Friday 29 December 2023

Burning the end at both candles: Boujee Bougies Gilt and Elemis Regency Library - a "cold throw" mini-review, and coming up for air

This Christmas was a marked improvement on last year, when the months of trapped nerve pain in my neck managed to segue seamlessly into Covid. This year (apart from an alleged shadow on the lung, of which more anon) I was in much better shape, and de-stressed the big day by opting for a high welfare chicken rather than a turkey, not even one in a conveniently legless and bacon-draped format. I had to traipse round four supermarkets, mind, to find a chicken that had had anything remotely approaching a reasonable life, which was in itself a bit stressful. Also, the only one I could find in the end fed 7-8, and there were only three of us for dinner, including a vegetarian. Looking back, I would still declare the meal to have been a resounding success, because everything came together on time, notwithstanding the usual musical-baking-tins-on-oven-shelves malarkey; my perennially teetotal elderly friend downed two Snowballs, and the only thing I burnt was my hand. The day was additionally bookended by breakfast and supper at a friend's round the corner, and midnight saw me bin diving for lobster in the alley behind her house. With the owner's permission I should add, as she had found it texturally disappointing and overly labour-intensive, which is fair enough.

Then I don't know about you, but I always buy myself a clutch of small presents and put them unwrapped under the tree, as a sort of self-gifting comfort blanket, I suppose. (Did I say "gifting"?!? Feel free to take me out and shoot me, as I swore I never would never stoop to using the cringe-making verbified form.) This year my purchases included some socks, a box of Turkish Delight, which somehow managed to become two, a Thermos flask to replace the one I foolishly put soup in that smelt strongly of onions, several bars of sandalwood soap, a pre-owned pocket Filofax, an elephant key ring, and two candles. I had thought of buying a 30ml travel spray of Boujee Bougies Gilded on a blind basis (another shooting offence, as we all know!), but decided on balance that that was too risky, and defaulted to the safety of the smaller candle instead - a 60ml baby one in Gilt. I have only just caught up with the fact that the candle and perfume have different yet confusingly similar names, hehe, and Pia from Boujee Bougies kindly pointed out the distinction: 

"In Gilded perfume, the drydown smells similar to the hot throw of the candle. The top note of the perfume (of aldehydes and saffron) might seem startlingly different. Spice / aldehydes / incense / amber is the perfume."

So now I want to know what a hot throw is, and whether it is a point on the trajectory of a burning candle that you might easily miss, like an eclipse, or a meteor shower?

Aha, here we go...;)

"Hot throw: The term used to describe the strength of fragrance while a candle is burning. This evaluation is typically done after the candle has been burning for at least two hours but no more than four. Cold throw: In contrast, describes the strength of fragrance before a candle has been burned for the first time."

So all those times I have sniffed candles in T K Maxx, I have been smelling their cold throws!

Speaking of T K Maxx, that is where I bought the Elemis Regency Library candle. It retails at £42, but I got it for £19.99 as it was boxless. Not only that, but the label on the top was misspelt - the three fragrance notes were listed as Cade, Cedarwood and Sandlewood. My gain. So while the Elemis candle - or should that be candal?? - is nearly four times as big as the Boujee Bougies one, the Gilt mini does smell very refined and high end, or high altar indeed, for its scent is distinctly ecclesiastical. Its cold throw is so mesmerising in fact that I can't see how its hot one could top it. The Elemis is also a cut above most of the candles I sampled in T K Maxx - much as its spa body products are for that matter - but it is a "colder" scent, partly due I sense to its cooler blue label compared to the golden livery of the Gilt.

Now if I were a proper reviewer I would light them both and report back, but I can't bring myself to do that yet - I have other candles on the go I feel I should finish first, not least my Roja Dove one from years ago that I scored (rather aptly!) in some kind of fire sale. 

