Monday 27 February 2023

L'Erbolario Meharees, a three-date perfume date, and a quick health update

St Mary's, Stafford ~ Source: Wikimapia

That's a rather date-heavy title, but the reason will become clear presently...!

I will have to keep this post fairly short, as unfortunately my trapped nerve pain is back, I hope only temporarily. I had to stop my nerve blocking medication recently, as one of its key side effects would have muddied the symptoms of another condition for which I was being tested, and it may be that the pain hadn't in fact gone away naturally as I had thought, but rather was being successfully controlled by the drug - and with a bit of luck will be again! 

In the spirit of getting on with things regardless, I have carried out a couple of "perfume consultations" lately - I will couch them in inverted commas as they sound too formal and grand without. The first was with a neighbour, K, who is my go-to mattress flipping partner, and also helped me chop vegetables and open tins when my neck and arm were at their worst. I was very grateful for her help and wanted to return the favour in some form. It turns out that she had been disappointed in a couple of her recent perfume purchases / gift requests, which were based on glowing Mumsnet recommendations. I do myself turn to Mumsnet extensively for views on everything from shades of wall paint that would match a specific colour of kitchen cabinet to menopausal supplements, foolproof ways to cook a turkey, and remedies for eczema and mould on windows; in the light of K's experience, however, I would counsel against being swept up by the collective fervour of mums about a particular fragrance. Anyway, we had a good session testing different combos of woody / spicy / ambery / orange-y / powdery scents, and K took away a dozen samples to test at her leisure, including Maison Kurkdjian APOM pour femme, DSH Nourouz, Armani She White, Penhaligon's Elixir, By Kilian Amber Oud, and Puredistance Sheiduna. We both hoped that if she fell in love with any of them, it wouldn't turn out to be one that was either discontinued or horrendously expensive, which as we all know is a lot to ask for these days.

Next up was a meeting with a crime writer friend, Maureen, who had asked me to put together a selection of perfumes with vanilla in them; she also wanted to try Prada Candy, the second of my trapped nerve comfort scents. We met up in a coffee shop in town that I hadn't been in since the 80s - no idea why not, as it was bright and cosy, with a good view of St Mary's church and grounds, and sported the fancy new name of French & Byrne, which to my mind rather evoked a top hair salon or a brand of toiletries you might find in the better class of B & B, when it is in fact a specialist in brunch. Maureen had a coffee and got a wholemeal date scone to take away, kindly buying me one as well, along with my pot of tea.

I can't recall exactly what I gave her to try, though quite a few of the samples I had brought were "straight up" vanillas that Maureen not unexpectedly found a tad simplistic, while Hermes Vanille Galante and L'Esprit d'Oscar were a little too oddball for her taste. Her top two scents that really hit the spot were firstly Bvlgari Jasmin Noir, which I included in the testing pack a) because it is in a similar vein to Candy, and b) because M likes Lancome La Vie est Belle and I thought this would be a less sweet variant of possible interest - and L'Erbolario Meharees. She also liked Mona di Orio Vanille (vanilla with a treacly twist), and Jo Malone Vanilla & Anise (vanilla with an aniseed twist, as you may readily infer).

As soon as Maureen expressed an interest in Meharees, I revealed that it had dates in it - or notes that conjured up the smell of dates, it might be more accurate to say - and she said that might be why she was subliminally drawn to it, citing the bagged date scone in evidence. She is a prodigious lover of dates, it transpires! At that point I thought to mention that I had (uncharacteristically) made flapjack with dates in it only the other day, and had I known I would have given her a few pieces to take home.

I later sent Maureen the exchange I had with the band when I presented Meharees to them to try in Berlin (almost nine years ago, wow!). Jane, the tour manager, had just brought it back from Bologna, where they had gigged the week before, so if nothing else it is a well travelled bottle. (Full post here.)

