No proper time of day…

john-atkinson-grimshaw-november-morning-1883

 

The clocks changed last week and I with them. Fiddling around with the time exhausts me – it mucks up my body’s routines. I react like a baby or a dog, uncomprehendingly thrown off course and put thoroughly out of sorts. It’s a species of fright, of course. It’s as John Milton says, it’s “snuffing the scent of mortal change on earth”.  It takes me about a fortnight to get back on track; whether it’s “fall back” or “spring forward”, the effect on me is always retrograde. I think my body clock is tuned so precariously that any tinkering about stops me dead in my tracks.

Especially so in autumn when the  melancholy winds sweep in with the falling leaves; and the rains dampen us down into a brown study beneath the stripped trees. Brown is my least favourite of all the colours. Draining away light, it lacks the drama of black and the warm elegance of grey. I’m talking about that dreary hue when brown shows flat and unadorned; devoid of any flash of red, blue, copper or gold. Just plain brown. Brown is the true colour of prolonged long-term mourning. Shades of dun, umber, sludge, baked-potato, penny and dirt have – like all colours –  their own peculiar odour.

Last week, as I fished leaves out of drains and scarified the increasingly sodden lawn, I inhaled the sad scents of vast dim November afternoons half a century ago. Apparently foggier and colder then, the defining redolence of those days was of school playing fields, scratchy hot-smelling serge shorts and, particularly, of a horrible pair of football boots. They looked like something out of The Beano, those boots. Never well-fitting – to allow for growth – they were hideously built-up and laced to well above the ankle-bone, like a clown’s comic footwear. Off the pitch, I clattered and teetered about in them like a geisha on clogs due to the soles having grotesquely high studs. They smelled of caked Dubbin, wet humus, dried mud, damp woollie socks and knotted elastic garters (“not too tight! Don’t cut off the circulation.”). Every now and again you had to work the boots over with an old knife or a stick to clean the dead grass and muck from the soles and crevices. That dreary doleful smell of cracked leather and impacted dead soil: brown, plain and simple.

“To this end we must all come”. The smells of autumn may seem variously depressing or cosy according to temperament. The cult of Danish “hygge” is now all the go but I’m thinking less of spicy spine boughs, mulled wine and perfumed candles and more of a nostalgie de la boue in an animal snuggery. Deep in our suppressed bestial nature there is an innate desire to hibernate; to get down that burrow, earth or bed for the next four or five months. To live off our own fat deposits; to be dopily self-sufficient; comatose-cocooned in the smell of our own kind – fur, skin, hay & feather bedding and nugatory waste. (Those all-important national surveys are always claiming that some 20% of the population change their sheets only three times a year). My father always used to say he would have preferred to live as a hound or a fox. He would chunter this mantra as he snuggled down in his kitchen armchair between sturdy horse blankets and beneath a warm and whiffy wriggling dog or two. Maybe those of us more in touch with our animal side have happier and more sensually comforting autumns than the more spiritually evolved.

“The doubt: can these dry bones live?” Have another look at that painting by Alexander Bowler.

I have mentioned before that my sense of smell goes awol when I’m in a state: so since the clock change it’s been very odd. After administering a brisk haircut, my wonderful barber – who entertains me with fabulous tales, as in the Arabian Nights – rubbed my head with some proprietary barbicide bay rum concoction. It was initially delicious but then reacted very oddly with an ambery frankincense perfume I’d applied on arising. (And perhaps that was a bit advanced for a November dawn).  For the rest of the day (despite changing all my linen and washing my head) I was suffused in an effusion of suffocating fruity musk. It smelled as though it was emanating from the depths of my being, as musks formerly poured from the ancient mosque walls of Samarkand and the Empress Josephine’s bedroom wallpaper.

We probably spend more money in the autumn, just to keep ourselves comfortable – and that’s aside from the Christmas potlatch. Now everyone’s talking about the funny new five pound notes. They haven’t yet had enough circulation to have acquired that characteristic faintly greasy pecuniary smell. “They are very slippery”, remarked an aged gentleman as the fresh fivers slid through his fingers like flying fish. (Same colour, too). Apparently the visually impaired and the blind are having problems with them: the notes feel too similar to receipt slips. A man explained on the wireless that he had been used to identifying all our paper currency by touch – but that the new notes defied this. I should like to have asked him whether identification by smell came into it too. I imagine it might well do so.

Thomas Hood¤ failed to mention an absence of smell in his famous poem ‘November’. Was this due to the inhibitions of his time or to an underdeveloped olfactory sense? Rather, I think that the wily poet knew that there are always smells, even in the dimmest of months.

¤1799-1845

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From Here To Eternity

Time, Death and Judgement 1900 George Frederic Watts 1817-1904 Presented by the artist 1900 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01693

Time, Death and Judgement 1900 George Frederic Watts 1817-1904 

 

Surely we are all haunted by time; its cruelties and mysteries. When, on her accession in 1558, Elizabeth Tudor rode into London she paused – mystified – before an elaborate tableau of infants and ancients, all wreathed & garlanded in tinsel and out of season flowers (for the month was November). “Madam”, explained an Alderman, “it is an Allegory of Time.” “Ah” said the Queen “And Time hath brought me hither”.

