A Quiet Lie-Down

 

” I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes* and cinnamon….” – Proverbs 7:17

I thought of this when I found a buxom queen wasp emerging from a kitchen curtain, awoken by the brilliant sunshine and the scent of spring. I ushered her out of the window, in the manner of an obsequious Court Chamberlain. Off she flew to build a vast and multi-celled fragrant waxen palace in which to raise a summer tribe¤.

I love to see these creatures about their business. My favourite reassuring sight just now is the blue tit pair, popping in and out of their nesting box like cuckoo clock machinery. They are single minded in their occupation, completely absorbed in the job of propagating the species. In the heat wave of last weekend they both took advantage of the water pans in the yard to have a good bathe. I should think that tit box is more than a little stuffy. Cosily lined with moss, wool and green budgerigar feathers it is probably also crawling with mites. Birds seem not to have much of a sense of smell; but I bet that bath felt so good to itchy little bodies. I replaced the water after the tits had finished, I need hardly remark… it was so warm from the sun.

Perfumed beds remind me also of a client I had many years ago in the big stores. She was an avid collector of scented talcum powder. She bought so prodigally that it was inevitable that a sales assistant would eventually ask what she did with it all.

The lady said, ” I put it down the bed!”

Today you can do the job far more elegantly and efficiently with a flacon of Frederic Malle’s heavenly pillow and linen spray Dans Mon Lit. Richly, intensely yet delicately rosy this wonderfully romantic preparation perfumes your sheets to smell like the bedding of Titania’s bower. Its name reminds me of those saucily crafted movie titles of the early 1930’s, designed to titillate. So the posters might read:

‘Constance Bennett
In
BED OF ROSES
With
Joel McCrea’

That sort of thing.

Incidentally, I must tell you. Remember last week I was describing the chickeny-smells that led to my vegetarian phase? So, I had to smile when on Friday I went into my fabulous award-winning butcher’s – which always smells as sweet as a nut. A diffident customer was in there “looking for ideas for the weekend menu”. Then she announced that she was a vegetarian. I thought this was adorable, if slightly daffy. But spring-fever sends us a little crazy. It expects too much of us. It keeps the nerves at full stretch.

For instance, at this time in Japan folk go breaking their hearts over cherry-blossom-viewing. A regular participant was explaining the bitter-sweet brevity of the festival. One week of buds, one week of full flower, one week of fading and falling¤¤. But this pattern is not peculiar to the cherry. We experience it here in Britain just as poignantly and exquisitely. Since I became a (coarse) gardener I have noticed that few flowers last longer than three weeks. My neighbour has a magnolia tree with huge blooms like pink chiffon dusters, as though specially grown for the set of ‘Madama Butterfly’ or ‘The Mikado’. So spectacular but agonisingly fragile and short-lived: sometimes you can hardly bear to look.

Sprouting, flourishing, dying. All in three’s. That sacred mystic number since the beginning of human civilisation. It gets in everywhere, like King Charles’s head. It began maybe as a symbol of generation when we first started to climb up off all fours: father, mother, child. This was refined into the theology of the divine triads (Osiris, Isis, Horus) and finally degenerated into such petty superstitions as ‘three on a match’¤¤¤.

And think, of course, of perfume. A scent is generally described as having a three-tier pyramid structure of top, heart and base notes. Delicate sparkling accords to attract; full-blown epanouissement; and – with luck and skill – an enduring slow-burning afterglow. We all know about the inextricable meshings of scent and memory. Perfume is the ghost of a hundred springtimes.

* some scholars now read ‘oud’ for ‘aloes’. But then there are bitter aloes, once used to deter nail-biting.

¤ “I look like an elderly wasp in an interesting condition” – Mrs Patrick Campbell, when complimented on a black and yellow stage costume.

¤¤ not for nothing was the cherry blossom a favourite symbol of the kamikaze pilots. And remember Diana Dors reciting ‘A Shropshire Lad’ from the condemned cell in ‘Yield To The Night’?

