I don’t know about you, but when I treat myself – when I buy myself something nice – I don’t like to use it straight away. New clothes stay in the wardrobe waiting for a special occasion (not that there are any of those these days), the posh chocolate is squirrelled away in the basement so I can’t just demolish it on the spur of the moment because it’s been a crappy Wednesday and I need something to graze on while I watch another episode of the West Wing, wishing ardently that it wasn’t fiction. I bought a beautiful leather bag online a few months back, a gorgeous racing green tote: even when lockdown ends and it’s time to go out and about again, I’ll still save its debut for an appropriately fitting event.
If none of that sounds ridiculous, try this: it’s only recently that I’ve started wearing the prescription sunglasses I bought last year. Sod’s Law dictated that I got round to buying them just as the summer came to an end, but even so they stayed packed away in a drawer during the bright, sunny days of autumn and winter and finally ended up on my nose a couple of weeks ago, when the weather properly got beautiful and I began to take my afternoon walks at the height of the sunshine.
I couldn’t believe what a difference they made – I’ve never owned a pair of sunglasses before, and to see such definition in the sky, in the wisps and layers of cloud, in the splendour of every single leaf of the grand trees that tower in the cemetery or line Kendrick Road, made me feel strangely emotional. I could have had that experience so much sooner, if I wasn’t so stubborn. I wish I’d done this years ago, I thought to myself, adding “owning prescription sunglasses” to the long, long list of things that, as a frustratingly change-averse bugger, I wish I’d done years ago.
Three weeks ago, I decided to treat myself to a new fragrance from a company called Perfumer H, based in Marylebone. I’d always meant to go and visit their store, on one of my trips to London with friends, but I never got round to it and then it became impossible. I so miss those trips now, of taking the train with my friends, heading to Covent Garden to shop in the brilliant Bloom – where they have the genius idea of arranging fragrances by what they smell like rather than who made them – and then going for a long boozy lunch somewhere. I miss so many things, but I especially miss that.
Part of the appeal of buying something from Perfumer H in lockdown was just how difficult they made it. They have no online store, no other UK stockists, just an impenetrable website listing the current season’s fragrances. There’s a link you can click that takes you to a list of all their other fragrances – all for sale, although you could be forgiven for thinking they’re not. If you want one, you email them and they send you a Paypal invoice. Old school doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s funny: I am sometimes frustrated that Reading’s food businesses don’t do more online, aren’t active on social media, and here I was eagerly purchasing something from a company which, to put it lightly, was playing hard to get.
My fragrance arrived a couple of weeks ago, in a beautiful powder-blue box, swaddled in a tweed wrap. The bottle was handsome and plain, with a hint of the laboratory about it. It looked so beautiful that I couldn’t bring myself to start wearing it straight away. So I did what I often do, and saved it for later.
I’d first smelled it at an exhibition at Somerset House three years ago, where they had designed ten rooms around modern fragrances, like installation art. The aim was to show how modern perfumery had moved away from trying to smell “nice” into more complicated territory, evoking memories or atmospheres a long way from roses or lilies, the obvious choices of scent, the equivalent of rhyming “moon” and “June”.
One room, styled to look like a confessional booth, showcased a fragrance which uncannily replicated the thick clouds that billow from the censer at a Catholic mass. Another room contained a Tracey Emin-style unmade bed covered in rags soaked in a fragrance that had been designed to smell of “sex” or, more specifically, bodily fluids. Not “nice”, a million miles from what I’d choose to wear myself, but fascinating none the less.
A third aimed to recreate the feeling of going on a log flume ride at a theme park. It smelled dank, of stagnant chlorinated water, and you grabbed a tacky cuddly toy infused with the perfume, stood in a booth clutching it and posed for a tourist photograph. If you bought a bottle in the exhibition shop it came in a mocked-up VHS cassette case, for an extra whack of nostalgia.
The fragrance I bought a few weeks ago, gladly, didn’t smell of bodily fluids or chlorine. It’s called Charcoal, and it was created by the perfumer as a way of capturing a client’s childhood memories, and influenced by the perfumer’s memories of her Scottish grandfather. It smells of woodsmoke and leather, and greenery after rainfall, of dark wintry holidays in this country. To my nose at least it’s stunning, simultaneously lush and austere. I finally took the bottle out of the box and placed it on the mantelpiece in the bedroom this week, finally put it on and all day it followed me around like a fuzzy, deep green hug. I may never get out of my comfies all day, some days, if it’s too miserable to go outside for a walk, but that’s no reason not to make an effort.
