Wednesday 26 October 2016

Bonkers about Perfume turns seven! (And ponders on the 'seven year itch'...)

Photo courtesy of Annette Tudor of Tiers & Tiaras
Well, notwithstanding the elephant pictured further down this post, with its reputed ability to remember things, I appear to have missed my seventh blog anniversary by a day(!). That is not actually much of a margin for me, taking the long view. I am sure I have missed it by weeks or even months in past years. For yesterday I found myself engrossed in the task of sourcing a specific combination of wool shades for a couple of custom beanies I intend to knit for Portia of Australian Perfume Junkies, and the significance of the date completely passed me by. Portia won't need the hats imminently, as it is of course spring down there, but I do like a challenge and to get ahead of myself. And to avoid doing the housework instead. So that was tangentially perfume-related at least, in the course of which I also learnt how many subtly different shades can loosely be construed as peach!

But yes, seven years - how did that happen? 579 posts to date, which isn't much by today's fast paced, news ticker-type media standards, but I guess each one takes me 4-5 hours on average. Which sounds like an awful long time in terms of the output achieved, but I must have rather a ponderous blogging MO. ;) On a whim I did a quick calculation and that adds up to 413 working days ie more than a year of just blogging!

I mention the 'seven year itch', because I feel I am at a bit of a crossroads. For a while there I thought I was in the perfume doldrums, but my interest can easily be rekindled by a well-timed recommendation from a friend who knows my taste well - big thanks are due to Val CQ Sperrer, Undina, Tara, and Sabine in particular for periodically recranking my perfume mojo. But what has changed for sure is that when unleashed in the perfume department of even a high end emporium like Fortnum & Mason or a specialist store like Bloom, I am no longer that 'kid in a sweet shop' eager to try everything in sight, preferring to stand back, chatting to whomever I am with, and sniffing the odd scent that is pointed out to me - usually because someone has literally handed me strip sprayed with the scent in question! So I appear to have very little self-motivation anymore to seek out new things, which is a new phenomenon.

Still getting a kick from well organised top colours

It doesn't bother me though, as my stash has grown to such unwieldy proportions that from a purely practical point of view it would be bad news if I was lusting after umpteen full bottles of this and that. A 10ml decant of most fragrances that take my fancy these days is quite enough, thank you.

I do additionally seem to have experienced a bit of 'decanter's blues' - a very niche condition as you can imagine!- whereby every time I go to make samples of scents, I get drenched in at least one if not several of the perfumes I am decanting. This is mainly down to a mix of leaky nozzles and the issue of 'blow back' once the vial fills up to a certain level. A level that seems to be getting lower, haha, or that is my observation.

And I guess I was also very chastened by my recent experience of getting rapped over the knuckles by the Royal Mail for attempting to post bottles internationally. That put a real spanner in the works just as I was setting out to monetise some of my stash, and I am indebted to the recipients for helping share the loss. Occasionally even now I am tempted not to bother with a hazard sticker on packages containing one or two samples within the UK, but I cannot risk being caught out again, or I might end up sharing with Rolf Harris in Stafford clink after all!

So given the limited opportunities to offload my perfume collection further afield - I could hold an open house, like Lila das Gupta recently, but Stafford is rather far away for people! - I have turned to knitting as a potential little income stream instead.

My avatar for Runraglan Knits

Oh, and of course since my diagnosis of eyelid eczema in the summer, I have been wearing makeup very sparingly if at all, so as not to tempt fate. I don't think perfume is a trigger, but often I don't bother putting it on either unless there is something I particularly want to try, which as we have just established is not very often these days. A little bit of me thinks it has to be better to limit the amount of chemicals coming into direct contact with my skin. Which isn't like me at all, or the me of old. Why, I have even blogged about the risk or otherwise of chemical overload in the early days of Bonkers, including in my post an amusing quote by Tania Sanchez on the subject if anyone is curious. At the time I was more concerned about my moderate alcohol consumption than being a 'walking chemistry set', but seven years on, the reference to people with allergies has rather come home to roost...certainly as far as toiletries more generally are concerned.

All of which sounds a little subdued or even downbeat, which truly wasn't my intention, yet every so often I start to wonder if I should leave blogging to the old timer behemoths and the new generation coming through, and redeploy the time gained to other activities, like cleaning the house(!), eBaying unwanted belongings, or writing the book that friends have claimed is 'in me'. But you would think that if such a book ever was in me, it would have long since worked its way out again by now...