¤¤¤ a belief supposedly manufactured by the great match companies at the time of the Great War. See the eponymous movie with Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak.

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Crowning Glory

 

It’s spring in all but the official calendar. The rooks have returned. Both flora and fauna have begun to go wild with excitement. For the past week the air has felt milder, softer, full of energy. Even us olfactorily-challenged humans can perceive and smell delicate and wonderful new scents. So, what myriads of odours beyond our ken can be driving the natural kingdom crazy with the desire to bloom and procreate? A word of warning: this time of year can be very risky, exceedingly precarious. You may find yourself simultaneously galvanised and drained by spring fever. It’s fatally easy to overdo, as new tingling air powers you up and consequently sends you right over the top. And what comes up must infallibly come down.

 

The wonderful Iraqi Kurdish barbers who used to have a shop round the corner from me always said that at home everyone was bled in March, to drain all the corrupt and exhausted winter blood. We used to do the same in this country up to a couple of centuries ago. Should we keep some leeches in a jar downstairs at Les Senteurs? I feel that I at least could benefit from their action. Imagine the relief of drawing off all the stale air, darkness and fug of winter. It would be the corporeal equivalent of laundering one’s entire wardrobe – and the new blood would smell as sweet as a nut.

 

In spring, those old indoor smells which seemed so cosy in the frozen mid-winter now appear frowsty, drab and unclean like the miasma of a serially unmade and rumpled bed. I was rummaging around in Oxfam the other day and I found this gaudy – but very pretty – little tin box all stuck about with pink and violet sequins. When I lifted the lid, it was to find the box stuffed full of human hair. I was absolutely repelled. Such an intrusion of mortality it was, somehow; so intimate and inappropriate on a breezy fresh morning. I cannot tell whether I really smelled oil and sebum or whether it was the power of imagination; but I clapped on the glittering lid like lightning, made an excuse and left the store.

 

I remember the late Elizabeth Jane Howard comparing the odour of a greasy unwashed scurfy head to that of cheap raspberry jam. Both my grandmothers had cut glass pots with silver lids all over their dressing tables. All their contemporaries did. When the ladies had brushed their hair they would pull out the combings from the bristles and stuff them into a pot. This nosey little boy was told that this operation was for the benefit of the birds: to provide them with warm silky linings for their nests. No doubt by the 1950’s this was so. I have since read, however, that in the days when every woman had (infrequently washed) hair to her waist, the combings were collected to be eventually woven into false fronts, falls and the like. These would augment those elaborate nineteenth century coiffures – and of course match their owners’ hair colour and texture perfectly.

 

In our own day of wash-and-go thrice-daily showering all this can seem a bit grubby. Hair can smell quite wonderful – and erotic, too. But we’ve come to think that hair – like everything else to do with our persons and our daily routines – needs always to be squeaky clean to be found attractive. A less than pristine smell nowadays is evidence of the loathly Beast in Man. Especially hair, which is all too akin to fur and the growth of which is therefore encouraged only upon the human head.  Maybe this is why – in the niche sector at least – “dirty” animalic perfumes are currently so perversely popular. It’s a natural reaction to all the disinfecting. Les Senteurs customers go mad for MUSC TONKIN, SALOME and the more advanced and spectacular ouds in our collect.

 

For the less uninhibited, we have some gorgeous hair products to tempt you. Girls who model themselves on Snow White and Rose Red should try the following delectable duo. CARNAL FLOWER Hair Mist creates the illusion that you are crowned with invisible tuberoses. The spicy rosy raptures of PORTRAIT OF A LADY are now available in an oil for both body and hair. And all those who long to lay their weary heads on a pillow of rose buds should invest in a flacon of DANS MON LIT linen spray.

