One of my greatest pleasures on a home-grown holiday is to shuffle around unfamiliar little shops: no obligation to buy but the easy delights of a good nose around Buddha markets, second hand book stalls, antique attics, gift boutiques and Oxfam. Fusty, musty, dusty smells and all sorts of unexpected and delicious finds: a Spanish fan reeking of Maja, butterfly wing art deco jewellery, the Ladybird Book of Garden Flowers, Gainsborough Studio illustrated film scripts, old scent bottles and once even a rusty Floris soap tin advertised as “Georgian Lady’s Snuff Box: very rare. £75”.
For the open-minded and adventurous, a chemist’s shop can be fun and richly rewarding. “It’s such a mixture of nice things: herbs and scent and soap.” Celia Johnson tells us in Brief Encounter as she browses in Boots, which in those days also ran the famous lending library. Keep your eyes peeled for small old-fashioned chemists, usually deep in the provinces where forgotten treasures still lurk forgotten on the shelves, the sort of place where you can find ancient editions of Ma Griffe, Tabu, Hartnell’s My Love and Je Reviens going for under a tenner. These are the fast-disappearing stores where sea sponges, bath cubes and salts still bring in the money; plastic striped sponge bags have drawstrings and inserts of matching soap cases; vanilla-scented suppositories are still de rigueur and rubber bathcaps sprout riotous flowers like Suttons seed catalogues. You can still ask unblushingly for smokers’ tooth powder without being offered reformatory leaflets and disapproving looks.
Requests for Carnation corn plasters, elastic stockings and Snowfire Jelly are sympathetically understood without having to spell out the names – or pantomime the products’ homely function. Nivea and Yardley are brought out for Christmas on tiny rickety tables jammed in the aisles and piled with hand-painted fir cones, lewdly grinning Santas and cottonwool angels. Bars of soap (rare as hens’ teeth in London) are easily come by, and occasionally razor blades and aspirin are still sold individually like wartime cigarettes. A rainbow of face flannels, almond oil hand creams, pastel cotton wool balls and sticks of frozen lavender cologne for headache relief: impossible not to get your purse out.
And there’s always this wonderful warm ( a baby’s bath not a Moloch’s furnace) comforting fragrance in the air. Soapy, vaguely mentholated and medical: Johnsons Baby Powder blended with the divine scent of Euthymol tooth paste, Universal Embrocation, Bronnley bath oils and boxes of novelty soap shaped like lemons and smelling of verbena,citrus and their dry wooden containers. Pumice stone, face flannels, nail brushes and Wrights Coal Tar radiate reassurance and the indefinable smell of calm and security, as tranquillising to us as to other animals. The dispenser in his immaculate white cotton coat is wise as a doctor and discreet as a priest but less alarming than either: one of us and not one of them. Try 4160’s The Lion Cupboard to evoke all this discreet and irresistible pleasure. The mixture as before: mint absolu and and a ginny juniper; aniseed, lavender and patchouli. Sarah McCartney named this wonderful scent after her father’s personal treasure cupboard – it’s redolent of tooth powder, cashmeres and silk scarves put up in herbs against the moth, dark fragrant woods, leather-bound diaries, half-forgotten colognes and the safe assurance of the past. I’ll take two bottles, Mr Pharmacist, please!