Having sat their exams, thousands now await the dread results in August. Although in my schooldays we sat examinations in all three terms it is with midsummer that I always associate them, from Common Entrance to A Levels: the hot beautiful weather of June and July, the smell of cut grass, roses, linden trees, and chlorinated hair fresh from the swimming pool. The soothing noises of cricket, tennis, hedge clippers and lawn mowers drifted in through the high corded windows. It was obligatory to write with fountain pens – old Osmiroids – and somehow mine ( a brilliant parrot green) always leaked so I’d be up to my wrists in inky Quink by the time the statutory three hours were up.
I can smell that ink now – so pungent and aggressive, but impossible to describe: musty, acrid, exciting and complicated by the scent of the battered old wooden desks at which we wrote and which we mutilated in our agonies with pairs of compasses and razor-knives (officially sold to anatomise frogs in biology classes but available to all comers at Stationery Supplies). I always licked the desks – why, I don’t quite know. Emotion, perhaps? Their flavour was intriguing: woody, salty, waxy: consequently, like mealtimes, the taste and smell of exam rooms are all compounded. Add to the experience the scents of blotting paper, rubbers, much chewed rulers and protractors, pencil shavings; the challenging stimulating smell of expensive creamy foolscap paper; floor polish, dust, sweat and the idiosyncratic emanations of invigilating teachers. One seemed impregnated by chalk; others emanated wet dog, halitosis, expensive soap, tobacco, ripe fruit or even a curious metallic tang akin to iron filings. These body odours were very intrusive as the supervisors prowled about peering over shoulders, pulling ears or checking for cribs written on rulers or concealed in socks and cuffs. There would be much tongue clicking and sighing as unsatisfactory answers were briefly scrutinised before the invigilator passed on down the aisles like the Angel of Death.
My father always said that brainwork makes you famished and I finished all my exams with a splitting headache and a ravenous appetite for the invariable lunch of creamed chicken (people said it was actually mouse as the portions were so generous and poultry was still expensive then) served on dry gritty rice. Two generations before mine students’ nerves were more specifically catered for: they were routinely sent into the examination room with burned feathers, vinegar and smelling salts of sal volatile to ward off faintness
A wonderful recent letter in The Times recalls a trick with perfume to stimulate memory at these testing times. Felicity Bevan from Powys ( the lady would be roughly my age) wrote:
“..when taking ‘A’ levels .. the rumour that we should wear perfume when revising and then wear the same again when sitting the exam did the rounds. Allegedly the familiar scent would help recall the necessary facts and figures”.
Isn’t this marvellous? And something I can’t wait to try out: surely good for memorising anything, from a shopping list to Tennyson. Or for those – are their name is legion – who can never remember the name of their own perfume!