Sunday, 13 September 2020

The Scent Crimes Series: No 21 - The lion sleeps today, and sales assistants who are not up to speed

Source: Tony Brierton via Wikimedia Commons
Ooh, it is several years since I last did a post in The Scent Crimes Series - this may be partly due to having covered most of the usual egregious suspects already, and partly because I have been wearing my 'Visor of Ennui' for some time now. It takes a very special perfume to penetrate it, and by the same token a very poor show in some aspect of our perfume scene to make me sit up and complain. And at an undisclosed airport last week, there was a perfect confluence of those two factors...

But before I start, may I interject an update about train and air travel. From my limited experience to date during the pandemic of five trains, one tube journey and one flight, I can announce that it feels safe to use these modes of transport at the moment. Fares are cheap! There's no b****r on them! Moreover, if we don't rise up and use collective means of travel soon, I suspect many of the air and rail companies won't be there when we decide we are psychologically ready to come out from under our Covid-secure rocks and want to use them. So just as the Chancellor urged us all to "Eat out to help out", I would add: "Take the strain off the train/plane" by going on one. End of transport-related homily, sorry(!), and obviously this is very much an individual thing, but for anyone in two minds about the whole conundrum of getting from A to B I wanted to say that these modes of travel still seem to be lightly used and pretty consistently socially distanced. In my post about masks at the end of July I reported a more mixed experience on one leg of a train journey, but I think people are 'getting with the programme' as time goes on and mask wearing becomes more widespread and normalised. I would imagine you might actually be more likely to catch Covid in a gastropub where people are eating in even closer confines than on a three quarters empty train or plane, and with masks off (for obvious reasons).

So on to my Visor of Ennui, that was recently breached by the latest release from Chanel's Les Exclusifs range, Le Lion. Well, slightly released, as it is still a Middle East exclusive. As I know now, it is coming into general distribution in the early New Year, hopefully straight into the January sales, though I won't hold my breath, hehe. I am indebted to Val and Portia for the fact that a sample reached me via a highly circuitous route from Dubai to Australia to Austria to England. We won't consider the air miles involved in getting Le Lion to me, and however many they were, they were totally worth it. Which in these days of climate change concerns, you may rightly infer is praise indeed...

I don't propose to review Le Lion, as I am away at the moment and don't have my sample to hand. Also because Le Lion is a shapeshifter of a scent that skews differently on different people, and even differently on the same person(!); most of its key 'personae' have already been admirably covered by Val and Portia in their reviews (which I did originally link to, but a corrupt bit of blog code means they are not showing, sorry). From memory I can say that on me Le Lion is firstly a leather scent, with a warm hum of amber and vanilla, and the animalic vibe of PG L'Ombre Fauve asserting itself here and there, with which there is significant note crossover. Le Lion is lighter, less earthy, and more 'edible' (I use the term advisedly!) than L'Ombre Fauve, though I am a big fan of that one. Oh, and not forgetting Le Lion's hints of Shalimar thanks to the lemony facet. So yes, I love Le Lion, which has promptly shot to the No 1 spot on on my vanishingly small list of lemmings, along with Nars Audacious for which Val has also fallen hard, and back up bottles of a few things.

Source: Fragrantica

Le Lion

Notes (via Fragrantica): bergamot, lemon, labdanum, amber, vanilla, patchouli, sandalwood, musk

L'Ombre Fauve

Notes (via MimiFroufrou): amber, musk, woods, vanilla, patchouli

No, this post is rather about my experience of the duty free at the unspecified airport in question. Perfume sampling in that excited state of anticipation before your holiday is a thing of the past now...there are no promotions ladies lying in wait with testers, trying to forcibly spray you as you pass. (see Scent Crime Series: No 5 - The Tester as Tommy Gun). You can't even try fragrances unilaterally, for the testers and blotters have long been put away. The perfume hall is more like a supermarket than the sensory playground of yore. There again, for the past several years I haven't been bothered to test things anymore (see Visor of Ennui above ;) ), so it doesn't make much of a difference to me in practice. At best I might have sprayed a familiar favourite to wear that day, having invariably got up too early to apply perfume before setting out.

On this occasion, I made a beeline for the Chanel concession, and approached the SA who was hovering with no role left other than to dispense product information to would-be customers. I asked her when Le Lion was coming to the UK and she said she hadn't heard of that one. "Have you tried 1957?" she countered cheerily. I assured her I had, and that I liked it a lot, notwithstanding its goodly percentage of musk.

The sales assistant inquired how I had come to try this new scent which was not yet on her radar, and I briefly explained its complicated itinerary to me, glossing over the controversial aspect of the homemade sample, hehe. I don't think the details quite registered, for she summoned a colleague over to answer my question, who was in the middle of training a new recruit. "When is Le Lion coming to Britain?"

