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Sunday, 14 December 2014

An amewsing game of aroma-counselling 'tag': review of The Scent of Possibility by Sarah McCartney

I did a quick tot up today and I have in fact written reviews of seven perfume-themed books on Bonkers. SEVEN! I promise that that's as much a surprise to me as it is to you - I would have guessed about four tops. Maybe I am being influenced by a recent downgrade of the designation of these posts from 'review' to 'bitesized not quite reviews', which was the case for the last two: 'The Rottweiler' by Ruth Rendell because there was next to no perfume in the book(!), and 'Chanel: An Intimate Life' by Lisa Chaney, because I couldn't even finish the blessed thing. Though I guess you could say that - assuming I have an average attention span - my failure is as indicative as anything of the book's readability. But yes, it turns out that there were five proper, full length book reviews prior to that.

And here is review No 8, of a novel which was both fragrance-forward and finished fairly fast by me. That said, my review may not be appreciably longer than bitesized, for the simple reason that I couldn't figure out how to say too much about The Scent of Possibility without it acting as a spoiler. But here goes...

Sarah McCartney, as regular readers will doubtless know, is the quirky and colourful owner of 4160 Tuesdays, who has been acclaimed as one of the up-and-coming stars on the perfume scene. She was recently dubbed - in a superb article on the UK's artisan scent industry in Management Today - as a 'punk perfumer', and I have previously featured three of her creations on the blog: Time to Draw the Raffle Numbers (the scent which spurred my friend Clare on in her charity bike ride) and Tart's Knicker Drawer & Doe in the Snow, following Sarah and her husband Nick's visit to Bonkers Towers in the summer.

Sarah and Nick at a Les Senteurs event this week

Without further ado, here is the blurb from the back of the book, to give you a little taster:

'Down a cobbled mews off one of London's rare tranquil rare tranquil backstreets, people come to talk, gaze at the garden, have a nice cup of tea and a biscuit, then leave with a small blue bottle of perfume. Captured inside it is a scented memory of happy times.

What could be the harm in that?

London is a big city, but paths cross, and get all tangled up. A small misunderstanding leads to a seriously large one.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This is the novel that accidentally launched a London perfumery, 4160 Tuesdays.'

The Scent of Possibility is divided into lots of short chapters, devoted to - and toggling amongst - the various characters. All of whom sooner or later fetch up at the office - in a mews near Holborn - of a lady called Unity Cassel, who helps them solve their personal problems. The characters don't know this when they arrive, mind...The trigger for their visit is being given a business card with an appointment on it by someone (usually known to them) who has already been, found their own session helpful, and decided that the other person could do with Unity's services more than them, prompting them to pass their card along. I can best describe it as a game of aroma-counselling 'tag', for as well as having a cathartic heart-to-heart with Unity  - plus high calibre refreshments! - each 'client' takes away a little bottle of perfume which she carefully selects for them. Each bottle captures in olfactory form a past memory of a happy occasion that is specific / personal to them, the idea being that the scent will simultaneously comfort and galvanise them into tackling their issues head on.

Pied Bull Court / Galen Place ~ Source: mouseprice.com

The fun in the book, which is very cleverly plotted, is that the stories turn out to be far more intertwined than the reader at first imagines...and that is about as much as I can say about that without really giving the card and the game away!

So instead, I will say that I devoured The Scent of Possibility in a week, which is the sign of a seriously engrossing read. Timewise only Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty has come close. I can't stress enough that this is a truly remarkable feat, because in the past year I have only managed to read a derisory seven books in total, which equates to a laughably slow rate of about seven weeks for each. So to finish Sarah's book in a fraction of that time or less is accolade indeed.

The other thing I appreciated about The Scent of Possibility is its easy-going, naturalistic style. Sarah has a sure touch in conveying the 'voice' of each of her characters, so for example, Jessica, who is a schoolgirl, speaks in a breathy stream of consciousnessness blurt, with minimal punctuation. I am pleased to report that Sarah doesn't pepper Jessica's internal conversations with 'like' or 'you know' every few words, to which young people seem inordinately prone.

The characterisations themselves are economically and deftly drawn, for example when Phoebe describes a man she was going out with as being handsome in 'that dark, Celtic, smouldery way'. Elsewhere, she mocks her own appearance in trainers, comparing herself to 'those American women in the last century who came over to the City and went to work in tea-coloured tights, Burberry macks and big hair, with a pair of bright white Reeboks at the bottom, to make them look like they worked hard and played hard and all that rubbish.'

Five of the scents featured in the book are from the current range

Oh, and a quick word on grammar: Sarah loves the semi-colon, and though I haven't conducted a poll as such, I am pretty sure she favours its use over the dash by quite some margin. The semi-colon is a bit of an endangered species in modern usage - and is even considered archaic in some quarters - so I rather warmed to that touch, says she, without actually using one...;)

There is also a fair bit of gentle humour and wry observations of life's foibles, together with some pretty helpful relationship advice along the way. I could very easily imagine Suzi Godson of The Times coming up with the same diagnoses of these familiar - and familial - problems.  Yes, the book is part agony aunt column, part perfume consultation-stroke-aromatherapy session, and part soap opera-cum-thriller. In short, The Scent of Possibility has something for everyone...except a shedload of dashes, obviously. Though it does have a shed.


NB In the spirit of full disclosure, I bought my own copy of The Scent of Possibility - that's it in Sarah's hand, in fact! - before or after she autographed it for me.





