Of Violets and of Moss

Of Violets and of Moss

There are violets that grow in my garden; there’s a patch of them at the end of the drive which is expanding steadily, year on year, and because the garden there is a raised area, the flowers are almost at eye level. You just need to bend over to be able to smell the tiny purple blooms. These are sweet violets, I should add, to distinguish them from dog violets which have no scent.

Speaking of the scent of violets, people often wince, and refer to the Parma violets sweets or to Devon violets perfume which was often the standby perfume gift for young girls in the 70s and 80s. During my childhood, while I liked Devon violets perfume (sometimes also April violets was the name) I was forbidden to use it as the pathology lab and morgue my father had worked at as a young man had used a violet- scented disinfectant and the smell reminded him so powerfully of death and decay he would become quite ill if he smelled it.

It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered that actual sweet violets don’t smell much like the perfume at all. In a big shopping centre in Nottingham, a flower seller was offering bunches of sweet violets for a quid. I bought some and I took them home, enchanted and enlightened. That pungent, sickly fragrance from the cheap perfume has only the very faintest of resemblances to real violets. Some years after that, living in very rural Norfolk, I happened upon an entire bank of them, glowing in the spring sunshine and filling the air with a totally heavenly aroma. You could almost imagine the passing of angelic wings giving off this scent as they passed. In Mrs Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, she cites the use of violet leaves as a successful nostrum for cancer, giving the case history of a nurseryman with advanced colon cancer being cured by a preparation of the herb (though the quantities used are vast!). I do not know whether any modern research has been done on the herb (the Modern Herbal was published in the 1930s) but I do wonder whether the properties need another look-at. I use a tea made with a mix of violet leaves and other herbs to encourage good dreams at night.

One of the curious aspects of the scent of sweet violets is that when you smell them, a few moments later, you can no longer smell them at all. The molecules have a sort of anaesthetic effect on your sense of smell; you go nose blind. So if you are walking through an area where lots of the flowers are in bloom, the fragrance will seem to come and go.

Much of the time, though, because violets are often regarded as invasive weeds, you tend not to find them in gardens at all. So letting ours spread means we are finally getting patches of glory. At this time of year you still need to bend over, get close to the earth to be able to partake of this glory. The accepted wisdom of why flowers have a scent is to attract pollinators but with violets, relatively few of the pretty blossoms actually ever produce any seeds. I don’t know why this is so but violets have more than one trick up their silken sleeves. Violets have developed numerous ways to spread. Violets spread by underground rhizomes and may form vegetative colonies. They also spread by a different seeding method. Flowers near the soil surface that never really open, called cleistogamous or non-opening, self-pollinating, shoot seeds out to establish a new colony away from the parent. For more info on this fascinating plant do have a peep at the link here: https://awkwardbotany.com/2020/07/08/the-hidden-flowers-of-viola/

For me, violets are an unexpected gift from life, quite other than I imagined them to be. Perfumes rarely capture the true beauty of a scent, and this is one where the synthetic perfumes associated with the flower fall very short of the reality. Yardley have always produced a violet perfume; in my childhood and until fairly recently, it was very much the classic Parma violets sort of scent. But recently it was reformulated (to various online wails of protest, because it left behind the very sickly-sweet variant) and is far closer now to the mossy, green, and ethereal odour of sweet violets in a hidden nook. Guerlain does two perfumes that have violet at the heart, Apres L’Ondee, and Insolence, if you wanted to push the boat out as they both cost a hefty amount more than the very modest Yardley offering.

Another treasure you need to get close to to appreciate its extraordinary beauty is moss. In the last year especially, I’ve found myself assailed by more anxiety attacks and even panic attacks, than for many years. Purely by chance, I found a grounding method that works for me, and that is when I feel that rising tidal wave of panic, I look for moss. Even in the centre of Norwich, there is moss to be found. It sits on old stone walls as little tussocks of velvet; it hides between paving slabs and on rooftops. The purity of the greenness is soothing and calming; the texture is often soft and reassuring. The closer you look, the more you see. Little fronds uncurling, tiny flowering stems extending into the cold air, often holding beads of dew or rain like jewels being shyly but proudly held out for your admiration. Lichens too will draw my eye; these lowly beings are a scientific marvel and mystery, being not individuals but rather communities working in harmony for the good of all. Made up of fungi, bacteria, algae, lichens are everywhere, some only where the air is clean and pure. I’m currently reading Merlin Sheldrake’s book on fungi Entangled Life which has a chapter on lichens; it’s a revelation how little we yet know about lichens and fungi, and the discoveries are already challenging how we see life as a whole.

