Sunday, 30 November 2014

Guerlain Après L’Ondée and Virginia Woolf: who’s afraid of melancholy scents?

Source: Wikimedia Commons ~ Christian Tonnis
The other day while messing about on Facebook I chanced across a link (see below) posted by Cheryl of Perfumed Letters to a little known recording of Virginia Woolf from 1937. In it the author speaks in the clipped, genteel tones you would associate with a member of The Bloomsbury Group about the mysterious mechanics of language and creative writing. I recommend in particular the section from about 4 minutes in, where Woolf describes words as 'irreclaimable vagabonds', and the mind as a 'fitfully illuminated cavern' in which they live. This discovery, coupled with my recent preoccupation with bathrooms(!), prompted me to feature this (slightly edited) post - which was originally published on Cafleurebon on 27.1.11 - on Bonkers. For anyone who remembers it from back then, some of the photos are also different(!), and there is the YouTube clip to enjoy. ;)


Some people believe in love at first sight.  I wouldn’t say I don’t believe in it exactly, but it has never happened to me.  In the context of fragrance, you occasionally hear of perfumistas having experienced a similar sort of 'coup de foudre' with a particular scent, changing forever the way they view perfume and incorporate it into their life.  Overnight fragrance goes from being a casual accessory to a second skin – or a third, fourth or even a  fifty-seventh skin, for those with large collections. 

I also experienced 'sudden onset perfume mania', but for me it was not so much a fragrance which triggered this epiphany, as a review of a fragrance, namely Hannah Betts’ 2005 article for The Times on 'glacial perfumes'.  She starts by quoting former French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck’s comment about her heightened emotional response to narcissus absolute.

'Just a drop on each wrist and two in the bath were enough to send silver running down the walls. It set the world throbbing out of control when I wore it. I became a little weird.'

Photo courtesy of Linda Svendsen

Betts point outs that the sense of silver trickling down bathroom walls is all the more pronounced if the perfume already smells of silver – 'then walls course all the sooner'.  This leads her neatly into a discussion of her own favourite cool, metallic scents, namely Après L’Ondée and Hiris by Hermès, and how this effect is created by the use of orris butter, one of the most expensive perfumery materials of all, a creamy paste derived from the iris root.

Captivated by her review, I set about acquiring a sample of the first scent Betts had mentioned.   Après L’Ondée was created by Jacques Guerlain and released in 1906, with notes (from Now Smell This) of 'bergamot, neroli, aniseed, hawthorn, violet, heliotrope, iris and musk; there may also be carnation, rose, jasmine, vetiver and sandalwood.'

When I first smelt Après L’Ondée (just the EDT in case anyone is wondering), it exerted the same visceral pull as the description in Betts’ review.  It struck me as a dark, mournful, conflicted scent.  There is simultaneously an airy, damp freshness and an earthy dryness.  It is like rain that has been dragged through a hedge backwards.  Yes, that is it – elemental violence has been done to vegetation.  Broken boughs lie strewn in the long wet grass.  And what of the powderiness - the anisic heliotrope sweetness?  Well, it gives the fragrance a very retro, feminine quality, but this is no 'come hither' boudoir powderiness.  It is the scent of a woman with a wan complexion and a broken spirit. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

So Après L’Ondée, this wistful, silver beauty, was the first scent I fell in love with after the mania took hold.  But metal is hard, and this scent should not be worn if you are feeling the least bit emotionally fragile, as I learnt to my cost.  Back in 2010 I was engaged in a difficult work project in California, and one bright and chilly morning unthinkingly spritzed on Après L’Ondée instead of a cosy musk or soothing sandalwood.  I had two appointments that day, but the first person wasn’t there, and the second person was wrong.  Aborting the meeting, I retreated to a nearby mall** to lick my wounds, cruise the perfume aisles of an outlet store and stock up on leisure wear in Gap.

It was a vexing day, and Après L’Ondée merely amplified my feelings of failure and frustration.  In short, my epiphany scent, the catalyst which had catapulted me full tilt into this all-consuming hobby, was making things worse...

This unexpected fragrant downer got me wondering who would have worn Après L’Ondée at the turn of the 20th century when it was launched, bearing in mind that there would have been far fewer scents on the market in those days.  My mind instantly lit upon Virginia Woolf, who was a few years older than me when she walked into a river with her pockets full of stones some 70 odd years ago.  But when Après L’Ondée was released she would only have been 24, and its melancholy quality would have chimed perfectly with her intermittently depressive character.  At least I hope it would have stopped there – at chiming, I mean – and wasn’t a contributing factor to the final bout of depression that prompted her to take her own life. 

Source: Fragrantica

Now hold on a minute – I don’t know that Virginia Woolf wore Après L’Ondée – or any perfume, indeed.

As it happens, I have always admired Woolf’s writing. I haven’t read any of it, mind - it is all a bit too 'stream of consciousness' for me - though I did sit down for a good 15 minutes with 'To The Lighthouse' once.  But seriously, I recognize that she is a literary giant of the 20th century – a modernist who has been hailed as the greatest lyrical novelist in the English language.  And an early feminist to boot.  So Après L’Ondée – with its haunting sadness and restless soul  – seems a fitting choice of hypothetical signature scent for someone who wrote a novel called 'The Waves' and met a watery end.

