Smells of the Old Midlands

painting-palacedotcom
When I was an infant in the 1950’s my grandmother regaled me with endless stories of her own childhood back in the ’90’s. So eager was I for these tales and so deeply I drank from the well of reminiscences that the sights and smells of late Victorian Leicester seem still just within my reach. What is lost, though, is the atmosphere of the 1840’s when my great grandparents were born. They seem to have sealed up their childhoods from their own young so I have no conception of working class Nottingham at the time of the Crimean War and the Great Exhibition.
My great grandfather’s elder brother Jack is supposed to have been stupefied with brandy before having a leg amputated at Scutari. He would then have been only in his early teens. His sisters (as well as his mother, Sophia) were all in the lace industry from a very young age, whether at home or in the factories: the census lists them as tighteners, straiteners and carders. Lace girls were said to be proud of their hands (whitened sometimes with arsenic washes) and came in for much stick from the moralists for blowing their earnings on cheap perfumed hair pomades, ribbons and skin lotions. Maybe we can still catch a whiff of crudely scented bear grease, perspiration and sebum from the little terraced house in St Mary’s. No doubt Sophia brewed up herbal tisanes to be offered with six penn’orth of laudanum to alleviate the pains in her son Jack’s stump when it throbbed in the damps from the Trent. Her husband was a cobbler from a long line of boot repairers so a reek of leather and twine hung in the air, mixed with the metallic tang of nails, oil and bodkin; the steam from the copper, the lines of wet laundry, the endless cooking.
My great grandfather Francis seems to have gone first into the army and then the police before finding his life’s work in public health. He moved to Leicester, married the spirited dressmaker Emma and fathered 11 children. Francis devoted much of his career to the eradication of smallpox epidemics, being all too familiar with the smell of rotting apples that was said to announce the presence of the disease. He reported unfit food & sour or watered milk in local shops, and worked until he died on the job aged 78. For relaxation he fished, and raised auriculas and profusely scented pheasant’s eye narcissi in the back garden .
My grandmother remembered her mother’s horror of monkeys: the arrival of a barrel organ in the road, with a fez’d marmoset aloft, sent Emma shrieking to her bedroom to bury her head in the pillows. There was a monkey next door too, prone to scorching its behind on the kitchen range. From further down the road came the tang of green apples and blood on that famous day when a neighbour severed her finger while making pies. There were favourite mint and dripping sandwiches for supper; and the whiffy gas lighting which turned everyone’s face a spectral greyish green after dark. Even in the early 1930’s my mother remembered the lamp-lighter coming down the streets through the dusk.
I was both tickled and impressed when I reread Beatrix Potter’s miniature novel of Gothic horror – The Tale of Mr Tod (1912) – to recognise my great grandfather’s anti-smallpox tactics in Tod’s policy to eradicate the stench of badger. Potter critics are always saying she got her facts wrong here: that badgers are famously clean creatures. So they may be, but they do have a distinctly piggy smell which has nothing to do with dirt. My father kept one some 50 years ago: she was a dear and used to run up the sitting room curtains, but she exuded a very pungent aroma, that’s for sure. Anyway, here is Mr Tod’s fumigation plan, almost identical to grandfather’s methods at exactly the same date:
‘ I will get soft soap, and monkey soap, and all sorts of soap; and soda and scrubbing brushes; and persian powder; and carbolic to remove the smell. I must have a disinfecting. Perhaps I may have to burn sulphur.’
Before you ask, we don’t stock monkey soap at Les Senteurs. But we can supply the smell of sulphur!

A Gentle Glow

Camille Clifford

There’s been more sales of these endless pairs of Queen Victoria’s knickers lately. Can her dimensions really have been so vast, even grotesque? From her underclothes her bust has been reckoned in old age at 66″ inches which means it was considerably greater than her height. Her waist comes in at 50″; I don’t know whether this is with the drawstring of her panties drawn tight or left slack. Her own doctor wrote that she was not a pretty sight undressed – barrel-like – but it seems a terrible thing, even now, to parade all this to her shame in tabloids and on websites. However it must be said that Victoria was more robust about the human form and its functions than is popularly thought, writing admiringly as a young woman of the magnificence of Albert in his cashmere breeches “with nothing underneath”. And the strangest thing is, that her youngest daughter Beatrice who prepared her mother’s journals for posthumous publication after the most stringent bowdlerisation let this particular passage stand.