So instead I will reprise a selection of the intriguing things I learnt about candle usage from a previous purchase of Aldi's Jo Malone dupes - full post here:

"First and foremost, we are advised: "WARNING: CANDLES CAN CAUSE FIRES". Crikey, I would never have considered that. But that is just the start of it...We are also told:

"May produce an allergic reaction"

"Harmful to aquatic life with long lasting effects"

"Avoid release to the environment"

But hold on, how does one go about burning a candle in the first place without releasing its smoke / emissions to the 'environment' of one's living room? Or does the advice relate to the great outdoors? Are they saying it is okay to gas yourself and your goldfish quietly in the comfort and fragrant ambiance of your own home, but not to allow noxious particles to escape in your street for passers by to inhale? It's a conundrum. Interestingly, Red Roses is NOT deemed harmful to aquatic life. I just toss that titbit out there in case you were considering investing in a three pack and splitting it with friends. Give the fish owners the rose one, that would be the smart move."

The warning on the box of Gilt is along similar lines in terms of allergies, risk to fish and to the environment. I daresay it would be on the Regency Library candle too if it had a box. I learnt on the Gilt packaging that you should burn a candle all the way to the edge, from between two to four hours. When you think of all the Christmas house parties taking place up and down the land, how many hosts -especially after necking a few too many glasses of Cava and mushroom vol-au-vents - remember to keep a note of their candle burning hours? And five years on from that post I quoted, I have still not got to grips with wick trimming, snuffing, or the proper placement of "hot bottoms".

Which leads me lastly onto the notion of burning things and lung care...At the end of November I was recalled for a routine chest X-Ray as part of the panel of investigative tests I am undergoing for Sjogren's Syndrome (or Sjogren's Disease, as it is more properly known now, and which should also have two dots over the "o"). The X-Ray purported to find a "ring shadow" on my lung, so I was sent to another hospital for a CT scan a fortnight later. The extremely harrowing parking situation at that hospital easily took several years off my life, never mind my putative pulmonary problems, and I missed the appointment by some margin; luckily the staff at the mobile scanning unit were able to squeeze me in within half an hour.

 From the time I was told about the shadow till the letter arrived saying that the second scan had shown "no concerning or untoward features" - a period of three weeks or so - I had ample time to look back on my relationship with lung irritants down the years...there's the open wood fire in my French house, which billows black smoke into the room like the cooling towers of a condemned power station; there's a smattering of passive smoking around mainly musician friends, there's my joss stick habit - I fear that I always stayed in the same room as the incense to enjoy it rather than stepping outside while it burned or keeping it next to an open window ;) - and my much more occasional use of scented candles. Could I really have done some mischief to my lungs, and if I had, how would I change my home fragrance behaviour "going forward"? I realised that I would find it hard to give up joss sticks in particular, and also candles now and again, because of the sense of calm and well-being they confer. As with so many things in life, something can be both beneficial and hazardous for health at the same time. I've also started to burn logs in the grate in the front room, which surely can't be ideal, but it feels so cosy - and warm!

So yes, moderation in all things is probably the best policy, and you can't go through life being scared of every possible risk to health or you would go mad. Just as I burnt the candle at both ends socially over Christmas, and didn't once think of the Covid risk from gatherings, as I might once have done. Yes, life is for living,and fragrance in all its forms is very much part of that...

Sunday 26 November 2023

"The nearest grande dame of literary fiction may be behind you!" Meeting Madame Antonia, aka the late A S Byatt

1999 was a challenging year for me. Have you noticed how "challenging" has come to mean everything from "bloody awful" to "damn near impossible", as well as its primary meanings of "inviting competition" and "testing one's abilities"? The word has become the go-to euphemism (especially in government circles) for "much harder than we care to say". In 1999 of course the world was bracing itself for technical malfunctions on an apocalyptic scale, as we approached Y2K -  preppers hunkered down in bunkers in anticipation, stocked to the gunwhales with candles and several years' worth of baked beans - yet when the date rolled round it was all a bit of a damp squib. I saw the millennium in in a smoke-filled pub in Stoke, and absolutely nothing happened, except for a lot of kissing. 