 

In her later years my grandmother produced a curious little rose gold ring which had belonged to her own mother. It looked like a decayed tooth, really – a fragment of shadowy convex glass surrounded by black and crumbling seed pearls. It was worn almost to pieces. It was said to contain human hair, presumably that of my four great aunts and uncles who had died in infancy. My mother had a horror of the thing: she said it was extremely unlucky to preserve hair. I have the ring still. Sometimes I wonder – if it should finally crack from side to side and the web fly wide – just what smells from 150 years ago would emerge…

April – Spring Forward!

Loie Fuller dancing

Loie Fuller dancing

April really is the cruellest month: just look at her now!

Warned of the great coming frost on April 16th I spent three hours that evening swathing my poor magnolia in voluminous veils of fine white protective fleece¤: as fast as I wrapped the tree, another rogue wind would whip the fabric off again. The dryad of the magnolia yearned for freedom. The neighbours must have thought me a sight as I teetered on a step ladder, manipulating the cloths with long bamboos like Loie Fuller doing her butterfly dance. The sky turned a terrible frightening livid yellow and pink, like one of the Selznick sunsets in Gone With The Wind. Hail and sleet came down in fierce spurts. People next day said they had feared the Ragnarok was imminent. In the end I pulled all the swaddling bands tight with pins, rubber bands and clothes pegs – they held! And the magnolia flowers were saved to delight and fret, in equal measure, for another day.

magnolia james
This shrub really is a torment to the gardener – so lovely but so fragile. I only wonder that after so many million years of existence – scientists believe it to be the oldest flowering tree on the planet – it’s not toughened up a bit. No doubt the extreme susceptibility of the magnolia adds to its appeal but it plays Old Harry with its keeper’s nerves.¤¤
I say ‘keeper’, not owner: like a faery tree, the magnolia owns he who grew it.

Take heart all you chastened horticulturalists! At Les Senteurs you can now enjoy all the beauty of the flower with none of the angst; pleasure with no pain.¤¤¤ Tom Daxon’s latest, the creamy MAGNOLIA HEIGHTS, now blooms on the shelves alongside Eau d’Italie’s Magnolia Romana and Editions de Parfums’s Eau de Magnolia. Each fragrance in this triptych of waxy blossoms has its own discrete mood – the romantic, the stylised, the stately, the botantical. Tom’s interpretation is maybe the most impressionistic and the prettiest; exhaling suggestions of creamy gardenia petals blended with deeper tropical fumes of ylang ylang and intoxicating jasmine sambac. All three of these magnolia perfumes have a delicious lightness and airy quality – a soft spangled rainy generosity – which make them perfect for spring.

This is such an emotionally exciting, vividly raw and startlingly disjointed season. After that terrible frost came hot sun, melting old bones in  deckchairs.  April is full of new beginnings and personal revolutions, intended or involuntary. So it’s an excellent time to recall what I’ve always told you – all the dusty classic perfume rules are there only to be broken: the important thing is to ENJOY scent, not to agonise about it. Follow your instincts, cultivate a sense of humour and let yourself go. LW can throw out tips, hints and modest advice until he’s blue in the face; but scent is ultimately all about you, your emotions and finding your pleasures in and through your nose. Remember! The sense of smell sends signals to that part of the brain that deals solely with emotion – not rational sense.

Maybe this year you might like to experiment with the wearing of scent in different ways? I always used to say that spraying too much is better than too little: perfume by definition is there to be smelled. But, like many people, as I grow older I’m coming to prefer the idea of a waft rather than a blast. As with food, you can always come back for more. I’m getting to prefer eau de toilette – even cologne – to parfum. I now enjoy a light misting about the neck or head rather than a real dousing from top to toe. Apart from anything else, decreasing the amount of application seems to sharpen my sense of smell. I’ve abandoned the idea of a signature scent: instead, I dabble. A little something new, every day. I’ve also gone back to the practice of putting scent on a clean hanky and keeping fragrance about my person in that way.

