A perfumer was probing the other day asking for my earliest memories of smell, a topic which regular readers will know is one of my favourite themes. The more you talk about it, the more the memories return. 55 years rolled away and I remembered the notorious Strawberry Elephant. This was a toy given to my baby brother by his godfather. About the size of a generous teddy it was made, as I recall, of some kind of foam rubber in a brilliant shocking pink and its smell was as startling as its colour. It was very very heavily impregnated with the scent of vanilla and ersatz strawberries – but a bad vanilla, that terrible artificial vanilla that has undertones of parmesan cheese mixed with candyfloss. You occasionally meet it in those hanging air fresheners that come in the form of cardboard fir trees, sold in packets of 3. The strawberry was deadly sweet even to my two year old’s nose and seemed to cling unnaturally to the skin if you caressed the animal. The house was filled with the smell: visitors were repelled by the miasma, the baby was terrified of the toy and Jumbo rapidly ended up in the caring arms of the Red Cross. He was a watchword for offensive smells for many years.
On early spring Saturday afternoons we all set off for the local point to point races; my veterinary father was usually on duty to treat equine injuries. The rest of us climbed on straw bales to take the bracing air, huddled in the car if wet, grizzled, squabbled, ate and drank Vimto through straws. It was at a point to point that another child taught me the dangerous trick of licking batteries to feel an electric jolt through the tongue. As I got older I took to safer thrills and brought along the latest library book. Our elders laid bets, gossiped, flirted, consumed a lot of gin, smoked, dodged well-known bores and walked the course with the dogs. Everyone had problems with the appalling lavatory arrangements and the more fastidious sought out hedges and copses. By 5 o’clock on a bad day the grass would be so sodden and swampy that cars had to be hauled out by tractors.
The smells were fantastic and various, not just juniper gin, cigars, cigarettes and pipes but a hillside covered with cowslips in full yellow bloom; fried onions, hot dogs and wet dogs; latrines, petrol, sweating horses, fresh earth and new trampled grass; crushed violets, damp tweed, gum boots, leather saddles and boots. There were draughts of heavy penetrating perfume and make up. Horsey ladies in those days wore extra heavy make-up of almost operatic flamboyance to counteract the effects of winds and weather as they tucked into succulent pork pies, whiffy sardine sandwiches and hot tomato soup. Tupperware boxes exuded the green crispness of tomato, cucumber and shredded lettuce drenched in the tangy “liquid sunshine” of bottled salad dressing. And you smelled money – great greasy wads of pound notes and fivers; the bitterness of old coppers and silver sourly handed out by bitter old bookies, and through chicken-wire grilles in the more refined atmosphere of the Tote. And how that tent smelled after a couple of hours on a busy sodden March day.
It was lovely, even rolling home with hangovers of various kinds and everyone cold, over excited and inclined to be fractious. One last stop at a pub on the way and then back for supper – someone sent down the garden to cut a cabbage, its great purple-grey-green outer leaves full of raindrops and exuding that strange scent that is something between mackintoshes and vegetable sap. All safe in the knowledge of another outing the next weekend.