I tucked this idea away in my mind until I bumped into an unknown relative on one day - we were researching different parts of our family tree and eventually collided into each other at the intersection of our efforts, a mutual ancestor with the singular name of Edward Samuel Boys-Tombs.  I sent this distant cousin an email asking if she would like to pool findings, and the following day we had a long chat on the phone.  After bottoming out our own tenuous and convoluted relationship to each other, my new cousin made me a surprising offer. 


'Would you like to be related to Virginia Woolf and Charles Darwin?' she inquired brightly, as if they were the ancestral equivalent of a banded pack promotion.

My ears pricked up.  'Are you offering?'

'I can trace you back to both of them in - hold on a tick – 17 steps to Virginia Woolf and 19 to Charles Darwin - where a step is going up, down or sideways on the tree via a parent, spouse, sibling or child.'

It took some time for this information to sink in.  Now they do say that we are all related to everyone, however famous, in just six degrees of separation, and that may very well be so, but the flaw with this theory is that we don’t generally know what the six degrees are.   And here was my x-th cousin y-th removed handing me a couple of dead cert celebrity rellies (dead dead certs, admittedly) in under 20 steps!  Okay, as blood connections go, it was very, very thin – several intervening marriages meant that we are talking positively homeopathic levels of dilution – but no matter.  Even wafer-thin blood is thicker than water...;)

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Prior to this discovery, the only time my path had remotely crossed that of Virginia Woolf was during a research project for The National Trust (a charity that protects historic houses and monuments).  I stayed at Sissinghurst, an Elizabethan castle in Kent with gardens designed by Virginia Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West.

And now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can speculate whether my exceedingly 'watered down' genetic connection with this fey novelist has something to do with my attraction to a scent that I had independently associated with her, even if that association has no basis in fact.  I was telling the wife of a much closer cousin(!) about the news, knowing her equally keen interest in family history, when she suddenly dropped a genealogical bombshell of her own:  'Well you know, don’t you, that my mother is related to the Sackville-Wests?'  I didn’t, but my mind suddenly went into overdrive, recalling Virginia Woolf’s unconventional relationship with Vita Sackville-West, before applying this extra twist.  'I know what you are thinking', replied my cousin-in-law, 'but just think how many steps that would be from Virginia to Vita, if it is already 17 from Virginia to you.  That’s hardly incestuous, now is it?'

Source: Amazon

'Wouldn’t it be funny if it was 39 steps', I replied, thinking to myself: “Now there’s a book I can get my head around.'

**Editor's note: I later learnt that this mall was only a short hop from where Undina lives, however, at the time I had yet to 'meet' her properly on the blogs. Which is a shame, as I am sure she could have cheered me up no end!

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Scent Crimes Series: No 14 - Screw it or lose it...!

Yesterday, to my great chagrin and despite a torrent of indignant mutterings, they turned on the Christmas lights in Stafford. I had already spied the unsettling presence of chocolate snowmen in W H Smiths the other day, and a potted Christmas tree in a local nursery. It may still be a long way off the festive season in my own mind, but I will concede that it is finally getting a bit colder. And so it is that I have found myself increasingly drawn lately to those fuzzy aldehydic scents that envelop you in a warm, pétillant haze. I will not liken them to a cashmere shawl**, and if any reader attempts to do so, I will 'wrap' them over the knuckles for peddling the simile equivalent of giving red roses on Valentine's Day or supporting Manchester United. ;) And I have been wearing a fuzzy jumper this weekend, as it happens, a cast off from not one but two friends in succession, who were concerned that it might contain that ethically dodgy and ultra fuzzy fibre, angora. Some deep googling revealed that the sweater was in fact a perfectly ordinary mix of wool and acrylic, but the previous owners had gone right off it anyway - tainted as it now was by their lurid visions of spiky combs and rough-handled rabbits. So I guess I lucked out...evidently one woman's supposed unethically sourced garment is another woman's woolly windfall.

And the scent that I felt would go perfectly with this cream jumper was Chanel Les Exclusifs Bois des Iles, precisely because of its cosseting cloud of sandalwood and aldehydes. I noted that I had hardly any left in my small plastic atomiser, but was unconcerned, as I knew I had a larger back up in long term storage. This morning, having finally drained the little decant, I went in search of the bigger one, only to discover that the juice had vanished, though I had no recollection of using it lately.

My thoughts instantly flew back to the days when I lived with Mr Bonkers, and how he used to drink the first glass of wine I served him remarkably quickly. We had an amusing little ritual whereby he would extend the empty glass to me in his outstretched hand as a signal that he wanted a top up. This gesture would be accompanied by a comically sad face, and a faux air of bafflement. 'Oh look', he'd remark, 'my wine must have evaporated!'

Eek!! A driftwood Christmas tree from

And so it was that the sad realisation dawned on me that my beloved decant of Bois des Iles had pulled a similar evaporation stunt while my back was turned. The wood of the islands had drifted off, if you will...;( I examined the bottle closely and quickly established that the plastic collar was not very securely screwed onto the glass bottle itself, doubtless greatly facilitating the evaporation process. I don't know how it would have worked itself loose exactly - maybe by jostling against other decants in a box - but there wasn't a single drop left. I felt bereft. I could quite happily have gone on wearing Bois des Iles for another few days, especially if this cold snap kept up.