The scary thing is, as far as we know – and as we are too well aware – Father Time travels one way only, and that’s not a comforting direction. To conflate the words of Lewis Carroll and George III’s daughter Elizabeth, this “vile old gentleman … he won’t stand for beating!”. Each of us learned at his mother’s knee how terrified Elizabeth Tudor was of the bony old fellow – the stopped clocks, the banished mirrors, the elaborate wigs and maquillage. One of our favourite ‘heritage monarchs’ has become almost a national symbol of the vanity of struggling against Time and his remorseless ravages.

There was a rather creepy piece in the newspapers this month all about the latest techniques in making cut flowers last longer via a technique “which muffles the DNA responsible for producing ethylene, the gas that ripens fruit and rots petals”*. I was a bit amazed, really: we nowadays already get a sachet of that funny syrupy preservative bound, gratis, to the cellophane wrappers of most shop blooms. Either that or inherent breeding seems to semi-embalm them. I have mentioned before that, in any case, I mistrust flowers that last too long in water: three weeks – with chrysanthemums¤ – being my record. When I was small it was always said that flowers that kept beyond their natural span were a sign that a death was imminent in the family circle. Blossoms that had stood by a death-bed never perished.

So I am instinctively averse to this new idea, a process known apparently as “RNA interference”¤¤. Why should we want plants to last for (nearly) ever? What a horrible idea. Classicists will recall the Trojan prince, Anchises, for whom his lover Aphrodite secured the gift of eternal life. She forgot to ask for concomitant youth; so that eventually – centuries later – she had to solicit her divine confreres once again, this time to beg for the poor shrivelled chirping husk to be transformed into a grasshopper.

Everlasting flowers direct our thoughts to the notion of perpetual perfume. There’s nothing new in the idea. Three centuries B.C. Theophrastus (“The Father of Botany”) was writing that “what women require is perfume that will last”. (And Greek men did too, to be sure; but they were not supposed to be interested in such stuff). Another ancient, Apollonius, wrote a treatise on about where to source the finest perfume oils in the Mediterranean region¤¤¤ – “insist on the best!” As we – and he – would say.

But the development of a fragrance that lingers for ever on the skin still remains elusive – thank goodness. The beauty of a scent is – almost by definition – fleeting and fugitive.  A lovely scent must fade naturally like a flower or a piece of music: we try in vain to catch or detain its fleeting passage; its transience is an essential part of its appeal. Bitter-sweet. Should a “fine-dining” meal last for ever? Or the act of love? A poem? So why a beautiful scent?¤¤¤¤ How unnatural that would be. When I was a tot I used to lie in bed and my grandmother would come in to say goodnight and plant a kiss on the palm of each hand. Then she’d fold my fingers over it. “Hold tight! Don’t let those kisses escape!”

But the kisses always managed to fly away.

Perfumers – expert perfumers – will temper the concentration of their creations to reflect mood. Take the Frederic Malle masterpiece Angeliques Sous La Pluie: perfect example. This is an evocation of a March breeze blowing over newly-turned earth; a passing inhalation of early spring shoots and of an awakening garden. People love it but many complain that it does not last well. Jean-Claude Ellena, the creator of this heavenly scent, conceived it as the lightest of eaux de toilette precisely to enhance & reflect that vision of exquisite fragile elusiveness. Desiring it to be robustly tenacious is as paradoxical as nursing a butterfly into ripe old age.

How heartening to reflect that we are after all – just like the Book of Genesis and that famous hymn always said – “frail children of dust”. Professor Brian Cox was telling the tale yet again on tv last night: we are all of us born from the dust of dying stars. And in turn we duly return to the stars. Our ancestors knew this instinctively: we modern know-it-alls have to have it demonstrated by science.

As Marie Stuart’s father said, “it came with a lass; it will go with a lass”. Let’s end as we came in with the attempts of a British Queen to hold back Time. One of Victoria’s grand daughters remembered how the old lady smelled so deliciously of orange blossom imported from the Riviera. Others remembered her aura of immaculate cleanliness. When the Queen was young, she had her babies’ tiny arms, legs, hands and feet cast in marble to have about her, laid on cushions. A sweet idea in some ways; but now, with those nine children all long gone, there is something faintly macabre in the sight, rather reminiscent of the upsetting cadavers of Pompeii. Especially as, at the time, Victoria had found all those babies a sad and fretting trial. Like many a modern tourist, she concentrated more on capturing the image than relishing the actuality.

Those cold stone limbs remind me of a bottle of scent, romanticised and idealised but never used: lovingly preserved for an special occasion that never comes. Today – as regards perfume as with everything else – HAS to be the day! Sufficient to the day is the perfume thereof.

* The Times –  4/6/16

¤ “such serviceable flowers” – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

¤¤ all readers of Enid Blyton will jar at the connotations of the word “interference”. Very similar to “meddling”.

¤¤¤. Crocus oil from Rhodes; spikenard from Tarsus; frankincense at Pergamon…

¤¤¤¤ years ago I remember in Harrods seeing a party of nuns in fits and tucks as they examined a bottle of “Eternity”. ‘Cheap at the price!’ cried one.