The Poisoned Chalice

 

A charming young person wrote to me recently to ask for my views on
Poison, that succès de scandale created  by Edouard Flechier¤ for Dior in 1985. How unorthodox was Poison really, in its own time? That was my student’s question.

Well, 32 years ago it was highly unusual. Half-crazed. Kind of running wild. Nowadays, however, Poison has no end of competition. Just think – for instance – of Etat Libre d’Orange’s Sécrétions Magnifiques* with all its sour and sick bodily fluids. Even that has mellowed with the years, to the extent of sometimes being described as an aquatic floral, cool and fresh.

We have become hard to outrage. Schiaparelli’s Shocking wouldn’t cut much ice nowadays. And indeed Yves St Laurent’s provocative Opium (1977) had predated Poison by eight years. Now that perfume really did raise Cain, what with the concomitant controversial adverts and the insistent connotations of drugs and degradation. Before then, perfumes were given pretty names – or risque, naughty, sexy names. ‘Poison’ and ‘Opium’ were seen as very strange: as deliberately and offensively egregious. Of course that was the intention and the whole point. The subsequent publicity was immense. Like Giorgio, these were perfumes everyone TALKED about, at the water-cooler and elsewhere: perfumes it became the fashion to loathe.

No doubt the colours of the Poison packaging – the pantomime-evil green and purple – plus the name had a great deal to do with Dior’s runaway success. As I wrote back to my young friend: “You perhaps can’t imagine how shocked and baffled people were back then. We were still very innocent.”

Folk said wonderingly, “O! How could they call a perfume that? Poison, indeed! Perfume should be a beautiful thing…. And Dior, too, of all Houses, so chic and elegant! This scent must SMELL awful to be given a name so wicked.”

And they went on and on like this, whipping themselves up, and daring each other to sniff Poison; to try it, even.

The name was so diabolically clever. It preyed on all sorts of deep but rather dreadful ancient prejudices drawn from  legendary horrors, fairy tales and infamous crimes. Poison: always the coward’s weapon, the woman’s weapon. The tool of the foreigner, the outsider, the witch and the jealous rival. Medea, Snow White’s stepmother, Anne Boleyn, Agrippina, Livia, Madeleine Smith, Dr Pritchard, William Palmer,  Mme de Brinvilliers, Crippen. Horrible people who instead of calling out their adversaries for an honest fight doomed them to an agonising death: betraying their victims while feigning care and  nurture. “A buttered scone? Excuse fingers!” – remember Major Armstrong of Hay-on-Wye?

Yes. It was quite a scenario!

I thought in 1985 that Poison was horrible – too visceral, too dirty, a smell of rot. Now I still don’t like it but I can see that the formula is daring and venturesome and what we used to call “amusing” – that basic blend of tuberose (the eternal ancient florid aphrodisiac that has always had a reputation for boldness and sex) and red chilli pepper (ditto). Flagrant, if you like.

I do go back from time to time and try Poison. I’m much older – I still don’t like Poison but I can admire its nerve somewhat. It’s a small child in all of us who loves to shock. For to shock is to be getting all the attention.

But is Poison sexy? Is it voluptuous? Is it – as the judge said – fragrant? I think it misses, if only by a whisker. It tries too hard. It’s probably changed somewhat too – same as I have. Few perfumes stay exactly the same over 32 years.

Nowadays perfume is taken very seriously by the consumer – this was not so, back then. Allergies had not been invented; ingredients had not been purged by European committee; money went so much further. Scent came in small sizes, too, so you could buy all the time without being left short. If you fancied a fragrance – if it seemed fun – “amusingly vulgar, delightfully common” – you bought it, wore it, and chucked it. Scent was full-blooded, hot-blooded. It was much more heedless, more animal, more instinctive.

And yet….and yet…..Like those tiny mammals creeping around in the undergrowth while dinosaurs ruled the earth: even while Poison and its confreres were at their zenith the early niche/artisan/artistic scents were evolving. Annick Goutal, L’Artisan Parfumeur and Diptyque were tunnelling like moles under the great Power Perfume edifice. Like so many great ancient empires, those magnificently unhinged power perfumes were rotting even at their apogee.

