Tuesday 30 August 2022

Harriet Worth goes to France: a tragi-comic mash up of human error and force majeure

Source: British Comedy Club

For any non-UK readers, or any UK readers not of a certain age, say, my adopted - and adapted - moniker in the title of "Harriet Worth" is explained here

So...nine months on from my last (very chilly!) trip to my house in the "not quite the Dordogne", I made it back there this month, albeit not without incident.

It started with a horrible journey down to Newhaven, to which I had - rather ironically, looking back - switched as my departure point at short notice to avoid the much publicised queues and traffic jams around the Eurotunnel at Folkestone. A drive that should have taken three and a half hours took seven and a quarter; I had only allowed six and a quarter, which should have been ample, but wasn't. There were vehicle fires on both the M40 and the M25 causing stationary traffic for hours at a time. Somewhere around the turn off for Heathrow I accepted my fate, namely that I was not going to get to the coast in time for the embarcation deadline. At that moment, a text came in, purporting to be from my phone company, with the alarming news:

"You have reached your spend cap limit so you will not be able to use any out of allowance services in the UK or make calls, send texts or access data when you roam abroad."

I thought on balance that it must be a scam, because I rarely use the allowances I have, but because it seemed to know I was going abroad - or trying to, at least! - I can't pretend it didn't put the wind up me, hard on the heels of my dawning realisation that I was going to miss the boat.

Source: DFDS

And I did miss it...I've never missed a ferry - or a plane - in 35 years of solo overseas travel. But there's always a first time. I had to wait five and a quarter hours for the next sailing, and pay a supplement of £33.50 to change my ticket. This was now a night crossing, so no sleep... At five o'clock I was driving off the ramp of the ship into the port of Dieppe when I realised that my French bank card was missing, which was in a wallet along with my driving licence, both of which are not things you want to lose. I did have other cards on me, but not ones linked to my French account with euros in it.

When I reached the French Customs checkpoint I asked the lady if they could have a look on the ship for the wallet, and she told me to go to the harbour office and sort it out with them. I parked up outside the building, which was of course thoroughly shut because it was five in the morning. Then, leaving the car where it was, I set off back to the Customs booth but got lost and managed to wander into a compound which turned out to be some highly restricted, highly secure area that you are not supposed to enter. But in I blundered, whereupon an electric gate clanked shut behind me, and I realised I was locked in. There was no alarm bell, no little intercom thing, so I stood there in the dark in this holding pen surrounded by high fences and gates, and thought: "Oh no! How am I going to get out of this?"

Photo of the offending zone taken on the way home - in daylight!

Eventually a border guard drove up in a van and unlocked the gate. He was not pleased to find me there and said sternly: "Do you realise you could go to prison for this?" This area was indeed completely off limits - no idea why, as it was just a bit of concrete, though with hindsight I wonder if it might have been some kind of international no man's land. Hmm, it looks like I am not the first person to be found in a ZAR (zone d'acces restreint). Anyway, I was profusely apologetic: I explained that I had taken a wrong turn and was trying to get back to the Customs area, and in the pitch black hadn't seen the no entry signs. He repeated his warning: "Well, you could go to prison for that!", before asking what I was doing there in the first place. I told him about the lost driving licence and how I was trying to find someone who could communicate with the ship. To which he replied: "Ah, but you won't be allowed to drive in France without a licence", conjuring up visions of my being put straight back on the ferry and being stuck in gridlock on the M25 again...not a happy prospect.

Source: infonormandie.com

Then in an access of empathy the guard said he would drive me in convoy to the police station to discuss the driving licence problem, as the place was very hard to find. Having done so he waited for me to park in the spot he designated. Meaning I had to do a parallel park maneouvre right there in front of him. I am absolutely rubbish at parallel parking, never mind at night, and thought: "Well, regardless of whether I do or don't have a driving licence, they could ban me from driving in France purely on the basis on my parking!" It took me a couple of go's, but to my great surprise I managed the manoeuvre and went into the police station while the guard went back to his post, and said he would notify the ship of my loss.