And then I spent the next hour or more systematically going through my decant collection, pulling out any other atomisers that looked as though they had also leaked their contents. (I am quite good at remembering roughly how much juice should be in there and whether I have worn a given scent recently.) I found a few more offendors, but still a happily small proportion of my decant collection. If I was Undina I would be able to tell you exactly how small, but I failed miserably on the census-taking front. Surprisingly, there were not one but two bullet-style atomisers of Séville a l'Aube that were completely empty. I suspect the first had leaked and I had filled another one thinking the first must just be faulty, only to have the same thing  happen all over again. Some bullet atomisers must not be air- / watertight, or 'dicht' to use the very versatile German word.

The other casualties were a pretty pink atomiser of Natori by Natori (there's a blast from the past!), Costume National 21, Tom Ford White Patchouli, and a glass barley twist decant of Armani Privé Rose Alexandrie. None of these had obviously loose collars as such, but evidently evaporation can occur given the smallest of 'gaps'. But a  half-screwed atomiser - as this Bois des Iles was - is clearly asking for trouble. I have now checked all the other decants for tightness, and they are as 'sealed' as that particular packaging format affords. To my mind the finger of suspicion points to the burnished metal atomisers in particular. Pretty as they look, I think the quality is quite mixed. Better off with the trusty Travalo.

Has anyone else experienced this phenomenon of unexplained evaporation - like ex-Mr Bonkers' wine glass ;) - or made the same mistake as me and left a precious decant in a semi-screwed state, with disastrous consequences?

** Note that I have historically been as guilty of the next person of using this descriptor, but I am now on a 12-step programme.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Unexpectedly reprising my 'Mata Hari' moniker on a visit to House of Minster gift shop & perfumery, Lichfield

Source: Wikimedia Commons
As I mentioned in my last post in reference to the reviewing of samples, the wheels on Bonkers grind very slowly. So much so that I am only now getting round to writing up a day trip to the jewel in Staffordshire's crown that is the cathedral city of Lichfield. Um...the day out in question was last May in fact, when a colleague D, who was similarly at a loose end workwise, invited me to join her for lunch and a mooch round the shops. Our tour was to include Lichfield's upmarket gift shop-cum-perfumery, House of Minster, of which I had read good reports in those local coffee table magazines you find lying about in dentists, but which in the past nearly seven years of my hobby, I had conspicuously failed to visit.

In anticipation of the very real prospect of a glass of wine or two with lunch - my colleague is a bit of an oenophile - I decided to use public transport. The route takes about an hour compared with 35-40 minutes in the car. Unfortunately, I added an additional hour to the travel time by waiting patiently for the bus on the wrong side of the street. As someone who has found a specific Nissen hut at the top of a mountain in the Mojave desert without the help of GPS or a map, and located a factory in Croatia purely on the basis of the wordless semaphore directions of an elderly lady selling tomatoes by the roadside, I felt extremely foolish to have failed to clock the correct bus stop not 200 yards from my house.


Eventually, I made it to the terminus at Lichfield where D was there to greet me, seemingly unfazed by my spectacular navigational gaffe. We decided to repair without ado to House of Minster, where, after a quick shufty at the gift section - full of noble looking teddies, trays, trinkets, kitchen accessories and what it used to please Mr Bonkers generically to call 'stuff' - I 'hit' the perfume counter. The array of brands was impressive for a perfumery in the provinces, including Creed, Balmain, Atkinsons, Lubin, Trussardi, Miller Harris, Boucheron, Bvlgari, Cartier and many others. A really surprise inclusion was the range from Absolument Parfumeur, which I featured in my most recent post about Woodforde Perfumery in Sidmouth.

Sadly there were no samples available of the first scent to catch my eye, Miller Harris Le Petit Grain, though the sales assistant kindly scurried upstairs at one point to see if she might have one knocking around in a drawer. Obviously, any recollections of how a particular scent smelt are going to be woefully historic now, but Le Petit Grain was a bracing citrus I would have liked to have enjoyed at more leisure. Even now, there is a trace of something zesty on the blotter I kept... Other perfumes I tested on card at least were Trussardi Delicate Rose, Boucheron Place Vendôme, Bvlgari Omnia Indian Garnet, D & G Dolce, Balmain Extatic and Mercedes-Benz Perfume (the men's one)! I do remember that the Daimler number was a little bit like Puredistance M, so not my cup of tea really. In truth I was not wowed by anything I tried - and the spelling of the Balmain scent additionally troubled me - until I broached the Atkinsons range.

It was hard to miss really, as there was a stonking great factice on the counter as well as a prominent display with all the scents perched on it. I didn't dislike any of them, but the standouts on the day were 24 Old Bond Street (a crisp, G & T-style cologne featuring declared notes of juniper, rose, whisky and tea), and The Oddfellow's Bouquet, a spicy oriental. Pleasantly haunted by these two, I managed to buy a sample of the former on a visit to Roullier White with Sabine of Iridescents in July. And I have just caught up with The Oddfellow's Bouquet again when Sabine kindly sent me a little package of samples the other day.

