Of farewells and not forgotten… Scenes from The Perfumed Dandy’s American Adventure Part Five : Washington DC

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Our final day in DC coincides with the great return to work.

Memorial Weekend over, we decide to see the memorials themselves, hoping that they will have been shorn the attendant crowds that have flowed all holiday from them like curls from  the head of abundantly haired child.

Yet at the mouth of the narrow entrance to the  Vietnam War Memorial a line has formed even at this early hour of the day.

People wait in relative quiet to file past the shining polished stone with the names of the nearly sixty thousand men, all the dead recorded are men save eight women added after the wall was originally built, inscribed carefully in a sans serif font.

Saddest perhaps are those leafing through the books of names, great telephone directory like lists, looking up the location of inscriptions of people known to them, if not personally then through memory or family connection.

I feel this place deserves a scent, as The Great War Cemeteries of Northern France and Flanders smell of perpetually fresh cut grass and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier carries a feint hint of the gas that keeps the undimmed flame forever alight.

But there is nothing.

Nothing except a sort of anti-smell composed of the cellophane that wraps commemorative flowers too tightly to allow anything of their aroma to escape and the neutral void of over-washed and too neat children dressed in what would in an earlier age be termed their Sunday best.

My memory reshapes around funerals, the interments that many of the deceased remembered here would be denied, and of the flowers that accompany them.

Chrysanthemums.

Chrysanthemums coming flooding into my mind.

Like the great wave of these greenest of flowers that is Estee Lauder’s Private Collection.

Originally intended as a perfume solely for the great lady’s own use, like grief it was initially regarded as too personal for mass consumption.

But over time fallen soldiers and fragrances, it would appear, become everybody’s property.

As I am disgorged at the memorial’s end, I begin to walk away when a young woman, an enthusiastic intern in turns out, grasps my arm. She is working for CBS Radio and would like to know my thoughts, no ‘my feelings’ about what I have just seen.

I mumble a few words about being deeply moved and as I am speaking realise how many men and women there are in uniform all around and how America can sometimes feel like a nation still in arms.

As this realisation dawns, I find myself truly moved, understanding the connection that a country with almost one and a half million military personnel must feel towards its lost and missing in action and the many that face the same fate every day.

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One thing I have wondered at throughout my time in Washington DC is how few churches there are.

The National Cathedral I learn from a map is set apart in parkland someway off from Downtown.

Instead the city is dominated by great pagan temples, dedicated not to gods but men and in a style borrowed from Imperial not Papal Rome.

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The Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials are the greatest of these neo-classical conundrums.

One to remember the man who’s ideas formed the constitution, the other the President who waged a war and lost his life so that the privileges of that constitution could be made available to all men.

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These are places meant to inspire awe and assert America’s importance, in this they succeed in the way one imagines The Forum did when it was complete and functioning and not the ramshackle tourist highway it is today.

The sacred elements of both shrines are the words on the walls, the constitutional pronouncements on the ones the great address on the others.

The profanity is the subtle air of idolatry that lingers in the presence of such massively produced statues of men who were merely Presidents.

These are settings fit only for human not holy sacrements, and so Caron’s Parfum Sacre Intense, a mix of mountains of spice and myrrh, seems a suitable scent to accompany whatever theatricals need to be enacted here to keep the myth alive.

Right up next to the Potomac River, across from Arlington Cemetery, the massive marble slab of The Kennedy Centre, is like an enormous and immovable tombstone resting on its side.

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Its blank modernity is simply too much, too impersonal to remember a far too personable President by.

This block, an audition piece for an interplanetary parliament if ever one is to be built, says nothing of the man who lived in the White House with his young family, his back pain, his mistresses or of the tragedy of that dark day in Dallas.

As a monument it fails for it can never depose from our minds the images of Kennedy’s assassination or especially his funeral.

Jackie veiled, gloved, immaculate in black.

John John in powder blue, saluting the coffin.

The jasmine and animal smell of his mother’s Joy by Patou floating on the air.

The perfume that was once the most expensive in the world worn by the woman who would find solace in the arms of the one of the world’s richest men.

How distant they seem now, as far away as Guinevere and Arthur and the knights of the first Camelot.

How much closer, if not in time then in temperament, the touchingly low key memorial to FDR seems to today’s world.

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Here he is, with his frailty and four legged friend, amongst his words that speak so practically of justice and of real enemies abroad and poverty at home.

Here too is Eleanor, recognised in her own right for her own achievements.

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The first First Lady, but not the last, to hold high office of her own.

I can hear her words being spoken so distinctively:

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

And I dream a carpet of lilies of valley, beautiful on the banks of the tidal basin and the sweet, innocent smell of muguet to mind me on my way. Caron’s soap supreme Mugueut to Bonheur to be precise. The perfume that was her favourite.

It is time to go.

A taxi ride across town to a railway station based on the Baths of Diolcetian conflated with the Arch of Constantine into an epic and enduring gesture.

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Here between incredible columns and beneath vast vaults, I contemplate….

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Why are arrivals always in outrageous technicolor , whilst departing is in invariably merely monochrome?

