Fish Pie Makes You Cry/ Custard Drives You Mad

Odilon Redon - The Egg, 1885

Odilon Redon – The Egg, 1885

 

The 10th Earl of St Germans died on July 15th. His long and idiosyncratic obituary in The Times (July 19th) observed:

‘He led a full life and would present all his female companions with bottles of Fracas perfume.”

It’s nice to know, isn’t it? As Kay Walsh used to say.
And, aside from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the heat? It nearly did for me. As usual, I turned for empathetic comfort to that first chapter of ‘What Katy Did At School’, in which the highly-strung Elsie Carr goes nearly off her head during an especially hot and prolonged Ohio Indian summer. It’s a baking, dried-up October and Elsie begs to be sent out of town to stay with a family friend – Mrs Worrett – in the country. Alas! The experience turns out to be a nightmare, and there’s the moral: be careful what you wish for. Be wary of what you set your heart on: even if it’s a bottle of Fracas.

“Sometimes the truest kindness is in giving people their own unwise way.”

It all begins well with the journey out – “part of the road ran through woods…the dense shade kept off the sun, and there was a spicy smell of evergreens and sweet fern.” But as we all know, it is better to travel than to arrive, and Mrs Worrett’s stark pumpkin-coloured house is a dreary disappointment. “The spare chamber was just under the roof. It was very hot, and smelled as if the windows had never been opened since the house was built.” The food is worse. Susan Coolidge does not exactly describe its smell but she brings it right under our noses:

“..the room felt stiflingly warm, and the butter was so nearly melted that Mrs Worrett had to help it with a teaspoon. Buzzing flies hovered above the table, and gathered thick on the plate of cake….they sat in the dusk; Mr Worrett smoking his pipe and slapping mosquitoes outside the door…”.

Elsie is weepy and “her head ached violently”. By next morning she is in a state of prostration – we hear all about the horrors of a feather bed in a heat wave –  and is advised to “lie on the lounge in the best room, and amuse herself with a book”.

Can the sense of smell drive one mad I wonder? I think it might. If all the other senses can affect the mind adversely, then why not scent? Elsie’s experiences always remind me of a “true life” criminal case which took place in Fall River, Massachusetts, just twenty years  after ‘Katy’ was written.

I first heard about Lizzie Borden in an episode of The Munsters on TV when I was a tot. Grandpa Munster produced an axe from a trunk and muttered something about the Bordens, whereat my Victorian grandmother laughed uproariously. Lizzie was a large and rather attractive New England girl: a pillar of the community who lived with her sister, father and stepmother in a clapboard house in New England. One terrible and boiling hot August morning in 1892, while Lizzie claimed to be occupied with chores in the barn, her parents were horribly hacked to death in the house. Miss Borden was subsequently arrested, tried for their murder but acquitted.

What aroused much comment at the time – and continues to do so – was the curious life style of the Bordens. Despite it being an exceptionally hot week, the family – and the maid – had dined on the same boiling of mutton soup every day for a week. The house was full of flies and in the back kitchen were found soaking pails and tubs of “ladies’ unmentionables”. Everyone in the house – unsurprisingly – seemed to be suffering from gastric and other “upsets” at the time of the crime. At least one writer has wondered as to whether the appalling concomitant smell in the family home – especially of that mutton broth, perpetually on the simmer in sweltering temperatures – may have altered the balance of Lizzie’s mind, to the point of turning her homicidal.

We shall never know now; but the scent of certain plants has been said, at different times and in various cultures, to drive you crazy. Oleanders, daturas, cypresses and tuberoses all have their various effects. And think of Sherlock Holmes and that terrifying root-derived Devil’s Foot powder. I write this in a garden full of the evening perfumes of mint, tomato plants, lavender, marjoram – and, especially, lilies smelling of sweet lemon vanilla cream. All is perfection. But from time to time I get a particular scent on the brain, to an oppressive and infuriating extent. The key point is, that this is normally and nominally a pleasing fragrance: an odour I love. But something then short-circuits and renders it so grating, invasive and throbbingly insistent that I feel exactly like Sir John Gielgud at that famous Mozart operatic rehearsal: “O DO stop that TERRIBLE music!” Like an animal, I have to plunge into water to be rid of the smell, as a fox is said to escape his fleas.

