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Our Agent Above… Tubereuse Criminelle by Serge Lutens The Perfumed Dandy’s Scented Letter

It seems almost inconceivable, sitting here in this age of aluminium and steel that we could ever have dreamt of taking to the air in those paper thin things.

Of being held aloft by pairs of petal-like translucent wings, only part enclosed in their cloth bodies, slight and taught as skin pulled tight and glued across skeletons of softwood.

“Moths” we called them, and in truth they were as insubstantial and transient as the beasts from which they took their names.

But my how they soared, and turned, looped and dived, swerved and survived especially in his hands.

Except that one plane, a French “Goliath”.

She was built to hold a literal tonne of bombs, but came into being only as The Great War ended and the fashion for killing was coming to a finish. Luckily she could carry any cargo, incendiary or sentient. Short-fused twenties people with their insatiable, expensive appetites for adventure, risk and thrill would do as well as high-explosives.

And though “Goliath” was no aerial gymnast, she was made to fly, far.

Perhaps that was what gave him the idea, an idea that, years later sat in a Tangiers bar serving as his sitting room and travel bureau prompted with enough cheap spirit, he would propound to anyone.

“I wanted to take her down to Yucatan.”

He’d had enough of New Mexico, arid, dry and dust.

“There are no flowers outside of Albuquerque, and all my time was spent outside of Albuquerque.”

His job was to push the plane for as long as she would go, sailing the currents from dawn to dusk to morning and night again. Making the motors whir in ever increasing numbers of circles, forever going nowhere.

Counting minutes and miles and never moving from within sight of the hut where the men from the military kept their logs. Books and books of figures and sums, fuel coefficients and calculations on effectiveness.

“I longed to see the forests. I’d read there were jungles on the peninsular and that native peoples still held sway down there. I figured a free spirit might fit in.”

He chances a still winning smile, his face just hanging on to handsome despite sun damage, it is decayed but debonair, its beauty not yet quite destroyed by the wrecking ball of alcohol. The kind of look one could forgive someone who’d fought a war.

Every half hour he squeezes out a miniscule amount of ointment from an unmarked metallic tube and in tiny rotations rubs it into the sliver of a scar that runs from his wrist to his elbow along the soft inside of his left arm. The wound itself appears entirely healed, the procedure a small act of habit perhaps, or maybe the strange, dirtily medicated smell is a sign it is intended to hold infection at bay in this hot, contagious place.

So, he recalls with a start, one day with a compass, map and heap of hard-earned courage he swung out of the constrained concentric, took the plane up and on an arc south west, first across vast Texas, then the sea.

Their calls from the ground were gone in an instant, the space where the radio should have hissed was silent, for they’d taken it out: superfluous in a flying machine not meant to skip the aviary.

Above the Gulf the gauges gave way as he knew they would and all official idea of fuel remaining was gone. He had simply to judge what was left on “how weightless we felt, how unencumbered and released.” Oh, and, of course, on scent, how much kerosene there was in among the scarce clouds.

Some people are scared in the air above water, here he felt he cheated gravity most surely. Caught between the two amorphous elements. He was flesh inside an ephemeral exoskeleton: a floating human insect. A physical impossibility.

And all that blue below, oh that “Goliath” were more nimble now, he tried a few swoops at the water, but his ship wasn’t for it, she was made for the steady path and so he contented himself with the patterns of the tide on the surface and the occasional shoal of flying fish, a school of dolphins, and the sun to keep his course.

It was after the second morning that land came into sight.

Soaring out of the sea: cliffs, palms, wetlands, waterfalls, and a few miles inland a second ridge, of trees this time: the rainforest. The jungle canopy two hundred feet tall. A lush and levitating carpet of green leaf.

When the engine spluttered, spat and choked to soundlessness, for a moment he imagined he could set the great bird down upon the treetops as though they were an elevated lawn, solid and safely close to the sky.

Then the first branch tore through a wing, an indifferent implacable trunk snapped the propeller, another bough punctured the fuselage, he thought with calm horror his body would be next to be broken.

