Thursday, 17 August 2017

Le Civette & Unicorn, Collonges-La-Rouge: another holiday in the Limousin - Part 2

Collonges-La-Rouge
I so wanted to call this post 'Le Civette, L'Unicorn, et Le (Scent) Wardrobe', but that would have interfered with the integrity of the company name for starters, while the pun is tenuous at best in any case. Where is the witch, I hear you ask? Civet cats and lions may be considered loosely related, and unicorns are in fact mentioned in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - and The Last Battle - but they are resolutely absent from those books' titles.

I would also like to have conveyed just how astonished and delighted I was to stumble across this artisanal perfumery - one of only a handful such enterprises in Europe where the perfumer lives on site, creating and making fragrances from start to finish - in the small commune of Collonges-La-Rouge.  This fairytale village is about a hour's drive from my friend L's house - 45 minutes if her navigator had spotted the turn off for Toulouse first time round - and draws visitors on account of its quaint cobbled streets and the deep red sandstone of its buildings. Think Caldy Hill on The Wirral. Er...that is perhaps a rather obscure analogy, but it may mean something to someone!

Caldy Hill: 'Does this house look red to you?'

And when I say touristy, the many gift shops in Collonges-La-Rouge mainly sold what ex-Mr Bonkers would have referred to generically as 'high quality tat'. L bought a charming little bib for a baby that was about to be born to her next door neighbour, and I would have bought a bar of brown soap(!) - which some of my Facebook friends may recall as being a bit of a holy grail quest of mine - had it not cost 5 euros, and not been quite small enough either. I also found a surprise purveyor of scented discs that looked just like guest soaps - some of which were even brown - but which turned out to be pebbles impregnated with fragrance. And you can't wash yourself in those. (Their potential as pumice stones also seemed moot.)




So yes, reverting to the title for a moment, that is a rather lame effort by my standards, but any more would have constituted an unseemly mouthful. To make up for its uncharacteristic terseness, I will be as fulsome as possible in the body of the post about how excited I was to chance upon this scented gem in a surprise twist of serendipity. Stepping into the perfumery's dark and inviting interior - offering shade from the near 30C heat outside - my eye was immediately drawn to two prominent displays of their in-house range of perfumes. Speaking of gems, the shop also sold crystals and incense - and probably soap! - and knick-knacks and ethnic bits and bobs that I must admit to barely clocking, so intent was I on systematically sampling the Civette & Unicorn's perfumes.




I soon got chatting to a young sales assistant - it took all of ten seconds for us to realise we were both English, and promptly drop the old 'when in Rome' routine. She gave us both a quick run down of the range, and I came clean about being a blogger, in the act of asking permission to take photos of the fragrance fixtures and store generally. The SA said she would see if someone could come out and talk to me at more length about the brand. She wasn't hopeful that the perfumer himself would emerge, as he was known for being a bit of a recluse, but soon returned with his wife instead. Then to my surprise her husband joined her after a few minutes, and for the next hour(?) - I lost all track of time! - we were off, shooting the breeze about the industry (including the swapping of mischievous anecdotes over which I shall draw a veil ;) ), hearing about the inspiration behind the scents and their creative ethos, as well as details of the company's supply chain, and the care it takes to invest in sustainable / Fairtrade-type ingredients from round the world.




Before going any further, I should point out that the perfumer behind the Civette & Unicorn range prefers to go incognito. I shall call him 'P', because he was erroneously referred to by a name beginning with 'P' in a feature in a local newspaper. Note that his first name does not begin with 'P', but it will serve us nicely here. I can reveal that he and his wife (whose actual name begins with 'L', but whom I shall dub 'M' to distinguish her from my friend) are both English, and hail from near Bath. P mentioned a son, who has just finished at Bristol University, walking its corridors some 80 years after my father. Trust me, he doesn't look old enough.

Oh, and I should also tip you the wink that P is a Naturally Big - and not Always consistent - Capitaliser. I have reduced almost all of these to lower case, as I initially found them Ever so slightly Distracting, but have left one or two in because they are also Quite Endearing. ;)

"I really want the products to speak for themselves and not let myself get in the way. I dislike the fake celebrity culture that is prevalent in current society and now creeping into branding Perfumers and even Scientists (apparently). My place is out in Nature, gathering some wild plants for a small alembic distillation, which happens from time to time, and more in the future."


Source: Wikimedia Commons (grassrootsgroundswell)


A key point to note about the Civette & Unicorn line is its extensive use of essential oils:

"I'd estimate twice the amount of naturals by type used than the bigger companies would use...and they are mixed with Organic plant-derived alcohol, some filtered water, chilled and filtered - all at the EDT level."

"To sum up, I have my feet in both worlds: I appreciate the energetics and what naturals can bring, but there is also a place for traditional perfumery, albeit with a little bit of Unicorn magic added, and I try and bring that to both of those fragrant disciplines**."




Another noteworthy point is the affordability of the range, which starts at just 21.60 euros for 100ml of the men's fragrance 19500, (named after the postcode of Corrèze), while the most expensive scent and latest release, Lune de Turenne, is 58 euros. Not that that in any sense marks a progression, I don't suppose. No, I imagine the prices reflect the particular mix of ingredients - and in the case of 19500, an overriding wish to keep the product as affordable as possible for the local market, where the wages of a farm labourer (the typical local punter) are around 13-14,000 euros. The model in this promotional photo is in fact a waiter known to P. But notwithstanding its keen pricing, there are 35 natural oils in 19500! Or was it 32? A lot, anyway.

"I have always believed in making prices fair rather than going for the maximum price point based on how much hype and USPs you can tag around it. I like to remember the saying: 'a good deal is when buyer and seller are both happy'."

I was also curious to learn about P's past career. He has worked in the essential oil trade for 25 years - at different levels - from supplying some of the 'big manufacturers' to selling into the retail trade. When he was just 19 he landed a job in Cairo with an Egyptian manufacturer of essential oils and absolutes, herbs and spices, which served as an important grounding in the nuts and bolts of the fragrance business. (Please ignore any apparent reference to ground nuts.)