No, 1999 was challenging for me on account of a back to back series of challenging(!) work projects, and the death of my mother in January. So tight were the deadlines on the job I was on at the time, that I was on the phone to Switzerland and Germany making appointments the day after I registered her death, with my sister-in-law sitting quietly at my side, choosing hymns for the funeral and exuding a generally comforting presence.

In June of that year I carried out a study in France on the market for ladies' hosiery, on behalf of a company that made nylon yarn. By chance, several of the manufacturing centres for ladies' tights coincide with famous wine growing regions, so I was able to do some memorable tasting along the way. Examples of this happy crossover were Troyes (champagne, plus a bonus hosiery museum!), and Pouilly Fuisse (wine and town neatly combined in one name), but there were others along my route south. Eventually I ended up in a fairly obscure part of the Gard in South West France. My meeting was at the hosiery factory in Le Vigan, but I stayed in a pretty auberge in the nearby village of Aveze, which served food on its shady terrace. 


After my meeting, I was unpacking my briefcase when the chambermaid stuck her head round the door, asking if I would like my room to be made up. She immediately clocked the dictaphone on the bed and inquired gaily: "Oh, have you come to interview Madame Antonia?!" I said no, while wondering who this person was to cause her to jump to that conclusion. I set about transcribing my recording for the rest of the afternoon, and thought no more about it. That evening I wandered down to the garden restaurant, ordered some food and a glass of wine, and carried on reading one of the books I had brought with me on the trip.

I had just started my main course when I heard a very well-spoken English voice address me from a table diagonally behind me (centre left vs bottom right in the photo below):

"So how are you finding the McEwan?"

I nearly jumped out of  my chair, as I hadn't heard any English for a good week or so. I turned round and instantly recognised the late middle-aged lady as A S Byatt, and also made the connection with the chambermaid's question earlier - I hadn't even known her Christian name was Antonia, as she is so often referred to by her initials. As luck would have it, I had noticed a review by her on the back of Amsterdam, the book in question, and was able to reply, quick as a flash:

"I'm enjoying it. And there is actually a review by you on the back cover!"

"Oh jolly good, what did I say?"

"'Full of gusto, straightforward, and delivers blows to the gut...shocking.'"


I sensed that A S Byatt couldn't quite remember saying those very words, but that she trusted and stood by her earlier judgement - the book had come out the previous year. There followed a stimulating conversation about our favourite novels, and the role of literary criticism. I told her my mother had recently died, and that she was proud of the fact that she had never read a book of literary criticism, which made her laugh. She asked me who my favourite author was, which put me on the spot, and I blurted out Barbara Trapido, whom A S Byatt also liked. Given more time, I am sure I would have come up with a more heavyweight writer like E M Forster, say, but I was caught completely off-guard. A S Byatt explained that she came here every summer to write, staying at a house she owned nearby, and eating her evening meals in the auberge. Her son was over at the moment, which was a bit of luck, as she was suffering from a cold and relied on him to do the shopping. She talked about having to read a lot of books in her capacity as judge for literary awards, and how much of an effort that could be, on account of the sheer volume of pages involved. She recommended I read "Black Dogs" by Ian McEwan (which I duly did later - what a dark tale that was!), and she was just about to recommend ice cream flavours for my dessert when the heavens opened, thunder clapped, and lightning streaked the sky. A full-on electrical storm erupted, scattering the guests in all directions in search of shelter. As I ducked into the hotel, I looked towards A S Byatt's table, but she had vanished, and the garden was sodden and deserted. Up in my room listening to the clamorous patter of the rain, the whole encounter had a dreamlike quality, adding to its charge, which is undimmed by the passing years.

Here is a photo of her, rather fittingly speaking at an event in Amsterdam!

