My childhood world was completely devoid of complex perfumes. Lux or maybe Pears soap, cleaning products that smelt like cleaning products – maybe with a hint of lemon (though I think that came later), the astringent “scent” of hairspray and deodorant that tried so hard, through its advertising, to sound exotic…these were the perfumes of my childhood. My parents were not perfume or eau de cologne wearers. My mother had one or two (extremely vintage) perfume bottles in the drawer of her dressing table. I’m not so sure they hadn’t been mixed together by playful children. If they hadn’t, they must have “gone off” as they smelt awful, although I would often press my childish nose into the neck of each bottle and try to breathe in their aroma without gagging and no doubt with wonderment on my face as though experiencing the most exotic smell in the world. To me, back then, perfume was something that gown-up ladies did but clearly not mothers because they were far too busy to be bothered!
Maybe that’s why the natural smells of childhood have come to mean so very much to me. The heady scent of sweet peas and honeysuckle can transport me, in a moment, to the carefree summer holidays of childhood. Mostly, I can recall the smell of Sunday roasts, of hops and yeast from beer brewing and bread baking, the strong smell of petrol in my dad’s garage (which I loved!), a particular smell in my dad’s shed that I can still pick up in old-fashioned hardware shops and the marvellous smell inside a greenhouse of warm moist compost and ripening tomatoes, still amongst my most favourite smells of all time and if you could bottle it, I would probably wear it!
I will never forget the particular smell of my three “Magic Faraway” books, covered as they were with a 1970s equivalent to laminate which had such a strong aroma that anything with a similar plastic ingredient (and at the moment, the nearest thing seems to be a plug extension I use for mowing that lawn) transports me straight back to the excited bliss of my very first Enid Blyton adventures. I cherish the scent-trail of my happiest childhood memories, but don’t really recall a single perfume amongst them.
When I think of my own daughter’s experiential existence, it has been filled with a whole world of perfume from the very beginning. Always an enthusiast of wearing a handful of “signature” perfumes and lighting the occasional incense stick, I discovered Lush when she was very little and from then on, the whole upstairs of our house was to take on the familiar aroma that anyone who has walked within 100 yards of one of their shops will instantly recognise! That phase was soon to pass as the shared note of all their products, the underlying smell that is Lush, began to take on a sickly effect in my confined spaces and, in my own mind, became associated with memories I would rather forget, as perfume has the ability to do. For the longest time, I recoiled from the scent of lilies as it sent me spiraling back to the dark days immediately after my mother’s death from cancer, when I was sent several commiserative bouquets containing the flower and which filled my house with their heady scent. I have since reinvented their memory-association (having decided I enjoyed them far too much to put them aside for ever) by ensuring the hotel was full of lilies at my wedding, thus attaching their scent to recollections of the warmest, happiest kind. As a result, I am back to enjoying them (often) in my living environment without any of the pain that they once stirred.
Quite apart from Lush, this past decade has been one as heavy-laden as a lilac tree in full bloom with the perfume of a myriad of products that have entered our consumer world. Scented candles, room sprays, signature smells for this and that; perfume in every walk of life has experienced a complete renaissance. With notes hanging in the air at every turn, to entice and beguile, the search for new and meaningful perfumes to fill my own world has often consumed me every bit as much as the search for items of more substance such as furniture or clothing.
The stimulus for writing this post has been the fact that, for two weeks now, I have been completely taken over by a hand soap (yes, a hand soap!) called Rosé Granati by Molten Brown, which I first experienced during my stay at Old Whyly (see earlier Brighton Pavilion post). So consumed have I become by this product that I very quickly purchased the soap for myself – since which I find myself regularly deep-breathing its lingering scent on my hands – have ordered a candle and room spray of the same and searched in vain for a matching perfume! Something in its note, ironically, seems to insist on transporting me back to an intensely happy moment – no, not even a moment but a feeling – from childhood. Its ingredients are Moroccan rosé granati pomegranate combined with ginger, black pepper and cardamom. I can’t imagine, therefore, where I would have encountered such an exotic scent combination during the childhood I have described above, my only bet being that it was something to do with my Auntie Alice (I certainly seem to be getting flashbacks to her black and pink bathroom with its fish-mural wallpaper…) whose taste was more sophisticated than my parents, working as she did in a department store; she always brought with her a warm billow of scent and a jangle of bracelets as she came through the door.