The more senior SA said: "Next year", before turning in my direction and adding that she had tried it already.

"So has this lady - she was in Dubai", piped up her colleague. I feebly tried repeating a shorter version of the sample's backstory, before swiftly aborting the attempt.

Ignoring the fact that I could possibly have tried Le Lion - in its exclusive sales territory or by any other means - the senior SA proceeded to tell me what it smelt like:

"It's a cross between Coromandel and Sycamore."

Hey, I know I said Le Lion was a shapeshifter, but that is some shifting of shapes to come up with such a startling comparison. I am not sure whether it might have qualified as an additional 'crime' or not, but it certainly left me puzzling over the odd lovechild such a coupling would make.

Have you tried Le Lion? Were you in Dubai? If not, does it sound like your thing?

Saturday, 29 August 2020

By gum! For some resin I am myrrh and myrrh drawn to perfumes with this note...

For much of the summer, I have been behaving in perfect conformity with the principle of seasonal fragrance wardrobe rotation, wearing perfumes with lilies and white flower bouquets for the most part. I also had a long run of Annick Goutal's Chevrefeuille (accents throughout this post on request), because its zingy lemon meringue note put a spring in my step, while the tomato leaf accord chimed with my prevailing gardening mojo. 

Then I don't know if it was the sudden turn for the worse in the weather, but I have been on a bit of a myrrh kick lately, which shows no signs of letting up. And not just perfumes showcasing the note, but to my surprise I realise that quite a few of my summery florals also have myrrh in the base. I recently scored a 5ml decant on eBay of that iconic beachy scent, Estee Lauder Bronze Goddess, which is a good example of this unexpected incense phenomenon - perhaps the myrrh is intended to connote the grittiness of the sand between your toes?

And I wore DKNY Gold a few times this summer, and blow me if it doesn't also have myrrh in it. Ditto Annick Goutal's Grand Amour. I wonder if I might be subliminally drawn to myrrh's grounding, meditative quality, though at such a small percentage in the formulation I may be rather overstating things, like detecting a soupcon of Worcester sauce in a meat pie.

Source: Fragrantica

Some other, more overtly myrrh-y scents for which I have reached lately (did I say 'reached for'? Feel free to shoot me) are:

Armani Prive Myrrhe Imperiale 

Hermes Myrrhe Eglantine

Eau d'Italie Baume du Doge

Papillon Perfumery Bengale Rouge

Puredistance SHEIDUNA

NB A couple of these reviews are worth a (re-)visit if only for the truly appalling puns in their titles.

Then I had a delve into my samples and decants and it seems there are quite a few more myrrh-containing scents to retry, including Ormonde Jayne Orris Noir, Dior Bois d'Argent, Guerlain Myrrhe et Delires, Huitieme Art Myrrhiad, Caron Parfum Sacre, Neila Vermeire Trayee, Mona di Orio Myrrh Casati, 100BON Myrrhe & Encens Mysterieux, YSL Opium(!) and more. Also worth mentioning is that on this list there are not one but TWO perfumes featuring that well known combo of myrrh and licorice.

I remember once owning a bottle of AG Myrrhe Ardente, an impulse buy on eBay in response to Boisdejasmin's four star review. Her and my tastes generally have a high degree of congruence, but on this occasion I found myself troubled by the oddball Coca-Cola note. It did smell amazing on fellow perfumista Donna in Belfast, but it wasn't right on me, and I sold it on.

Meanwhile, I have been dabbling again in burning myrrh resin with the help of my friend Gillie. The first time we did this was in 2014, and I ended up accidentally getting my finger trapped in a sash window, but as they say of women and labour pains, I have long since forgotten that traumatic association and entered into our experiment the other day with enthusiasm. Gillie is a real pro, and burns all kinds of incense in resin form in a variety of receptacles: charcoal holders, bowls, on spoons, and even on the end of a pin. I left with a 'party bag' of figs and flapjack as well as a delicious olfactory memory in my nostrils, and once home promptly bought two little bags of the resin on eBay - of which one was organic and from The Yemen, to hedge my bets on the quality if not the human rights front.

I had never really researched myrrh's botanical origins to any degree, and have only just learnt that it comes from the Commiphora Myrrha tree. Before I go any further - and especially given my earlier mention of giving birth - I should warn readers that 'this herb is contraindicated during pregnancy because of its emmenagogic activity'. 'Emmenagogic' - a splendid word which connotes the more strident kind of zealot, but means nothing of the sort. Speaking of pleasing amounts of 'g's in a word, a close relation of the Commiphora Myrrha is the Commophora Wightii (which has pleasing amounts of juxtaposed 'i's, while we are on the subject). The resin of the Wightii variety is known as 'gum guggulu' - as well as 'bdellium', not to be confused with the brand of makeup brushes of the same name. But how good is 'guggulu'? While browsing Wikipedia, I also learnt the excellent term 'anti-tussive', which is one of myrrh's various medicinal benefits.