Alone in the station, whose intimidation factor was somewhat mitigated by its being one of the few light sources in Dieppe at that time of night, I suddenly remembered that I did in fact have an old paper plus photo ID version of my driving licence, which was at the back of my travel folder. I brought it out, and conceded that it wasn't up-to-date like the one I had lost, and had the wrong address on it, but it was "the long version", really trying to big up length over recency. To my relief the policeman was satisfied with that and declared me free to travel, and I also cancelled my bank card while I was there by phoning the bank's "lost and stolen" helpline.

At six o'clock I finally set off, and drove the 400 miles south in one go, rather than breaking my journey overnight as I usually do, had I caught the earlier ferry. It took eight and a half hours, stopping quite a few times. Also, for the last hundred miles or so I had to drive with one eye shut, owing to the sudden onset of acute light sensitivity (photophobia) and double vision, which I think may have been eyestrain from all the driving over the two days, compounded by the stress of recent events. It is really uncomfortable driving with one eye, if you have ever tried it, especially over that distance. Plus my Satnav packed up about half way down France(!) - the screen just froze - and thank goodness it wasn't anywhere near Paris, which is the wiggly bit I could not have managed on my own - but luckily I knew the way from where it did stop working. I think the device may have frozen because it overheated, if that is not a contradiction in terms.

Having arrived at the house I spent much of the first few days cleaning, once again removing leaves and impudent lianas of wisteria that were climbing up the inside of the shutters, escorting enormous spiders out of the house, dusting cobwebs, and sweeping up the particular cocktail of particulates my house seems to shed in between visits: white powdered plaster, red brick dust, and black miscellaneous "crud", which had mysteriously formed a light patina over many of the surfaces. I also weeded the entire perimeter of the house (aka the street). In the course of all this cleaning and "gardening" I clocked a new gutter leak, a widespread infestation of woodworm (of which more in the next post), two rotted beams, a kink in the shower hose strangling the flow of water to a few drops - it clearly needs the plumbing equivalent of a stent - a dripping tap, a dropped door that scraped across the floor, and one with a very stiff bolt. Then the cat I befriended last summer came into the house and immediately sprayed on the sofa(!), though luckily the throw that was over it caught the brunt of his proprietorial gesture. To cap it all, the washing machine on the wall of the supermarket where I was about to wash it the following morning swallowed my money, and I got cut off in mid-sentence from the technical helpline because of network issues caused by an electrical storm.

Wisteria from INSIDE my bedroom!

So there you have it: how I was nearly arrested twice in as many minutes for separate offences at a time when I am not normally up, never mind breaking the law. Based on those first few days alone, I could best describe the trip as "character building", but I am a firm - veering to occasionally wobbly - believer in the motto: "A change (and a setback or three) is as good as a rest".

More adventures - and relatively light-hearted mishaps! - to come...

Tuesday 16 August 2022

"SCENT and all about it" by H Stanley Redgrove: an olfactory Oxfam find


Are you one of those people who enjoys cruising the shelves of charity shops in between bursts of "proper shopping", in the knowledge that a bargain find of a £2 jug or a £3 pair of shoes will be a surefire way to give yourself a little lift? I am that charity shop cruising soldier, and even if nothing else turns up, there are invariably a few paperbacks that come home with me on any given sortie - you just need to poke around enough amongst the serried ranks of horror, historical romance, and chick lit. So imagine my delight when I was browsing in my local Oxfam shop and spied this hardback book from 1928(!) - on perfume of all unlikely topics. Bagged for the improbably precise sum of £1.79, and I turned a blind eye to its foxed cover and tatty spine. It is not far off a hundred years old, after all. 

To be honest it was more of a technical read than I was after, but I enjoyed parts of it a lot, and loved the mere fact of handling such a venerable textbook on fragrance, with such a charmingly blunt title to boot: "and all about it". The book describes itself as "A Popular Account of the Science and Art of Perfumery", and I would question how popular it would be now, or was then even. The chapters were originally submitted to "The Hairdressers' Chronicle and Beauty Specialists' Trade Journal", which struck me as a spectacularly unspecialist periodical. I guess IFRA didn't come along till 1973 after all.