Yeah, I confess to being an absolute shocker for lacking application, tending to tick off the quick and easy things on my 'to do' list rather than the big ones, to get that instant buzz of faux productivity, when you may only have put the bin out, paid a bill, and picked up the grapestalks the cat has strewn over the carpet. That said, I am proud that I lost my eBay seller's cherry this year, an idea that had previously languished for years in the 'too hard' box, even though I knew it would be a good way of decluttering for profit.;) And my new knitting venture, Runraglan Knits, now has its own Facebook page as of this week, and a few orders in the bag.

This is also almost the first anniversary of my having Truffle, who - although she is starting to bring in the odd field mouse now (all alive and intact, I hasten to add, and safely escorted off the premises!) - is an endless source of delight and amusement in my life. Here she is at just this time last year.

And finally, though I have said it numerous times before, it bears repetition, namely that my interest in and affection for the people I have met through this hobby has never wavered, and if anything gets stronger from year to year. So whether my perfume mojo is firing on all cylinders or quietly sputtering away like those gas rings you haven't turned on properly, I remain fiercely attached to my fumehead friends who help me weather the bumps on the road in perfume terms - or deal with the ups and downs (I would say "vicissitudes" but it sounds awfully wordy, even for me) of life in general.

Coming up soon...musings on Angel Muse!, and a bathroom makeover special, in which I share all the many lessons learnt along the way in my capacity as self-styled 'clerk of works'. There will be no perfumes kept in the bathroom, it goes without saying. Which takes me right back to the beginnings of Bonkers again...

Tuesday 18 October 2016

Dreaming spires and spirals of smoke: Ruth Mastenbroek Oxford review

Source: Wikimedia Commons (by Tejvan Pettinger)
At the Smelly Cakey Perfume Meet Up in London the other weekend, we were lucky enough to have perfumer Ruth Mastenbroek in our party, and the day kicked off with an interesting talk she gave in Fenwick about her creative process, materials, and the three perfumes she has released to date, plus a fourth one that is currently in development.

As I mentioned in that post, Oxford is the scent inspired by her reportedly hedonistic university days, when she smoked Gitanes, and generally lived life in the fast lane rather than the library. I do think that perfumes named after places - Oxford, Paris, New York, Moscow etc - though rather Ronseal-like in their way, have an advantage over more obscure and nebulously evocative names such as Skarb, Pohadka, Blamage and Blask. Even if you haven't been to the place in question - and let's face it, who has been to Timbuktu or on an Escale à Pondichéry? - you can often conjure up the scene quite well in your mind. And when it comes to somewhere as squarely on the tourist trail as Oxford, the chances are that many of us will have been there - to visit, if not necessarily to study.

I will come back to my own recollections of Oxford in a bit. As you will see, these are a very mixed bag indeed, but I shall get straight to the perfume itself, which is most distinctive, although facets also remind me of a handful of other scents.

On Ruth Mastenbroek's website there is a brief synopsis of Oxford the perfume's persona:

"Daring, rough and chic...Oxford captures that moment in life that you discover you can make your own choices, your own mistakes.

An explosion of fresh, green, basil and peppery notes bursts from a herbal heart of clary sage with sensuous jasmine; vanilla, amberwood, and oudh bring a cashmere texture to the base."

Before going any further, will you check out that Oxford comma after 'amberwood'! Well played. ;)

Source: Ruth Mastenbroek

In my last post I said I thought Oxford reminded me of Penhaligon's Blenheim Bouquet, on account of the crisp, herbal opening, not that I have smelt the Penhaligon's scent in ages. I didn't really observe Oxford last time beyond the top notes, but having worn it several times now I can confirm that the opening reminds me more of one of the Eau de Sisleys - maybe No 2? - crossed with a muted version of Puredistance Antonia. Not so sappily galbanum-forward, more a diffuse herbal bouquet. The comparison with Antonia persists into the beautifully creamy drydown, because of the combination of sundry greenery, jasmine, vanilla and amber. Okay, so there is no amber listed in the notes of Antonia, but I detect an amberlike warmth in the base all the same. That is my favourite part of the development of Oxford (or should that be the Oxford Movement?), and the soft, pearlescent, pudding-y quality of the perfume in its later stages also conjures up Cloon Keen Atelier's Castana and a hint of Fils de Dieu (du Riz et des Agrumes) by Etat Libre d'Orange. So lovers of rice pudding-cum-junket scents are in for a treat here. A junket, even!

I can't say I smell anything remotely suggestive of cigarettes, louche behaviour or late submission of assignments - it is more redolent of the refined English rose that Ruth embodies today - hmm, she was wearing what I believe are known in some circles as 'cigarette pants', though.