Source: Wikipedia

It will be interesting to see if my craving for myrrh abates when the good weather returns, as surely it must before we have to declare the summer over. Or maybe it will segue into a similar fixation on frankincense, hehe...

What are your favourite myrrh-forward or 'hint of myrrh' perfumes? What else should I try?!

Sunday, 16 August 2020

"How does your garden (not) grow?" Call for scented plant suggestions for next year...

Sorry, that was a rather 'contrary' use of the nursery rhyme lyrics, but I am currently in a phase of reverse gardening. By that I mean that the whole thing is undergoing a radical overhaul that is very much still at the 'rip it up, and start again' stage. Well, still ripping it up in fact. In the eight years since I bought the house, the well-stocked and fleetingly orderly flower beds have run absolutely rampant. In the end, the long and wide one on the left was populated almost entirely by a militant mob of aquilegia occupying the top half, with the rest completely colonised by pampas grass. I am dimly aware of the term 'self-seeding', and it looks like such surreptitious propagation had been going on at an explosive rate lately.

So back in March I engaged the services of an old school gardener - a chap who has worked all his life in nurseries, and instinctively refers to plants by their Latin names, as opposed to the usual kind of 'gardener' you meet nowadays, who basically cuts hedges and lawns and knows zilch about anything else - to clear out whatever plants he thought were spreading like wildfire, or growing too tall, or suffering from rot, or just plain ugly. He went at this job like a whirling dervish one day while I was in France, about to be locked down(!), and on my return my neighbour commented on how much he had achieved in a single day. His horticultural MO was tantamount to a scorched earth policy, without the military context or the scorching. But certainly my beds were nearly bare by the end of it, with a few plants spared on account of their fitting my stringent selection criteria for next time, of which more anon. 

Charlie Bonkers, the previous incumbent

In addition to dealing with the jungle of the flower beds themselves, I did finally screw my courage to the sticking place - suppressing my not inconsiderable repulsion in the process - and tackled the far end of the patio, into which I had never felt brave enough to venture all this while. Like the recent 'big garage clearout', which took two days and a lot of sheer physical graft, this was another job that was in the 'too hard' and 'too horrible' category to be done till now, but once I overcame my mental block and got on with it, there was a huge feeling of release and satisfaction in the finished result. 

For on that side of the patio were all sorts of receptacles with stagnant water and soil and stones in them; broken bits of pottery; old watering cans lying on their sides, home to rotting leaves and snails galore; watering cans with puddles of suspected weedkiller inside, plus a thicket of tangled vegetation and an old jerry can with a hole in it. I simply avoided going there, not least because there was also a clematis and honeysuckle madly climbing up the back of the garage, adding to the knotty mess of foliage. I could put a small bench in the space I have created. And have been using the water butt! It's a whole new outdoor space to just be in.

"Yes, it probably could do with thinning out!"

Until the gardener can replant next year, he will be doing another round of weedkilling, while I am in charge of lawncare. Which brings me to an embarrassing tale on that subject...

For the last time I mowed the lawn, on one of those boiling hot days we have had lately, I was nearly stopped in my tracks as soon as I started by the discovery of a dead frog. I had seen a live frog in a flower bed a couple of days previously, and presumed it had fallen prey to the cat - even though I had also observed them companionably sitting back to back to each other, like two amusingly mis-sized book ends. So I dashed out into the street, aimlessly looking for someone's husband to borrow to dispose of it, as I can only handle dead birds and mice - frogs seem a more alien and offputting category of corpse to me, especially as I couldn't detect any legs on this one. In the road I ran into the man who runs the local hardware store and solicited his help. "You just pick it up with a shovel and put it in a bag", was his opening salvo, until I apprised him of my psychological issues with amphibians. "Ah, but I can't leave my car unattended, as I have a lawn mower sticking out of the boot", he countered, "but if you prepare the tools first, then come back here and mind my mower, I'll deal with it." After thanking him profusely, I laid a spade, a pan and brush, and a sturdy rubble bag on the lawn, and stood guard by his car while he did the biz. The chap was back in no time, my equipment clearly untouched. He had evidently removed the snail (as it turned out to be) between his finger and thumb.

Bare or what?! (interrobang) taking stock I wonder if I might get the gardening bug, as I briefly did after my mother died? I do feel a lot better psychologically for doing even the most menial physical work outside, and by clearing the patio after so much time I feel I have bulldozed a huge mental and physical obstacle out of the way. 