*currently on show at the exhibition Perfume at Somerset House

¤ we at Les Senteurs know Msr Flechier best for his two sublime creations for. FM – Une Rose and Lys Méditerranée.

¤¤ Tuberose is wild, vegetal, animalic and unhinged enough already without mixing it with the sweet hot chilli succulence. Chilli seemed to many to be a spanking new innovative ingredient but in fact had been given a run-around in the early 1950’s by Caron, in the notorious Poivre.

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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…

Flowers Of The Bone

Diego Rivera Xochiquetzal

Xochiquetzal, the Aztec goddess of love and fertility, wearing a headress of lillies in this mural by Diego Rivera. Her name comes from ‘xochiti’ meaning flower, and ‘quetzalli’, meaning precious feather.

 

‘Then as she once walked up and down in the White Friars’ church at Lynn, she felt a wonderfully sweet and heavenly savour, so that she thought she might have lived by it, if it would have continued. And in that moment, our Lord said to her, ‘Daughter, by this sweet smell you may know that there shall in a short time be a new Prior in Lynn…” ¤
At this uncertain time I’ve been reading this most marvellous Book of Margery Kempe, said to be the first autobiography in the English language. Mrs Kempe was the mother of fourteen, a mystic and sometime brewer of Kings Lynn: she was born around 1373. She travelled all over England and Europe, glorifying God; she even reached Jerusalem. Her book deals extensively with the Divine ravishment of the human senses, including that of smell. Margery, like all her contemporaries, equated sweet smells with the treasures and revelations of Heaven.

Hasn’t it been a peculiar week, though? Perhaps the strangest yet in this oddest of years. I have been glued to the wireless and the BBC News on the hour. I’ve been like that Imperial nursemaid, obsessed with l’affaire Dreyfuss, who came close to letting the Tsarevich drown in the bath: away in a world of my own. I have noted such curious portents in the natural world, too: a heart-shaped ring of toadstools sprouting in the night on the public highway; a lone buzzard circling overhead; a frost in Scotland; unnatural levels of rain and clouds of flies. Despite all the eccentric and dismaying weather, the weather office now announces that this June has been much warmer than the average. The earth seems to have shifted on its axis: we used to sit out in the back yard on midsummer evenings, bathed in sunshine till supper time. No longer: even if the rains stop in time the bench under the kitchen window is now deep in chilly shadow by 6.30pm. Curiouser and curiouser!

I wonder what’s going on. Some things are as ever. The Constance Spry roses, though battered, have flowered according to their meticulously allotted span: three and a half weeks. All finished and put away by 4th July: regular as clockwork. The privet hedges are now in flower; all too often overlooked or taken for granted, but smelling as exotic and penetrating as Spanish orange blossom.  The garden is intensely luxuriant, even jungly; and my sense of smell is slightly skewed, as always in times of crisis.

After the Book of Margery Kempe I went on to Jill Dawson’s engrossing and ingenious new novel – ‘The Crime Writer’: an episode in the life of Patricia Highsmith. (Ms Dawson is always adroit as to matters olfactory: she has poor Mrs Thompson smelling of Chanel No 5 in her study of a notorious 1922 murder case, ‘Fred & Edie’). A leitmotif of the narrative is the insistent, invasive and slightly sinister fragrance of Coty’s L’Aimant; and the ‘atrocious’ smell of Pat’s pet snails, kept in pockets and handbags. I’d never thought of snails as having a smell – naïve of me: for everything does if you concentrate upon it.

Now you remember those tuberose bulbs – ‘The Pearl’ – I told you back in February? They duly arrived by post and I potted them up and put them in my bedroom window, one of the sunniest places in the house. Very fascinating to watch. First of all graceful arcs of slender lily leaves sprouted. And then – and my! are they thirsty plants, soaking up water like insatiable sponges – the leaves became wilder; more luxuriant and untidy. I moved the pot to the garden and “The Pearl” is now living mostly outside, coming indoors only on a few unusually chilly nights or when the rain reaches monsoon proportions. The flower buds are emerging – fat messy bundles on sturdy stems, almost like miniature corn on the cob. I shall let you know what happens next: Meanwhile I spin wild fantasies of the garden filled with a scent so strong I am driven indoors.