But enough of the perfume, lovely as it is. What do I associate with Oxford...?

Source: Wikimedia Commons (by SirMetal)

Well, not my university days, for starters. I spent those in the mock Tudor cloisters of Queen's Belfast, huddled in a duffel coat over a bar heater, my bed just feet from a two ring Baby Belling bearing the telltale tomato-y traces of overexuberant tinned ravioli.

But I did have girlfriends who went to Oxford, who snuck me into their room in halls at St Anne's College, which I had to vacate in the morning before I was discovered by a 'scout' (the university word for a housekeeper / chamber maid).  We dined on beef and Guinness pie at Brown's, the epitome of fine dining in 1978, and made daytime pilgrimages to Blackwell's and the Bodleian.

By the early 1980s, I was living in High Wycombe, and thought nothing of jumping on a bus and travelling the 23 miles to Matthew Arnold's city of dreaming spires. High Wycombe at that time was dominated by the chocolate factory of Stewart & Arnold, and was also home to the floppy haired New Wave musician Howard Jones. But I was already a fan of The Monochrome Set by then and spent my 24th birthday at a gig in the grounds of Exeter College, standing on my own nursing a bottle of Heineken, and trying not to look like Jilly No Mates.

During the winter of 1983 I dated a postgraduate music student at Magdalen College I shall call M, whom I met on holiday that summer (the ill-fated and entirely inadvertent one spent in a nudist camp). I did not go out with him till well after we were back, I should add, by which time he had put his clothes back on again.  M was very wrapped up in his work, so much so that an enjoyable weekend in his student digs up the Cowley Road was unexpectedly followed by a six week hiatus in communications. Eventually I summoned up the courage to write to him, asking if the radio silence was because of something I had said, only to learn that he had been so engrossed in the absorbing task of transcribing medieval lute music that it had quite slipped his mind that he had a girlfriend! So that was the end of that.

Source: Wikipedia (by Henry Flowers)

When I moved to Swindon in 1984 to take up my first job, there were other visits to Oxford - mostly with colleagues to characterful pubs by the river such as The Perch Inn, where we made the most of the long summer evenings.

Later in the 80s, the Headington Shark appeared, a draw to rival any of the architectural gems of the city proper. Although living in Stafford by now, Oxford periodically exerted its gravitational pull. My mother died in the Churchill Hospital there a decade later, and sadly I didn't make it in time to be with her at the end.

And then in 2013, The Monochrome Set played in Oxford again, 30 years on from that Exeter College gig on my birthday. Which shows how the band and its music have cast a long shadow, and completes the circle of real and imaginary cigarette smoke.

So yes, perfumes named after place names embody the creator's own story, but they are also an open invitation to the wearer to wreathe them in their own memories, and give them a bespoke spin...

What are your associations with Oxford?  (The perfume or the place.) Do share in the comments!

Tuesday 11 October 2016

'In the midnight hour, she cried: "Myrrh, myrrh, myrrh"': Puredistance SHEIDUNA review

After eight years, I would probably describe my interest in perfume as 'mature'. That's 'mature' in the sense of being in a plateau phase - I don't mean to imply that I am any more knowledgeable about the subject of fragrance than I was when I first got into this hobby. And the recent twitchiness of my skin means that my interest has been going backwards if anything, not helped by the slew of 'nouveau niche' releases that continue to flood the market, many of them a sorry epitome of style and hiked price over substance.

But as jaded and scent-shy as I have become of late, my perfume mojo never fails to perk up at the mention of a new Puredistance release. For while the Dutch brand trades on an undeniably luxury platform, their products are developed slowly and thoughtfully, with quality ingredients and a high degree of attention to detail in every aspect of the marketing mix.

So when a sample package arrived the other day with SHEIDUNA, the latest addition to the still not overly populous Puredistance stable - I know, I know, they are still on a roll with their CAPITALISATION OF NAMES - I fell upon it with glad cries, metaphorically speaking. In the PR material for SHEIDUNA I had noted that the planned colour scheme for this scent was based around orange and red, and was pleased to see the use of 'red brown paper', if that makes sense, for the outer wrapping of the parcel.

Inside the black outer cardboard was the usual white 'padded coffin'-style coffret lined with sumptuous gold satin. The perfume itself was delivered this time in a small, refillable purse spray (as opposed to the Travalo used to present Penhaligon's Juniper Sling); of particular interest to me as a long time bottle splitter and sample maker was the inclusion of a small gold funnel to use when decanting from the full-sized test tube bottle of SHEIDUNA the company is clearly confident we will one day wish to own.

