Exploring scents in literature at the British Library: 27th of March 2018

Door through a wall of books

Writing good descriptions of smell is hard. Not reducing it to a list of adjectives is tougher than it seems. In almost all languages, vocabulary around smell is lacking.

Additionally, when authors include descriptions of smell in their works, often the smell signifies something else – acts as a trope. Sometimes it is part of magical realism; sometimes an attempt at conjuring a visceral scene; there are many more example of non-literal or multilayered uses of scent.

Literary translator and scent enthusiast Marta Dziurosz invited me to a panel discussion on translating scent a while ago, and we had a really interesting evening around the topic at London’s Free Word Centre. What I didn’t know until I met her and we got talking was that she’d done her MA on scents in literature. Well! That set the cogs turning – I immediately thought it would be extremely cool to do a talk around that, AND have some fragrances created to go along with it.

So, two years later, we’ve done just that.

Come along and see us at the British Library on Tuesday 27th of March.

Perfumers Tim Gage from CPL Aromas and Achille Riviello from Nactis Synarome will join us with their creations which we first presented to the British Society of Perfumers One Day Symposium last year. I am extremely happy that we got to work with such creative individuals, both with a highly individual take on their chosen literary quote which acted as the perfumery brief.

I have also created a fragrance to go along with a third quote – you’ll have to wait until the evening to find out what that was.

Hope to see some of you next week!

Translating scent into words – come see me at the Free Word Centre

Translating scentThe Free Word Centre in London is hosting an evening of language and scent exploration on the 2nd of June. I’ll be joining the panel discussion on translating scent into words and we’ll hear about a new autobiography told in smells from the author Philip Claudel himself.

Translating smells into words (and the other way around) is very close to my heart and I am looking forward to seeing how the panel and the audience respond to this topic and what we uncover.

There will be a writing exercise at the end where participants will receive scented jars (kindly on loan from Orchadia Solutions) and will be challenged to write about what they are smelling.

I am really looking forward to the evening – it starts at 18:45 and tickets are only a fiver. Maybe see some of you there?

Inside Fragrance

Laundry evaluation

Evaluating laundry care?

It’s been quite a week here at Volatile Fiction land (what a fun land would that be? I have a mental image of a fragrant theme park x Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory now. And, as it happens, there may be a reason those images were so readily available to my imagination).

I’ve been working behind-the-scenes for almost a year and a half to get to say: this week sees the launch of my new column, The Juice: Inside Fragrance at Perfumer & Flavorist. The May column is a two-parter with online and a print articles – and the June issue will feature a profile of a British perfumer whose career is truly unique and fascinating. The Juice will run in Perfumer & Flavorist monthly and, as with this week’s column, there will occasionally be online articles popping up, too.

The first (set of) Juice column(s) is about fragrance evaluation. It’s a bit of a hidden career in the fragrance industry and is a fascinating blend of fragrance expertise, project management, communication and many other skills.

What does a fragrance evaluator do?

Evaluators work with perfumers, sales, marketing and laboratory teams to make sure that the right fragrances are selected and created for customers. The job involves keeping up-to-date with fragrance trends and being able to effectively communicate about smells. Sometimes evaluators also conduct consumer panels and focus groups. They usually manage the internal fragrance library and may be assigned to a specific product category or to just one customer.

Smelling with perfumers and being able to offer useful, objective feedback about the technical aspects and overall impression of the fragrance are at the heart of the job. Good evaluators form strong teams with the perfumers they work with and perfumers appreciate the objectivity and organisation that evaluators bring to fragrance creation.

In leading fragrance houses, evaluators choose the perfumers for each fragrance brief, task the perfumers and project manage the project’s course.

It is possible to work your way up from other roles in the company to a trainee or a junior evaluator, or enter into the role directly with some relevant external qualifications or experience. Initial training takes one to two years, depending on previous experience and the fragrance company in question.

Skills and qualities of a good evaluator:
• Passionate about fragrance
• Excellent interpersonal skills
• Confident communicator
• Balanced judgement
• Diligence; attention to detail
• Project management
• Ability to make sense of vast amounts of data and interpret it for others
• Highly organised (evaluators are in charge of the company fragrance library)
• Experience of the consumer fragrance market; knowledge of trends and product categories


Expertise is relative and everyone has their own areas of excellence. I seem to have a knack for hoovering up lots of information and communicating it to others. I’m also interested in fragrance and everything about it (ok, obsessed). It is inevitable I have learned a lot along the way. A great deal of the learning has been quite deliberate and hard-earned by study and practical experience. I still don’t consider myself an expert (daily access to the true experts of the industry – research chemists, senior perfumers with decades of experience and many more walking perfume encyclopaedias besides is a great constant reminder of just how little I really know).

But I know more than the ‘earlier me’ 10, 15 years ago. And that’s who I’m writing these blogs and ODOU articles and Basenotes features for. The trade writing blossomed out of that almost by accident – but the real driving force was always to somehow get more information and insight out there to people who don’t know about the careers available in fragrance but would thrive in them if only they did.