P's love of fragrance can in fact be traced back to his boyhood:

"I first created a fragrance at 8, when pipettes were glass with Black Rubber ends you swapped over, and I was allowed into a perfumer's laboratory alone on occasional Saturdays to sniff all the bottles and jars (Grenouille-style), and replicate the amber/chypre soap smell I loved from family holidays in the Balearics. As a teenager I contemplated training as a perfumer, but didn't want to get lost in a big company. Thatcherism was high and so I took another direction for a while until the trade called me back."


Source: Wikimedia Commons 

I also wanted to know how the shop came by its name.

"I had imagined a small shop in Collonges-La-Rouge for a few years, when the time was right. Being descended from a London family I always admired the name and logo of the 18th century shop 'Ye Olde Civette Cat', in the same way William Blake pulls me more than other Poets. That name has been used by a blogger, I believe, and when exploring names with my wife last year it just popped in, or revealed itself...The unicorn represents that touch of magic for the brand, and hopefully is needed back in perfumery, as much of it is just too commercial. I hope I can bring a touch of Alchemy back with the use of lots of natural and other things....It was the Alchemists gave the name of 'essential' to the oils from plants, the Quinta Essentia component - think 5th Element (not the film with Bruce Willis) but the Philosopher's Stone, no less!"

I had to google Quinta Essentia, and as well as its core meaning of 'Fifth Essence' or element, came up with this impressive superyacht.


Source: Wikimedia Commons (Tony Hisgett)

Hmm, it just struck me that the French word for 'unicorn' is 'licorne', so the name is a mix of French and English - like P and M and their adopted home, indeed - was that perhaps by design?




Going back to the notion of ingredient sourcing, here is the entertaining background to P's source of vetiver, used in Vetyver Coeur. It would be even more entertaining if I were to disclose every amusing detail...!

"Did I mention the Vetyver Coeur fragrance is the First Vetiver fragrance in the world to use Malawian vetiver? I was personally involved in quite a few visits there with smuggling in glass alembic equipment (import taxes are so high), and digging and distilling root stock from many different villages until the best one was found. It turned out the local village farmer was [....mischievous anecdote...], so some of his vetiver rootstock was purchased not by money, but with giving him Corrugated Iron Sheets for his roof, which is a big statement that you have made it. Forget that White Range Rover, personal plate and Tinted Glass, an iron roof is enough out there. The project is to supplement the income of smallholders, ethically harvest (part harvest), and importantly reduce soil erosion and the dependency on tobacco companies who pay less than peanuts for tobacco."

Which begs the question how much people might pay for peanuts? I interviewed a peanut farmer once - about his tractor lubricant, admittedly, rather than crop remuneration. Hold on, it might have been almonds (or even raisins), but the same principle applies.

I also couldn't help but notice a framed photo of Prince Charles on the wall, so of course I had to winkle out the story behind that.




"Prince Charles I met as a Photographer (and trustee of a UK-based African charity) in Sierra Leone, as the Charity I gave my time to had sponsored an organic vegetable garden at a High School there 5 years previously - it had been kept alive in a self-sufficient way by the teachers, supplementing the kids' diet - so important in Africa - hence me giving my time to this charity. Prince Charles was visiting the school (everything smelt of cheap fresh paint - it's probably the same wherever he goes!), and the organic garden (which also had some animals in it) was of interest to him. Charles was relaxed at that point, as he was away from the pack of press photographers that reminded me of the Hyena puppets used in Spitting Image years ago, and he could be himself albeit for a moment, gazing with a pig."

P was a captivating raconteur, and it didn't get much better than this tale of royalty and livestock in perfect harmony. ;)

Now in all our animated chat I had all but forgotten that it was L's birthday, and had been letting this fascinating fragrant find ride rough shod over her festivities! At one point she thoughtfully offered to go away and have a bit more of a wander round the village and come back again. On her return, P and I wrapped up our discussion, as it would have been seriously bad manners to have hijacked any more of L's special day.

And I think that is probably enough for this post. Part 3 will cover the scents themselves, my own favourites from the line, the special 'fig rubbing test'(!), and L's visceral reaction to one perfume in particular....


PS Long term readers may remember that this wasn't in fact the first time I wandered into a shop and chanced upon a perfumer...see this account of how I bumped into Zsolt Zólyomi in Hungary.

**Editor's note - P is also working on a ('long overdue') range of perfumes made entirely from essential oils, absolutes and resins, hence his foot in both creative camps.


Post-prandial photo in the shady garden of a creperie.



Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Sun, sage, salamanders and Sisley: another holiday in the Limousin - Part 1

I have just come back from my French trip - to cool temperatures, overcast skies, and fitful rain. I sallied forth yesterday to buy croissants and whole milk in a bid to recreate the holiday experience, but nice as the croissants were, they couldn't cut the mustard - or rather the homemade vat of confiture with which my friend L presented me on the first morning of my stay.  I guess a sense of anticlimax is inevitable after such a lotus-eating idyll, which is pretty much what it was, give or take the lotus-eating. And you may be surprised to learn that there was a big fat, astonishing perfume episode bang in the middle of the trip, which warrants its own post in Part 2, while all the other scented aspects of my visit - of which there was a surprising smattering - will be covered 'en passant' in this post. Quite literally, indeed, for in a general chat about perfume, L's neighbour C happened to remark that she liked the smell of lilac, so I commended 'En Passant' to her in passing.


Jam today, jam tomorrow, jam for the foreseeable future

So here goes with the main part of the 'travelogue with fragrant accents'...

On the day of departure, I had to get up very early, and managed to squirt tinted moisturiser all down my clean T-shirt before 6.15am. It's that Paula's Choice Resist Super-Light Daily Wrinkle Defense cream (sic). I would add that it is 'super-prone to geyser-esque eruptions' at the merest flick of a lid, and urge extreme caution when using it.




