Sunny Stories

From the Author's private WW1 collection

From the Author’s private WW1 collection

“Lemon Wedge Is On Holiday”

Nevertheless, like some old music hall artiste, he will appear for you and offer nugatory olfactory comment on the week gone by. As Arthur Marshall used to say in a different circumstance, LW is never off duty unless he’s in bed – and not always then. Besides, no one’s sense of smell can be turned on and off like a tap: we lovers of scent are literally led by the nose, willy nilly. Odours seek us out rather than the other way about.  Good smells – and bad.

No doubt it had something to do with that short and very intense wave of heat and humidity which sharpened our sense of smell: for suddenly and very evidently there was a spate of unsavoury references to fetor and malodour in the media¤. These came together, all in a clump and a rush: very odd and remarkable. A propos, do you ever analyse the look of your birthday cards? I have noticed each year it falls out, apparently haphazardly, that the cards group themselves into a definite colour co-ordination and theme. One year they are all variations on green and ochre beer bottles; the next time around, every greeting is a flight of blue butterflies. You have a look: the system works at Christmas, too.

And so it was that – as the heat, my heart and my head pounded in tandem every morning – I was greeted by a battery of sequential, often nauseating, redolent vignettes. There was the intriguing but revolting revelation of how, during WW II, SOE had planned to impregnate (via agents with “perfume atomisers”) the uniforms of high-ranking Nazis with unspeakably awful reeks to spread despondency and disgust in the ranks. I don’t fancy going into details but you can picture for yourselves the sort of things the Allied scientists came up with. Think of emergency moppings-up after both human and animal calamities and the concomitant urgent need for Dettol, a scalding hot bath and clean clothes from the skin out. One can imagine that the filthy scheme would have demoralised the enemy only too well. It’s bad enough to have a terrible chemically-enhanced smell stuck in your nostrils – much worse to realise that it’s emanating from you.

Because I am on vacation I have spent a lot of time with my nose in a book. William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Confessions of Nat Turner” is bursting with the sinister smells of the terrible Old South. The barren fields of Virginia exhausted by promiscuous tobacco planting; wood smoke from sad dying fires; uncontrollable sweating; home-distilled brandy; and a reptilian lawyer whose greasy clothes and person are drenched in sweet apple-blossom cologne –  “…..I was unable to tell which I resented more, that doughy voice or the honeyed, overpowering perfume”.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s monumental history of the Romanovs is in great demand at the library (there were 17 readers ahead of me). Here I read about the extraordinary family letters of Nicholas and Alexandra on the subject of breaking wind¤¤. More to be expected were details of Alexandra’s dainty custom of perfuming her letters to the Front with Atkinson’s White Rose. “‘The scent excites me and quite drew me to you'” – wrote the Tsar by return¤¤¤.

And there’s a brand new book out, all about George Orwell’s sense of smell; his perception of redolence and mephitis; and the impact of it all on his writing. I remember his late sister’s shop – “Avril’s” – at Southwold, though, alas! I missed Avril herself by some years. Under later management, the store sold Annick Goutal perfumes – wafts of Passion and Folavril mingling with the ambrosial succulence of salty samphire and dressed crabs at the late fish shop next door.

You have to be careful with these reminiscences, though. Careful how you filter them. Last weekend I went to a wonderful show put on by the local history society. There was all my infancy and early life in the villages, laid out in post cards, posters and photos in the Methodist Hall. There was the flowering almond tree in our garden; the dusty old library with the dark creaking stairs; the cheesey-bacon-coffee-smelling grocery. There was the tiny shoe shop full of new leather, raw canvas, rubber soles, chalky whitening paste and Cherry Blossom Shoe-Shine. That night I woke myself up at 3am, shouting my head off in nightmare and alarming the neighbours. Emotional indigestion. Too many memories stirred up. And I remembered then how, as a tot, I had got very muddled in myself over the tale of Moses in the rushes. I knew the reedy smell and velvety texture of bulrushes from walks down the water meadows. Moses’s floating cradle, caulked with pitch and tar, I could relate to our newly creosoted fence and the steamrollers¤¤¤¤ that surfaced the roads. The thuriferous fragrance of the Egyptian princess’s palace must have been like that of our very high church.

And I was the first-born son.

Consequently, I often fancied I saw Pharaoh in his blue war crown peering in at me through the tiny window at the back of our sitting-room.

No wonder I yelled out…..eh?

