Diary of a Perfumed Ponce

Richard E. Grant

(Or the A–Z of how I got set up in the Scent business)

Two Boxing Days ago, whilst holidaying in the Caribbean, I had my nose in a Gardenia bush when fellow house-guest, Anya Hindmarch – handbag and accessories design supremo – asked whether I intended ‘Seeing someone about this?’ ‘This’ being my lifelong obsession with smelling everything in sight.

‘Do you mean seeing a ‘Shrink’?’

She laughed and said ‘No, I meant creating a perfume’.

In that instant I realised that I’d been hoping someone might ask me, for as long as I could remember. Tantamount to an epiphany, because as Anya fired her question, I knew that if anyone was going to be able guide me, she was the perfect ‘fit’. Having started up her own business at the age of 19, buying bags in Italy and then deciding to design and get them made herself, she forged a business now worth millions with shops across the planet.

Anya – my-impromptu-start-a-business Fairy Godmother effectively waved her magic wand AKA iPhone at me and said take a seat. ‘What will your perfume smell like, look like, feel like and who is it aimed at?’ All asked with ‘Do-re-mi’ directness. ‘What’s taken you so long?’

Felt impelled to confess that as I got 4% in my Maths Mock ‘O’Level in 1973, the prospect of trying to start a fledgling business with this ‘numeric disability’ had Kiboshed my ambitions ever since.

She chuckled this aside and declared that ‘Passion is everything. You can’t really fake it, and as you are so passionate about perfume, this will carry you through, all the way!’. Echoing the cover blurb for the ‘Joy of Sex’ manual that came out in the 70’s.

In the spirit of which she asked – ‘So when did this obsession begin?’ Her genuine interest unleashed a mini-monologue-confessional that came hurtling out just above a murmur.

‘Nine years old, growing up in Swaziland, I dreamt of making the perfect perfume by combining Gardenia flowers and rose petals in a jam jar of boiling water, melted sugar, sealing the top, shaking it up and burying it in the ground for a week. Regrettably when I dug it up, ‘Big Stinko’ was the nostril curling result. Tried using cold water instead, forgoing the sugar. The result was even more rank. Producing ‘Stink Bombs’ wasn’t what I had in mind, but they did prove their worth when playing ‘War’ for bombarding the ‘Enemy’ with putrid-slime-water filled balloons.

The decimation of the flowergarden and parental complaints about their sons returning home stinking of pond weed, put a swift full-stop to my olfactory bomb making activities. What it didn’t do was stop my lifelong obsession with smelling everything and secretly dreaming of working out how to trap that elusive Gardenia in a bottle. 55 minus 9 = Go on- you do the maths -that’s how many years it’s taken me to diarise this ‘beginning’!

‘What is it about the Gardenia?’

‘Smells to me like the Holy Grail of scent – an inhalation of which never ceases to induce a sensory rush that’s sort of like an Ecstatic Orgasmatron’.

‘You sound like Austin Powers?’

‘I know. I’ve no shame! I read that smell is the shortest synaptic leap in the brain to our memory and every time I stick my nose into a Gardenia, I feel like I’m nine years old again and living in Africa. The five years ago I was at a friend’s wedding anniversary in Tuscany and danced with a woman whose neck brought me to a standstill, mid-boogie. ‘What perfume are you wearing?’. Fought to suppress an overwhelming impulse to lick her neck, like a preparatory vampire. She handed me a tiny half filled glass tube of perfume oil as surreptitiously as a drug deal, and said ‘It’s yours to keep’. And ‘drugged’ I surely was. The sexiest scent I had ever smelt and the closest approximation to trapping the elusive Gardenia-in-a-bottle I’d yet come across. I’d discovered that it’s one of the few flowers that’s proved impossible to extract naturally, so it’s always a chemical concoction. ‘Where can I buy this?’

My stranger laughed and said –‘A little store in Malibu’.

‘Coup de foudre’ – aka ‘Love at first sight’ or in my case ‘smell’, seriously wobbled my marriage vows that night as I struggled to separate the scent from the stranger who now seemed an earthly Aphrodite.

But, but, but – steady the buffs, boy! – Bruce(Withnail and I) Robinson, my Svengali and mentor is wont to quote T.S.Elliot’s –

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the shadow

Instead of leaving my wife, I knew then and there that before my days were done, I had to try and make my boyhood dream become a middle-aged man’s reality. But what about that measly 4% for Maths and dismal 26% for Chemistry?’

Anya torpedoes these doubts with – ‘You don’t need to be a bean-counter to go into business or be a rocket scientist to make perfume. There are people who can do all that for you. What they can’t do is match your passion for perfume. I am going to draw up a list of people for you to meet back in Blighty’.

Grabbed, hugged and swirled Ms Hindmarch in that Caribbean evening air like a man possessed. Half an hour later, she handed me the contact details of names to get me started.

‘But I’m just an actor’ doubts began yo-yoing out of my mouth, which Anya instantly ‘corked’ with – ‘ So worst case scenario is that you end up with a loft full of unsold perfume bottles which you can give to all your friends till the day you drop, but at least you will have tried’.

Her Hindmarch iron-willed, smiling assurances brooked no doubt. Challenging me to the equivalent of a Medieval joust: Time to get your armour on, Swaziboy. Mount up, charge and tilt at full speed ahead!’.

Richard E. Grant