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Yours ever

The Perfumed Dandy.

The Perfumed Dandy

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25 Comments

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25 responses to “Of farewells and not forgotten… Scenes from The Perfumed Dandy’s American Adventure Part Five : Washington DC

  1. Such Imperial beauty, such beautiful words, and so elegiac, as all memorials and perhaps all farewells should be? Thank you, Dandy!

    • Dearest Tarleisio
      It has been my very pleasure, as indeed it was to visit Washington.
      A magnificent city that inspired intellectual admiration and stirred mixed, sometimes sad emotions.
      That said I can’t wait to visit again.
      Yours ever
      The Perfumed Dandy

  2. Great blog update, will share on my blog if that’s ok, thanks Perfumed Dandy!

  3. Pingback: Of farewells and not forgotten… Scenes from The Perfumed Dandy’s American Adventure Part Five : Washington DC | Smell and the City

  4. Lilybelle

    What beautiful photos! Again I say, it is so interesting to see it all through your eyes. Sad, and moving. The accompanying fragrances are perfect. You might add Caswell & Massey No. 5 (I think it was?) for the Jefferson Memorial. I think I read that he and George Washington and several others wore it. Naturally, I can’t remember where I read it! It’s funny that there are so few churches. The founding fathers (and mothers) were people of deep faith. Their time seems so very far away now.

  5. I can see you are a very talented photographer. I enjoyed this post so much. It’s very moving.

  6. Very chiaroscuro. Like watching a movie that makes you need to just be silent for a while afterwards, then say a sentence, then order an immaculate cocktail, then be silent again and then talk it all through for hours and hours and hours and still words will feel not enough. Deep diaphragmatic breathing of the mind. And look how vast your dance floor keeps getting as you spread your arms, thoughts, and words.

  7. I must confess that I know very surely in my heart that I never need to visit Washington, but I love how you report it and combine it with scent.

    America has a LOT to answer for, I would say; I cannot shed your tears at these memorials.

    • But there! I have gone and done it. Woefully atttempted to mix perfume, with politics.

      • And badly, I think, as I don’t mean to disrespect any soldier who was led to die by their country’s government, and in that regard Vietnam was a tragedy of course (as was/is Iraq, Afghanistan…) But there is something so…..gargantuan and tasteless, about those colossal faux-Greek buildings for me; there is something that leaves me really cold.

        That said, I haven’t even been there so cannot know what the true atmosphere is like. A Japanese friend of mine is about to be posted out there for a few years so maybe I’ll get a chance to discover another viewpoint.

      • Dearest Ginza
        “In war, whichever side may call itself the victor, there are no winners, but all are losers.”
        As Neville Chamberlain said, an explanation perhaps why he was to avoid the conflict that became World War II at all costs.
        Those vast temples of hero worship would be odd if it were not for the fact that they are as much about the words as the men.
        The constitution at Jefferson’s, Gettysburg at Lincoln’s and wisdom on almost every matter at FDR’s for me by far the most moving of them all.
        Yours ever
        The Perfumed Dandy

      • Dearest Ginza
        I hope you were wearing Histoire des Parfums as you wrote!
        1969 I think would have been the best.
        Yours ever
        The Perfumed Dandy

      • Dearest Ginza
        It’s not the best from that range, and to my mind doesn’t live up to the name, which really is a crying shame.
        Yours ever
        The Perfumed Dandy

    • Dearest Ginza
      I do understand you opinion and indeed your ambivalence.
      The foreign policy of pre-eminent powers is rarely an attractive thing to witness. Britain’s role in the world in the 19th Century, well until 1939 to be frank, doesn’t bear too close examination.
      And on Washington, you know I felt exactly the same way too, until I went there…
      Yours ever
      The Perfumed Dandy

      • My parents had a similar reaction, I must confess.
        And regarding Britain’s past, I feel exactly the same way (which is why my father and I have had so many arguments about the bloody ‘Empire’).

  8. And I hope I haven’t offended the Dandy or anyone else by writing this. I have just woken up at 3.45 am worrying about it.

  9. Thank you for giving my feelings which are so like yours about Washington D.C. such a beautiful voice.

  10. rosestrang

    This is very moving. I haven’t been to Washington but I’m sure I’d be overwhelmed with mixed emotions visiting these buildings, and I think your observation about temples dedicated to leaders and ideas is well observed. This piece reminds me of the feelings I had when I worked as an Arts Manager for Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham – there were so many young men returned from Afghanistan with their limbs missing, yet full of hope and determination – I couldn’t not admire their courage yet feel angry at the unforgivable waste of life.

    • Dearest Rose
      Yes, human courage in the face of suffering and inhuman carnage is always moving.
      The names upon names on the Vietnam memorial bring home the fact that the number of men who died is irrelevant to the friends and families who all lost individuals they knew and loved.
      I heard someone comment too that were there a memorial to the Vietnamese dead ‘it would need to be a mile long’, a concise reminder of the horrific civilian cost of modern warfare.
      Yours ever
      The Perfumed Dandy

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