From Hero to Eternity

I’m led by my nose.
Smells entice me, disturb me but mostly comfort me.
My father, a swaggering delinquent, wore ‘Eau de Cologne’. His slicked black Brylcreemed hair and the high notes of Bergamot lingering on his moustache. The bathroom towels, hospital property off the back of a lorry, held the scent for days but as he grew older, apart from dying his hair, my vain father graduated to ‘Californian Poppy’, an aroma described as the ‘epitome of bohemian chic, a symbol of California’s hedonism’. The citrusy beginning and the woody – musky finish hung like a cloud in the tiny washroom. Every daughter sees her father as her archetypal hero. My father was the last of the anti-heroes; he slapped that Californian Poppy onto his swarthy cheeks and disappeared into the night.
My first scent, ‘Le Train Bleu’, was bought from ‘Woolworths’, in little bottles stacked near the biscuit counter. I decided that when I grew up I had a mind to sell broken biscuits, dipping my hands into crumbling custard creams and sickly sweet pink wafers before dropping them into a brown paper bag. I didn’t get pocket money so ‘Le Train Bleu’ found it’s way into my duffel coat pocket, like father like daughter.
I had to learn to negotiate the world of perfume on my own since my mother wasn’t allowed to wear any. My father was the dandy my mother, Cinderella. In 1962, as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded and the threat of a nuclear war hung over us my 13-year-old self begged for ‘Rose Geranium’, perfume by Floris a la Marilyn Monroe. I had hair like my father’s sister, Auntie Freda. I would wash it at night then hang over the side of the bed to let it dry. In the morning the exotic smell of ‘Gliss for oily hair’ hung over me and followed me to the youth club where I swung my hair around, twisting to Chubby Checker.
When my brother got Barmitzvahed I was given a little black beaded bag. I still have it tucked in a hat box full of sheer nylon stockings, a garter – for God’s sake – and a black and red suspender belt. A simple turn of the clasp and the beads fall open. Nestled in that sixty year old bag is a pair of white lacy gloves, brown tinged on the finger tips from age, a photograph of my smiling mother standing next to some Venetian Blinds, her hair pinned up like a 40’s mannequin and a tiny bottle of ‘Tweed’ perfume. The scent was launched in 1933 by Guillaume Lentheric, a Parisian hairdresser. He must have spent hours dropping oils into his phials; Bergamot, Orange, Neroli, Violet, Lavender, Ylang-Ylang, Jasmine, Orange Blossom, Rose and Carnation, Oakmoss, Benzoin, Vetiver, Sandalwood, Patchouli and Vanilla. If I take the top off the little bottle the smell is still in tact. I’m transported back to some other time when shirt-wasters were all the vogue and Danny Kaye was my pin up. My mother must have hidden the bottle lest she faced the wrath of her jailer.
‘Geurlain’ dominated my twenties. In 1971 I worked with a greasy faced director who wore ‘Chamade’, it was pleasant but I opted for ‘Mitsouko’, liberally spraying myself before entering the wig-wam of ‘Stone Henge Kit The Ancient Brit in the End of The Woad’, Ken Campbell’s lunatic offering at the Edinburgh Festival. Mitsouko covered the smell of tinned dog meat which I had to boil over a Primus stove. The smell of bubbling offcuts made me gag. ‘Mitsouko’ nearly covered the stench. For a hundred years ‘Mitsouko’ has been described as ‘the jewel in the crown of the golden age of perfume’. I used it in a show, sprayed it out over the audience and ended up fighting off a law suit as a geezer in the front row was allergic to it. My agent sweet-talked him into dropping the claim and I changed to L’Heure Bleue’, apparently the Queen’s favourite.
When I started in television I had a more disposable income. I stocked up on fancy scents. I was squatting in a house in South Hampstead and every morning the occupants’ daughter would come and see me before I left for Camden. She’s 48 now and still remembers the mix of TCP and Cliques ‘Aromatics’. Sitting next to people on the TVam sofa meant breath and thought had to be squeaky clean.
I’ve used ‘Chocolate’ scent, ‘Lilly of the Valley’ (which has been described as the smell of sperm), Penhaligan’s ‘Victorian Posy’ and Cartier’s ‘Cartier’. I’ve used ‘Miller Harris’ and ‘Chanel’ and flirted with ‘Le Labo’, a modern woody artisan fragrance. I’ve showered myself in ‘Jo Malone’ and Christian Dior. I’ve splashed the cash on ‘Goutals’ powdery range and drenched myself in ‘Joseph’. I drench the scent even if I’m only wearing pj’s and the cottage is devoid of visitors.
‘Joseph’ was my choice in my late thirties. I used to dowse the edges of the dawter’s pillowcase when I was working away, the theory being that I would wear it and she would smell it on her bed linen and would remember me when I was absent. Thirty three years later I still have the original slender bottle wrapped in leather. I can smell it just thinking about it, it brings back memories of cribs and baby grows, bath bubbles and depressing, lonely hotel rooms.
And then my son-in-law, who came out a few years ago having left the eldest step daughter, wafted into the house wearing a fragrance so enticing I followed him round the house like the steam from Bisto gravy. MOLECULE, in capitals because it is theeee best, is meant to work on pheromones, so only some people can smell it on me. I can never smell it on myself. I mix it with ‘Antique Patchouli’ by Nerides, which is the chosen air freshener in Parisian shops. I have been stopped more times than I can count by people telling me I smell formidarblur!
In 1995 we ran out of money; my perfume stash dwindled and the cosmetic girls in
‘Hoopers’ got wind of the old dame coming in for free samples. Then the dawter’s health visitor dropped in, took pity on me and gifted me a bottle of ‘Coco’ Chanel. I may have been skint but I smelt like a million dollars.
I worry that I’m now beginning to smell like an old woman. So the bathroom dresser is filled with talcum powder, feminine wash, buttery creams and essential oils. In the kitchen table drawer I have a box of olfactory aids created by a scent scientist. Smell and memory are intertwined. Wafting the smell of coal fires or clean washing under the noses of people with memory loss works wonders. The fragrance of cut grass or Christmas trees passed across the nostrils of somebody with dementia can send them back to a carefree childhood which they often are able to articulate. The results are staggering.
But having a good sense of smell does have it’s down side. I can smell an oily cooker miles away. I walk in and out of a restaurant if there ‘s a smell of old grease. I can smell deception and bullshit at fifty paces and I can smell change. Thank Goddess.
Now I can no longer afford my scent of choice, I have an account at Liberty’s where they know me. I used to visit after my BBC show on the way to Charing Cross Station. I used to chat to the delightful Spanish assistant, the gorgeous West Indian perfumier, and the handsome tall gay guy who sold me ‘Molecule’ at the wrong price for years. I miss them and the Beeb. But Christmas always brings me ‘Femme’, a gift from one of my oldest chums. The amber liquid sits in the lovely bottle which ‘Recalls a woman’s curves.’
My acupuncturist – who wears Jo Malone’s ‘Pomegranate’ – although she used to wear ‘Grapefruit’ as she said the scent fools the ‘manligs’ into thinking we look younger – talks to me whilst I’m being pricked by her needles. We all agree it’s a funny time and the smell of desperation is in the air. When I tell her my funds are low she always says, in her best Greta Garbo, that being poor is a state of mind whilst being broke is temporary.
So when my next tranche of money comes in I shall buy myself Frederic Malle’s
‘Dawn Eau de Parfum’, 100ml for 985 pounds. Disgraceful, almost offensive wouldn’t you say? But whilst you may sniff at it you have to concede that it is also the sweet smell of success?