I am sorry to report that subsequent trials with The Oddfellow's Bouquet have not lived up to my memory of the scent on that first testing - possibly because of the card / skin distinction. There was something 'oddly' mismatched about the combination of notes and something specific I didn't care for, though I couldn't put my finger on it. Having since clocked the notes, I am pretty sure now that it will have been the heliotrope.

Notes: heliotrope, tobacco, ginger, pepper, labdanum, benzoin

In fact I would align myself with this review by Kevin on Now Smell This. Like him, I feel that Volutes is a more successful fragrance by the perfumer, Fabrice Pellegrin. Persolaise also finds The Odd Fellow's Bouquet odd - but strangely compelling - and invites readers to picture 'a bow-tie-wearing gent wielding a cigar in one hand whilst sprinkling pine needles onto a child's chemistry set with the other'. The rest of his review is pretty off the wall and amusing, and I am further reassured that it isn't just me who finds the composition a bit peculiar. Sabine herself had more luck with it, and found it well blended - her only issue was with the undue manliness of the name.

Okay, so what's with this Mata Hari moniker malarkey, I hear you interject? Well, to continue my ongoing theme of the work-related 'spying missions' I used to carry out, I once acquitted myself very well on an acquisition project in the stair parts sector, prompting the Chairman of the client company to dub me 'The Mata Hari of the spindle world'. As for the relevance of this moniker to the post in hand, well it concerns the practice of taking photographs of respondents and their buildings, which was another aspect of the job - sometimes also on a covert basis, as explained here

Source: Wikipedia

And it was for this same reason that the visit to House of Minster started to unravel. As ever, when I think I might wish to blog about somewhere I have visited, I like to take a few photographs, so I asked the sales assistant's permission and she said to go right ahead. Because of the position of the Atkinsons display I needed to crouch down to take some of the shots, and this squatting pose immediately attracted the suspicious attention of not one but two of her colleagues in quick succession. They didn't stop to ascertain if I was legitimately snapping away, but just weighed in with their rather pointed questions. The first lady said snippily: 'May I ask what you are doing?', while the second actually squatted down beside me and inquired, with heavy sarcasm: 'May I help you?' I quickly explained that I had asked their colleague if it was okay to take pictures, and told them about the blog post I was thinking of writing, and how the photos would bring it to life. D chipped in by kindly bigging up Bonkers, and reiterating that my intentions were honourable, and that a blog post can surely only be good for retailers and potential customers alike. Well, except for the fact that the staff of House of Minster seemed to think that my perfume bottle 'papping' was at best unorthodox, and at worst the unmistakable MO of a spy - which on this occasion was categorically not the case.

So at that point we made a sharp exit and adjourned for lunch. Alcohol was indeed involved as predicted, together with a fine view of Lichfield cathedral (though you can't quite see it in this shot!). Somewhat more lubricated than is customary at that time of day, we ambled round the shops, where I made a purchase of a pair of very tight cropped trousers - know rather fittingly as 'bistro' trousers - or not fittingly known, more like.

Have you ever come a cropper in a perfumery trying to take photographs - with or without permission? Do spill the beans about the perils of the perfume paparazzi!

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Cupolas and cobblestones: biehl. parfumkunstwerke mb03 review and a tale of two halves...

Source: Hypoluxe
First half

Twenty-five years ago today, I was alone in a hotel on an industrial estate in Hannover. I was feeling upset and disorientated, having just been thrown out of a meeting. This was the first of only two occasions in my career where this has happened to me - the other is detailed here - and the only time it has occurred before the meeting had even started. I was working on a market strategy study (aka 'spying' mission), and had shown up for my appointment with the second biggest manufacturer in Germany of a type of industrial fastener. Unfortunately, the respondent took one look at my business card - which had a distinctive owl motif on it - and promptly showed me the door. It seems that only the week before, my boss had 'broken down the door' of the company's French office, and interviewed a Product Manager there. Evidently this chap had been rather too forthcoming with information about his sales, market share etc, and news had got back to the sister company in Germany that these owl people were bad news. Thus it was that a quarter of an hour later, I was back in my cramped hotel room staring bleakly out of the window and wondering whether I might have bitten off more than I could chew with my rather unorthodox career choice.

I could see the motorway from my window, and as the day wore on, I remember noticing a lot of cars streaming west - hundreds and hundreds of them, almost all of them Trabants, a budget East German make famously - but quite falsely - reputed to be constructed out of cardboard. A good deal of the vehicle was fashioned out of Duroplast, a hard plastic akin to Bakelite and made from recycled materials, so environmentally you could say that the 'Trabby' was in fact ahead of its time. Well...if you disregard its smoky exhaust and high levels of pollution, that is. So yes, there were Trabants pouring along the A2 as far as the eye could see. My first thought was whether it might be some kind of a rally - like those conventions of Morris Minor or Mini owners, say - but on the face of it it seemed unlikely that so many East Germans would be able to attend such an event in the West. Plus there were an awful lot of them. By teatime, I had switched on the news, and the momentous, epoch-making penny finally dropped. Okay, so I may have 'run into a wall' in terms of my project, but any lingering sense of personal failure or disappointment was banished by this extraordinary news of the jubilant dismantling of a far, far greater barrier. And so I sat on my bed, mesmerised for hours by the unfolding TV coverage, till sleep overcame me.