But back to our muttons. Readers, it is a very fine funnel indeed, of sturdy construction with optimum hole diameter and smooth, well finished edges. And I speak as someone who owns a whole clatter of tiny, tinny, sharp and useless funnels I got in a job lot from China. And even some of my better quality ones have such a narrow aperture that perfumes of higher viscosities sometimes refuse to pour through the blessed things at all. So, never mind the perfume, big fat tick for the funnel right off the bat!

On a side note, I have to mention that in her nice little card with the parcel, Puredistance's PR lady, Mary Gooding, wrote Sheiduna in lower case. Yes indeed! I like the idea that she kicks back from time to time and doesn't stand on capitalised ceremony.

And before getting into the perfume itself, a quick word on the name. You can readily see where Puredistance are going with SHEIDUNA: it is another of those sultry desert-inspired numbers, like Ormonde Jayne Ta'if and l'Air du Désert Marocain, for the likes of which I personally have a quite voracious appetite. And if this were a game of Countdown it would be the work of a moment to make 'SHEIK' and 'DUNE' out of the name. Okay, if you had a 'K' and an 'E' admittedly, but bear with me. (Just checked the PR material and the name was in fact invented from the words 'She', 'Sheika' and 'Dune', 'sheika' being a married woman / wife of a sheik. I didn't guess 'she' - not a high enough word score, obviously, to be on my radar, but I was in the right ball park as you can see.)

Interestingly, I read in a Basenotes comment that 'sheiduna' in Arabic means 'female devil'. I cannot find anything to corroborate this spelling in Google, though 'sheitan' comes up. From this it is surely a short hop and skip to SHEIDUNA as female dune-dwelling devil.

Then further to the Billy Idol song of the title (Rebel Yell, slightly adapted), I don't know why, but the song 'My Sharona' by The Knack popped into my head as soon as I thought of SHEIDUNA, and has remained an annoyingly persistent earworm ever since. It is possibly that song title that has made me now associate SHEIDUNA with the VW SHARAN, the Kia SEDONA, and other (not usually capitalised) SUVs of that kidney. That is after all just the sort of rugged vehicle you need when exploring the challenging terrain in question.

Source: Wikipedia

Here is the official Puredistance statement of the scent's inspiration:

"SHEIDUNA is a rich and intense Perfume inspired by the panoramic views and feel of golden sand dunes in the desert during sunset - soft female curves changing from deep gold to warm, orangey red - embodying a promise of sensual comfort and silent seduction."

I must say I had never thought of sand dunes in quite that way before, but come to think of it their globular nature does rather lend itself to such comparisons. The other key aim of the creative brief from Puredistance founder Jan Ewoud Vos was 'to create the perfume marriage between Oriental Sensuality and Parisian elegance'.

Orange and red Persian rug from Central Casting

Then I greatly enjoyed trying to decipher the notes which passed back and forth between perfumer Cécile Zarzokian and Jan Ewoud Vos during the development process. I see that Catherine Deneuve, Eva Green and Charlotte Rampling are cited as muses, and that the perfume should be sensual, veering towards sexual, without tipping over into vulgarity. Or was it supposed to tip over slightly into vulgarity? I can't quite make out the snippet which may or may not say: 'Hint of vulgarity'. So of course I had to write to Mary and ask for clarification, also of the word that on balance probably isn't 'Cabillaud', which is 'cod' in French. Mary told me that my phantom cod was in fact 'Cotillard', the surname of a French actress, singer-songwriter, environmentalist and spokesperson for Greenpeace (Wikipedia informs me).

Marion Cotillard ~ Source Wikimedia Commons (George Biard)

I didn't get any further with the vulgarity issue, mind, for Mary replied:

"I spoke with Jan Ewoud about deciphering the rest of the post card and he explained that the card is meant for feeling, not analysing. Please take the feelings and emotions you have when viewing the cards with the earliest hand-written notes and messages between Jan Ewoud and Cécile Zarokian to bring you a little closer to the development of the concept. 

I hope this proves to be an interesting endeavour for you!" 

It certainly did. I like a bit of mystery at the end of the day.

So how does SHEIDUNA smell?

Well, first up, here are the notes;

Lemon, tangerine, blackcurrant, aldehydes, Bulgarian rose essence, geranium, clove, vetyver, patchouli, amber woody incense, benzoin, myrrh, tonka bean, vanilla pods and musks

Eyeballing that list I was immediately reminded of the notes of Puredistance 1, with which there is a surprising amount of crossover.

