Summer days should be served hot..


Do you still recall how hot it was two weeks ago? In that sort of weather I feel like a creature in the Reptile House. Sort of slumped and comatose. But if a person taps on the glass of my tank they sometimes see an involuntary twitch and they can then be confident that I’m not a rock or a coral but a – more or less – sentient being. Alive to smell but not much else.

Well, I was amazed to be told by a teacher that even in such great heat classroom windows are not nowadays to be opened beyond a couple of inches. It’s a Health and Safety thing. In case great boys and girls of 17 and 18 fall out, or escape. But how do the young people concentrate? How do they keep awake? What about the teachers? I grew up at a time when fresh air was de rigueur. This was because it was rightly thought both healthy and stimulating and the answer to everything. It was then also admitted that schoolchildren en masse, with their curious adolescent habits and hectic routines, might easily be a bit whiffy.

Certain summer temperatures and scents trigger an immediate connection with the past. All my yesterdays float in the muggy air. Not necessarily fresh and clean scents – some with a certain nostalgie de la boue. For instance that battered wheeled device that marked out the lines for Sports Day, staining newly shorn grass, leaving sour and burning trails. I’m sure we were told it was filled with lime although I don’t know if that was true. Maybe the groundsman said that merely to keep us from smudging it. He used to trudge up and down the field, one shaking hand on the handle, the other cupping the butt end of a cigarette – the way they used to say convicts hold a gasper. Doesn’t tobacco smoke smell extraordinarily good in the heat, by the way?

Or does it? Suddenly I’m not so sure. There’s a repellent new smell in a lot of cigarettes – is it the formaldehyde we’re always being warned about? Do you think the Health and Safety have added a stench to put us off, like the awful pictures on the packets? I’ll tell you one thing, they were mending the roads down our way and when I saw the tar lorry I inhaled deeply and involuntarily. We used to be told that the hot carbolic smell was a sovereign preventative against T.B. and bronchitis. In addition to which, it was a wonderful odour in its own right.

But this wasn’t. This was quite abominable and I almost retched. It’s not just old perfumes that don’t smell the same any more.

Something in the air lately – the damp watery smell from the brook, maybe  – reminded me of being taken to tea some sixty years ago with a very grand lady. Her hall had a sweeping staircase to the landings – just like in Gone With The Wind. The stairwell was heaped up like a flower shop with hydrangeas and lilies, all cool and dewy and fragrant. The hostess took a fancy to me and led me through a vast garden to her pond. There she gave me a stick, with a wired silk stocking attached as an impromtu net, and taught me how to fish for orange-spotted newts. Once we’d peered at the creatures and smelled their cold newty smell¤, back they went into their deep and weedy depths. I have never seen a newt since: strange how this afternoon came back with such force.

In early summer there’s this strange fragrant dust in the yards and on the pavements. The scent of those warm dust baths I used to love to sit in as a small child, like a sparrow or a grooming cat. That nostalgic blend of pollen, earth, diesel, petrichor, geosmin, spicy wisteria and deadly sulphurous laburnum. Above all, a waft of powdery orris from the bearded iris that now blows in every other suburban garden. Blue, brown, yellow and mauve: all breathing out that incredibly emotive fragrance from the silky flowers that flutter like prayer flags. The exhalation of the rainbow goddess. The radiant iris perfumes at Les Senteurs¤¤ draw their hypnotic power from the roots of the plant. But the scent of the garden iris comes from the fragile blooms. It’s a more delicate smell: every year I try to analyse it, to pin it down. Is it something like living human skin? Yes, maybe. Perhaps this is what gives the early summer dust such a heart-stopping quality – filling it with uncanny traces of every person who has come and gone in one’s life. Like those thundering countless footsteps outside Dr Manette’s Soho garden, on that sultry rainy evening in A Tale of Two Cities. Dust to perfumed dust.

Time rushes on. Before nostalgia gives way to maudlin sentiment I’ll tell you a bracing anecdote. Walking to the shops under a long road a-winding under flowery hedges, I smelled a rich and fruity scent. The air was thick with it. Like the aura of a  tropical isle.”Isles of the southern seas/ Deep in your coral caves….”

I think I’ll keep you on pins until next week before I reveal what the smell was. Try to guess?

¤ for those who’ve never smelled a newt – well, it’s somewhat like a toad.

¤¤ such as:

¤ IRIS POUDRE by Frederic Malle
¤ SHEM-EL-NESSIM by Grossmith
¤ ANGELIQUE by Papillon Perfumery
¤ IRIS DE NUIT by Heeley
¤ IRIS PALLADIUM by Les Eaux Primordiales
¤ 23 JANVIER 1984 by Pozzo di Borgo

…Every one a gem!

The Infinity Pool

Footlight Parade

When I went away to boarding school I was pathetically unable to swim; as a result my first summer term became a living hell until I made good this deficiency. This was because all the Houses were in ardent competition to be top in getting their new boys through the aquatic proficiency test: retrieving a weighted wooden brick from the deep end, diving – “watch out! a faulty dive can split you in two!” – and all the rest of it. Well, obviously, I learned P.D.Q. – you do if you spend every afternoon in a cold and mossy outdoor pool, being yelled at by implacable prefects. I’d never been afraid of water; I simply had no idea of how swimming was done. (“How It’s Done” by Angela Talbot: some of my older readers may remember this excellent weekly magazine column?).

It really was too bad because for years at prep school we were always being carted off to the public baths in a Dormobile, an ex-army teacher in a maroon tracksuit at the wheel. Our lips were blue with terror because we were all petrified of the Ogre of the Pool, a burly old man ( I see now that he was probably about forty) who ran the place. The Ogre wore dirty waders and thick fish-lens spectacles: he always had a sodden ciggie stuck to his lower lip. He started shouting at us as soon as the reluctant crocodile of little boys pushed through the peeling swing doors from the pavement and were herded forward by teacher into a humid asphyxiating fog of chlorine, stale tobacco and mouldy bath towels. The smell of chlorine always prompts a Pavlovian flinching of my stomach, more than half a century later.

