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...
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