Perfumes I've Loved - Part One

II est de forts parfums pour qui toute matière
Est poreuse. On dirait qu'ils pénètrent le verre.

(There are strong perfumes for which all matter
Is porous. One would say they go through glass.)

Some of my favourites.

I've loved so many perfumes, but especially vintage scents. In fact I probably get as much pleasure from perfumes as I do from reading. But perhaps it's just that, as a writer, I love stories, and so many fragrances have a tale to tell that - like all the best stories - reveals itself slowly. 

My go-to site for finding out about scents and their history is Fragrantica, and I link to it often on this post, but there are plenty of serious perfume blogs out there, if you care to look for them.

The first perfume I really became aware of was Lentheric's Tweed - in its original formulation, which dates from the 1930s. The later reformulation was a thin imitation, but my mum wore the original, sparingly because money was tight. 

Every Christmas my dad would buy her a bottle of the 'eau de parfum', beautifully packaged, in a little bottle with its characteristic 1950s wooden top. I remember the excitement of going with him to buy it, a day or two before Christmas. I have a few old bottles of it still, acquired here and there online, and although vintage scents like this can take a while to settle down on your skin, give it time and the true scent emerges. It reminds me of my pretty mum. After she died, all her best clothes still had a faint scent of Tweed. A woody, earthy, oakmossy, spicy scent and - yes - something of the scent of heather, which suited mum down to the ground.

Scents, loosely, fall into two categories - those in which chypres predominate (Tweed is one of them) and floral. So many modern fragrances, especially those to which celebrities lend their names, tend to be flowery. No bad thing if they're made with genuine flower oils and essences, but chypres are a lot more grown up! My aunt, whom I loved, wore Coty's Chypre back then, and as soon as I could, I begged or borrowed a bottle and dabbed it on too - another warm, dry, woody, mossy scent and not too expensive in the 1950s and 60s. 

I would just love to get my hands (and my nose) on one of those beautiful old bottles of Coty's Chypre because I know the scent would not just go through glass, but through time as well, carrying me back to my childhood and teenage years - but this rare vintage scent is fiendishly expensive. Even the empty bottles are little works of art. 

That's the thing about good elderly scents - even though they may smell a bit odd at first, those are just the so called 'top notes'. Most old scents, made with precious ingredients, will survive. Give them time and most of them will reveal their true selves, the scents of the past. As a historical novelist, I think that's another reason why I like them so much. 

During my twenties, I spent money I could ill afford on perfumes. 

I acquired - I've no idea how - a bottle of something called Fleurs de Rocaille, launched in 1934, but although I was intrigued by it, it didn't suit me - far too sophisticated for the person I was back then. I also loved Je Reviens by Worth - another old scent, a floral this time, but with a glamorous musky base and once again, nothing like the miserable modern reformulation. But it was an unlucky scent for me. Every time I wore it, my love life went disastrously wrong, so I began to avoid it! 

Penhaligon's Bluebell was my favourite when I was a student, generally a prized birthday gift and not something I could afford to buy for myself. I have an old bottle in my collection and still splash it on from time to time in spring, but it's a springtime scent in more ways than one, and seems too young for me now. Still love its distinct fragrance of hyacinths though. Another scent my mother loved - a floral this time but a spicy one - was Blue Carnation by Roger & Gallet - a true clove carnation scent. I remember wearing it myself for a while, so it must have been affordable back then, or perhaps I borrowed mum's, but it is, alas, long gone and the few surviving bottles command truly eye watering prices these days, even on eBay. 

In my twenties and thirties, Guerlain's legendary Mitsouko - another chypre, fruity and delicious and mysterious - was a revelation. For a while I could appreciate it only by going into the perfume departments of expensive stores and dousing myself in it - then walking about and inhaling it. I still love it. It's a long lasting scent and even the cologne, liberally applied for an evening out, will be with you the following morning, a faint but evocative scent, like a memory of something wonderful. 

Later, I was lucky enough to acquire a big beautiful bottle of the eau de toilette on eBay and I'm still working my way through it. (The eau de parfum is even nicer if you can find the vintage version.) It never loses its potency. It is, I have to admit, rather too powerful a scent for everyday use - and those with allergies might not like it at all - which probably explains why I have quite a lot of it left.

