My late father was a rural veterinary surgeon: in his more morbid moods he used to say that he expected all the patients he’d failed awaiting an explanation when he came to the Pearly Gates. Animal life fascinated, baffled and intrigued him; in many ways he saw himself on the animal level, never above it, always prepared to admit the mysteries of the lower creation. This made him a humble, modest and at the same time uniquely gifted vet; it also disconcerted some of his patients’ owners. He was often able to detect sickness by odour, would as soon sleep in a ditch as a bed and often said he could think of nothing nicer than to have his linen smelling of jugged hare. How he loved snuff – constantly inhaling McChrystal’s mentholated in a noisy prodigal manner more akin to Mrs Gamp than Beau Brummell. Messy stuff, snuff. But then, 45 years I remember a fashion for it at school; the teachers in their innocence, apparently ignorant of its tobacco origin, could think of no reason to prohibit it.
Some of my earliest olfactory memories are those of the domestic animal world. I have talked before in this column of the pungent white mice in their cage on the dresser. Thomas the tabby preferred, if not closely watched, to use a fluted silver Georgian sugar bowl as his private loo; his successor was adept at fishing for goldfish or mountaineering on cold turkeys. But both gentlemen were neutered so that the piercing reek of tomcat, so common in those days, was rare on the premises except prior to surgery.
Until I was about eight I liked nothing better than to be with my younger brother watching my father on operating afternoons, set up on a stool, so that I could see all that went on on the high green scrubbed table. This stool had a woven straw seat so I tended to wobble a bit: I can not only feel the quaver now but also smell and taste that frequently repainted wickerwork. As an infant I used to sit underneath and chew away: cutting teeth I suppose as I gnawed on straw.
Rochal disinfectant was blue as the Mediterranean and seared the nose in a tingling exciting way. It was brewed at home and laid up in old Booths gin bottles for lavish splashing and mopping out. My father scrubbed up with a great lather of Wrights Coal Tar and scalding water before boiling up surgical instruments with a great rolling rattle in a saucepan – later a tiny steriliser. Then came the intoxicating wads of cotton wool sodden with ether and packed in a jam jar, into which was introduced the patient’s snout. It was not until years later that I read how popular chloroform and ether were as recreational drugs with Great World VADs: my brother and I certainly came out of that surgery very tranquil and fulfilled by the sneak peak into animal anatomy. We were also crazy for the smell of creosote, iodine, my grandfather’s turps and that scrapbook paste sold in a blue pot that smelled of marzipan and had a solid white wax protective lid as tempting as the top of a Mr Kipling Bakewell Tart.
The colours and shapes and textures of the animal interior were beyond fascination. Blue, mauve, grey, pink and opaline like the denizens of rock pools but hot and smoking. And so very much offal seemed to emerge: impossible quantities, Mary Poppins-like, from a tiny shaven furry tum before the neat and intricate sewing-up with cat-gut and deft tweezers. And then, quite suddenly, all this began to pall; I suppose it was the end of the age of innocence. We began to realise what was actually going on and the magic melted away; a terrible adult revulsion contaminated innocent enquiry. I liken this to the case of Stella, a woman I once worked with who was a great believer in the disinfecting powers of rose geranium soap: she
sold it for many years to prostitutes’ maids. Anyway, until she was some six years old Stella could and did levitate at will, floating up and downstairs or down the nursery corridor. But once she became aware of what was happening, the power left her overnight, flat and suddenly weighty on the carpet. And for me the magic never came back. When I take the budgie these days to have his beak trimmed the veterinary world seems very different to half a century ago – tidier, quieter and no smells at all.