Yes, you have to watch your step with smells. Such power!

¤ even to an endlessly re-run trailer for a vintage episode of The Likely Lads on Channel 19 – “she’s so stuck-up, you’d think her backside was a perfume factory”. Honestly…..!

¤¤ very strange, you might think, in view of the usual perception of the Empress as a parody of bourgeois narrow-mindedness. But then, Alix was used to the strong emanations of Rasputin – onions/garlic/alcohol/sweat/vodka/sebum – and his rustic mystic predecessors. She’d worked in military operating theatres; her husband had chronic dental problems; and she had grown up at the court of Queen Victoria who, contrary to the belief of many, took a pretty robust view of the Schattenseite of life.

¤¤¤ Note to our friends and colleagues at Atkinsons: is this romantic perfume not due for an exciting revival?

¤¤¤¤ when did all the steamrollers vanish from our streets? There was a drama! There was a smell to thrill!

Nicholas + Alexandra

Nicholas & Alexandra - Tsar & Tsarina

They called one another Nicky and Alicky, Sunny and Lovey-dear, hubby and wifey: they were the last Emperor and Empress of Russia (a title they preferred to Tsar and Tsarina) and all they really wanted was a recreation of English bougeois family cosiness amid the snows and barbaric splendours of Old Muscovy. We looked at their terrible last days in an earlier blog: now let’s inhale the ambience of their lives in splendour.

Alexandra (our Queen’s great great aunt; and Prince Philip’s great aunt) was largely brought up by her grandmother Queen Victoria to whom perhaps she owed her love of fresh air and extreme cold: Victoria suffered so terribly from hot flushes all her life that she would have fires lit by Balmoral staff abruptly doused with buckets of water; she drove out daily whatever the weather; and like two other great sovereigns, Maria Theresa and Catherine the Great liked the windows flung wide at all times. As Empress (as we can see from numerous photos) Alexandra loved spending snowy sub-zero afternoons wrapped in furs on her balcony at Tsarskoye Selo: her sinister friend, Anna Vrubovya, the introducer of the serpent Rasputin into Eden, lived in a damp cottage in the palace grounds so cold that visitors kept their feet drawn up on divans from the icy floors.

Like many depressives, Alexandra was much affected by extremes of temperature and when not out in the cold she would retreat to her claustrophobic bedroom, furnished by Maples Ltd of the Tottenham Court Road. Here twin beds were pushed together under a tent-like canopy and battalions of ikons hung over and opposite the sleepers. Later, a photo of Rasputin’s mutilated corpse would be hung at the end of the Empress’s bed. The air, already laden with the attar of roses burning perpetually for 23 years in the ikon lamps, was heavy with Alexandra’s own white rose perfume and that of her full English breakfasts: Nicky was long up + dressed before his wife’s tray of bacon and eggs appeared, with toast and Coopers Oxford, a pot of very strong tea and a packet of 20 Players.

Having demolished all this (she suffered agonies from heart palpitations) Alex would often paint, sitting up in bed; or else, dressed in loose drifts of white silk, withdraw to a sofa in her Mauve Boudoir, decorated in her favourite colour with the exception of the pale green carpet. Everything else was mauve and cream, and the room filled with vases of immense size, crammed with violets, roses, lilac, wisteria, peonies and stocks brought daily by train across thousands of miles from the Imperial hothouses in the Crimea.

Here her five children would visit her, and Nicholas join her for tea and cigarettes from exquisitely coloured and jewelled Faberge boxes: he chain-smoked of course, and was always redolent of birch-cured Russian leather from his boots. When he had courted Alex in England, Queen Victoria remarked she always knew when he was in the palace from the scent of his leather luggage. If you take a look at the list of monarchs supplied by Creed (its on the lid of every box) you will see the Emperor’s name though details of commodities delivered are lost.

The offensive smells of Rasputin – the stale garlic, the drink, the sweat – left Alexandra  untroubled. Maybe she thought them subsumed by what she saw as his holiness. We know from her letters to the Tsar that just before the Revolution she visited an aged mystic, bed ridden in a country hovel – “but NO SMELL!” said the Empress. Perhaps that too she could see as a sign of sanctity.

Poor hysterical deluded Alexandra: this old woman gave her a magic comb and a magic apple to avert the coming cataclysm of 1917. A strange and weird combination of Snow White, the Gotterdammerung and Mr Pooter….