And so it was they told him afterwards, a sinew of vines opened up Goliath on her descent and then the small workings of the massive plants did their work on his tissue ripping at his exposed flank, a thousand tiny fissures caused by twigs and thorns.

The first miracle was that he escaped being impaled, decapitated or too mutilated. The second that the low drone of the plane drew a group of tribesmen just close enough to track its final fall. The third that they were not too fearful or rightly cautious to walk or run away from this unheralded, inexplicable visitor to their world.

“Were you swaddled as a child?” he says, incongruously, as if the baby Jesus had any place in the International Zone.

“I mean, do you have any memory of being wrapped so tight you can’t move?”

I shake my head. His voice is raising and a few eyes turn in your direction, narrow in recognition of the narrative and then return to their very dirty martinis. After all this corner of what was once Morocco is the place for which the maxim live and let live was invented.

He shakes his head in turn.

“I didn’t think I remembered either, not until I was on that stretcher.”

For reasons never explained the quiet invisible people of Yucatan, living in the shadow of the rainforest and the ruins of their ancestors, took pity on him. This man who fell to earth.

“Perhaps it was written in their scriptures. Do they have scriptures?”

He recalls that they wrapped him tightly, of being afraid that they were mummifying him alive, then they bound him to a pallet and carried him above their heads for “days”. He felt, could feel, nothing. No sensations. He doesn’t know if they gave him a potion, some “sleeping draft” or if the pain subdued, confused his senses. He is, in truth unsure whether they travelled for days or if what he took for nights were merely lapses into unconsciousness. It is not, emphatically, not like a dream, but like something that happened to someone else, something read about and remembered second-hand.

Except, he remembers the smell.

The profound and inescapable odour that surrounded him throughout.

An aroma that blocked the excreta of his body, the decay of his wounds, the verdancy of the forest, the unfamiliarity of these people, joined now by the exquisite painted women of the tribe.

A fragrance of healing intensity, neither pleasant nor ugly, but irrevocably, and here looking around at the room for of misfits in what was once an Arab merchant’s house, he laughs at himself “undeniably holy”.

When they removed the bandages at the hospital much later, he has an image in his mind of them peeling layers of wet petals from his skin, interleaved with spices. He believes, truly believes, the lacerations had been packed with resin, that scented and saved him.

“Though all that could have been the morphine. They were dead keen on it and I don’t know how to say no!”

A signal to the barman and another pichet of indistinct spirit a little like pastis arrives, a plate of almonds on the side.

After the opiates, the hospital was clean, too clean, bright and cheerful.

White, white-toothed nurses in white starched uniforms, white washed walls and white jasmine flowers.

“Hell, I might as well have gone to heaven.”

The only colour came from some blue hyacinths that the “only other living creature in that place” a Mexican woman working as an orderly brought in.

How, I wonder, did a man in search of Yucatan end up here on the Sahara’s Mediterranean shore?

To sharp for me, he senses the question to follow and foils with his own.

“So, did you say you still wanted the ride down to Marrakech?”

He takes the tube of ointment from the table and begins his every thirty minutes ritual.

That Serge Lutens’ iconic Tubereuse Criminelle opens with an enormous anti-floral near antiseptic intensity that can take the unsuspecting wearer’s breath away is the stuff of perfume legend.

Sadly, that this overture accord has an emphatic and contrary beauty is all too often over-looked on account of its formidable apparently camphorous novelty.

This clamorous arrival, the olfactory equivalent of the opening of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is achieved by means of the balance it expertly strikes between the healing and holy: the marriage of tuberose in overload with bug-eating clove by the bucket, all preserved in styrax.

The effect of this intensity can almost be anaesthetising, but pleasantly so, more like full Latin Mass with bells and smells (to an unbeliever). As much a consuming act of theatre, as mere ornament or proud sacrament.

Yet there is familiarity here, not only to the endless mouthwashes and ointments and poultices and remedies that reviewers – myself included, I smell ‘Germolene’ – quote, but to an adventurous strain in perfumery that is now almost dead.

For me, Tubereuse Criminelle references the playful intensity of a certain sort of scent of the twenties through to the fifties. Fragrances that married intense emphasis on an individual or pair of floral notes with unusual or unexpected spices or animalics.