I spend so much of my time sitting at a desk, working on a PC, inhabiting other worlds. Sometimes I just like to wear the scent that suits what I'm working on. Mostly, you see, I just wear it for me. Perfumes for which all matter is porous. What a wonderful, uncanny thought that is.

Vintage Lanvin


Next time, I'll write about L'Heure Bleu - my all time favourite. You may even get a poem as well.

PS All my content is free, and free of advertising. But if you like what I write, then maybe you would enjoy one of my books! There are links to most of them on here. 

NHS - Failing Gradually Then Suddenly

Should I resort to Culpepper?

About seven weeks ago, I was in a tearing hurry over something, tripped, fell and in the process managed to crack my head on a door frame. I didn't 'have a fall'. (Have you noticed how they always say older people have 'had a fall' as though there was a certain inevitability about it.)  I just had an accident. I didn't lose consciousness, but I did have a large egg shaped bump on my head, which was sore but pretty soon faded. Then, a few weeks later, I started to get pains in my neck, just below where I'd hit my head. They were quite mild at first so I used ibuprofen gel. 

They got worse. 

Some ten days ago, my neck and shoulder became so painful that I was interspersing paracetamol with ibuprofen every couple of hours. It was like extreme toothache - the pain you get when you have an abscess, only relocated elsewhere. I did a lot of night time reading but very little sleeping.

Worried, I phoned my medical practice. The best they could offer me was a telephone appointment with a nurse practitioner in a couple of days time. I took it, carried on taking the pills, and then had a brief chat with her. I pointed out the crack on the head and wondered if I needed an X-Ray. She suggested that because the pain was so acute, I should go to A & E. I waited an hour to see the triage nurse. 

'We can't help you,' she said. 

I'm not blaming her. She was under strict orders. 'Nothing to do with the bump on the head. It was too long ago. You've probably turned the wrong way in bed.' I was close to tears by this point, between the weeks of pain, the worry and the lack of sleep, so she went out to speak to a doctor and came back within seconds. 'He says it's nothing to do with the bump on the head. It's not your fault. You shouldn't have been sent here. You need to go home and phone your GP again. They have emergency appointments.'

This was about 10.30 in the morning. There were six people in the waiting room. 'It would be six hours before you could see a doctor anyway' she said, briskly. On the way out, a stressed elderly woman grabbed my arm and said 'it's a disgrace, that's what it is.'

I should probably point out here that I have never, not once, been into A & E on my own behalf before. Only with my mum when she had terminal cancer. I tend to ignore problems and assume they will go away. On the way home, I tried to call the GP several times but it was always engaged. 

Fortunately my husband was driving. And even more fortunately, there was a traffic jam which meant that we took a detour and stopped at a village pharmacy where a kindly pharmacist listened to me with sympathy. 'It sounds like a trapped nerve and it can be excruciating,' she said. She suspected that it might indeed have to do with the bump on the head, since it had gradually been building ever since. She had several useful suggestions. She gave me more painkillers, suggested that very gentle yoga exercises might be a good thing, and thought I might try Tiger Balm. She also suggested that I should persevere in trying to see a GP, but that if it did turn out to be nerve compression, an osteopath might be the answer. Tiger Balm, surprisingly, helped. Ibuprofen helped too, but I had to stop taking it after a day or two because it was upsetting my stomach,

I followed her suggestions as far as possible, and the acute pain abated just enough for me to sleep, with the aid of Nytol. That was more than a week ago. The pain has now mutated into something a little more bearable but just as unpleasant. Like a series of intense, exceedingly weird electric shocks through my neck and head as well as very painful and tender skin, with no evidence of any inflammation on the surface. The 'shocks' come and go throughout the day. It's wearing me down.

Last week, I got through to the GP practice, but was told that it would be a couple of weeks before I could see one of the four GPs face to face. By dint of polite pleading, I got a phone appointment with an actual doctor for next Tuesday. 