The point is, perfume (in the same way as a song) has all the power to transport one back to an acute memory, an exact needle-point of time or – if time itself has fuzzed the edges of the memory – to a re-experience of the emotion, the feelings carried within the memory itself. A whole mix of different perfume notes, therefore, has the potential to be a very potent force indeed, with the power to suggest a whole array of emotions and happy feelings, perhaps combining recollections of “feeling safe” from childhood with other memories of happy times, a particular place and so on. Its like painting with memory-associations, a splash of this, a dash of that, adding contrasts and tones. Not only that; aside from the personal associations we attach to them, some scents have recognised properties of being able to relax or stimulate the mind and so the powerful effect of filing a room with appropriate fragrance has long been recognised by therapists as a means of taking us to a deeper place, making the mind and so the body receptive. The use of incense in a religious context is well established and no doubt harks from a similar rationale, whatever symbolism has been used to justify it since. I have found that having the “right” scent in the background is every bit as important to me as the music I listen to when I paint, helping me to tune into the creative “zone”.
How, then, did we manage to cope in the oh-so-bland ‘70s and beyond, with just the bare rudiments of scent to inspire, stimulate and rejuvenate us? How, by comparison, is my daughter’s world shaping-up, filled as it is by countless notes of scent on the air, on her hands, in every room, around almost every person within her childhood existence? Is she being made more sensitive or less so to this world of scent as a result of this saturation? Am I over-stimulated into a response to scent because I was all but starved of it as a child? Has the sheer boom of scent made it into the equivalent of a very loud noise, where the notes can no longer be heard? I don’t think so. In contrast, my daughter often talks about smells and so I would say she is extremely aware of them and uses the emotive language usually reserved for describing feelings to explain why she does and doesn’t like them as well as referring to all the memories that they trigger, often such distant ones that I’m taken aback that she can recall them at all (yet somehow the attachment to a particular smell seems to help take her back there). My friend’s daughter is the same; she recently objected to a change in fabric softener because her clothes no longer smelt like their home when she was at school!
I don’t think I exaggerate the change that has taken place in terms of our awareness of perfume and the importance this seems to have taken on in recent decades. It seems, wherever we go in this modern world of ours, that we are bombarded by perfume and so much more than we ever were, and not just on the stroll past the perfume counter of John Lewis (a perfume-fest even in “my day”). It seems that more and more shops now have their “signature” perfume and merrily pump this out of their air-con as we shop in a way that is every bit as brazen as their visual branding. My recent experience of shopping in London’s Abercrobie & Fitch store acts as a case in point. I was almost asphyxiated by the effect of their brand perfume being pumped out in waves across the stuffy shop floor; my daughter, however, still sniffs the lingering scent on her new clothes with a smile on her face because it helps her to relive her happy retail experience (exactly the effect the A&F marketing department were gunning for, no doubt)! The boom for scented candles to match every new aroma and many old ones (even Kew Gardens now produce them), the high street presence of Molton Brown, L’Occitane, Miller Ross, even old-English names once associated with maiden aunts such as Penhaligons and Crabtree & Evelyn holding their own between fashion chains. All of this new awareness and sheer availability of scent has taken us on a colourful and exciting journey, one which wends its way along a meandering path and off the well-trodden route of the old staples of perfume such as Channel (which I still wear and love, but with so much choice these days, its far from every day). People recognise more than ever that perfume is personal and with so much choice, why all buy the same. Whereas the 1970’s and before was a time of relative sense depravation in terms of perfume (I would say it wasn’t much better in the 80’s, although I recall that as the turning point as a new glut of power-perfumes emerged alongside the power suits!) we are now at a point of almost over-kill.
Rather that, though, than back to the days of Charlie, Jiff and washing powder (although, for the nostalgic, you can even get that as a Yankee scented candle now…). These days, I find my nose seeks out interesting scents every bit as much as my eyes seek out visual stimuli and that can be no bad thing; I truly feel like I make full use of all five senses (and at least one extra one) all of the time these days and surely that is an evolutionary leap, something to be welcomed. I have sought to add into my world ever more scents from natural sources too, with my choice of herbs and flowers in my new garden having been made as consciously for their scent-contribution as for their colour and form. As far as is possible, I bring fresh flowers into the house, again most often chosen for their scent (none of those forced and scentless petrol station flowers for me, thank you). Every now and again, my nose hits upon a beguiling note – as with Rosé Granati – and I just long to fill my world with it. So intrinsic is this super-awareness of scent to the world that I live in that I am on the verge of dabbling with essential oils, to try and perfect exact combinations of the perfume-notes that most accord with who I am. I imagine the feeling, should I get anywhere near succeeding in this, will be something like the deep-seated fizz of excitement that I experience in the pit of my stomach when I achieve what I want to with my paints.