All thoughts of tuberoses lead one back to Fracas, still ineffably stylish and poised on the Les Senteurs shelves. The Collins Robert French-English dictionary defines ‘fracas’ thus:

“..crash…roar…din..,’annoncer une nouvelle a grand fracas’: to create a sensation with a piece of news..”

What an inspired name for a pretty wild scent, unique and outrageous in its time; a 1948 revival of the rococo tuberose oils that had once delighted Marie Antoinette and the Du Barry. A loud blaring scent to some; to others as frivolous, frilly and frothy as a wired Dior crinoline petticoat. I see it as most intensely pink perfume, of an almost ersatz shade: potentially more shocking than Shocking, but, withal, of a pearly petalled delicacy like the flowers that die so that their fragrance might live. It hangs over every subsequent tuberose perfume created, like the shadow of Rebecca de Winter – or Mrs Rochester, overhead in the attic: an exotic myth-bound memory; a threat to all newcomers in the field.

I have never met anyone who had the means or the daring to wear Fracas in its early days. It is not a provincial scent. Until I came to London I had never met this eminently metropolitan belle. She has had her up and downs over the past 70 years, la Fracas. Elderly fans tell me that like other legends – Ma Griffe, Je Reviens, Tabu – Fracas has known lean times. And then, in the late ’80’s, maybe in the wake of the new and increasingly audacious power perfumes, Fracas was reborn, with elegant new packaging and a price to match. I remember a Japanese gentleman, a quarter of a century ago, coming to the Harrods counter to buy eight bottles of the parfum concentration. He had a charming interpreter with him: when she relayed the total bill, the customer squealed and actually leapt into the air.

“Don’t worry,” said the interpreter. “He pay!”

And he did.

¤ The Book of Margery Kemp. Translated by B.A.Windeatt. Penguin edition 2004

That Was The Week That Was

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“Casting always starts on time. Can’t you smell the cheap perfume?” MAD MEN: The Final Season.

You can forget about BREXIT – (someone asked, “is it a type of chocolate?”) –  it’s been a great week for scent and smell. In the tradition of Florence Nightingale and native common sense, Professor Stephen Holgate of Southampton University begged us to open our windows and ventilate our poisoned homes. Fancy needing to be told! We have become a funny lot. Fumes from wood-burning stoves, furniture polish and spray deodorants are all under suspicion; which last concern leads us neatly to all these fascinating newspaper features about the human deodorising gene. It seems that around 2% of us probably don’t need to wear a proprietary deodorant at all, if only we dared to leave it off. We smell naturally sweet and clean, no matter how hot and bothered. The problem is, determining for sure who these lucky people are: for who will take a chance, eschew the roll-on and make sure of the fact?

Maybe Alexander the Great – whose sweat reputedly smelled of violets – was blessed with this gene. I have certainly known certain folk who have always the perpetual aura of a spring garden or the flower shop around them. Possibly this topical gene holds the answer to a mystery I have often pondered: the chain smoker who never has a trace of stale tobacco or cigarette smoke about her person but only a redolence as sweet as a nut, fragrant as a rose, pure as a lily.

Also featured in the press was the amusing case of a serial ‘career’ shoplifter who told the judge after sentencing how handsome he was. Like many of her kind, she was no stranger to the perfume counter and, fascinatingly, a cute reporter noted her preference for Hermes and Hugo Boss creations. I remember that around thirty years ago a huge fragrance warehouse in the Midlands was looted by thieves who had tunnelled in like ancient tomb robbers. They stripped the place methodically, leaving only stacks of Houbigant’s Demi Jour untouched. This was taken as a terrible slight on the dewy jammy-sweet perfume in question.

