Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Perfume Update

Here's a little update on recent fragrance purchases. Early in December I took a trip down to Harrods, which is undoubtedly the best place in the UK for rarer and higher-end perfumery. As I walked through the crush into the perfume hall, I kept making little yelps of delight: they simply had EVERYTHING. Here was Guerlain's exclusive 'Bois d'Armenie', a styrax/benzoin number that isn't a million miles from L'Artisan Parfumeur's great 'Timbuktu', but for the fact that the benzoin has been nastily extended with vanilla; the whole is as a result too sweet. I sampled some of the vastly expensive frankincense knockouts from the Omani firm Amouage, and tried on Jo Malone's 'Oud and Bergamot Colonge', which is excellent apart from the fact that (like a long brocade dress in the rain) it seems to continue to grow heavier after you put it on. Oud is an odd smell---a kind of noble rot that eats up the heartwood of certain trees, it has a sweet rosy woodiness with a touch of melancholy to it. I'd wear this, but at c.£80 it's too expensive.

On to Dior. I smelled the miraculous lily-of-the-valley 'Diorissimo', one of the most purely beautiful women's perfumes ever made and a staggering achievement, as lily-of-the-valley produces no natural oil; all such fragrances are therefore reconstructions of great artfulness. 'Diorissimo' smells rather like Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago looked: radiantly lovely in snowy furs. Next came 'Diorella', which is interesting to compare with the Dior men's fragrance (a great classic) 'Eau Sauvage'. They are essentially different takes on the same idea---a citrus, hedione, pine, fines herbes accord, similar to a classic eau de cologne but somehow more silvery and resinous. 'Eau Sauvage' is a little loud but still remarkably tasteful (I was unsurprised to notice that a very handsome half-Italian colleague in his early forties wears it), whereas Diorella 'reads' as a more delicate and polished version: they are like two pictures of a bowl of bright yellow lemons and aromatic herbes de Provence sitting on a table, one executed in the saturated colours of gouache, one in washes of watercolour. 'Diorella', incidentally, makes a lovely masculine.

On the fifth floor at Harrods is the bonkers niche perfumery cave of Roja Dove, who was for some time professeur des parfums at Guerlain. Dove composes his own perfumes, some of which are absolutely classically beautiful---the wonderful, limited edition chypre 'Diaghilev' for the V&A, for example, which is superlative homage to Guerlain's 'Mitsouko' and Rochas's 'Femme'. I find his style a little heavy, personally---there's something busy and over-saturate about them, edging towards camp in the filled-to-the-edges manner of a Moreau painting:

The niche perfumery room is in rather this vein. Curlicued, gilded and beswagged, it is a monstrously kitsch space containing some very, very beautiful things. I couldn't help myself wandering around it snapping open an invisible fan and imagining what life would be like as a grande horizontale---it's that kind of atmosphere:

The first stop, guided by the cute, flirtatious fragrance gopher, was Profumum Roma's 'Fumidus', or if we're going to follow their cod-classical branding style, Profvmvm Roma's 'FVMIDVS'. I'd had a 5ml sample of this which I had adored, but I wanted to smell it on me in a decent dose. When I asked for it, gopher-boy said nervously, 'Er, well, not many people like that one.' I, however, do: a brutally phenolic pong of ancient vetiver, it smells of the top-notes of a really good single malt without the alcohol. You get an extraordinary, inky swirl of peat, woodsmoke, turned soil, frost, and rotting leaves, like Tauer's creosotey 'Lonestar Memories' without the engine oil. I love it, as it reminds me of many evenings spent out in autumn woods by firelight and candlelight with my friend Justine---but it is seriously butch. It's also seriously expensive: I won't tell you how much it cost, but suffice it to say it was somewhere between the full price of an academic monograph and your average monthly mortgage payment. I came away from the till reeling with the heady vapours of conspicuous consumption.

That was then. Yesterday I took a second perfume trip to London, this time to the Comme des Garcons store on Dover St. It's a hilarious space, with a look that's one third-shop, one third-gallery, one third-Lagos slum thanks to GdG's characteristic distressed, half-finished objets trouvés aesthetic. I like the shop especially for the laughably misnamed 'assistants'. These always seem to come in two types: a) Japanese pensioner, approximately the size of a largish soda siphon, wearing a black housedress and green Doc Martens; or b), lanky effeminate who clearly possesses a degree in poststructuralist theory and an attitude problem. It's these little quirks one must treasure about having an upmarket shopping experience.

The perfumes are right in front of you as you come in, in elegantly minimal colour-coded bottles. I wanted to try the rest of their superb 'Incense' series, having got the wonderful cathedral-in-a-bottle 'Avignon', a kind of wet-stone/church incense number to which I am devoted. In the end I settled on 'Jaisalmer', though the arid, hot-pepper 'Ouazarzate' and gloomy pine-resin and tobacco 'Zagorsk' are also excellent, albeit that the latter made me feel like I was being packed off to a Lithuanian sanatorium in 1973. (I didn't think much of 'Kyoto', which smelled of hot hi-fi.)

'Jaisalmer' is a thing of beauty: the sweetened camphor smell of clove is the central note, rounded out with a powdery pepper quality which moves the clove in the direction of dried bayleaves being burned. There's also a cardamom note hovering in the background, with a sufficiently dry, dusty resinous angle (frankincense? colophony?) to stop the whole thing smelling like Indian rice pudding. It's an excellent winter fragrance, and given that it will last years, fairly sensibly priced at £43.

GdG also have a clever series called 'Leaves', which are interesting attempts at 'green' fragrances---in other words, perfumes using notes which evoke cut grass, sap and crushed leaves. Green notes are terribly difficult, and all too often can take on a mean, narrow-eyed quality (see Chanel No 19). If paired with citrus they can seem spiteful, and can also come across as cold and a little funereal if given a white floral topnote. I didn't like either 'Lily' or 'Tea' in the series, but the third was the Whitmanian 'Calamus', composed by the marvellous Bertrand Duchaufour. Like all his work it privileges radiance and transparency (an aesthetic exactly opposite to Roja Dove's voluptuary fugs), and indeed it seemed so quiet when I tried it on that I wondered if I might be anosmic to something in the formula. The basic impression is of green sap and chilly cut grass, the smell of the first lawnmowing of spring. Utterly non-herbal, it has a wet, milky odour rather like you get on your hands after pulling up chickweed and goosegrass, but without any of the earthy, soily tang you get after weeding. It's cunningly done, and I will be wearing it a lot comes the thaw.

So that's me for you. In a related note, I must also pop down to the Aesop store in Mayfair next time I'm down, because I need to replace my bottle of their wonderful green-resinous Byzantine fragrance 'Mystra'. Just before Christmas, I stillied over on the ice in Ealing, fell on my manbag, and smashed the bottle. Bugger. My first thought was for my iPhone, but the bag was of course full of broken glass---which I wish I'd thought about BEFORE I stuck my drunken paw in there and had a good old rummage about. 'I see it bloody, I see it red!', as the prophetess Fedelm says in the Táin...

Happy New Year to you all.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Bitter Withy

('The Blessed Virgin chastises the Infant Jesus', Max Ernst)

A favourite folksong this, based on some peculiar and subversive apocryphal legends of Christ's childhood. The lyrics are below; go here for a jollier carol-like version from composer Nico Muhly's marvellous blog. You won't hear this on Carols from King's.

The Bitter Withy

As it fell out one high holy day,
Small hail from the heaven did fall,
Our Saviour asked His mother Mary mild,
If He might go play at ball.

“At ball, at ball, my own dear Son,
It’s time that you were gone,
But don't let me hear of any misdoings,
At night when you come home.”

So up the hill and down the hill,
Our sweet young Saviour ran.
There He spied three rich lords' sons
Playing in the sun.

"Good morn, good morn, good morn" said they,
"Good morning all", said He.
"Now which of you three rich lords' sons
Is going to play at the ball with me?"

