earthy mossy forest floor and throwing green tendrils against a turret wall. A bit of seasonal magic. It’s been my refuge against the warm winds constantly banging and buffeting around the East Midlands, smelling not of the soft refreshing rain which seldom came, but of damp and moisture, like half-dried laundry. Then the freeze set in and the roses had a second flowering, blooming like wine-red snow crystals.

My other reliable comfort is, as you know, is a good read. I found the cult thriller “Gone Girl” at Oxfam just before Christmas so, having been told at the library that there was a 3 month waiting list, I snapped it up with relish. Now I’m only glad I didn’t pay full retail: here’s a book with a bad smell to it and not only in its unsparing lists of chewing gum, stale beer, carry-out polystyrene coffee, cheese fritos and endless bodily secretions and effluvia. Maybe the authorial intention is satirical but – to use an old fashioned phrase – I found the whole tone of the novel objectionable and it’s not a volume I shall keep on my shelves: it can return to the nothingness from which it came. As in the past with tarot cards, a ouija board and terrible fake movie star biographies I feel happier with it out of the house. So what next? I’ve got the memoirs of Hitler’s secretary from the library – flatulence, halitosis, herbal tea, stewed apple and Bavarian ozone. A wonderful friend has sent me Defoe’s ”Roxana”; and my brother needs help with a talk for the bi-centenary of Waterloo.

Colourful details, he asks for. I tell him about Napoleon’s prodigious use of Farina cologne, exhausting a couple of bottles a day, a true perfume alcoholic. He and his Marshals had it packaged in slender flasks which they slid down inside their glassily polished boots so that they could carry scent with them – “Globe Trotter”-style – to the ends of occupied Europe. The Emperor was rubbed down, washed and massaged in cologne, as were Louis XIV and James 1 before him: monarchs who, cat-like, avoided water while still intent on keeping themselves nice. Though, as we know, Napoleon notoriously preferred his inamoratae on the grubby unbathed side, despite – or because of – his two empresses running up huge perfumery bills chez Lubin and Rance.

The other, more gruesome, thing I always remember about Waterloo is the business of the teeth. Thousands of dead young soldiers lay unburied on the battlefield for weeks while enterprising ghouls pillaged their corpses for sound healthy teenage teeth which kept international dentists supplied with denture material for the next 40 years.

Christmas – like scent – is all about memories. This year we saw the last of Billie Whitelaw – who once played Josephine to Ian Holm’s Napoleon in a 70’s tv series I recall being shot on tiny box sets almost entirely in shades of mauve and green. Mandy Rice Davies’s obituaries were illustrated with cut-out- and-keep photos of an unbelievably poised teenager (18 then was today’s 40) striding into court in the summer of ’63 as fresh and fragrant as her petalled hat. And we said goodbye to dressy tennis champion Dorothy Cheney aged 98 who leaves us on a most apposite note:

“The girls today don’t look like girls when they’re on the court… For me there’s never too much perfume or lace!”

A very happy and healthy New Year to You All!

Fairest of All

snowwhite

“In winter a Queen sat at a window sewing..”: the classically simple first line of the folktale Snow White as told by the Brothers Grimm. To me, it resonated in the Arctic freeze of the past winter like the tolling of a bell, calling out over the snowbound land. We know exactly what is to follow: the words have an incantatory invocation, like the reciting of a spell, or the singing of a hymn. They release the power of the story afresh by setting out its elements in a formal familiarity from which one cannot deviate without losing essential magic.

Snow White is a parable of innumerable layers, exploring elements and psychoses of the human condition, sexuality, death and the toxic family. There is also the pervasive theme of vanity: seen not only in the jealousy of the step-mother, but in the desire of Snow White’s own mother for a perfect child in red, white and black; the baby that costs her her own life. On the first two visits of the wicked Queen to Snow White at the dwarves’ house she lures the girl with laces for her stays (pulled tight to asphyxiate her) and a poisoned comb for Snow White’s hair. Presumably even the humblest eighteenth century German peasant girl could identify with the desire for these modest luxuries: a fatal flask of perfume would maybe have been too rare ambiguous and arcane a treasure to feature in a fireside tale. Having failed to slay Snow White through vanity, the Witch-Queen then turns to another deadly sin, greed: and the fatal apple – the fruit that undid Eve.

But all through the tale you can smell scents – snow-bound castles and forests, glittering mountain peaks, flowering woods and pastures, fine leather and fabrics, snug little cottages fragrant with woodsmoke and beeswax polish. Cloon Keen‘s new fragrance Lune de Givre has a corresponding ethereal fantasy quality about it: a pale silvery green frosted moon shining over a winter landscape but stimulating warmth and growth in the earth below, budding with seeds and new life. Sharp fresh galbanum underlines the arcane chthonic qualities of vetiver and the magnificent delicate pepperiness of angelica.

prod_5148There is another Grimm tale in which an enchantress gives a poor girl three seeds or tiny nuts: in each is a dress, successively magnificent, outshining the stars, the moon, the sun. Lune de Givre has this opulence about it too, graced with a soft embracing cloud of orris which unites the fragrance in a surge of twilit passion, under the darkness of the night sky or the eternal starlit forests. And like a fairy tale, Lune de Givre has a universality to it: perfect for princes as well as princesses. As Tynan said of Marlene Dietrich, it has sex but no gender: a warm and hypnotic experience both calming and arousing, glamorous and serenely timeless.

Image from candlelightstories.com