On the same day, with desperation setting in, I contacted a private clinic recommended by a friend and now I have an appointment with a fully qualified osteopath on Monday afternoon. When I told them the history of this injury, they too suspected that the bump on the side of the head might well have something to do with it, and the pain and other symptoms sounded like nerve compression. 

We'll see. It's going to cost me money we can ill afford, but I can't go on like this, and the NHS has - so far - been no help at all. 

Throughout my adult life, I've been lucky enough to be reasonably fit, and seldom needed to visit a GP, so I don't think I had realised just how poor the service had become, although I had heard similar or infinitely worse tales from friends. 

I'm old enough to remember when you could go to your doctor's surgery and wait to be seen. The doctor knew you, your family, your situation, your medical history. Unless you could get there early, you might have to wait a couple of hours. but he would see everyone in the surgery. It was hard cheese if you needed to get to work, but it was a valid excuse. If somebody arrived in acute pain, or obviously very ill, they would jump the queue. If you were too ill to come to the surgery, the doctor would visit you at home later or - as a last resort - call an ambulance for you himself. The last doctor to do this in our town retired when our son was very young - more than thirty years ago. For a while the new health centre with its appointment system worked reasonably well. Until it didn't. 

'Gradually then suddenly,' to quote Hemingway.

I don't know exactly what has gone wrong. Who does?  13 years of Tories? Money? Staffing? Brexit? Some deadly combination of all these things? Too many patients and too few doctors? I've just checked on the practice website. There are four doctors, two advanced nurse practitioners, a practice nurse, a staff nurse, a 'health care assistant', a practice manager and eight medical administrators. 

There are two practices in this smallish town. 

But knowing just how much of my own time is taken up with the demands of the (cue hollow laugh) 'paper free office' in which admin for a house and two micro-businesses, my own and my husband's, seems to take a million times longer than it ever did in the olden days - I sometimes wonder if the systems have just got completely out of hand and overriden considerations of patient care. In much the same way, with less disastrous consequences, as the Scottish Book Trust now seems to have more than 70 staff members to 'support Scotland's writers' while Creative Scotland has roughly the same number. All doing what? Admin? Create a space and the demands of bureaucracy will expand to fill it, like cavity wall insulation. 

And you know what the worst of it is? It's everything. All this admin doesn't work. None of it really works. Nothing including the NHS, education, the Post Office, the police, the water companies, transport, local government, banking  - nothing works the way it should. 

If we paid a small sum to see a GP as people do in many EU countries, would it make a difference? Or would it just compound the problems? I have no answers to these questions. When I do, very occasionally, get to see a GP, I find them as helpful, as kind, as my old GP ever was. So that isn't where the problem lies. But as far as access to resources go, we compare very badly with our European neighbours. 

All I know is that, sadly, the elderly NHS, 75 years old,  is showing her age. She has grown confused and forgetful, weary and uncommunicative, and those of us who love her are finding her increasingly difficult to access when we badly need her help and advice. She is, in short, falling apart at the seams, and we're falling apart with her. Whether she is now beyond saving is up for debate but the alternative is too hideous for all but the wealthy to contemplate. 

I've now seen an (excellent) osteopath and in a few days I'll be seeing an (also excellent, caring) doctor. The condition hasn't gone away, but it's improving a little. It's clear that the problem doesn't lie with the health professionals. It lies, sadly, with the systems surrounding them. The professionals are like those musicians, valiantly playing on, while the Titanic is sinking around them. 

The Last Lancer, Now Published in the USA


On 11th July The Last Lancer will be published in the USA and I'm really hoping that the Polish diaspora, many of whom are US based, will get behind it. This is mainly because so many of my Polish friends, here in Scotland, have told me that reading it reminded them of their own fathers and grandfathers, the pre-war childhood and tragic wartime experiences they seldom spoke about. People would tell me how they wished that they had asked their parents about the past, but so often hesitated, and now regretted all those stories left untold. 

These good friends were in my mind as I researched and wrote this book. I did ask my father, thank heavens, although he died much too young, back in 1995. I still miss him. Still wish I could chat to him. Walk with him. Hug him. Nevertheless, he wrote all kinds of vivid and fascinating details down for me. Later, I visited Poland myself, worked there for a year, and managed to piece together even more of the story. 

With my dad in 1950s Yorkshire.

My father, Julian Czerkawski was born in 1926 near Lwow, in Polish Galicia, on his father's large and fairly prosperous estate. He was the son of a Polish lancer - one of the celebrated cavalrymen who inherited the legacy of the famous 'winged hussars'. For hundreds of years, they had made their home in these heavily disputed borderlands. It seemed to me, hearing and reading about it later, as though these were people who were living on the slopes of a volcano. Dormant but rumbling away. 

The Czerkawski family in 1926 -
my grandfather in the centre.

 War devastated the family in ways which are seldom fully understood, here in the UK. Fortunate to   escape with his life, Dad eventually made his way to England as a refugee, an 'alien' as they were   called. Poland might as well have been outer space. His identity papers reveal that under 'next of kin' he had entered a Polish phrase that means 'closest family to nobody.' He was fortunate to meet and marry my Leeds Irish mother. (You can read about her family story in my book called A Proper Person to be Detained.) But an ache remained for the people and places of his childhood, even if he spoke of them only rarely.

In 2022, Putin's war in Ukraine and the sight of refugees passing through Lviv, formerly Lwow, added urgency to my desire to uncover something of what had been lost a generation before.

This book is the result, a book that Neal Ascherson, expert on the history of Poland and Ukraine, has called 'very moving and intensely interesting.'

Sadly, there is a sense in which Poland is still, for most people here in the UK, a 'faraway place with strange sounding names'. But perhaps for that wider Polish diaspora  (20 million people worldwide) especially in the USA, it will fill some achingly large gaps in people's family history. 

I do hope so. 

Meanwhile, I would dearly love to find a US and/or Polish publisher who would be interested in translating and publishing this book in Polish. Enquiries here in the UK have so far failed to elicit any interest. There seems to be an inability to understand the nature of the shifting borders in this part of the world, which results in an equally fixed inability to understand that this is a book about Ukraine too. It is also a book that goes some way towards explaining why Ukrainians fleeing Putin's war received such a warm welcome from Poles. We knew. We understood. We felt for and with them.

Please feel free to contact me for further information about the book.
If you're interested in translation rights, do please contact my publisher Saraband.  

The Winger Hussars by Alan Lees

Whatever Happened to Creative Writing?


Edinburgh days.

The writing career I embarked on many years ago seems unrecognisable to me now. I studied English Language and Literature at Edinburgh University where there was a thriving community of young people who wrote in their spare time or who just loved literature, poetry, theatre, for itself and not as a means to an end, not as a way to promote 'wellbeing' or primarily as a way to tackle various 'issues' - although we did write about issues that seemed important to us. But the practice itself, the 'doing' was the thing. We seemed to enjoy books, plays, poems with less angst, less fear of censure, more freedom to just be ourselves. Sensitivity readers were unknown. Beta readers were unknown. We wrote because we needed to write, loved to write. We learned by writing a lot, and by working with a trusted editor or - in the case of drama - with a trusted director. And if that seems like nostalgia, maybe it is.

A friend of mine organised poetry festivals and they were sold out. Young people came along in droves to listen to poets. The vast majority of my fellow students were, like me, from comprehensive schools. Years later, when I was working at another Scottish university, they organised a poetry event, with a few well known poets. Even with the benefit of social media, hardly anyone came. An experienced and successful playwright, working in the department for a while, generously offered one to one advice sessions to students on film and theatre courses. Again, nobody came. He couldn't understand it and neither could I.

It sometimes seems as though the focus on the formality of the actual courses, the pressing need to get the degree at the end of it, means that the joy in actual creative practice has disappeared.

The original Writers in Residence schemes meant that a writer with a certain level of experience would be given a residency at a university, and would be expected to do some hours of teaching. This would normally be a mixture of workshops, tutorials, one to one advice sessions and the very occasional lecture which would often be open to the public. Writers were autonomous and organised their own timetables. It would be no more than, for example, 15 or 20 hours per week, including preparation time, but the salary would be for 30 or 40 hours, so it was assumed that the writer would have a room of their own and about 20 hours of paid time to write. When I was at Edinburgh, Norman MacCaig was writer in residence, with Robert Garioch before him. They were there to encourage creative writing within the student body, and they usually did. 

As the years went by, there was a sort of 'mission creep'. You started to hear that universities were taking advantage, paying for 15 hours, expecting 30. The paid 'time to write' practically disappeared. On new campuses, individual rooms were hard to come by. At some new campuses, lecturers' rooms were often shared and (appallingly, even though I love my Kindle!) without bookshelves. 

Partly to address this problem, partly, I think, to raise its profile, Creative Writing became an academic subject. I remember that the change was just beginning as I was finishing my Masters in the 70s. Now there are degrees in Creative Writing all over the place, but these courses are - in my opinion - seldom practical enough. The Uni Guide admits that 'unemployment rates are currently looking quite high overall, with salaries on the lower side.' Typical graduate job areas, the site goes on to admit, are as 'sale assistants and retail cashiers.'  

Many graduates emerge into ever more shark infested publishing waters, thinking they are going to get an agent and a deal, but few do. And nobody ever seems to tell them that getting an agent won't even guarantee getting a publisher.

I saw an ad for a so called Writer in Residence for Edinburgh University a few years ago and realised that Norman MacCaig, arguably one of Scotland's finest poets, wouldn't have been qualified to apply, because the position required a degree in Creative Writing. That seemed to me to encapsulate what writing at university level has become. This is nothing to do with quality or talent, because many of these lecturers will be very talented indeed. Writing pays so little nowadays that most of us have to do something else to make ends meet. (Sometimes as sales assistants and retail cashiers!) But once you subject your creativity, your words and ideas, to the kind of rigorous academic analysis demanded by these courses, it can disappear like snow off a dyke. It's not the teaching that's the problem. I taught EFL for several years and wrote plenty while I was doing it. It's the intensive and persistent involvement in other people's creativity that can damage your own.

Every year a handful of graduates will get publishing deals, but many more won't, and even those who do will seldom make any money. Which wouldn't matter too much, as long as they loved what they did and used it elsewhere. I was astonished some years ago when speaking to a class of young people doing a Creative Writing course, to find that only two or three of them ever did any writing of their own, (nor even much reading) beyond the amount prescribed by the course. They had none of the passion for the work that dedicated writers, young and old, still have. The desperate compulsion to write.  Which made me think that they might have been better doing a good general arts course and reading widely - as we did back when we still queued for cheap theatre tickets, went to poetry festivals and - if we were so inclined - wrote whatever we liked, obsessively, whenever we could.

Fine Bears for Sale


It's no secret that I love old teddy bears. Especially my own old bears, Mr Tubby and Teddy Robinson that are almost as old as me. You can see them in the picture at the bottom of the page. Mr Tubby (in red) is a Chiltern Hugmee and Teddy Robinson is (I think) an even older and very threadbare Chad Valley ted. Very well loved. Others have joined the family over the years including an original 'Gabrielle' Paddington Bear, complete with his 'please look after this bear' label - a 21st birthday gift from my parents, and all the more precious for that. 

These days, trying hard not to acquire any more bears for myself, because we just don't have the space, I still occasionally buy them for rehoming. It's so nice to rescue them and sell them on to 'arctophiles' like me. The two most recent acquisitions above have obviously been much loved in their lifetimes. The bear on the left of the picture is a very old and large  Merrythought ted - he has his Merrythought button in his ear, and the company only copied Steiff in using ear buttons for a short time. The bear on the left is - we think - a German bear, but we don't know the maker. Not a Steiff but with certain recognisable features of old German bears, including a protruding, shaved muzzle, a very solid body, small ears and quite large pads to his feet. He also has a growler - sort of! He grunts in protest every time you tip him up. 

They'll be for sale in our Etsy Store very soon. We sell my husband's art and my antiques and collectables on there - in my case as a way of helping to fund and to buy time for the thing I love even more than teddy bears - my writing! 

Teddy Robinson and Mr Tubby -
definitely not for sale!