Monday, 8 December 2014

The Lidl effect: Woman Suddenly falls for Chanel No 5 again - and doffs bed socks

The time has come to mention the unconventional boyfriend again, the one who described my eyes - most imaginatively I thought - as the colour of 'foetid puddles', and my legs as 'serviceable'. It was 30 years ago, but I still remember a few salient facts about our relationship. The eight year age gap meant that when I popped a Sade cassette into his car stereo on a long drive north, he inquired brightly: 'Is that Wham?' And after I had my wisdom teeth out, my face was so beaten up that he walked right through the ward without recognising me and out of the hospital again, assuming he had got the wrong one. He also broke into my mother's house once, and left a bottle of port on her kitchen table to thank her for visiting him in hospital. Well, I use the term 'broke' loosely - my mum had accidentally left a window open, apparently. And he gave me some good presents in the course of our four year relationship: a little wooden trinket box, a Barbour jacket, and a copy of the controversial book 'Queer' by William Burroughs. On the flyleaf was this facetious inscription:

'Some in-flight reading. I chose it in 5 minutes. One glance says "this book cannot possibly be dull". And so I hope it proves. In any case, reactions of fellow passengers will offer a secondary source of entertainment.'

Oh, and most importantly he also gave me Chanel No 5. I sense it may have been as snappy a purchase as the book, but it was only the second bottle of perfume I had ever been given, and I was very excited to receive it - to my twenty-something self it seemed the last word in luxury and glamour. I remember the bottle as a sleek, black rectangular column like the one in the photo below, but have no idea if that marks it out as the edt or edp. I wore No 5 happily on nights out, but only as a 'civilian', to reprise Tara's great word for a regular member of the perfume-wearing public, in her comment on my Suddenly Woman 1 post. I don't know whether I finished the bottle or what happened to it, but my interest in this iconic fragrance quietly lapsed, such that when I was smitten by perfume mania seven years ago, my attitude to No 5 was regrettably cavalier - very much one of 'Been there, sniffed that'. Until Lidl came along and launched a smell-alike, that is...

Source: eBay

But before elaborating on the effect of Suddenly Woman 1 on my current perfume-wearing MO and beyond, I thought it might be interesting to do a quick summary of my takes on the previous launches, going right back to 2009:

SUDDENLY FLEURS - I only vaguely remember this - as a sweetish floral that didn't particularly remind me of any other mainstream perfumes on the market. Maybe Lidl hadn't got its act into gear at this point and it wasn't a deliberate dupe of anything. If anyone remembers Suddenly Fleurs and has an idea of what it might be imitating, do let us know in the comments.

SUDDENLY D'OR - a very decent copy of Ghost Luminous, not that I am a mad fan of the Ghost range generally.

SUDDENLY MADAME GLAMOUR - a superb copy of Coco Mademoiselle. I wouldn't bother with the real thing, although I can tell the difference - the Chanel does have more depth - and more patchouli. Suddenly Madame Glamour is sufficient for me, should I ever wish to scratch a Coco Mademoiselle itch. I probably won't though, as it is so darn ubiquitous these days. I would guess Coco Madeomoiselle has overtaken No 5 itself in popularity by now, amongst all age groups too. Certainly on a 'whiffs caught in passing basis', if not in sales terms necessarily.

SUDDENLY DIAMONDS - another very close copy, of BOSS Orange this time, though as with Suddenly d'Or above, I am not a fan of the original, so wouldn't buy either.

SUDDENLY WOMAN 1 - the least similar copy to date imho - of Chanel No 5. For the very first time, the Lidl version has made me want to own actual Chanel No 5(!), and indeed I have now inherited a nearly used bottle from my friend Clare, and also invested in a 3 ml roll on-on Ebay for the princely sum of £6.99.



Coincidentally, the other day I saw an article that explained how people sleep better with fewer bed- and night-clothes on - something to do with optimum core temperatures versus that of your extremities. The article recommended sleeping naked if at all possible, or at the very least swapping bed socks for a hot water bottle, as the latter can be kicked away if you get overheated. The timing of this piece with my Suddenly Woman 1 and No 5 trials seems most fortuitous - indeed the post even mentions that well-known titbit about how Marilyn Monroe was reputed to go to bed in the nude, save for a comforting cloud of Chanel No 5.

We are in the middle of a cold snap here in Britain, so I don't think I could possibly countenance sleeping in the buff. But now that I have re-bonded so unexpectedly with this famous fragrance, I will seriously consider wearing a nocturnal spritz and losing my bed socks, especially if they go the way of the last pair any time soon...








Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Lidl Suddenly Woman 1 review: the fifth women's scent from the discount chain is no No 5

For some years now I have been a big champion of the own brand range of perfumes from European discount chain, Lidl. I have followed the releases with interest, from Suddenly d'Or and Suddenly Fleurs through Suddenly Madame Glamour to Suddenly Diamonds - respectively very creditable dupes of Ghost Luminous, Chanel's Coco Mademoiselle and BOSS Orange. Not forgetting the men's scent, G Bellini X-Bolt, which is a fine imitation of Hugo BOSS Bottled.