Manchester airport was absolutely heaving...the sort of crowds where you'd stand up to peer at the departure board for two seconds, only to turn round and find someone in your seat. Also worthy of mention is how the airport - or certainly Terminal 1 - has a disorientatingly elastic sense of time. The gate was due to open 'in 5 minutes' for what must have been all of half an hour. As my plane was also delayed, I had ample time to browse in the Duty Free, but only took a moment to respray my scent of the journey, Hermes Eau des Merveilles, and tuned out to everything else, including the gigantic Toblerone ingots, which were three for a tenner, and should really have been reclassified as an offensive weapon on the joint grounds of weight and pointiness. I am pleased to report that my knitting needles were not construed as an offensive weapon on this trip. I decided not to attempt to hide them, but rather waved them ostentatiously at security staff. I think the added verisimilitude of my mentioning I was hoping to knit an entire flannel whilst on holiday might have swung things in my favour.




When we eventually landed, the disembarcation at Limoges was slow and torturous, and it took an hour to get through passport control and pick up my hand luggage, which had had to go in the hold. There were 189 people (the capacity of a Boeing 737, as I now know) crowded into an area the size of a convenience store. When I was finally disgorged into the Arrivals hall, I exclaimed to my friend: 'Sorry, it was chaos back there...complete and utter carnage...bedlam...mayhem...a shambles...disarray...did I say "pandemonium"? It was also pandemonium.'


Small child with Lancaster bomber - or rather the A400M

As we walked towards the car park pay station, I noticed that L had surprisingly strong sillage of a perfume I couldn't quite place. It occurred to me that if it was a favourite scent, she might have become anosmic to it and started to apply more and more in a bid to smell it on herself. Later, I tentatively inquired what the perfume was: it turned out not to be one of L's staples, but the remains of a bottle of Issey Miyake that was a cast off from a friend, and which she was trying to finish up, as she wasn't sure she cared for it all that much. Well, I was glad to learn that, and it immediately explained the sillage issue. Issey Miyake may be the 'poster child' for the inoffensive and supposedly anti-perfume trend of the 90s, but it has a monster melon note - a 'monster melon that has freshly exited a shower cubicle', as I am sure I have said somewhere on the blog, but don't ask me where.




On arrival in my friend's village, her ceramicist friend S, with whom we made the excursion to the Bernaudaud Foundation the previous year, popped round with some flowers from her garden for my bedroom. She herself left a discreet trail of La Vie est Belle, which continues to be her signature scent, while the bouquet itself included several sprigs of sage. These had a fabulously pungent aroma - unlike anything I had ever smelt in a Schwartz jar, which is pretty much my acquaintance with the herb up to this point. Oh, also in Paxo Sage & Onion stuffing mix, obviously.

We met up with S and her husband for al fresco coffee the next morning, and I kept stopping in my tracks as I caught whiffs of sage in different spots in their garden. So if walnuts were the plant leitmotiv of last year's holiday in the Limousin, sage was shaping up to be the vegetal theme this time round!




Later that morning, after sponging the jam stains I had incurred at breakfast on both trouser legs - silly spillages were to be another theme of the holiday - L invited me to join her in clearing out her fireplace, something she had omitted to do in the two years she has owned the house. Game for anything, I followed her upstairs to the sitting room and we carefully lowered the glass door protecting the grate to reveal...drum roll!...a carved metal salamander!




Well, we weren't initially sure it was a salamander, but a question on Facebook quickly elicited the confirmation we were after. I also learnt from a post on the blog 'Writing the Renaissance' that these mythical beasts were a common embellishment on the fireplaces of royal palaces, no less, while the chateau at Chambord has over 800 different kinds of salamander carved into the ceiling of the main hall.

And it gets better...!

"Salamanders appear not only on buildings, but on many royal possessions. Salamanders were tooled into the leather covers of books bound for the royal library. A perfume-burner designed by Raphael for the king had salamanders and fleurs-de-lis on the lid."





Thrilled by this discovery in her humble townhouse, L pressed me into service with a brush and a pot of linseed oil. I would never have guessed I'd be spending the start of my holiday oiling a salamander, but there again, I never expected to find a well-appointed table tennis station in my hostess's barn.




In the afternoon we went shopping in the village's bijou and compact Carrefour. It may even be called Carrefour Compact, come to that. And speaking of melons, to lighten L's basketload of shopping, I offered to carry a melon in one hand and a bottle of rose wine in the other, and sneaked in a few bicep curls with them on the way home. We ate in the garden that night (as we did every night we were 'in'!), and I managed to drop courgette carpaccio, which turns out to be 'a thing', really - a thing dripping in oil unfortunately - on my newly swabbed trousers.


We completely forgot to have a game!

The next day I had a major crisis on finding I was unable to access my flight booking for the return leg - I thought it wise to download my boarding pass well in advance of my return, you see. Ryanair seemed to have no record of it under the reference code I was given. I ended up spending an hour locked in a live chat session with a Ryanair customer services representative while he endeavoured to get to the bottom of the puzzle. It turns out that I did have a booking, but it was under CW6I7C, not CW617C. And yes, I had to look twice, especially as the 'I' of my booking print out didn't have a serif on the top and bottom of the 'I'. My eye read the booking number like a car registration, where it is customary to have a block of letters, then a few numbers, then maybe a letter again. You would never find a letter smack in the middle of the numerals. I realised afterwards that the only place that would ever happen is in one of those gobbledy-gook passwords that comes with your broadband. And now, Ryanair booking codes...so be warned!




Crisis over, we ventured forth into the Dordogne, after a picnic in a field, during which I managed to spill L's beer, followed later by my own tea in a cafe in Brantome (insert your own circumflex). I had visited Brantome in 1996 with Mr Bonkers, and in the intervening years it has become a lot busier and more trippery. However, I was pleased to spot that 'mushroom omelette' was still the (somewhat surprising) special on the menu of the riverside restaurant where we had eaten on that holiday. L and I decided that while Brantome was chocolate box picturesque, compared to the peace and quiet of her own village, where the stillness is only broken by the cooing of turtledoves, the chirrup of crickets, and the skitter of a lizard in the undergrowth, the Dordogne was too hectic by far - not to mention awash in those multiple view-type postcards - some with kittens! (Cue group shudder.)

The toilet of the cafe where I spilt my tea was noteworthy, mind, for this big bottle of cologne. It is only by Schwarzkopf (Henkel), a brand I associate with haircare products rather than fine fragrance, but I had a sniff as you do, and was amazed at the more than passing resemblance to Guerlain Sous le Vent. A drugstore cologne that is clearly punching above its price bracket.