Source: Wikimedia Commons ~ Fred Ernst

Then as you may have heard on the news, A S Byatt died earlier this month, aged 87.  After the deaths of Helen Dunmore and Hilary Mantel, I found myself suddenly wanting to read their work again. In the case of A S Byatt, I now have an urge to read her work for the first time, hehe, because although I own a quartet of her books, to my shame I  have never quite got round to reading them... This didn't stop me dining out on my meeting with this literary luminary for years afterwards, for which I was teased mercilessly by friends, whom it amused to contract her name to the even more succinctly familiar "A". They would find any opportunity to say: "And of course you have met A, haven't you?", and it became something of a running joke. It was one such friend who messaged me in fact to tell me the news of her death. I did feel genuinely sad, for quite apart from A S Byatt's great talent as a writer, she was a warm and approachable person who happened to appear - however fleetingly and mysteriously! - at a time when I was feeling the lack of a maternal figure, and our brief encounter has had a greater resonance as a result. 

Oh, and I quite forgot to ask her what denier and shade of tights she wore!

Wednesday 25 October 2023

Serge Lutens Santal Majuscule for a Minuscule price! - sampling the sample sites as Bonkers turns 14


Well, that's unusual...I am writing this post on my actual blog anniversary as opposed to a few days or weeks later, or not at all. I shan't make a big deal of it, as it doesn't seem warranted now I am only posting once a month or so, and I am sure I have lost some of my regular readers and commenters because of this sparse frequency. But people I will never know are still finding their way to the archives with their 756 posts - not necessarily meaning to, mind, as I suggested in this piece about blogging 11 years ago (see the full thing here):

'And the other important point to mention – and the final reason for keeping a sense of perspective - is that, crucially, many of your readers will land on your blog by mistake… Some of the more peculiar search terms that have directed people to Bonkers include: “leopard fantasy”, “Bo Derek naked”, “Anne Hathaway’s cottage opal flash parfum”, “Slovakian hobbits biscuits”, “swingos hotel Cleveland”, “card nuisance call boss telling her to do some work”, “kidnapping lillies” (sic), “what is the landform of Ohio”, “avocado” and “slime”.'

The weird thing is that we get tourists fetching up in Stafford by mistake who are also looking for Anne Hathaway's cottage, albeit not its associated perfume, if there even is one? Traffic is still traffic though, so I will cheerfully take all-comers. 

And though I am not posting often, I have been doing quite a few perfume "consultations" for friends or even friends of friends behind the scenes - one chap bought a bottle of L'Air du Desert Marocain on the back of his epiphany at my house - so fragrance is very much an ongoing interest. I have, however, largely lost any curiosity about new releases, as my tolerance for plethoras is much reduced these days. Plus I am only dimly aware of the latest crop of perfume blogs, because I still cling to those of my "generation" of 10-15 years ago. My blog roll is a frozen tribute to them, even though some of the titles are dormant now, and a few of the links may not work. I am even a bit out of touch with my cherished clutch of perfume friends - the aftermath of Covid and the chaos in the world generally may have played a role in that.

Despite this backdrop of drifting in my own becalmed backwater, and having more to do with fragrance wearers "in the wild" than the personalities in the blogosphere, occasionally, very occasionally, a new scent hits me in the solar plexus that I come across by some other route than a tip off from a fellow blogger, my usual source of information in recent years ever since I fell off a cliff as far as the brands / perfume houses were concerned, and they stopped sending me things to try.

To explain how this discovery came about, I need firstly to mention that I have recently joined a Qigong and a Mindfulness class. There is a bit of meditation tacked on at the end of the Qigong class and a bit of Qigong incorporated into the Mindfulness one. I didn't get on with Tai Chi which I also dabbled in - it was like a slo-mo version of Pan's People, with choreography that far exceeded my powers of coordination, but Qigong I can do, and it does wonderful things to me in return. "Postural diazepam" I called it. As things have turned out, this post from 2010 was eerily prescient, as the class I now attend is indeed under the auspices of the u3a (University of the Third Age).

