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!
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