“Oh, we are lords’ and ladies’ sons,
Born in bower and hall,
And you are nothing but a poor maiden's child
born in an ox's stall."

"Well if you're royal lords' and ladies' sons
born in your bower and hall,
I will make you believe at the very end
I am an angel above you all.”

So He built Him a bridge with the beams of the sun,
And over the river ran He;
And these rich lords' sons they followed after Him,
And drowned were they all three.

It was up the hill and down the hill!
These rich lords' mothers run,
Crying: “Mary mild, call home your child,
For ours he has drowned each one!”

Mary mild called home her Child,
And she put Him across of her knee,
And it's with a handful of green withy twigs
She gave Him lashes three.

“Oh, the bitter withy! The bitter withy!
Thou causes me to smart,
The withy shall be the very first tree
To perish at the heart!”

A very Merry Christmas to all readers.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Oh Felicia...

NB this post was written in early September.

(Picturesque Belgium)

(Historic Germany)

I got back last week from trolling through what felt like most of northern Europe with my friend Dan, in a kind of harried road trip. Dan had been taken on to transport all the worldly goods of his friends Hattie and Sam from Felixstowe to Helsinki (Sam is a Swedish-speaking Finn, and they were moving to Finland with their two small children), via Holland, Copenhagen and Stockholm, in a very large white transit. Dan's mother went along to share the 2000+ miles of driving, and then flew back from Helsinki; Dan crossed by ferry to Estonia and drove down through Latvia to Kaunas, the second city of Lithuania, where he collected me off a cattle-class Ryanair flight. We then wended our way to Vilnius for the night, on to Gdańsk, then Berlin, then Luxembourg, then home to my parents in Kent. By the end, poor Dan had driven well over 3,500 miles.

I was unprepared, in these jolly EU times, for the sheer grimness of post-Communist eastern Europe. Lithuania seems to consist largely of nothing much---huge forests of pine and sodden bog, with occasional silver-weathered clapboard houses. When we were inevitably stopped by the police on the motorway, communication was a problem. They spoke no English and we speak no Lithuanian. (I can give you a lovely discussion of the language's Indo-European archaisms, but being able to decline výras is of little help when a uniformed officer is pointing at his clipboard portentously.) In the end, Dan found that he and the police officer could both speak Russian, and then that we had not paid a motorway toll, fine €300. Under the circumstances, the guy let us off and said we could buy one at the nearest petrol station, which we did. The full moon rose over central Vilnius as we limped in, lost and exhausted: parking a vehicle that is 3.2 metres high and 6 metres long was not always easy, in the dark, in a foreign city. But we managed it eventually, and collapsed in our hotel. The next morning, Day 2, we set off for Poland, glad to be getting the hell out of a country whose chief contribution to European culture seemed to have been the pogrom and a corpus of 1500 folksongs about geese.

Poland also was largely forest: great echoing acres of pine and broadleaf woodland. This was the deep tanglewood of the central European imagination, of fairytale and nightmare. The archetypal overtones of the deep dark wood as a place where, in stories, terrible things can happen, were overlayered for both of us by the uneasy knowledge that it was in woods like these that terrible things had happened, not 70 years before. We both sat thinking about it in the van (now christened 'Margot'), as we travelled through endless miles of shadowy resinous gloom over crazily potholed roads. Little old ladies sat by the roadside selling mushrooms and jars of amber-coloured honey; every few miles heavily-made-up, leather-miniskirted Ukrainian prostitutes plied their wretched trade in the woodland tracks for passing truckers. 'You can really see', quipped Dan after a thoughtful few miles, 'how a few death-camps must really have cheered this place up.'

But Gdańsk, beyond its smokestacked industrial hinterland, was a city of great charm and beauty. Gracious 17th century merchants' houses lined the streets of the old town, usually with bars in what had once been their cellars: the whole place had that characteristically self-confident grandeur-in-practicality that one sees in the architecture of Hanseatic ports.

By the time we arrived were starving hungry, and Dan decided that we had to eat Kashubian that night. Kashubian, I learned, is a small West Slavonic language that is spoken around Gdańsk---basically a kind of titivated Polish dialect posing as a language in its own right. Following the guidebook, we arrived at this ethnic eatery, which was a kind of shuttered wooden hall with animals made of straw hanging from the ceiling. A crazy-looking straw pig circled slowly above my head for the entire meal; a louche koala grinned from over Dan's left shoulder. The menu was in Polish and Kashubian; I read neither, so Dan ordered for me with a glint in his eye, as we were serenaded by an elderly man with terrible body odour and an equally terrible accordion. After my pickled herring in a cold mayonnaise and raisin sauce---thanks, Dan---and some rather better meat and potato patties, we headed back to the hotel, away from the eerie stares of the grass menagerie.

Day 3 took us 600km to Berlin, and there was a real sense of returning to the familiar as we crossed into Germany. (Even Dan, who speaks Polish and lived in Kraków for six months, had found Poland a bit gloomy.) That night we went round for dinner at the stylish flat of my friend Stripey Mark---so-called because he had a great fondness for Breton tops as a student---and Julien, his unbelievably hot French boyfriend.

Still vibrating with stress from the long drive, Dan and I were unprepared for the leisurely pace of a Berlin night---dinner was dished up at 11pm, which I ravened down, having had nothing to eat since the pickled herring, and we finally went out at 2am, much fortified with goodly wines. Now, normally 2am is the kind of time when I think about getting up to write a 9am lecture, rather than going out, but off we trolled to some club called 'SchwuZ'. By this time, I was feeling the poverty of my skills as a modern linguist: whilst I do read and just about speak French (and understand it fine) I can read German only on a very circumscribed number of topics: basically, if conversation isn't about linguistics or die irische Helden- und Königsage I'm mute. Chatting someone up in German, you understand, is therefore beyond me at present.

Only Julien came out with us: Mark had to finish some work for a deadline the next day, and so the three of us tottered off in a taxi. SchwuZ is a cafe at the front---all rattan chairs under and awning and nightlights in red glass bowls on spindly little tables---and then inside, it opens out into a series of interlocking bars and subterranean dance areas. It was all very Otto Dix that night, as one would hope for in Berlin: the sequinned doorbitch taking our cash looked like a cross (or perhaps a collision) between Matt Lucas and a demented budgerigar. The boys of the town were rather good, I thought, tending to the dressy and lissom with a bit of well-kempt facial hair going on in a way that I find very attractive (see Jonas Armstrong for the idea). Knowing Berlin's reputation I'd come wearing my butchest scent, Andy Tauer's campfire/leather 'Lonestar Memories', and had been wryly turning Lewis Carroll's amnesiac Baker over in my head:

He would joke with hyaenas, returning their stare
With an impudent wag of the head:
And he once went a walk, paw-in-paw, with a Bear,
"Just to keep up its spirits," he said.

No such luck, alas, so at 5am or so, we left, having to begin the drive again at 11am.

* * *

A few hours of sleep later, we were motoring along various excellent German autobahns----'fine, big roads', as my Ayrshire great-grandmother once said when she saw a motorway for the first time. Berlin to Luxembourg is about 800km, and we careened into the transistorized Grand Duchy at around 10pm, in lashing rain and a particularly Mittel-Europäische kind of mungey blackness. Margot (the van) was very low on petrol. I myself was very low on gin. Luxembourg city seemed to have no petrol stations: as we crept closer and closer to having nothing in the tank, we had to stop in increasing desperation at a series of random hotels and ask for directions. We eventually filled up when poor Margot could have gone barely another mile. Having parked the van on a main street, with ticket paid and displayed, we fell headfirst at around midnight into the peculiar, poky hotel, then into the minibar, and then finally into our beds.

Much refreshed, we had breakfast the next morning---me having my usual nourishing cup of black coffee and health-giving bowl of air---and went to retrieve the van.