Then the gardener had previously asked me to make a list of flowers and shrubs that I like, which he can then vet for their behavioural characteristics - for as with people, beauty is only petal deep, and plants may run amok or succumb to weevils as soon as look at you, which would never do. I went away and did that, and also added a list of my own parameters the plants must meet - not all of them(!) - but I would like the garden to include some plants like this in the mix:

  • Hardy
  • Perennial
  • Architecturally interesting 
  • Not overly prone to pests or disease
  • Not overly prone to self-seeding / going bonkers
  • Slightly acid-loving
  • Easy care
  • Variegated foliage
  • Seasonally colour-changing foliage (two for the price of one)
  • Plants with silvery / frosted foliage in winter (bit niche, this)
  • Plants with shoots that droop down like exploding fireworks (arguably even more niche!)
  • Arrestingly blue flowers

And last but not least....SCENTED. Which is where you all come in. I would be most grateful if you could suggest flowers, shrubs or trees (dwarf varieties only!) that have a nice fragrance. Not honeysuckle, as I have just chopped one of those down, haha.

The clematis survived the cull....

So far I have come up with a peachy rose, 'Virginal' mock orange, lemon-scented geraniums, jasmine, and a daphne of some description, but I have lots of time to gather more ideas, which can then be fed into / run past the gardener's reality-checking algorithm.

Strangely, I love the smell of lavender as a shrub - and it ticks the architectural box as well, also 'bee-friendly', if I was sufficiently ecologically-minded to have that one too - but not in any other format, so that is on my list. And I have a selection of mints in pots already, which I love to smell, though I don't really care for mints as a flavour either, plus the different varieties are not all pleasant by any means(!). I think apple mint is the one that smells traditionally - and acceptably - minty to my nose.

In my research on possible contenders for the big planting next year, I chanced upon four plant terms or names that made me smile:

  • Ranunculus
  • Macrophylla (sounds like a kind of immune cell)
  • Bracts
  • Panicles

So in addition to scented suggestions, do add any quirky horticultural words to this list. ;)

Oh, I nearly forgot...there has been one new addition to the planting already - 'Larry the Locust tree', donated by my friend Kate. He comes in the biggest pot I have ever seen, so am mindful that the watering operation needs to be substantially scaled up, especially in the hot weather. He provides a nice focus at the newly cleared end of the patio, and hopefully will soon recover from his inevitable transplant shock. 

Saturday, 25 July 2020

The masked aisle cruiser: musings on mask wearing for travel and shopping

So it is Day 2 of mandatory mask wear in shops in England, a rule which has already been in place for some time now on public transport. I haven't been to a shop since yesterday, as I have been laid low for a couple of days with one of those "corrective migraine and exhaustion episodes" my body tends to throw my way after a period of extreme physical exertion - in this case a rather strenuous garage clear out last weekend. I have, however, been practising donning a mask in the run up to the change in the regulations, and have some initial thoughts on various aspects of mask wear and disposal.

The fit

Well, where do I start? Just as shoes and dresses come in different sizes, so should masks, for people's heads are vastly different in shape. And not just their heads as a whole: for as one Facebook friend commented, separate features on her face had divergent requirements:  

"I think my nose is a D cup and my ears are only an A cup."

And then there is the matter of chin size relative to the rest of the face, and face width generally. I have tried on loads of masks and most fall short on some dimension: overall looseness, slack elastic, overly long elastic, too much bunched up fabric - giving something of a nappy look - scratchiness, unmouldability over the bridge of the nose, lack of breathability, spectacle fogging etc.


My easiest "straight-out-of-the-packet-with-no-breaking-in-tweaking-or-adjustment" mask to date is this stretchy yet breathable one from The Big Bloomers Company (see above). It also comes in pink and denim blue. The company already do a 'large' and a 'medium', which is a step in the right sizing direction and I correctly went for medium, but so far on the market I have not encountered many sizing options. Maybe the category will evolve and become more nuanced as the wearing of masks becomes an everyday reality. My favourite design in my collection is the leafy one, bottom left in the picture at the top of the post.

I also have one of these snood-cum-scarves-cum-face coverings (known officially as 'collar-shields' to their makers, Patra), which may be a bit porous to count as a mask - or maybe not. I very much doubt that any official in either a supermarket or on a train will get close enough to members of the public to check for fibre density. 


Oh, and while the charcoal grey one I just mentioned is fine for everyday use, I have succumbed to a Facebook advert for these slinky silk masks, which I figured might be nice for evening wear, when that distant time comes round and we can go out to gigs and parties again. It appears to have an adjustable toggle, which looks promising, as long as it isn't an uncomfortable accessory in itself. But hey, three for the price of two in different colourways - how could I resist....!?


The disposal aspect

Now as well as a bunch of washable fabric masks, early on in the pandemic I did buy a pack of the standard blue plastic ones - the kind that could perhaps be classed as 'low tech PPE'-grade. They are too big for my face, haha, and I also don't like the disposability aspect. I have seen quite a few of these masks abandoned in gutters and on verges, and I worry that we may be storing up a huge waste problem for ourselves comparable to the one involving microplastics. I hate to think of a dolphin being strangled by an inevitably ill-fitting mask, but that day may come.