The fox’s fleas sail off downstream on a hank of hair: likewise, by this time, the smell has become its own entity. I have written before in this column of once going after work to the swimming baths; doing a length; and then disconcertingly meeting a cloud of my own fragrance brooding above the waters as I made the return. “Meeting Myself Coming Back”.

There’s nowt so queer as folk – thank Heaven! Nor so strange and unpredictable as scent.’

Lion’s Maid

Mekhmet

Don’t know about you but this recent heat has been all too much for me; far too much, desiccating Lemon Wedge to a piece of shrivelled if still sweet candied peel. Can’t sleep, can’t think clearly, pacing about like a mad dog. And why do I crave sugar (“Pure, White and Deadly”) during hot weather? Extra salt as we know is a sound precaution but why the sucrose? When many years ago I spent a boiling summer on the buses all my breaks were spent in the cool crypt cafe of St Martin-in-the-Fields eating iced Chelsea buns and drinking pots of scalding syrupy tea: it was all I could fancy and it pulled me through. Boosts your energy level, I suppose: I always remember H Rider Haggard recommending cold tea as the most refreshing drink in the world. Served hot it has a peculiarly attractive smell on a broiling day – maybe fighting like with like, in a homeopathic manner. The slightly bitter leaf infusion, the hot china or (even better) the metal of the pot: flip up the lid to inspect the brew and your face is steamed in fragrance. The body, heated up by the liquid, steps up its own cooling mechanism: that’s why it’s best to avoid cold baths which tell the good body that it’s in danger of becoming chilled and needs to turn up the inner thermostat.

The ancient Egyptians, baked on the banks of the Nile, personified the sun as a whole galaxy of deities each with different characteristics and properties. Sekhmet is my favourite: the Divine Lioness Lady who represents the destroying power of her father the sun, and who in that capacity also burns out disease and plague and incinerates the enemies of Pharoah. In one of those bewildering theological complexities of the Egyptians, Sekhmet also assumes the aspect of the goddess Hathor and has to be turned aside from murdering mankind by being made drunk on red barley beer, which she laps believing it to be human blood.

Yet her images and statues are lovely to look upon. In the British Museum (if you journey no further) there is a gallery of Sekhmets carved from black basalt, a beautiful female form with the head of a handsome and serene lioness. When I spent a week in Luxor I used to go up to the temple complex at Karnak most evenings (always smelling of dried herbs, woodsmoke, dried horse dung and a million cigarettes) and inspect the guardian lionesses there. Rather beyond the ruins spread a whole field of Sekhmets, lopsided and leaning among reeds and grasses: very picturesque but said to be blessed with their own guardians – nests of cobras ( Cleopatra’s holy asp) – so I kept my distance.

But I combed the bazaars and curio shops for my own image of the goddess who had taken my fancy and in the end I found one, about a foot high and made I suppose of painted plaster. Not expensive, and I took her back to the hotel ignominiously wrapped in old newspaper. But it’s a curious thing: that statue began to prey on my mind and over the next couple of days it began to assume the properties of a demon. Its face appeared to change from benevolently feline to malevolently diabolical and in the terrific Luxor heat (it was over 120) I persuaded myself that carrying it on the flight home would cause the plane to crash. Sekhmet had to be jettisoned. As perhaps you know, it is very difficult to lose things on purpose – they keep being returned by kindly people. (As I had once found with a redundant copy of Moby Dick in Tunis ). But in the end, once again swaddled in layers of old paper, She of The Chamber of Flames was successfully buried and abandoned beneath the cushions of a banquette in the hotel main lobby. Even then I worried that the outraged lioness might burn out the Luxor Imperial during the night. Of course, had the weather been cooler and I saner, I should have just smashed the thing on the bathroom floor and binned the pieces.