That night we ate out with friends of L at a local produce market in a nearby village. The idea was to buy food and drink from the stalls that lined the square - well, more of a rectangle, really - then take your meal and eat it at the long trestle tables placed in the centre. The women in our party all had trout and chips. It never ceases to amuse me that VAT in French means 'vidé avec tête' - 'gutted with head'.




The following day was L's birthday, and I was up betimes on a quest to hunt and gather breakfast ingredients, after first changing my T-shirt due to yet another tinted moisturiser incident. First stop was the boulangerie. I asked the boulanger for his 'most medieval' bread, as L had mentioned that she liked one that was made according to a 'centuries old' recipe. He looked a little askance initially, but after scoping the fixtures with  professional care, settled on a rye cob. I got a couple of croissants with that, and though I quite forgot to ask for 'epitome-shaped' ones, he instinctively knew to proffer his most perfectly puffed up and crescent-shaped specimens, so that was a bit of luck. The fruit tarts had not yet been put out on display, but the boulanger helpfully went out back and fetched them for me, and with that I had the 'morning goods' side of things covered. Next up was Carrefour, to procure the wherewithal to make Bucks Fizz. Cue more weight training on the way back with two bottles of sparkling wine. And because of my wish to retire to the area myself one day, I couldn't help but home in on any little old ladies sitting outside particularly photogenic houses along the route, and surreptitiously try to gauge their likely life expectancy.

L was very pleased with my choice of loaf, which she declared to be 'commensurate with my great age'. I will leave the account of the rest of L's birthday till Part 2, as it was on that day that the big unexpected perfume episode occurred! In my excitement, I may have slightly hijacked her festivities in the process, but she was most gracious about it, certainly.


Does this bread look ancient to you?

Then the day after L's birthday we made an excursion to the hilltop town of Turenne, which boasted a fine selection of échaugettes, complete with inverted walnut whip terminations (see below). The steep ascent to the castle proved excellent for the calves and challenging for the lungs, and we were not sorry it was cooler that day. On the way down, we both made impulse purchases of mugs - two in my case! - even though my kitchen cupboards are already bulging with a 40-strong collection. But sometimes impulse purchases just have to be made, and the one I managed to bring with me on the plane has been in constant use.




That night, there was a street fair in L's village, and we joined some friends and neighbours of hers, including the aforementioned lover of lilac, C. I quizzed C about her taste in perfume, being totally floored by what she was wearing on the night (I am invariably floored by what anyone is wearing, to be fair). It turns out C is pretty much a Sisley loyalist, wearing the new Izia in summer - which I had never smelt before - and Eau du Soir in winter. We discussed our respective stances on Eau de Sisley 1, 2 and 3 (neither of us were big fans), and lamented the ubiquity of certain scents that shall remain nameless, but which may contain 'Mademoiselle' in the name.




There is a parfumerie in L's village, would you believe, that doubles up as an ironmonger's and a toy shop - of course it does. Or it did, rather. Today there is a only a rather forlorn collie in the window, who may or may not be officially guarding the deserted premises.




I also introduced L to Songes edp on the holiday, and we both wore it on her birthday! L's daughter is a fan of Chance, and L had asked me months back to suggest additional scents her daughter might like that had some crossover with it, though I hadn't managed to give the question any thought until the other day. So I have now belatedly given L samples to pass on to her daughter of AG Grand Amour (hyacinth floral), Chanel La Pausa (all about the iris), and Prada Candy - simply because I introduced another Chance lover to that one and she thought it was the bee's knees. ;) And I am very partial to it myself too. So we will see...

Coming up in Part 2 - the extraordinary perfume related episode! I do hope I am not overselling this, haha.




Monday, 31 July 2017

Archaeological dig uncovers artefacts dating from early 'Perfiolithic' period - to be continued...

I have been caught in the grip of decluttering fever this past week - not just any strain of decluttering fever either, but a very rare one that has prompted me to make a start on...ominous drum roll...the garage. For over the past five years the Augean stable that passes for my garage has been gradually silting up with detritus and 'I'll think about what I'll do with that later' items on a shamefully grand scale. Sagging, semi-soggy cardboard boxes are piled to the rafters, from which impudent lianas of clematis that had somehow inveigled their way through the (none too salubrious asbestos cement!) roof hang down in a feathery curtain. The window panes are covered in cobwebs, as are the grooves of the up-and-over door. To be fair, there are cobwebs clinging to pretty much every surface, plus a lot of leaves that either snuck in with the clematis or blew in when I occasionally opened the door in the winter months. Oh, and I don't even want to think about the dead spiders I have found, one of them drowned in a little puddle of oil at the bottom of a jug. The idea of actually keeping a car in there seems as preposterously outlandish as keeping firewood in the fridge. Though as there happens to be both a fridge and several bags of logs and kindling in the garage, that is one fanciful idea I could easily turn into a reality. ;)
The reason for mentioning the Great Garage Clear Out - which is ongoing, I should add, for when I have finally given it a good clean inside, the garage diaspora currently cluttering up my front room has to be gone through and eventually put back there...or put somewhere - is because as well as a ton of work related paraphernalia (see below) I also came across some rather nostalgic reference material on perfume in my rummaging. I remember painstakingly compiling it all in the immediate aftermath of my being struck down by sudden onset perfume mania. I managed to fill THREE Lever-Arch files with handwritten notes or print outs from the Internet, which I have now weeded back to one, and will probably whittle further. I also found the notebooks in which I used to write down mini-reviews of every scent I tested, to the subject of which I shall also return.


My pre-digital career is on the drive

But that will have to be it for now, as I am off in the morning to stay with my friend L in France again for a few days, and although I have been doing pre-trip errands and chores all day long, somehow or other I still seem to have it 'all to do'!


Vintage Sony Vaio netbook, anyone? Complete with external floppy disk drive!

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Nearly Busted Again!

The Spanish Inquisition ~ Source: Wikimedia Commons (Bernard Picart)
Almost a year to the day since I had my knuckles rapped by the Royal Mail for attempting to send consignments of perfume abroad, last week I came close to being busted again - or so I feared. Not all of the wrongdoing was my own, however, as you will see.

By way of background, I should explain that in tandem with the (not overly successful!) bottle sale on Bonkers the other week - which may of course be partly down to this fact that I cannot post abroad - I have been lobbing a few bottles on eBay, and letting them take their chances. The other day I was lucky enough to sell one of these, for a quite decent sum too. It was a not quite full 100ml bottle, so - mindful of the risks of leakage in transit - I parcelled the bottle up with elaborate care: first I put tape round its collar, then popped it into a gauze bag, which I placed inside a plastic mailer, before swaddling the plastic mailer in bubble wrap and laying the whole thing gently in a nest of tissue paper inside a gift box. I closed this box tightly with elastic bands, before wedging it inside a sturdy cardboard outer box lined with polystyrene chips and scrunched up bubble wrap. That box was then firmly sealed on all edges with parcel tape.

So far so good. Then, at my local post office, from the moment I asked for an ID8000 label everything started to unravel. The postmaster is used to my frequent shipments of perfume, and these days the most he ever asks me is: 'One bottle or two'. On that afternoon, however, his elderly mother was serving at the counter, and proved to be an absolute stickler for the rules. Anxious to create a good impression, he acted as her Greek chorus, chiming in with her ever more impossible stipulations. "Is it in the original packaging?" "Yes." I replied. "In its original box?" "Er...no, it's not in a box." "It must be in the original box with the cellophane still on." All of a sudden, the postmaster whipped out a blue demonstration bottle of a men's fragrance to show me what his mother meant by a perfume bottle. "This comes in a box, wrapped in cellophane. Is this what you are sending?" "Er...no, but to be honest, I am not sure it ever had cellophane - I am not even sure it had a box. It might have been a bag." "That's the only way you can send perfume...in the original box, in cellophane."




So that was me told. Browbeaten and crestfallen in equal measure, I slunk off to the next nearest post office, a little sub-branch inside a grocer's about half a mile away. Once again I asked for an ID8000 label, and this time hoped against hope there would be no grilling about boxes, let alone cellophane, or the small matter of the missing 15ml... The lady behind the counter looked at me as though I were an alien. "We don't have those. I have no idea what they are", adding in a peeved tone, as though I was trying to make her life inordinately difficult - at 4.45pm to boot: "I only work in the shop a couple of days a week - I don't normally deal with this side." In vain did I ask her to have a rummage in the drawer in case one of her colleagues had put some of the all-important labels by. "No, we don't have them. So do you want to post this then?" Suddenly, a Royal Mail delivery man hove into view, a huge, strapping hulk of a man, who wordlessly began humping big plastic sacks of parcels to his van, before returning and loitering with intent as I decided if I was going to post this package 'commando' or not. "You are my witness that I did ask for a label?" I piped up in a tone I had intended to sound cheerily upbeat, but which came out as wavering and doomed. "Hey, I don't have anything to do with postage and all that." Of course he doesn't - he is Royal Mail and she is a small outpost of Post Office Counters within a convenience store.

In desperation, I decided to chance the package with tracking, but without a hazard label. At least I hadn't been asked any awkward questions, but now the box had to take its chances in the Royal Mail's system, subject to random - or possibly even systematic! - scans and spot checks of its contents. I could so easily come a cropper, and what if it were a case of 'three strikes and you're out'? And straight into Stafford Gaol, as quickly as Rolf Harris was smuggled out the back at dawn the other month.

HM Prison Stafford ~ Source: Wikipedia (Stephen Pearce)

Cue a nailbiting 48 hours, which was the shortest timeframe in which a second class parcel could arrive. Meanwhile, I tried googling the scenarios under which Royal Mail parcels travelling within the UK are likely to be scanned. Could it be first class only? Special delivery? Ones going on a plane, even within the country? Tracked mail of any class? Some combination of the above - or even a completely different and more random set of criteria...

I also sought solace in a fragrance selling and swap site on Facebook. Members piled in to regale me with tales of their own daring and derring-do in dodging the authorities - many involving creative renaming of their parcels' contents as a  'statue', 'collector's toy', 'cosmetics samples', 'CDs', and 'books'. One comment in particular really helped allay my nerves:

"Ohhh don't sweat it. You'd probably get sooner taken for a ride by a dodgy buyer than have Royal Mail give you a headache with your parcel."

Kittens assuaged, I did take the precaution of alerting the buyer to my postal problems, and reassured her that I would issue a full refund in the event of the parcel being intercepted and confiscated. She was most understanding, and said she'd keep her fingers crossed for - and with - me. We sat tight for two days. Then on Day 3 at 11am I received an email from her saying the parcel had landed safely, without any sign of misadventures en route. She thanked me for packing it so securely, and for the free sample, while I thanked her for her patience. Then I thanked the members of the fragrance site, as their stories from the coal face of perilous perfume posting had been a comfort at a worrying time.

Source: Nestle


It was some days before I ventured out to my local post office again - with two big parcels this time. The postmaster was there, with his wife serving, and the mother nowhere to be seen. The wife weighed each package and made no comment - not even to ask me which service I wanted it to go by(!), so I chipped in to specify second class. The fact that they asked no questions is less significant than you might think, a) because the parcels were both returns - one to an Amazon supplier, the other to Nestle (two defective boxes of Cheerios, since you asked ;) ) - and b) because they didn't feel or look remotely like the sort of package that could contain perfume. Though I could so easily have lost a decant or two in one of the Cheerios boxes. But nevertheless, the near silence was in complete and utter contrast to last week's Spanish Inquisition.

I don't know if this marks a turning point in my relations with my local post office...I cannot be sure the postmaster will revert to his laissez-faire self on a future occasion, even if the mother is not on his case. So I think I should find a post office that is in possession of ID8000 labels, but which displays at best a cursory interest in the contents of my package.

And someone needs to tell the Royal Mail that not all new perfumes come wrapped in cellophane...


Do you have any perfume posting war stories - from either side of the pond? Do tell! (I might feel a little less beleaguered. ;) )


Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Let bygones be Byzance: a tale of two house clearances, featuring a guest post - and a surprise spot of rapping! - by my (late) mother

Travel poster by Harry Riley
A few months ago, Liz Moores of Papillon Perfumery kindly sent me a partial bottle of Rochas Byzance, remembering my nostalgic association of the scent with my mother, albeit for reasons upon which all bona fide perfumistas would frown. The full story may be found here, on the remote offchance that there are still any readers who have managed to escape my repeated references to it(!). Now hopefully Liz won't mind my mentioning that she recently celebrated her 47th birthday, while my mother would have turned 97 in May. The 50 year difference in their ages I find oddly portentous, I don't know why, and despite the immense cultural changes that have occurred between 1920 and 1970 I feel sure they would have got on famously, not least through a shared love of food - and drink (which in my book is A Good Thing ;) ).  And like Liz, my mother was a free spirit, and managed to turn the heads of locals in Halkidiki on a solo cycling holiday at the age of 76.

The trigger for this post was the recent sudden death of an old work associate and neighbour, who lived round the corner from the house I used to share with Mr Bonkers. This lady's only blood relative, a cousin in the South of England, rang me up the other day to ask if I was coming to the funeral, and mentioned in passing that at some point he would need to come up again to sort his cousin's house out. I told him I knew just what that was like, having done two 'long distance' house clearances myself for each of my parents (who didn't live together in later life). As I am local, I offered to help this chap out on the ground, should he need it when the time comes.




And that got me thinking about a remarkable house clearance that my mother carried out, which led to her writing a feature about the experience that was aired on Woman's Hour in 1968. Her voice on the tape is so cut glass as to be hilarious - almost as royal-sounding as the Queen! I am sorry you can't press a button on here to fully appreciate her plummy tones. I have no recall of my mother ever talking like that, I might add - and I was nine at the time, so was old enough to notice such things - maybe she was putting on her poshest voice specially for the BBC. ;)

So here is the transcript of her broadcast instead - Mother's 'guest post' if you will.

"Do it! You should just see the muddle. But two days were all that I could spare away from the family. So in spite of the warnings, off I went on the plane to Exeter, to sort out the effects left by Aunt Ina. The last time I had seen my aunt was over thirty years earlier. On that occasion I was fifteen years old, suddenly orphaned by my mother's death. At a grisly meeting I sat mute while Aunt Ina and three of my uncles discussed the question: 'What shall we do with Peggy?'. I think what increased the grisliness of the meeting was that it took place in the refreshment room of Victoria Station. Almost as bad as being found in a handbag on a platform for the Brighton line. But the line was immaterial, and so was the refreshment room, except that it was there that my aunt said that she could neither have me to live with her nor contribute to my upkeep - and that was the last I saw of her.

As it happened we got on well together at the meeting, and though we corresponded at intervals, I have never seen her again. Now she had made me her residual legatee and I had to sort out the residue. And although I had been warned, when I was actually in my aunt's house I was taken aback by the task that confronted me, for it seemed that my aunt was eccentric in that she could never throw anything away. Drawers and cupboards were full to overflowing. I could hardly walk around the sitting room. The solicitor said: 'When I went to see your aunt, she'd be sitting at the table, and she'd simply push with both hands until all the things on it would mount into a hill at the back, and then she'd have a space on which to write.'

It was strange getting to know my aunt after she was dead, but one can't go through a person's possessions without having a pretty complete portrait of the person who possessed them. No one could live in such confusion without having a total disregard for housewifely pursuits. The drawers revealed such things as empty cigarette cartons, half empty boxes of forgotten sweets, Christmas cards from way back. There were also papers on how to win on football pools and how to develop a system of betting on horses. Which is odd, for the second thing I discovered about my aunt was that she was quite detached about money. In every drawer I emptied there was money: half crowns, sixpences, even farthings. All with that odd feeling to the touch that long unused coins have. There were pound notes in old purses - or just left in the pages of an old notebook. There were coins in the kitchen drawers and pound notes in the pockets of her coats. But the crowning discovery was a roll of eight five pound notes lying behind her bed. It's odd how money found in these circumstances doesn't feel quite real, just paper. I suppose because it's in a sort of limbo, neither earned nor given.

I had a bonfire going for two days steadily, burning letters, old clothes, magazines, newspapers and photographs. Ah, those photographs...my aunt had obviously been a keen photographer and there were thousands of photographs: groups of happily smiling people who meant nothing to me. There were some of my mother and father that I'd not seen before and I was glad to have these. But I felt sad as I saw those records of her happy days going up in flames. There's no point in keeping meaningless snaps. And yet I felt ruthless in destroying a tangible past. And ruthless I had to be to clear out this mess in two days. But there were moments when I had to pause, when I dug up real bits of treasure - to me at any rate. I began to see the reason for the lack of domesticity as I found evidence of the adventurous life my aunt had led in her youth.

A small black book, closely written, I discovered to be the log book of a small boat in which she and two men - one her first husband - tried to circumnavigate Africa in the days before journeys in small boats were commonplace. And then a yellowing sheet from a Sunday Herald published in 1925, in which she describes life among the Rif in Spanish Morocco, where apparently she was the only white woman. Exciting enough, I thought, until I came across another from The Times of that year which told how a beautiful English woman known as 'Lovely Nellie' had been held hostage, as her husband and another man had been caught gun running.

How I wish then she was there to tell me of the adventures only partially revealed by these tantalising snippets! She obviously made friends easily judging by her foreign correspondence, and she was popular with the local people, although she was reserved and did not speak of herself much. She had an inventive mind, and I came across draft inventions she planned to have patented. What else did I discover about my aunt? She loved earrings and brooches and makeup. She collected  stamps and cigarette cards, pens and boxes of matches. It wasn't until four o'clock on the second day that I finally cleared the space in her bedroom and gathered together the things I wanted sent to me in Northern Ireland. Things I knew she wanted me to have: a Japanese rosewood chair that belonged to my grandmother, some Japanese vases, and some slices of family history which I shall enjoy piecing together. I felt then that I'd come through a long, dark tunnel. It had been a chastening experience in several ways. Chiefly I'm thinking of all the lumber one accumulates over the years - that someone might have to do this for me. In a modified way, it's true, but do I really need all the stuff that's in my attic? And are all the letters in my desk really worth keeping?

But chastening and exhausting though this experience was, it had its rewarding side, and I felt I could close my two days in Devon by making an announcement: 'Gained posthumously, an aunt'."

I can picture some of the treasures from Great Aunt Ina's house - little lacquered tables and sets of drawers, all manner of jewellery, a ceremonial sword and a scimitar, one or both of which are now in my brother's loft. And I 'inherited' a lifesize toy cat with white fur. At least I hope it was a toy - it was worryingly realistic, I do remember that...If I still had it, I could make it stand sentry at the back door, to scare Tootsie away. ;)

Now I have just looked up Ina in our family tree and found out some other interesting titbits about her. She got married to her first husband, a shipper and ship builder, in 1922, when she was 22 and he was 54! One of the witnesses was named as F C Voysey, eerily close to C F Voysey, but surely that would be too much of a coincidence, even though he was living nearby at the time...


Source: Wikimedia Commons (SpudGun67)

 Also, Ina and her first husband lived at 118, Long Acre, in Covent Garden, a hop and a skip away from Bloom! Where it seems Dame Margot Fonteyn also lived, but not at the same time, and doubtless not in the same flat. ;) Then Husband No 1 died in February 1930, and Ina was married again by June of that year! Husband No 2 was only 48, and she was 31. Ina clearly liked older men, though at least they are getting progressively younger with each union.




What else has come to light? Ina was one of only three female members of the Royal Southampton Yacht Club in 1927. (Mother donated Ina's copy of the Rule Book from that year to the club in 1985, prompting the reply below from the club's secretary, which probably isn't legible, I know.) To be a member as a woman in those days you had to own your own yacht, and Ina's was a 50-foot long wooden sailing yacht called Silver Crescent, built in 1886. The secretary adds that out of 800 club members, there are 80 women now, so it sounds like even back in the '80s, the glass hull was well on its way to being broken.




And I have to smile reading the broadcast back, because it was me of course that got the gig of sorting out Mother's effects after her death. I immediately rehomed Ferraby, the plush duck, and Pinky, the towelling pig. The latter had been sitting in her wing back chair ever since she was hurriedly taken into hospital, waiting patiently for her return.


Pinky's new chair in Stafford

Then Mother's paperwork was contained in a single concertina file, and fortuitously her bank account had just enough left in it to cover her funeral. The only part of the house where she had exhibited 'Aunt Ina-like behaviours' was in the kitchen...the drawers were crammed full of old corks and buttons and safety pins and pennies and broken pottery and oozing tubes of Savlon - and much more in that vein - while the pantry was a treasure trove of pre-1982 spices. This being...ahem...1999. But it was a privilege to tie up the loose ends of my mother's life, and I didn't begrudge the triage of a single odd or end. Disposing of someone else's belongings is a weighty responsibility, characterised by a myriad of quick fire decisions that require a judicious blend of empathy and - as Mother herself says - ruthlessness.




And what about the bottle of Byzance I had given mother so thoughtlessly three years previously? Not a trace. I did, however, find this bottle of Opium in her sponge bag, that has morphed 18 years later into a rich and treacly concoction, while smelling by no means 'off' to my nose. I have dated it to the early 90s, which sounds plausible. I don't know how Mother came by it - a gift from a friend, her bridge partner, an impulse purchase in Boots, like me with the Rochas - who knows? It's well over half empty though, suggesting she did rather like it.

And this story would not be complete without a mention of Liz's rescue hen, Peggy, whom she kindly named after my mother. I knitted Peggy a jumper when she first arrived at Papillon Animal Sanctuary, to keep her warm until her threadbare plumage grew back. And I am pleased to note that Peggy the chicken also likes a tipple. ;)




In a bizarre turn of events, ex-Mr Bonkers turned my mother posthumously into a co-rapper in this song, along with Birmingham-based rapper, Tijhs Jordan. She really gets a groove on, and if you listen very closely, you may just be able to hear her repeat the phrase 'a small black book', interspersed with Tijhs's own take on Ina's travelling exploits. I'd say he is 'riffing' off them, but that might be a pun - and an 'f' - too far. Oh, and actually, you can get an idea of her plummy voice in the song!

Link to the track ('Hope/The River') here (and further background on it here - it is a partly original (very original!!), partly cover / tribute piece).

The last artefact I came across relating to my great aunt was this copy of a letter sent to my mother in April, 1959, in which Ina hopes that her 'forthcoming event' goes smoothly. Why, that would be my own arrival, a month later!




And although there is mention of Ina liking makeup and jewellery, of perfume there is nary a word. With her smoking habit (maybe she even had an actual habit - and cap - like Rachael Potts' husband Tony?!), and love of betting - not to mention her swashbuckling seafaring persona - I could see Ina in Tabac Blond, Habanita or Cuir de Russie, perfumes all squarely dating from the time she was...er...busily dating - and getting hitched!

Finally, here is a photo of Mother's old house in Swindon, which is currently on the market, I see. It was my house first in fact, before I sold it to her when I moved to Stafford. Those are the very shelves I put up in 1986! (I may have had some help.)








Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Another Bonkers perfume sale!

I have been having a torrid week so far, including several more whiffy incursions by Tootsie. The only humorous aspect to any of the predominantly bad things that have been kicking off lately was the sight of Truffle leaping backwards several feet in the air after clawing her scratching post, for all the world as though she had seen a cucumber (that mythically frightening vegetable). Then, perplexed at her dramatic reaction to a familiar toy, she went back for another attempt - doubtless to check she wasn't imagining things - and instantly leapt backwards again! When I sniffed the pole I knew immediately that it was Tootsie's malodorous calling card that had freaked her out to such spectacular effect. Anyway, the scratching post is in the bin, with another on order. A chap whom I can best describe as the upholstery cleaning equivalent of the SAS has been in today to deep clean the sofa, the target of previous urinous acts of terrorism.





I have also been suffering from an identity crisis, following the receipt of these emails:

"Greetings from Vicky of Threeway Steel Co., Ltd China
Glad to know that your esteemed company is in the market of steel pipes."