The masked aisle cruiser

I should perhaps update this category once I have been shopping with the new rules in place, but I think I will prefer to wear a mask in the supermarket now they are mandatory. I felt rather self-conscious during my practising phase, not least because I was pretty much the only person in any shop wearing one(!), or one of only a very few. I fully expect some people to flout the rules - and not just those using the government-sanctioned excuse that it would cause them "severe distress", which is a pretty comprehensive get out for anyone actually. :)

"Those who 'cannot put on, wear, or remove a face covering without severe distress' will be exempt."

Distress levels are of course subjective...

The masked rail rider

In a major lockdown development, I went on a train the other day. I did have a friend to see at the other end, but it was also a way to get some value from my Senior Rail Card which had been lying worryingly fallow in recent months, as well as an experiment to see how I felt about using public transport, and whether I would consider it as a means of getting all the way to my French house, or the station that is half an hour's drive away, say. I think I would, but for the immediate future I could probably still do with taking my car, on account of the things I need to bring over.

On the way back from my excursion I had the whole carriage to myself! I decided to wear the mask regardless, so as not to create a miasma of respiratory droplets for anyone to inhale from Stafford to Crewe, and also to keep my face warm as the (droplet dispersing) aircon was so fierce!

On the outward leg my experience was a little more mixed. There can't have been more than a dozen people in the carriage even so, but I started out sitting next to three girls from Liverpool with big party hair and not a mask between them. They were chattering away nineteen to the dozen, so having clocked their high aerosol production, I decided to move further away. The next nearest person was a middle-aged man, quite heavily built and with a disconcerting habit of exhaling deeply with almost every breath. "That's way too much exhalation for one person", I thought to myself, and promptly moved again. The next person to whom I was relatively near kept sniffing, so I didn't last long near him, and the final person I settled near coughed rather more than I would have liked. I had however exhausted places to move to by this point. Plus they were all wearing masks at least, unlike the Scouse girls.

So it has been an interesting learning curve. Can't say I like having to wear a mask one bit, but I will persevere as long as it is the law. And at least I have some "going out masks" aka "facial glad rags" on their way that give me hope for the future...

Hendricks demonstrates my stretchy mask

What is your experience of mask wearing?

Have you tried ones of a different construction, eg with valves or the ones that come to more of a point over your nose?

Do let us know in the comments how covering your face has been for you...

Friday, 10 July 2020

"Whose that vial?" The tricky - and tracky! - business of tracing perfume samples...

Some of my samples!

A while ago, Undina wrote a post about Jo Malone's Sweet Milk, which prompted me to have a look for my own sample of that scent. I was going to donate it to her, not least because it was she who had given it to me in the first place. ;) In the course of my concerted rummaging, I came upon dozens and dozens of samples and decants going back ten years or more: some bought from online sites like The Perfumed Court and Lucky Scent, some gifts from fellow fumeheads, and some received in swaps on Makeupalley, where I clocked up an astonishing 75 trades back in the day when you could send fragrance internationally. Now Undina is noted for her typed labels on vials, but many of the samples I uncovered had handwritten ones. I soon became completely absorbed in trying to remember where they had all come from, either from my own recall of the transaction, or by recognising each person's handwriting. This was by no means as straightforward as I thought it would be, as I am out of touch with some of the perfumistas who were "on the circuit" up to a decade ago, and am still puzzling over quite a lot of what I found.

So for fun, I thought I would create a gallery of photos of vials with confirmed IDs, and enlist the help of readers to identify the mystery ones. There were way more unidentified fragrant objects where these came from, but I didn't want to overwhelm people with a blizzard of the things. And I haven't been right through my collection either - this is more of a random dive - so there are doubtless other examples I could have put a name to if my search had been exhaustive, as well as many more I couldn't! So I also hope that no one is offended if they do not happen to be represented in this selection. 

Known sources

Left to right: Thomas (Candy Perfume Boy), Undina (Undina's Looking Glass), Tara (A Bottled Rose), Birgit (Olfactorias Travels), Carol (Bloody Frida), Sarah (Odiferess).

Sources I think I recognise

Left to right: Rachael Potts, Val the Cookie Queen, Marie Pinholt-Krabbe, Freddy (Smellythoughts), Lisa Jones. There is a fair element of doubt about some of these(!).

Sources I have as good as no clue about 

Though I think the one on the far right may be either from Tamsin Simmill or Louise Bodin. ;) 

If you recognise a vial you sent me, or have intell on any of the handwriting, do let me know in the comments. 

I would also be interested to know if you have this problem of forgetting who gave you what!

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Light relief, if not light at the end of the tunnel exactly...

