The fragrance of summers past

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Impressions of my first trip abroad are still vivid in my mind. Our departure in the early hours of the morning, sitting in the back seat of the car in between my two older half-brothers and spending the long journey to Dover listening to cassettes on my Walkman (though whether it was the Beatles or ’80s pop, I couldn’t possibly tell you). And then after so long on the road, suddenly catching sight of the sea, that mass of blue with the seagulls squawking overhead. It never ceases to astonish me. Travelling by ferry really makes you feel you’re going somewhere, watching the boat pull away from those famous white cliffs while strangers on the quay wave you off. And then just under an hour later, seeing the French coast emerge. We drove with our caravan to a campsite on the coast of Brittany. Every morning, my parents took me for walks along the seemingly endless and beautiful beaches.

I recall the taste of galettes with cheese and of crêpes with ice cream. And most vividly of all, I remember trying to look in through the gap in a circus tent on our campsite to catch a glimpse of a magician and his glamorous assistant doing a show before getting caught by one of the staff and told off in incomprehensible French.

If summer had a particular scent back then, it was probably my mother’s Mitsouko which I secretly used to spritz and later on my eldest half brother’s bottle of YSL Kouros until he complained about me using too much. Or perhaps my American aunt who rented a house in Brighton where we spent one summer. She always smelled of Giorgio Beverly Hills which made me think of those striped yellow awnings I had seen in my favourite TV show back then, Beverly Hills 90210.

The first summer scents of my own were Ô de Lancôme, Clarins Eau Dynamisante, Prescriptives Calyx and Estée Lauder’s Pleasures. The last one was a particular favourite, worn the summer I finished high school when spent the long holidays in the garden, reading under the apple tree. I was reminded of this after finding a bottle the other day in a discount store and felt inspired to recommend some of my other current favourite summer fragrances paired with books for summer I love. Alongside Pleasures in the first shot. I chose a delightful Moomin book which never fails to lift my spirits and will make you long for adventures.

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I love the greenness of this Diptyque fragrance which counters the sweetness of the figs. There are many other fig fragrances out there but for me, this is the best. This classic book transports you back to Greece before mass tourism and is a delightful account of childhood discovery and English eccentricities. Frequently adapted for television but none have the charm or magic of the original.

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The first time I tried this classic fragrance, I found it rather intimidating but with a little patience, I’ve become addicted to its green sharpness which comes into its own in summer. Heartless but utterly brilliant, rather like this Evelyn Waugh masterpiece.

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I cannot wear Acqua di Parma without thinking of Venice. I wore it every day on my trip there last year and saw it in almost every shop window. Although I recognise that the Colonia Intensa is probably a more complex and interesting fragrance, this is still my favourite. I cannot get enough of it citrussy opening and sexy woodiness, warmed by the sun. It’s the essence of summer for me. The Brodsky is probably the best book ever written about Venice by a Russian poet in exile who loved the city as much as I do.

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I love No 5 and wear it all year but on hot days, it’s nice to have something lighter. I consider all the fragrances here unisex but this one smells especially nice on men with more vetiver than in the original. I also much prefer it to last year’s lighter version of the classic. Paired with a lovely Folio edition of a wonderful book which inevitably makes you think of No 5’s most famous wearer.

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Created for the Duke of Marlborough in 1902 and worn by Winston Churchill, this is an invigorating  blend of citrus, woods and spices and goes perfectly with Tove Jansson’s stories of summer on an island which has to be one of the best holiday reads ever which its quirkiness, humour and poignancy.

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Cristalle was created to remind us of the dazzling structure of a crystal. It’s a citrus chypre and its crisp opening makes me think of the dazzling California sunshine and beauty described in Ross Macdonald’s crime novels which mask a bitter heart. This is the reason why I love reading noirs in summer. I bought the Eau de Parfum which is a little softer and was developed much later but next time will try the Eau de Toilette which is closer to the original by Henri Robert from 1974.

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Acqua di Parma has always been my favourite cologne. Until I tried this one from Les Exclusifs. It’s the kind of fragrance you want to drown yourself in all day which explains why the large bottle is always sold out and its dazzling, polished beauty goes perfectly with the magnificent prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tragic masterpiece set in the South of France.

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I was inspired to buy this thoroughly delicious Guerlain scent after reading how much my friends Jan and Patricia love it. Depending on your point of view, it may make you think of sherbet lemons or freshly pressed lemon juice but the fact that it reminds me of them makes it extra special. Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle is my absolute favourite summer book, best read around midsummer. It’s full of the dreams and heartbreak of youth. Quintessentially English.

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My current summer read. It’s the perfect companion for a long journey – compelling, beautifully written and moving. Guerlain’s Après l’Ondée is a very old and magical scent which is like a soft blanket and reminds you of flowers in the garden after the rain with violets, irises  and carnations.

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Smiles of a summer afternoon

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As a child I grew up listening to and reading Rudyard Kipling’s wonderful stories of adventure. The Just So stories have a particularly special place in my heart and for as long as I can remember I have wanted to visit Bateman’s, his family home in Kent. For a man who did not come to England until he was 36, he chose the most quintessentially English place to live and one where I’m pleased to say you really do feel the family’s presence.  There is the vintage Rolls Royce in the garage in which he adored tearing round country lanes (it didn’t go very fast by today’s standards!), prone to frequent breakdowns, but still magnificent to look at.

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The house is beautiful and intimate, filled with the 17th century furniture bought to preserve the spirit of the place but famously uncomfortable to use. Just outside, you find the pond into which Carrie, Kipling’s rather intimidating but devoted wife, once fell according to daughter Elsie’s entry into the visitors’ book. Tucked away behind the roses and the hedges, there is even a small section of the wild garden where family pets are buried and hens wander. You imagine the family lying in the shade of the walnut trees, entertaining their many friends on the magnificent lawn or striding out for walks in the acres of countryside they acquired. I found the cottage garden particularly enchanting where runner beans, courgettes and other vegetables jostle for space with sunflowers, dahlias and other wonderful flowers and plants. I wandered through a section with nasturtiums in bloom to an arch where pears were growing. It really is the loveliest place imaginable, one where time seems to stop and you fully appreciate the magnificence of an English summer over tea and cake.

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Summer things

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Big Sur, 1946, by Ansel Adams

I never long for my school days and would hate to be 17 again, but I look back with more than a touch of nostalgia at the school holidays. Six whole weeks, free from from any worries or obligations.  There were family holidays abroad in Spain, France and Switzerland, lazy days in the garden and hours of television – trashy MTV, and plenty of American shows like Saved by the Bell, My So-Called Life and Beverly Hills 90210. While summer generally doesn’t live up to expectations – British ones are generally a wash-out, Roger Federer doesn’t win Wimbledon, people ask my constantly why I’m so white and mosquitoes drain the blood from my arms and legs whenever I go abroad – I still feel excited around this time of year thinking about it. Long evenings, dinner in the garden while listening to birdsong, the chance to wear summer dresses and go out without a jacket, picnics and cool drinks. So I thought I’d put together some of my favoute summer things for inspiration. I’d love to hear what your essentials are.

Aperol Spritz

My favourite summer drink along with Bellini which reminds me of being in Venice last year, sitting on the terrace watching the sunset. Although I must admit to also enjoying a large glass of Pimm’s whenever Wimbledon is on.

The perfect summer dresses

This one, with a pattern inspired by the Royal Porcelain collection, is for me the essence of the perfect English summer and ideal for tea in the garden.

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Royal Worcester Jacquard dress, £78, Oasis

And I can’t resist polka dots

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Navy spotted ruffle sundress, £22, Dorothy Perkins

 

Red shoes to brighten up any outfit

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Lily suede flats, £198, J.Crew

 

The best facial sunscreen to wear under makeup

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Murad Luminous Shield, SPF 50, £55

A perfect orange red lipstick

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Nars Audacious Lipstick in Lana, £25

A straw shopper for that Jane Birkin feelinghmprodStraw shopper, £17.99, H&M

A cute hat for protection from the sun

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Marl Scarf Summer Hat, £17.50, Marks and Spencer

The perfect tea

This delicious blend can be served hot or cold as according to the Fortnum and Mason website, it’s also excellent for iced tea.

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Afternoon blend tea, from £5.25, Fortnum and Mason

The most delicious summer scent, as worn by Cary Grant, David Niven, Ava Gardner and Audrey Hepburn

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Acqua di Parma, from £66

And of course, books for summer

It goes without saying that I’ll be reading the blog written by my friend Jan over the summer.

As for books, this year, I’ve got my eye on The Riviera Set about all the glamourous people who spent time at the Château de l’Horizon near Cannes, from Coco Chanel to Rita Hayworth. There’s also Dolce Vita Confidential about 1950s Rome and I’m dying to read The Unfinished Palazzo which tells the story of the three women who lived in the Palazzo Venier in Venice – Luisa Casati, Doris Castlerosse and Peggy Guggenheim.

Or if you prefer fiction, can I recommend something by Patricia Highsmith or Ross Macdonald (I love gripping books in summer), some John Cheever short stories, My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell about his eccentric childhood in Greece or The Great Gatsby which is the perfect choice at any time of year.

Summer film 10: Summer hours (2008)

I had intended to choose thirty summer films but somehow I like the idea of ten much more and so this is the final film in my selection. Like quite a few in my list, Olivier Assayas’ film is actually quite simple in terms of the story. The film opens with Hélène’s (played by Edith Scob) 75th birthday which she is celebrating at her house in the country with her three children and their families. They have not seen each other for some time and only one of them, Frédéric (Charles Berling) lives in France. During the afternoon, Hélène takes him aside to discuss what to do with the house and its contents after her death. The house belonged to her uncle, an artist, and is filled with paintings, furniture and other items of artistic value. She tells him what to keep and what to sell or bequeath. Frédéric is adamant that the collection will remain intact and that the house will not be sold and that she will be with them for a long time yet but Hélène is unconvinced.

In the next scene, we learn that Hélène has died and decisions over the estate are being made. To Frédéric’s surprise, his brother Jérémie (Jérémie Rennier) and sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) want to sell everything and divide it. They no longer live in France and need the money. And so we see how the works of art are dispersed and how the house is emptied. It’s a theme familiar from Louis Malle’s Milou en mai about the loss of the matriarch and how monetary concerns come before personal attachments. This has the added interest of asking about the nature of art, about why we collect and what the role of a collector should be. Is it right to keep works of art just for private contemplation or should they be displayed in museums instead? What was the relationship between Hélène and her uncle? Hélène kept the house just as it was in his lifetime, almost as kind of shrine but at the end we see Frédéric’s daughter using the empty house as a party spot and saying farewell to a place where she will never return. One of the most touching aspects concerns Hélène’s long-term housekeeper Eloise. What will happen to her after the house is sold? Should she receive something for her loyalty? It’s very understated and poignant.

There’s no false sentimentality here. We see the happy times at the beginning and also the pain of losing everything we have known. People simply discuss and accept that decisions have to be made. We cannot hold onto the past, it slips through our fingers just like those summer hours. All we can hope for is to create some kind of meaning in the present and hope that others will find something to remember us by.

 

Summer film 8: Burnt by the sun (1994)

In Nikita Mikhalkov’s masterpiece, summer has never seemed more beautiful or more poignant. Set in 1936, it’s the story of Colonel Kotov (played brilliantly by Mikhalkov himself), a popular hero of the Russian Revolution and the summer he spends in a village with his young and beautiful wife, Marusia (Ingeborga Dapkounaite) six-year old daughter (Nadezhda Mikhalkova – the director’s real-life daughter) and other family and friends. The peaceful atmosphere is disturbed by the sudden arrival of Mitya (Oleg Menchikov), Marusia’s long lost love.  It seems he is trying to win Marusia back but Kotov suspects darker motives at work.

The tension in this film builds slowly – you sense the jealousy when Mitya arrives and then it gradually becomes a battle for survival between the two men. As a backdrop to this, you have a last glimpse of the old Russia disappearing. We learn that Marusia comes from an aristocratic family and that her relatives have only escaped because of her marriage to a Red Army hero. Comparisons with Chekhov are inevitable but there is something of the atmosphere of his plays in the drawing room scenes and eccentric behaviour of some of the characters. This is the Russia of forests, fields of corn and shimmering water and there is something unbearably heartbreaking knowing that this world will be lost forever with the Stalinist purges which are beginning and the Second World War. How can such cruelty exist when everything is so beautiful?

For me, this is one of the most magnificent and haunting films I’ve ever seen. It captures the poetry and tragedy of the Russian soul. The balloon scene with Stalin’s face towards the end is pure genius.

Summer film 7: Plein soleil (1960)

Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ is a wonderful film that should definitely be on your summer viewing list but somehow I like René Clément’s version (called ‘Purple Noon’ in English) even more. It’s more faithful to the book and Alain Delon has a kind of glacial, dangerous edge to his Ripley which makes Matt Damon seem a bit dull. Maybe if Jude Law had played him instead, they’d be evenly matched.

Clément was the first to adapt this book and it’s a great pity that he’s rather neglected today.

Everything about this film oozes style from the opening credits, the clothes, the gorgeous photography by the great Henri Decaë (particularly the yacht scenes) and the wonderful score by Nino Rota. Delon’s Ripley and Maurice Ronet’s Philippe Geenleaf look disturbingly alike and you can feel the tension between them building up constantly. Delon is so beautiful and charismatic though that you find yourself wanting him to get away with it, despite knowing that he’s simply a cold blooded killer.

This is a gripping, sun drenched thriller where jealousy and murder are never far below the surface.

 

 

 

 

 

Summer film 6: Mr. Hulot’s holiday (1953)

Ah, if only all summer holidays could be like this. There isn’t much of a plot – Jacques Tati’s film is rather a series of beautifully choreographed sequences about the gentle anarchy created by the central figure in the sleepy French seaside resort. Tati came from a music hall background and he creates character through gestures and actions, instead of dialogue and facial expression. Mr. Hulot is something of an outsider with his pipe, hat and trousers that are too short. As Roger Ebert commented, people rarely seem to notice him except for the chaos he unwittingly leaves behind. Women and children instinctively love him though (with animals, it’s a mixed bag as you’ll see from the horse riding sequence and the dogs that pursue him). This isn’t a laugh out loud, slapstick comedy, although it is often very funny. The genius of many scenes comes from the balletic precision and timing – they’re deceptively simple but also amazingly inventive.

I must also mention the soundtrack which is think is very clever and really helps to create the special atmosphere of the film – the breaking of the waves, children playing, exasperated parents’ calling them, the constant ‘boing’ of the swing doors in the hotel restaurant, the vintage radio programmes, Mr. Hulot’s spluttering car and the cries of the ice cream seller. The smooth jazz tune contrasts nicely with the ‘Tiger rag’ which bursts out at full volume from Mr. Hulot’s room.

You get so used to seeing the same characters and places that it feels like a terrible wrench to leave them after just 80 minutes, as if the summer has suddenly come to an end. It has a charm and nostalgia that I have yet to encounter elsewhere.