It’s fine to spray scent on your garments, but try to limit this to clothes that are regularly laundered. Summer time is best, when most of us are togged up in readily washable cotton or linen fabrics. (Always do a patch test, first.) Scented clothing can be wonderful but it does need frequent washing to avoid any suggestion of staleness, so I do not recommend spraying onto heavy woollens, leather etc. Keep it fresh and light – and natural fibres always work best.

And you can have fun with fragrance combining. The ancient Greeks – said to have invented perfume in its liquid form – loved to scent each part of the body with a different oil. I have tried this: it’s kind of cute but you cannot fully absorb or enjoy any of the perfumes. You end up in something of a muddle – a broken kaleidoscope of smells. It’s more productive to combine just two or three creations. Many perfume lovers swear by the practice – and some achieve very striking and effective results. My non-pareil colleague at Les Senteurs is a mistress of the art: a Circe of Combinations.

Apply the heavier scent first – let it dry –  then spray the lighter one on top. If desired you can perform a non-binary gender re-assignment on a perfume with a deft spray or two – though I think it is maybe easier to “man up” a fragrance than to feminise it. You will need to bring on the darker, woodier notes, the animalics, the dense greens – to drown the flowers or candies in virile darkness.

Begin your experiments with your existing collection; don’t spend a fortune doubling up on fragrances until you have got your eye/nose in. Combining does take a certain knack but can be so rewarding: and of course if it works for you, you end up with a unique and personalised fragrance, thus saving a bespoke outlay of up to £40,000 – or considerably more.

When you think of fragrance this spring – and you are sure to do so, frequently I trust – cross all limits, every boundary. Be expansive!

¤ available in great quantity at very modest price at Wilkinsons. Ideal to wear, too, if you were attending a costume ball as Marie Stuart. Then all you’d need are the pearls.

¤¤ it’s rather like the terrible night vigil before an execution.

¤¤¤ but – “if it isn’t pain/ It isn’t love.

Nasty Smells

bad-smell2-300x272

Because the olfactory sense is a safety mechanism to alert us to danger, the memory of a really bad pong can last a lifetime. Twenty years ago I went off to explore the middle east, spending the first night in the beautiful port of Aqaba, as blue as a Hockney swimming pool, on the Red Sea. As we tourists were then going into Syria we were rigorously chaperoned, with a good deal of luggage checking. When I retrieved my case to get on the Damascus ‘bus I all too soon became aware that the handle was now the source of a most appallling smell: something dead and rotten was smeared on it. Exactly what or how I could never tell; but of course it was impossible to remove, or appeared to be so. Hot water, soap, salt scrubs, perfume went only so far – talk about Lady Macbeth. The horror lingered behind and below all the cleansing: out of the sweetness came forth stench. The experience to some extent poisoned the whole expedition; and when I later became very ill indeed after a dish of humous at Aleppo, the infection seemed somehow to have more to do with the now much-swabbed suitcase than the chickpeas.

Many of us conduct infant experiments with water and rose petals. Aged maybe four, I took apart a plastic bracelet of multi-coloured flowers (remember “pop-beads”?) and floated them artistically in a screw-top jam jar of water which I put on the nursery shelf, enchanted by the effect. Now, whether I added something else I do not now know, but I do recall being shocked and repelled by the nauseating stagnant smell when this piece of juvenile conceptual art was revisited some time later. And here’s an apercu I spared you in Valentine’s week:
“The soul of a man in love smells of the closed-up room of a sick man – its confined atmosphere is filled with stale breath”. ¤

Our ancestors, of course, believed that evil smells indicated demonic presence. Some of us can certainly pick up the foxy sharp smell of fear; and I think that occasional inexplicable aversions to places and people may be explained by emanations that we do not logically comprehend or even consciously smell but which are detected if not fully interpreted by our limbic systems. My mother had a superstitious – or was it? – dread of cut flowers that lasted too long in a vase. She believed that this indicated the presence of death; and said that flowers in a room where someone had died would flourish indefinitely.