Well, then we took delivery at the shop of James Heeley’s revelatory new Chypre 21, and this started a lively discussion as to what a chypre fragrance actually is. If you’re looking for an intellectual treat in scent-circles, a symposium of meta-cognition, just propose to those present that they categorise a chypre, concisely and definitively. This most glamorous and alluring type of fragrance has been around for centuries but was only pinned to the butterfly board of perfumery ninety nine years ago when Francois Coty launched his eponymous Chypre. Guerlain’s immortal Mitsouko followed two years later with vast success but chypres, though much admired, have never been the most popular scents with the Lumpen. Maybe the name is too tricky for the Anglo-Saxon tongue. I had to smile, because in pursuit of chypre history I stumbled across the Google fact that in the text of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon (1929/30 ) Mr Joel Cairo’s hankies are soaked in chypre. Evidently Warner Bros jibbed, because in the movie version (1941) Peter Lorre is drenched in gardenia. A more accessible scent for contemporary audiences? (Or was gardenia – as witness Mary Astor’s bath salts in THE GREAT LIE – just more on-point that year? Or did gardenia sound more aptly and obviously pansified).¤

But the greatest event of last week was probably my mail order! I finally got around to answering a most enticing advertisement for tuberose bulbs, as seen in the back pages of a national newspaper. Five bulbs of ‘The Pearl’ for just £8. My imagination ran riot and galloped off, well ahead of itself: as it always does with such ads or with the flowery promise of any seed packet. I imagined the back yard transformed into a tropical terrace, the heavy scent driving me indoors of a summer’s evening, stupefied & moribund with perfume; pink and white tuberoses running riot like a stage garden of tissue paper blossoms. I kept this advertisement on the kitchen table for a full week, gloating over it, but now the cheque’s gone off and when the precious bulbs come I’ll plant them like Jack’s beans and keep you informed of their (indubitably magical) progress.

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Andy Tauer’s new Tubereuse fragrance – of the Sotto la Luna tribe – is sumptuously ample, eye-poppingly opulent, like the chasuble of a Spanish Conquistador bishop. A vestment woven of black cloth-of-gold; then sewn with black opals, jet and black diamonds strung on human hairs. Beneath the coruscating magnificence there lurks a profoundly earthy quality which puts me in mind somewhat of the rootiness of Annick Goutal’s long-vanished tuberose experiment. The crystal Tubereuse grown in Tauer’s nursery – dusky top notes of cinnamon, galbanum, clove and prickly green geranium – slowly rises through the chthonic darkness of earth and cinders like an exhumed Pre-Columbian American statue of the Divine. A massive ornately carved idol, resurrected from chasms of wandering shadows, to bring ambiguous greetings from the Lower World of Mictlan. As Tubereuse warms, it sings – as the Colossi of Memnon were said to do when hit by rays of the rising sun – emitting chords of sweet rose, jungly ylang and the bitterness of patchouli. Tuberose perfumes come in many moods –  natural, green, frothy and frilly, smoothly syrupy, fruity, sensual, erotic and brash. But this Tauer creation is unique, startingly original: an iridescent ruby-throated hummingbird scent from the nectar of a sooty lily. A pure white flower – a sacrificial “blossom of the bone” – reflected in a sorcerer-priest’s obsidian mirror: “through a glass darkly”. Disturbing, weirdly beautiful, mesmerising.

So: why not pop round?

¤ more inexplicable changes in movie translations: can anyone tell us why Melanie’s reading from Les Miserables in the book of Gone With The Wind is switched to David Copperfield in the film? And why the name of the sculptor of Mrs Mingott’s hands in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is (seemingly pointlessly) altered by Martin Scorsese?

When Toni met Therese

katetattershalldotcom

Well I have to tell you I finally finished Buddenbrooks and the only thing is to do now is embark on a repeat journey through this most seductive of novels.

Meanwhile to clear the palate – though this is maybe an unfortunate metaphor in the circumstances – I re-read Zola’s 1867 shocker Therese Raquin which seemed to me to have gained in horror over the years. I suppose advancing age makes this study of lust, murder, physical and mental decay even more disturbing. I now had to skip certain passages and once felt actually sick.

But there’s a connection with Buddenbrooks: the acute, even neurotic, sensitivity to smell. It surprises me that the party line today is the extreme difficulty of expressing scent and odour in words: publishers tell me they are chary of books on the subject of perfume; television treads a wary path despite sporadic huge success on shopping channels. Yet here we are in the gifted hands and brains of two nineteenth century novelists who use words and images precisely and exquisitely to convey smells.

