Friday, 15 March 2013
It was 1998, and I went off on hols. Costa Rica first, then Cuba. It was my birthday present to myself, and I decided that the best way to get to know some genuine Cubans was to go somewhere I could learn to dance. Oddly, my bicycle taxi man decided to take me to the Caseón del Tango, not your usual salsa place. I went there every day for a lesson with Ketty Angel and a man called Felix, and at the end of the week I was invited to what I thought was a little party. My Spanish wasn’t all that good, and it turned out that I was performing on stage in front of 200 elderly Cuban tango fans. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done, not chickening out when Iight dawned. Afterwards I was hugged and kissed by all 200 of them, just for showing up and having a go. There’s a picture that goes with it. I’ll see if I can find it.
Havana was intriguing, with a permanent sense of insecurity. People are prepared to do almost anything to part you from your foreign cash. You can try to stay in the tidy bits with your tour manager, or you can stray off the path and visit the darker parts. I ended up one evening in a tiny apartment - built from breeze blocks with another forty like it, stacked up on top of each other inside a former grand villa - eating rice, beans and fresh lobster ($5 each right out of the sea, I paid) with a bunch of elicit ‘banana cigar’ sellers and rent boys. We had a great time, although they’d have been arrested for talking to a tourist without a license if I’d been found there.
They have tobacco, sugar, rum and fruit. They don’t have much of anything else. And there’s ingenuity, humour, fatalism and sweltering heat. And this is the way I remember it smelled, walking through Old Havana to the Caseón del Tango at night.
There are three versions: ‘tourist’, ‘dark’ and ‘now I’m really scared’. I went with ‘dark’ and its heart is made with the scary version.
In its intense heart, there are vanilla, tobacco, jasmine, toffee and tonka, with extra added dirty. For the abundance of fruits I went with oranges, peaches and grapefruits. Vanilla, labdanum and synthetic musk bring it back from scary to dark, and I put in some black peppercorn for spice, because that’s just the way Old Havana is.
This is one I worked on for quite a while, and made several completely different versions, before I decided to focus on one moment, not the entire Tour de France.
When Sir Bradley Wiggins got up on the podium at the end of the Champs Elysées, with Chris Froome and that bloke who came third, a load of dignitaries, the sprinter Maurice Green and two skinny birds in yellow frocks carrying daffodils and stuffed toys, he addressed the gathered millions, and suggested that it looked like time the draw the raffle numbers.
He did it for the British cycling fans who’d travelled to Paris specially to see him there, the winner of the Tour de France, in his yellow jersey. He wanted to say something that would be meaningless to the rest of the world, because only the British know that when it’s all over, just before we all go home, that’s when we do the raffle. It was outrageous, original and funny. And I wanted to put it in a perfume.
This is a perfume of parts. I wanted the scent of a crowd on a hot day; coffee, tobacco, hot tarmac and linden trees of the Champs Elysées; oiled bicycles; marmalade on toast. I’m not sure if Sir Wiggo had marmalade on toast for breakfast but I’d like to think it was his petit dejeuner of choice the day after.
I’d considered other parts of the Tour, but decided against mountains, sunflowers, the rest of France. I wanted the smell of the moment that Bradley Wiggins led the peloton into the Champs Elysées ready to catapult Cav into a position where he could cross the line first. Again. Where other Tour winners are generally taking the applause at a leisurely pace, Bradley was belting around the cobbled corners, part of the team, because it wasn’t over until it was really over. Then when it was over it was time for the raffle.
For the Champs Elysées: coffee, tobacco, aniseed, linden. Vetivert for the scent of hot tar and helional to symbolise sunshine, just because it’s named after the sun god. For the bikes I used damascone alpha because I think it smells of clean shiny metal; bitter orange and a CO2 extract off brown bread – not kidding - for marmalade on toast.
You remember the essay that we all had to write in the first English lesson back at school? I hated writing it, mostly because it had spoiled my holidays knowing that I was going to have to do it later. The weight of the responsibility, making mental notes of interesting things so I could write them down back at school. It reminded me of things I wanted to forget all about on my holiday, mainly that I was going to have to go back to a classroom. I hated school. People assumed I liked it because I was good at exams. It’s not the same thing at all.
We had this family holiday in Scotland, one long hot summer. I was 16 and I’d finished the first big round of qualifications. No more English, as I’d booked myself in for maths and sciences in 6th form; that and music. For the first time, I wasn’t going to have to write an essay when I got back.
This is my scent from that holiday. Tiny flatfish flapping around our feet in the warm Irish Sea. The compulsory visits to stately homes, where I would daydream about growing marrying a rich bloke and living in a palace. Things change. Warm breezes, ice cream, the sea, suntan lotion. It’s the second British holiday scent I’ve made, but this one is very different from Sunshine and Pancakes, more of a fougère style: lighter with a handful of herbs.
For the suntan lotion, it’s melon, coconut and cucumber – all synthetics as there are no natural materials that smell like this. Plus vanilla for ice creams. For skin, I put in rosewood and a synthetic soft woody scent. There’s a tiny drop of calone, the ozone seaside smell. Then I’ve got a classic cologne accord made with lavender including lavender absolute so it loiters a little, peppermint and bergamot.
My plan is for there to be a Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 as well as the original. I was going to put them all together and make a scent to evoke long summer days on a Durham estate of semi-detached houses where we and our friends would play out until tea time then go back out until the sun went down and our parents came out to fetch us.
Part 1 was a scent that I really wanted to make. I was planning to wait until I’d got Parts 2, 3 and 4 finished and work with them together, but once it was done I decided to leave it just the way it is. This is the second least complex scent that I’ve ever made.
I went shopping at www.aquarterof.co.uk to make sure that I’d got it right.
It’s the scent of Mintoes.
Because, our butcher used to come round in a blue Morris van, and while he was serving our mums with their steak and kidney or half a pound of mince, he’d give all the kids a Minto each. So basically it’s spearmint and vanilla toffee. I’ll be adding it to the scent of muddy knees, daisy chains and jam tarts, probably.
Uncomplicated: mints and sweet vanilla caramel toffee scents.
(Evil) Max and I both work for Ben who runs Afia, a brilliant, creative writing agency full of lovely people. I do some copywriting for his website and language workshops for his clients. Ben took the team up to Langar Hall in Nottinghamshire for a meeting, and his 40th birthday dinner. So I thought I’d make him his own special scent. Ben does lots of sporty things, and I’d never known him smell of anything but himself, so I decided to make him a body spray for after sport and showering. I wanted it to smell like extra added Ben, so he could use it to smell just like himself again, after washing it all off in the shower. Does that make some sense?
I like using cedarwood for skin scents, plus a couple of the woody smooth synthetics, and I added citrus fruits because I pictured him having an orange juice before going home. It was light and fresh and I was really fond of it. Using masses of originality, I called it Ben.
Well, he unwrapped it and just looked at me as if I was nuts, then smiled and tried to look happy and said, “Scent, errr, great! Thanks Sarah.” He’s a dreadful liar, but he was being kind. (Max, on the other hand, got really excited about the idea of knowing a perfumer, and Evil Max followed on from our conversations on wicked 80s men’s scents.)
I put it in the development drawer ready for later. Then I took it out and did a bit more work on it for the 10 Scents’ Worth project. I renamed it Invisible Ben for reasons that are probably obvious.
I’ve had to change it a little since the original. I love anthropogan because it smells like people (maybe that’s why it’s got the anthro prefix) but IFRA have banned it, so I put in copaiba balsam instead.
Sandalwood, benzoin and opoponax (I love saying that out loud and it smells glorious so I put it in just about everything I make) and a synthetic musky/woody/softy scent give it the clean skin impression.
Another change was adding a coffee CO2 extract that Hermitage oils have just brought out, because Ben loves good coffee. I put in cognac absolute – birthday celebration – then orange, lime and litsea cubeba for the citrus fruit top end.