Analysis of those few remembered smells depends on which school I am conjuring. Prep school was suffused with the odour of boiled cabbage, our inevitable luncheon vegetable, implacably doled out from a huge blue plastic colander. The headmaster’s wife wore tiny matching Wellingtons to supervise its preparation. It had to be eaten up: unfortunately we did not wear the bloomers into which my mother’s generation had tucked the leftover for thoughtful disposal after the meal.
Now comes the smell of paraffin heaters, Cherry Blossom Shoe Shine and Dubbin in the gloomy boot room where Mr Bowes cleaned 150 pairs of shoes and scraped away at football boots, a perpetual cigarette partially concealed in his curved palm. (People always said then that this furtiveness denoted an ex-con). The boot domain opened off a sort of concrete Victorian loggia: the next door along opened into the communal exiguous lavatories full of Izal and Bronco, walls streaming with damp, which so appalled me as a new boy that I preferred not to go at all. An experiment in will power which lasted for an unhealthy and remarkable length of time.
I remember more of public school scents, possibly because by the age of 13 my nose had awoken and become more enquiring and demanding. And O! the smells of that first evening when I was swamped and disoriented like a newly housed puppy by the odours of an establishment the size of a village, with 1,000 inhabitants. The dining hall had an echo which was overwhelming itself before one balked like a pony at the extraordinary smell: not especially nasty but very thick and pervasive, an accumulated miasma of floor wax, old food (particularly, it always seemed to me, mashed potatoes) and stale dishcloths. We sat on benches at varnished wooden tables; the windows were set very high, as in the workhouse, so there was no view. In fact, it was forbidden for boys to look out from any window whatsoever for their first two years. There seemed to be a perpetual light film of greasy damp laid over everything and it was all too easy for small fry to slip on the floor when bringing cauldrons of gravy or custard from the kitchens. Yet we dined below a beautiful domed ceiling of sky blue and gold: we looked up to Heaven from the mire. On Sundays we were offered a special breakfast of canned grapefruit, bread rolls baked very hard so that they crumbled to dust when broken and bitter coffee, wonderfully hot and strong. The distinctive fragrance of all this, mixed with slightly damp and clammy best black suits is always with me, and giving me goose flesh as I write this.
Then there were the odours concomitant with dormitories of 50 boys allowed baths only twice weekly and a clean shirt every Friday. Sports clothes were washed much less, say once a term. Between whiles they were merely dried on the pipes of a small boiler room which served as antechamber to the baths. Wet towels were hung here too, or slung over chairs by one’s bed. Some people had competitions as to how long they could go without washing their hair or whether they could get away with sleeping in their clothes for a whole term. Then you had to find storage space for your damp and muddy CCF uniform. Yet I remember only a certain mildewed mustiness, nothing worse, and the teachers never remonstrated. Neither did our parents. the furthest mine ever went was to say how tired and cross we seemed when allowed out. And my father said wistfully, leaving me at the beginning of one term,” do try to keep clean…”. He’d been there himself: he knew the form.
The magnificent library (another painted ceiling) smelled of dried-up leather bindings and Sunday dinners, especially vinegary mint sauce and horseradish. This was odd as it was nowhere near the dining room. The classrooms were still fragrant with ink. The wells in the hacked-about wooden forms were no longer filled , but they showed ample evidence of former use and we pupils were still up to our wrists in Quink, plus tattoos of biro and fountain pen sometimes applied subcutaneously. Why did no one get blood poisoning? One of my friends henna’ed his fingers and grew his nails like a Manchu before stamping out circles in them with a hole puncher and threading them through with wires which then…etc etc. So much time we had then, so intricately and elaborately wasted.
The one part of the premises which unequivocably reeked was the kitchen yard onto which for two terms my study looked. I had one of the most privileged rooms (being furthest away from the gaze of authority) and yet it gave onto this terrible pen graced with three huge bins labelled (and I should be correct, I gazed at them for 25 weeks) Sobas Segas, Conidas Segas, Liquido Salsas: – dry refuse, pig food, liquid waste. It was a year of continual strikes – including the dustbin men – coniciding with a very hot summer. The stench was all-enveloping and perpetual, yet it was never referred to, even by visiting outsiders, and no one took ill though looking back I’m inclined to think it made us even more lethargic and snappish. Everyone prided himself on idiosyncratic interior decoration – huge posters of Jane Fonda v Jean Harlow graced the walls – and there was always plenty of expressive music on the go, but the senses of smell and taste ( a study diet of black Nescafe and Mother’s Pride ) were strangely neglected. School was by and large a whole lot of fun and I’ve certainly laughed so much since, but the liberation of my nose began on the day I left.