In the preface to the book the author, H Stanley Redgrove (we can but guess at the name behind the "H", but my money is on Harold or Henry), refers readers seeking more technical information on perfumery to the technical works of Askinson, Durvelle, Parry & Poucher, who do sound so very much of their time.

There's a great titbit about the need for a "compounder's license" costing £15 15s a year, in order to be allowed to prepare perfumes containing alcohol commercially. I wonder what the going rate is today.

The book proper kicks off with a section on the history of perfume: from Egyptian times up to the invention of Hungary Water, the first scent made with alcohol. Redgrove covers the advent of synthetics in perfumery, and soon gets into my favourite section: "Some Peculiarities of Odorous Bodies", where we learn about the appeal of indol when it is deployed at an optimal dilution, and fixatives such as civet, ambergris and musk. He notes how back then ambergris was already being replaced by sweet gum and oleo resins, while a successful substitute for natural musk remained elusive.

African civet cat ~ Source: animalspot.net

Later in the book there are some grim details about the exact MO by which these precious animal substances are harvested:

"...the cat is placed in a cage only just long enough to contain it, and after its legs are tied it is teased, as this increases secretion. Some of the civet is spontaneously ejected, the rest removed via a small spoon from pouches the glands excrete it into."

I will spare you the nitty-gritty on the extraction methods for the secretions of deer and badgers, but there were a couple more strange nuggets of info, namely the fact that most of the civet used in the UK at that time came from Abyssinia and was packed in ox-horns containing 1.5 - 2 lbs. I have to ask why? Couldn't they have used the early 20th century equivalent of a Tupperware? I also learnt that some nefarious middlemen tried to adulterate civet, I guess along similar lines to those who cut heroin with baking soda or talc. But I wasn't expecting the substance in question - banana pulp! Redgrove helpfully goes on to tell readers how to test for it. ;)

There is a little bit in the book on more abstract topics such as whether perfumery is art, the aesthetics of perfume, and its psychological effects - including a nice analogy with music where accords = chords - and he makes the excellent point that we are ill-equipped to describe smells with our current vocabulary and must resort to comparisons, as in: "this smells like x". However, most of the rest of the content is rather over my head.

For example, there is a whole chapter dedicated to the different types of alcohol; I now know more than I feel I need to about pyridine, fusel oils and empyreumatic substances. Then as well as detailed explanations of that well-known quartet of techniques used to produce essential oils - expression, enfleurage, distillation and extraction - he wanders into the chemistry of carbon compounds, and before I knew it I was bogged down in isomerism and phenolic bodies / esters. Actually, esters are ringing a bit of a bell with me, ditto aliphatic compounds, from my various work projects in chemicals down the years - including one famously in aroma chemicals in fine fragrances years before I became interested in perfume - but I couldn't tell you what they are now, haha.

The book finishes with some actual perfume formulations from the period, including Jockey Club by Askinson (sic), and recipes for Eau de Cologne and Lavender Water. For anyone curious about the former, there are three pints of extract of jasmine in Jockey Club, two of rose, and one of tuberose, along with half a pint of tincture of civet! I reckon that might have smelt more like the stables at mucking out time than the stated odour of "sweet wild flowers wafted over Epsom Downs".

Now I have more to say about my own evolving relationship with civet, but that can wait for another time...

So I definitely had my £1.79's worth(!), and I believe the book may have some value, battered spine notwithstanding. I have sent it to Eliza though - it is the back up book I omitted to bring with me when I met her the other weekend...;)

What's the best book find you've had lately in a charity shop? Have you ever come across any on perfume?

Tuesday 2 August 2022

"The Liz Declension": meeting perfumer Eliza Douglas in an English country garden

I have been having a lot of bother with my neighbours lately: by which I mean more bother than usual, which is already quite a lot. This week saw them nearly set their kitchen on fire by deliberately leaving butter in a hot oven as a prank, hard on the heels of a toaster fire last week, and a broken kitchen tap caused by a botched dousing attempt. A bottle was later thrown out of an upstairs window, which smashed to smithereens exactly where my paying guest's car had been parked, had I not presciently advised him to move it earlier that evening. There were also several angry shouting matches in the small hours that penetrated my most hermetic style of ear plugs, as well as slammed doors, running up and down corridors, and assorted things going bump in the night. 