When I get hyper-stressed I smell burned toast or crispy bacon, my head seems full of it. If you look on-line you’ll see this is a well-known phenomenon and the most fevered even frightening explanations are given for it. I have got used to it now after some ten years and have stopped constantly throwing open the kitchen windows. Besides, I was always told as a child that charred toast helps to develop a beautiful singing voice.

"Narzisse" by Martin Hirtreiter - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Narzisse.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Narzisse.jpg

“Narzisse” by Martin Hirtreiter

But let’s end on an upbeat note: what of the loveliest smells? The Book of Revelations reports St John’s vision of “four and twenty elders…having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints…”. I shall always remember the billows of a sublime silvery oud shimmering from two Middle Eastern ladies in the Fortnum and Mason lift – the scent of angels in black veils. On a more prosaic level, having just bought two more bunches of early daffodils in the supermarket – (now carefully positioned well away from the onions & Chinese veg: did you read that tommy-rot?) – I am minded to ask whether you can beat the greeny gassy honey gold of these bitter-sweet pollen-spilling trumpets?

¤ Jose Ortega y Gasset, died 1955 – just as Lemon Wedge arrived.

Breathe Deeply: 100 Scents you need to smell…


Image: Atlantisqueen.co

Image: Atlantisqueen.co

Everyone loves a list.

Here is my own riposte to all those endless ‘must do’s’ – 100 things to see/read/eat before you die – always so popular in the Bank Holiday Newspapers.

Yet so many of those recommended experiences are curiously passive, depressingly automatic: they involve buying a ticket, taking out a subscription, visiting some sort of restaurant, theatre or other place of entertainment. “You pays your money & you takes your choice”. A bit lifeless, maybe? 

Smells are different. They are trickier to seek out; they take you by surprise at unexpected moments; they rocket you across time and space; they resist control or manipulation. With smell you must take your pleasures where you find them.

Most of the following scents are delicious; some are startling. A few are revolting but arresting. Only one I have not yet smelled…

Even as I write, reports are coming in from Australia that the Duchess of Cambridge ‘recoiled’ at the smell of a koala: the eucalyptus oil comes out through the koala’s pores, you see, intensified by its own natural odour. Smells never fail to amaze: if you let them.

Tell us what you think of this list.

Here we go:

Box… & phlox: pink & white phlox was introduced into Europe by the Empress Josephine – a hot white peppery scent; the smell of childhood.

Phox: directgardening.com

Phox: directgardening.com

A new bar of soap

A traditional eau de cologne

Orange peel & marmalade

Clean sheets – laid up in lavender or simply air dried.

Fresh cut spring grass

Cowslips

Cowslips: plantlife.org.uk

Cowslips: plantlife.org.uk

Pigs

The silk lining of a vintage fur coat

Apple blossom

New books: hardback &  limp edition smell quite different.

New Books: radionorthland.org

New Books: radionorthland.org

Chanel No 5 – it changes all the time like so many classics. Our wonderful Sarah McCartney,  recently smelled the 1929 version: curiously like Lux soapflakes.

Jasmine – in a pot, in the garden or on the streets of Damascus. 

The hills of home – that indefinable smell of your native air. I can smell Leicester coming a mile off.

Lilac

Ether

Ether: Wikimedia commons

Ether: Wikimedia commons

Fried onions

Russian airports – once redolent of over-ripe apples, cigarettes & petrol. Have they changed ?

Toast

A glasshouse of ripening tomatoes

Sweet peas – which is lovelier? The colour or the perfume?

White sugar – a nasty smell. Used to make me feel quite sick as a child.

Tom cats

Tomcat - Walt Disney (comicvine.com)

Tomcat – Walt Disney (comicvine.com)

Hyacinths – though to some they smell of tom cats.

Scarlet geraniums – more properly called pelargoniums but you know the plant I mean.

Christmas and Easter – something indefinable in the air. Unmistakable, impossible to pin-point.

Privet hedges

Shalimar by Guerlain- at least in its glory days. See Chanel No 5, above.

