Philip Hensher: Scent and the secret of daily hedonism

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The Independent Online

Daily aesthetic delights are all around us, if only we have the energy to take pleasure in observing them. It is as easy for food to be a pleasure as not, and a fresh apple can offer more enjoyment than many a pretentious £40 supper. If you stop to observe the typeface, say, that this, or anything else you read today is printed in, you will see that somebody once designed it. They took immense care to make the different letters of the alphabet harmonise with each other, and to give some pleasure to the eye. It is all a matter of paying attention.

I am someone who likes perfume on other people, and fairly regularly enjoys it himself. Over the years, I would say that I've been through one cologne after another, starting in my early twenties – I think a man is too young even to affect the sophistication of scent before that. First, Missoni Men – what happened to that gorgeous scent? Long gone. Then Eau Sauvage, a fogeyish Penhaligon period, a vulgar-tart Fahrenheit one, Cacharel, Kenzo for that patch of white linen New Age nonsense in the 1990s ...

Manners have changed. When I was younger, people used to wear colognes to gay bars in such quantities that conversation was regularly interrupted by sneezing fits. Then a memo came round, and it stopped dead – I can't remember the last time I caught a whiff of cologne in a gay bar or club in London. If you went on adoring it – it's a romantic and a suggestive habit – you probably went on wearing it during the day, and a different one in the evening in private.

Though I always enjoyed it, I never really knew about it, or had the faintest idea how to describe what it was that I enjoyed. All that has changed with the publication of an astonishing work of perfume scholarship, Perfume: The Guide, by Luca Turin and his wife Tania Sanchez. Turin and Sanchez's amazing book introduces something quite new to this strange world of PR and misrepresentation: critical principles.

No one can doubt that they've written a work of the highest criticism, one which elevates writing about perfume to the best sort of writing about wine or rock music. These are perhaps not the most important topics in the world, but if you are going to write about them, why not write well about them?

When writers know exactly what they are talking about, and have a brilliant capacity for analogy, the results can hardly be other than enlightening. You read to the end of the virtuoso account of Dune by Dior, with a startling comparison of the scent to the pink colour and sinister shiny texture of artificial limbs, and are immensely enlightened. It comes as a surprise to discover they approve of it.

When critical intelligence is applied to a section of experience previously devoid of expressed discrimination, it is as if a light has been switched on in a murky room. Perfume: A Guide is so welcome because it goes against every tendency of modern life. On the one hand, whether we're talking about food, books, films or music, panegyrics copied by journalists from company press releases; on the other, bloggers telling us that they loved something, or hated it, without, evidently, knowing anything much about the subject. Knowledge coupled with wit is getting rarer in this world, and everyone should read Turin and Sanchez's glorious epitome of Leavisite principles. With an unexpected and bold piece of advice, they encouraged me to go out wearing Guerlain's classic feminine Mitsouko; this is a book which knows what it's talking about.

Election? No, not that one

Did you enjoy the election last week? Did you not think that it's always interesting when a long-serving leader of one of our closest allies comes to the end of their term, and are replaced by someone quite different? It might mean a complete change in mood; or it might mean the continuation of rule by the political classes under a different name, and with a different face.

Yes, the New Zealand election was certainly a very interesting one. Sorry, what did you think I was talking about? Helen Clark, the Prime Minister of New Zealand since 1999, was replaced by John Key. She was the second female Prime Minister of New Zealand; he will, I believe, be the third Jewish one, both of which are an improvement over the limitations of our own or American choices.

New Zealand has, too, over the years, been a very interesting testing ground of all sorts of social policies which have subsequently been put to use here in Britain and elsewhere. It was bad timing to hold their election when the eyes of the world were on America, but very bad manners of us to pay so little attention to it. General elections are an opportunity for countries to present themselves to the outside world. Perhaps I could recommend that small countries such as New Zealand or, indeed, ourselves, could in future hold their general elections on a nice quiet day – say Boxing Day – for maximum worldwide coverage

Three cheers for political correctness

A council has supposedly banned the expression "singing from the same hymn sheet" on the grounds of political correctness. According to some reports, Salisbury Cathedral thinks it might be offensive to atheists, or anyone else who doesn't have a hymn sheet. The novelist Kathy Lette, with that mixture of wordplay and good taste which has made her so welcome a guest on some of our least celebrated daytime chat shows, said that "political correctness was a vowel cancer eating away at the English language."

Well, I don't care whether the motivation was political correctness or not. But hurrah for Salisbury council if it really has banned this awful cliché, which lines up with "thinking outside the box", "reinventing the wheel" and "the elephant in the room" as one of the most witless verbal inventions of modern times. Now, if only one could think of a politically correct reason why "steep learning curve" might be considered offensive to somebody or other, the gratitude of a nation, seemingly condemned to yawning through strategy meetings,would be permanently assured.

Philip Hensher's novel 'The Northern Clemency (4th Estate), shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, was this week announced by as their 'Best Book Published in 2008'