Market Square at the height of lockdown
Undina of Undina's Looking Glass has a charming mini-series entitled "Small Things That Brighten Life", in which she has featured everything from ducklings to hummingbirds and sunsets to Christmas lights - in short, whatever catches her eye and lifts her spirits.

June has been a funny month here, with every kind of weather, lockdown rules evolving at a dizzying rate, and friends 'bubbling up' left and right with other households. People are returning to the town centre, some wearing masks, while the irrepressible charity chuggers in Market Square sport visors. They would bear a passing resemblance to riot police were it not for their cheery turquoise T-shirts. Queues spill out of every shop and bank, with gloved assistants hovering in doorways to conduct a triage of people's needs. "Is it to deposit a cheque? Right, so you can use the ATM outside." The familiar streets look like the set of a sci-fi film, and there is still an edge of unease that taints shopping trips. Once a go-to destination at the weekend to get my retail fix, I have long since lost my urge to visit T K Maxx recreationally, and am only shopping for food every fortnight, in a highly organised, surgical strike kind of a way. We are all unsure whether to remain 'alert' or relax, but on balance the virus is probably just on its break...Meanwhile, I have also had some house-related issues that don't really lend themselves to being spun in a humorous way - the prerequisite for content on Bonkers! - which explains the long hiatus. Quite a few are sorted now, and I am working on a workaround for the rest.

However, just this week I have had four unexpected conversations that were sufficiently left field and amusing to "brighten life" Undina-style, and which are the trigger for this post.

The reluctant salesman

I had a roofing company come to look at the gutter on my garage this week. I had unblocked it the other day in the pouring rain, as it was chock full of sludge, and overflowing and leaking in several places.

"That's not leaking, it was just overflowing."

"Really? Only I was sure I saw water coming out the bottom rather than going over the side."

"No, it would only leak at the joints. In that rain, everybody's gutters will have been overflowing. Why, mine were overflowing last week!"

I then asked tentatively about replacing the asbestos cement roof.

"Oh, you don't want to do that - it's a lot of work, and much too expensive."

And with that, he was gone. My kind of tradesman.

My gutter, post-unblocking!

The inadvertently louche cycle shop

I took my bike in for repair on Tuesday, as the wheel was bulging out and the brake blocks sticking. A couple of days later it was ready for collection, and I walked into town to collect it. The owner wheeled my bike slowly out of the back room, and pointed out its new tyre, before adding gloomily:

"You should know that someone who has had it in for repair before has interfered with a couple of nipples."

"Er...what's a nipple in bike terms?" I inquired, trying desperately to maintain a straight face.

"These little things inside the rim...d'you see? Someone's had a go at them and now they are..." - he paused for emphasis - "misshapen."

My bike in a friend's garden

The man who wanted to be thinner

Whilst in Boots queuing at the pharmacy counter, I happened to be level with a young man weighing himself on the 'speak your weight'-type scales. He had short, dyed black, face framing hair, with a very short fringe that few people suit, though he did, piercing blue eyes, lots of other piercings, including large metal discs inside his ears, not unlike the style of silicone ear plugs I had just bought(!), a dark fake tan, and was wearing a tight T-shirt and tartan trousers. His belt clanked with metal accoutrements, which must surely have weighed quite a bit on their own. The young man was so pleased with the reading that he started 'speaking his weight' himself, and as he looked towards anyone who could provide an audience, I was happy to step up.

"Ooh", he exclaimed gaily, "I've lost weight!"

"From the sound of your voice, I take it you wanted to?"

"Yes, I like to be between ten and a half and eleven stone, and I thought I wasn't."

"Well, for what it's worth, I'd have said you were more around the ten stone mark. You look pretty skinny to me."

"Oh, I will take that, thank you! You see, I want to look emaciated. I am trying to channel David Bowie."

"I get that, and maybe 10% Bay City Rollers, if you don't mind me saying so?"

"The tartan trousers, you mean? Yeah, fair enough."

"I remember them first time round."

"I don't, haha..."

And with that he wished me a good day and scampered off happily, before I could call after him:

"Not forgetting the 30% Paul Weller and 15% Dave Hill!"


The call centre operator who cared

Today I needed to call my phone company, for in the act of switching to a more cost-effective plan, I had inadvertently taken out a whole new contract as though I was migrating TO 3 from another provider. When I dialled the number, the recorded message explained that staff were working from home during the crisis, and that I might hear some background noise from children and pets. As I was put through, I was really hoping I would(!), but there was a disappointing lack of acoustic accompaniment. The Indian call handler went through all the steps he and I needed to take to undo my mistake, before breaking off to ask how my area of the UK was doing in terms of the virus. I replied that we were in a bit of a lull at the moment, and possibly erring on the side of complacency, as the virus might rear its spikes again at any time.