AND this, from a PR Executive with the incomparable name of Flo Birmingham:

"We are hosting a beauty event on Thursday for the launch of Spotlight Teeth Whitening. It is a pop in event open from 10am to 6pm and there will be manicures, blowdries, braids, goodie bags and dental consultations with the Spotlight founders, dentist sisters Dr Lisa and Dr Vanessa Creaven. We'd love to have you there."





Too right it is a "pop in event". And I would have quite fancied "popping in a whitening strip" and chatting to the namesake dentist sister and my fellow attendees with (presumably) a couple of horsehoes of plastic in my mouth.

But I can't really slip down to London at the moment. Meanwhile, I lost one big job prospect and may have gained a smaller one in its place. In view of the precarious work situation overall (as in I haven't had any since April), I decided that it was time for another bottle and decant sale. This differs from past sales in that I am putting forward some perfumes I am happy to part with, plus others that I would happily have kept. Realistically, however, I have too many, and they are more useful to me at the moment in 'liquid' form...that's not quite the metaphor I am searching for. ;)

I will organise the stock into two main categories: Newly Listed Bottles & Decants and Old Suspects! The latter have all been reduced in price, to allow for a bit of depreciation since last year. As you know, I am only able to post perfume within the UK, due to being a convicted felon. I can at lesat offer a range of postal options ie 1st or 2nd class, with or without recorded / signed for delivery, though the latter is a bit safer, I always think. Allow an extra £3 to £4.50 depending on your preferred option.



Newly Listed Bottles & Decants

Cuir de Lancome 50ml (c47ml remaining) - £45 [SOLD]

This is a 50ml bottle and there's a few ml missing from the top, though I have a little bit left in my current one so I am a bit puzzled as to why this should be. However, I can only conclude I must have done a little decant for someone from it.

Oh, and the bottle has that notorious wonky top, without which no bottle of Cuir de Lancome would be complete!, together with the built-in shape sorting puzzle of the box that prompted a post all on its own.

Why oh why did they discontinue this beauty?






MAC Naked Honey 20ml (c9ml remaining) - £12

This (also discontinued) scent from 2009 became a bit of a cult classic, and is noted for its unusual honey and linden note combo. The bottle design is rather wacky too, and should appeal to Undina and beekeepers everywhere.







Armani Prive La Femme Bleue (c4.5ml) - £17

For lovers of chocolate and incense, this is a beauty: I paid £40 for a 10ml decant. I see that Surrender to Chance are charging $80+ for a 3ml spray vial, which is over £60, or an eyewatering £20 per ml! There is a slight sticky residue on the collar, which I haven't tried to get off with acetone for fear of contaminating the scent. I could decant this into a fresh atomiser if people would like.






YSL Opium Fleur de Shanghai (c13ml) - £15 [SOLD]

This is a decant of the 2005 flanker (a sort of summer edition) to Opium, also sadly extinct, though in fairness I think it was launched as a LE. Ayala Moriel is a big fan and it was her review that drew me to seek this one out. I much prefer it to classic Opium, Coco Chanel, and other heavy hitting spicy orientals. It isn't light as such, but has a brighter feel due to the inclusion of notes like magnolia.






Serge Lutens Chergui (c14ml) - £16

I am pretty sure this is a 30ml bottle, and the fill level is about half. Chergui needs no introduction, which is just as well, as it is so cosily weird that I wouldn't quite know where to begin.






Hermes Hermessence Santal Massoia (c13ml) - £25

This is a travel spray of which I have used a couple of ml. It's worth having just for the adorable cloth bag in my view, though it does smell lovely as well.






Tom Ford Cafe Rose (c17ml) - £30

I swapped my partial bottle of White Suede for this in a blind swap, but while I am a lover of rose, I am not a coffee drinker and this was 'insufficiently rosy' for me, to quote my friend Jessica's phrase.






NB I was umming and ahhing about selling my half bottle of Tauer PHI Rose de Kandahar, but am not quite able to let it go yet. Check out the next sale though, just in case!



Old Suspects! 

Still looking for their forever homes, as black cats are wont to do, though to their credit, two of my fellow perfume bloggers have adopted just such colourways. 


Annick Goutal Grand Amour 100ml (a good 50ml remaining!) - £26





Bois de Jasmin is a fan of this one, giving it a solid four stars, and it would suit lovers of hyacinth, which is quite prominent in the opening.

Rykiel Woman Not for Men! 40ml (c17ml remaining) - £17

Don't be put off by the garish bottle...this could pass for a niche scent in a blind sniffing test. An amber/musk/leather number, beloved of Marla from Perfume Smelling Things (review here). I see a fair bit of crossover with Soir de Marrakech from Les Parfums du Soleil (though that is a bit obscure), and L'Erbolario Meharees (slightly less obscure!), which is in turn a bit of a dupe for Musc Ravageur. In that general vein, say. You can buy it still on Amazon, but only in the 125ml size for £150 odd, and no one needs that much of anything, obviously.





B by Boucheron edp 50ml (c45ml remaining) - £19 

Calling osmanthus lovers! Box available but a bit bashed, sorry.





Kenzo L'Eau par Kenzo Eau Indigo pour Femme edp 50ml (c28ml remaining) - £16

This bottle was pre-owned by Michelyn Camen of Cafleurebon. ;) Here's the entry from Fragrantica, which rates it 3.8.





Perfume-Related 'Merchandise'

And finally, I have tacked on a category to accommodate a perfume cushion cover to fit a 16"/40cm square pad. It is in a shot silk-like fabric (that may indeed be silk!), is based on a design by the artist Bridget Davies, and was one of only two she had left. Selling for £45 on its own, £50 with cushion. (See also the photo at the top of the post.) Close up of perfume bottle motif below.





And here is the reverse...







The main background colours are what I could best describe as gunmetal blue, and a greyish light blue. I can of course post this anywhere in the world at whatever international rate applied.

So there you have it. I am open to minor haggling around the margins, bulk discounts (I wish!) and other forms of BOGOF and promotional jiggery-pokery, but let's see how it goes. If there is something you are interested in, you can contact me via Facebook, if we are friends on there, or by email - flittersniffer at gmail dot com.