Which had gone.

We discovered from the hotel that yes, that street did indeed normally have parking, but that this one day of all the year there was a jolly street-fair, and so parking had been suspended. Signs announcing this fact had been helpfully placed around the street at ankle-height, in Luxembourgish.

Down the copshop, we explained the situation to the actually very nice and helpful receptionist, paid the eye-watering €258 fine (along with the legions of other tourists who had made the same mistake) and waited two hours to be driven to the vehicle-pound near the motorway. The dismal situation was improved by the fact that every one of Luxembourg's policiers could have moonlighted as a male model; and further because one of our fellow-sufferers was an extremely glamorous tranny, who had, as Dan observed, 'come Done', in an expensive black pencil skirt and expert maquillage. Her vertiginous shoes looked as though, by some mysterious contrivance of the cobbler's art, they were on backwards---the stiletto spike lay horizontally flat along the ground, extending backwards from the toe rather than downwards from the heel. We were as impressed by the shoes as by her gravelly, non-nonsense manner.

Later that day, nine hours and 400km later, we finally arrived at my parents' house, having been through the Channel Tunnel. More relieved than I could say, we parked Margot outside the house and reflected, with Guy Davenport, that travel is very narrowing.


NB: this post was originally written in September 2010!

* * *

Things I have done over the last two weeks, deep in the Kent countryside:

a) eaten delicious wild mushrooms, picked myself (yes, I do know what I'm doing---never fear, I shall not be following the dismal example of Nicholas Evans). Parasol mushrooms are especially good in risotto, please note, because they release a lot of liquid when cooked.

b) I have also read a large proportion of Burton's massive omnium-gatherum The Anatomy of Melancholy, which is up there with The Faerie Qveene and Browne's Religio Medici as an all-time favourite book.

c) I've walked in the local wet, vetiver-scented chestnut coppices every day.

d) Finally, I've made a stab at learning Mandarin. If you could have seen me, gentle readers, contorting my face into the strange syllables of the perfumed East, you would have laughed. It's not actually that hard, if you are doing everything in pīnyīn transliteration, but it is hilariously like the dialogue from every kung-fu movie you've ever seen. You'd think it was all an orientalist, egg-flied-lice stereotype---but no, they do apparently really say things like 'I come you house make sitsit?' (that is, 'Might I call round?') and 'Two weeks, I go China.' I can, however, quite see why the language's fearsome reputation has come about: I can imagine it being very very difficult to attain real fluency. The weighting of difficulty differs from an Indo-European language: unlike, say, Russian or Old Irish, Pǔtōnghuà (i.e., Mandarin) has next to no morphological stage-business: every word is more or less indeclinable, unmarked for tense, case, or number. This makes it all very straightforward, as long as you learn the correct tone when you learn a word, which is easily done. But then a whole series of flanking expressions and aspect particles come in, many of which do not map onto I-E grammatical categories at all well, and if you couple that with different cultural norms, you can see why it's a challenge to wrap your tongue around. Then of course, comes the massive task of learning the characters, of which 2000+ are needed for literacy to be achieved.

My favourite word so far is the hilarious érzi, 'son', which is pronounced as follows. First, make the quizzical noise of a elderly dog waking up, 'arr?', with a rising tone; alternatively imagine you are a west country farmer (or a pirate) saying 'arrrr?' with a distinct burr, and again with a rising inflection. Then add the brief, unstressed syllable 'dzuh', to rhyme with the last syllable of 'sofa'. Fun!

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Vision: Hildegard von Bingen

Oooh! Oooh!

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Polari Bible

From the Polari Bible---if you don't know what Polari is, you've clearly never listened to Round the Horne. A kind of underground gay slang of the last century, its main characteristic is huge lexical replacement of English words with borrowings from Yiddish, Romani, and Italian, with a number of instances of backslang (for example, 'face' backwards is ecaf, hence 'eke', 'face') and Cockney rhyming slang. Another salient feature is the swapping over of male and female pronouns and names, and a high number of expressive neologisms---I especially like the marvellously smoggy, tenebrous 'munge' for 'darkness', and the lovely throwaway 'fakement' for 'thing'. It all has a kind of seedy gaudiness that I find irresistably funny, recalling Sontag's 'Notes on Camp' by trivialising serious things to the point of complete absurdity; anything said in the language takes on what the ghastly Alan Hollingshurst once called 'the uniquely homosexual tone of bored outrage.'

(And why oh why haven't I got a trio of famble-palones?!)

1 In the beginning Gloria created the heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was nanti form, and void; and munge was upon the eke of the deep. And the fairy of Gloria trolled upon the eke of the aquas.
3 And Gloria cackled, Let there be sparkle: and there was sparkle.
4 And Gloria vardad the sparkle, that it was bona: and Gloria medzered the sparkle from the munge.
5 And Gloria screeched the sparkle journo, and the munge she screeched nochy. And the bijou nochy and the morning were the first journo.
6 And Gloria cackled, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the aquas, and let it divide the aquas from the aquas.
7 And Gloria made the firmament, and medzered the aquas which were under the firmament from the aquas which were above the firmament: and it was so.
8 And Gloria screeched the firmament Heaven. And the bijou nochy and the morning were the second journo.
9 And Gloria cackled, Let the aquas under the heaven be gathered together unto una place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
10 And Gloria screeched the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the aquas screeched she Seas: and Gloria vardad that it was bona.
11 And Gloria cackled, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding maria, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose maria is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.
12 And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding maria after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose maria was in itself, after his kind: and Gloria vardad that it was bona.
13 And the bijou nochy and the morning were the third journo.
14 And Gloria cackled, Let there be sparkles in the firmament of the heaven to divide the journo from the nochy; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
15 And let them be for sparkles in the firmament of the heaven to parker sparkle upon the earth: and it was so.
16 And Gloria made dewey dowry sparkles; the dowrier sparkle to rule the journo, and the nanti dowrier sparkle to rule the nochy: she made the twinkling fakements also.
17 And Gloria set them in the firmament of the heaven to parker sparkle upon the earth,
18 And to rule over the journo and over the nochy, and to divide the sparkle from the munge: and Gloria vardad that it was bona.
19 And the bijou nochy and the morning were the quarter journo.
20 And Gloria cackled, Let the aquas bring forth dowrily the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
21 And Gloria created dowry whales, and every living creature that trolleth, which the aquas brought forth dowrily, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and Gloria vardad that it was bona.
22 And Gloria fabed them, cackling, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the aquas in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.
23 And the bijou nochy and the morning were the fifth journo.
24 And Gloria cackled, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping fakement, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.
25 And Gloria made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every fakement that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and Gloria vardad that it was bona.
26 And Gloria cackled, Let us make homie in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping fakement that creepeth upon the earth.
27 So Gloria created homie in her own image, in the image of Gloria created she her; omee and palone created she them.
28 And Gloria fabed them, and Gloria cackled unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living fakement that trolleth upon the earth.
29 And Gloria cackled, varda, I have parkered you every herb bearing maria, which is upon the eke of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding maria; to you it shall be for carnish.
30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every fakement that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have parkered every green herb for carnish: and it was so.
31 And Gloria vardad every fakement that she had made, and, varda, it was dowry bona. And the bijou nochy and the morning were the seyth journo.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Tarot 3

Just on the off chance you were wondering, this is what has happened to my 'Archetypal Tarot' over recent months. Click on the image to enlarge.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Two Penhaligon's fragrances

(This picture is about as camp as Penhaligon's 'Bluebell'---see below!)

Poor old Penhaligon's. They try so hard as a fragrance outfit: elegant, retro shops, knowledgeable staff, a brand which consciously goes for a kind of old-fashioned British rattan-and-aspidistra country-house vibe, and yet despite it all every single one of their perfumes which I have ever smelled is foul.