I also like to myth-bust a little bit. Not to the detriment of storytelling and marketing (I like to be taken along on an evocative ride, too, and part of the pleasure of buying an everyday product with a hint of luxury like a fabric conditioner with an exotic scent – or an actual luxury product like fine fragrance – is that you want the whole experience – the courting, the dating, the flowers; the lot).

I like to myth-bust the chemophobia and the utter nonsense out there. And to illuminate who makes these fragrances and how. I like to show how passionate these people are about the tiniest details, what lengths they go to for that perfect scent, how much thought is put into something that could end up in a hand wash. I think that’s brilliant. Never mind all the wonderful fine fragrance perfumery – all the artistry, poetry and creativity and bloody hard work that goes into it. As much as I like to get taken along for the ride and seduced by marketing as the next consumer, I do occasionally wish perfume marketing wasn’t so quick to rely on the old tropes of tits and ass. I guess it’s an important aspect of what makes perfume appealing and why people wear it but sometimes it feels like marketers and brands forget it’s not the only one.

The stories on the large corporate and tiniest artisan side to be told are in their thousands and really fascinating. I am going to be able to tell you at least a few of them over the coming months. But I also love it that there are so many great people quietly squirreling away, making your homes smell like a tropical forest and people whose whole life is devoted to making sure that the towels come out of your specific brand of washing machine smelling just right.


Laundry care evaluation is a little bit more serious at Givaudan.

I don’t like to make things easy for myself, so I’ve based the majority of my fragrance articles on primary research. What this means is that I’ve interviewed people face-to-face – mostly in person (sometimes over Skype). Email interviews do happen but I don’t like them. This has resulted in a lot of travel and interviews conducted in the offices and meeting rooms of fragrance houses, posh London hotels, coffee shops, people’s homes and many more locations besides. This week I travelled to France to tour Givaudan’s Paris sites and interview several people in one, intense day. I was also happy to finally meet a long-time reader of this blog there and receive a great gift for a bookworm-perfume nerd: Givaudan’s new perfume book which weaves their story with global perfume history and some philosophical musings about perfumery and flavour.

I spent some time with the Givaudan perfumery school director and students – and will be writing about that soon – will let you know where.


Givaudan perfumery school

The BSP will be at House of Fraser’s AW 2014 Beauty Confidential event

house of fraser beauty confidential AW2014House of Fraser is running its bi-annual beauty extravaganza, Beauty Confidential, again this September, and this year, the British Society of Perfumers is also involved. I will be at House of Fraser, Oxford Street, on Tuesday the 23rd of September for the evening (5pm to 9pm), to help out. Virginie Daniau of Parfum Parfait (a consultant to the fragrance industry), and John Bailey (perfumer, an ex-president of the BSP, and its current – and first – Ambassador) will also be there on the 23rd.

The other BSP evenings are:

Friday 12th of September (with guests Matthew Williams of IFF, Helen Hill from Azelis, and Karen Gilbert, a natural beauty and fragrance expert).

Thursday 18th (with guests Helen Hill of Azelis, Peter Whipps, current president of the BSP, and Virginie Daniau, of Parfum Parfait).

We will be talking about BSP’s book, British Perfumery, a Fragrant History, and there will be presentations about a new fragrance brand, Jamal, and lots of interesting fragrance ingredients to sniff (natural materials such as orris, orange flower, sandalwood and patchouli, and many popular aromachemicals such as cyclemax, a lily-of-the-valley material, delta damascone, a popular ingredient in fabric conditioners, and many more).

Special offer

British perfumery a fragrant history

During the event, copies of the BSP book are also on sale, and can be purchased for half the usual retail price of £45, for only £22.50, with a £60 spend on any fragrance on the night.

I hope to see you there, and I’ll quite probably do a bit of sneaky make-up shopping before the presentations (great opportunity…).

The Unwritten Fractal Redstone Chamomile

The Redstone Diary, Klorane Chamomile, Bioderma micellar water, Hannu Rajaniemi, Unwritten Mike Carey Peter Gross… or “my recent purchases”.

I’ve been talking about Klorane a lot so I won’t go on about it now, but I’ve just re-stocked on the Chamomile shampoo and conditioner (and decided to give the much-talked-about Bioderma micellar water a go at the same time – Escentual.com is running fantastic French Pharmacy brands promo in June which seems to have been designed just for me).

I’ve wanted a Redstone diary for a while. It’s tactile, chunky; has a weekly view and interesting photos, quotations and poems. I have slightly peculiar diary habits (I am currently using one for work and made my own for personal use from an A4 hardback notebook).

Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi is a follow-up to his debut science fiction novel The Quantum Thief (which I enjoyed immensely even though his use of Finnish words for names kept irritating me because it pulled me out of the world every time; won’t be a problem for most readers, though). Hannu has great ideas and handles them deftly.

The two graphic novels at the bottom of the pile are books 6 and 7 in the Unwritten series by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. It’s a story about the nature of stories and beautifully told. Apparently they are doing a cross-over with Fables, another series I’ve enjoyed, so that’s something rather exciting to look forward to. I don’t want to spoil too much about Unwritten if you haven’t read it yet, but it has great ideas and blends fantasy and reality in an enticing way.

