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  1. wp_000597Make your own bespoke scents, why don't you?

    "Why are you here?"

    One of our coursemates had seen me speaking at perfume events, and wondered why I'd come along to Karen's five day workshop. She wasn't being rude, just curious. If I'm already making perfume, why would I need a five day masterclass?

    The same thing happens when I'm teaching yoga. I qualified in 2003, but still study with senior teachers because there's always more to learn. Some of my students furrow their brows when I tell them I'm going to be away at a weekend workshop. Surely after 16 years I've learned yoga by now?


    It's like everything worth studying, the more you learn, the more you realise there's a lot you don't know.

    I know quite a bit about natural fragrance materials: how they smell and what they do, how they work together, which ones are light, which are heavy, powerful, gentle, fleeting or enduring. But for indie perfumers, it's very tricky to get familiar with all the man made aroma molecules out there. I can't afford to buy them all and I wanted to learn more about their purpose and use, so I could decide which ones would help me to make lovely quirky scents, and which ones just make perfumes smell nice enough to be commercial.

    My scents tend to tell stories. It's not important whether one of mine is a floral or a chypre or an oriental type. It's essential that they evoke a time, place and feeling. So in the way that I like to learn new words to express myself better in writing, I went along to Karen's course to broaden my olfactory vocabulary, so that I could explain my feelings in perfume. I am aware that this sounds as if I'm disappearing up a dark place, never to return. I'll get back to earth in a second. But you see what I mean, I hope. I wanted to learn what the synthetics can do, so I can use them in a way that helps the natural materials say the right things.

    Day one at Mary Ward House - citrus and floral

    To be continued...

  2. I wrote this for the nice people at afia who give me lots of writing work, but I thought you might like to read it here too.

    The brain, the smells and the words to describe them

    Why is it that we can smell something we recognise, but not be able to say what it is? Then when we’re told, “That’s orange,” or “It’s vanilla,” we say “Of course it is! I knew that!”

    During the 14 years that I wrote for Lush – the ones with the smelly shops and huge cakes of soap in the window who run hard-hitting campaigns against animal testing - the issue of describing scents cropped up all the time.

    The creative team would introduce a new product and around the room we’d have comments like:

    “Oh yes, it’s a bit like… don’t tell me, I’ll get it…”

    “Is it…? Oh, what is it…?”

    “I know this. I recognise it!”

    “Does it have lavender in it?” “Liquorice?” “Mint?” “…Jasmine?”

    Then the perfumer would read out the aromatic materials he’d used and we’d all kick ourselves, annoyed because we didn’t have the ability to put our recognition into words.

    The theory is that putting smells into words is hard because the brain’s speech centres developed long after our ability to recognise scents. Human beings and our even earlier ancestors needed to be able to spot food or danger and react very quickly, long before we learned to say, “Right lads, I smell cherries. Let’s head that way.”

    Or, “Lion!”

    There’s a marvellous website for ‘fumeheads – people who are passionate about perfume – where you can go to read users’ reviews of almost all the scents that have ever existed. It’s called Basenotes and it’s run by the nicest couple ever, Danielle and Grant Osborne. Most of the perfumes which are currently in production have a list of the ‘notes’ they contain: the different individual materials which you can recognise if you’re very good at it. There are top notes  - like lime  - which disappear quickly because they’re lighter molecules, mid or heart notes – lots of the flowers and woods - and basenotes which stick around for hours or days, like the sticky vanilla, frankincense or rock rose resins.

    The reviews often mention these notes in lavishly creative descriptions. But when the notes aren’t listed, the reviews are rather more sparce. Even ‘fumeheads have a hard time saying what they’re smelling when no-one’s given them a list of clues.

    Pictures of perfumes

    Which is probably one of the reasons that perfume marketing has almost no words. You get images or films of beautiful people in beautiful clothes (not many) in beautiful settings. And you get a famous name attached, a designer or a celebrity or a luxury brand. (I still think that Mont Blanc’s perfume should smell of ink, but it doesn’t.)

    Last weekend I spent a day with Karen Gilbert, a friendly, knowledgeable perfumer, at her workshop on modern synthetic scent molecules. When we smelled one of the aldehydes (the things that make Chanel No 5 so attractive) a different Karen said, “Wow!” That’s not a scent, it’s a sensation.” True, it was a tingly, sparkly thing. We can describe scents as things other than smells. They can be feelings or textures: smooth, spiky, lively, metallic. Really, when you inhale rose oxide, it’s like smelling a shiny, smooth rose formed from a piece of aluminium. They can be living things: rose, orange, lavender, cucumber, raspberry. They can be shades and colours: dark, light, silvery, pink, green. There’s one that smells like just washed stone floors, others that smell like leather, horses, paper or wet dog. No kidding.

    How do you do it? Practice. Build up a collection of scents that you associate with different occasions and places. Karen Gilbert told us that Dior’s Hypnotic Poison reminds her of the back of a kitten’s head. Although they’re probably not going to use that in their next ad campaign, maybe they’d sell more if they did.




  3. A bit about 'happinomics'

    There are clever people who've written books that prove we're no happier now we've got loads of stuff and "freedom of choice" (more loads of stuff). We peaked in the 1970s.
    I know I've written about this before, but I want another go at it. And this time, why not put it into practice?
    I was alive in the 70s and I wasn't that happy myself, but that was mostly because I was at school, had loads of exams to do, and had to do what other people told me. It's like that when you live in someone else's house (parents) and lived off someone else's income (parents).
    So now, with my own house and income, can I make myself happier by living like we did in the 70s?

    What did we do then that we don't do now?

    I think it was this:
    We bought things when the old ones fell to bits, or when we really needed a new thing. We then used them.
    We thought it was important to be kind and polite. But I don't think we really understood why.
    In the words of Mr. Spock, we believed that the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few, or of the one. But at the time, we didn't know how that was going to work, exactly. It all seemed a bit theoretical when the school bullies had pushed you in the mud and stolen your dinner money. How would being kind to them be a good idea? How about hiding?

    Work hard play hard

    It was the 80s when we were taught that being greedy and selfish was a really good idea and that owning more stuff would make us very happy indeed. (The US had had that since the 50s, but it only caught on in the UK when Mrs. Thatcher unleashed her new non-paternalistic form of capitalist conservatism.)

    In the 80s there wasn't any good scientific research to support putting the needs of others before yourself; that was one of the things that made Thatcherism so popular. To many people, it seemed obvious that working hard, earning lots and getting stuff was the answer. There was the God Squad telling us that behaving like Jesus was the best way to be, but no-one could see how, not on earth anyway. It's interesting to know that kindness and selflessness really do make people happier. You don't have to be religious, you just have to be lovely.

    Give & take

    My family had been brought up (my mum's side) believing that kindness had to work both ways, directly back and forth. You'd be kind to someone if and only if they deserved it. This led to surprising scenes where my mother could turn into an evil, revengeful harpy, but only if they started it.
    I think I've learned that it's the consistently kind people who end up happy, not the conditionally kind ones. Karma works in unexpected directions. Kindness with no expectation of a payback works best in the happiness stakes.

    Another thing. You've got to be kind to yourself too. There are these constant givers, who often turn up in the caring professions, who tell you they don't expect any thanks for what they do. They think they're being kind, but they're just building up a deficit in their accounts, enumerating and mentally recording every selfless act. There's a worry that it'll all burst out one day and they'll stab someone with a fork 23 times then tell the nice policeman that it just all got a bit much. Don't be one of them. Be kind, but be fair, and that includes being fair to yourself and your own.

    So what's the plan?

    1) Stuff the stuff
    2) Be lovely

    I have too much stuff. I was saving it for when I got a bigger house, but we've got a lovely house and I'll probably live here for the rest of my life, so what's the use?
    I'm going to take my stuff and do one of four things with it: use it, sell it, give it away, recycle it.
    And I'm going to lower my need threshhold. I think I need a constant supply of beautiful new stuff. (And old stuff; I love Arts & Crafts Movement pottery.) I don't. I just need to play with the stuff I've got.

    I'm going to try to be kinder, particularly to the people I know well. Random acts of kindness to complete strangers are all well and good, but they're easy.

    I've just put up a load of books to sell on Amazon and next I'm going to get off the computer and make the lad a cup of coffee. And does anyone need a box of fabric paints?

  4. Last month I got a phone call from France. It was my penfriend's brother inviting me to a party near Avignon for his sister's birthday. I've not seen her for 20 years, but I know that despite my French and her English being a bit rusty, we'll get on just as well as we did on all our school exchange visits between South Tyneside and St. Denis. That's the kind of friend you need. Friends that don't hold a grudge because you've not called them for a decade, and who you feel delighted to hear from when their name pops up in your inbox.

    Then there are the other sort that you've picked up somewhere along the way. Those people who suggest that you might like to meet up, and you agree because it seems rude not to, and then ends up taking up more time than you give to your own best mates. When the phone rings and you see the name you think, "Oh lord, now what?" instead of "Oh good!" And you know that when you say, "How are you?" you're in for an hour's worth of the latest catastrophes: relationships, jobs, whatever.

    I've had my time as a high maintenance friend. We all go through difficult phases, and I appreciate the hours that people spend listening to my tales of woe in the 90s. I like to think that I'm passing it forward by allocating some of my friend time to taking my fair share of it back again. But that means there's less time for the people who are never any bother at all.

    Some of the HMFs take advantage of the self-employed:

    "Good you're at home. I'll come over then."

    "I'm writing a book!"

    "Oh I won't be any bother."

    Some self-help books tell you to dump the friends who are too much effort. I don't think that's kind and I don't think it would make you happy, but I do think that you have to watch them, ask yourself why you take them on, and make sure that you don't get overwhelmed. Some problems can't be solved by friends alone; they need people with prescription pads.

    Nope, what I suggest you do is have a look through your address book and get in touch with the really lovely people who are no bother - your low maintenance friends - for no reason at all except that you like them, and would love it if you heard from them unexpectedly; the friends for whom you'd drop everything, empty your bank account and book a train to Avignon just for a party. I'm seeing four of my mates over the next week, I've had an afternoon out at the V&A with another and lunch with one more. Do it now.