Today is Epiphany, the day when the Magi brought their gifts to the Christ-child, named as gold, frankincense and myrrh, and it seems fitting that I have brought you a few gifts too, of violets and of moss, of things you need to get close to the earth to begin to appreciate, maybe even on your knees to even see, and start to ponder on the need for humility in its truest meaning (that of being close to the earth).

Smell You Later

Smell you later

I’m prone to small obsessions. Little excursions into what you might term “side quests”: finding certain things, discovering certain facts. At present, it’s a way of distracting myself from the insoluble problems of life, and it stops me banging my head against any convenient wall. My current side quest has been going on for a good while, travelling down sensory roads by literally following my nose. I’ve explored a plethora of scents in the last two years or more, letting the fragrance go deep and see what it sparked. Some things are just brewing or festering away, and I know I can’t rush whatever alchemy I may have started.

Part of the search has been to find the scent Chloe (from Square Peg, and other books as yet unpublished) uses. I’ve always known it was a jasmine perfume; it’s one of my own favourite notes in perfumery. I’ve felt as if I might come closer to her if I could find the right one. Decades ago now, I used a jasmine eau de parfum from Culpeper the Herbalist. It was a very lovely scent, and I mourn the demise of the company for many reasons, and the loss of their extraordinary perfumes is one of them. Since then, I’ve searched. Oh boy have I searched..! I’ve tried dozens of perfumes that claim to be jasmine based or have it as the predominant note.

Then I found one. L’Occitane en Provence did a range of iconic perfumes, the Wind Rose range, and one was jasmine. Created from Egyptian jasmine, this was something that hit the mark for me; it matched very closely the scent Chloe uses. And then they discontinued the entire range because it was going to become too expensive. They’ve created another one, less pricey, but it’s mixed with bergamot and it’s not the same.

I sulked. I sulked a lot. I explored online, tried a couple of Arabic perfume houses and their jasmine perfumes, which have been good but a little unsubtle, and with a chemical tang that is off-putting. I looked at Jo Malone, who did a jasmine and something else scent. Not quite right. Plus Jo Malone’s perfumes are created entirely within a laboratory, and I prefer perfumes that start with the real essential oil.

Now social media is a wonderful thing that can bring extraordinary meetings and so, by means of the alchemical serendipity I adore, I came across a blogger who writes entirely about perfume. I got into a couple of conversations and she pointed me to the Fragonard perfume house. Marks and Spencers stock their range and on my birthday (a big birthday) a few weeks ago, I tiptoed into the store to try it.

Fragonard‘s jasmine is all I could hope for. Alas, that day they were out of stock but for the tester, but I came back a few days later and bought my bottle.

It’s as if I have established a telepathic connection to Chloe. She’s never been a girly girl, and the perfume has been one that she adopted for very emotive and powerful reasons. A year ago I began writing a sequel to Square Peg; I wrote perhaps a third of the story and then, defeated by depression, despondency and lack of meaning (and sales) it’s petered out into yet another Moleskine filled with scribble. Now I am hoping that if I spritz myself with jasmine from time to time, Chloe is going to grab me by the arm, and start whispering to me again.

We can but hope.

Time Travel and Necromancy: the easy way.

Time Travel and Necromancy: the easy way.

No, I haven’t gone over to the Dark Side with Dr Who. Chance would be a fine thing. I’ve been following my nose as a part of a project that is as much intuitive as it is nebulous, and I’m hoping to share a snippet of some of my discoveries. After all, one of the items on my bio on Twitter and elsewhere is Explorer and while I think most people reading this blog don’t expect me to disappear into jungles wearing a pith helmet and a goofy smile and not reappear for months or years, I do the Explorer thing in a very different way. I explore inner worlds.