Suede gloves

Vinegar

The sea

Icy iron – an iron railing with a hard January frost on it.

Image by Sharon Wilkinson: kingstonphotographicclub.ca

Image by Sharon Wilkinson: kingstonphotographicclub.ca

Horseradish – the hotter the better.

Honeysuckle

Lily of the valley

A convent chapel – inner cleanliness.

Prison – I have yet to smell this and trust I never shall; but the awful miasma is something that everyone who has been banged up infallibly mentions.

New shoes

Ripe pineapples – warm fragrant golden sweetness. 

Bluebells & wild garlic

Bluebells and Wild Garlic: Wikimedia commons

Bluebells and Wild Garlic: Wikimedia commons


Backstage – of any theatre.

Syringa on a June evening.

Olive oil

Snuffed candles – in the second they are extinguished; hot wax & burned wick.

Rosemary, lavender, thyme – the glory of the herb patch.

Cocoa butter

Fear –  a sour, foxy reek.

Jonquils in a sunny beeswax-polished hallway.

Camomile – though not camomile tea.

Bacon, coffee; cigarettes at the moment of lighting: all notoriously smelling better than they taste.

Coffee and cigarettes

Coffee and cigarettes

A gardenia + a magnolia flower – often talked about; seldom experienced for real.

An iris bed in bloom: the flowers DO have a scent, an unforgettable smell.

Daffodils

Laburnum 

Stargazer lilies

Hot tar

Indian basil

Creosote

Narcisse Noir de Caron

Guelder rose –  that gorgeous vibernum shrub reminiscent of expensive vanilla & peach ice cream.

Broad bean flowers

Methylated spirits

Tuberose

Vanilla pods

Gorse – coconut frosted with sea salt in May sunshine.

Incense

Lemons –  like the sweet peas, the colour and scent are mutually enhancing.

Clove pinks

Fresh oysters on ice

Oysters on ice: theguardian.com

Oysters on ice: theguardian.com

Celery 

Nail polish remover

Hot custard

Marlene’s hands, 1972 – covered in Youth Dew

Linseed oil

Violets

Bonfires – in small doses

A well-soaked sherry trifle

Rain

Marigolds

New potatoes boiling with mint

“Iles Flottantes” – that exquisite delicacy first tasted at a French service station. 

Steaming hen mash

Kaolin & morphia

A rose

Sealing wax 

Newly washed hair

Hot mince pies

The bitterness of poppies

Scalding hot tea

Hot Tea: misslopez.se

Hot Tea: misslopez.se

Linden blossom

The inside of handbags

Myrtle – always a cutting in a royal bride’s bouquet.

Raspberries

Anything from LES SENTEURS….

Les Senteurs - Seymour Pl

Les Senteurs – Seymour Place

Spring Lamb

lingosdotco

One of my more sympathetic correspondents – a regular reader – texted me this morning to say that she was motoring into the Cotswolds take lunch at The Lamb at Burford. What a lovely April day out! And how many memories this brought back, though I’ve not put a foot through the door since 1959. My father had an old friend who farmed locally and consequently we occasionally drove down for a meeting at The Lamb. For a great treat we once stayed the night. The farmer was a Parson Woodforde figure: he weighed in excess of 30 stone and when he dined chez lui he would have his housekeeper roast two joints of fragrant home-raised lamb. One for his guests and one for himself. Whenever I smell rosemary for remembrance – “Pray you love, remember!” – I think of these feasts.

It was in the dark saloon bar (or possibly the Residents’ Lounge) of The Lamb that I first met Miss Twine, a rich and elderly heiress who wore an item of clothing quite new to me: a small & squashy black velvet hat with a spotted net veil above a very wide and lavishly carmined mouth. I was about two, I suppose, and was presented to Miss Twine to be inspected and admired as she sipped her Bristol Cream. The veil rather foxed me and had to be explained away: not a deformity but a fashion accessory. I remember the warm scent of abundant face powder on her huge soft face, the syrupy luscious sherry and fumes of something which I imagine was a Caron, Coty or Weil masterpiece sprayed generously over the furs and other upholstery of her person.