The Méharées handover, and the focus group in a kebab shop 

That first night in Berlin also saw the handover by Jane (who FYI rocked Gorilla Perfumes' heady floral, Sikkim Girls, all week) of the bottle of L'Erbolario Méharées, which they had kindly bought for me in Bologna the previous weekend.  Thus it was that when I adjourned with the band to the kebab shop near their digs, I still had the bottle of perfume in my hand, and it was ceremoniously plonked on the table, next to the condiments, before I had the idea to ask them what they made of it, and passed the bottle around, inviting them to sniff the nozzle.

Guitarist: 'It's quite sweet.'
Bass player: 'It's nice - is there really just myrrh and dates in there?'
Singer (in a slightly incredulous tone): 'Whoever thought to put myrrh in a perfume?!'

(Editor's Note: The singer has certainly seen fit to put references to the scent of myrrh in a fair few of his lyrics. ;) )

So that meeting in a brunch cafe had a satisfactory outcome - I am always pleased when friends find new scents to love. And when she got home, Maureen scored a partial bottle of Jasmin Noir on eBay (it has since been renamed "Splendida Jasmin Noir", but the formula hasn't changed), and a full bottle of Meharees on Amazon. She was even more pleased with her purchase of the latter when I lobbed in the fact that Meharees is generally considered to be the best dupe going of a scent called Musc Ravageur.

I mean what's not to like about a ravaging musk?

Tuesday 14 February 2023

Valentine's, Schmalentine's: aka tolling the bell for the rose with no smell?

Yesterday I paid a visit to a luxury hotel on the outskirts of town, which is well known locally as a venue for conferences and weddings. A friend had been at a work event there recently, and was singing the praises of the hotel's promotional pen that she had used on the day. It wrote so smoothly, apparently, and was lovely to hold. Although she had taken it away with her, it had since run out, as she had used it so much. "Aha, I said", quickly diagnosing the attraction. "I think I know exactly the pen quality you like - partly haptics in the hand, and partly glide performance", to which she replied: "Haptics and glide. Exactly so." 

Sensing a challenge to which I could rise, I first made a telephone inquiry to the hotel, to confirm the identity of the pen and check they still had some in stock, then called in and met the receptionist I had spoken to, who immediately handed me a pair of pens to give to my friend, and refused to take any money for them. "We can't even remember what they cost!"

On the desk at reception I couldn't help but notice two large boutique paper carrier bags with rope handles, each containing dozens and dozens of single stem red roses, individually wrapped in cellophane. It took me a moment to compute that they were probably going to be favours at place settings for romantic Valentine's Day meals the following day, rather than the unsolicited kind touted in armfuls from table to table by the rose-equivalent of a Big Issue seller, endlessly repeating the question: "Flower for the lady?"


I remembered how characterless and bland such roses are, with their tiny compact heads - and crucially no smell. Sour grapes you could say, hehe...

Mind you, there was an interesting poll about Valentine's Day reported on the radio yesterday, which found that only a third of couples were planning to mark the occasion "with a romantic interest", and of those, just under two thirds were going to stay in rather than have a special meal out, go to an event, or travel. Along with the Danes and the Spanish, we Brits are the most sceptical and bah humbug-ish nation in the world, with over 80% of us believing that the 14th February is not a "proper" special occasion, but one "celebrated more because of pressure from commercial entities". Perhaps surprisingly, the Chinese lead the table of considering Valentine's Day to be a genuine day for lovers (41%, compared to just 13% of Britons and a paltry 5% of Danes). I found those statistics quite revealing, for if you only based your judgment on the window displays of Clinton Cards and the M & S Food Hall you would get the impression that every woman in the land is going to cop for a bunch of of odourless roses, an oversized and disconcertingly squishy teddy bear, and a heart shaped box of truffles.

I was trying to remember the last time I received a mystery Valentine's card, and I fear it may be as far back as 1983. I eventually worked out who it was from - a boy on my college course in whom, sadly for us both, I had no interest. I am not sure I have ever received a secret card which did turn out to be sent by the person I hoped it would be from. This of course excludes "open exchanges" of cards from partners - and from cats indeed. For most of my time with ex-Mr Bonkers, four cards would change hands each year. I was always very impressed at the coherence of the writing. 