We had to take freezing showers under a tap before the Ogre drove us like darling Clementine’s ducklings into the water. After that everything went rather to pieces because nothing seemed to be organised. The non-swimmers tried to catch hold of the few crumbling polystyrene “floats”, and floundered about; or they clung to the rails from which desperate fingers were sometimes prised by force*.(Heart-rending shrieks). More proficient athletes brought their pyjamas to wear, in which to perform life-saving exercises: these manoeuvres diverted attention from the duffers who swayed to and fro at the shallow end, like jellyfish at the Codfish Ball. Or dying ducks in a thunderstorm as teacher’s favourite derogatory metaphor had it. We longed only to be ignored and all too often we got our wish: but we of course never learned to swim.

Footlight Parade
Soon we were back in the shower, dressed – never properly dried, though (“hurry! hurry!”) – and now, chittering like marmosets with relief, we were loaded back into the van. More funny smells in there, as you can imagine – a lot of damp and not very clean children herded together, all sucking boiled sweets and peppermints. For now an unexpected care in the community broke out and we were urged for our health’s sake to take plenty of sucrose to restore body temperature and energy. I daresay the sugar as well as the euphoria at having escaped the baths added to the invariable hysteria of those drives back to school. Even teacher smiled.

Funny thing is, once I finally got the knack, I loved swimming albeit using a clumsy dog paddle, or breast stroke with “a dreadful frog-like action”¤. For a while I couldn’t get enough of it: basic hydrotherapy, a return to the waters from which life on earth first emerged. And of course the human body is – what? – about 65% water in composition. No wonder so many of us have this craving to be in sight or hearing of living waters: sea, creek, waterfall or river. Swimming remains the only sort of formal exercise I really enjoy. Much later on I found a wonderful pool in Holborn, now long since gone: it was in the basement of the old YWCA building and anyone could use it on payment of .50p. It had a faint and pleasing resemblance to an Alma Tadema Roman pastiche. An attendant sat in a basket chair at the head of the bath to ensure decorum and fair play – “No ball games! No jumping! No splashing!”. Pretty empty it usually was, and quiet; used mainly by the more mature. The scent I always associate with the YWCA is (perhaps unexpectedly) Amouage’s gorgeous ‘Gold’ – Guy Robert’s Franco-Omani masterpiece – which had just then been released. I used to go swimming after work, coated and weighed down with ‘Gold’. I would do my first length and then, on the return trip down the pool, I’d run headlong into my own sillage of perfume, ample and billowing like a great sunset cloud, an electric storm of sweet shimmering incense, brooding above the tepid blue water. It fought with the chlorine fumes – and won, like St Michael degrading the Fallen Angels. ‘Am-waj = a wave’. How uncannily appropriate!”

*my mother remembered from her own schooldays a mistress who would stamp on the hands of any girl who tried to crawl out of the water before her time.

¤ Queen Victoria “Letters.

Ol’ Man River

paul obeson

Someone was chuntering on in a Radio 3 discussion lately, lamenting that there are so few pieces of music inspired by water. Did he get a wrong number! Starting with Handel we launch a flotilla of family favourites featuring the Blue Danube, Old Father Thames, A Life on the Ocean Wave, Moon River and even Gertie Gitana’s signature tune There’s An Old Mill By The Stream, Nellie Dean. Water is the essence of life; from the seas we all came, and is not our biological makeup only slightly less liquid and aqueous than that of the cucumber family?

Perfumes celebrating seas and pools and rivers tend to brilliance, clarity and freshness. Silver Mountain Water, Au Lac, En Passant and Fath’s late lamented Green River glitter and rush over rocky beds, sparkling with light as they brush aromatic foliage hanging low over the water. Or they sit cool and tranquil, reflecting immense changing skies and the scented gardens on their banks. Angeliques Sous La Pluie irrigates a burgeoning spring plantation with soft refreshing rain, while Erolfa and Sel Marin celebrate sunny breezy beaches, the sea-green glassy tang of ozone and lips kissed with sea salt. Discreet hints of iodine and seaweed, tar and deck varnish enhance these fascinating shell-pictures of marine life.

All these perfumes have spirit, elegance and style: but they tend to soft-pedal sex. Fluid as regards gender, they are romantic rather than voluptuous, ethereal not earthy. Let’s turn to an altogether more complex even sinister composition, Caron’s Yatagan. Officially inspired by a Turkish dagger, it suggests to me something quite different – a vast bottomless forest pool, home of sprites and water nixies. Or a still, brooding flooded slate quarry with sheer shiny sides, the colour of a pigeon’s breast and gilded with chips of mica, hung about with bracken and aromatic pungent herbs; the scent of dark icy green water, peat, woods and the sharp woody bitterness of vetiver. With its dangerous gleams of hidden honed steel, Yatagan arouses memories of those fathomless depths in the South American jungles into which the Inca and the Maya cast maidens adorned with emerald quetzal plumes, loaded with gold and jewels to carry to the next world, hidden beyond the pool. A journey of no return to appease implacable deities who ruled empires of water and rain. Yatagan is a virile fragrance, clean but dusky, metallic yet full of spice and warmth. Slightly hesitant with blonds, it’s perfect on an olive or dark skin, confident yet mysterious. Its disturbing notes ripple with echoes of underground lakes (“The Phantom of the Opera”) and subterranean fountains: linger with it on the banks of the Styx or the shores of the nine lost rivers of London, still invisibly feeding the Thames with the scents of of our heritage.

Image from