The final visit to The Lamb was marred by a faux pas on the part of my younger brother. I don’t know what had happened to the roast lamb that day but we lunched at the hotel. The farmer joined us; both my parents were there too, and my grandmother, fragrant in her signature Blue Grass which sat so well with her Players cigarettes. We forget how children notice everything: nearly 60 years later I remember a certain froideur in the atmosphere. My grandmother was an advocate of healthy eating: maybe the obesity upset her. I don’t know.

But possibly it was this slight tension which caused the subsequent disaster. We ordered shepherd’s pie, made in those days with mutton. I can smell that, too: rather dry and grey, like minced up india rubbers. There seemed to be no gravy. We sat on great carved wooden chairs, rather low; I somehow managed to reach the table, but my brother had to be perched on cushions. We never got to the pudding: I can’t remember who noticed first but we suddenly became aware of a great spreading pool beneath my brother’s chair. The cushions were sodden. All I recall after that was my grandmother’s whispered “I think we should leave – now…” And so we did, me enthralled by the drama.

And oddly enough I’ve never tasted a shepherd’s pie since: it’s always been cottage pie, the beef variant. Smells nicer, tastes better. Besides where do you get mutton these days? But ah! The stinging fragrance of capers and creamy onion sauce. Another story, entirely.

Blue Tits

bbcdotcodotuk

We are still officially in winter for another three weeks but these last days of February have their own loveliness. Every year without fail we always have a brief foretaste of spring round about now as if to tide us over until the real thing takes over, a little picture preview to get us through the last bit of winter. It’s already light until six o’clock, the air smells young again: the older I get the more I think I prefer these unique days at the turn of the season to the rather uncontrolled frenzy of the true spring which often feels overpoweringly passionate, making unreasonable demands of the stunned admirer.

The first daffodils came very early in February this year and now the garden foliage is the colour of the blue tits pecking at the peanuts suspended in my still skeletal magnolia. Have you noticed how uncannily and exactly the plumage of these little birds echoes and blends with the winter jasmine, the crocus, lungwort, the washed or stormy sky, and the blue grey yellow-green of all the young shoots? Only as they dart from branch to branch does movement render the tits fleetingly visible. And once April comes they appear to vanish altogether, swallowed up by golden verdance and blue sky. I never see one during the summer; colour absorbs them.

Delicious powerful scents are now lured forth by the first brief burst of warm sunshine. I haven’t seen violets in February for many years but there are stars of purple set in glowing green leaves by the bus stop – and that incredible mesmerising fragrance of musk and sugary petals: yesterday as I knelt in the muddy grass the violets smelled as sweet as though crystallised on a wedding cake. Maybe no other flower but the rose has such a familiar aroma. But be patient, push your nose beyond cliche – violets are fleshy & carnal and also reveal a faintly smoky note deep within them. They emit an echo of Frederic Malle’s Rubber Incense, a sheet of which I keep in my writing box to scent the stationery with “Saint des Saints”.

The vibernum flowers look like clots of mashed up raspberries and cream against emerald black leaves; their sharp spicy fragrance is faintly peppery, mingled with the damp earth & mould under the wall where the snowdrops’ luminous pearliness illuminates the dark purple hellebores and the mauve primulas. Those early daffodils exude the weird soaring excitement of a Sarah McCartney scent: a penetrating, exuberant and flagrant fragrance. The thrilling rubbery polleny yellow powderiness blown from satin trumpets is one of springtime’s most characteristic yet neglected perfumes.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”! For the rain is back again and the forecast for the weekend predicts sharp frosts, hail and does not rule out snow. Hold back on your planting! But spring will keep and its scents continue to discreetly herald its coming.

Image: http://www.bbc.co.uk