A Trabant on a pole near Neurueppin

Over the years that followed, my work took me back many times to Germany, both the West and 'Former East', as it was known for a transitional time. People also talked about the 'alte und neue Bundeslaender' ('old and new federal provinces'), which was another way of drawing the distinction between the two. For a while after reunification there were still many tell-tale signs that you were crossing into the East: for even in the absence of an actual border, many of the old control towers still stood broodingly where the frontier used to be - eg on the A2 near Helmstedt. The countryside also looked subtly different to my eye - farm buildings tended to be more ramshackle and dour, and everywhere in the East there were more cobblestones.

Source: Wikipedia

But gradually, gradually, as investment poured into the 'neue Bundeslaender' as surely as the Trabants had poured out that fateful day, the two landscapes and their people knitted themselves back together - differences were slowly blurred, to the point one day of being almost imperceptible. Shiny new shopping centres and industrial parks sprung up; the whole country seemed lighter and brighter and more affluent. As I write, I am wearing a favourite pair of trousers bought in Schwerin, a town with a fairytale palace on an island in a lake. Post-reunification, I had a lot more opportunity to visit the whole of the country, and especially liked the fact that on days which would be a public holiday in the West - Fronleichnam, I'm looking at you! - companies in some provinces of the East were still open for business. Why, you could even pop into a council building and do a bit of photocopying (for a small fee), which felt almost decadent. ;)


Second half

So to mark this great occasion of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I decided to feature a perfume from the large collection of perfume house biehl. parfumkunstwerke, the brainchild of Berlin-based Thorsten Biehl. The word 'Kunstwerke' means 'art works' in German, and Biehl also speaks of 'Art in a flacon' and his 'Olfactory Gallery'. He has engaged the services of six perfumers - three 'Young Savages' and three 'Modern Classics' - who were encouraged to go forth and follow their creative muse, free from the usual commercial restraints of 'market research, marketing or maximising profits'. (No really, the lack of market research is completely fine by me....!)

Now I am only familiar with the 'Young Savages' sub-group - Jeffrey Dame of Hypoluxe kindly sent me a set of all eight scents...ooh, about a year ago now - the Bonkers wheels grind very slowly, as you see. There are three each by Geza Schoen and Mark Buxton, and two by Patricia Choux, who are respectively tagged as 'rebellious', 'provocative' and 'unconventional'. The perfumes are identified only by the initials of their creator plus a two digit numeral - eg mb03, gs01, ps02 etc.  As Biehl explains: 'My focus is always on the artist and work behind it.' Such a purist approach has admirable motives I am sure, yet speaking as a punter I can't help feeling a little shortchanged by the pedestrian monotony of the nomenclature. For I like the name of a perfume to conjure up a little ambience - either through its literal meaning, wider connotations or the sheer euphony of the word(s). As for the whole 'perfume as fine art' debate, famously championed by Chandler Burr in his Art of Scent project, I am at best ambivalent on this point. But neither of those aspects of the biehl. parfumkunstwerke concept detracted from my enjoyment of mb03, the standout scent to my nose in the Young Savages collection.

Source: Fragrantica

Plus it seems fitting on such a day to pick a scent by one of the 'more German' perfumers in Thorsten Biehl's stable. Well, Mark Buxton was born in Derby to an English father and German mother, but moved to Germany with his parents at the age of eight, later training as a perfumer at fragrance company Haarmann & Reimer (now Symrise) in Holzminden. To complicate matters further, for the past 20 years or more, Buxton has been based in Paris, and when fellow blogger Sabine of Iridescents (a full-blown German!) met him at a perfume event in London, they quickly lapsed into English after initially striking up conversation in German. For the purposes of this post, however, I declare Mark Buxton to be 'quite German enough'.

And so to the perfume itself. True to Buxton's 'provocative' moniker, mb03 lacks a head note, and cuts straight to the chase of the 'radiant spicy elements' in the heart of the composition.

Heart notes: Roman chamomile, pink pepper, elemi
Base notes: cistus, kashmir wood, styrax, ambergris, musk, incense, sandalwood, patchouli

As it happens, Katie Puckrik is another fan of mb03, explaining in one of her penpal exchanges with Dan Rolleri: 

'Yes, I own and love mb03, and find it completely necessary. I suppose it's my "summer Avignon".'

Source: Luckyscent

The Avignon Katie references is Bertrand Duchaufour's exploration of Catholicism in Comme des Garcons' Series 3 Incense collection. I have to say I find mb03 'completely necessary' too, and agree that it is lighter and more accessible than Avignon. Avignon for novitiates, if you will. As ever, I can't truthfully distinguish any individual notes in the composition: my nose never gets past the soft curtain of frankincense. But no matter - mb03 is meditative and calming, reassuring the wearer that a bad day at work is just a bad day. It makes me think of cupolas on various Berlin buildings - not all of them churches, mind, and not all of the churches Catholic.

