Front seats on the top deck of a London bus are always in demand. Every time I climb the stairs and turn the ninety degrees at the top, I hope one of them is free. Sitting there seems to be one of those rare pleasures which never diminish with age, the incredible unwieldiness of the vehicle distilled into that one small area, making it somewhat like a fairground ride. In every other seat, the journey is mundane but here it is a rollercoaster of just missed tree branches and building corners.
This warm spring day, those premier seats were occupied by a couple of young women, one white, and petite with large dark shades the other taller, black with none. They were joyous together; well-spoken, loud and nearly-obnoxious in a way that only the educated and well-healed can carry. Their swearing and deliberate political incorrectness was delivered with such obvious light-hearted intelligence that the entertainment value far outweighed any potential irritation or offence, for me at least.
They got up to leave the bus and I noticed just a little relief from the older lady sitting in front of me. I also caught a sniff of two separate perfumes, neither was loud or ostentatious and they revealed a much more serene aspect of these characters. Just as I was getting an olfactory handle on the first, I lost it all too quickly in the wake of the second. The gently almond vanillic wood (something from Guerlain perhaps?) was washed over with a floral citrus, both fresh and warm. As the voices retreated down the stairs and out under the London Plane trees that lined the road, the two scents mingled in the air for a few seconds playing cloak and dagger with my nose. Before long, the bus pulled away and the grey London air wafted through the window blowing the molecules too far apart to register. That remained the best smell of the day, despite later visits to the fragrance counters.
Moments later, the bus pulled to the side of the road and came to a halt. This wasn’t a regular stop. Some voices were raised downstairs, drunken shouts and a firm voice from the driver. Groans and sighs ensued upstairs. We all knew the possibilities; long waits, police, trying to squeeze onto the already full following bus. Fortunately the unseen impasse was soon over. Glancing out of the window, two very dishevelled gentlemen could be seen stepping unsteadily off the bus. Amazingly, the open window brought their smell briefly aboard too. I focused on recalling the earlier scent until the bus pulled out to continue on its way, this time I was grateful for the wind.
Oxford Street in central London was a menu of smells and possibilities. The counters of department stores Liberty, Selfridges, Fenwick and more beckoned. The boutiques of Chanel, Dior, Hermes, and Yves Saint Laurent nearby called too but I was there on another mission, not fragrance related. I completed this, and emerged back onto the road to find it nearly empty, the traffic stopped and the usually vibrant atmosphere strangely subdued. The reason was getting louder by the second - the “Million Women Rise” march against male violence on women came on past, a noisy and generally upbeat show of solidarity. I stood and watched the bizarre dichotomy which is the public demonstration play out. The demonstrators like publicity – that is why they are there. However, they also have to try to ensure that the publicity is about their cause and not about them. They try to win the hearts of the observers so that they are seen with sincerity and respect, and not just voyeurism.
Tourist cameras snapped and the march passed on. The street began to refill, but I was ahead of schedule, so I took advantage before it did and diverted into Selfridges to smell some things.
I headed for the Tom Ford Private blends which I had been meaning to sniff for a while. I cannot say they disappointed, perhaps only because I had held so little expectation. The contrived minimalism of the bottles had already made me slightly suspicious. The sales assistant almost managed to put me off trying them by telling me they were oil based, and I should stick to the EDT. Nonetheless, I tried Japan Noir which seemed to me just a touch above the average masculine; Iso E Soup with some spicy overtones with sweetened patchouli. Oud Wood has a strangely generic top sitting above and rather pleasingly separate from the Oud accord, as if the two layers are held floating apart by north poles on a pair of magnets. The woody Oud note is like a flat, distant plank with some diffusive splinters which spike off occasionally reminding me of those photographs of solar flares, the arching arms from the sun’s surface.
Tobacco Vanille smells neither of natural vanilla (which has a rich freshness notably absent here) nor a big deep tobacco. Instead I found a very pleasant accord of fruity pipe tobacco with a slightly dirty vanilla. The animalistic aspect to the tobacco is heavily reined-in, tethered and trained, but it is present and segued seamlessly into the vanilla. The whole has a unified effect, not really separating into layers, it is very much one smell.
I left and walked a few more steps down Oxford Street and entered Be Never Too Busy To Be Beautiful where excellence abounded. The sales assistant was superb, spent much time and effort with me. He was intelligent, knowledgeable, and helpful; everything I wanted him to be. There were sheets explaining the fragrances, their origins and constituents. This felt like a very natural way to buy perfume, so unpretentious, all about the smell. Such a contrast to the cold steel and glass fashion counters of the department stores. The fragrances were interesting, all built from natural sources. Like many all natural perfumes, they do suffer slightly from what I call “oil-burner syndrome” - a tendency to resemble the dish of the evaporator after weeks of use. Once inside that dish though, there is much pleasant detail to be found. I particularly liked “Dear John” which has a back-story worthy of fathering its own perfume and is a good masculine blend; sweet and clean with an underlying complexity. I was also taken with “Two Hearts Beating As One” a more traditional floral composition of lovely indolic jasmine and a lighter rose. They have a good concept too with “Breath Of God”, a fragrance made from two accords combined, each of which can be bought separately – “Exhale” which is a vetiver dominant, supposedly masculine base and “Inhale” which is more floral and supposedly feminine. I didn’t really get the gender distinctions and found the prominent melon notes in “Inhale” too much. Commendably, they sell 9ml sprays of their perfumes at very reasonable prices, in addition to the more traditional and attractive larger glass bottles.
On the way home, the underground platform was busy. I made my way along looking for a space, swimming through a wash of incessant strong woody base notes. The young men were dominating the airwaves with their almost-vetiver, nearly- lavender woody accord with huge projection, quite synthetic smelling. It hovers in the air up to a couple of feet away from the wearer. They all seemed to be wearing it. Be Never Too Busy guys......