Heat has its own smell but it is very difficult to tell it from the appurtenances of heat: the cigarettes which taste toastier and nuttier, the panicky deodorant, the dry pavements, sticky tarmac. Panting dogs and ice cream vans reeking pleasantly of vegetable fat, frosted vanillin, saccharine and petrol; a stuffiness as though of a huge feather pillow over the face. Heat accentuates every odour – doesn’t cooking smell brazen in a hot spell? Aren’t barbecues aggressive? For me all sorts of perfume, liberally applied, go good in a heat wave. I have a pet theory that the heavier and more exotic the better: applying a blast of amber, incense, waterlily, ylang ylang or jasmine seems to return those oils to their native element and the extreme climates that bred them.  In the freakish British summer they once more bloom again in all their florid magnificence on the sticky air, turning heads in more ways than one. A bit like Marilyn – “She started this heat wave / By making her seat wave”. Go wild: the dog days are upon us.

STRAWBERRY: The Straying Plant

Strawberries

Strawberries are a disarmingly modest but luxurious fruit. At their best they should be home-grown, caressed by the summer sun on their beds of straw to the most brilliant ruby colour so that you smell them on the air before you see them: like melons, nectarines and pineapples the nose detects their ripeness before the tongue. We seem to think of them, quite wrongly, as quintessentially British. We serve them at Wimbledon and Ascot at outrageous price, take them on picnics, mash them up with meringue to make Eton mess. Is it because they are synonymous with the fragile and precarious midsummer that we love them so much? Do they symbolise our national obsession with the weather and our pursuit of the sun?

Like the cherry, the strawberry is sometimes listed as one of the fruits of Paradise, associated with the Blessed Virgin because the fruit simultaneously symbolises purity and fertility. It combines the magic colours of red and green: life and resurrection, the renewal of the vital force. Strawberries are embroidered on Desdemona’s fatal handkerchief, the enchanted cloth given to Othello’s mother by an Egyptian. Strawberries appear in fairy tales and nursery rhymes ( “Goldilocks, Goldilocks wilt thou be mine?”); are the second most popular flavour in ices; feature in one of Jane Austen’s most comic episodes in “Emma”. Esther Rantzen used to tell an anecdote to illustrate Fanny Cradock’s supreme disagreeableness : offered jewel-like wild strawberries at a luncheon, the great cook waved them away with a dismissive, “darling, I ate them for breakfast.” It was a insult to a national institution, Britannia slapped in the face. And the fruit is healthy, one of your five a day, excellent for the skin whether eaten or applied as a face packs. Full of trace elements, with even a trace of the traces in strawberry jam as Dame Edna used to say.

Sweet strawberries versus the tarter raspberry: the childish and the slightly more sophisticated and adult. Both are quietly used in modern perfumery, to give an impression of innocence, the carefree and the playful: une fete champetre in the manner of a Fragonard idyll. “Soft berries” is the blanket term you often see, as in Lalique’s Amethyste, and Dior’s very edible Cherie which melds popcorn and strawberry sorbet. I love Andy Tauer’s ROSE VERMEILLE – the name is so perfect for a start, vermeille meaning both the brilliant red of bursting fruit, and the process of gilding silver to fashion a fairy dish ideal for this gourmand floral. ROSE VERMEILLE is a posy of roses and violets placed atop a bowl of raspberries and strawberries picked in a Swiss forest, dusted with whipped cream sweetened with sugar and vanilla. The bottle contains crystalline glass beads which add to the fantastical nature of the perfume experience: a basket of flowers and fruit picked by Hansel and Gretel or sent by angels from St Dorothy in the Heavenly Gardens.

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons