The Scent of Blue

I remembered this poem when I posted on a Facebook thread about vintage scents. I love them, and have a small collection. The better the scent, the longer it lasts. You can sometimes find bargains on eBay, and these old perfumes last a long time. I have a very old (and very large) bottle of Mitsouko, that still smells wonderful, given a little while to settle on the skin, My favourite, though, is Guerlain's l'Heure Bleue. 

I wrote this poem years ago, published it in an anthology, and put it on an old blog too, but when I went in search of it online it had disappeared. So here it is again. 


A concert in Edinburgh, years ago.

She manages to find a single seat,

sees a famous conductor,

silver haired, sharp featured like some

bird of prey, but smaller than you would

expect in evening dress.

On his arm a thin woman,

taller than he is, strides with

striking face, her hair a cloud of

grey blonde curls.

Not a young woman but a

diva surely, inhabiting her clothes,

inhabiting her skin with such confidence.

She wants to be like that some day,

longs for self possession

and she remembers the scent of her,

musky, mysterious, a heavy, night time

scent, flowers after dark.

The scent of passion.

The scent of money.

The scent of blue.


She searches for the scent for years. 

Her mother wore Tweed.

Now she wishes she could

open a wardrobe door, and

smell the scent of Tweed, her

mother’s plain sweet scent,

almost as much as she

wishes she could tell her mother so.


As a girl, she wore Bluebell,

fresh and full of hope, or

Diorissimo, like the lilac she once

carried through the streets,

on her way from meeting a man

she desired and admired,  thinking

Girl with Lilac, still so young,

self conscious, not possessed.


Later, she tries l’Air du Temps and

Je Reviens (always unlucky for her)

and Fleurs de Rocaille but they are

none of them the scent of blue.

She wears Chanel, briefly, with dreams of Marilyn,

loves to watch her, loves to hear her voice,

soothing as chocolate but

Number Five is not her scent,

never suits her, never will.


She discovers Mitsouko.

Some tester in some chemist’s shop somewhere.

An old, old fashioned scent,

syncopated, unexpected, not to every taste.

Whenever she wears it,

women ask her what it is,

I love your scent they say.

How strange the way scent lingers in the mind. 

How strange the way scent

changes on warm skin.

On her it ripens to something peachy,

mossy, rich and rare.

But it is not the scent of blue.


She loses her heart.

It is an affair of  telephone lines

more profound, more sweet and

bitter than Mitsouko,

a sad song in the dark,

and the colour of that time is blue.


Afterwards, she searches through

Bellodgia, Apres L’Ondee,

Nuit de Noel, Mon Peche, Apercu

until drawn by nostalgia

she finds Joy,

dearly bought  roses and jasmine,

a summer garden in one small bottle.

She marries in Joy.

But she wears Mitsouko

and she forgets the scent of blue.


Older, she discovers Arpege,

Not just rose and jasmine but

bergamot, neroli, peach, vanilla, ylang ylang,

one essence piled on another like the

notes on the piano she used to,

sometimes still does, play:

love songs mostly.

Oh this is not a scent for the young.

It is too dark for that

a memory of something  lost,

an unfinished story.

This scent has a past.


She sees him across a room.

Another woman ushers him,

this way and that, makes introductions,

a little charmed the way women

always did flutter irresistably around this man.

It used to make her smile the way

women flocked around this

wolf who walked alone who

belonged to nobody but himself.

And never will.


She is wearing Arpege.

Not a scent for the very young,

vertiginous as the layers of time between.

With age comes wisdom,

but as when mud is

stirred at the bottom of a  pool,

memories bubble to the surface.

Not wisely but too well they loved.

Now, they are waving across the

chasm of the years.

They speak, in measured tones,

they speak and walk away,

they speak again in careful words, that

every now and then

recall the scent of


It will not do.

Only in dreams

can one innocently recapture that

first fine careless


So much more is forgotten

Than is ever remembered.

And the clock insists

let it be let it be.



One summer evening

a young man observes the way

twilight closes the flowers,

whose scent lingers on the last heat of the day,

the way the light goes out of the sky,

painting it dark blue, how

soon the war will tear this place apart.

How soon all things resort to sadness.


In a new century,

She finds among jasmine and rose,

vanilla and violet,

a dark twist of anise, like the

twist of a knife.

First last always.

The scent of the diva.

The scent of passion.

Fine beyond imagining.

She sees it is essentially

sad, sad, sad, a

sad scent:

L’Heure Bleue.

All things come to sadness in the end.

The beautiful bitter foolish scent of blue.

Catherine Czerkawska




When Life Give You Lemons ...


Last week, I found some lovely big Italian lemons in Lidl, with the scented leaves still attached. I used two of them to make delicious lemon curd, in the microwave - much easier and quicker than using a double boiler, so if you fancy making some, here's the recipe. 

It came from my old and battered Farmhouse Kitchen Microwave Cookery Book, and is one of the most successful microwave recipes I've ever tried. 

You need the rind and juice of 2 large lemons, like the ones above (or 3, if they're smaller) 2 eggs and 1 egg yolk, beaten, between 6 and 8 ounces (175 - 225g) of caster sugar, and 4 ounces (125g) of butter. I like very tart lemon curd so I only use 6 ounces of sugar, free range eggs and a good solid butter, but it doesn't need to be unsalted. Don't try to make it with spreadable butter though. 

You melt the butter, sugar, all of the finely grated rind and the juice of one lemon on full power for 3 minutes, stirring every minute and making sure the butter and sugar have dissolved. You need quite a large basin for this. 

Add the remaining lemon juice and the beaten egg - I put it through a sieve.

Then cook the whole thing on full power, uncovered, for about six minutes, whisking it every minute, until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. It's fiddly, but quick. You can give it another minute if need be, but it will thicken considerably as it sets. If you don't whisk it enough in the early stages, it will turn into scrambled eggs.

Put it into heated jars, cover with waxed paper, allow to cool, then put the lids on and refrigerate. It's supposed to keep for six weeks in the fridge but ours never lasts for that long. It's usually gone within a week or so but it's easy to make more. You can use baby food jars if you want to give some away because there's only enough here for one and a half normal jam jars. It makes a great cake filling, and it's lovely mixed with Greek yoghurt too. 

Good luck!

Tacit Knowledge and Creative Writing Workshops

Not-a-workshop in Grantown-on-Spey

I have regular Zoom chats with three friends, started before the pandemic as real life meetings, but continued online. All of them are professional artists. I'm the single writer, and it's always interesting and enlightening to compare the way I work with the way they work - although obviously they don't all work in the same way either. 

A few weeks ago we started talking about tacit knowledge and they asked me how that applied to my work. My first impulse was to say 'it doesn't.' But I've been thinking about it ever since, and of course it does. It's just that most writers either don't realise it, or feel uncomfortable acknowledging it. 

Most creative professionals don't retire but as time goes by, we tend to acknowledge what we do and don't want to do. We learn how to say a polite 'no'. Here's an awful admission. I've always disliked doing workshops. Worse, in all my years of actually delivering workshops, I've had an uneasy feeling that I don't know what a workshop is or should be. 

Nor do most of the people who ask you to do them. I've seen all kinds of events described as workshops from writers speaking about their books, how they researched and wrote them, to full on, participatory 'how to' sessions for a few people, which is more or less what I think of when I see the word. I still love doing the former, but the latter? Not so much. 

If you write non-fiction or historical fiction, you can give an entertaining and informative talk about your work and how you set about researching it. For example, I've enjoyed every talk I've given about The Jewel, my novel about Robert Burns's wife, Jean Armour, and I hope other people have too. This is partly because I'm comfortable with describing my research, but also because the audience for this kind of talk is usually knowledgeable, so they will ask interesting questions, and offer their own contributions. 

I've taught intermittently throughout my working life, three happy years teaching English as a foreign language to adults in Finland and Poland, numerous drama and script-writing workshops, radio workshops, and some hugely rewarding years as a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at our local university, helping students with their academic writing. 

I enjoyed the RLF fellowship most of all. In those one-to-one sessions I was using my tacit knowledge as an experienced writer (although I didn't call it that) to help students see their own way through. 