By Saturday morning my nerves were shot, and it was with a great sense of relief that I set off for Oxfordshire to stay with my old friend and walking companion, Nicola and her husband, in their idyllic Cotswold cottage. Nicola had been cooking all morning, and within half an hour of my arrival we were seated at the garden table outside, sipping refreshing water melon and vodka cocktails, and about to tuck into the enormous banquet of vegan mezes she had painstakingly prepared. And not only had my friend gone to great lengths to distract me from my stressful preoccupations with food and drink, but she had also lined up a very special guest to join us for lunch, namely Eliza Douglas: perfumer, fragrance evaluator, teacher, IFRA staff member, scented event organiser, and general promoter of all things olfactory. Eliza lives near Nicola and is part of their well-knit local community.

A quick digression may be in order to explain what I mean by "The Liz Declension". Well, it struck me that there are several notable people on the UK perfume scene whose names are variants of Liz: Liz Moores of Papillon Perfumery, Lizzie Ostrom (Odette Toilette), and Eliza Douglas. We just need the odd Beth or Betty, a full-blown Elizabeth perhaps - or God forbid, a Lilibet! - to complete the set.

Anyway, the first amusing thing that happened is that Eliza and I had both thought to bring a book to give to the other: I chose "The Secret of Scent" by Luca Turin, which was a bit too technical for me, while Eliza chose "The Perfume Collector" by Kathleen Tessaro...and of course we already had these books. ;)

Eliza, however, had had the forethought to bring a back up book for this very eventuality, namely "Olfaction: A Journey", which celebrates a decade of the IFRA Fragrance Forum. (One of Eliza's numerous hats being that of Membership Liaison Secretary for IFRA.) I quickly got past my usual objection to the use of the word "j*****y" in the title, which as regular readers know is a particular bugbear of mine. For the book is a truly fascinating compendium of articles on scent-related topics, under broad headings such as "Arts & Culture", "Technology & Innovation", "Health & Well-Being", "Psychology" etc. It is chock full of more interesting nuggets than you can shake a blotter at, some of which I sense may provide a springboard for future blog posts. And to top it all...the book is a teal colour! Eliza could not possibly have known that I have a teal book theme going on in my house - indeed one could be forgiven for thinking that only teal-spined books are allowed on display. So that was the second amusing thing.

Soon we were tucking into the vegan feast in earnest, and had moved on from the refreshing cocktails to summery rose wine. I could feel the stress melting away, partly because I always relax when talking about perfume. As I chatted to Eliza about her past and present fragrance projects, and swapped notes on the various people we knew in common, I lost myself in the moment and completely forgot about my neighbour woes - much like that time I talked to a surgeon while I was on the operating table about his wife's preference for scents composed by Sophia Grojsman, which helped me tune out to the fact that he was excising a mole at the time!

For anyone not familiar with Eliza, she studied at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery and lived in New York for six years, where she worked for Frederic Malle (accents on request), before going on to collaborate with the innovative and maverick perfumer Christophe Laudamiel - he of the avant-garde arm scrunchies - who describes himself (comprehensively!, hyphenatedly!) as Master Perfumer-Creator and Chemist-Inventor. His DreamAir company provides "highly customised fine fragrances, as well as applications and technologies to play and display scents, on skin, in the air, or in many other surprising places". Typical examples of these Scent Sculptures or "ambient atmospheres" may be found in hotels, museums, music festivals, operas - or operas in museums indeed. Wikipedia has a tantalising and exhaustive list of them under the heading "Scent Sculptures, Art Installations and Performances", and a few particularly caught my eye: "Hamburg Harbour" (of which I have many happy memories), "Elephant in Rut", "Guilty and Orgasm aromas", and the teasing oxymoron of "True Fake Cocaine". I can't comment on which ones Eliza may have worked on, but I bet she had fun. Staying with the theme of Hamburg Harbour, I would suggest another ambient scent Laudamiel might consider creating, namely "Third Biggest Banana Dock in the World", which I have seen, but admittedly not got close enough to sniff. I note that there is already a banana-themed scent on the list - "The Banana and the Monkey" - so it should be straightforward enough to knock up a nautical flanker. Anyway, suffice to say that I really like the cut of Laudamiel's whimsical jib - I had heard of him, but had quite forgotten how fabulously bonkers he is. With such a vivid imagination, he must have been exciting as all get-out (as the Americans say!) to work with. The idea of Scent Sculptures very much reminded me of the "olfactive animation" projects of Zsolt Zรณlyomi, Hungary's only perfumer - or he was at the time! - upon whom I chanced during a work trip to Budapest. In that post I mention my own abortive attempt to sniff the inside of a museum he had scented just before closing time...