This morning I heard the thud of the post and scurried downstairs to find a pizza leaflet and two catalogues. One of these was called Owl and Barn, and featured a host of ornaments of questionable taste, including a pair of resin ducks dressed in gardening clothes, a Thoughts Tube Lamp (don't ask), a Special Friend Butterfly Tribute "with pink Austrian crystal elements", no less, an Angel's Blessing Music Box, an Illuminated Everlasting (= Faux) Orchids Terrarium, and a selection of the most depressingly mumsy fleecy sweatshirts with demure collars I have ever had the misfortune to lay my eyes on, in equally unflattering colours like Man City blue. Clearly I haven't been surfing right, to have been targeted with a catalogue of such arresting tweeness.

Now I was going to wear a rose perfume as a small concession to the day, but I accidentally sprayed on Miller Harris Fleurs de Sel before I remembered, haha - a more dissimilar scent to rose could hardly be imagined. There is at least a mini bottle of pink Prosecco in the fridge, although it is only Tuesday.  I will also launch a surgical strike on the supermarkets tomorrow, and buy myself some more flowers at a hopefully reduced rate. These cheery tulips are arguably beyond the pale now... 

Do you celebrate Valentine's Day with your significant other - or yourself, even, in the spirit of "self-care"? (Please feel free to shoot me for using that term)

How properly special vs commercial do you feel it is?

And do you also choose your SOTD with the occasion in mind?

If you would prefer to read a more romantic, "on-message" Valentine's post (well, that might still be a stretch in places), here is one from ten years ago today!

Saturday 4 February 2023

Madame Rochas does time...travelling, as the Perfume Stories workshops go "inside"

HMP Liverpool - Source: Wikimedia Commons ~ Rodhullandemu

Back in December 2019, in that innocent twilight period just before the pandemic, I attended a workshop in the "Perfume Stories" series at The Tate gallery in Liverpool. This was the brainchild of Michael O'Shaughnessy, a senior lecturer in Graphic Design and Illustration at the Liverpool School of Art & Design at John Moores University, and a perfumista zealot on the side. The original programme of workshops was attended by final year students on his course, followed by an assortment of other fragrance lovers like me, who happened to get wind of the event. My rather long and meandering blog post about that day may be found here. (NB This one is also going to be on the long side!)

Here is Mike speaking about the alchemy of scent, and its power to take us back to other times and places:

"Some are childhood memories, but others are more complex...I never quite bought into the Dr Who thing when I was a kid, but this is time travelling."

Selfie by Michael O'Shaughnessy

During his residency at The Tate, the Perfume Stories workshops came to the attention of the Operational Lead for Creative Arts & Enrichment at Novus, a provider of a variety of educational content within prisons. Together they conceived of how to adapt Mike's sessions for inmates, using fragrance as a means to effect change, and promote learning and rehabilitation. 

Mike readily admits that before embarking on this venture he grappled in his own mind with its moral complexity, given the gravity of some of the offences for which inmates had been incarcerated. Eventually though, the vast majority of prisoners return to normal life, so he figured that it makes sense to try to turn their lives around while they are still inside, rather than have prison serve as "a finishing school for supercriminals".

Mike also felt he had the interpersonal skills to be able to strike up a rapport with the prisoners; an academic by profession, in his spare time he enjoys open water swimming, and mixes with people from all walks of life, including teachers, ex-boxers, and even some ex-cons. ;)

"Hey, working with students is just as challenging!"

As regards the pedagogical aim of the project, Mike hoped that the workshops would put offenders on a new path to learning, by offering a more inclusive and composite approach that combined Graphic Design, Literature, Science and Olfaction. He wanted to tap into inmates' scent memories, and thereby challenge perceived ideas around literacy amongst groups who - as he delicately put it - "may have had an uneven relationship with education". 

Image by Michael O'Shaughnessy

Thus it was that in February 2020, just before the Covid shutters came down, Mike ran a three hour pilot workshop with two small groups of four 'mainstream' prisoners in HMP Liverpool, known locally as Walton prison. Ahead of his arrival, word got around that "The Perfume Man" was coming to visit.