'How can you read my essay and immediately point out the main thread, when I'm floundering about?' one of my students asked me. It was down to years of practice. We never did the work for them. We just showed them a way of working things out for themselves. Mostly by asking the right questions. It's what good editors and producers do for writers too. They ask the right questions and in finding the answers, you make the work better yourself. 

That same tacit knowledge is what I use when I'm writing - for example - dialogue. I've had years of writing plays for radio and the stage, and now in fiction. But if I'm asked to do a workshop on writing dialogue I feel a sense of panic. I can do it. I know what works and what doesn't. But I don't know how to explain how I do it to people who don't have an ear for it. 

It's like when my woodcarver husband takes a block of lime and cuts off all the pieces that don't look like whatever he wants to make. He can teach people the basics. Teach them about wood and tools and techniques, but if they can't see the wonderful thing inside the wood, can't feel the shape of it, it will take more than a couple of workshops to acquire the feel for it that is the result of years of practice. It's the same with writing. I can give people rules for writing dialogue. I can frame exercises to help them. But there is no shortcut.

None of which is to denigrate the role of really good mentoring, done with a light touch. Somebody with lots of tacit knowledge helps us to find a way through our problems, often by questioning what we're not doing, rather than telling us what we ought to be doing. 

Intuition is a whole other can of worms. On the whole, I think the more you work at  your craft, whatever that is, the more intuition you will acquire. That way, your tacit knowledge becomes intuitive, so that you can look at a piece of work, get the feeling that something is wrong with it and often, but not always, fix it for yourself. 

In the Salt Mines.

Wanda and Karol Kossak in Ciechocinek

Back in the very early 1970s, as a young woman, I took a trip to Poland, to stay with my father's relatives in Warsaw, and in a place called Ciechocinek, where my great aunt Wanda and great uncle Karol Kossak (the last of the celebrated family of Polish artists) lived. The picture of them above is so vividly reminiscent of my time there that every time I see it, I'm back with them, sitting at that table. I loved them dearly. 

When I came to work on my new book, The Last Lancer, about the Polish grandfather I never met, his turbulent milieu, his family and his life, I found myself remembering them all over again. They were a link to a past that for many years was inaccessible to me. The book is currently with my publisher, and I'm working on all the other elements surrounding it. Meanwhile, it has suddenly become current in the worst possible way, since my family came from that part of Poland called Galicia, much of which is now in Ukraine. That instant 'relevance' is very hard to come to terms with, even though it has cast  a blinding light on the tragic past of my forebears.

One thing I keep remembering though. And I tell the tale here because it too is relevant, in the worst possible way. 

As part of my trip, my family had arranged a visit to Krakow. Among other things, they organised a trip to the salt mine at Wieliczka.  You can get some idea of what a beautiful and intriguing place this is from their website, but even back then, with the communist party still firmly in control in Poland, it was a wonderful place.

I went on a conducted tour with a guide who spoke in Polish and English. At some point during that tour, I became aware of what can only be described as a general sense of unease among the rest of the group. To this day, I can remember the feeling,  although at first, I didn't know what it was. It was just short of tangible. A current. A vibration in the air. The kind of feeling that makes you shiver. If I was a cat my fur would have been standing on end!

Then, I noticed that we had, as we moved forward, split into two parties. My group was a mixed bunch of mostly Polish tourists with a couple of English speakers. The other consisted of one grim faced and silent older man, flanked by two other men who occasionally muttered to him. If they had been wearing notices that they were plague carriers, the way in which everyone avoided them could not have been more obvious. We went on with our enjoyable tour, but at some point, an older man from our group bent down and whispered in my ear 'KGB'. 

I've never forgotten it. It flashes into my mind occasionally  - much more so over the past few weeks. That palpable sense of unease had another element to it, and it was only later that I realised what it was. It was hatred. Something I hadn't encountered at all in my life to that time: raw, primitive hatred. Because some of those Polish tourists had vivid memories of exactly what Russian soldiers had done to them and their families during the war. 

Nothing happened. We enjoyed our tour, the unwelcome guests got into a fancy car and drove off - and I resumed my holiday. But once you've encountered the reality of justified hate, you never forget it and the force of it. Like my father you can choose not to allow it to ruin your life, but there will be times when it surfaces, just as it surfaced on that long ago day, even though we were deep underground.