When I say, following my nose, I do mean literally. I’ve been exploring the world of the sense of smell. I’ve hung round department stores, come home often with a dozen little smelling strips (which make delightful book marks, by the way), visited perfume shops, and bought blind on line. I can honestly say I have no real clear idea of what I’m doing. Or really, why. But there’s been some extraordinary results.

First one I’d like to share concerns a perfume from The Library of Fragrance. http://thelibraryoffragrance.com/collections/all?page=1 They have created a sort of physical data base of all sorts of extraordinary scents: everything from almond or apple blossom to wet garden or whisky tobacco. I’ve been given some and have bought a few others; they’re relatively inexpensive and light cologne type fragrances. Singly, some are a little thin, or depth-less, but the beauty is you can mix and match and create something quite different by using two or more at a time. Now, I’ve managed to recreate a now-unavailable perfume Amber from L’Occitane by mixing Amber with Thunderstorm; it’s as close as makes no difference when the original is gone from sale. The Library was having a sale a few weeks ago and my daughter and I pooled our resources and bought one each. I bought Iris http://thelibraryoffragrance.com/products/iris but when mine arrived I got a shock because it brought a ghost with it.

A kindly ghost, I must add. The scent is quite hard to describe, but it conjured someone I admired hugely as a child and who I wished I had known better as an adult. Until I sprayed Iris on me, I hadn’t know that somehow, it had been her scent. I imagine it was a mixture of things, but it immediately brought to mind my headmistress from my infants’ school, who I stayed in touch with by letter until I was 23, when she passed away unexpectedly. Looking back, I know she had had a difficult life that it’s hard for a 21st century young woman to understand; not only had she lived through WW2, she would have also lived through the radical changes before that, and the changing world that meant that when she began her teaching career, it was accepted that a female teacher would quit if she married (it was once enforced as were dozens of other things we now look at with horror). So Iris was as if she had just walked through the room; it gave me great comfort and encouragement. It’s a perfume of quiet elegance and self-deprecating strength; not exactly floral either, but with a 1920’s feel to it that’s unlike anything else. 

The next perfume was one of sheer time travel. When I was 14, I went to France on an exchange programme. On one afternoon, we were let loose in the centre of Angers, and I found myself in the market. One of the stalls was selling joss sticks and perfumes and I haggled for several items. I came away with a hair clip, a joss stick holder and a tiny bottle of deep, dark resinous looking perfume that later I was not allowed to wear at home because my mum loathed it. I loved it, and though it was very different to the kind of scent you’d imagine an English school girl wearing, it was something that had drawn me. Of course, once it was gone (lost or finished, I do not recall) I had no name for it and could never find anything like it again. Then, part of my foraging on Amazon brought this to my nets: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00V37SSF8?psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00 Opening it was like stepping back forty or so years. I imagine my mother will still hate it.

Not all exploring is nice. I have had one experience recently with the scents I have been trying and it continues to haunt and upset me, because I cannot get the scent out of my mind and it’s a horrible one, truly horrible. http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00UD2NKKW?psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=oh_aui_detailpage_o06_s00 I had been trying to find a version of amber I also remember from my teens. But this was not it. It brought to mind a person who isn’t dead but might as well be; not a complete scent but a note created by all sorts of things, and like with Iris, it was as if someone gone from my life had walked through my room. Needless to say, I had to use other scents to exorcise this memory.

I am hoping that this form of exploration will be a way of examining both memories and imagination in a manner that is quite different. It might not suit everyone but it’s been an interesting experience so far.

(For other posts of fragrance please click here  here  here or here

A scent of self ~ on why sensuality is vital to identity

A scent of self ~ on why sensuality is vital to identity

I can tell when Christmas is coming not by the increase in advertising on television but rather by the escalation of my shouts of protests at the content of those adverts. Or for that matter by the degeneration of my vocabulary and my reduction to a spluttering rage. I’ll leave much of the fury alone as it’s the same old frustration at blatant consumerism. I’ve said it before and others have said it better, so the overall feeling of exploitation is worth noting but not exploring. Christmas is so much more than an orgy of consumer spending after all. ‘Nuff said.

But the ads that really frustrate and puzzle me are the fragrance ones. They baffle me. How can you sell a perfume via television or the printed page? Very occasionally I buy glossy magazines; I only do so when there is a free gift attached that is worth more than the magazine. Once in a blue moon a full page ad for a perfume comes with a tiny vial or a sachet. That makes some sense to me. Try before you buy.