Fresh tangerine blossom, cassis, neroli bigarade, magnolia, rose wardia, jasmine, natural mimosa, sweet amber, vetyver, white musk

Diptyque's L'Ombre dans l'Eau and Baume du Doge by Eau d'Italie also sprang to mind, with their crackling tension between (respectively) blackcurrant and orange notes - and myrrh. While the mixture of aldehydes and incense inevitably conjures up Serge Lutens' La Myrrhe.

Tried burning the stuff once but it was myrrh trouble than it was worth

In the opening to SHEIDUNA, the crystalline texture of the myrrh coupled with the amber base convey a simultaneously warm and granular feel, as befits the sandscapes which form the thematic backdrop to the scent. (Purple prose alert!!) The prickly heat effect is further reinforced by a coruscating canopy of spiced aldehydes. To my nose there is a vaguely odd aspect to the scent at this point, possibly because of the juxtaposition of fruit and the amber woody incense accord, or just the latter on its own packing a punch - I can't quite put my finger on it. The feeling of oddness varies from spray to spray - depending perhaps on how liberal I am with the application. But if you are happy to wait a little while, SHEIDUNA soon gets into more classical 'desert oriental' territory. I LOVE the drydown in particular, when the scent becomes a fuzzy caressing tingle of ambery incense. I am sorry, I have tried several versions of that sentence and they all sound a bit louche. Yes, there is a lot going on here that I cannot begin to describe, but as ever with Puredistance scents, you really can't see the join.

Puredistance display in Fortnum & Mason

SHEIDUNA is opulent and elegant and mysterious and completely its own thing: it is not simply an oriental spin on Puredistance 1 as I at first wondered - and if you like any or all of the fragrances mentioned earlier there is a good chance you will enjoy it, singular opening notwithstanding. A perfume with three separate notes that smell of vanilla already has a lot to commend it in my book.

I also tried SHEIDUNA out on the trusty sounding board that is my elderly friend - Facebook friends will recognise who I mean. She didn't want to sniff my skin itself, as she got enough of a whiff some inches away. 'It's creamy', she remarked, adding: 'It's nice', and as an afterthought: 'I wouldn't call it delicate.' Which may have been a reference to SHEIDUNA's powers of projection...or the fact that it does contain a 'hint of vulgarity' after all. ;) My elderly friend seemed to approve either way.

And as well as Rebel Yell, I am minded of a track by The Monochrome Set called Rain Check; it is a surprisingly jaunty ditty about cheating death, who is depicted as a black caped figure swinging his cane and smelling of (presumably) funereal incense:

"The scent of myrrh on your skin..."

SHEIDUNA, the scent of myrrh, and so much more.

Sunday 2 October 2016

Moomin for a day: Pia and Nick's Smelly Cakey - and a bit rainy - Perfume Meet in London: 1.10.16

I didn't make last year's Smelly Cakey Perfume Meet, and sadly missed all the amusing messing about with Bogue Profumo fencing masks, though I could probably fashion something not too dissimilar by slicing off a bit of the wasp's nest in the loft and painting it white. But as we always say, it is all about the people, not the props, and when this years SCPM was announced (not to be confused with Supply Chain Process Management, though there was a bit of that along the way, actually), I signed up with alacrity.

And so it was that the alarm woke me at 6am yesterday, and I staggered downstairs dazed and incredulous that it could be so early and still so dark. From the comfort of her favourite spot on the sofa, Truffle shot me a look of baleful suspicion. I must be up to no good to be moving around with such purpose at this ungodly hour. Then the time-honoured tradition of a last minute outfit crisis before an event, promptly followed by forgetting to bring at least three items, didn't disappoint this year. All the bedroooms were laid waste with discarded ensembles, rejected in turn for being too evening-y, too normcore, too 'Oh God, are those jeans actually acid washed?!!', too constricting / chafing / miscellaneously uncomfortable, too synthetically sweat-inducing, too clashing, too low cut, too potentially warm in a retail environment, too short, too likely to let in water, and too 'trying too hard and fatally failing to look like the cool urban socialite' I am not.

So in keeping with my designated membership of the Moomin subgroup, I settled on a tunic dress from Finland - a charity shop steal at £3.99 - teamed with 16 year old oxblood Camper boots, whose soles are showing surprisingly little signs of imploding despite their advanced age. Oh, and the forgotten items: a handful of empty vials for spontaneous sample making, my Oyster card, a hair brush, a change of top (my back was already running with sweat before I even got to the station!), and a tube of Lovehearts for those moments when only sherbert and a gnomic romantic banality will do.

