Chanel No.5, the smell of angels and feeding my brain

A few weeks ago I decided I needed to read more. Not just books, but thoughtful pieces on thought-provoking topics. In actual print.

It just so happened then that my in-laws were clearing out a pile of hand-me-down London Review of Books which they handed down once more to me. Hand-me-down-hand-me-downs. It’s certainly a more cost-effective venture than collecting them new. Like picking up old World of Interiors at Cafda Books. Treasures at a fraction of the price. But that is beside the point. I had set an intention and life had answered.

As we all know, of course, the LRB is nothing but thoughtful pieces on thought-provoking topics written in such thinky ways that I’ve been emotionally duty-bound never to read one. I find such intelligent writing very tiring. Nevertheless. Committed to right the evils social media scrolling has done to my brain, I put my hesitations aside, took my brain in hand and sat down at the table To Read.

I chose the issue with a bold blue cover because I am a magpie that is fundamentally and unironically attracted to bright and shiny things. Well, colour me surprised folks. The first essay by Sheila Fitzpatrick ‘Frisson of Electric Sparkle’ (on the book The Scent of Empires: Chanel No. 5 and Red Moscow by Jessica Spengler) was not only infinitely readable, but educational AND enjoyable. AND I was tickled beyond imagining by the opening paragraph…

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“‘Quelle est cette odeur agreable/Bergers, qui ravit tous nos sens?’ In the old French carol, the shepherds to whom the angel announces the birth of Christ are first struck by a ravishing scent they can’t identify, then by a great light, and finally by heavenly sounds,” writes Fitzpatrick. “This introduction of a smell to the Annunciation story has no biblical justification, as far as I can discover, but it certainly stakes a claim for smell in the hierarchy of the senses.”

Now, if you’ve read The Fulcrum you can imagine how this delighted me. It felt like serendipity, like validation for a golden thread that I’d thought I’d made up only to find I’d rather discovered it by accident. Something there all along, just waiting to be found. I had so many of these experiences as The Fulcrum‘s story and its characters unfolded. There is real magic in this writing malarkey.

But anyway back to edifying my brain. Fitzpatrick wrote such an engaging essay about this Spengler book that I decided there and then that I would read an essay a week and dutifully blog about what I’d learned.

That was at least a month ago and I still haven’t made it past the dreary second essay even though it begins by mentioning Jill Paton Walsh, at one time one of my favourite writers, Serpentine Cave, Lapsing and Knowledge of Angels being of particular favour.

Anyway. The point is, I am here to make good on the second half of my commitment even though it is all very slow and delayed.

SO. What did I learn from feeding my soul and brain such intellectual treats?

That Chanel No.5 and Red Moscow are most likely the same perfume, that the ‘No. 5’ of Chanel refers to the number of the scent Chanel chose from the French parfumier Ernest Beaux’s catalogue, that each version of the scent and its branding came to represent so much more than a nice smell, but ultimately cultures and ideologies, and that she and the ‘creator’ of Red Moscow were both era-defying, hardcore, kick-ass women. I mean, both were problematic as all hell when the Second World War came around, but who am I to judge. Being a woman in a man’s war-ridden world is hard at the best of times.

So there you go. In other news, The Fulcrum has found a home in a few book stores: The Book Lounge (literally burst out crying when I got the order), Kalk Bay Books (utterly divine bookstore in Kalk Bay), Liberty Books (utterly divine bookstore in Elgin) and then Book Junction at Palmyra Junction (Jenny was the first person to sell my book to a reader in the wild). I’ve also sold out my first run (That’s 102 copies in total! so much more than the 10 I thought I’d be able to sell.) so now I don’t know whether to print some more? I feel like anyone who’s likely to buy a copy has bought it.


Let me tell you friends, I’m really tired of ‘no’. It’s so fucking dull. I wonder if Chanel ever experienced ‘no’. Funny how so little of the ‘no’ makes it into the history books of successful people. Is that because they didn’t have so much no or is it because they barrelled through it? Or do I think this because I haven’t delved further into a significant person’s life past a tweet in years? Guess I should read more.

Oh well, on to the next essay…


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