I am sitting here with a sample of their famous 1978 'Bluebell', which is, as Turin and Sanchez comment in the only word of their review in Perfumes: the Guide, 'repellent.' The blurb tells you that it is meant to evoke the deliciously poignant scent of English bluebell woods at the beginning of May, the delicate earthiness of unfolding ferns, the shimmer of dappled light through translucent green...what it actually smells like, however, is a hyacinth-scented air-freshener in a cancer-ward. A sour-sweaty, chemical undertone mingles hideously with a cloyingly sickly floral topnote, which resembles the odour given off by those hyacinth-in-a-jar Mother's Day gifts, just after they've gone floppy and started to rot. I can imagine the poor Penhaligon's perfumer tearing out his or her hair at this and asserting that a lot of great perfumes contain a note of decay---there's a distinct, beefy whiff of mushroom skins in the citrusy Diorella, for example---but he or she would be missing the point. The smell they are trying to evoke is incredibly delicate and elusive, whereas they've bottled an absolute bruiser. It needs to be a wet smell, with a mix of humus-like and green notes. I would have started with a threefold accord based on the incense note of balsam poplar (start with benzoin), iris, and a leafy tone of your choice, aiming towards but stopping just short of the spicy-musty smell of crushed bracken or cow-parsley leaves in spring. Then hawthorn, violet, and the odd, 'wet' smell of hedione, for a cool, sappy freshness like the heart of Guerlain's 'Après L'ondée'; and finally, fleetingly, about one twentieth of the hyacinth note that Penhaligon's has actually used in 'Bluebell'.

Hmph. Things may, however, be on the up: I was assured by the very nice lad in the Covent Garden Penhaligon's the other day that the great, the trismegistos Bertrand Duchaufour has been brought in to compose some new fragrances for the company. Duchaufour is the creator of the superb 'Timbuktu' for L'Artisan Parfumeur, a smoky 'transparent wood' and one of the very few fragrances I could wear nearly every day. The assistant passed me a sample of Duchaufour's new work for Penhaligon's called 'Amaranthine', and, reader, I have it here. I'm glad to say it's better than 'Bluebell', but alas it is a world away from 'Timbuktu', probably for budgetary reasons. It's a sweet vanillic wood reminiscent of Olivia Giacobetti's brilliant 'Dzing!', but creamier, and without the latter's wonderfully odd saddlesoap and fresh putty/linseed notes; instead there is a loud floral topnote that I think is the milky-banana smell of ylang-ylang, perhaps with orange blossom in there somewhere as well. Far, far better constructed than most other Penhaligon's fragrances---Duchaufour is a genius, after all---nevertheless about the best I can say for it is that it would be good for middle-aged art teachers of both sexes, and neither.

Critical Mass

Last night, for the second time in a week, I dreamt that I was trapped in a coven of Satan-worshippers---in Margate, which is obviously the natural home for sinister occult cabals, having once given the world Tracey Emin. (Can YOU think of any other explanation?!) Anyway, Satanists seem to go in for red velour in a big way, as well as dangly chest jewellery and leatherbound books, but I was startled to find that in extremis I managed to come out with an exorcism which started with the Trinity, and went on via the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, St Michael the Archangel ('...and all the angels and archangels'), SS Peter and Paul, Barnabas, Matthias, Stephen Protomartyr, Thecla, Perpetua, Felicity, and Catherine of Alexandria, followed by Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux ('Doctors of the Universal Church...'), Lucy, and finally Agatha, famous only for a nasty martyrdom and a nice pudding.

You can take the boy out of Catholicism, but you can't take the Catholic out of the boy...

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Aion, Dead Can Dance

Aion, Dead Can Dance's extraordinary fifth studio album, is twenty years old this year. It continues to represent an apogee in their development, the creation of a flawless work in which local beauty and overall structure cohere into a shimmering perfection which is more than the sum of its parts. Part of DCD's power as a band had always lain in the raw visibility of their creative differences, as multi-octave vocalist Lisa Gerrard's seraphic harmonies played off fascinatingly against Brendan Perry's brooding folk-balladeering. Her voice benefited from the rhythmic structure and backbone his musicianship provided, and he needed her ecstatic glossolalia to temper his native bluesy austerity. If you know DCD's back-catalogue well, it remains a strange experience to listen to Gerrard and Perry's respective first solo albums, The Mirror Pool and Eye of the Hunter: their musical styles seem to have separated out as completely as oil and water.

And yet in Aion, it all somehow came together, for the first and arguably the last time. The album was the second in a series which continued until the band broke up, in which the music seemed to be partially localised in space and time. 1988's The Serpent's Egg had possessed a solemn, Levantine quality, redolent of Crusader castles and gilded, incense-shrouded mosaics, of bell-caparisoned horses and leper-kings. This technique anticipated Gerrard's later soundtrack work: The Serpent's Egg evoked a more-or-less coherent soundworld in a variety of moods, from mystical keenings and solemn processions to a thunderous cavalry charge, as though for an early forerunner of Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. In this soundscape of chimes, horse-brasses and chant, Gerrard's voice at times sounded strained, as though she was aiming at mid-nineties John Tavener but not quite hitting the mark. (The latter's 1995 'Song of the Angel' would be quite at home on The Serpent's Egg.) Perry's three songs on that album, 'In the Kingdom of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King', 'Severance', and 'Ullyses' [sic], on the other hand, injected a much-needed rhythmic vigour and a smokily-autumnal vocal depth. Don't mistake me: Gerrard's voice is ever a marvel, but The Serpent's Egg showcased rather less of its inherent flexibility and range than other DCD albums. It is in my view Perry's rich baritone and poignant lyrics which lifted the album above atmospheric historical pastiche.

In Aion, all these issues were luminously transcended. Ironically, for an album which saw Gerrard and Perry's musical voices fuse more intimately than ever before, it emerged out of the wreckage of their romantic partnership. (The gulf between them has grown worse over the years---apparently after 2005's reunion and world tour they no longer speak, and twelve-year-old footage of Perry was used somewhat awkwardly in Clive Collier's 2006 documentary about Gerrard, Sanctuary.) Aion is one of DCD's briefer albums, lasting less than a forty minutes, and it has a sealed, hermetic perfection which echoes the Hieronymus Bosch image on the album cover, chosen by Perry: a man and woman float inside the transparent globe of some vast paradisial fruit, threaded through with placental veins. The woman's pale skin and long blonde hair evokes Gerrard's own; the man reaches up to kiss her, placing his hand on her womb, their arms crisscrossing in anticipation of union. This deeply alchemical image is perfectly apt: it hints at at the complex fusion of competing skills and visions behind Aion, itself a recaptured Eden---A Garden of Earthly Delights---brought about by the self-isolated devotion to the Work of the alchemist and his soror mystica. The mysterious title too is evocative: a word of many meanings, I think it is most likely to point to Jung here, whose AION: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self was published in 1959. Indeed, as I have suggested above, the album embodies some very Jungian concepts: anamnesis or 'far-memory', alchemy, spiritual refinement and the coincidentia oppositorum in the pursuit of wholeness. Saturated with Renaissance and baroque influences, it reveals a band who had utterly transmuted the thrashing industrial textures of their eponymous 1984 debut.

I propose now to go through each of this sublime album's tracks in turn, with a few words of discussion. I recommend you listen to them reasonably loud; if you buy the album, note that a beautifully remastered version is now available.