Pia and Val

I spent most of the journey down listening to the repeated clunk of the toilet door slamming open and shut every time the train stopped at a station, and de-pilling the back of my quilted Hobbs coat. How long had I been walking around with dozens of tiny white puffs of padding making a run for it, like micro-vapour trails from a jet pack?!?

Twice during the trip, a Japanese lady chatted to me while waiting to use the wayward WC. She seemed genuinely disturbed at the time it was taking to get to London from Crewe (three hours). I did my best to 'express' empathy with my comment that it was 'not exactly a bullet train, to be fair.'

Val (CQ Sperrer) was waiting for me at Euston with an emergency comb she had just bought for me, the little duck, and shortly afterwards we rendez-vous'ed with Pia, one of our trusty duo of organisers. The startling coincidence of their matching outerwear and red rucksacks warranted the first photo call of the day.

Fenwick: Ruth Mastenbroek

Our first stop was Fenwick, a store chain I had never visited in my life till last weekend, when I ventured into one in Colchester, on a doomed mission to buy a bottle of water. After a cursory and equally fruitless rummage in the toy department for a small, tasteful toy chameleon (for reasons too obscure to trouble you with) - chameleons of any kind were conspicuously absent, or maybe they had temporarily morphed into teddies? - I walked straight through the ground floor and crossed the street to M & S instead. So imagine my surprise to find myself in yet another branch of Fenwick, a mere week later.

We kicked off our perfume itinerary with a talk 'in the round' by Ruth Mastenbroek. I knew some of her work already, but hearing about the inspiration for her previous scents - and the reason why she creates perfume at all (one of those ineffable urges for self-expression) - really brought her range to life. Well, in truth I didn't catch everything in Ruth's talk - she was softly spoken, and it was tricky with some of us being behind her, but I did glean that Amorosa came about as a result of Ruth's search for a house in Italy; with that scent she sought to capture the essence or quiddity of the area, in terms of its history, terrain, culture etc.

Ruth Mastenbroek, Nick, Suzy, Rachael, Garfield, and Liz Moores

We sniffed a mixture of finished perfumes and materials they contained eg Javanol (an intense sandalwood) and cistus oil. I was especially drawn to her most recent release, Oxford, a unisex perfume which speaks to her memories of a somewhat sybaritic time at Oxford university, where Ruth studied chemistry, punted down the Isis, smoked Gitanes, and by inference only just got her assignments in under the wire. Oxford the scent includes notes of amber and cistus and other things I have sadly not recorded, though the overall impression to my nose was more of a bracing citrus composition akin to Blenheim Bouquet. I have yet to wear Oxford on skin though, and may only have smelt the top notes.

Ruth has another perfume coming out next year: a feminine with a masculine edge - two male perfumers to whom she showed it have said they would wear it - but that is all we know at this point!

Freddie, Val and Rachael probably checking Facebook


After the talk in Fenwick, our party divided into its two subgroups, like trains at Three Bridges. We Moomins stopped by the recently opened premises of Lalique in Burlington recent that - never mind the exquisite crystalware, perfume and humongous floral arrangements - I got immense pleasure simply from inhaling the sublime new carpet smell!

We were ushered into a compact but bijou upstairs room, lined with Lalique vases and ornaments and festooned with what I took to be a mixture of mostly hydrangeas and delphiniums, but please don't quote me on that. Our host, Lalique's UK Director, Frederick Fischer, was absolutely charming. He apologised for the overpowering scent of the flowers, which he had allegedly been trying to tone down before our arrival - I am not sure he mentioned how exactly. ;)

For the next 20 minutes or so, in a captivating French accent, we were treated to a fascinating and detailed account of the history of the Lalique brand and the life of its founder René Lalique: how he started out as an apprentice jeweller, inventing the category of costume jewellery for theatrical productions at the turn of the 20th century. This was bold, chunky and impactful from a distance - think 'tiara with a snake'. Gradually, Lalique went on to win commissions to design brand-specific glass perfume bottles for iconic houses like Coty, Guerlain and Nina Ricci. Branded perfume bottles were a quite new presentational format, as scent had previously been sold in generic apothecary bottles and decanted into the customer's own atomiser. In the early 1990s, with the business now managed by René Lalique's grand-daughter, Marie-Claude, the brand ventured into fragrances under its own name.

