Christopher Stocks

I ended up living in Bloomsbury by one of those chains of circumstance that happen all too rarely, but here I am, and there can be few more alluring neighbourhoods of London in which to be. Central enough to be able to walk almost everywhere, yet just far enough off the tourist track to be quietly residential, it’s the original London suburb, laid out largely by the Dukes of Bedford from the early eighteenth century on. My house, on Great Ormond Street, was built in 1706, and old maps reveal that in those days it stood right on the northern edge of the city: the houses opposite actually backed on to open fields.

It sounds an idyllic conjunction of smart new houses and bucolic charm, though the fields were probably pegged with people’s washing and the mud, in wet weather, must have got everywhere; no wonder so many old houses have boot scrapers built into their walls. Since then the nearest countryside may have receded by fifteen to twenty miles, but if you have an architectural eye then you can still clearly distinguish the old urban boundary, beyond which the houses are generally late eighteenth-century and Victorian.

Today, of course, Great Ormond Street is most famous for its children’s hospital, which fills the northern side of the street and extends as far back as boring Guilford Street beyond. When I first moved in, last December, I was slightly worried that my view would be of poor sick children on the wards, but  fortunately, I suppose, the block directly opposite is largely an administrative one.

All the same, the street is still notable for the number of children being pushed back and forth by anxious or determinedly cheerful parents, and the road is crowded with ambulances – though because there’s no accident and emergency wing and, I guess, because of the children, they tend to drive slowly and quietly; another lucky break. Still, the thought of all that unhappiness can be quite depressing, and though I remind myself that the hospital is there to make these children better, at times it can still feel a rather sad street. When I told a friend where I was moving she said, ‘I couldn’t bear to live there – I spent three months with my first child in Great Ormond Street.’

This corner of Bloomsbury has a long and distinguished connection with infants. Just up the road, at the top of Lambs Conduit Street, stood the grand eighteenth-century buildings of the Foundling Hospital. Founded by retired shipbuilder Thomas Coram in 1739, it was the first children’s home in the country, taking in unwanted children and ‘foundlings’ – children abandoned in the street. The hospital fed and dressed them, giving them an education and  a new start in life. It was a private charity, supported by the great and the good, and it became something of a fashionable cause in eighteenth-century London; among its most notable patrons were Hogarth and Handel, who gave regular organ recitals in its chapel and who bequeathed, among other things, his score of Messiah.

Dickens was another regular visitor in the following century, but in 1926 the organisation moved away from the smoke and smog of London, leaving its great halls echoing and empty. A developer called James White bought the buildings and, despite widespread public outcry, in 1928 everything was demolished apart from the entrance screen on Guilford Street. A few years later the Hospital would probably have survived, but at least the site was never built over, and some of the finest artefacts were saved (they can be seen in the adjoining real money online casinos australian
Museum, opened in 2004). Today the foundations lie under floodlit football courts, but the vast forecourt, once busy with gaily painted phaetons, still echoes with children’s voices, for since 1936 it has been a public park, to which – as a sign announces at the entrance – ‘adults may only enter if accompanied by a child’.

I was woken at seven in the morning the other day by an almighty racket going on outside, as every seagull within 200 yards screeched, honked and hooted in the kind of cacophonous chorus that always makes me wonder if the Greeks got the idea of the Furies after hearing them scream and whirl about overhead.

It’s a terrible, ugly sound, its function obviously to spread the alarm about a perceived threat, as well, presumably, as to alarm potential predators. But it’s also a fascinating phenomenon to listen to, since this massed screeching always begins and ends in the same way. Unless the threat is a big one – a helicopter, say, or a chimney sweep’s brush popping unexpectedly out of a chimney pot – the chorus is usually initiated by a single gull.

Perceiving a threat, whether it’s just because someone has started staring at it (try it sometime), or because it’s caught sight of a passing cat (even though cats can patently not fly), a gull will usually start chattering to itself, with a series of short cackles in groups of three or four.

This can go on for some time, and die away again if the threat recedes, but if it doesn’t then soon other gulls start joining in, even if they don’t appear to be entirely clear what the threat might be. Normally the closest gulls start honking first, with pairs of gulls often honking alternately together like a pair of bellows, their necks see-sawing up and down like those nodding-donkey oil wells you’ve seen on old newsreels.

Quickly other gulls start joining in, until every gull within earshot is screaming like a banshee. This can go on for ages, and it often forms a deafeningly discordant dawn chorus which is one of the most distinctive, and mournful, sounds of the seaside.

Eventually the climax passes and slowly the noise dies down, though a few scattered gulls continue to squawk disconsolately for some time yet. Occasionally, as paired gulls do their alternate honking, though, there’s a fascinating point where, for a while, their calls start going in and out of phase.