Berlin Cathedral ~ Source: Wikipedia

Yet at the same time the slight pricking sensation of the incense reminds me of the tingle of mizzling rain falling on paving stones (some of them cobbled!), and on my face; of dank cold days spent killing time on industrial estates, with not even the garishly lit but warm haven of a McDonalds for shelter. Mb03 is grey days and wet roads, windscreen wipers at full pelt and cold that gets in your bones. But there's a hotel with a hot shower at the end of the murkily unspooling Landstrasse, followed by a flinty glass of Grauburgunder with my favourite dish of Zanderfilet and Salzkartoffeln.

Yes, after all this time - and many more meetings that took their course in a completely normal way ;) - Germany feels like a second home. And I for one am happy that it finally became reunited with its other half. Or rather that - to be mathematically correct about it - it became 25% bigger* on this day 25 years ago...


* in population terms

Saturday, 8 November 2014

'You show me your turnover and I'll show you mine!' An explanatory preamble about my bonkers spying career

Source: wikihow
As a lifelong Germanophile - well, from the age of eleven when I first started learning this gloriously blunt and endlessly compoundable language - I have decided to mark the upcoming 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall by featuring a German perfume house in my next post. Both it, and the post I have in mind after that (also perfume-themed, I hasten to add), reference my time as an 'industrial spy', as it used to please ex-Mr Bonkers to call me.

So I thought it might be helpful to preface the Berlin post with an explanation of this particular aspect of market research - a type of work I am happy to have given up for good in 1998 - well, in terms of interviewing direct competitors, certainly. It was becoming increasingly difficult to secure the companies' cooperation, and was pretty nerve-wracking most of the time, so I decided to quit while I was ahead...

Okay, here goes...

Readers may well be familiar with Pareto’s Principle, according to which 80% of the sales in any market are generated by just 20% of the companies trading in it.  This led the MD of my old agency to conclude that the most accurate way to size a market was to go directly to the source of supply – namely, the competition.  Marketing boasted in proposals that we routinely “broke down the doors” of 90% of competitor companies, which on a typical project with six key players equated to about five and a half of them.  We always hoped it would be the half with the head.

My friend Clare, doing a sterling impression of a spy!

So why should competitors want to see us?  Sometimes we could offer report summaries – these were well received, given the lack of published information available.   But often we relied on the surprise factor and a pleasant manner.  Occasionally, even as people tried to wriggle out of participating, their irrepressible sense of self-importance allowed key facts to slip out: “Do you realise that we are the leading supplier of chocolate enrobing equipment with a 70% share of the world market, so what can you possibly tell us that we don’t already know?”  This gave me an opening to flatter them into submission: “Ah yes, but I’m sure you didn’t get to where you are today by resting on your laurels.”

As for how much we revealed upfront about the sponsors of such studies, we found that as little as possible worked best.  Outright lying was banned, so weaselly half-truths became our stock-in-trade.  On one study for a major kitchen and bedroom company, the sponsor was positioned as “a furniture supplier looking at the kitchen market”.  If anyone had thought to ask whether our client was currently in the kitchen business, we had to say they were, but no one did.   Clients already active in a market were sometimes tenuously described (though never by me!) as “investors”, or even “venture capitalists”, and there was much airy talk of “synergies” and “forging links with partners”.

The truth was that we did get refusals - from whole people even, though not necessarily whole companies.  If say, the Sales Director of a competitor would not play ball, you would simply try the Marketing Director, who hopefully would not be sitting at the next desk, having overheard your failed attempt to recruit his colleague. Equally toe-curling were situations where you would ring the second person, and the one who just told you to get lost picked up their phone, having heard it ring as he was passing! Then, even assuming the second person agreed to meet you, there was still potential for things to implode if, on arrival at the company, you were introduced to the first colleague who turned you down - if he was more senior, he might well pull the plug on proceedings.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The most spectacular instance of this occurred on a job in Benelux.  Following a refusal from the MD of the company in question, I managed to set up an interview with his elderly father, the Chairman and a softer target.  Three quarters of the way through, the MD burst in, grabbed my questionnaire, tore it into tiny pieces and frogmarched me off the premises.  Fortunately, my short term memory was spitting fire that day, and later, over a relaxing beer, I was able to piece together most of the information.

As if getting the cooperation of competitors were not challenging enough, we were urged to take photos of respondents and their building, to be used as illustrations in reports.  In winter, it was often dark after an afternoon appointment, which meant taking the outdoor shot beforehand.  This involved crouching behind a shrub at a discreet distance, but could backfire if the respondent happened to glance out of his window at that moment.  At the very least this resulted in a bumpy start to the meeting, and at worst a replacement camera.

But competitor interviewing was by no means just about skulking in bushes and dodging difficult questions.  Some of my best interviews ever were with companies who were happy to exchange views on an open basis.  I once spent four hours squashed between a fridge and a Portaloo on an exhibition stand in Paris with the Sales & Marketing Director of a well-known glass manufacturer, and every time his assistant popped in to say he was wanted by customers, he shooed her away with an impatient wave, and returned to the absorbing task of crunching five year sales forecasts for curved shower doors.