Frederick let us sample several scents from the line, all of which I liked, in particular the floral Lalique de Lalique from 1992. (If you are curious, check out this beautifully nuanced review by Kevin of Now Smell This.) Frederick also demonstrated a particularly generous technique for spraying the blotters in a fan shape from a distance, which he had learned from Roja Dove, who coincidentally has a shop in the same arcade. This method bypasses the alcoholic top note you get when perfume is sprayed directly on a scent strip from close range, though you could of course just wait a bit. I sense that this 'nozzle-happy' school of spraying blotters may also go some way to explaining the high price point of the Roja Dove portfolio. I was also encouraged to have confirmed that directly sniffing the nozzle of a tester bottle - a favourite sampling method of mine, that cuts out the middleman of paper - gives you as good an idea of how a perfume smells as any, for some of the juice will have crystallised around the atomiser top.

Frederick also shared with us the rather sweet story of how his mother had managed a perfumery store in Paris when he was a little boy, and brought home miniature bottles, kindling a lasting passion for fragrance in her son at an early age.

At the end of our visit, we were treated to goody bags of samples and a glass of champagne, which owing to our military schedule we had to knock back in five minutes flat - or do I mean 'five minutes pétillant'?! Anyway, for an old lush like me that was no bother at all. On the way out I photographed a hobnail Lalique vase (see the top of the post) that bore an uncanny resemblance to my antique sherry glass below. I sense I might have been doing Frederick a service by minesweeping some of the blowsy Triffid blooms, but desisted.

By Kilian

I also resisted the very real urge to pop into the Roja Dove store, and drop £275 on an 'incredibly masculine, self-assured chypre' for the highly successful Russian Oligarch in my life, and dutifully went instead with my Moomin group to the next stop, By Kilian. Here we were made welcome by the engaging and bubbly Davina, who looked ever so slightly like an upmarket jewel thief or a magician's assistant in her monochrome outfit of white blouse and black gloves. By Kilian is another brand noted for its luxury positioning. I was familiar with the refillable lacquered black box-style of packaging, but was now introduced to the giant decanter bottle, which will set you back somewhere along the spectrum of £2100 - £5000. Readers, I am not on that spectrum, and even if I had the funds to blow on such an outsize thing, struggle to use up a 50ml bottle. However, for someone who loves one particular scent it could well be a case that buying in bulk is the economically sound way to go. Plus you do get to choose your own top and tassle! Though as with Ford cars, it seemed hard to imagine any other colour apart from black. So, you know, that degree of customisation counts for a lot.

Of interest to me (academically at least!) in this new era I am entering of having intolerant, allergic skin, you can additionally buy accessories with novel perfume delivery mechanisms as opposed to spraying on your own skin. In addition to four candles, none of which are now scented with the main fine fragrance line, so as not to debase it with a more functional take in a candle - you can buy perfumed jewellery such as earrings and cufflinks, which incorporate a cunningly concealed ceramic compartment that you spray with your chosen scent - and get this, there is also a tassle with a little trunk concealed within its fibres, similarly containing a perfumed core. Apparently Kilian Hennessey pops them in his wardrobe between his suits, if you needed any further persuasion. ;)

During our time in store we tried an interesting clutch of By Kilian scents, including one which smelt insufficiently of 'weed' for my liking though it was meant to evoke it(!) (Smoke for the Soul), and one that smelt perfectly sufficiently of vodka and tonic (Vodka on the Rocks). A firm favourite with most of our Moomins was Single Malt, featuring notes of whisky, plum and tobacco. It reminded me a bit of Liaisons Dangereuses, but happily lacks the latter's additional coconut note that turned that one into a headache-fest no-no for me. I am fine with coconut in Beyond Love (bewitched review here), and have recently been smitten with Amber Oud, thanks to Undina's compelling description and subsequent enabling. Blotters of that one were also circulated, and I was able to blag a sample, hurrah!

Davina holding a candle to Kirk and Val

Fortnum & Mason

Before our next formal stop at Miller Harris in Monmouth Street, a ragged gaggle of us wandered into Fortnum & Mason, fired up by the 'runaway' desire Val had instilled in us to smell Galop d'Hermès.  Galop proved as elusive as the fire-resistant toy chameleon, but we whiled away an interesting - and at times deeply disturbing - ten minutes in the perfume hall, focusing mainly on that ne plus ultra of 'you could put your eye out with that' fragrance ranges, Xerjoff (which Rachael persisted in calling 'Jerk Off'), and Beaufort London, with which Freddie was comprehensively and frighteningly anointed. Of particular note is Symposium by Xerjoff - I have no idea what it smelt like, but check out the bottle decoration!, which would not look out of place in a Clive Christian kitchen worktop, whose perfume range coincidentally was on an adjacent wall. ;)

The highlight of the flying visit to Fortnum & Mason for me has to be the trip to the Ladies' Powder Room - for the obvious reason you might infer, but also on account of the sumptuous fittings - mushroom grey walls accessorised by ornate gilt mirrors. I would have taken a photograph, but it was a high traffic area and I didn't want to hold the group up, so am taking the liberty (no, wait, that's a different store!) of pinching a snap from the Porcelain Press, which appears to be a dormant blog on rest rooms the world over.

