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!


  1. Oxford is my favourite city after Venice and Bath. People say that Venice smells; not in a good way although I think it's the most romantic city in the world. Bath never disappoints though naming a perfume after it would be inviting misunderstanding, unless you know better? Definitely there's a water theme going on here. The Thames is known as The Isis in Oxford. Is there a perfume called Isis? Again, much room for misunderstanding.

    1. Hi Nicola,

      Venice takes some beating for romance, no question. I have been a few times and I don't remember it being horribly whiffy, though it was a long time ago now. But I see how that reputation could hold back sales, hehe.

      'Bath' the perfume could indeed lead to all kinds of misapplication! And you will be shocked to hear that there is a perfume called Isis, and it's by M & S no less...;)


  2. A beautiful post. I enjoyed your reminiscences as much as the review. xx

    1. Thanks, Sam! I look forward to reading your impressions when you post them. x

  3. When we were living in Middlesex, Oxford wasn't very far and we went a few times. It's pretty, but it didn't do much for me. I always associate it with two of my favourite writers, Tolkien and Philip Pulman. Seems like I prefer fictional Oxford to the real thing.

    1. Hi Sabine,

      LOL at your preference for fictional Oxford! Where do you stand on Inspector Morse? ;)

  4. I got married in Oxford! The chapel in Brasenose College to be precise. My husband had earned the privilege of being wed there by being a student and not only was it the most beautiful of locations for a wedding, but it was also considerably cheaper than most venues. The weather was perfect after days of torrential rain and wild thunderstorms, and the college cat (Moggy Don) made a special appearance and I was photographed cuddling him. We had lunch in the refectory after the ceremony and it was like being in a mediaeval banqueting hall with its beautiful gothic oak architecture. I don't think I appreciated how lucky I was at the time, but now look back and realise it was special not just because it was my wedding day, but because the setting was so picturesque and historic and we could share it with friends and family.

    And of course I had a "wedding" perfume - Chanel's Cristalle which had only just been released.


    1. Hi Jillie,

      What a great memory to have! As good as it gets! So atmospheric - and a bargain too. Loving the cat's name - most amusing. Your posing with him would make a good wedding snap. I have had a Thanksgiving Dinner in the refectory of Magdalen College during my brief relationship with the music student above, so I can picture how splendid the setting was for your meal.

      Cristalle was a suitably elegant choice for the day too.

  5. I look forward to trying my sample of Oxford after reading your lovely post and I do like Fils de Dieu.

    Loved the story about the ex obsessed with transcribing lute music! The perils of dating a man devoted to his work, I guess.

    I've only visited the city once, many years ago and felt quite envious of the students there. Surely nothing can compare to being a student at Oxford, except perhaps Cambridge, of course :).

    Oh yes, brilliant use of the Oxford comma!

    1. Hi Tara,

      Oh yes, will be interested to see what you reckon about Oxford. The comparison with Antonia is perhaps the most obvious, but a much quieter version, if you know what I mean.

      Haha, yes, Cambridge and Oxford are probably on a par in terms of being the ne plus ultra of student life. I did start out studying for the scholarship on my own, but soon gave up as the Latin requirement was too high - beyond the O-Level standard I had acquired.

      I have tracked down the lute player thanks to the good offices of Google - he is still playing today and is working at another university in the South of England. Knocking on 60, but looking well. ;)

    2. You are without doubt Oxbridge material, V.

      Well done for tracking down Mr Lute! Nice to hear all is good with him despite missing his chance with a total gem.

    3. You are too kind, T! I see he has written books and CDs, including one of lute music lullabyes for children. Amazing what you can find out on the Internet these days. ;)

  6. It's interesting that I started reading this post being absolutely not interested in the perfume in question, and by the end of the "review" part started thinking that I might actually like it.

    Until relatively recently Oxford for me was a famous university name, and I didn't even realize that it was actually a city :)

    Oh, and I wanted to mention that I enjoyed your "Oxford comma" observation as well. For me it's a touchy subject: my current company's standard for the written documentation is to use that comma; my personal preference - not to use it. So I'm balancing between putting it into all the official documents, which I'm writing, and avoiding it in the e-mails (BTW, "e-mail" vs. "email" is another example of the work-related dualism ;) ).

    And finally, I know I should have asked back then (and I surprised that nobody did): how can somebody accidentally spend two weeks in a naturist camp? ;)

    1. Hi Undina,

      If I have piqued your curiosity about this scent - and I know how big a deal that is ;) - I would be glad to send you the remains to try.

      Funny that you didn't know of Oxford as a city. Well, in fairness, Harvard and Yale are *not* cities, or even towns!

      I sympathise with your resistance to the 'style guide' of your company. I have rules I like to abide by myself, but wouldn't care to be governed by another set I didn't necessarily agree with.

      The accidentally spending two weeks in the naturist camp came about when a friend (the lute player's sister) invited me to stay in this chalet in a forest in France that her parents had booked. Free lift and food, just had to get myself to where they lived on the south coast.

      Now I had vaguely remembered that my friend's parents were naturists, or naturists *some* of the time. It didn't enter my head that they would invite outsiders not 'of the faith' to join them on such a holiday, and it wasn't till we arrived that the horrible truth dawned! Though after about half a day I did get used to it. There was no way of getting home, apart from anything. ;)


  7. Hey! I went to school in Oxford! Oxford...Michigan. Not quite the same!

    I envy Brits their sense of history. America has history that goes back thousands of years, too, but a lot of it was destroyed. Although, on my uncle's property is a large boulder with petroglyphs. It's interesting to think that the people who carved into the stone may have been distant relatives of mine, my grandmother was Native American, possibly Shawnee.

    Not sure if that came out as incoherent, my kids are up this morning. Hugs, Vanessa!

    1. Hi Nora,

      Lovely to hear from you! Oxford, Michigan, brilliant. My town is twinned with Stafford, Virginia.

      Loving the sound of your uncle's boulder with petroglyphs, which I have just gone and googled - interesting indeed. On the 'petr-' front, I have been to a petrified forest in Arizona, but that was of course not created by human hand.

      Your comment was perfectly understandable to me! Hugs to you too.