Anyway, at the end of a recent Mindfulness class the leader started reminiscing about the smell of pure sandalwood oil from Mysore, and asked me if it was still used in modern perfumery, and whether I knew of current perfumes with a goodly dose of quality sandalwood of whatever provenance, so I said I would go away and have a think. I consulted a few blogs and YouTubers who had done their "Top 10 sandalwood fragrances" - there was quite a bit of crossover with the ones I had thought of, such as Guerlain Samsara, Diptyque Tam Dao, Hermes Santal Massoia, Le Labo Santal 33 etc - but several by Serge Lutens were not on my radar, including the one that most piqued my curiosity, Santal Majuscule. What's not to like about sandalwood being "writ large", in capital letters? ;) I had a sudden urge to try this apparent behemoth, and checked its availability on the sampling sites. 

Source: pinterest

First off, I bought a 1ml sample from Fragrance Samples came promptly, and knocked me sideways. I immediately rushed to run Santal Majuscule through the Boisdejasmin-ometer, as my taste in perfume is spookily aligned with Victoria's. Sure enough, she gives it four stars, and I will leave her to parse this beautiful rose and sandalwood scent, with its creamy, dusty base and meditative quality, making it the perfect accompaniment to a Mindfulness class!

Notes: sandalwood, rose, cocoa, tonka bean

Serge Lutens Santal Majuscule : Perfume Review - Bois de Jasmin

I quite agree with her use of the word "tender", which is exactly how it reads to me - a gentle murmur, a dreamy romantic scent, not shouty or scratchy or majuscule at all! I expect I am drawn to it because I love PG Brulure de Rose, which also has a powdery rose and chocolate accord. But Santal Majuscule is quieter and more refined somehow, much as I love Brulure.

I knew I needed more of the stuff, but the price of a 10ml decant on Fragrance Samples UK was £27.50 approx, so I googled some more suppliers (there are loads here these days, unlike the old days when you had to send off to The Perfumed Court or Luckyscent in the States!). Next up I landed on Scent Samples UK, who were offering the same amount for a mere £15, including p & p. Well, that seemed too good to be true, given that 50ml of this perfume retails for £125, which should work out at £25 per 10ml, much closer to the Fragrance Samples UK price. I googled reviews of Scent Samples UK on Trustpilot, and they were a bit mixed, but not worryingly so - or rather not to the point where I didn't dare risk an outlay of £15...

The decant also arrived very quickly, but on my first spray I couldn't detect the lovely dusty base - it was thin and very topnote-y - like a designer take on Santal Majuscule for a younger audience, if you can imagine that. I was disappointed and couldn't decide whether to send the perfume back or keep it for "casual spraying", with it being so relatively cheap. Then I had the idea to buy one more small decant from a private seller in a Facebook group, to help me figure out which was the true version, "best of three"-style. I was sure this person's bottle would be kosher, as the culture of that group is very straight and honest.

I also wrote to Scent Samples UK, explaining what had happened, and how I was going to wait till I had a third sample to test before taking a final view, and they were fine about it, saying I could send the decant back for a full refund if I wasn't happy after doing that comparison, whilst also drawing my attention to the possibility of natural variation between batches. The bit about the fragrance being crafted by skilled artisans amused me for some reason.

"It's essential to note that variations in the scent and colour of Santal Majuscule may occur due to its unique composition and craftsmanship. Each batch is carefully blended and crafted by skilled artisans, which can lead to subtle differences between batches."

