The first perfumes I ever bought were (of course) 4711; Coty’s Rose (which I believe cost 25p – five shillings then); and the long-defunct Casablanca – a men’s fragrance which became notorious after several cases of wearers spontaneously combusting or otherwise catching fire. Before that we all used deodorants or even hairspray as perfumes, and also dabbed around with bath oils. All this fragrant booty was bought in an ugly little village which had something of Haworth about it; a gloomy grimy place but minus the moors, tourist trade or the Brontes. You crossed the culverted brook, passed the crumbling mill and climbed the hill to the butchers, church, pet shop and a chemist’s which was so crammed and dishevelled that much of the stock spilled out through the doorway crushed, crumpled, not exactly soiled but far from pristine.
From this disordered but stimulating grotto you could take home Tabac, Blue Grass, Brut, Quelques Fleurs, In Love, My Love, Charlie, Blase and Tramp (“she’s wearing Tramp and everybody loves her”) and at any time of year there were always masses of grainy gritty bath cubes, “heavily perfumed” with ersatz carnation. These are always mixed up in my mind with the same-named scouring powder (the texture of which they resembled), tinned milk and corn plasters. Kiddle Kolognes, Kiku (packaged in egg yolk yellow) and lovely comforting Yardley still ruled supreme. On a roll from all this olfactory gratification we reeled out into the street where heavy odours of smoked bacon and cheese rolled from the grocers with the tang of particularly greasy cheese and onion crisps which always tasted good when washed down with warm Campari: something to do with the herbal blending, I guess.
The post-office smelled unaccountably of powered scrambled eggs, ink and dessicated dust; the pet shop of mice, bran and rabbit. The butchers’ aroma was of fresh juicy meat which sounds obvious enough, but it’s rather rare these days in the era of multi-packaging and laboratory reared meals. Only the other day I heard retail experts pointing out that flesh must never be displayed in shop windows for fear of scaring the punters; it must sit at the back, veiled decently in shadow. Our fish shops (now so rare and we had three) were salty, lemony, golden-crispy by noon – “Kindly Note: Oil Changed Daily”. The wool shop was airless, close and full of lanolin. But the best smells came from the huge hardware warehouse: creosote, tar, new metal, Made in China crockery and fripperies, plant bulbs, peat, bolts of gaudy oilcloth, Zip fire-lighters (which I always wanted to eat, like choc ices), formica, lino, canvas, sacking, saw dust and newly cut wood. Gorgeous. We’d go in and snuff up the air like hounds upon the scent.
At least perfume shops still smell good, still smell mysterious, voluptuous and rich. If only we could bottle the scent of Les Senteurs, that wonderful accumulated pot-pourri of sillages that Dodie Smith describes so memorably in I Capture The Castle when the girls venture into a fragrance department up West. Well, we’re trying…
Photo courtesy of staff.