It suddenly struck me, as I lay there sleeplessly, that it’s an effect a composer like Steve Reich might find utterly inspiring, and it certainly has its own strange beauty. Though not, perhaps, at seven on a February morning.

Sell me your soul.

Who me?

Yes, you.

No.

Oh go on.

Piss off!

There’s something in it for you.

Yeah, like what?

You name it.

What, anything?

Yup.

Hmm, like sixteen-year-old virgins with big tits?

Yup.

And Fosters on tap?

Uh-huh.

What, all day?

No problem.

How about a really ugly fuck-off dog that everyone’s afraid of?

We can do that.

Nice one.

All yours, mate.

You sure there’s no catch?

We…ell… Like what, for instance?

I dunno. You’re not from the council are you?

Do I look like I’m from the fucking council?

OK I guess not, but what’s with the tail?

What tail? Oh that [giggles nervously]. That’s a dongle.

A what?

It’s like wifi… Listen, are you interested or not coz I haven’t got all day.

How much.

Twenty.

Twenty quid?

Yup.

Make it twenty-five and it’s all yours mate.

Cool – let’s be off then.

So where’re we going first?

Cashpoint.

And then?

There’s this really hot bar I know…

Rock on. They serve Fosters?

Sycomore is one of the most extraordinary perfumes that I know. OK, its name looks like a misspelling of sycamore, a tree that – in Britain at least – no right-minded person would name a fragrance after. Sycamores, after all, are as common as muck, breed like rabbits and are often looked down on by ecologists as they’re not even native trees.

Acer pseudoplatanus, to give the tree its proper botanical name, is also responsible for many of those deeply irritating ‘leaves on the line’ excuses that railway companies give out each autumn to explain why their trains are running late. Worst of all, from a perfume perspective, they don’t even really smell of much, though their leaves do have the faintest leathery scent and their wood, once dried enough, burns with a pretty generic woodsmoke smell.

So is Sycomore just an example of misguided marketing, like Ralph Lauren’s dreadfully named Glamourous? Actually, no. Coming from arguably the world’s most tightly policed brand, its name will have been very carefully considered – and actually it almost certainly refers not, as I’d initially thought, to Acer pseudoplatanus at all but to a rather more exotic tree, the so-called Sycomore fig. Ficus sycomorus (to use its Latin name) is a large, spreading tree that grows all over the Middle East, where its heavy shade is much appreciated; it was known to the Egyptians as the Tree of Life. It’s a tree I haven’t sniffed, but my guess is that it shares at least some of the dry, green, slightly fruity scent that we know from other varieties of fig – though ironically there’s only the faintest hint of figginess in Sycomore.

Anyhow, enough about the name. What makes Sycomore extraordinary, for me, is a trick it seems to be able to do that no other perfume I’ve come across seems to be able to do. This is to smell like two completely different scents, depending on whether you smell it close up or at a distance. Up close it has the strong, earthy, pleasantly bitter scent of vetiver, the root of an Indian grass that’s related to lemongrass and citronella. It’s also grown commercially in the Caribbean, and apparently Chanel’s super-high-quality vetiver originated in Haiti.

Vetiver is usually classed as one of the great masculine fragrances, presumably because of its bracing bitterness and lack of cloying sweetness; it’s certainly not a flowery smell. But it also has a warmth and – get this – a touch of smokiness that gives it extra depth and complexity, especially when it’s surrounded by such a delicious cushion of other scents, which mix smokiness with a slightly sweeter touch of fruit. Vetiver is also famous for its staying power, and a spritz of Sycomore can last you all day.

It’s the added fruitiness that, on occasion, one gets a whiff of when someone wearing Sycomore strolls by, and then it’s like a different, warmer, sweeter fragrance altogether, with hardly a hint of the vetiver that dominates the perfume on the skin. If it’s an intentional trick I’m in awe, though it seems perfectly possible, given that Sycomore was created by Chanel’s chief nose Jacques Polge in collaboration with Christopher Sheldrake, the legendary British perfumer who has been Chanel’s director of research and development since 2005.

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Like the other fragrances that belong to Les Exclusifs de Chanel, Sycomore costs about twice as much as your average perfume, but it does come in a typically (for Chanel) handsome bottle, beautifully presented in a chunky white-and-black box. The hidden magnet in the heavy black cap, ensuring that the iconic twin Cs of the  Chanel logo always end up perfectly aligned, is a particularly nice touch, even if it has since been adopted by one or two other brands.

Though it’s a classically masculine scent Sycomore is (quite rightly) marketed as a unisex fragrance, and like most men’s perfumes it can smell wonderful on a woman. Yet what I love most is that, from the very first sniff, it has a wonderful feeling of luxury, quality and depth, which are things that are all too often lacking in other perfumes. And who could resist its baffling cleverness, like a cryptic crossword in scent?