One of the subtle images that only becomes apparent as you read the final chapters of Buddenbrooks is that the smell of death – strange yet familiar as Mann keeps reminding us – is continually abroad in the house of this once prosperous thriving family. It comes to the nose on odd currents of air, despite the heaps of tuberoses, violets and roses heaped up in the Sterbzimmer; it manifests even when the family is apparently whole and healthy. Evidently there is a rottenness in German society – and of course this is the theme that so enraged Hitler later on.

Zola fills Therese Raquin with the stench of corruption that breeds and fructifies in extremes of heat and cold. The characters’ bodies burn with desire, avarice, greed and delirium. When Therese ( born under the hot sun of Algeria ) are not writhing in bed they’re sweating and baking in the suburban countryside, eating in cheap restaurants smelling of burned fat, sour wine and dust; or stifling in hackney cabs. They live in a subterranean passage, in a terrible cavern of a shop with claustrophobic flat above. All is gloom, darkness, damp, the cold perspiration of guilty terrors. Everything is horribly softly wet and bloated like the flesh of their drowned victim, hosed down in cold water on the slabs of the Paris morgue – freely open to the public as a place of entertainment.

One of Zola’s masterstrokes is to have Therese’s seductive body smell of violets – that musky indolic note that is often compared to the scent of death. Elizabeth Jane Howard comments on this in her memoir “Slipstream” – her deceased mother’s room seemed filled with the delicate scent of the flowers though none were there. The roses with which Therese’s aunt thinks to purify the murderers’ nuptial bedroom wilt in the heat of the fire, becoming not bridal but bestial and we remember that chemists have noted the molecular similarity of rose extract to human sweat.

By a final irony Zola himself perished in 1902 as a result of a curious accident which he might well have relished as one of his own plot devices: he died of monoxide poisoning, caused by the the malfunctioning bedroom chimney.

Image: katetattershall.com

“Interesting Without Being Vulgar”: The Wily Tuberose

Tuberoses are dangerous demonic flowers. Their oil is one of the great classic natural ingredients of perfume, easy to extract but hard to handle with skill. Tuberoses are said to deflower virgins and heat the blood; they camouflage the scent of death and the dying. Louis XIV planted them out in the gardens of Versailles in Sevres jardinieres; Marie Antoinette’s perfumer relied on them; in her ineffable “A.B.C” Marlene Dietrich told us they not only smell good, they taste delicious. Part of the mystery of the tuberose is that relatively few British people still know precisely what it is. It was unknown in Europe until the seventeenth century when it was introduced from South America and Asia by the British and Spanish colonial fleets. The name which sounds so exotic confuses the unwary and I fell into this trap myself when I first read Gone With The Wind at school and imagined the tuberoses in the girls’ hair at the Atlanta Ball to be tiny tightly coiled rosebuds – or “tubular roses” as you sometimes hear the muddled say. The name is simply French for “tuberous” – a flower grows from a tuber. A disappointingly mundane title for this exotic member of the lily family; but in fact its implications links the flower to the orchid, the avocado, the onion, mandrake, potato and many other plants which because of their growth pattern have graphically sexual connotations.

Orchids and avocados are named because of their supposed resemblance to human testicles; asparagus is explicitly phallic; lettuces and onions bolt in a mad spurt of upward growth, the lettuce exuding a milky juice in the process. Every flower and plant known to our ancestors was imbued with magic, not merely because of its scent and healing or destructive properties but because it symbolised eternal life and reproduction. It died and came again with the seasons; its unstoppable budding, flowering, stalk, leaves, roots and fruit were all illustrative of the human cycle of fertility and reproduction. If it exuded a rich perfume in addition to a suggestive shape it was used as the most powerful of aphrodisiacs. Maybe too the popularity of tuberose in modern perfumery is partially explained by its being such a relatively new scent to Europeans: like Australia and America it is raw, new and still developing, still having the corners knocked off it. We are still coming to terms with it, like vanilla and patchouli; equally ubiquitous oils. Rose, jasmine and iris have had thousands of years for us to get our noses and brains around: tuberose is still to be fathomed. It is a metaphor for the choosing of a perfume in a shop: we keep nipping in day after day for another sniff, still not convinced that we like it but hooked on something in the formula; like moths attracted not to the light but to the deep softness darkness behind the light.

