Something In The Air

by Nicky Haslam

June 12, 2017

The sitting room of Mark Birley, the maestro of flavour ©Nicky Haslam


The legendary Virginia-born and England-devoted decorator Nancy Lancaster had one room in her own first great country house painted deep pink, the adjoining room a subtle blue.

Visitors, used to seamless creamy enfilades, were perplexed. What? Why? Well, she would reply, it’s not the sudden change that matters…it’s the colour of the air between them.

“The colour of the air”….there we have the exemplar of the aura one can’t actually see, or smell,  hear or define. It’s an impression, not manifested in the accepted senses. Rather, it’s cerebral, in the ether.

Mrs Lancaster knew full well that probably only she would perceive it, but that was enough. She had created her private magic.

Professor Higgins sings ‘I’ve grown accustomed… to the trace… of something… in the air’, at Eliza’s departure, and it’s unlikely he was merely recalling a faint memory of her lavender water, which anyone could, but the flavour of her absent presence, unique to him.

We all know that factual taste really happens in the nostrils not the mouth, that sight and sound get sent to the brain to produce an image or a noise, but the ability to conjure flavour is more complex. Perhaps it’s akin to seeing a ghost…an infinitesimal flash that connects the wiring in our heads to an impression left on the airwaves?

Margot Asquith, the acerbic wife of an Edwardian Prime minister wryly remarked “The trouble with ghosts is that their appearance is against them”, but I’ve witnessed only one, once, in Venice: and if his actual image was fairly humdrum the room, for a split second, scintillated with an C18th flavour.

In ‘Out of Africa’ Isak Dinesen rhetorically asks “….and will the air above the plain quiver with the colour that I had on?” We don’t know, or even need to imagine the colour.

Like Nancy Lancaster’s conjoining rooms, the flavour is in the air, above, imperceptible but organically present. Sounds, too, can have flavour; not just what we hear and recognize, but the ephemeral frisson of a sound’s shadow.

Italian—specifically Italian—opera-buffs believe that despite the haunting melodic passages and lush orchestrations of Puccini’s Tosca, the ‘flavour’ of the entire work is encapsulated by Tosca saying, immediately after she has killed Scarpia, “E avanta lui tremama tutta Roma” We tremble, as fearfully as did the Romans who knew his powerful wickedness, at Tosca’s words, a repeated monotone, with their tragic flavour, and perhaps savour, of unforeseen and unexpected revenge, eaten long before it got cold.

Flavour can be a kind of visual taste; Sybille Bedford described the baroque facades of Mexico as ‘biscuits soaked in Romanee Conti’, and we see and taste and touch the sun-drenched stone.

But possibly flavour, of a sort, can also be less subtle. Movie director Guy Richie maintains he “throws flavour” at his films, though by that I suspect he really means atmosphere, which they certainly have in spades, if more in the gut-reaction and belly-laugh department.

True flavour can’t be manufactured or pre-planned. Like a specter, or an echo on the wind, or a falling star, it is an instant conjunction of one’s sixth sense of a sudden complicity in time and space, unique at the time; and if one is lucky, memorable for all our lives.