In my Suddenly Diamonds post I expressed disappointment that Lidl had gone from copying the iconic Coco Mademoiselle to a fairly middle of the road BOSS perfume, instead of going for 'the big one', ie Chanel No 5. Along with the likes of Guerlain Mitsouko and Shalimar, No 5 is regarded as one of the leviathans of the perfume scene. And thanks to a tip off from an anonymous reader I learnt that the store had now taken on Goliath(!) and brought out Suddenly Woman 1, an apparent knock off of Chanel No 5... Well, it seems I had missed Suddenly Woman 1 in stores first time round, for it had already been and gone by the time I caught up with the news. However, the same reader kindly alerted me to the relaunch on 27th November, carefully scheduled to catch the run up to Christmas.

So I hotfooted it down to my local store the other day, where there is currently an offer on of two for £7 as opposed to the usual price of £3.99 each for 50ml. And assuming I would be as impressed as I have been up to now with the other scents in the Lidl stable, I bagged a couple of bottles, thinking I might give the other one away to a friend who loves Chanel No 5, and fancies something inexpensive she can splash around during the day.

It took me a few minutes to find the product, mind, as Lidl seems to have a habit of initially showcasing its perfume releases in a prominent spot nowhere near the toiletries aisle. I was about to beard an assistant about why they weren't stocking Woman 1 though it was comfortably after 27th November when I stumbled upon a display right next to some condiments and cruets. But of course!



Before getting into the scent itself, a word about the packaging. Like No 5, the box is monochrome and pretty classy-looking - with added silver edging. The bottle is the best yet - a pleasing rectangular yet elliptical shape, with a thick glass base and chunky black top. I could believe the packaging is worth £3.50 on its own, and to think it might not be makes you realise how big a profit margin is built into some high end scents.

But as for how Suddenly Woman 1 smells, that is where it all begins to unravel. I first tested it blind against actual Chanel No 5 edp on a friend in the next street whose cat I feed. She is a completely 'normal' member of the public (ie not a raging perfumista like me and many Bonkers readers). My friend owns a few bottles (eg Shalimar, Gucci Envy) but isn't nuts about scent as such. Anyway, she immediately spotted which was No 5 and which the imitation. She described the Lidl scent as flat and monotone, like a 'single malt' (but not in a good way ie with the emphasis on 'single', or one-trick-ponyness!). The No 5 she said was multi-layered and fresher.

From my own subsequent trials I would add to that that No 5 was more floral, and more cleanly soapy - in a luxury milled soap sense - whereas Suddenly Woman 1 was sort of 'musty'. The aldehydes seemed rougher - less finely milled if you will! - and the base (to which the scent immediately defaulted) reminded me slightly of an Estee Lauder scent you don't see around much for very good reasons - Spellbound. I remember that one as a dark, spicy, sticky number, which Luca Turin dubbed 'medicinal treacle'. The base of Suddenly Woman 1 is nowhere near that bad, but it has an odd borderline 'off' character. I'd liken it to those 70s orientals (Lentheric Mystique is one that springs to mind) that have a challenging bottom end if you know what I mean - and which if you do come across them now, might not be in perfect nick either.

Source: fragrancedirect.co.uk

After an hour, Suddenly Woman 1 does mellow considerably, but there is simply not much going on on my skin by now other than a vague prickle of aldehydes and a faint murky undertow. No 5 meanwhile continues on its soapy way, less fizzy now, with more pure soap at this juncture. Suddenly Woman 1 was a bit brighter on my friend, so it is quite possible that YMMV.

That all said, Suddenly Woman 1 is arguably a perfectly good take on a retro style of perfume that just isn't to my taste. I would love people to try it to see what you DO think it smells like, especially during the crucial first hour. Something vintage, a bit spicy - maybe with moss?, musk? I really ain't sure - I am so bad at deconstructing scents that we need keener noses on the case. And when you think how complex the formulation of No 5 is said to be - for it is reputed to contain no fewer than 250 ingredients, of pretty high quality one may infer - it was always going to be a big ask to come up with a decent dupe in nice packaging for £3.99...

Source: fragrantica.com

One and a half hours in and Suddenly Woman 1 has lost all its bite and darkness and is just a gentle hum on my skin - nothing remotely objectionable about it now, but nor could I tell you what it smelt of at this point. It's soft, with this puzzling vintage vibe. I am not 'high fiv-ing' it, that's for sure. Or 'high No 5-ing' it, even. I do like my perfumes to smell actively pleasant long before this point. ;)

I tried to find some other views on Suddenly Woman 1 and at the time of writing I only came up with was this thread on Mumsnet - note that all the comments are favourable except one. That person got a terrible migraine from Woman 1 and thought it smelt ghastly. So I guess my experience of the opening is more aligned with hers. And as I say, if you are prepared to sit out the first hour or so, it is much more congenial, and as both the No 5 and the Lidl scent are more indistinct at this point, there is a greater resemblance from this point on, though I wouldn't overplay it.

Definitely something you have to try for yourself and make your own mind up, so for the sake of four quid, please don't be put off by my review, but buy a bottle if you can and come back and tell us how you got on.

I say, you don't suppose it could be a copy of Mitsouko, by any chance? Nah, surely not....;)

UPDATE!

Last night I was round at my mate Clare's, helping her retrospectively cost dog cakes, since you ask. She happens to own a used bottle of No 5 - a bit longer in the tooth than the sample I had been using as a control, but still very nice. I got her and her husband Tony to comment on how the Lidl scent smelt vs both the No 5s (on my wrists), and the findings were interesting: Tony thought the two scents were somewhat similar, but that Suddenly Woman 1 was 'sharper', as in spiky, and also a bit 'old lady'. Clare preferred the Lidl perfume, and promptly gave me her old bottle of No 5(!), partly as a reward for my financial services, but also because she rarely feels a yen to wear it these days.

