My wife, who passed away on 17 February, was, as I suddenly recall, a smart, elegant ‘cookie’. Although low-key in her private life – as the reader can see from what I chronicled about the opening of her shop in my autobiography, Fulfilment & Betrayal, she had a perceptive eye that made her work uniquely noticeable: ‘… in October 1989, in the middle of the month, an unusual new project was announced, though this one involved my wife Maria. A shop was to be opened in Shepherd Market, Mayfair, and called ‘Aphrodisia’. The idea had its roots essentially in the premise that products that are life-enhancing promote a healthy well-being which in turn improves one’s love life. Artificial aids and stimulants had no place in this scheme of things. Nature’s way was to be the answer. Maria would run the shop and assemble the stock. Aphrodisia’s diverse merchandise would all be guaranteed to combat the stress of modern living. Handcrafted gifts and natural products would be evident everywhere. Rare honeys, both bitter and sweet, gathered from a variety of locations from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, would be placed alongside the finest ginseng and pure mineral sea salts. Chocolates to excite the palate, based on an exclusive Aphrodisia recipe, would be available, as would cold-pressed olive oils, rich in aromas and full-bodied, with jars of wild berries to make the mouth water.
‘Maria’s artistic flair was ideally suited to the enterprise. Acting as the sole interior decorator for the Namara Group she had received unequivocal praise for her ingenuity and good taste. The new undertaking was to give her the opportunity to display her many talents in a field primarily aimed at boosting the romantic side of life. The shop would be an Aladdin’s cave with love as its theme and raison d’être. The London Evening Standard seemed taken with the whole idea:
I’m delighted to hear that the publisher Naim Attallah is to set up his wife in an aphrodisiac shop in Shepherd Market, the notorious stretch of Mayfair so enjoyed by businessmen and authors. The excellent Maria Attallah is sometimes forgotten in all the excitement of the publisher’s famous gaggle of nymphets at Quartet Books, so it is heartening to find that Naim is redressing the balance. Among the shop’s products will be a 24-carat-gold powder to sprinkle on your bread-and-butter pudding.
‘Three months later the shop opened. Among the first of its illustrious customers was Auberon Waugh. After his visit, writing in the Spectator, he bemoaned the loss of innocence, until:
I chanced on a shop in Shepherd Market called Aphrodisia. It is kept by Maria Attallah, wife of the Palestinian philanthropist, whose purpose, she tells me, is to sell things which make men and women feel natural and good. Some are toilet preparations, but there are books, too: The NewSensual Massage: Learn to Give Pleasure with Your Hands; Love Spells; Shakespeare’s Sonnets; The Japanese Bath; books on roses; love poems; foods of love; books of pretty Edwardian nudes; beeswax candles; green-apple candles . . . ‘all my objects point towards sensual passion’, says Attallah. Single ostrich feathers; silk damask copes with gold fringes for those with religious fantasies; pretty painted-wood putti; Japanese tea; honey from Hawaii; hearts made of crystal, yellow and rose quartz; amethyst matrices, silver hearts, eggs of agate; little trinkets of affection; gold love chains; ginseng roots pickled in vodka and brandy . . .
At 25 Shepherd Market, Maria Attallah has collected everything that is innocent and pure, everything worth saving from the Sixties. There is a philosophy and a truth in sensuality which need to be separated from the destructive guilt which once supported the drug culture. Apart from anything else, I felt that all my Christmas-present problems are solved as long as Aphrodisia lasts.’
No one could have described the shop better. Though later, the next spring:
‘At the start of February, in anticipation of St Valentine’s Day, Victoria Hinton of the Daily Express had made a visit to Aphrodisia, my wife’s shop in Shepherd Market, and written a comprehensive description of the premises and its contents. She had spoken at length to my wife Maria, who extolled the romantic nature of her merchandise and detailed some of the benefits likely to be derived from it. Victoria Hinton started off her article by describing the tiny dimensions of the shop and its devotion to romance rather than sex or libido. Eerie music pervaded the atmosphere – ‘New Age whale-mating calls, dolphins singing, that kind of thing’. ‘This, the owner Maria Attallah says, is to get you in the mood for romance, but then – according to her – just about anything gets you in the mood for affairs of the heart.’ So far as Victoria Hinton could see, it was all pretty innocent stuff. Where was the rhino horn, the Spanish fly, tiger bones, deer antlers ‘and all manner of grisly things taken from (usually endangered) animals and ground up to perk up flagging sexual urges’?
‘Mrs Attallah has no truck with them. ‘I remember seeing a stall in Tangiers with hedgehog skins and bats. I thought: “Yuck, this is more death potions than love potions. If this is love, I’ll join a nunnery.”
‘What’s an aphrodisiac? Something that unwinds you and relaxes you. You know what it is? It’s up here,’ she says, tapping her head. Yet, if it is all in the mind, why go to a shop called Aphrodisia to buy things to make you feel romantic? ‘You don’t need a lot of money. You can give someone just one flower. It’s using your imagination. . . .
‘What is sexiness? It’s a visual awareness, it’s conversing, it’s a relaxed sense of humour. An ugly person can be sexy.’
‘Yet wasn’t there anything, Ms Hinton wanted to know, ‘which has a sort of, mmm, physical effect’?
Maria Attallah has a way of fixing you with her piercing eyes which makes you understand why, when dodgy types do walk in expecting heavy-duty aphrodisiacs, they head for the door pretty smartly. Ginger, she concedes, ginseng, and chocolate which contains phenylethyamine, which our bodies produce when we are in love, may act as a love tonic.
For thirty-five years Maria has been married to Naim Attallah . . .his is a lengthy relationship among the high-profile London society circle they inhabit, so they must be doing something right. From her beautifully shaded hair, elegantly manicured hands and soft, touchable wool clothes, this is a woman who looks after herself. Yes, she still lights scented candles when he comes home, and puts on atmospheric music.
‘He is thoughtful. He has his (professional) territory and I have mine – I think it’s important.’
Risk further probing about the Attallah relationship and you get a charming, slightly accented: ‘That’s rather personal,’ and that’s that.
Maria had to admit that the British were not terribly good at romance, though it was not because they didn’t have feelings, because, ‘Everyone has feelings. If they are cut, they will bleed. It’s just that our upbringing has taught us not to show it.’ Any customers to the shop, with its tasteful decoration in ‘rich greens and dark wood’, could rely on being treated with discretion, though they would not be encouraged to expose their emotional lives in too much depth. ‘We want to keep it light, it’s too much if someone comes with big problems.’
You may not be able to scientifically quantify the effects of Maria Attallah’s ‘gifts of love and charm’, but there is a strong chance that if you go there before St Valentine’s Day, whatever you buy may warm the cockles of your loved one’s heart…