On reflection, Marketing’s expression about “breaking down the doors” of competitors is perhaps a little strong.   For sometimes they opened the door to us immediately, sometimes we had to knock quite hard first, and just occasionally we nipped in through a side window.

And as a foretaste of my next post, here is a photo of some truly momentous breaking down of things....


Monday, 3 November 2014

Results of the 5th Blogiversary draw!

Lavender scent clearly detectable on the reverse!
So the closing date of my 5th anniversary draw must surely have passed, even though I was characteristically vague about when it was. I sort of let it drift on till Sunday in the end. Then I totted up 17 entrants, excluding those who chose to opt out for 'friends and family' reasons, not that there were any constraints in that regard. Now as any longstanding readers may recall, I used to just ask Mr Bonkers to bark out a random number within a particular range, but in his absence, I have had to have recourse again to the electronic wizardry of Some of the house creatures got excited when I mentioned that I was holding the draw today, and asked if they could pull a bit of paper out of a hat, but frankly I could not be bothered to make all the slips - taking care to ensure they were all equal sizes, in case the toys' hands chanced upon a marginally bigger bit of paper when they stuck their hands in. And frankly, none of them are particularly well endowed in the gripping department.

As worn at Scent Bar!

So it was, and I am happy to announce that the winners are:

ANNIEA (drawn first, so she gets first dibs)



Please would you both contact me via with your address information and prize preferences.

AnnieA gets a choice of cushion (or 'pillow' as it may be known over there), fairly amorphously sized T-shirt OR a crystal atomiser, which features in this earlier blog post. I have since read it again, and it seems you can safely put Eau de Cologne or Eau de Toilette in the bottle, but for arcane reasons of porosity that are completely lost on me, Eau de Parfum appears to be a non-starter.

Ingeborg gets a choice of the two items AnnieA did not select, and if either of these are unsuitable, we can discuss possible perfume-themed alternatives that might work instead.

I am afraid I am a bit wary these days of posting perfume to the US - or mainland Europe - in view of the current more draconian postal regs climate. Or I would have a go, as my moral scruples are negligible on this point ;), but there is an increased risk nowadays of the package being opened by customs officials and its contents destroyed. So if either winner would really prefer perfume, it is fine by me as long as they are prepared to take that chance.

Attractive atomiser for very specific fluids!

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Urban Decay Naked palette: so not a 'smoky eye tutorial'...

A long time ago I had a boyfriend who memorably likened my eye colour to that of 'foetid puddles'. The term that was on the tip of his tongue was of course 'hazel'. Never one to overstate a case, he also described my legs as 'serviceable'.  My mother, meanwhile, used to lament the fact that she was cursed with small eyes, instead of 'limpid pools'. I don't know the minimum size for an expanse of water to qualify as a pool, but swimming, paddling - and even some rock - pools are certainly bigger than a puddle. Like mother, like daughter, then... I do remember a green matte eyeshadow my mother owned - and which was an authorised plaything in childhood games of charades - but I am not sure she wore it much. Sadly, I think my father had convinced her that her eyes were too small to be noticed, with or without embellishment.

I too have a bit of a hang up about my eyes - they are so small that I have to pay a premium for contact lenses, for example - and I don't often brave the world without makeup. But where I differ from my mother is in my firm belief in the transformational power of eyeshadow. Without makeup I have 'no eyes', as ex-Mr Bonkers and I used to joke, but with makeup I magically do; I would often speak of going to 'put my eyes on'. That said, my use of eyeshadow is woefully basic, as I don't seem to have the conventional ocular architecture you see in makeup videos. My lids are narrow and crepey, you see. The area above my eyes is also a bit crepey, and the socket between them is so shallow that there are no clearly defined zones to address with different shades - as per a classic smoky eye look, for which this palette is famously suited. The whole area is a bit like a rumpled, crinkly picnic rug spread over bumpy terrain (my eyeballs!).

Source: Wikimedia Commons ~ Kenneth Allen

But this palette called my name regardless. A brand called Urban Decay was, after all, always going to appeal to someone with eyes the colour of anything foetid. I first saw it in an in-flight magazine, but took a while to work up to a purchase: as a frequent traveller, I have long been drawn to the convenience of having so many colours in one product, but have held back till now, concerned that I wouldn't like enough of the shades in the selection to get full value.  In the end I bit the bullet and asked my sister-in-law for the Naked palette last Christmas, and it has been in heavy rotation ever since.

Right off the bat I will say that this, the original Naked palette, is a capsule wardrobe of eyeshadows for those with warm, 'autumnal' colouring, and mostly comprises shades of gold, bronze, brown and taupe. Cooler complexions may fare better with Naked 3, which takes a rose gold theme and runs with it. Naked 2 is somewhere in between, with somewhat lighter, cooler neutrals that already lean a bit to the pink side. To its credit, Urban Decay has been good at minimising crossover between the palettes, so I could imagine people buying 1 and 2 or 2 and 3, but despite the talk in some quarters of the trio of palettes being 'universally flattering', I doubt if all three would suit one person.

Source: Carmen_Lo via Fragrantica

For myself, I'll probably stick with my original choice, but if I was feeling flush, I would be curious to dabble in Naked 2, which reportedly has five unique shades and only one direct overlap with the first palette (the shimmery gold, Half Baked).