I must also say that I was surprised to find that neither version of actual No 5 is anything like as fizzily aldehydic as I remembered (I owned it myself in the 80s). I really do think Suddenly Woman 1 will appeal too fans of vintage scents from the 70s - or earlier? And of course it may behave quite differently on other people's skin.


Sunday, 30 November 2014

Guerlain Après L’Ondée and Virginia Woolf: who’s afraid of melancholy scents?

Source: Wikimedia Commons ~ Christian Tonnis
The other day while messing about on Facebook I chanced across a link (see below) posted by Cheryl of Perfumed Letters to a little known recording of Virginia Woolf from 1937. In it the author speaks in the clipped, genteel tones you would associate with a member of The Bloomsbury Group about the mysterious mechanics of language and creative writing. I recommend in particular the section from about 4 minutes in, where Woolf describes words as 'irreclaimable vagabonds', and the mind as a 'fitfully illuminated cavern' in which they live. This discovery, coupled with my recent preoccupation with bathrooms(!), prompted me to feature this (slightly edited) post - which was originally published on Cafleurebon on 27.1.11 - on Bonkers. For anyone who remembers it from back then, some of the photos are also different(!), and there is the YouTube clip to enjoy. ;)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Some people believe in love at first sight.  I wouldn’t say I don’t believe in it exactly, but it has never happened to me.  In the context of fragrance, you occasionally hear of perfumistas having experienced a similar sort of 'coup de foudre' with a particular scent, changing forever the way they view perfume and incorporate it into their life.  Overnight fragrance goes from being a casual accessory to a second skin – or a third, fourth or even a  fifty-seventh skin, for those with large collections. 

I also experienced 'sudden onset perfume mania', but for me it was not so much a fragrance which triggered this epiphany, as a review of a fragrance, namely Hannah Betts’ 2005 article for The Times on 'glacial perfumes'.  She starts by quoting former French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck’s comment about her heightened emotional response to narcissus absolute.

'Just a drop on each wrist and two in the bath were enough to send silver running down the walls. It set the world throbbing out of control when I wore it. I became a little weird.'


Photo courtesy of Linda Svendsen

Betts point outs that the sense of silver trickling down bathroom walls is all the more pronounced if the perfume already smells of silver – 'then walls course all the sooner'.  This leads her neatly into a discussion of her own favourite cool, metallic scents, namely Après L’Ondée and Hiris by Hermès, and how this effect is created by the use of orris butter, one of the most expensive perfumery materials of all, a creamy paste derived from the iris root.

Captivated by her review, I set about acquiring a sample of the first scent Betts had mentioned.   Après L’Ondée was created by Jacques Guerlain and released in 1906, with notes (from Now Smell This) of 'bergamot, neroli, aniseed, hawthorn, violet, heliotrope, iris and musk; there may also be carnation, rose, jasmine, vetiver and sandalwood.'

When I first smelt Après L’Ondée (just the EDT in case anyone is wondering), it exerted the same visceral pull as the description in Betts’ review.  It struck me as a dark, mournful, conflicted scent.  There is simultaneously an airy, damp freshness and an earthy dryness.  It is like rain that has been dragged through a hedge backwards.  Yes, that is it – elemental violence has been done to vegetation.  Broken boughs lie strewn in the long wet grass.  And what of the powderiness - the anisic heliotrope sweetness?  Well, it gives the fragrance a very retro, feminine quality, but this is no 'come hither' boudoir powderiness.  It is the scent of a woman with a wan complexion and a broken spirit. 



Source: Wikimedia Commons

So Après L’Ondée, this wistful, silver beauty, was the first scent I fell in love with after the mania took hold.  But metal is hard, and this scent should not be worn if you are feeling the least bit emotionally fragile, as I learnt to my cost.  Back in 2010 I was engaged in a difficult work project in California, and one bright and chilly morning unthinkingly spritzed on Après L’Ondée instead of a cosy musk or soothing sandalwood.  I had two appointments that day, but the first person wasn’t there, and the second person was wrong.  Aborting the meeting, I retreated to a nearby mall** to lick my wounds, cruise the perfume aisles of an outlet store and stock up on leisure wear in Gap.

It was a vexing day, and Après L’Ondée merely amplified my feelings of failure and frustration.  In short, my epiphany scent, the catalyst which had catapulted me full tilt into this all-consuming hobby, was making things worse...

This unexpected fragrant downer got me wondering who would have worn Après L’Ondée at the turn of the 20th century when it was launched, bearing in mind that there would have been far fewer scents on the market in those days.  My mind instantly lit upon Virginia Woolf, who was a few years older than me when she walked into a river with her pockets full of stones some 70 odd years ago.  But when Après L’Ondée was released she would only have been 24, and its melancholy quality would have chimed perfectly with her intermittently depressive character.  At least I hope it would have stopped there – at chiming, I mean – and wasn’t a contributing factor to the final bout of depression that prompted her to take her own life. 

Source: Fragrantica

Now hold on a minute – I don’t know that Virginia Woolf wore Après L’Ondée – or any perfume, indeed.

As it happens, I have always admired Woolf’s writing. I haven’t read any of it, mind - it is all a bit too 'stream of consciousness' for me - though I did sit down for a good 15 minutes with 'To The Lighthouse' once.  But seriously, I recognize that she is a literary giant of the 20th century – a modernist who has been hailed as the greatest lyrical novelist in the English language.  And an early feminist to boot.  So Après L’Ondée – with its haunting sadness and restless soul  – seems a fitting choice of hypothetical signature scent for someone who wrote a novel called 'The Waves' and met a watery end.