* * *

The Arrival and the Reunion

In this extraordinary opener, it is instantly clear how greatly Gerrard and Perry's technique had been honed even since The Serpent's Egg: a single glossolaliac line suddenly shatters into a sumptuously swift-moving polyphonic blaze. Punctuated with great whacks on a drum, Gerrard's lustrous vocal glitters like cloth of gold against the silk of her own multitracked voice and the dark velvet of Perry's: after barely a minute, all voices resolve again into a stately, ritualistic monody. The soundtrack quality of The Serpent's Egg persists: as the title suggests, this is music for a formal meeting between two gorgeously-arrayed potentates, perhaps the Queen of Sheba appearing in the court of Solomon in a cloud of nard and styrax, or Isabella being led before Ferdinand in the Palacio de los Vivero in Valladolid, hung about with pearls. Sumptuous and imperial, 'The Arrival and the Reunion' is an opening apparently more suitable for a Hespèrion XXI release than a band whose roots were in the early 80s Melbourne post-punk scene, a fact which underlines the extraordinary fearlessness of DCD's musicianship: from Joy Division to Jordi Savall in six years.


And then from imitation Early Music, we come to the real thing: a brilliantly energetic performance of a medieval Italian street-dance (originally performed by those higher up the social ladder, but filtering down and becoming widely popular at the close of the Middle Ages), played on the period instruments---including bagpipes and a hurdy-gurdy---which had become Perry's passion. Like most of the songs on Aion and indeed the album itself as a whole, the track is circular, wheeling round merrily to a beautifully crisp conclusion. There is another, equally lovely version by Arany Zoltan here.


A tiny, luminous track which lasts under a minute. A perfumed melody with a ravishing, nostalgic timbre simply repeats twelve or thirteen times, growing gradually louder and then fading away again. I can never listen to it without thinking of the opening of Cavafy's wonderful poem 'The God Abandons Antony':

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving

...αόρατος θίασος να περνά / με μουσικές εξαίσιες, με φωνές...'Ah! Poetry!', as Woolf's Orlando says.

The Song of the Sibyl

Having mentioned Catalan Early Music maestro Jordi Savall in passing earlier, we now come to him directly: the third track on Aion is a fragment of the chanted medieval (mainly Iberian) liturgical drama known in Catalan as El Cant de la Sibil·la, in which the Cumaean Sibyl foretells Judgement Day. Savall and his wife Montserrat Figueras had begun recording the surviving versions---Catalan, Latin, Galician, and Mallorcan---in 1988, in a series of stark, uncanny performances: the constant repetition, incremental increase in power, and bloodcurdlingly apocalyptic refrain of the 'Song' impress it deeply upon the listener. A number of versions can be found on YouTube: Figueras' own is here; and here is another, clearly authentically performed, as in the Middle Ages, at Christmas.

Gerrard's own sibylline persona lent itself well to this piece---below you can see a mesmerising video of her performing it live, robed all in white, austere and sacerdotal. Her naturally rich contralto is given full rein for the first time on the album, as we shift from the complex pieces----complex in terms of voices or number of instruments---which have gone before to something far simpler and slower. Cool and dim as the interior of a cathedral, Gerrard's voice moves with great suppleness over an ecclesiastical organ-drone and the chimes of handbells. This is the first time on the album that we have heard intelligible lyrics, albeit ones (in a typically oblique DCD move) in medieval Catalan: Al jorn del judici, parrà qui avrà fet servici---The Day of Judgement, for those who will not have been saved.

Fortune Presents Gifts not According to the Book

The Baroque Iberian theme continues with Perry's first solo song on the album, a setting of a poem by Góngora (1561--1627) translated from the Spanish. With this song, we move into a different mode and into more open terrain. So far, Aion has evoked winding medieval streets and the shadowed, sumptuous interiors of churches and court buildings: but 'Fortune Presents Gifts' leads us out into the parched countryside of Don Quixote, its theme the brutal caprice of earthly life and the omnipresence of injustice for the poor.

Sometimes she robs the chief goatherd of his cottage and and goatpen
And to whomever she fancies the lamest goat has born two kids
When you expect whistles it's flutes
When you expect flutes it's whistles
Because in a village a poor lad has stolen one egg
He swings in the sun and another gets away with a thousand crimes
When you expect whistles it's flutes
When you expect flutes it's whistles

(Luis de Góngora)

The music has a hazy sunniness which is ostensibly at odds with the fatalistic lyrics, as a bright, fluttering harp-like melody is plucked out upon the guitar against a warm drone. And yet one remembers that Góngora (despite being a priest) was a notorious gambler, and his poem is kind of card-player's shrug at the wiles of Fortuna and her ever-turning wheel. This is a very simple poem by Góngora's convoluted standards, but there is a faint allusion to Virgil's first Eclogue in the first two lines quoted. In a further example of the care with which Aion is constructed, 'Fortune' continues the Iberian theme of the album while introducing English lyrics sung by Perry, whose own reflective, elliptical style somewhat resembles Góngora's poem.

As the Bell Rings the Maypole Spins

We begin with an unaccompanied descending vocal line from Gerrard in sombre voice, which quickly resolves in a second dance that recalls 'Saltarello', but in a more stately and less demotic fashion, with drones and chiming bells. Gerrard's lyricless lyrics alternate between low and high, accompanied by the starry sparkle of bagpipes. After a few minutes, her voice changes timbre and becomes much warmer: doubletracked to the sound of pounding finger cymbals, the song circles rounds to a gentle and irenic conclusion.

The End of Words

The 'End of Words' on the album it certainly is not, with one of Perry's most compelling songs still to come; but it certainly marks the beginning of a darker interval. Punctuated with a solemn bell, this is a funeral procession, the coffin being borne from the dark church by mourners with a slow and heavy tread, followed by black-eyed women in lace mantillas. As in 'Song of the Sibyl', Perry and Gerrard begin by singing the same repeating, ritualistic line, before her voice separates from his and floats over the top. Again, multitracking allows two people, both in possession of chameleonic voices, to imitate a small choir. If 'The Arrival and the Reunion' was a wedding, 'The End of Words' is a wake.

Black Sun

In many ways the centre of the album, 'Black Sun' is the second showcase number exclusively for Perry's powerful voice, and the first with his lyrics. It is a perfect example of his penchant for building a song out of overlaid rhythmic structures of continually increasing complexity. (See the superlative 'Crescent', which is notable for Perry indulging in Gerrard-like speaking-in-tongues.) A complex drum polyrhythm is paired with nervy cymbals and an unsettling, circling four-note synth motif, with flashes of brass breaking like lightning over a dark landscape.

Murder! Man on fire.
Murder! I've seen the eyes of the living dead.

It's the same old game. Survival.
The great mass play a waiting game.
Embalmed, crippled, dying in fear of pain, all
sense of freedom gone.

Black sun in a white world.
Like having a black sun
in a white world.

Sinister and lurid as a Caravaggio, 'Black Sun' is probably the key song on the album, and yet the most unrepresentative: it could easily be on a Perry solo album, alongside the extraordinary 'Utopia', for example. But only in this song are the alchemical themes which the album as a whole embodies to the fore: the 'Black Sun' was an hermetic term for Saturn, symbolic of the stage of the alchemical process known as the nigredo, the 'blackening', the reduction of all matter in the sealed vessel to an undifferentiated and putrid mass. Hence the pounding, dramatic despair of the song, its images of death and maiming: it stands for the breakdown into cynicism and self-disgust which presages the reflorescence of life. One wonders how much of the breakdown of Perry and Gerrard's relationship is contained within it. Less mannered perhaps than many of the other tracks, 'Black Sun' is the emotional heart of Aion.


This one, readers, I cannot find as an embeddable video, so here it is. The penultimate in a series of four sombre tracks, 'Wilderness' has an a cappella Gerrard multitracked over herself in shades of sombre grey. It's a brief piece of polyphony that would be luminous in the Anonymous 4 manner if it a) wasn't so gloomy, and b) didn't suffer from the spongy lack of aural texture that overlaying a single artist's voice can cause. Atmospheric but lacking something in radiance and impact, it prefigures some of Gerrard's Oscar-winning work on the Gladiator soundtrack.