Of course, the dimensions of these voluminous underclothes of the past had a secondary purpose. Up until the 1920’s any decent woman of any class was rigidly corseted in stays. These were tightly laced over chemises cut very generously to protect the skin from chafing by buckram and whalebone, and also to soak up the abundant perspiration concomitant on all this restriction and compression of the flesh. My Victorian grandmother and her contemporaries used to hold forth on the unending efforts of their youth to keep clean: the home-made borax deodorants, the sewn-in underarm sweat pads, the dust braid tacked on to skirt hems, the endless brushing and laundering of petticoats. Anyone wishing for a very full and frank evocation of domestic middle class hygiene in the 1890’s should study the Lizzie Borden murder case: the fly -blown mutton soup served up five days running in a Fall River heat wave; the unmentionables soaking in buckets in the scullery.

In my department store days I used to work with a little lady who kept her black uniform in her locker and change into her own clothes to go home. She said that uniform had never been washed in over 20 years – “it doesn’t require it”. In her wonderful novel “The Women In Black” Madeleine St John pin points the quintessential store sartorial smell of talcum powder and sweat; to which I would add the odour of old  perfume embedded in repetitively dry-cleaned fabric. None of this is exactly unpleasant: fresh sweat in itself is not offensive, the problems set in as it ages and reacts with bacteria. And even that niff has its fans: we all know the story of Napoleon’s letter to Josephine to the effect that he is starting home from Italy and inviting her not to wash. Which must have been a peculiar ordeal for Josephine, one of the cleanest individuals in history, always in the bath, washing her hair (a new fashion) and changing her lingerie four times daily.

More of us that might care to admit are aroused by apparently offensive smells. A fascinating note in the Telegraph last month revealed that my favourite hawthorn blossom emits the scent of sex and secretes triethylamine besides, a chemical also produced by decaying human corpses. For millenia, perfumers used matter from the digestive and reproductive systems of animals to add tenacity and punch to their products. And this summer there is a chic new fad of not washing overmuch, of cultivating a piquant tang of bouquet de corsage; maybe to show in this time of recession and fear that one is with the people, that “we’re all in this together” as someone said. No time to bathe, no time to launder: there’s a big job to do, though no one is sure quite what it might be. It’s reminiscent of French duchesses during the Revolution having greasy red caps of Liberty incorporated into their powdered coiffures, and perhaps this summer’s damp coolth has given the bon-ton the courage to join this grubby trend. It’s certainly delightfully apparent on the light luncheon and dinner-dance circuit.

But if you haven’t quite the nerve to go out without a preliminary dab wash and application of Sure you can fake it much more happily with perfume on immaculately clean skin. There are fresh crisp scents straight out the shower scents, quite devoid of erotic appeal; and then there are the sexy voluptuous fragrances with just a hint of smuts, of unbuttoned come-hither negligence. Perfumes that smell within half an hour or so as though you’ve worn them all day while living life to the full. Rich dark orientals that have moistened under a hot sun; petal-dropping waxy white florals with a musky worm i’ the bud; earthy chypres with a hint of luscious fruit on the edge of rot. Charogne by Etat Libre d’Orange takes this idea to the limit; Editions des Parfums Musc Ravageur is a legend of the genre. But do try also Kilian‘s best-sellers Good Girl Gone Bad – the clue’s in the title – and In The City of Sin. Good Girl is a stupendous white bouquet of jasmine, osmanthus, tuberose and narcissus which suddenly plunges into a honey trap of woody amber. City of Sin has a delicate creamy spiciness that reminds me of those large and now rare white pinks, a scent that recently wafted from a garden, stopped me dead in my tracks in the lane. Recently our dear friend the perfumer Ruth Mastenbroek gave a masterclass in up-to-the-minute ingredients at Les Senteurs and put a name to so many of the smells we recognise but cannot always identify. It was the amber variant, tresamber, which hit the nail for me. I seem to detect its magic in both of these Kilian show-stoppers. It’s right down there at the sultry base beneath the warm, soft slightly fruity odour which I visualise as the colour of the Duchess of Malfi’s apricots (the fruits of City of Sin, mixed with rose and plum). A dusky gold, ripened in sun and humus on the walls of a stable. Sweetish, faintly fleshy, definitely animalic, disturbing in the best sense and very very sexy.