Source: Instagram

Eliza and Laudamiel are also champions of the Academy of Perfumery and Aromatics in the US, of which Eliza is Treasurer. Founded in 2002 by Laudamiel, it houses the American branch of the Osmotheque and has as its mission: "to introduce olfaction, scent history, scent design and culture into school and university curriculums as well as to the general public".  In 2014, they launched an educational venture called "A Sense for Scents"; the centrepiece of the kit supplied to schools was a set of 20 "whispi" mini-pumps that use fresh air to deliver scent in a fragrant puff. Eliza has given me one and I am blowed if I know what the smell is, even though I am long out of school, hehe. Here is a mini-blog post about the kits by Luca Turin, who is a fan, and used them with pupils in Greece!

Ye whispi

Along with Eliza, Nicola Pozzani also co-developed this project; his name rang an instant bell, and I realised that he was the chap who ran the synaesthesia workshop for Le Labo in 2011 which I blogged about for Cafleurebon. Small world indeed...

What else has Eliza done? She has evaluated fragrances for Gallivant, and runs independent perfumery workshops and classes with groups and individuals. UK-based readers may remember the Perfume Lab "drop in"-style project at Somerset House, where a series of perfumers took up residencies "to showcase the art and science of crafting a fragrance". Eliza took part in 2017 - I don't know if the project is still going, mind, or whether it got kiboshed by Covid.

Oh, and she is also writing a book...I can't say too much, but perfume materials and botany feature, together with food, and - intriguingly! - meditation. The food angle is not surprising, for I also learnt that Eliza is related to Prue Leith, no less.

So, as very often happens with perfume meet ups, the afternoon simply flew by, and there wasn't nearly enough time to talk about everything. So you may imagine my delight when Nicola announced that Eliza was popping back on Sunday morning with some samples for me, to wit a goodly clutch of Frederic Malles, including Lys Mediterrranee, of which I had recently drained my own sample. I had not tried Noir Epices, so I put it on today, notwithstanding its wintery style, and was instantly transported. I rushed to see what Boisdejasmin thought of it, as we have strikingly similar taste. I correctly predicted that she would have given it four stars (guessing Victoria's star attribution without peeking really could be a party trick of mine). This is not the time or place to describe Noir Epices in detail, even if I could do justice to its gauzy allure, but I commend V's review to you.

Samples complete with attractive bag!

One inevitable question that came up in conversation was our favourite perfumes: I had brought along House of Cherry Bomb Immortal Beloved and Guerlain Plus Que Jamais, which are in my top "two to three-ish", and Eliza was very taken with PQJ, which is a great shame as it is discontinued. See my eulogy at the time of its demise. Eliza said her favourite perfume was possibly one she greatly admired, yet wouldn't actually wear on account of its hugeness, namely FM Une Rose. Curious to understand this accolade, Nicola sprayed a trace amount and promptly saw exactly what she meant. ;) Then in terms of a favourite wearable scent, Eliza plumped for Roger & Gallet's rose perfume, which I assume is this one. I shall look out for it when I am in France next!

Source: FragranceX

In closing, I would like to give a big shout out to Nicola for having the idea to arrange this meeting with Eliza, on the assumption that we would have a fair bit in common and to chew the cud about (we did!).

And here is a photo of Nicola's pet lion, Tio, who has to be the most statuesque domestic cat I have ever encountered.