I have adored fragrance for the best part of fifteen years, and the collection of boxes and bottles under my bed shows no signs of diminishing: at last count I think I had just shy of thirty. It’s sobering to think that I could stop buying them now, and the ones I own might even see me out. But I can’t see myself stopping. Wearing a scent is one of the simplest, most beautiful ways of dropping a filter in front of the lens through which you see the world, and making everything slightly different. I really don’t understand why more people don’t do it, when it’s such an easy way to spark such joy.
And they can spark so many different flavours and colours of joy. On any given day I could smell of rich orange blossom, and be transported to Andalusia, or pick something with the honey and vanilla tones of Turkish pipe tobacco (tobacco, sad to say, smells beautiful right up to the point where you foolishly take a match to it). I have a fragrance which is a recreation of vintage suntan lotion – Coppertone, to be precise – and when I wear it, even though I am miles from a beach, I feel as if I’ve just got back from one. Another smells of tomato leaf, putting you in a sultry, summery virtual greenhouse. I had one fragrance which smelled of – and this is no word of an exaggeration – Smartie shells. It had that unmistakeable blend of sugar and cocoa, and I admired the trickery more than I liked the scent. I gave it to an ex: I wonder if she still wears it.
Another fragrance I own smells of honey, spice and amber, a proper, smouldering, wouldn’t-wear-it-to-the-office smell. Back when I was married, my ex-wife forbade me from buying it – she really couldn’t stand it – and last December, on a holiday to Paris, I finally bought myself a bottle. It’s part fragrance, part emblem of emancipation. And I also have a fragrance which smells of rose, because people who believe that men can’t smell of roses are every bit as wrong as people who think that men shouldn’t wear pink.
Most fragrances aren’t really such things as men’s fragrances and women’s fragrances: in summer I’ll wear my fragrance that smells of mimosa, a pure, fresh uncomplicated thing, how laundry might smell in heaven, and I won’t give a monkey’s if anybody thinks it’s effeminate.
Scent is the most incredible form of time travel, too: sometimes I go back and buy a fragrance I’ve owned in the past, and whenever I put it on a cascade of memories comes tumbling back. Eau Sauvage, for example, will always remind me of waking up in Granada on Christmas Day, over ten years ago, having bought the bottle in Duty Free on my flight out. They played Feliz Navidad through the speakers on the connecting flight to Federico Garcia Lorca Airport. I remember, I remember: smelling Eau Sauvage is somehow more effective than looking at any photograph.
I have one fragrance, although I wouldn’t call it a signature scent, that I have worn consistently for the best part of twenty years. It’s a single dogged olfactory thread that runs through every house and flat I’ve lived in, every friend I have made and lost, every person I’ve shared my life with, however momentarily. It’s dirt cheap and probably, objectively, nothing special: nevertheless, I live in constant fear that it will be discontinued.
Really, my new fragrance isn’t seasonal at all, although it’s better this week, now that the weather has turned to shit and there’s rain in the air (petrichor, the smell of the ground after rain – also known as geosmin – is one of the most gorgeous smells there is: I have a fragrance that smells of that too). In the months ahead my sweeter, sunnier fragrances will get more of a look-in, whether that’s bright, green scents, fresher everyday colognes or the one with notes of blood orange. And then, when the sun sets earlier and the air is chillier, it will be time for different smells: of incense, leather, smoke and oud. I have one fragrance that has the sharpness of bitter orange muffled with a smudge of clove: much as I love it, it feels rightest to wear it in December.
All this might feel like a far cry from everything I usually write about, but I’m not sure it should come as a surprise. Smell and taste are so closely linked, after all, and the smell of food is one of the most beautiful things about it, given how it always acts as a trailer for what is to come. Imagine the smell that only comes from onions and garlic sizzling away on the hob, or the aroma of a slow-cooked ragu taking its time to become delicious. When I open my cupboard in the morning, ready to make that first Aeropress of the day, I smell the richness of the coffee long before I finish all the jiggery-pokery involved in making a cup of the stuff. And that, too, brings me joy.
The scent of food or drink is a promise, hanging in the air, waiting to be kept. Good food sometimes takes its time to fulfil that promise, but one of the wonderful things about other scents – like fragrance – is that they offer a more instant gratification. Or they do, at least, provided you don’t spend two weeks getting round to getting them out of the box.