I tucked this idea away in my mind until I bumped into an unknown relative on Ancestry.co.uk one day - we were researching different parts of our family tree and eventually collided into each other at the intersection of our efforts, a mutual ancestor with the singular name of Edward Samuel Boys-Tombs.  I sent this distant cousin an email asking if she would like to pool findings, and the following day we had a long chat on the phone.  After bottoming out our own tenuous and convoluted relationship to each other, my new cousin made me a surprising offer. 


Source: ats.coloradocollege.edu

'Would you like to be related to Virginia Woolf and Charles Darwin?' she inquired brightly, as if they were the ancestral equivalent of a banded pack promotion.

My ears pricked up.  'Are you offering?'

'I can trace you back to both of them in - hold on a tick – 17 steps to Virginia Woolf and 19 to Charles Darwin - where a step is going up, down or sideways on the tree via a parent, spouse, sibling or child.'

It took some time for this information to sink in.  Now they do say that we are all related to everyone, however famous, in just six degrees of separation, and that may very well be so, but the flaw with this theory is that we don’t generally know what the six degrees are.   And here was my x-th cousin y-th removed handing me a couple of dead cert celebrity rellies (dead dead certs, admittedly) in under 20 steps!  Okay, as blood connections go, it was very, very thin – several intervening marriages meant that we are talking positively homeopathic levels of dilution – but no matter.  Even wafer-thin blood is thicker than water...;)


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Prior to this discovery, the only time my path had remotely crossed that of Virginia Woolf was during a research project for The National Trust (a charity that protects historic houses and monuments).  I stayed at Sissinghurst, an Elizabethan castle in Kent with gardens designed by Virginia Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West.

And now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can speculate whether my exceedingly 'watered down' genetic connection with this fey novelist has something to do with my attraction to a scent that I had independently associated with her, even if that association has no basis in fact.  I was telling the wife of a much closer cousin(!) about the news, knowing her equally keen interest in family history, when she suddenly dropped a genealogical bombshell of her own:  'Well you know, don’t you, that my mother is related to the Sackville-Wests?'  I didn’t, but my mind suddenly went into overdrive, recalling Virginia Woolf’s unconventional relationship with Vita Sackville-West, before applying this extra twist.  'I know what you are thinking', replied my cousin-in-law, 'but just think how many steps that would be from Virginia to Vita, if it is already 17 from Virginia to you.  That’s hardly incestuous, now is it?'


Source: Amazon

'Wouldn’t it be funny if it was 39 steps', I replied, thinking to myself: “Now there’s a book I can get my head around.'

**Editor's note: I later learnt that this mall was only a short hop from where Undina lives, however, at the time I had yet to 'meet' her properly on the blogs. Which is a shame, as I am sure she could have cheered me up no end!











Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Scent Crimes Series: No 14 - Screw it or lose it...!

Yesterday, to my great chagrin and despite a torrent of indignant mutterings, they turned on the Christmas lights in Stafford. I had already spied the unsettling presence of chocolate snowmen in W H Smiths the other day, and a potted Christmas tree in a local nursery. It may still be a long way off the festive season in my own mind, but I will concede that it is finally getting a bit colder. And so it is that I have found myself increasingly drawn lately to those fuzzy aldehydic scents that envelop you in a warm, pétillant haze. I will not liken them to a cashmere shawl**, and if any reader attempts to do so, I will 'wrap' them over the knuckles for peddling the simile equivalent of giving red roses on Valentine's Day or supporting Manchester United. ;) And I have been wearing a fuzzy jumper this weekend, as it happens, a cast off from not one but two friends in succession, who were concerned that it might contain that ethically dodgy and ultra fuzzy fibre, angora. Some deep googling revealed that the sweater was in fact a perfectly ordinary mix of wool and acrylic, but the previous owners had gone right off it anyway - tainted as it now was by their lurid visions of spiky combs and rough-handled rabbits. So I guess I lucked out...evidently one woman's supposed unethically sourced garment is another woman's woolly windfall.

And the scent that I felt would go perfectly with this cream jumper was Chanel Les Exclusifs Bois des Iles, precisely because of its cosseting cloud of sandalwood and aldehydes. I noted that I had hardly any left in my small plastic atomiser, but was unconcerned, as I knew I had a larger back up in long term storage. This morning, having finally drained the little decant, I went in search of the bigger one, only to discover that the juice had vanished, though I had no recollection of using it lately.

My thoughts instantly flew back to the days when I lived with Mr Bonkers, and how he used to drink the first glass of wine I served him remarkably quickly. We had an amusing little ritual whereby he would extend the empty glass to me in his outstretched hand as a signal that he wanted a top up. This gesture would be accompanied by a comically sad face, and a faux air of bafflement. 'Oh look', he'd remark, 'my wine must have evaporated!'

Eek!! A driftwood Christmas tree from Notonthehighstreet.com

And so it was that the sad realisation dawned on me that my beloved decant of Bois des Iles had pulled a similar evaporation stunt while my back was turned. The wood of the islands had drifted off, if you will...;( I examined the bottle closely and quickly established that the plastic collar was not very securely screwed onto the glass bottle itself, doubtless greatly facilitating the evaporation process. I don't know how it would have worked itself loose exactly - maybe by jostling against other decants in a box - but there wasn't a single drop left. I felt bereft. I could quite happily have gone on wearing Bois des Iles for another few days, especially if this cold snap kept up.