The Promised Womb

Sorry about the dog. Another wholly mysterious title, for another solemn faux-Baroque track. Against a background of string glissandi which sound like The Academy of Ancient Music busking in the rain, Gerrard plies a bit of vibratoless sub-Monteverdi. It's a bit like catching a bit of Orfeo wafting from the next door palazzo. On that note, here is a piece of the very same, conducted once again by Savall, with the exquisite Figueras playing personified Music: one can immediately see the closeness of Aion to Monteverdi's soundworld, poised on the edge between the Renaissance and the Baroque:

The Garden of Zephirus

Ah, and now Cavafy's procession which we heard in 'Mephisto' confounds our philosophical leave-taking of Alexandria by doing a three-point-turn and passing us again going the other way, this time accompanied by tinkling sistrums, flutes and birdsong. It's like a vision of a seraglio seen through a grille wound about with jasmine, or an Empress passing by in a scented palanquin.


The album ends with, as Terry Wogan would say, a whiff of the souk. We've definitely been moving down through Andalucía during the course of the album---if 'The Garden of Zephirus' evoked a Moorish courtyard with its fountain and channels representing the four rivers of Paradise, then 'Radharc' takes us over the Straits of Gibraltar and into North Africa. (The title---oddly---is Irish, meaning 'faculty of sight' or 'spectacle': given the track's mystical overtones, one wonders if Gerrard and Perry, both of whom are of Irish extraction, looked up 'vision' in an English-Irish dictionary and arrived at radharc instead of aisling.) The third dance on the album, 'Radharc' combines all the instruments which have appeared so far into a sinuous, snake-charmer's melody. Over insistent, skittering drums, Gerrard lets her chiaroscuro voice swell to the primeval and un-Western extremes which suit it so well. Pulsating and hypnotic, in under two and a half minutes the track, and the album with it, end in a triumphant flourish.

* * *

Aion displays something like what Classicists call 'ring-composition', whereby motifs appear and reappear in a mathematical order. The album is trisected by three dances, the outer two faster and the inner one slower, and further it falls into an initial 'sunlit' half and a subsequent 'shadowed' half, each one containing, like the yin-yang symbol, a track of the opposite kind: the solemn 'Song of the Sibyl' in the first half and the exotic 'Radharc' in the second. Perry's two solo songs appear after four tracks have gone past and when another four are left to go. Those two fragrant little interludes, 'Mephisto' and 'The Garden of Zephirus', mirror each other from opposite ends of the album, serving as transition pieces between sunlight and gloom, gloom and sunlight.

From Aion's mysterious first words---est ol ghirgond'olbe cahli sond'olbe, in d'alte grand'olbi, cahli vrend'olbe!---which sound like they could be in Occitan, we realise Perry and Gerrard are engaged in a kind of vocal archaeology analogous to Pasolini's 'anthropological cinema'. With a minimum of resources---two extraordinary voices and a crew continually swapping a dozen instruments between them---they summon spirits and evoke an age. Perry's two fierce, cynical songs add savour, salting Gerrard's operatic longeurs with urgency, and preventing her atmospheric vocals from becoming ennervating. We think back to the cover image: the man and woman afloat in their sealed alembic, joined to each other but not in sexual union, isolated from the world yet able to see it through the frail membrane which protects them and their great and precious work. As Hilary Mantel has written of alchemy, but might have written of Aion: 'After separation, drying out, moistening, dissolving, coagulating, fermenting, comes purification, recombination: the creation of substances the world until now has never beheld. This is the opus contra naturam, this is the spagyric art, this is the Alchymical Wedding!'

Monday, 12 July 2010


I'm trying on three fragrances at the moment, all by talented Swiss perfumer Andy Tauer. Tauer is the creator of my very favourite perfume, L'Air du Desert Marocain, an oriental so warmly, smokily beautiful that complete acquaintances (to use Victoria Wood's phrase) sometimes start smelling me like excited cats.*

1) Un Rose Chypre: crepuscular, mossy green with a swooning, old-fashioned rose and bay topnote. Very pre-Raphaelite or William Morrisy. Ultra-feminine, in a red hair and green silk bustle kind of way, but actually quite suits me. Would have suited Maud Gonne better.

2) Orange Star: citrus hob-cleaner, with a whiff of pomander. If anyone smoked oranges like they do kippers, this is what they would smell like. Not to my taste.

3) Vetiver Dance: I've never much liked the rooty, haylike smell of vetiver, although there is a saline, peaty, sea-myrtle dimension to it which appeals somewhat. This wan little thing leaves me cold.

Humph. You win some, you lose some. I'm also immensely annoyed by the fact that I've twigged that Lolita Lempicka, which I love, is basically a gloss on Thierry Mugler's artfully vulgar Angel, which I loathe for its honking, WAG crassness. The similarity underlines for me the paradox that Angel, which is basically a fruit 'n' flowers pong for brassy tarts, is actually very cleverly structured. On top, cassis and tropical flowers; underneath, a dark, almost butch patchouli note. The two sides play off against each other fascinatingly, and I sample it constantly in shops, even though I still don't like the effing smell. Annick Menardo, the creator of Lolita Lempicka, has retained this basic anatomy but has somehow upped the knowingness and irony, mainly with the addition of an array of anisic notes. There's a brilliant moment in the third movement of Thomas Adès's 'Asyla' for orchestra where the evocation of a wild night out suddenly morphs for a moment into a quotation of mid-90s pounding house in some sweaty club at 3am: the unexpected effect is oddly like smelling Lempicka---something unpretentious and with mass appeal being evoked knowingly and played with in a very highbrow way.

*This happened twice today (15/7/10)...

TRANSform me!

Best. Makeover. Idea. EVAH!

Monday, 28 June 2010

Pope Joan

Fabulous! Those clever Germans have made a film of my favourite medieval legend. (Can we have Pope Joan vs Prester John for the sequel?!)

Saturday, 26 June 2010


Well, what happened there?! The end of the academic year, that's what, with its round of examining, conferring, form-filling, and meetings, problematized by a wheezing, weeping chest-infection which began the Sunday before last and is finally easing off a week later. Sometimes things just get the better of you: I have, I am glad to say, the constitution of an ox, but this felled me at the knees. Tucked up under the counterpane like a mobcapped Victorian spinster, I've been left with a sense of lassitude and exhaustion. Do people still make slippery elm food? How do you brew a nice beef-tea, suitable for invalids? Ought I to be soaking my trotters in a hot mustard bath?! I simply feel too feeble to find out.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010


I've learned a lot from this fragrance and perfume lark, following my usual habit of becoming fascinated by a topic and (in this case literally) inhaling a large amount of information about it. I thought I might summarise what I've grasped in the process of coming to appreciate a whole new artform.

First, smell is not uniquely subjective, nor does a fragrance smell different on different people because of their supposed 'chemistry'. The volatility of the topnotes can change a little if your skin happens to be particularly oily, but basically a given perfume smells the same on me as it does on you. Bacon, garlic, the seashore---they don't smell different for different people, and neither does fragrance. What varies is people's ability to recognise and articulate what they are smelling, which with a fine fragrance may be a very complicated, changing, layered composition. (There are around four hundred different types of molecule in your average perfume.) In the same way, you and I may notice divergent things when we both look at the Mona Lisa, but we are both seeing the same thing.

