My adventures in the perfume world – Penhaligon's

The time: October 1979
The place: London

I had just moved to London from Paris and before starting my career as a ‘dramaturg’ with one of the most prestigious theatre companies in the world, to wit the Royal Shakespeare Company (that was my dream – it never happened unfortunately) I needed a mindless 9-to-5 job that would allow me to go to the theatre in the evenings and meet my friends at Garda, the lovely Italian caff in Catherine Street (Covent Garden), where most of the RSC staff had their meals. One morning, while walking in the vicinity of the Aldwych Theatre (the RSC’s London home), I noticed a card pinned on the door of Penhaligon’s – they were looking for a dispensary assistant – so I went in and applied for the job. It seemed the ideal opportunity: I adored perfume and whenever I was in the area (which was most days) I used to stop and drool at the wonderful array of beautiful boxes and bottles adorned with little bows, and tiny antique bottles with silver stoppers, all lovingly arranged on glass shelves backed by mirrors. It looked like the epitome of old-fashioned luxury. It would be, I said to myself, a wonderful environment to work in – so genteel, so refined. A few days later, I was called in to have an interview with Sheila Pickles, the woman who owned the company at the time. Her office was at the back of the shop, behind a mirrored partition. She was very sympathetic: she knew all about being stage-struck; she had worked in the theatre herself and had been Franco Zeffirelli’s PA for five years before buying the ailing, family-owned Penhaligon’s. She warned me I would probably find the work very monotonous, but if I needed the money... I could give it a try. She took me to the basement, down some very narrow stairs, to meet my fellow-workers.

Picture a largish (it ran the whole length of the shop), low-ceilinged room, without any windows (just a couple of air vents), with two wide workbenches on one side and one on the other side, and an old stone sink. Two of the walls were lined with shelves filled with big cardboard boxes. Dark wood everywhere. Very Dickensian. I was introduced to the ‘blenders’: Jean and her young assistant Shirley Brody. Four women were sitting on stools in front of the two workbenches. I was given a pair of dark-red – Penhaligon’s colour – overalls, and one of the women was asked to show me the ropes. I managed quite well and, at the end of that day, I was told the job was mine if I still wanted it.

Either Jean or Shirley would fill large metal jugs with eau de toilette or shampoo or whatever the shop was running short of, and we had to fill bottles, by sight, as carefully as we could, up to a certain level. We would then put the filled bottles on a tray and take them to the sink, where we washed them in a weak solution of washing-up liquid. We would leave them to dry while we busied ourselves with something else, then we had to seal the glass stoppers with a very pungent sealant, which came in huge plastic containers: we would plunge the bottles head down into the goo, then take them out with a twist of the wrist and leave them to dry on the side of the sink. We had to make sure there were no air bubbles around the stoppers. Finally, we would trim the seal around the necks of the bottles with a sharp cutter.

At the time, those bottles were rather plain with big flat glass stoppers (not round ones like now). They were made of rough glass. It was the coloured ribbons and bows, and the fancy labels that transformed them into beautiful objects. The ribbon had a ready-made bow with a small piece of self-adhesive tape on one end and another piece of tape on the other. It went around the neck and over the stopper, and the bow had to be carefully positioned on the front. It was rather tricky.

The other difficult bit was sticking the self-adhesive label absolutely straight. Once that was done, we would put each bottle in a gorgeous box after stamping a number inside the bottom part of the box. Then all those boxes would be placed in a large cardboard box with a slip of paper bearing our name and that particular number, so that if anything was found to be wrong with the batch one would instantly know who was responsible. It wasn’t like a production line with everyone doing one part of the job: we were in charge of our bottles from beginning to end. We also boxed the beautiful soaps and candles. Mike, our production manager, was the only man there: he made sure we got the stuff we needed to do our work. He wasn’t a hard taskmaster; in fact the atmosphere was fairly relaxed, although it became frantic at Christmas: I remember filling and boxing 200 bottles in one day around that time. I was the only full-time dispensary assistant: the other four women worked part-time (one of them was a student ballet dancer at Covent Garden). The only stress for me came from the loud pop music, jingles and inane ads we had to endure all day, as the youngest of the women had requested for Capital Radio to be permanently on. Whenever she was off sick we would work in a blissful ambience – just chatting quietly. Every month, one of us had to spend a Saturday filling tiny sample vials of perfume with a pipette. It was the only time we were allowed to work in the shop itself with the sales assistants, in full view of the customers. At the time, there was Jill, a very posh, beautifully spoken, mature woman. She used to ‘mother’ the customers. And Jonathan, a young, tall, attractive, public-school-educated, fairly camp gay man, who used to charm everyone who stepped over the threshold. They were both very friendly.

One day, to everyone’s great excitement, we acquired a filling machine, which was mostly to be used for shampoo. It was a weird contraption that was difficult to operate, and the production manager was the only person allowed to use it. We weren’t supposed to tell anyone of its existence because the company’s publicity material asserted that the whole production was done by hand. The machine was discarded soon after and we reverted to filling bottles with shampoo by hand. It was incredibly hard: the stuff was very gloopy and always produced lots of bubbles and we had to wait for the bubbles to come to the surface, then pour some more in, etc. before finishing the product. It took ages. Nowadays, it’s all mechanised and I expect there’s no wastage whatsoever, but in those days accidents happened all the time. Once I noticed black bits floating in some Bluebell shampoo that had just been poured into bottles with the machine. The whole lot had to be thrown away. Another time, someone poured hair lotion into hundreds of the wrong bottles so Mike had to go to the warehouse and pull out the entire batch. Once or twice, while I was there, whole trays got knocked over and dozens of bottles full of perfume would smash onto the floor.