Germaine Cellier did this for Robert Piguet and Balmain; Michel Morsetti and, in particular, Ernest Daltroff for Caron, and they were not alone.

None of this is to say that Tubereuse Criminelle smells like Jolie Madame, Visa, Poivre, Bellodgia or even Fracas… it doesn’t.

It shares with all the above a dual personality of frivolity and seriousness, of tough exterior and yielding flesh, of astringency and assuaging. It is intellectual and sensual and with a sense of self-aware humour.

The meld to the middle part of the structure, where the smell becomes creamier and more classical is slow, with constant references to the striking opening. Every time one comes to believe that an easier simpler tuberose has arrived, as though in a Nouvelle Vague flashback, we are transported to the baroque cathedral of the commencement.

Finally, in drydown, another musical metaphor springs to mind, that of Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony No. 45, in which each player of the orchestra in turn departs the stage leaving at last two sole violinists who simply stop playing then quit themselves.

Here those notes are a tuberose made at the termination moist and shimmering and a whiter than usual jasmine to keep the melody aloft until the moment it extinguishes itself.

From orchestral flourish par excellence through complex central passages writ with allusion and irony to a faltering tender conclusion, Tubereuse Criminelle is never anything short of great music made fragrance.

It is olfactory art.

It leaves the unerring sense of a creation seeking to tell a story through a medium other than words.

Great. Truly great.

Tubereuse Criminelle was the first of three perfumes to tempt The Dandy most severely at Serge Lutens’ Palais Royale store in Paris.

Scented letters to follow soon on the other two… and then perhaps we’ll guess which one I chose!

Yours ever

The Perfumed Dandy.

The Perfumed Dandy

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Sculpture and scent…. The Perfumed Dandy Picks Fragrant Pairings for Chihuly

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Sounds a little like a tongue twister that title, no?

Thank you for all your magnificent olfactory recommendations for aromas to match Mr Chihuly’s creations.

Here are some thoughts of The Dandy‘s

Blue

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Red Danders, Night Club , Nineties

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Animal

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Amber

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Green Anemone

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Head of Narcissus

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Chandeliers

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Lights At The Odeon

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Vessels

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Writhing Smoke

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Medusa

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The Kick Inside

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Hyacinth

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Period.

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Departure in Glass

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Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, just occasionally, scents were paired with sculptures?

They do it with music… a string quartet here a jazz band there.

Why not a flacon, a bottle or atomizer to keep the noses amused?

Do tell what you thought of my humble offerings.

Yours ever

The Perfumed Dandy.

The Perfumed Dandy

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The green reaper… Vent Vert by Balmain The Perfumed Dandy’s Scented Letter 

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“It will be mostly, well almost entirely green”

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As she spoke she looked defiantly passed, no, more accurately, through, the assembled women of the horticultural society.

A gasp as sharp and cool as the Sirocco itself emanated from their collective lipstick-ed mouths.

A rumble of wet whispers like a gathering storm just audible somewhere off on the Med:

“But it’s a flower show” “The defending champion is expected to outdo herself” “It must be a riot of colour and gaiety” “There must be blooms in abundance”

Finally, a committee member in a powder puff pink twinset, pearls and with lips pursed enough to crack a walnut cleared her throat and spoke.

“Is it to be only green?”

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“Pretty much.”

This time the defending champion spoke without raising her gaze from the perilous task she was engaged in: winding wild stinging nettles around a trellised column that marked one of the four corners of her sixteen metre square show garden.

“So no flowers at all?” the former treasurer persisted.

“There are green flowers you know. Certain kinds of wild iris for example… ” replied the gardener.

Then looking up and straight into her arch enemy’s eyes, “…and green carnations of course”.

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At this a slight embarrassed laugh rose from the crowd of women and those who understood explained to those who didn’t in terms of Oscar Wilde.

Undaunted, the elected member pressed her case uneasily though even she felt perhaps unwisely too:

No dash of colour? A bright red rose? A few of those amazing azure azaleas that drew such admiration last year?”

Silence.

“An aster perhaps?”, and then in desperation… “For heaven’s sake a dahlia or two wouldn’t kill you!”