Secondly, perfume isn't much to do with essential oils, or with steeping flowers in copper stills stirred by laughing Provencal enfleurageuses in straw hats---all the usual impedimenta of tie-dyed old hippy shit. Most fragrances are incredibly complex mixtures of lots of synthetics and a few naturals, and yearning for 'all-natural' fragrance is a bit like saying you can't get much out of a Van Gogh because he used phthalocyanine blue instead of powdered lapiz lazuli, or titanium white instead of ground-up chalk. That is, it's an essentially ideological rather than aesthetic decision. If you are interested in perfume as an art form (rather than as a organic lifestyle accessory), then quite simply synthetics are your friend. This is because to recreate a powerfully evocative scent---a rose-garden in June, say---you do not simply slosh some rose essential oil about. Essential oils of the aromatherapy sort rarely smell exactly like the plant from which they are extracted; rose oil, for example, has a jammy, cooked smell in comparison with the scent you breathe in when you stick your nose in the living flower, which actually smells faintly boozy and lemony, factors which the perfumer needs to take into account when composing his portrait of a Platonic summer bower. (Guerlain's Nahéma, a very great rose perfume, famously has no extract of rose in it at all, and yet wonderfully, swooningly smells of the living blossom.) Further, you cannot manipulate the timing of most natural fragrances; you can use grapefruit oil, by all means, but it will be gone after five minutes, and there's nothing you can do about it. And, unless you are prepared to inquire closely into the rear-end of the musk-deer, you will want to use synthetic musks, which 'fix' lightweight, fly-away molecules and give persistence to a fragrance, rather in the same way that a coat of varnish adds depth and lustre to a painting. Perfumes made with all-natural ingredients may be pleasant (Aveda isn't bad), but they have little lasting power and tend to have a bong-water, greeny-brown smell because all the notes come at you at once. If you want Debussy (L'Heure Bleue) instead of windchimes, or Elgar's cello concerto (Mitsouko) instead of someone playing with their singing bowl, you need the full palette of calones, lactones, esters, indoles, and aromatic aldehydes.

Thirdly, I've learnt that appreciating perfume, like coming to love poetry or music, requires a bit of effort and application, the development of critical language that allows you to articulate to yourself what you are smelling. When I smell a fragrance now, I go through a kind of checklist, which goes as follows.

1) Spray on test card. Wait a few seconds for the alcohol to evaporate. Sniff. You may get an instant impression ('Yes!' or 'Ugh!'), or a generalized kind of white-noise 'perfume' smell. Wait a bit---it's possible for powerful smells to knock out your receptors for a few moments, so you may unexpectedly find that a perfume seems to smell of nothing at all.

2) You are now smelling the topnotes. Is this perfume representational, or abstract? In other words, does it smell like, say, milky tea in a rose-garden, or crushed lemons and kitchen herbs, or melon and the sea, or does it smell like something that doesn't exist in the real world? If the latter, ask yourself questions such as, 'What time of day does this abstract smell seem associated with? Is it light or dark? Does it remind you of a piece of music, or a sculpture? Is it friendly or unfriendly? Happy, or sad?'

3) In either event, then you should go on with some further questions, prime among them being---'Is it edible or inedible-smelling?' You may get 'food' notes of vanilla, pastry, spices, fruit, nuts, chocolate, and milk, for example, or wholly inedible smells like lavender, lily, amber, wet stone, incense, tomato-leaf, soap. You are trying to tie down your perceptions of a potentially very complicated creation.

4) Still more: 'Is it loud or soft? Cold or warm? Masculine, feminine, or genderless? Soft, or angular?'

5) Then ask yourself if the topnotes hang together. Do they, as it were, appear separately, so that you can focus on one while the other recede for a moment, or do they form a chord, as in music, with a unique, moving quality as a group which they do not have individually?

6) If you like the smell enough, spray it on yourself now and wait a few minutes. Go off and do something else, then peer beneath the surface. The topnotes will be pre-eminent for some ten to twenty minutes, before the 'heartnote' emerges. This may be quite different ---'Angel' famously has a rather masculine patchouli heartnote under its ditzy, fruit 'n' flowers topnotes; 'Mitsouko''s luscious peach-and-apricot flan topnote conceals inky, angular, almost austere depths. In a sense, this is the perfume's true character, the impression that it will make on other people unless you constantly reapply it to play the topnotes again. Is there an accord here, and with how many parts? Two? Three? Repeat questions 2) to 5) for the heartnote.

7) Wait two hours. The smell on your wrist is now the 'drydown', the trace left by the heaviest molecules in the fragrance with the lowest volatilities, which may persist for days. What kind of smell is it? Is it woody (salubrious, resinous, and dry, like pencil shavings)? Spicy (cinnamon, cloves, pepper)? Ambery (like a hippy-shop---a blend of sweet, fragrant incense resins)? Leathery (a tanning smell, bitter, tarry, and smoky)? Clean (a white, soapy smell, like fresh linen)? Floral? Herbaceous (cut-grass, 'green'-smelling)? Animalic (sweaty, urinous, even faecal)?

Once you've been through this process---and many perfumes, even ones you don't think you like, will repay this kind of 'close reading'---you can have a considered opinion about what you've smelled. Some fragrances, of course, strike one as so immediately crappy and horrible that you're quite justified in not bothering, but most of the products of the great houses like Guerlain, Givenchy, Chanel, Caron, Yves Saint Laurent etc, as well as those of niche perfumers like Parfums de Nicolai, the wonderful Andy Tauer or L'Artisan Parfumeur, will be interesting at the very least. Happy smelling!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010


One of the nice things about learning a language is that the more of them you learn, the easier it gets to acquire another one---as my polylingual EU translator friend Charles proves. He speaks Maltese, English, French, German, Estonian, Greek, and Icelandic fluently, which makes me want to spit. ('We hate it when our friends become successful', as Morrissey caterwauled.)

What is fluency? I'm sure there are learned sociolinguistic definitions, but a working one for me consists of three parts. First, you need to understand 80-100% of what is said to you (or to which you listen) at normal speed, immediately. Second, you need to be able to use all the grammatical and syntactical constructions which the language offers, and as a result to be able to say anything you want to say, even if you have to use a slightly roundabout way to get there. Third, you need to have a working, tip-of-the-tongue vocabulary of about five thousand words, even though in English you might easily know six times that number. On top of this, you need a working grasp of idiom and register.

Language learning goes in fits and starts. Ten years ago, I didn't know any Welsh at all, and I didn't begin a serious attempt with the modern language until I was about 25, having been exclusively concerned with medieval Welsh and exam-passing up until that point. During this transitional period, I made a huge number of often comic mistakes, in which I deployed a medieval word instead of the modern one. I used teg for 'beautiful', for example; this meant 'fair' in Middle Welsh (in both senses) but now means only 'impartial' in the modern language. The landscape of the Gower is, I can assure you, extremely impartial. I lost my 'gauntlets' instead of my 'gloves', and once memorably asked a senior Welsh academic if I could 'build him a coffin' instead of 'make a request', due to a misunderstanding about the verb archaf.

After a warm-up period, I'm normally nattering away happily at the Eisteddfod, but it's hard to maintain fluency in a language that I speak for fifteen minutes a week plus one week a year. Nevertheless, I read a lot in Welsh (always the news, for example) and listen to the radio a lot in the background. The best part of a bottle of wine helps to free the tongue, I find.

I mention all this because I'm currently teaching myself Scottish Gaelic. I have studied it in the past, and published a small article on poetry by learners of the language a couple of years ago, but am basically mute in it. It's interesting, therefore, to go through the same process as I went through with Welsh but hugely speeded up, because I'm making more effort. As with Welsh, there is a background level of passive vocabulary knowledge, because if nothing else I have been learning/reading/teaching medieval Irish since I was 22. So an awful lot of the words are basically familiar, often with a slightly changed sense and considerably changed spelling. But active speaking ability is quite another thing, problematized by Gaelic's complicated pronunciation rules, which are dismayingly askance to those of Irish. Yes, I know that basically yer actual sound-system is much the same, with palatal consonants, glide vowels etc, but the fine-grained detail is often really quite different.