Now I haven't attempted a look featuring several shades for the topographical reasons outlined - or rather 'not outlined' above ;).  However I have been utterly mesmerised by the many smoky eye tutorials on YouTube based on this palette - where serious make up buffs manage to incorporate 4 or 5 colours in a single wear! And despite my limited application technique, I have got huge use out of seven of the twelve shades already, the others being too light, too dark - or too matte. In the spirit of scientific inquiry, I should perhaps at least give these a go sometime. Turns out that the black shade, for example, fetchingly named 'Creep' - which I rejected right off the bat thinking it was a rather Goth-looking colour for an eyeshadow - is in fact mainly intended to be used as an eyeliner. That's how ignorant I am of such things, haha...So I could try using it in place of a kohl pencil, say.

And now, a word on the packaging: I am not a fan of the furry cover, it must be said, which reminds me of flock wallpaper in 70s Indian restaurants. I much prefer the metallic tins adopted for Naked 2 and 3. Then the set comes with a (single-ended) brush - another alien concept to me - but one which I am gradually psyching myself up to embrace. For the world of make up brushes - with their Masonic-style serial numbers such as MAC 217, 239 etc - strikes me as involving another layer of arcane complexity beyond the already somewhat tricky business of choosing flattering colours and wacking them on your eyelid. I have just looked on the MAC site in fact and there are different brushes for all the separate activities listed: application, blending, contouring, highlighting, shading and lining. Why, there's even some for 'separating'!

Baerbel helpfully holding up the Urban Decay brush

And of course this multiple brush imperative goes hand in hand with composite, multi-zonal looks - for those blessed with zones - like the smoky eye. I know this in theory, but it is something in the far, far corner of my peripheral vision. Me, I just buy packs of sponge applicators, notionally assigning one eyeshadow colour per side. My bathroom is overrun with dozens of the little blighters, like so many discarded matches. I try to perch them on ledges so the colour doesn't transfer onto things, and am constantly knocking them off again. They regularly fall into the bath, adding an unintentional swatch of colour to its clinically white sides on the way down. Now...I know that Katie Puckrik, who has acted as a bit of a makeup mentor to me in recent years, would be appalled by this. Her twin bete noires are superannuated makeup and accessories (she's very hot on hygiene), AND age-inappropriate sparkliness (aka mica malfunctions). Readers of a nervous disposition may wish not to click on this earlier post about the shameful secrets of my makeup bag - though I have rerun a photo from it at the end of this post, on account of its amusing Hallowe'en theme!

Personally, I think the Naked palette stays the right side of a glitterfest: 10 of the 12 colours are shimmery / metallic shades, but the effect is quite subtle when applied. Moreover, shades that look a bit dark in the pan - am thinking of Hustle, Dark Horse and Gunmetal - are actually quite a bit lighter and more wearable than I imagined. They seem to soften down once they have been on for a while. And by that I don't even mean that they wear off quickly, just that the colour seems to settle in and be at the correct register for your own eyes. I know, I know, I sound like some strange Urban Decay Moonie, but that really has been my experience. Then some people consider the colours in the original Naked palette to be better suited to heavier evening looks than daytime, but I wouldn't say so. Maybe I am just an overly made up old trollop though!

And the subject of eyeshadow 'wearing off' brings me neatly round to the subject of primer. Like brushes, I am dimly aware of primer in the context of makeup. I am more familiar with both in the context of painting and decorating, to be fair, but I have heard the term. I even clocked the little tube of primer that came with my Naked palette, and promptly stuck it back in its box and shoved it in the wardrobe. If you had asked me what primer was for, I would have said 'stopping your eyeshadow running away'? But hey, I may have oily skin, but not on my eyelids particularly - we are not talking Laurel Canyon in a mud slide here. But in preparation for writing this post I did google the function of primer, and found that it enhances the colour of your eyeshadow as well. And no, I categorically refuse to say 'makes it pop'. Though as an unwanted spin off, primer makes it harder to remove the eyeshadow at night, without a lot of tugging and dragging, which as we all know, is to be avoided in the eye area. I have now worn primer under my chosen eyeshadow two days running, and it certainly keeps it in place, but I think it would have stayed put anyway, so that's a step I probably shan't bother with in future.

As for the shades themselves, for the full lowdown I commend you to read a proper review! by a blogger called Pretty Gossip. My own personal favourites from the original Naked palette are as follows:

Toasted - a definite taupe, not unlike MAC Satin Taupe, with a pinky undertone
Sidecar - a lighter, pinky taupe
Smog - a metallic bronze
Half Baked - a metallic gold
Hustle - a soft brown with slight shimmer and a lilac undertone
Dark Horse - a true dark brown with a slight shimmer
Gunmetal - a metallic blue grey

The last three are all examples of shades that soften to a very wearable tone, or seem to! If I could customise this collection, however, I would lose the matte shades and replace them with an olive-y green and a mauve (like MAC Green Smoke and Frozen Violet - or a shimmery version of MAC Shale). Then I probably wouldn't need to use anything else ever again...!

Me with a shiner - another take on the smoky eye!

PS The winner of the anniversary draw will be announced soon! I'll probably call time on it at midnight tomorrow...