A fine example that life isn’t fair – Iain Banks should have had at least another 30 years

I was fortunate enough to meet Iain Banks at the annual British National Science Fiction Convention (Eastercon) in 2010. Maybe I should have written Iain M. Banks as he was known in the science fiction circles. One of the great things about him was that he didn’t shy away from science fiction fandom; he embraced it. Sometimes you find clear science fiction elements in a mainstream novel but the image of the novel, novelist and publicity campaigns is kept staunchly mainstream, so as not to taint the work with the dreaded science fiction label. To people who fear it, I would say: go forth and read some Iain (M.) Banks. Understand that science fiction is about exploring ideas, not space. Well, sometimes it’s about exploring space, too, but that’s not actually the main point. (Anyway: exploring space is pretty damn cool and we should do more of it).

We tend to go to Eastercon every other year (read: whenever they are hosted in London). The Guest of Honour programming in 2010 was one thing, but Iain also hosted a whisky tasting panel because he was working on Raw Spirits: In Search of the Perfect Dram. I am not much of a drinker – a glass of champagne or a cider here and there very rarely, amounting to about 5 units a year. But I am very interested in aroma and flavour and the samples Iain had selected demonstrated delightful variation on a theme. My husband does like whisky and he has been quite a fan of Dalwhinnie ever since.

Death is always sad but I was affected by Iain’s passing more than I expected. It just seems so unfair that such a fantastic man and a great writer had to die so young. Life isn’t fair. Life has no feelings or intent, it just is. There is no Karma or Fate or great cosmic balancing scales, handing out good things to good people and bad things to bad. It takes human effort for those things to happen – and no human effort on Earth could have saved Iain Banks from terminal gallbladder cancer. He found out about his illness when he was 90% into a book about a man with terminal cancer:

Banks followed his usual schedule of writing in the early months of the year. He went to the doctor thinking his sore back was most likely due to having been sitting at a desk writing The Quarry. “On the morning of 4th March” – after he had been sent for a CT scan – “I thought everything was hunky dory except I had a sore back and my skin looked a bit funny. By the evening of the 4th I’d been told I had only a few months to live. By that time I’d written 90% of the novel; 87,000 words out of 97,000. Luckily, even though I’d done my words for the day, I’d taken a laptop into the hospital in Kirkcaldy, and once I’d been given the prognosis, I wrote the bit where Guy says, ‘I shall not be disappointed to leave all you bastards behind.’ It was an exaggeration of what I was feeling, but it was me thinking: ‘How can I use this to positive effect?’ Because I was feeling a bit kicked in the guts at this point. So I thought, ‘OK, I’ll just give Guy a good old rant.’ Like I say; that’s reality for you, it can get away with anything.”

Banks revealed his illness a month later, and the book world was stunned by his lack of bitterness, the dignity of the statement. “Yes!” he explodes with laughter. “I know; it’s not like me, is it?” Guy isn’t the therapeutic residue, the lees of unexpressed anger. “I’m not Guy – for example, he deeply resents that life will go on without him. I think that’s a stupid point of view. Apart from anything else, I mean, what did you expect?” The Quarry, nevertheless, is full of unsentimental, furiously exact unpickings of the cliches surrounding terminal illness. Guy skewers sloppy thinking, describing nostrums and alternative cancer treatments as like “running into a burning building and trying to put the fire out by means of interpretative dance” Iain Banks: The Final Interview

His original announcement, which began “I am officially very poorly” was also published by The Guardian newspaper. It’s so cruel that this was only in April and the few months he very cautiously hoped he might have had were cut so short.

He leaves behind a great body of work and leagues of friends and fans who will sorely miss him.

Iain M. Banks and Pia Long at  the Odyssey Eastercon 2010

Happier times (and such flattering expressions!) at Eastercon 2010

Horrible Howler

When I first heard about the recent comments made by Terry Deary, the author of Horrible Histories, I honestly thought it was satire.  Nope. Turns out that this popular children’s author really doesn’t appear to understand what libraries are for. His statements weren’t satirical. They were criminally neglectful. He says that libraries are no longer relevant. He thinks that libraries are the reason book stores are closing and he isn’t earning what he feels entitled to.

Horrible_idiocyThere are so many wrongheaded opinions in the Guardian article that you almost don’t know where to start. You could list rebuttals all night. Libraries are still completely relevant. Libraries are where children learn to love books and later become buying customers of his. Not everyone can afford to buy books – and denying access to culture and knowledge to those less well off is just wrong. Libraries offer free social services and act as a community hub for elderly, disabled and unemployed people. Students need free acess to reference materials (some text books cost hundreds of pounds). Small business owners might need to research trade publications that they can’t afford to subscribe to. All this and more is available for free at your local library and that’s the civilised way to go about things.

I was left almost gasping for breath at the sheer ignorance of Terry’s statements and would probably have written a rant to argue him point by point, had I not already written a piece for Public Libraries News about my local library which clearly illustrates what modern libraries are all about.

Let’s end this on the over-used but necessary quote: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Please support your local library and challenge those who would spout arrogant nonsense about this vital service. You don’t want to live in a world where everything is commercial.