Prisons typically hold weekly Recreation & Education sessions, and inmates sign up to do a particular educational activity. 

"With me it has always been a weird sell, because they don't quite know what it is."   

People mostly opted into the Perfume Stories sessions because they were inquisitive, though Mike told me of one case later in the project where a group of younger prisoners were instructed to take part by prison staff.

A concern Mike had about the viability of the project was that prisoners might have lost their sense of smell, or not be able to rely upon it at any given moment, say. This is because the olfactory mechanism stops working when people are under great stress, a fact of which I was unaware, though I am not drawn to wearing perfume when I feel on edge. Mike discussed this potential issue with a prisoner at Walton, who confirmed that it does indeed occur, typically when people are kept in a holding cell after their arrest. Once they are either charged or released, however, their sense of smell returns. (Prisoners taking part in later sessions also attested to this phenomenon of temporary anosmia.)

"The Time Travellers" by Michael O'Shaughnessy

The format of the session was similar to that described in my blog post: Mike would introduce literary references to perfume, explain some of the science behind how smell works, and give the participants individual scent strips to smell with the question: "What does it make you think of?", whereupon the inmates would write down their thoughts and share them with the group.

"You ask them what it makes you think of, what it reminds you of, and it will always get you, it will always catch them."

Mike deliberately chose six complex fragrances with a lot of depth to them, including some high end luxury scents. He avoided strong masculine fragrances, but rather went for a more feminine or unisex vibe, which explains why my vintage bottle of Madame Rochas from the 1960's made the cut. 

HMP Liverpool ~ Photo by Michael O'Shaughnessy

The response to the pilot overall was positive: the stories people told were based on their own individual experiences and memories, often involving grandparents and matriarchal figures from childhood.

And then of course Covid struck, and the project was put on hold. In early 2021, Mike worked with his opposite number at Novus on an alternative way to deliver the sessions - still in Walton, but with a different category of 'vulnerable' prisoners, who for a variety of reasons would not fare well in the main cohort of the jail.

An explanatory DVD was developed, and sets put together of 5-letter coded blotters in sealed airtight packaging. The material was issued to participants about a fortnight before Mike's visit in May 2021. They were lent DVD players so they could watch the DVDs in their cells, as well as smelling the scents in their own time, rather than back to back, as was the case in the pilot, which was felt to be a bit much by some. Mike also supplied visual aids in the form of an A3 folding worksheet with directions, literary references, and some facts about perfume, together with graphics and diagrams.

These were later pared back and simplified following feedback from the groups attending this round of Perfume Stories. Some of the information was removed, more space created for people to use for their own notes and stories, and the phrase "Time Travellers" introduced. 

"They obviously didn't do what I asked them to do, because they just basically went through all the scents!"

"The other thing that I think is important for them to feel is...there's an element of rehabilitation - if they've got a stake in the process, that has value."

Because of Covid restrictions, Mike had to talk to prisoners individually on the wing with the door open to their cells - in what was a noisy setting with harsh lighting and while he was wearing a mask(!). He told me he was simultaneously processing the environment of the prison in his own mind and the conversations with the inmates, with whom he conducted four separate sessions, a week apart (one initial trial, followed by three with the same people).

Walton Prison ~ Source: Liverpool Echo

Here are a few reactions to the project:

"Mental escapism, the project translates you far beyond the prison walls."

"It held my attention, unusual, unique, interesting - different from any other education in here"

"Smell isn't just in the nose, it's an all over body experience."

Escapism and positive memories were commonly reported, putting participants in a calmer, more reflective mood.

And here are some of their comments about how exactly the scents spoke to them:

"The rusty dry smell you get in Autumn."

"I'll always remember the smell of my dear old Nan, I just hope she's in a better place now dancing away with Elvis & John Wayne two of her favourite people in the whole world."

"The moment I first detected the scent, I pictured myself standing on a shore with huge waves crashing onto the beach. I can't fully explain this image but it seems to be similar to a day in September 1988 when, aged 23 I stood on the beach at Aberystwyth looking out to sea day dreaming. The colour that came to mind, not unexpectedly, was light blue."