But, the ex-chairwoman suddenly worriedly thought, perhaps the look fixed on her by her adversary now might just do for her.

The competition winner, rose to her feet, a full near six feet in fact, about five of them resplendent in a chartreuse satin-like jump suit.

“There could be a chrysanthemum…” she began calmly …”but I doubt it.”

“Mainly we will be showing leaf this year. Violet, orange, basil, sage, oh and some mosses as ground covering. I might run to a blue hyacinth out of season as surprise, but that depends on… well that depends…”

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“You may be interested to know I have some pins too, of the coniferous kind and some fruit….”

“You are aware there is a fruit and vegetable section…?” came the faltering interrogative.

“Limes, of course, quite inedible, exclusively for the colour” the green goddess continued without missing a beat, her eyes fixed again on some indiscernible and distant point above the coven’s heads.

“And lots of wild things, grasses, brambles, hawthorns, nettles….” She gestured to her handiwork.

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At this final explosion of unkempt matter the official felt almost faint…

“Nettles you say? Of course marks are awarded as much for skill in cultivation as mere arrangement!”

“But the lawn grass I shall be using is beautifully grown, manicured you might say. It makes wonderful material for the vertical elements of the display.”

A general silence descended.

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The one time general secretary was bowed and beaten, the other members of the collective too confused to consider further remonstration.

Then the towering Amazon in forest hues asserted that she “must be getting on with my work”.

They departed with the almost grateful air of a defeated army in retreat.

On the day the display did nothing to disappoint expectations.

It was exactly the densely packed abstract cube of foliage devoid of flowers that they had all feared and dreaded.

A melange of textures shapes and every shade of one single colour.

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All was green, save for a row of inexplicably sourced blue hyacinths that sat atop a seven foot wall of lawn.

And that was not all, for the ‘entered environment’ as the ‘author’ entitled her show garden, was suffused in a chill mist that emanated from behind a basil and sage sphere.

Not only was this cloud cold, but it smelt like distant polar ice.
In flaming July, the effect was magical.

Heat-wearied show goers tired of the gaudy confections of over inflated flora on display elsewhere queued patiently to get their moment out of the sun.

To relax and revive in a sanctuary of temporary serenity.
Though none dared stay too long as they found the cool soon became uncomfortable to the their warm-blooded sensibilities.

The judges, a sculptor from the local art school and an out of town landscape designer, were moved, and could not be emotionally moved on from their moments in the mist.

Full marks duly awarded, they presented the prize, an awful cut glass bowl and a comfortable amount of cash, with great aplomb and air kisses to the defending champion.

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She stood radiant in a floor length fern coloured kaftan her long hair blowing in the green breeze coming from her garden.

Vintage Vent Vert by Balmain is as close to iconoclastic feminism as fragrance gets.

On its release this searing, adventurous and uncompromising scent must have cut a swathe through not only smoked filled rooms but preconceptions of what a woman should smell like.

It is a bracing bolt from the green.

An amorphous, abstract yet geometric gesture in shamrock.

To describe and dissect the principle note or accord seems almost pointlessly reductive.

It contains grasses, nettles, citrus leaf and moss but is not solely defined by any of them.

Beyond this there is fruity acidity set off by a softer florals that appear and then disappear repeatedly in the heart.

Like the summer wind the name suggests.

Chief amongst these floral elements is a hyacinth that retains a degree of hauter, the slight detachment of that note smudged by a friendlier lighter muguet.

The base is another convergence of not only notes but tone, galbanum against amber, sandalwood and cedar, oakmoss and herbaceous border.

The effect is entrancing yet at the same time a little alarming.

Indeed, this is not a perfume with which the word comfortable can easily be associated.

It is too urgent, too agitated, has a point to make even to the point of a certain cold aggression.

I can’t help but adore it for its restless boundary-testing taut beauty.

If Vent Vert were a painting it would be a cubist Picasso from his lost green period.

Sadly, as for the latest iteration, complete with its golden golf ball lid, whilst it is far from a truly bad perfume, it drifts too much into the territory of easy musk-bought cleanliness and could be mistaken for good scalp-saving shampoo.

