“I count only the happy hours” reads an inscription on an old sundial: is it the one we see in Gone With The Wind before Scarlett storms into the library to confront a reluctant Ashley? I can tell off the hours of infantile happy smells like beads of a rosary; each bead filled, as it might be, like those of Marie Stuart, with amber, civet and musk: the odour of sanctity.
I did love the smells of church. We were in a High Church of England parish so lots of incense (“Rose of Sharon”) and the thrill of hot waxy smoky snuffed candles, as well as the fascination by the neat little brass cone on a stick which did the trick. I longed to take it home and put it to use. Then in the vestry, the inhalation of laundered surplices, dusty rusty cassocks and shelves of well-handled leather books, all slightly foxed. And then the smell of the lickable adhesive on the brilliantly coloured Bible stickers doled out at Sunday school – glue boiled from hooves, I guess: very thick and the colour of dark amber.
Most mornings in the summer holidays my brother and I would sit on the hot dry dusty pavement waiting for Mrs Crump, the kind postlady, who allowed us to follow her on her rounds – “no further than the gasworks,mind” – and inhaling the wonderful aroma of flowering privet and hot tarmac. Summer roads always seemed to be pleasingly sticky in those days. In my memories the nose-tickling pungent privet segues into the spicy pink and white phlox in the back garden; peppery lupins the colour of sweet corn kernels; and the thick overpowering scent of the hawthorn hedges, almost unbearably abundant and lush but grounded with that faint aroma of cow dung deep in the creamy blossom. The weird smell of daffodils: something like green rubber gloves and with a sinister hint of gas. Unhappy people still put their heads in the oven in those days, and the grown-ups whispered over our heads, “she even thought to put a cushion on the bottom shelf…she wanted to take the cat with her but he jumped out…”
Fresh cut grass, of course, mixed with the newly oiled mower; candy floss at the Fair; honeysuckle and lily of the valley under primary school windows, filling me even at 5 with an inexplicable emotion which I suppose was nostalgia – but at that age, for what? Not to mention the warm velvet perfume of wallflowers, hardly ever used in perfumery: thought too homely, perhaps. But one of the most delicious smells in the world.
I also relished the less obviously idyllic aromas of burning newspaper (illicit garden bonfires) and the universal panacea for upset tummies: kaolin and morphia. Who else remembers this, and the wonderfully comforting way it made your inside fairly glow with heat? Vick’s chest rub was good too, and my father’s Cherry Blossom shoe polish. I was intoxicated by the way my grandmother’s Players mingled with the scent of her face powder, lipstick, hair and Arden’s Blue Grass: one of the quintessential childhood scents, gone these 50 years but intact in my brain. The inside of her handbag smelled good too, except that “Little boys Never Ever look in ladies’ bags!”
The poignant thing is that time moves on but the smells remain as clear and entire as ever, locked in the mind to be released at will. The people we knew die, houses are demolished and fields built over: but their scents are imperishable.
And one more question: is there anyone out there who remembers Kiddle Kolognes? And if so, which was your favourite?
Image from johnsanidopoulos.com