Far too extravagant and showy for all but the most recherche tastes, tuberose was used sparingly by the great perfumers of the early twentieth century: Guerlain and Caron came to it very late in the day. Germaine Cellier first put it on the map with Fracas in 1946, a Robert Piguet scent whose legend continues to glow and evolve. Fracas was said to be an olfactory incarnation of Rita Hayworth – the screen image, not the tragic private personality (“They go to bed with Gilda but they wake up with me…”). Fracas is a dazzling pink champagne burst of fruit blossom, jasmine and tuberose sweetened with vanilla, tonka and musk. Like Rita it is lithe, sinuous, unpredictable and intensely glamorous; unlike her, it has a frilly, girlish side maybe on account of its intense sweetness which set the trend for tuberose perfumes for decades to come. As I write I am wearing the spectacular new Madonna Truth or Dare which releases cerise clouds of thickest tuberose so sweet it seems to be working from a base of Lyons Golden Syrup. There are also fruity hints which seem, as so often with this school of scents, to suggest strawberry tarts or summer jam just beginning to roll to the boil. If you smell pure white tuberose flowers in a hothouse or sheltered garden they are deliciously intense and, like gardenias and tiare, faintly reminiscent of coconut milk, but the ersatz perfumery sweetness is absent. And I rather miss that. I find it brings out the escapist and slightly insane quality of the flower, the bloom from another dimension. Maybe I am simply buying into its magical heritage of tuberose folk lore legend: and I fancy that Fracas and its many successors have done the same. The Gantier offering – Tubereuse – adds another element: a sleek sable animal quality, a damp pelt covered in just-melting snow which suits it to winter wear and the Christmas party spirit: a dance on a volcano spurting black and rosy lava.

Carnal Flower is tuberose re-invented for the 21st century: uber-green tuberose, leaf and loam and all. This is tuberose stripped bare, reconstructed, throwing Fracas and her syrupy sisters out of the pram. Carnal Flower shakes off the more sinister aspects of the fragrance while preserving the erotic: this is a cool morning tuberose full of fresh air, warm rain and dew. There is nothing of the funeral parlour or the exhibitionist actress about it, those aspects which Billy Wilder exploits so brilliantly when he has Norma Desmond boiling with claustrophobic tuberose in Sunset Boulevard. Carnal Flower is the plant dissected with the botanist’s scalpel and reassembled as geometric perfume. On the skin it slowly grows and glows, like the opening of a wild orchid in a marshy field; its movements are delicate and unexpected, sometimes hard to follow: a sensory revolution. Maybe this presentation of an open air wholesome glowing tuberose is the secret of its success: while it continues to mesmerise and enthral it lacks the beaded curtain and Tiffany lamp oppressiveness of its predecessors. Tuberose pruned back and growing fresh from the root: a walk in a morning garden rather than crawling into bed between old-rose velvet draperies. It could almost be bridal, a first for this type of fragrance. Nonetheless, the essential spice of danger still lurks in the title: making you think of those obscene scarlet veined gamboge pitcher plants waiting in boggy meadows for unwary insects. Tuberose is a flower which must always be handled with discretion.

Image from Wikimedia commons

Down in the Depths…

Mermaid, by John Reinhard Weguelin

Mermaids have always rather given me the horrors. How would you imagine one: Marina from Stingray? A pretty little cartoon in a cockleshell bra? Glynis Johns waving a prosthetic tail in the bath? A manatee in a dim light? Or are you seeing and smelling something unnatural, sinister and highly disturbing. I’m thinking about the ship-wrecking Lorelei, Scylla and Charybdis; and the terrifying heart-breaking selkies, beautiful women who come from the sea and marry mortal men but who are really seals. They keep their seal skins about the house – sometimes having asked their mate to lock it away for everyone’s peace of mind – but one dark night no matter what precautions her poor husbands take, the selkie’s longing for the sea becomes too great. She steals back her fur pelt and is away to the ocean forever. A terrifying story for child or adult – the ultimate parable of total abandonment, worse than death. A concept of eternal separation that links up ancient Celtic myth to “The End of the Affair”.