Yours ever

The Perfumed Dandy.
The Perfumed Dandy

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Falling in love again… Jolie Madame by Balmain The Perfumed Dandy’s Scented Letter

In the maelstrom of a Cold World War where the kids took rock stars and revolutionaries as their icons she kept Marlene as hers.

She was never really sure how she had ended up in the last officially occupied city in Europe, or how she found herself in a practically unheatable apartment up against the wall, on the last island of capitalism, cast adrift beyond the Tiergarten, before Check Point Charlie, and under American control.

But here she was, amongst the wannabee Baader-Meinhofs and Johnny Rottens, and happy after a fashion.

Her rooms, in a nineteenth century block blown apart then haphazardly rebuilt by the allies, were vast, indeed she held sway only over a portion of them, allowing plants and free-thinking students to invade the rest.

She laughed to herself that she didn’t know which smelt damper and more bitter, the moss that scaled the stairwell or the disaffected German youths who came to hang out with her.

Certainly the students had a more animal aroma than the well mannered mice that scuttled ceaselessly between walls and under floor boards.

The young people had arrived at first because of her flowers, they stayed they said because of her food and drew a crowd of comrades to the Kreuzberg because of her fingers.

She suspected there was still another reason for their devotion.

Something beyond the banks of sweet violets that she had taken to cultivating in the enormous and unusable sitting room, pots of which she would gift them to take back home and scent their squalid squats with.

Something other than the vats of lentils cooked with fresh coriander and the occasional clove spiced ham, simmered to submission on the aged gas stove, that they partook so freely and gratefully of.

Of course she knew there were causes other than poverty for their hunger, she saw the tram line bruises on their arms, the veins broken as abruptly as u-Bahn lines.

She even knew that it was something more than her facility for fixing up their battered leather jackets, using a Singer even older than her cooker, even older than her, to repair garments even more in tatters than their city, that drew them in.

Though it was true: her hands kept her now as they had always done: at any time there could be a hundred or more hide coats hanging in those rooms. Some awaiting repair, others in the process, the majority attending their owners’ return with the few marks in hand that they needed to pay her.

By mid afternoon the whole place smelt beautifully of new blood and old leather and she loved it and was comforted by it.

And this she knew is why they came. They came for comfort.

From about five, as night fell, they would make their way to her from across the berg.

They came drunk on the booze they bought at the Intershops at Friedriechstrasse station, where she had left her old life behind, or high on whatever they got high on that spring after the German Autumn.

They crammed in around her and talked and talked and talked until there was no more that could be said.

Then they asked her to play her music.

Placing the needle on the most scratched but most beloved of all her records, she waited a moment for the sound of an old Berlin to begin.

Then she sat amongst them as they finally found their quiet.

One of the children, for that is how she thought of them, whispered something to another, he looked straight at her and she caught the words “Die schone Frau”, then he collapsed into his lover’s arms and unconsciousness.

Jolie Madame, even in the latest toilette, stands as a salutary reminder of a previous kind of perfume.

It is a more careworn and perhaps caring sort of scent, one which seeks not to portray a perfected idea of the world but rather to suggest memories and make associations that are more real and realistically rough edged and imperfect.

It all starts with a phalanx of surprisingly savoury sweet violets.

The reason for this unsyrupy tone is quickly revealed as a slightly decayed structure of oakmoss, vetiver and animal smells, principally leather.

As the initially plush floral note fades, but never disappears, this leather truly comes to the fore and shows itself to be of an older, battered jacket type, aromatically weathered with coriander, petitgrain and not too much tobacco smoke.

Like an actual leather jacket, once one is accustomed to the scent it can tend to be subsumed into notions of the person who’s wearing it and when they have worn it.

In this sense Jolie Madame is a memory scent, a doorway into different pasts and places according to the whim of those who wear it and those who smell it.

Unlike so many contemporary perfumes, this sympathetically reformulated 1950s classic, does not close us in to a simple reading, but allows a little free thinking.

If only more fragrances today were as keen on freedom.

One has the sense that this could be quite as Jolie for a Monsieur as a Madame.

Yours ever

The Perfumed Dandy

The Perfumed Dandy

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