Suddenly the customer service chap launched into a long - and fascinating - account of the virus situation where he lived. He was indeed working from home, in a small town outside Mumbai. Because of the overcrowded housing in the city, infections were growing at an alarming rate, with hospitals not really geared up to deal with the exponential number of cases that may be about to hit them. He explained that he was happy to work remotely, and was trying to shield his mother by doing her shopping.

Earlier in the conversation, he had asked me my date of birth as one of the security questions, and suddenly came over all protective of me.

"You are of a similar age to my mother. I hope that you are taking good care of yourself. You shouldn't really be going out really. How are you managing for food?"

I explained my new, more targeted grocery shopping MO outlined above.

"Okay, well you should also do what you can to boost your immunity. Start the day with a cup of warm milk and a teaspoon of turmeric. You can add sugar if you want. Or make a tea with hot water, cinnamon - do you have cinammon? - ginger, and cardamom. That's good too. You could do with having both of those every day. You are of the age where you need to do all you can to protect yourself, starting with your immunity."

I thanked him for his concern, and the helpful tip, before we moved on to whether I had visited India (no, but I know people who have, and have a friend who is half Indian), and if so, where I would like to visit.

"Umm, maybe Kerala, to start with? Then some of the classic sights further north?"

"Very good, and there's also Goa. The food is excellent, and not all vegetarian. But please don't come now! This is a very bad time."

I assured him I wouldn't do anything of the sort, and we wrapped up the call with another recorded message stating the terms and conditions of my new plan. After I had come off the phone, I went to my pantry and found a sachet of turmeric, that expired in June 2018. I shall of course now google: "Can you use spices after their best before date has expired?"


Have you had any amusing encounters that have perked you up during the pandemic?

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Antidepressants AND Tolkien!: the therapeutic power of nature walks on your doorstep

Entrance to Stafford Castle
So the first part of the title to this post may need explaining, being a loose adaptation of a quiz doing the rounds on Facebook to which my godson alerted me, called: "Antidepressants or Tolkien?" 24 names flash up on screen and you have to decide if they are the actual name of a character from The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit OR that of a currently prescribed antidepressant.  Not having read any Tolkien except The Hobbit (nigh on 50 years ago!) I was absolutely pants at the quiz. This is also because - despite carrying out numerous market research studies in pharmaceutical topics in the past - I don't think my path crossed SSRIs and their ilk at any point. So I had to guess at every single name except Cymbalta and Bilbo. If you are a Tolkien fan or a pharmacist, you will ace it I am sure!

And now to explain my substituting of "AND" for "Or". Basically, I have been exploring long neglected green areas in my town this week - by me I mean - and discovering some new ones, and was struck in a couple of places by their resemblance to a Tolkien-like wood. And I do know about that at least, if not the characters in the books, for a number of scenes from Tolkien-influenced Game of Thrones were filmed in that forest I mentioned in my recent hermit and hand cream post. As well as elsewhere in Ulster in familiar beauty spots from my childhood. Plus Tolkien lived in Staffordshire for a while, and was inspired by some of the gnarled old oaks on Cannock Chase, as referenced in my review of Liz Moores' Dryad. So that is all by way of explaining my Tolkien-esque foliage-spotting credentials. ;)

These bursts of extreme exercise - each walk was about three hours long - were prompted in part by ongoing pain issues from my sprained pelvis. I thought I would try flooding the area with the dopamine known to be released by (a compatible form of) physical activity, of which Val the Cookie Queen is of course the poster girl. At the same time, I figured it might improve my mood during lockdown. The lack of control and uncertain future are two aspects I continue to struggle with, and Ian McEwan hit the nail on the head in his recent essay on time:

He quotes Kierkegaard to start with:

"Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards."

McEwan adds: "When that forward motion is denied, then you are liable to go tumbling backwards through time."

I presume he is talking of not being able to look forward to anything, and the mental freefalling that may ensue. At least we can now meet one person from another household in an outdoor setting, which feels like a big win after the constraints of lockdown so far!

The first discovery I made on Day One was of a treelined path that led all the way to my local Aldi from just beyond the road at the bottom of my street. That could make the dreaded shopping trips more agreeable, assuming I wasn't driving, obviously.

The second discovery was of a lake behind the rugby club, complete with anglers, hidden knots of youths at the water's edge sharing a spliff, and ducks with attitude.

"I'm tyred of this...!"

Next up, I chanced upon a venerable shoe company, called Jen. This sign dates from 1963, but the company's roots stretch back to the 19th century. Footwear used to be a thriving industry in Stafford, which was also home to the better known brand Lotus.

My friend David, the artist, was commissioned to make a stained glass panel for St Mary's Church in town to commemorate this 'last-ing' legacy. ;)

Source: BaldHiker

A few minutes later, I was in the atmospheric shade of a path up to the castle, which snakes between the manicured green sward of the golf course. I saw a fox, though barely captured him on camera before he ran to ground.

