They say you only remember the good times; that all the summers of the past were sunny ones. Of smells gone by, I am not so confident. To be sure I share that common memory of my mother kissing me goodnight, smelling delicious (probably in her Diorissimo phase) + my aunt’s wonderful aura of Ma Griffe; but I also have vivid remembrance of the white mice in their blue cage on the dresser to whose acrid reek Mrs Garner invariably drew disapproving attention when she came round to help with the ironing. To me aged 4 it was quite amusing in its rankness, but I can see now that the adults suffered terribly.
A truly nauseating smell was emitted by my father’s favourite meal of boiled tripe. I was scared of the fascinating odour of creosote because I was told it could kill me (this an adult warning to keep me from dabbling my fingers in the creosote barrel); and I couldn’t stand the terrible asphyxiation of “Flit” fly spray – a truly appalling smell half a century ago, which had me running upstairs and burying my face in the pillows, as my great grandmother had done whenever a barrel-organ (with monkey) trundled round the corner. I can smell that “Flit” now, mixed up with the delicate scent of ripe pears: the spray seemed to penetrate the very food. And of course the can carried its own sinister warning “may be fatal to pets”.
Cars were a problem: as a small child I suffered terribly from travel-sickness invariably triggered by the whiff of fresh petrol fumes, so that I dreaded the obligatory fill-up at the garage as we set off for seaside holidays. The smell of a car’s interior, a fine new leathery interior, could be very queasy – my grandfather’s Wolsley with its deep squashy seats and built-in cigarette lighter, and the scent of Mr Stride’s string-backed chamois driving gloves on the school run both induced uncomfortable sensations.
Other horror smells of the 1950’s included: the inside of sugar jars; next door’s obese cocker spaniel covered in eczema; ham omelettes; iodine (the smell anticipated the squeals as it disinfected the abrasion); soot (because I was frightened of the sweep – still as sinister in those days as in “The Water Babies”, one of my grandmother’s favourite readings-aloud); a pink foam rubber elephant impregnated with saccharine strawberries, given to my brother; and napthlene moth balls.
Nearly all now deodorised and changed and gone forever. Happy days!
Having arrived at the seaside in the petrolly car, we always stayed in a tall narrow old house overlooking the salt marshes and the North Sea: five minutes to the beach across a foul-smelling bog starred with long-vanished wild flowers. Invigorating scents of salt, roses, harvest fields, tar, driftwood, seaweed, wet dog, and fried fish all carried on the wind. But the idyllic garden of our lovely house held a foul secret: at the bottom of the lawn (and it was a small, short lawn), insufficiently screened by fuschias and hollyhocks, was a Victorian cess pool, emptied rarely. In warm weather it was overpoweringly sulphorous, and the few occasions when “the man” came to empty it are not to be thought of. We went off to the sand dunes for the day: but the miasma stirred up hung about, hovering over the garden for days after and calling for sealed windows. My poor grand-mother, who was very much of Miss Nightingale’s opinion as to the danger of smells breeding disease,had us all cover our faces with cologne-soaked handkerchiefs – 4711 or Yardley’s lavender.
But the worst memory, really, because it has colour and smell and texture all mixed up together belongs to very early school days and a sweet Italian cleaner who carried around a milk churn of liquid floor polish. This was the exact shade and consistency of Heinz tomato soup and the way in which it blended with Annamaria’s garlicky lunchbox was to me a truly surreal horror. Likewise the cold sausage in a frying pan full of congealed fat found in a teacher’s wardrobe…but here I am getting ahead of myself. Next time we’ll perhaps look at Happy Smells.
Image from Wikimedia commons