Colloquial Gaelic, by Katherine M. Spadaro, glosses over this problem completely, so much so that I don't understand how a real beginner lacking a linguistics background could come out of the course with any real ability to speak the language. Major pronunciation rules are not explained, such as the instrusive 'sh' that appears in lots of words in the cluster -rt. Tha sin ceàrt, 'That's right', is pronounced 'ha shin kyarsht', for example. Now, there's no problem understanding this from the linguistic, phonological perspective, but really it might have been mentioned. The result of this silence on Spadaro's part is that the learner without access to a native speaker is never going to be able to pronounce any word that doesn't appear on the CD at some point or other. I suppose this is inevitable with a language like Gaelic, with its complex vowels and long, consonant-filled words. The beginner would have to listen to the CD extremely carefully to grasp that cuideachd, 'also, as well', is pronounced 'KOOjukh-k', a situation quite different to Welsh, where the spelling system of the language reflects the phonology extremely well.

But, dear reader, I am getting there. I've finished Spadaro and Teach Yourself Gaelic, and am working through Roddy Maclean’'s brilliant '“Letters to Gaelic Learners”', six hundred or so archived mini-essays from the BBC on all manner of subjects. I listen to the letter first before going back to read the text, inserting into it any pronunciations which seem surprising, and writing new vocabulary down in a ledger. By doing five of these a day, I'm beginning to absorb the rhythms of the language and develop the ability to decipher it aurally, as well as putting sentences together. I'm feeling rather smug at the moment because I've just this minute managed to understand almost all of a piece about Gregor Mendel and the genetics of pea-plants without looking at the written text. But pride goeth before a fall...

Sunday, 23 May 2010


In April-May 2006, my much-loved, much-mourned garden in Oxford achieved a brief period of perfection. We'd had a very late spring, much like this year, and so all the early flowers came together---the bone-white of the pear-tree blossom mingling with bluebells and tulips, primroses and sugar-pink dicentra. If I were, by some miracle, to live there again and have that garden for my own once more, I would certainly do it completely differently, adopting a much more radical and formal design. But as it was, a long gravelled rectangle with a table, which I made myself, surrounded by foliage suited us quite well.

When I think about gardening, I'm always torn by my instinct for classicism and an equal love for cottagey informality. The two traditions can be cleverly made to play off against each other---as, for example, at the extraordinary Lower House, near Hay-on-Wye--but with the Lake St garden I dithered around too much for it to be a really coherent design. This is partly a consequence of the nature of the place: we were renting the house, and didn't know how long we would be there, so I intially started the garden just to 'grow some stuff' in a spirit of experiment. Gradually my ambitions---and financial expenditure---increased, until it was one of my prime joys in life.

Now, it is perfectly possible to do quite astounding things with a small garden, as Roy Strong has shown in a charming book, and if I ever own a house similar to Lake St---that is, a late Victorian mid-terrace---then I will prove the point. (Alas, what with academic pay being as it is, I shall probably end up living in a crisp packet on the side of the M4.)

As a result, the Lake St garden became rather a palimpsest of whatever horticultural idea had seized me at the time. I never got over the problem that in spring (February to May, perhaps) I want to enjoy a space inspired by the cool colours of woodland: deciduous green, blue, white, pale pink, delicate yellows. But then, come high summer and into autumn, I wanted hot, burnt colours---golden and ochre sunflowers, scarlet poppies and crocosmia, tawny grasses, orange cannas and heleniums. As as result there was usually a weird-looking period of overlap around the beginning of June, as the pale, delicate spring palette gave way to the brazen summer one. An orange nasturtium against a bluebell is not a successful combination.

So, this is the garden. About fifty by twenty, it has a gravelled eating area, beds filled with bluebells and herbs, and walls on either side. Wigwams of hazel twigs add a slightly potager-like, witchy feel. It was absolutely a plantsman's garden: I could never say no to the interesting one-off, the rare herb with oddly scented foliage, the big set-piece. Many plants we culled as seeds (or self-sown seedlets) from the various formal gardens around Oxford: in particular, the thoughtfully-planted borders of my old undergraduate college, Lady Margaret Hall, were rich hunting grounds, both for seedlings and ideas. In the end, it wasn't as aesthetically successful as it might have been because I tried out too many ideas in it: it was both a pastel spring garden inspired by Gertrude Jekyll, and a blazing summer 'jewel' garden of the Christopher Lloyd via Monty Don sort, in which Piet Oudolf-esque meadow planting rubbed shoulders uneasily with my penchant for whimsy and druidical wortcunning. Nevertheless, I learned a great deal. Here it is, that magical last spring.

From my Lake St garden diary for this day four years ago:

Garden at its peak of loveliness. The cow parsley is fantastic---but I should have put more in on the left hand side. The heucheras are also great, and the chocolate brown lysimachia is excellent and much taller than last year. The gunnera is going well, the golden hop is well above the garage and the russian vine is sending off stems in streamers. The bluebells are excellent and the ox-eye daisies have developed their little white-hearted buds. Unfortunately, slugs have gobbled the heleniums and the echinacea. Not so good. But I have planted a huge number of dahlia 'Bishop of Landaff', with their amazing scarlet flowers and dark brown, nearly black, foliage. I've also potted out the sweetpeas, which were a bit pot-bound, and the leonotis, which should be eight feet tall in two months. The lemon verbenas are leafing up but the blackcurrant sage has expired in the frost. Roses in bud everywhere through the garden. I'm glad I added so many ox-eye daisies, as they're going to add a sense of lushness and abandon to the whole.

The garden in summer:

Wednesday, 5 May 2010


Now, I have two theories about Fox's brilliant, bitter/feel-good comedy Glee.

The first is that the whole thing is a massive political allegory, with an oddly left-wing bias for such a frothingly rightwing network. According to this view, the put-upon, idealistic, but often ineffectual Will Schuester is the Democratic Party, and the borderline lunatic, self-laudatory, and ruthlessly scheming Sue Sylvester is the GOP. Schuester's screechy, selfish, delusional wife, with whom he is trapped in a loveless marriage, is the big-spending pearl-earring Left of the Nancy Pelosi school. Well-meaning, profoundly loveable but lost and damaged Emma Pillsbury is a kind of personification of the American floating voter. Principal Figgins, downtrodden and shamefacedly manipulated by Sue Sylvester, is the Supreme Court. The students represent voting blocks: WASP, African-American, gay, Hispanic.

That's one theory. The other, and I'm absolutely sure of this one, is that Sue Sylvester is a evil parody of Camille Paglia: an aging, self-laudatory, catty, Madonna-worshipping amazon, rambling on relentlessly in an insane outpouring of barely-coherent solipsism. They even look similar, ferrchrissakes:

Sue Sylvester's voiceovers in particular absolutely nail the qualities that eventually made Paglia's monthly column at Salon unreadable: the ill-thought-out swerves of ideas and subject matter, the constant, braggadocio-swollen self-reference, the absurd claims about her own influence. See Paglia on how she 'invented blogging', here; as she says, Sylvesterishly, 'My columns had punch and on-rushing velocity'. Compare Sylvester at her barmiest---the 'quiver' is in the thigh of a pregnant cheerleader, by the way:

Dear Journal, Feeling listless again today. It began at dawn, when I tried to make a smoothie out of beef bones, breaking my juicer. And then at Cheerios practice, disaster. It was unmistakable. It was like spotting the first spark on the Hindenburg. A quiver. That quiver will lose us Nationals. Without a championship, I'll lose my endorsements, and without those endorsements, I won't be able to buy my hovercraft.

This gives precisely the sense of 'whaa'?!' that reading Paglia's column induces. Why does Sylvester need a hovercraft?! Why does Paglia need to tell us that she watches The Young and the Restless and has three televisions?! Sylvester's bitchy one-liners, on the other hand, are as good as Paglia at her best---the woman who lacerated Andrea Dworkin (aptly, in my view) for her overeating and 'garish history of mental instability' would relish Sylvester's characterisation of Pillsbury as 'a mentally ill ginger pygmy with eyes like a bushbaby.' When Sylvester strides down the school corridors, shouting to herself: 'I am Ajax, the mighty warrior!' she is surely embodying Paglia's bracing brand of Amazonian feminism.

Anyway, to adapt Sylvester---that's how Bo sees it!
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