And then I spent the next hour or more systematically going through my decant collection, pulling out any other atomisers that looked as though they had also leaked their contents. (I am quite good at remembering roughly how much juice should be in there and whether I have worn a given scent recently.) I found a few more offendors, but still a happily small proportion of my decant collection. If I was Undina I would be able to tell you exactly how small, but I failed miserably on the census-taking front. Surprisingly, there were not one but two bullet-style atomisers of Séville a l'Aube that were completely empty. I suspect the first had leaked and I had filled another one thinking the first must just be faulty, only to have the same thing  happen all over again. Some bullet atomisers must not be air- / watertight, or 'dicht' to use the very versatile German word.


The other casualties were a pretty pink atomiser of Natori by Natori (there's a blast from the past!), Costume National 21, Tom Ford White Patchouli, and a glass barley twist decant of Armani Privé Rose Alexandrie. None of these had obviously loose collars as such, but evidently evaporation can occur given the smallest of 'gaps'. But a  half-screwed atomiser - as this Bois des Iles was - is clearly asking for trouble. I have now checked all the other decants for tightness, and they are as 'sealed' as that particular packaging format affords. To my mind the finger of suspicion points to the burnished metal atomisers in particular. Pretty as they look, I think the quality is quite mixed. Better off with the trusty Travalo.

Has anyone else experienced this phenomenon of unexplained evaporation - like ex-Mr Bonkers' wine glass ;) - or made the same mistake as me and left a precious decant in a semi-screwed state, with disastrous consequences?




** Note that I have historically been as guilty of the next person of using this descriptor, but I am now on a 12-step programme.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Unexpectedly reprising my 'Mata Hari' moniker on a visit to House of Minster gift shop & perfumery, Lichfield

Source: Wikimedia Commons
As I mentioned in my last post in reference to the reviewing of samples, the wheels on Bonkers grind very slowly. So much so that I am only now getting round to writing up a day trip to the jewel in Staffordshire's crown that is the cathedral city of Lichfield. Um...the day out in question was last May in fact, when a colleague D, who was similarly at a loose end workwise, invited me to join her for lunch and a mooch round the shops. Our tour was to include Lichfield's upmarket gift shop-cum-perfumery, House of Minster, of which I had read good reports in those local coffee table magazines you find lying about in dentists, but which in the past nearly seven years of my hobby, I had conspicuously failed to visit.

In anticipation of the very real prospect of a glass of wine or two with lunch - my colleague is a bit of an oenophile - I decided to use public transport. The route takes about an hour compared with 35-40 minutes in the car. Unfortunately, I added an additional hour to the travel time by waiting patiently for the bus on the wrong side of the street. As someone who has found a specific Nissen hut at the top of a mountain in the Mojave desert without the help of GPS or a map, and located a factory in Croatia purely on the basis of the wordless semaphore directions of an elderly lady selling tomatoes by the roadside, I felt extremely foolish to have failed to clock the correct bus stop not 200 yards from my house.

Source: visitlichfield.co.uk

Eventually, I made it to the terminus at Lichfield where D was there to greet me, seemingly unfazed by my spectacular navigational gaffe. We decided to repair without ado to House of Minster, where, after a quick shufty at the gift section - full of noble looking teddies, trays, trinkets, kitchen accessories and what it used to please Mr Bonkers generically to call 'stuff' - I 'hit' the perfume counter. The array of brands was impressive for a perfumery in the provinces, including Creed, Balmain, Atkinsons, Lubin, Trussardi, Miller Harris, Boucheron, Bvlgari, Cartier and many others. A really surprise inclusion was the range from Absolument Parfumeur, which I featured in my most recent post about Woodforde Perfumery in Sidmouth.




Sadly there were no samples available of the first scent to catch my eye, Miller Harris Le Petit Grain, though the sales assistant kindly scurried upstairs at one point to see if she might have one knocking around in a drawer. Obviously, any recollections of how a particular scent smelt are going to be woefully historic now, but Le Petit Grain was a bracing citrus I would have liked to have enjoyed at more leisure. Even now, there is a trace of something zesty on the blotter I kept... Other perfumes I tested on card at least were Trussardi Delicate Rose, Boucheron Place Vendôme, Bvlgari Omnia Indian Garnet, D & G Dolce, Balmain Extatic and Mercedes-Benz Perfume (the men's one)! I do remember that the Daimler number was a little bit like Puredistance M, so not my cup of tea really. In truth I was not wowed by anything I tried - and the spelling of the Balmain scent additionally troubled me - until I broached the Atkinsons range.

It was hard to miss really, as there was a stonking great factice on the counter as well as a prominent display with all the scents perched on it. I didn't dislike any of them, but the standouts on the day were 24 Old Bond Street (a crisp, G & T-style cologne featuring declared notes of juniper, rose, whisky and tea), and The Oddfellow's Bouquet, a spicy oriental. Pleasantly haunted by these two, I managed to buy a sample of the former on a visit to Roullier White with Sabine of Iridescents in July. And I have just caught up with The Oddfellow's Bouquet again when Sabine kindly sent me a little package of samples the other day.



I am sorry to report that subsequent trials with The Oddfellow's Bouquet have not lived up to my memory of the scent on that first testing - possibly because of the card / skin distinction. There was something 'oddly' mismatched about the combination of notes and something specific I didn't care for, though I couldn't put my finger on it. Having since clocked the notes, I am pretty sure now that it will have been the heliotrope.