So sample No 3 duly arrived, which smelt close to No 1 from Fragrance Samples UK...but meanwhile, I kept spraying the decant from Scent Samples UK, and lo and behold I suddenly got the full dusty, powdery experience! I think that very first spray must not have had all the ingredients in it, a bit like a vinaigrette bottle that you need to shake first, haha. Then I remembered that I had covered this very topic in an old post somewhere, which took some finding, but here it is:

Bonkers about Perfume: A Probably Preposterous Notion - The Unrepresentative Squirt

I do believe that I may have been experiencing the same phenomenon of "the unrepresentative squirt", and wrote back to Scent Samples UK accordingly, thanking them for their offer of a refund but saying it wouldn't be necessary after all. How they manage to sell 10ml for £15 is still a mystery though...did they get a bulk discount from Serge Lutens, or acquire some old stock on the grey market, or a job lot of testers, or are they having a fire sale prior to shutting up shop? Maybe Santal Majuscule is their loss leader, but if so it seems an odd one to choose. 

So there you have it...I am delighted to have enough Santal Majuscule to be going on with, and to have discovered a scent to which I have the same visceral attachment as I do to Brulure de Rose, yet which is softer and more "Mindfulness class-appropriate".

Monday 2 October 2023

My interview on Olfactoria's Travels revisited, ten years on...

2013 me

Another month has passed - I am taking the notion of slow blogging to the most leisurely extremes, I know, but I do feel I should only post when the muse moves me, and it seems to be on a bit of a go-slow these days, for the reasons I mentioned last time, topped off with another round of health investigations. Though as I can testify, a degree of slowing down is probably normal for most aging organisms! I certainly won't post more frequently simply to placate the cyberbots that measure that sort of thing. On a whim I put my URL into one of those Google page rank checker sites, and my ranking has in fact gone up a point to 4(!), so maybe less is more after all. I honestly don't mind if I slip all the way down the SEO snake to zero though, like the way I lost my Superhost status on Airbnb by taking time out with my neck last year.

The unexpected trigger for this post, which jump-started my mojo, was a recent Facebook message from a US friend (not a perfumista):

"Sooooo, I was looking you up thinking I was on my email and not general Google search and this came up. Fun read. Anytime you want to see the sea, come visit us in Ireland."

She had copied the link to an interview I did with Birgit of Olfactoria's Travels ten years ago today(!), so I decided to make this the subject of my current post, and to reflect on how far my answers would be the same now. I shan't reproduce B's interview in full, obviously, as that would infringe her copyright, so if you didn't see this first time round - or can't remember what I said (I only remembered fragments myself!) - may I trouble you to take a look so that what follows below makes sense?

People in Perfumeland - Vanessa Musson of Bonkers about Perfume

There are 20 questions (I never noticed that before), and I shall confine myself to commenting on whatever caught my eye, either because I am the same, or have changed in some way...

First up then...sleep. Ah dear, I am still that intermittently insomniac soldier, though my sleep difficulties tend to come in waves (like sadly elusive sleep itself!). I was thinking of writing a piece specifically on this topic in fact, as I have tried everything under the sun (and moon!) to address the issue, and am having some success with melatonin at the moment, especially the kind that is bundled in with soporific herbal ingredients like valerian, lemon balm, and Californian poppy. Do let me know in the comments if a post on sleep would be of interest - I even came up with a title already: "Chasing Morpheus". I could always shoehorn lavender into it somewhere to meet the "minimum perfume content threshold", hehe.

As for my morning cup of tea, it is exclusively decaffeinated now, following the advice of an A & E doctor two years ago, though I have no idea if that was really necessary for the organs he was trying to placate at the time. I figured that reducing my caffeine intake right down might at least help me sleep. I have no idea if that worked either, haha. But I persist with decaf tea. Having tried half a dozen brands, I can unequivocally recommend Yorkshire Tea (with the blue stripe on the box). Some of the rest taste like insipid dish water, with or without a disagreeable metal tang, giving the variant a bad rap.