(Fox not pictured!)

The castle dates from 1100 AD, albeit there is not much of it left. You can see for miles around, and once again, the grassy slopes below were dotted with groups of young people sitting chatting - in a vaguely socially distanced way, aided by their recumbent bicycles. No, not that kind of recumbent bicycle...!

I have stopped tutting at such scenes, ever since I learnt that if you are young you are more likely to be die by being struck by lightning than of Covid-19.

The following day, I did a circuit of Doxey Marshes, a nature reserve beloved of twitchers and dog walkers alike, which backs onto the estate where I used to live. As a born again bird watcher, I was pleased to see several varieties, two with babies in tow:

Some surprisingly docile goslings:

In this long shot, you could fancy yourself on safari (almost!)

One of several laid back swans:

Not forgetting their synchronised cygnets. "A cygnet ring!" as the aforementioned David waggishly remarked.

There were cows galore as well, both reflective and reflected. Here is one, ruminating and watching the world go by.

And now the startling sight of "La Vache Qui Pee".

Why, that will be due to all the drinking of course! Note the mirror images in the stream.

I also managed to pap this squirrel, doing a good imiation of Cerberus perched on a gravestone in the adjacent cemetery.

It has been too blowy over the past couple of days to walk very far since, but more explorations of Stafford's green interstices are definitely on the cards. Along with that Undina-inspired post I mentioned earlier...

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Ready, steady, heady: sniffing shots of lilac gin

I should have been taking a plane today. Somewhere far enough away to seem utterly fantastical in today's new reality. The pandemic feels like a waking dream most of the time, with news bulletins recycling the same terminology on an endless loop. If I had a pound for every time someone in the media says 'unprecedented', 'vulnerable', and 'frontline', I wouldn't need the Government's self-employed rescue package I may or may not be invited to apply for before they decide to withdraw it again because of easing the lockdown.

Actually, I say 'frontline' is mentioned over and over, but if you google it (as I just did to see if it was two words or not), you get the flea treatment for dogs and cats of that name as the first search result in Google. Which tells you all you need to know about the all-conquering dark art of SEO.

Much paler in reality than it appears!

But no, instead of going anywhere beyond my limited local circuit at the moment, I have been bird watching and lilac spotting, knitting, reading, cooking, and having psychological battles with Truffle over whether she will or won't get out of the office chair last thing at night. I have taken to carrying the chair with her in it all the way along the landing and tipping her downstairs, even though this is probably not an ideal manoeuvre for my compromised pelvis. This MO does seem to work, mind, with minimal hissing and personal injury.

But I digress...back to my new and colourful pursuit of lilac spotting. The latter has escalated to the level of a sport now on my daily constitutionals (or however often I manage to take them, given how absorbing my many knitting projects are proving at the moment!). Last night I clocked up white, pale mauve, mid-mauve, and a rich magenta. Along the way I also paused to sniff a hawthorn tree (disappointing) and a neighbour's wisteria, as I missed the flowering on my French house this year. I had forgotten how lilac-like wisteria is as a scent.

Now I know I said "lilac gin" there in the title, messing with Elkie Brooks' preferred tipple. That was purely to grab readers' attention, in much the same way that mine was attracted the other day by the headline: "Adele is so skinny now and looks like Barbie." So a low tactic, I concede.

I am not sure I would like lilac gin actually, though my friend David - whose own lilac is the deepest purple one pictured above - makes me fruit-flavoured gin every Christmas. I currently have bottles of his raspberry and pomegranate varieties on the go. If there isn't some lifting at the end of the tunnel from next week, I can see me making greater inroads into my gin stash!

Following on from a recent post by Undina, I was rummaging for the sample she gave me of Jo Malone Sweet Milk a while ago - I didn't care for it, and she mentioned having nearly run out - when I came across another JM sample she'd given me, namely Wild Lilac & Rhubarb. Given my current lilac craze, I have been enjoying wearing it lately, and it doesn't seem either synthetic or overly sweet as I had mistakenly remembered.

Notes: lilac, rhubarb, rose and heliotrope

I am now curious to smell En Passant again, and revisit Opardu and Pacifica French Lilac (the latter also courtesy of Undina), which has given my usually reliable photographic memory the slip for the moment. Oh, and Vacances, which I gave to my brother because he asked if I had a lilac perfume a man could wear.

Source: fragrantica

And speaking of knitting, in my recent yarn splurges, I seem to have been drawn to shades of are the balls in question: for some reason I can't turn the photo round the other way.

Are you flower spotting this spring, in lieu of going to gigs / Nando's / the pub / for a curry / your venue of choice etc?

PS Undina, this still isn't the post inspired by your Sweet Milk post, though you might well think so! ;)