Notes: heliotrope, tobacco, ginger, pepper, labdanum, benzoin

In fact I would align myself with this review by Kevin on Now Smell This. Like him, I feel that Volutes is a more successful fragrance by the perfumer, Fabrice Pellegrin. Persolaise also finds The Odd Fellow's Bouquet odd - but strangely compelling - and invites readers to picture 'a bow-tie-wearing gent wielding a cigar in one hand whilst sprinkling pine needles onto a child's chemistry set with the other'. The rest of his review is pretty off the wall and amusing, and I am further reassured that it isn't just me who finds the composition a bit peculiar. Sabine herself had more luck with it, and found it well blended - her only issue was with the undue manliness of the name.



Okay, so what's with this Mata Hari moniker malarkey, I hear you interject? Well, to continue my ongoing theme of the work-related 'spying missions' I used to carry out, I once acquitted myself very well on an acquisition project in the stair parts sector, prompting the Chairman of the client company to dub me 'The Mata Hari of the spindle world'. As for the relevance of this moniker to the post in hand, well it concerns the practice of taking photographs of respondents and their buildings, which was another aspect of the job - sometimes also on a covert basis, as explained here

Source: Wikipedia

And it was for this same reason that the visit to House of Minster started to unravel. As ever, when I think I might wish to blog about somewhere I have visited, I like to take a few photographs, so I asked the sales assistant's permission and she said to go right ahead. Because of the position of the Atkinsons display I needed to crouch down to take some of the shots, and this squatting pose immediately attracted the suspicious attention of not one but two of her colleagues in quick succession. They didn't stop to ascertain if I was legitimately snapping away, but just weighed in with their rather pointed questions. The first lady said snippily: 'May I ask what you are doing?', while the second actually squatted down beside me and inquired, with heavy sarcasm: 'May I help you?' I quickly explained that I had asked their colleague if it was okay to take pictures, and told them about the blog post I was thinking of writing, and how the photos would bring it to life. D chipped in by kindly bigging up Bonkers, and reiterating that my intentions were honourable, and that a blog post can surely only be good for retailers and potential customers alike. Well, except for the fact that the staff of House of Minster seemed to think that my perfume bottle 'papping' was at best unorthodox, and at worst the unmistakable MO of a spy - which on this occasion was categorically not the case.



So at that point we made a sharp exit and adjourned for lunch. Alcohol was indeed involved as predicted, together with a fine view of Lichfield cathedral (though you can't quite see it in this shot!). Somewhat more lubricated than is customary at that time of day, we ambled round the shops, where I made a purchase of a pair of very tight cropped trousers - know rather fittingly as 'bistro' trousers - or not fittingly known, more like.

Have you ever come a cropper in a perfumery trying to take photographs - with or without permission? Do spill the beans about the perils of the perfume paparazzi!

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Cupolas and cobblestones: biehl. parfumkunstwerke mb03 review and a tale of two halves...

Source: Hypoluxe
First half

Twenty-five years ago today, I was alone in a hotel on an industrial estate in Hannover. I was feeling upset and disorientated, having just been thrown out of a meeting. This was the first of only two occasions in my career where this has happened to me - the other is detailed here - and the only time it has occurred before the meeting had even started. I was working on a market strategy study (aka 'spying' mission), and had shown up for my appointment with the second biggest manufacturer in Germany of a type of industrial fastener. Unfortunately, the respondent took one look at my business card - which had a distinctive owl motif on it - and promptly showed me the door. It seems that only the week before, my boss had 'broken down the door' of the company's French office, and interviewed a Product Manager there. Evidently this chap had been rather too forthcoming with information about his sales, market share etc, and news had got back to the sister company in Germany that these owl people were bad news. Thus it was that a quarter of an hour later, I was back in my cramped hotel room staring bleakly out of the window and wondering whether I might have bitten off more than I could chew with my rather unorthodox career choice.

Source:chnm.gmu.edu

I could see the motorway from my window, and as the day wore on, I remember noticing a lot of cars streaming west - hundreds and hundreds of them, almost all of them Trabants, a budget East German make famously - but quite falsely - reputed to be constructed out of cardboard. A good deal of the vehicle was fashioned out of Duroplast, a hard plastic akin to Bakelite and made from recycled materials, so environmentally you could say that the 'Trabby' was in fact ahead of its time. Well...if you disregard its smoky exhaust and high levels of pollution, that is. So yes, there were Trabants pouring along the A2 as far as the eye could see. My first thought was whether it might be some kind of a rally - like those conventions of Morris Minor or Mini owners, say - but on the face of it it seemed unlikely that so many East Germans would be able to attend such an event in the West. Plus there were an awful lot of them. By teatime, I had switched on the news, and the momentous, epoch-making penny finally dropped. Okay, so I may have 'run into a wall' in terms of my project, but any lingering sense of personal failure or disappointment was banished by this extraordinary news of the jubilant dismantling of a far, far greater barrier. And so I sat on my bed, mesmerised for hours by the unfolding TV coverage, till sleep overcame me.


A Trabant on a pole near Neurueppin

Over the years that followed, my work took me back many times to Germany, both the West and 'Former East', as it was known for a transitional time. People also talked about the 'alte und neue Bundeslaender' ('old and new federal provinces'), which was another way of drawing the distinction between the two. For a while after reunification there were still many tell-tale signs that you were crossing into the East: for even in the absence of an actual border, many of the old control towers still stood broodingly where the frontier used to be - eg on the A2 near Helmstedt. The countryside also looked subtly different to my eye - farm buildings tended to be more ramshackle and dour, and everywhere in the East there were more cobblestones.