Moving on, I still have key-related anxiety, which is if anything worse than ever. I must go back and lock my car three times if I lock it once. I am still in a committed relationship with kitchen towel, or "roll" if you prefer, and I still feel good when sitting in the sun, though the pleasure is more ambivalent these days: I didn't sunbathe once this year for the first time ever, and probably only once or twice in previous summers - as opposed to every time the sun came out when I was younger. ;) I am much more conscious of the harmful effects of UV rays, and can feel my skin getting drier and acquiring more and more brown spots and other examples of "hyperpigmentation". Recently, I have also come out in a startlingly scarlet smattering of cherry angiomas, though they are nothing to do with the weather. 

Then I do still love Germany, but haven't been there for years, and now I have a house in France I am going there instead every opportunity I get! I am mindful that while my French is coming on by leaps and bounds, notably  in terms of vocabulary to do with woodworm, roof repairs, and steel struts in masonry for hoiking up wisteria, my German is withering on the vine (or "Rebe", should that be?). I probably could still describe my dress style as "preppy grunge", and the French charity shop in the village where my house is is a treasure trove of quirky examples of the style...perhaps more grungy than preppy in the main.

As for my favourite perfume, I do still love Guerlain Plus Que Jamais, and wore it only the other day indeed, but as time goes by I find it more difficult to declare any perfume my absolute favourite. 

I still spend way too much time on social media, which I think is partly responsible for my fragmented attention span and sapping of creative juices - as well as being quite depressing after a while. On days when I notice my phone battery dipping below 50% I definitely feel more flat and listless than when I engage in low tech activities like going for walks - or even hoovering!

What else? I still do lots of research favours for people - most recently identifying companies specialising in bathroom renovations for an elderly (and increasingly immobile) friend; it has become a substitute for my old job, which I quit when I was 60. Well, it quit me, more like, as the work dried up, and by the time it appeared again post-Covid, I wasn't in the right headspace to carry on.

Then I still have tottering piles of books everywhere - the front room in particular is Tsundoku Central! 

Lastly, I drink much less than I did ten years ago - I only have one drink twice a week, or maybe three times (except when on holiday, of course). I can't say I feel any better for it, but my bones or other organs may tell a different story. I do still take to my bed in the afternoon if I am having a really bad day (or a migraine, which is grounds for a bad day in itself). 

Coincidentally, at a mindfulness class I now attend once a week, we were talking about the "continuity of the self" throughout one's life, and the same day I happened to spot this quote in a post by Maria Popova in The Marginalian, talking about the poet Mary Oliver:

'She identifies three primary selves that she inhabits, and that inhabit her, as they do all of us: the childhood self, which we spend our lives trying to weave into the continuity of our personal identity (“The child I was,” she writes, “is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.”); the social self, “fettered to a thousand notions of obligation”; and a third self, a sort of otherworldly awareness.'

So yes, although ten years is not a big time difference to chart one's own changes, I can see a strong thread of continuity between the 64-year old me and the 54-year old one, and confidently predict that the child I was will be with me in the grave, wrapped like a mummy in kitchen towel.

Editor's note: I'd also like to say a big thank you to Birgit for including me in her Perfumeland series. It was a rare treat for me to be on the other side of the interviewing process...;)

Monday 28 August 2023

Concrete, consumptives, and Coco in a convent

The winsome Post Office!

Two months have gone by since my last post! You may be forgiven for thinking I really had thrown in the blogging towel, but not so, or not yet. I was merely dormant, fielding various issues on both houses. For as with the kitchen renovations, being the only person involved in maintenance / repairs does take up that bit more time on top of the usual everyday chores. Why, I can easily spend an hour and a half preparing, eating and clearing away lunch. ;)

So anyway, Facebook friends may have seen an album of my holiday photos from France this summer - I use the word "holiday" advisedly, as there is always a substantial element of tradesmen liaison on every trip. Or attempted tradesmen liaison, and a lot of futile waiting around. I got more militant on this visit though - or do I mean more zen? After a couple of days of waiting for the non-appearing tradesman in question, I would just say: "Stuff it, I'm going out", and out I duly went. 

