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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What does the FT smell like?

Perfumes: The Guide changed my life. I bought my first bottle of Mitsouko aged 17, adored Opium and Paloma Picasso, grabbed something from the duty free every time I went abroad. I never rated the idea of the 'signature perfume' - as weird to me as never changing your pants - but once tested a theory that if you wear the same perfume for your first seven dates, it will always remind him of you. There might be a guy out there who still sobs when passing the Guerlain counter.

So when I saw the book in Profile's catalogue, I instantly requested an interview with its authors, husband and wife team Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. We spent a happy hour in Profile's offices, discussing many things, most memorably the smell of 'dirty tampon'. I went out and vastly increased by perfume collection. I may be poorer, but I smell divine.

Why is the book so brilliant? Because of the superlative writing. Turin and Sanchez write perfect, poised, epigrammatic sentences, as steely and as soaringly beautiful as a suspension bridge. Who but Turin would describe a perfume in aeronautical terms? ('This thing is so huge, gleaming, overengineered, and chock-full of counterrotating planetary gears that you feel all you can do is let it tower over you while you walk around it and kick the huge tires': Ubar.)

A suspected reformulation leaves two elements of Patou's Sublime seeming 'as if the two boulders had been replaced with papier-mache rocks of the sort that stagehands push around during operatic scene changes'. The reduced and cheapened Cabochard reminds him of once seeing Peter O'Toole on the Tube: 'ravaged by years of abuse, gaunt, bleary-eyed, prematurely aged, heartbreaking'. And only Turin has ever made me fall about laughing at a perfume counter: of Clean Provence, he merely observes: 'I lived in Provence for eight years and mercifully never encountered this extraordinary accord of cheap gin-and-tonic and wet concrete.'

Sanchez is both more earthy and more practical. One perfume will enable you to 'fake hygiene when your plumbing's on the fritz'. A forgettable Guerlain resembles 'that whoosh that comes out of the dryer when I open the door'. When you're on the New York sidewalk in a heatwave and 'good and bad smells... nearly comb your hair as they rake past', what you want is 'Bulgari Pour Femme, wafting up from your cleavage'. Lush's Superworldunknown makes her feel 'giddy disbelief, as if Venus were suddenly emerging from a Manila trash heap'.

So much did I love this book that for a while it looked as though my perfume taste would be trapped in 2009, like one of those ladies who decides never to change the hairstyle that suited her at 25. There are 500 new fragrance launches a year - how to assess them without my beloved Guide to help? But then I realised that a year of haunting niche perfume shops and department stores had given me confidence in my own taste. It's not as if they always approved of my favourites anyway: Ombre Rose, according to Turin comes from a 'planet inhabited by flesh-eating Barbies'.

When I left the Financial Times book desk, knowing of my passion, my colleagues gave me a sizable gift voucher for Penhaligons. This turned out to be no easy choice: were they aware just how many perfumes Penhaligons put out? After several visits and fistfuls of smelling strips, the choice narrowed to three: Violetta, approved by the Guide (but I already had two violet perfumes); Amaranthine by Bertrand Duchaufour (similar, to my mind, to his Traversee du Bosphore for L'Artisan Parfumeur, and anyway, I preferred TdB's drydown) and his new fragrance Sartorial.

This immediately appealed to me as an 'abstract' perfume. The story goes that Duchaufour was fascinated by the secret world of Savile Row tailors, and spent a week in one, sniffing the air and ruminating on an accord of cloth, metal, wood and chalk, with a bit of beeswax (used to wax the thread, apparently). This sort of crazy-professor behaviour is quite normal for noses.

Penhaligons commissioned an amusing trailer for the perfume:


Though witty, this rather overdoes the guyishness. One of the great aims of the Guide is to break down this idea that certain fragrances are male, others female. Turin in particular wants to bring back the 'masculine floral' - brave man - and both like to end a perfume review with 'would make a great masculine'. Some of their suggestions - Rochas' Byzance? - would seem, as Turin says in another context 'solely for the very gay or the impeturbably straight'.

But mixing it up is good. I own several 'masculines' or borderlines,  and while there are times when even wearing Jicky makes you feel as though you're sporting Y-fronts and talking in a deep voice, no one else will guess your secret. Sartorial begins as a very proper cologne, which gradually, like the FT, lets slip a winning touch of individuality, even eccentricity, as you get to know it better. It features unusual-sounding ingredients such as 'ozonic effect'; 'metallic effect' and 'old wood effect'. Personally, I'm getting a hint of that door-opening whoosh and a bit of steam iron too. In other words, it's like opening a drawer and finding a perfectly laundered crisp shirt, which yet retains a whiff of the beloved's scent. A perfect memento of my happy time spent among the 'suits'.


  1. Goodness! Are the authors attempting to reproduce the cosh-like qualities of, say, that old 'favourite' Opium in prose?

    This is over-writing of quite staggering proportions ... it reminds me of a landlord from years ago whose wife wore such powerful stuff we knew when not to answer the door, as it seemed as if her scent preceded their arrival by several hours.


  2. I bought this book as soon as it came out. Immediately after leaving the bookshop, my mum and I went and sat in a coffee shop to read all about our favourite perfumes!

    It's a great book, overwritten in places, but certainly an entertaining read. I don't agree with all that they say, but it's like reading any review: once you know where your opinions stand in relation to the writer's, it's easy to pick what you might like, even if they don't. I'd recommend it to anyone with a decent sense of smell.

  3. I know nothing about perfume but your sentence Suzi beats all their 'fragrant' prose here:

    'Turin and Sanchez write perfect, poised, epigrammatic sentences, as steely and as soaringly beautiful as a suspension bridge'

    I don't know if Mark (Simpson) has seen this I think he'd like it. But I expect he tends to smell more often than not of manly dumbells and suspension equipment. Or maybe violets I don't know.

    But the post and that ad especially, scream 'metrosexual' to me!

  4. Clearly I got carried away! But I would argue their prose is stylised, not overwritten. The real test is that time and time again they make you notice things you would never have spotted without their review. You can't ask more of a critic than that.

    I have never even detected a whiff of butch aftershave on Mark Simpson, but he is definitely man enough to wear Joy!

  5. Likening a sentence to a suspension bridge is brilliant. That's what a good sentence is!

    Maybe Mark should bring out a perfume to go with his forthcoming book: 'Metrosexy'. That's what Katie Price would do!

  6. Hmm.

    'This thing is so huge, gleaming, overengineered, and chock-full of counterrotating planetary gears that you feel all you can do is let it tower over you while you walk around it and kick the huge tires'

    Poised? Epigrammatic? Well, all I can say is that one man's style is another man's wild overwriting ... (with apologies for the inherent sexism, but 'person's sounds wrong).

    And I'm not even going to venture into mixed metaphors ...

    But I do like the suspension bridge analogy ... it's just a pity that the prose described cannot live up to its critical appreciation.

  7. I must know which perfume made them bring up "dirty tampon."

  8. The note is more conventionally known as 'bilge' and the perfume that features it is called 'Secretions Magnifiques' (Stupendous Secretions) from Etat Libre d'Orange. Luca loves it ('an elegant floral given a demonic twist'), Tania thinks it is unwearable!

  9. Glad to report that Sartoria is holding up in this hot, hot weather. Crisp, fresh and tenacious, with that 'just ironed shirt' note.