Source: Wikipedia

But gradually, gradually, as investment poured into the 'neue Bundeslaender' as surely as the Trabants had poured out that fateful day, the two landscapes and their people knitted themselves back together - differences were slowly blurred, to the point one day of being almost imperceptible. Shiny new shopping centres and industrial parks sprung up; the whole country seemed lighter and brighter and more affluent. As I write, I am wearing a favourite pair of trousers bought in Schwerin, a town with a fairytale palace on an island in a lake. Post-reunification, I had a lot more opportunity to visit the whole of the country, and especially liked the fact that on days which would be a public holiday in the West - Fronleichnam, I'm looking at you! - companies in some provinces of the East were still open for business. Why, you could even pop into a council building and do a bit of photocopying (for a small fee), which felt almost decadent. ;)

Source: webmoritz.de

Second half

So to mark this great occasion of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I decided to feature a perfume from the large collection of perfume house biehl. parfumkunstwerke, the brainchild of Berlin-based Thorsten Biehl. The word 'Kunstwerke' means 'art works' in German, and Biehl also speaks of 'Art in a flacon' and his 'Olfactory Gallery'. He has engaged the services of six perfumers - three 'Young Savages' and three 'Modern Classics' - who were encouraged to go forth and follow their creative muse, free from the usual commercial restraints of 'market research, marketing or maximising profits'. (No really, the lack of market research is completely fine by me....!)

Now I am only familiar with the 'Young Savages' sub-group - Jeffrey Dame of Hypoluxe kindly sent me a set of all eight scents...ooh, about a year ago now - the Bonkers wheels grind very slowly, as you see. There are three each by Geza Schoen and Mark Buxton, and two by Patricia Choux, who are respectively tagged as 'rebellious', 'provocative' and 'unconventional'. The perfumes are identified only by the initials of their creator plus a two digit numeral - eg mb03, gs01, ps02 etc.  As Biehl explains: 'My focus is always on the artist and work behind it.' Such a purist approach has admirable motives I am sure, yet speaking as a punter I can't help feeling a little shortchanged by the pedestrian monotony of the nomenclature. For I like the name of a perfume to conjure up a little ambience - either through its literal meaning, wider connotations or the sheer euphony of the word(s). As for the whole 'perfume as fine art' debate, famously championed by Chandler Burr in his Art of Scent project, I am at best ambivalent on this point. But neither of those aspects of the biehl. parfumkunstwerke concept detracted from my enjoyment of mb03, the standout scent to my nose in the Young Savages collection.

Source: Fragrantica

Plus it seems fitting on such a day to pick a scent by one of the 'more German' perfumers in Thorsten Biehl's stable. Well, Mark Buxton was born in Derby to an English father and German mother, but moved to Germany with his parents at the age of eight, later training as a perfumer at fragrance company Haarmann & Reimer (now Symrise) in Holzminden. To complicate matters further, for the past 20 years or more, Buxton has been based in Paris, and when fellow blogger Sabine of Iridescents (a full-blown German!) met him at a perfume event in London, they quickly lapsed into English after initially striking up conversation in German. For the purposes of this post, however, I declare Mark Buxton to be 'quite German enough'.

And so to the perfume itself. True to Buxton's 'provocative' moniker, mb03 lacks a head note, and cuts straight to the chase of the 'radiant spicy elements' in the heart of the composition.

Heart notes: Roman chamomile, pink pepper, elemi
Base notes: cistus, kashmir wood, styrax, ambergris, musk, incense, sandalwood, patchouli

As it happens, Katie Puckrik is another fan of mb03, explaining in one of her penpal exchanges with Dan Rolleri: 

'Yes, I own and love mb03, and find it completely necessary. I suppose it's my "summer Avignon".'

Source: Luckyscent

The Avignon Katie references is Bertrand Duchaufour's exploration of Catholicism in Comme des Garcons' Series 3 Incense collection. I have to say I find mb03 'completely necessary' too, and agree that it is lighter and more accessible than Avignon. Avignon for novitiates, if you will. As ever, I can't truthfully distinguish any individual notes in the composition: my nose never gets past the soft curtain of frankincense. But no matter - mb03 is meditative and calming, reassuring the wearer that a bad day at work is just a bad day. It makes me think of cupolas on various Berlin buildings - not all of them churches, mind, and not all of the churches Catholic.

Berlin Cathedral ~ Source: Wikipedia

Yet at the same time the slight pricking sensation of the incense reminds me of the tingle of mizzling rain falling on paving stones (some of them cobbled!), and on my face; of dank cold days spent killing time on industrial estates, with not even the garishly lit but warm haven of a McDonalds for shelter. Mb03 is grey days and wet roads, windscreen wipers at full pelt and cold that gets in your bones. But there's a hotel with a hot shower at the end of the murkily unspooling Landstrasse, followed by a flinty glass of Grauburgunder with my favourite dish of Zanderfilet and Salzkartoffeln.

Yes, after all this time - and many more meetings that took their course in a completely normal way ;) - Germany feels like a second home. And I for one am happy that it finally became reunited with its other half. Or rather that - to be mathematically correct about it - it became 25% bigger* on this day 25 years ago...


Source: zum-bader.de



* in population terms