Following the success of the workshops in HMP Liverpool, Novus invited Mike to extend them to HMP Hindley near Wigan, using the tweaked material. HMP Hindley is a Category C prison with a mix of age groups, where Mike spent four weeks working with four groups spread over sixteen visits: one initial trial, two groups with 'recovery' prisoners (ie those who had committed crimes linked to substance abuse), and one with young offenders. He found that overall the process worked best with men over 30, who had clocked up more life experience, and hence had a greater store of scent memories to tap into.

It was at HMP Hindley that my bottle of Mme Rochas was deployed! - sprayed onto the coded scent strips, obviously. It was in the first group Mike held with five older men. I asked him what they made of it:

"The aldehydes are the one thing I do tell them about...the aldehydes are like that supercharged fizz that gets them, and that's got it. Some of the really classic perfumes with the aldehydes are the ones which take them right back to different places they didn't expect to be taken back to."

And here are the thoughts of a prisoner at HMP Hindley known as D, inspired by his scent sampling:

The more I can Imagine my future – the greater the possibility. 

What does my future smell like ? 

Does the world have a place for me 

The past was how I remembered it 

How I experienced it. It taught me how to feel 

I experience now through the mirror of the past. 

How I respond to the past effects my future.

HMP Hindley ~ Source: Manchester Evening News

Speaking more generally about the workshops, Mike added that top end rose-based perfumes were found to be very evocative.

"Anything with rose...a lot of the high quality perfumes that are more nuanced, so you'll get a direct reaction to one thing and an indirect reaction to something else in there."

Lavender and vanilla notes were also major triggers to scent memories.

"Anything that has got a base of lavender or vanilla in it, anything with vanilla in it - and most of that period of smells will have that - that gets them. Vanilla is probably the one ubiquitous thing which will always take them back to a particular place, partly due to the ubiquity of vanilla in different products. So it will be normally a matriarchal experience of bathroom soap - that's a really good one, and it is like a light going on for them."

Mike also singled out Chanel Les Exclusifs Cuir de Russie for special mention, because of the sheer variety of associations it prompted:

"It's so strange, because the links are so personal: I mean a newsagent's shop, or it could be a mosque,or it could be - you know, the inside of a cupboard."

Source: Manchester Evening News

In the next phase of his project, Mike was asked to carry out his workshops with prisoners at HMP Buckley Hall, near Rochdale. It is a facility for mostly long term inmates, who tend to be settled in a routine and more relaxed. The prison's Educational Facilitator had worked at Selfridge's and knew a lot about perfume(!), so she was keen to introduce the activity there. The environment was very conducive to conversation, and there was less churn in those attending the groups - a degree of which is inevitable in prisons, as people get moved on or released. As Mike observed: 

"It is better when there is more consistency - same environment, same guys."

I asked Mike whether over the course of his time visiting jails he had ever felt apprehensive about being in such close contact with criminals. He said not, because he was someone from outside the justice system and not an authority figure of any kind. 

"They really liked me: I'm part education, but I'm not part of the Education wing, I'm not part of the prison. Also, I'm not being marked on it, I'm not being assessed - they're really okay with me...I'm always treated as like an exotic thing."

"I move between the academic world and the prison world. My colleagues are always thinking I am going to be killed or have boiling water thrown at my face, or [redacted!]...They will attack another prisoner, they will attack an officer if they bear a grudge, but they are not going to attack a stranger. It's a myth. So I never feel uncomfortable or vulnerable - I'm quite relaxed about it. I do enjoy it."

Moreover, over the course of the project Mike gained a lot of experience about the types of characters who are in prison, what their "stories" are, and what makes them tick. He did concede though that the whole dynamic would probably have been very different had he been a woman... 

Mike has now been invited to take his Perfume Stories back to Buckley Hall in April or May of this year, where Madame Rochas will be having another outing. It might be a bit of a stretch to imagine that perfume therapy with inmates on its own could dramatically reduce the recidivism rate on their release, but the promising response so far to Mike's work certainly gives me hope...