At the same time as working there I used to do freelance editorial work for a publisher of French textbooks and would sometimes go and see the woman in her office in Bedford Square to discuss the work. Years later, she told me that after each of my visits she and her secretary had to open the windows wide to dispel the fumes: I reeked of an unbearable mixture of different smells. I was completely unaware of it myself. I lost my sense of smell during that time. Someone else said later that I seemed to be permanently high – no wonder: I was sniffing glue and breathing in alcohol fumes all day. Because there were no windows in the basement, we were allowed to go out into the street, in turn, for ten minutes twice a day, or whenever we felt slightly dizzy, to get some fresh air. Most of the time, though, we didn’t: there was too much to do. After a while, I developed a dry cough that only disappeared six months after I left. And while we’re on the disagreeable side of the business: I also had to stop wearing nail-varnish – the EDTs used to remove it. I expect all perfumes do, but I had never experienced that before. One night, at home, while filled my hot-water bottle, I scalded my left hand very badly and from then on work was absolute agony: I couldn’t wear a bandage and the burn couldn’t heal because my hand was always either damp or in contact with alcohol.

I’m sure I will disappoint you when I say that I cannot reveal any of Penhaligon’s ‘recipes’? I never knew them. They were, and still are, a very closely guarded secret (they are worth a fortune, of course – the whole of the business is dependent on them). They were kept in big black books that lived in a safe. Jean and Shirley used to carry them around while they did their blending in huge vats protected by basketwork. They were like alchemists – always talking in hushed voices. Once I caught a glimpse of the inside of one of the books, but couldn’t make sense of it at all. In her spare time, Shirley Brody used to teach yoga to pregnant women at the Dance Centre. A few months after I left, she left too to found her own company – Czech & Speake, and the rest is history, as they say.

We never saw the customers, but they were all very posh and then there were even posher ones: members of the royal family and wealthy foreigners. One morning we were told we had to drop what we were doing and concentrate on a special order. Once a year, an Arab sheikh would send his personal assistant to collect perfumes and toiletries for himself and all the women in his life. He always bought one item from the entire range so we had to quickly make up anything that was missing from the stock. The sheikh’s man waited in the shop – probably well lubricated with cups of tea – while we busied ourselves downstairs.

Just before Christmas we were all invited to the company’s cramped admin offices in Goodwin’s Court (off St Martin’s Lane) to have mulled wine and mince pies with Sheila Pickles and the staff who worked there (mostly accountants and PR people). We were asked to choose a small bottle of eau de toilette as a Christmas present. I chose Victorian Posy, which had been created that very year for The Garden exhibition at the V&A. I never wore it, though: I gave it away to a friend who valued Penhaligon’s fragrances more than I did. One day, after the New Year, there was a power cut that lasted a bit too long: everyone was sent home, except me. I was asked by Sheila to go to the offices to help with the accounts (just writing in and adding up the sales over Christmas). On Christmas Eve, i.e. on one day, the sales had amounted to a quarter of my annual salary!

I left in March 1980. One Saturday morning I received a phone call from my mother in France, saying that my father was seriously ill in hospital. I needed to fly there immediately. However, London banks were not open on Saturdays and credit cards were inexistent. With my cashpoint card I couldn’t take out enough money to buy a full-fare ticket to Nice. I was desperate. I ran to the shop and told my story to Jill, who rang Sheila at home, and the dear, kind woman said I could leave a post-dated cheque for the amount I needed and have the cash. I shall be eternally grateful to her for allowing me to spend one more day at my father’s bedside. Thanks to her I got home the next day. My father died the following Wednesday. I never went back to work.

It had been a very interesting experience: I had had a glimpse ‘backstage’ and that is always fascinating. My friends were always eager to hear what lurked behind that beautiful shop front in Wellington Street, and they were of course delighted with the samples I used to give them, but it was still menial, repetitive and ultimately soul-destroying work. The fact that we were dealing with sweet-smelling stuff and producing a luxury product sold in a beautiful store made it only slightly better. Not quite enough. Luckily it didn’t manage to make me blasé about perfume. For a while I was afraid it would. But did I end up loving Penhaligon’s fragrances? Well, at the time (I believe they’re more ‘interesting’ these days) I found them a bit thin, a bit one-dimensional, lacking in depth and body, a little too old-fashioned, too English, timid rather than discreet. They lacked passion. I felt it was all about appearance rather than substance. I did like Victorian Posy – very flowery, very pretty – and Blenheim Bouquet – a fresh and clean men’s fragrance, but there were two scents that I hated with a passion: the pungent Bluebell and Night Scented Stock. You could never get rid of them. They stuck to your clothes and your hair. I always tried to swap with someone else when I had to deal with those and I still shudder whenever I see their names being mentioned in articles or on message boards.