If you’ve caught any of the ads they tend to follow various themes and memes. Impossibly beautiful men and women, dressed in exclusive, sky-rocket expensive clothes, glaring arrogantly at the camera from eyes enhanced by every cosmetic trick known to mankind, striding confidently around oozing so much sex appeal that one feels instantly so much less of a man/woman. Crashing waves, glittering diamonds, fashion shoots, high heels, messed up satin sheets, fields of flowers under immense stormy skies. When I am in a good mood, I can admire the artistry. But usually all I can think is, “Huh?? So, what does it smell like??”

Perfume advertising is almost totally divorced from the actual sense of smell. It’s all about image, celebrity endorsement, aspirations and a lot of other things that have no smell at all. The ads are simply there to get you to the store and buy. By the time someone has got that far, become seduced by the brand, there’s a very good chance they’ll buy because they’ve subliminally and subconsciously identified with the iconography of the ads. Unless the perfume smells like horse piss, they will probably buy it anyway.

Perfume is something that is seen as an indulgence by many and I can understand that. Good perfume isn’t cheap. It shouldn’t be, if it’s made from hard to produce essences, and blended by trained and highly skilled ‘noses’. Yet so many wear perfumes they don’t (deep down) like and which don’t enhance their personalities. There’s a concept of a signature scent, something by which you are recognised. I’ve heard of women, daggers-drawn at parties on discovering another woman is wearing ‘her’ scent. A single notable perfume is chosen to define the self. It’s this mentality that aids and abets the marketing machine. What does this fragrance say about a woman? Cue the crashing waves, the sculpted cheekbones and the designer dresses.

It’s clear that a person’s own unique fragrance, that is to say, how they smell without perfumed products, is implicated in the process of sexual attraction. Pheromones are present in our skin, our hair and our secretions (sorry!) and they are probably among the first things that people respond to. It’s an unconscious reaction and often instantaneous. It may even be the most vital ingredient in that phenomenon, Love at first sight; it might well be love at first sniff.

Do you know what you smell like? Could you recognise your own scent? Do you actually like it? Perfume is not about covering up one’s natural scent but rather about enhancing and complimenting it, of deepening that vibrant signature of the self. Like a pen and ink line drawing your natural scent is the bare bones of that identity. Adding to it is like taking a preliminary sketch and filling in the colours. The sensual awareness of the self is a very powerful thing, a part of learning to love oneself perhaps. Being aware of the texture of one’s skin, the feeling of the hair, the grace of movement, are deeper ways of knowing the self than that gaze into the mirror that tells us what we look like but not who we are.

To seek a scent of self is perhaps to also find a sense of self, a dimension that we sometimes lack. If you were to seek a perfume, don’t look for the things the advertisers want to sell you, but rather seek blindly, using other senses. First sniff is the start. Instant recoil, step back and see how it makes you feel. Memories maybe long hidden may be at the root of dislike, but also it may simply be anathema to you, incompatible. Try a few, follow your instincts. Ask yourself: is this perfume ‘me’? Does it fit you? Take your time. Try it all day, try it at different times of day. There may be just one or there may be many. You may love one for years, then one day, it’s no longer you. That’s OK, you’ve changed (and it might also have changed too. Manufacturers do change formulas).

But explore. The soul is a magical, evolving being, and knowing and understanding it may be the key to truly loving the self. And it’s vital we love ourselves, because that’s when we can really start to love others. 

Museums of the World ~ Museum of Perfume Bottles

I’m going to start collecting pictures of museums, especially unusual ones and the following one I found in La Rochelle. I didn’t go in, largely because I was unsure if there was an entrance fee and I had a humungus backpack on and was sure I’d break things….

I collected perfume bottles in my dim and distant youth; I have some rare and possibly valuable ones hidden away. I wish I’d dared to go in…but I am sure the museum would have been relieved that I didn’t. Bulls in china shops are nothing in comparison…..

(edit: for all those who happened here trying to find Perfume museums of the world, try googling the Fragonard one in Paris. http://europeforvisitors.com/paris/articles/fragonard-perfume-museum.htm I know it exists as I drove past it )