Old Breton folk tales tell of maidens snatched from the shores by lustful tritons and Matthew Arnold’s poem the Forsaken Merman develops this, having a mortal woman marrying the Sea King and raising children by him; yet that favourite Victorian theme, the awakening conscience, supervenes and the wife returns to the upper air and the Church which shuts out her sea family for ever –
“Come, dear children,let us away;
Down and away below…”

And what of Hans Andersen’s dreadful tale? The sea witch suckling serpents, the splitting of the mermaid tail into legs, the agonising pain as though walking on knives, the blood, severed tongue, proposed murder (“that instrument of death…”) and dissolution into sea foam. Lord knows what it reveals of Andersen’s inner tortured psyche and sexual hysteria. You also think a bit about the motives and mentality of those who keep stealing the statue from Copenhagen harbour: an object of fixation like the Mona Lisa. But the story is completely in keeping with the ancient beliefs that what lurks in the sea is monstrous and alien, incompatible and obscene.

Funny that, seeing that like perfume and cucumbers our principal human component is water. Water and dust, we are. Life crawled from the primeval oceans (probably more than once) and so much of our modern escapist fantasy, therapy and relaxation is centred on sea and water – from swimming and hydrotherapy to birthing pools and boating. Most of us still see holidays in terms of sea, sand and sun – the environment in which our ancestors spawned. We feel an close affinity with water, it soothes and stimulates us, and yet we project onto it our deepest subconscious fears: that another form of life may come creeping out of it to challenge and subsume us.

That other life is always thrithing and gliding and thrashing around down there in the depths – a mass of uncontrolled impulses and desires that have been sanitised and reined in by the land people, but given personified and incarnated in the realm of water. Grimms tales warn us that these horrors even invade country ponds and pools – nixies who make off with unwary children, witches who live at the bottom of wells. To the Tudor mind mermaids were soulless seducers, prostitutes, wreckers of ships and men: Marie Stuart, after the murder of her husband, was tormented with banners depicting her as a bare breasted mermaid with loose hair and crown. Men who offend Heaven may be seized abruptly by beasts from the sea: the serpents who asphyxiate Laocoon and his sons; the monster sent by Poseidon that brings about Hippolytus’s dreadful off-stage death in Phedre. This is by no means a concept that has left us with the glory that was Greece: “Jaws” and all its spin-offs, “Extreme Shark Attacks” and the like show how powerful, eternal (and popular) a metaphor this is. Only this week prime time television news bulletins (and You Tube, naturally) went crazy over the story of a man wrestling with an alligator stranded in an American ditch, presented as comic horror, like Punch and Judy. “Sharks very rarely venture inland” Dame Edna used to say. But secretly we most of us fear that they might. Our only weapon is a laugh.

Mermaid scent then must be a weird erotic disturbing perfume, complementing the barnacled jewellery of the drowned, a corpse-like pallor and as Hans Andersen tells us, bivalves affixed to the tail as a badge of rank. “This is like eating a mermaid” says Don Draper as he wolfs down the oysters; but eschewing salty, marine scents, I smell Caron’s Tubereuse – sweet and waxen and the perfect coronet for a head of streaming green hair above nether regions glistening with opalescent sequin-scales. Tuberoses (“dangerous pleasures”) are such strange wicked hypnotic flowers, not quite of this world; the Spanish won’t wear them, associating them with death. I fancy their creamy sultry on-the-edge-of-decay fragrance would even exude here, against nature, at the bottom of the sea, mixed maybe with floating ambergris and exotic fruits and vanilla orchid, wrecked cargo of some Spanish treasure fleet. “A ceiling of amber, a pavement of pearl”. Golden scent in oily rays in the dark waters, mermaids sinuously laving themselves like eels.

And what of the scent of the shipwrecks mermaids would cause? The inimitable Pierre Guillaume has crafted that for us in Bois Naufrage: a scent of salt, figs, coconut, beaches and wood so dry it would turn to powder beneath your feet.

For your chance to win a bottle of Bois Naufrage, please comment below with how you imagine mermaids to smell. By commenting, you are giving us permission to contact you via your email address should you be successful.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons