Discovering that writing existed on the subject of perfume was one of the most significant events in my life. Obsessed with scent since late childhood, perfume was something that lived in the format of experience; physically and psychologically felt, internalized, but not expressed. Magazines such as Vogue, with their brief PR intros alongside the mesmerizing new adverts for the latest perfume releases were always eagerly sucked up into my brain and consciousness, but it wasn’t until the 2000’s, with the gradual rise of the internet, and the birth of the first perfume blogs such as Bois De Jasmin, Now Smell This, Perfume: Smellin’ thing, and the like, that the lightning bolt struck and I would sit before the screen imbibing and digesting every word and humming bristingly with excitement.
Prior to this, I had got my greedsome hands, in the late nineties, on two books – somehow even more thrilling to me at the time – The Book Of Perfumes, which I had picked up at Waterstones one day – a very small gift book stacked by the till that was full of some of the many classic perfumes I was intimately familiar with,but described in passionate, sometimes rather camp detail (‘wear only with green taffeta and opal earrings etc). Nevertheless, I lapped up every word, and would sometimes take the book out of my desk from the top drawer and sit there absorbing and re-reading it until I knew practically every word. Another, much larger hardback that was sent me by a friend when I first came here was Perfume by Susan Irving – a history of the Egyptians and the Romans and the Spice Road and Ernst Beaux – the whole shebang from how the roses and jasmine were collected, to heart-stirringly mesmeric vintage bottles of Caron that ignited a shameless lust in me – —- it was a house I had never even heard of until this moment as they never appeared in any department stores of my childhood nor anywhere else; again, when drying my hair in the morning, I would go over passages again and again, a drug to my addiction. Somehow, what had been almost abstract, in my imagination, even as it swirled about my person and clung to my skin like living memories, became even more loomingly important once it was consecrated in text. Once I then, rather late in the day but better late than never, first came across somewhere descriptions of the original guide by Luca Turin: Le Guide, written in French, my friend Helen sent me a photocopied, downloaded manuscript of that epoch-making book, with its witty, literary, and often deeply poetic, completely subjective renderings of perfumes that I thought I would never encounter, and I was on fire, not long afterwards embarked on writing my first perfume review myself ; sat at my desk one bored, autumnal afternoon with nothing to do, I tried my best to conjure up the mythological perfection of Guerlain’s Mitsouko.
If I was stoked by those first entries into perfume writing – The John Oakes book contained only feminine big hits but delved into their construction with fascinating detail and a lot of military metaphors – ‘now come the big guns, an artillery of jasmine’ etc, I would have been ecstatic and foaming at the gills receiving a copy of ‘The Perfume Companion’, the new book by perfumer Sarah McCartney and perfume writer Samantha Scriven, author of I Scent You A Day. Described on the cover as ‘The Definitive Guide To Choosing Your Next Scent’, it really is. Jam packed with information, on point and quite often hilarious reviews, this book gives perfume writing a new lease of life and zest (McCartney is quite the cheeky rascal throughout the book – which is how she also comes across in person (we met once at my Perfume Lovers London Vanilla event, where she kindly handed over to me two of her creations, one of which, Shazam! was a fantastically dense spice concoction that D wore to perfection); ‘cocky’, rebellious, eccentric and clearly a very good writer, many of the laughs that I had out loud through the book come from Ms McCartney’s almost bizarre choice of words (on the subject of 4711 Original Eau De Cologne, by Maurer & Wirtz she writes: ‘4711 is a real bargain and a delightul fragrance: you are commanded to get some‘. Samantha is perhaps more the dreamy romantic, with yearnings for the French Lieutenant’s Woman and stormy shores, more emotionally open than the Naughty Northerner and occasionally rather wistful (“Arpège has the potency to transport me to the Paris of 1927, even when I’m folding laundry in Wales”), though both are equally truly passionate about perfume. In fact, the book positively fizzes throughout with the glee of smelling and creating and wearing scent – Sarah often amusingly flogging quite a few of her own works (” How do I know so much about this? Because I made it“) etc, the overall effect being one of extreme positivity and joy. I started devouring the book on a Friday evening on the bus and felt like a kid in a toy shop – it is quite a hefty tome that is bigger than it looks in this picture, meaning that the authors can truly get in a lot of proper detail and comprehensive reviews for each scent and that it is definitely too much for one sitting – which is exactly what you want. Perfume mad people can’t get enough of this kind of thing . You want to believe that there are still always going to be parts of the guide unread for when you pick it up again for a random perusal, even though in my case I was reading it furtively in the teachers’ room, deliciously post-work with a can on the train, and then had two very late nights on Friday and Saturday as well as a lie in still glue to it this Sunday morning – and I still haven’t read every review.
The structure of the book ensures that all bases in the olfactory spectrum are covered.
Within each of these categories, there are always sub-categories, so that, for instance, within the Herbal section, we find Herbal Classic, Herbal Green, Lavender, Mint, Juniper, and Herb Garden (on Coty’s Aspen, Samantha writes ‘..galbanum and citrus form a vernal dance that could bring a frozen Narnia back to life’, a line I thought was rather lovely, while on every other page there are also little sections of boxed anecdotes or informative briefs such as ‘Smell like a gin palace ‘ – which add extra intrigue, humour (no perfume book has been so full of comedy before) and help to give a sense that you are, along the way, accruing a great deal of knowledge about the history of perfumery and its techniques: this book would blow the mind of the neophyte approaching the entrance to the rabbit hole with trepidation; covering as much as it does – with equal love for every genre of perfume, from marine, to oud, to caramel, to light florals (Samantha is the doyenne of the light floral); you get the full panoramic view of what is available out there in the perfume world, very often masterfully described.
While the lay out of the book allows the authors to stratify scents more rigorously within one umbrella – so under Leather we have separate chapters on Classic Leather, Floral Leather, Tobacco Leather, Patchouli Leather, and Woody Leather (these girls do like their leather), I can imagine that the book might be at times be a little bewildering for some initially. The first time I opened it I was looking at two Vanilla pages and thought I was hallucinating; I then quickly realized that I just happened to be looking at Soft Amber (Vanilla) and Gourmand (Vanilla) simultaneously. Once you get used to the layout, however, it makes total sense and allows the writers to gather and separate their fragrant choices accordingly (on the subject of Soft Amber: there has been a late in the day change in the perfume industry recently, and the term Oriental – the former term commonly used in fragrant anthologies (along with fougère and mossy , still in use – here they use the word ‘mossy’ instead) is now considered offensive and out of date. I completely agree, which is why in my reprinting of my own book, I recently scrubbed all references to ‘Oriental’ myself as well ). ‘Soft Amber’, its obvious substitute, certainly doesn’t have quite as much of a ring to it – tough tits though – and I will admit that I was occasionally bemused and secretly horrified by some of the juxtapositions in certain chapters (Lancôme Magie Noire perched next to the (execrable) Jimmy Choo in the ‘Soft Amber Woody’ section ? (!!!!) but then again, I like the the verve and boldness of both writers, and their logical and rational justifications for their choices (I can relate to a great deal of what they write, incidentally; from quite similar background to me – Samantha was a gothy Cure fan at precisely the same time that I was, and was presumably as hypnotized by all the Big Perfumes just the same way as me; both writers are deliciously anti-snob (there are quite a few sarcastic asides on the preposterously overly expensive fragrances out there, and deodorant sprays such as Impulse and Lynx/ Axe are included right next to perfumes 50 times more expensive than them, an approach I applaud entirely; it is very refreshing).
With each entry in The Fragrance Companion beginning with the name of the scent, a subtitle (under Philosokos, ‘The scent that launched a thousand figs‘), the perfumer who created the potion, and then a £/£££ mark to denote how much you will be forking out (a very Sarah-like expression; for US readers not familiar with a lot of the UK vernacular, this book will be like a grammar refresher on British slang), the reviews are engaging, knowledgeable, and frequently very beautiful. Sarah’s leaflets for her 4160 Tuesdays range are extraordinarily readable (she was the head writer at Lush for a long time); I Scent You A Day is a blog I have long enjoyed for its complete lack of prejudice; its wry humour, and linguistic prowess (I once almost cried at the beauty of a review on there of a perfume from Ariana Grande); all of this present in the Companion. Sarah and Samantha, with their contrasting but complementary styles, pull it all off rather marvellously – my own book feels to me at times tragically solipsistic and melancholically indulgent in comparison – but I am happy, nevertheless, that we will undoubtedly be placed next to each other on international book shelves. The pink will look great alongside the black and gold.
In short, The Perfume Companion is a triumph: and essential reading for the perfume lover, or anyone who is starting to find an interest in the subject.