Miller Harris

Starting to feel a bit peckish, I grabbed a bag of upmarket cheesy wotsits (or Organic Chickpea Puffs, to dignify them with their proper name) before the Miller Harris visit. Well, a combination of a store visit in the classic sense of going inside the shop, and a general milling around by people on the street outside. There were about 17 of us after all, for our two groups had coalesced again by this stage.

One of the friendly sales staff in Miller Harris invited us to complete short questionnaires to determine the fragrance styles which would most complement our lifestyle. As a market researcher, obviously I had to have a go at this, given that it was not a formal enough exercise to have exclusions to that effect. But as a semi-unemployed / -retired person, I struggled rather with the questions on fragrances worn during 'the working week' versus 'on days off' - partly because I work from home when I work at all - so the whole principle of office-appropriate scents goes right out the window for starters. I ended up with recommendations of Etui Noir, Feuilles de Tabac and Poirier du Soir, but was actually more drawn to the rose scents in the line, the citrus duo of Tangerine Vert and Le Petit Grain, and that glorious 'eau de Jane Birkin's armpit hair' that is L'Air de Rien, as I may or may not have quite called it at the time of my review. Yeah, maybe I should give up the day job.

I took this opportunity to inquire about the current status of the line Lyn Harris created for M & S, which I have previously championed on Bonkers, but was told it was a limited edition venture that is no longer extant. Miller Harris also generously gave us all a goody bag of samples, including a new one on me, which I look forward to trying - Cassis de Feuille. I would also like to give special mention to the gorgeous backdrop of wallpaper.

Bloom Perfumery

Our final stop was Bloom in Covent Garden, which I had visited before, but not since they rearranged their stock along 'note' lines rather than by brand. In principle I thought that was a rather clever idea, but I found it more confusing than not in reality, partly because it is hard to pigeonhole perfumes in that way, and partly because it made for a rather jumbled looking display both in and out of the cabinets.

Freddie and Tara deep in conversation

But also, to be honest, I was a bit tired by this stage and had almost shot my sniffing bolt, which in the wake of my recent skin woes hasn't been very lively of late at the best of times. The highlight of the visit was without doubt chatting to Louise Woollam of Get Lippie about her horrible brush with parosmia, which thankfully is a lot better now. I had a sniff of Paradox, the perfume Sarah McCartney of 4160 Tuesdays created for her, which managed to combine the few elements Louise was still able to smell and enjoy when the condition was at its most acute. Louise also didn't mind me hitting her up for eczema-friendly skincare tips, for which I am grateful.

Nafia, Lisa, Rachael, Suzy, Pia and Phoebe

After Bloom, some of the group - Moomins and Flamingos now thoroughly mixed up at this point ;) - peeled off to go for the Cakey part of the event, while others went straight home. Meanwhile, the Monochrome Set fan / perfumista crossover contingent(!), comprising Val, Rachael and me, holed up in a cafe for an hour to catch up on news, where we encountered our longest tea bag ever. It was positively sock-like. Why, I have even seen shorter Christmas stockings.

And before I knew it I was speeding home on a much faster Virgin train - no sign of the Japanese lady this time, who I feel sure would have been happy with the journey times of that service. I found myself sandwiched between two area managers of the St John's Ambulance on their way back to Merseyside from a conference, so I knew I was in safe hands should my cereal bar happen to go down the wrong way. One of the ladies was additionally a vicar, so even if they fluffed the Heimlich manoeuvre I could at least be sure my soul was in good hands.

And speaking of good hands, it remains to thank Pia and Nick very much indeed for organising such an eventful and enjoyable day. What I would call 'episodic' and ex-Mr Bonkers would have called 'sodding epic', in a good way. And we didn't even get sodden as such, though it rained on and off, as billed. It was great too to meet old friends again and meet others for the first time - you know who you are... Did I say it was more about the people than the props? But props - and perfume - there were in abundance, which will take some time to explore / get through. Here is Truffle, attempting to photobomb the substantial haul from the day, which included Welsh Cakes, and of course my emergency comb, which (unless I lose it) I expect will outlast everything else...