I have come to visit my friend Celia Lyttelton. Celia wrote a wonderful book called The Scent Trail - A Journey of the Senses. In it she tells the tale of her travels to exotic places to discover the origins and the histories of the ingredients of her own perfume.
Amongst the many revolting side effects of chemotherapy are nausea, mouth and tongue ulcers and a metallic taste in one’s mouth. Eating food becomes a bit of a chore. Lovely smells can be a refuge. Whilst I was having chemo the pleasure of inhaling a scented candle or soaking in a tub laced with herbal bath milk was heightened.
Aroma-Chology is some kind of study of the psychological effects of smells. It seems that pretty much every right-minded person adores the aroma of coffee and abhors the stink of burning hair. But between those extremes of the olfactory spectrum lie forests, fields and oceans of subtle smells. According to the website of the Sense of Smell Institute, the average human can recognise about 10,000 different smells. Our reactions to scent seem to be highly individualistic. They are tied up with our memories, our hormones, our age and maybe our body chemistry. Nobody really knows why one smell will raise our spirits and another have us reaching for the razor blades.
Anyway, Celia has offered me an astounding gift. She is going to make me my own bespoke scent.
We sit at a small table in the glassed-in balcony of a high-ceilinged Notting Hill flat. Outside the window a large orange butterfly dries its newborn wings in the sunshine. Several black boxes are stacked on the table amongst the toy cars, coffee cups and piles of bills. Celia opens the boxes to reveal hundreds of small bottles with hand-written paper labels. Each of these contains a pure scent. The little sunroom suddenly seems to me like a treasure cave. These tiny phials have the mystique of rare and magic potions. And indeed, some of the extracts take many years to produce whilst others are more valuable than gold. The scents are organised into different families, for example: summer flowers; greens; leathers; gourmands; powders and so on. Celia produces a bundle of white paper strips. She dips the strips one at a time into the scent bottles and begins presenting me with tiny aromatic morsels.
I had imagined that I would just love them all and be completely unable to decide which smells had meaning for me, or what might work with what. I was surprised to discover that I have quite a discerning nose. The very first smell that Celia presents me with is red carnation. I reject it straight away. “Too soapy,” I declare. Interesting because normally I like the smell of carnations. As we work swiftly through the bottles I find myself expertly dividing the perfumed strips into ‘yes’ and ‘no’ groups. I can’t quite tell you why but this is turning out to be the most joyful thing I have done for a long time. What started out as an interesting exercise has grabbed my heart. Next I begin to reduce the ‘yes’ group by a process of elimination.
After a couple of hours we have arrived at the definitive five smells that float my boat. The formula is top-secret so I can’t tell you what they are. How do I know that these are the scents for me? It is hard to say. Smelling them produces a primal response. I feel all at once excited, warm, sexy, free, alive and at peace. It’s the feeling of being tucked up in bed whilst a wild storm lashes at the windows and it’s the feeling of lying on warm sand as a soft breeze strokes my body. Celia adds just two drops of each to a small puddle of wheat-germ oil that lies in the bottom of an antique porcelain bowl. She presents me with the bowl. I take a deep breath and I am repelled. The perfume is sickly, cloying, sweet and overwhelming. “Oh no,” I say, “I’ve got it all wrong. Those don’t work together at all.” I’m crestfallen.
But Celia is not daunted “It just needs one more ingredient,” she advises me, “what do you think it should be?” I’m fascinated to find that I immediately know which box I want to go to. “Something green,” I say. My fingers hover around the box, picking up and putting down bottles until I draw out one labelled cut grass. I dip in a paper strip and take a sniff. Guess what it smells like – exactly. “I think this is the one.” Celia adds two drops of cut grass to the bowl and swirls it in. I bend my head to the bowl and breathe in the fumes. My perfume has magically transformed from nauseating to mesmerising. I inhale again. “Oh my goodness, Celia, this is sublime. It’s as if the cut grass has just gathered all the other smells up in its arms and made them dance together. It works.”
“We have to give it a name,” says Celia. “It reminds me of a meadow.” I say, “It’s a place that I visualise in my Yoga Nidra. In my mind I lie in a meadow on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the sea. There is a stream running through the meadow. Beside the stream is a beautiful Indian Bean Tree. Under the tree is a large, flat rock. I lie in the meadow and see wildflowers and long grasses quivering all around me.” We look up at the wall. Hanging there is a small painting of a field. The title of the painting is: Elysian Fields Seen From the Spring of Helicon. “Google it!” cries Celia.
Here is what we learned. Helicon is a mountain in Greece. In Greek mythology, on Mount Helicon were two springs, sacred to the muses. The Hippocrene spring burst forth when Pegasus struck its hoof on a rock. From Wikipedia: ...the poet Hesiod sang how in his youth he had pastured his sheep on the slopes of Helicon where Eros and the Muses already had sanctuaries and a dancing-ground near the summit, where "their pounding feet awaken desire". There the Muses inspired him and he began to sing of the origins of the gods. Thus Helicon became an emblem of poetical inspiration.
So we christened my scent ‘Helicon’, although I still reserve the right to change the name.
Celia diluted the twelve drops of pure scent with enough base oil to fill a tiny vial. It is now sitting in my fridge where it has to stay for a week to mature. That miniscule bottle holds no more than a couple of teaspoons full of perfume but every time I take the lid off it I am transported, enraptured, to a meadow by a spring on the edge of my imaginary Mount Helicon.