Thus it was that I did a lot more sightseeing this year, of everything from a slate quarry to an industrial forge, to a river gorge, to assorted picture book-pretty villages, to the convent where Coco Chanel lived as a little girl(!), to a place that looks as far removed architecturally from people's mental image of the Dordogne as it is possible to be...Clairvivre.

Designed by the architect Pierre Forestier, Clairvivre was built in the 1930s in the Brutalist style, specifically to house WW1 veterans with tuberculosis. Its unremittingly boxy buildings - with a slightly mitigating Art Deco nod here and there in the occasional curved line - assault the senses on arrival, jarring so starkly with the soft honeyed stone of the surrounding villages, such aGénis, where (in the absence of any public facilities) I popped to the loo in the town hall. 

I was the only British car in Clairvivre - the only tourist indeed - and one of only a handful of people out and about, period! Apparently some / many? of the current residents also have health issues, which may explain the dearth of pedestrians. It was a blisteringly hot day, and I wandered around the various levels, dazzled by the sunshine and incongruity of the buildings in equal measure: it was as though I had stumbled into the DDR or somewhere of that Soviet block ilk. 

Council offices!

And here is the town hall in nearby Génis, as a "Dordogne architectural control"...

Clairvivre managed to conjure up both the ambience of a sanatorium - with its attendant whiff of illness and worse - and that of a rather drab holiday camp. Think Butlin's in the early '60s, say. It was one of the most peculiar places I have ever been to, not least because of the sheer uniformity of the buildings, both domestic and commercial. The post office pictured at the top of this post reminded me of the secret headquarters of Thunderbirds on Tracy Island. ;) But fair play to the place, it dared to sell postcards, without a hint of irony. 

Another day, I drove to the furthest reaches of the nearest big town to my village, Brive-la-Gaillarde, on a quest to buy linen for a door curtain. My guest bedroom in the French house, though small, has no fewer than five doors(!); it is your Feng Shui nightmare, basically, and I thought if I got some fabric to make a curtain for the one that leads to the attic, that would at least take the edge off the room's "door intensiveness". 

One door down...!

My errand completed, I realised that I was only about 20 minutes' drive away from the Abbaye d'Aubazine, famous for being the childhood home of Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel and two of her sisters, after the death of their mother and departure of their father to America, leaving the children effectively orphaned. Her two brothers arguably had a worse fate, being placed with local peasant farmers, and put straight to hard manual work despite their young age. 

Gabrielle was 11 at the time she entered the convent, and remained there for seven years, before moving to another convent(!), a sort of "finishing school" in a place called Moulins. If the cloistered life had been so intolerable, you would think Coco and her sisters would have struck out on their own instead, but maybe she was so institutionalised by this point that the transition was easily made. Her time with the sisters of Aubazine was a very regimented lifestyle, certainly, and not particularly academic; according to Lisa Chaney's biography, Chanel: An Intimate Life, which I review here, Coco escaped into romantic fiction, which she managed to squirrel away in her attic quarters. In later life she refers to being cared for during this period by "aunts", who turn out to be a deliberately vague conflation of actual aunts and the nuns at Aubazine. It was not a happy time, according to Chaney:

"Surrounded as she was by unloving authority figures, Gabrielle's early experience was one of consistent disharmony, repression and neglect."

Abbaye d'Aubazine

I would have liked to have gone on a tour of the abbey, but I arrived too late for the last entry time. Instead I contented myself with taking a good look inside the en suite church, which boasts some fine wood carvings. 

There is an impressive sarcophagus of Saint-Etienne (as in the actual saint, not the town, football team, or band of that name).

I also climbed up the hill to the Canal des Moines, a remarkable engineering feat fashioned by monks in the umpteenth century to supply the abbey with fresh water. (Okay, 12th C.) I only walked a short way along the path though, as I was due to collect a friend's son from the station in Brive. Still, it is nice to have a reason to come back there again when I have more time...