“For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” As I get older I find that the Adam and Eve story is easier to believe, makes more sense, than the fascinating but baffling intricacies of evolution. Take this new planet they just found out about; maybe a simulacrum of our own Earth but 1100 light years away and so (surely fortunately?) impossible to contact. And then apparently the science faculty “has now proved” that we humans are, in the final analysis, indeed “frail children of dust” created essentially from the atmosphere in which we frolic and into which we eventually fade and blend once more. So, after all, it is just as the Book of Genesis tells us – and before that, the Egyptian myth of the great god Khnum moulding the human race from Nile mud on the potter’s wheel. Quite comforting, really.
“Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney-sweepers come to dust”
No wonder then that dust has often had a supernatural feel about it: from the belief that the motes spinning in a sunbeam are dancing fairies or angels, to Sooty scattering “oofle dust” over Sweep and Soo to animate his conjuring tricks. If these minute particles of matter really are the working materials of the divine and the residue of mankind to date then they must all be pregnant with intense magical possibility. This links up with the old Western belief that the crumbling powder of ancient Egyptian mummies had terrifically efficacious properties in the cure of all ills. Countless bodies were excavated, exported and then sold off to be pulverised to dust by quacks, alchemists and apothecaries. The miraculous quality of dried corpses imbued with the arcane knowledge of a lost civilisation was intensified by the traces of redolent oils and resins used in their preservation. Papillon Parfums’ extraordinary ANUBIS, currently exclusive at Les Senteurs, gives an idea of the dizzy psychotropic power of such ancient perfumes as styrax, bezoin, frankincense, saffron and myrrh.
“I will show you fear in a handful of dust”.
There’s a romance in the dust that colours a butterfly’s wings; in a dusting of flower pollen; smelled in scented powder on the skin; even in the red dust, kissed by the sun of Africa, that sometimes blows up from the Sahara to coat London cars and windows with fine grit. But then there’s the old use of the word as a euphemism for faecal detritus: the original ‘dustmen’ were no more interested in collecting fairy particles than are our modern waste collectors. They spent their nights clearing the streets of human and animal filth which might then be recycled at great profit for use in the agricultural, chemical and above all the tanning industries. (This in turn explains why old fine leather had always to be heavily scented: in Tudor times most fashionably with the lavender oil which made Queen Elizabeth so sick).
The average modern householder is principally concerned with the fine grey stuff that clings to a yellow duster. As regular readers will know, I’m currently having a major clear-out at home – and wondering whether Mr Crisp can possibly have been wrong: maybe the dust really does get worse after five years. Perhaps I haven’t left it long enough: there are areas on the top of bookcases where it seems very thick and still drifting, like grey snow or soft feathers – grainy swansdown from a doll’s grubby coverlet. Open London windows are very inviting of street and traffic dust but every so often a disconcerting hygiene specialist comes on the radio or TV to assure us that most of this residue comes from our own bodies as skin naturally and continually sheds like the sloughing of snakes.
Dust has a hot powdery tickly smell, unclean and chokey but not dirty, exactly. It absorbs additional odours from individual atmosphere. The rooms of heavy smokers are dark with particles of tobacco and ash; think of the scented cosmetic dust of theatre dressing rooms or department stores; the electric energies of the meter cupboard. Nearly 60 years ago we used to take holidays in a tall narrow house on the East Coast which was full of light and of the dust generated from chronic wet and dry rot. In my mind now, I can push open the damp-swollen front door and inhale all the exciting stuffy fug. Wet sandy shoes and the dry sour smell of faded cotton indigo & saffron bedspreads; the hot sun-bleached chintz curtains; the overpowering reek of soiled nappies (that, said my father, was the wet rot) in the first floor back.
My own tiny room was reached via the bathroom so it smelled cosily of Wright’s Coal Tar soap, hot water and thick green Vosene shampoo. It looked over the garden and the mud flats beyond: wafts of salt and stagnant marsh water came through the sash windows, along with an even riper aroma from the cess pool in the thicket of fuschias at the end of the lawn. There was a utility dressing table with nests of fascinating drawers lined with faded sheets of waxed paper and full of forgotten oddments such as extinct lavender bags, coloured pins, Halma counters and bits of broken jewellery. Green and gold painted papier mache trays were dotted about and had their own bitter papery-varnish scent – and taste. I was a great one for tasting smells when I was a child.
There was an attic floor, too, with crumbling parchment roller shades over the windows and a huge boxed-in water tank: if you climbed up on this you could see rather too much of the empty haunted marshland and the grey North Sea for the inner comfort of a five year old. I hadn’t of course then heard of Great Expectations, but later when I saw the David Lean film at school (and everyone screamed the place down) I didn’t half empathise with Pip out on those terrifying wastes.
I appreciated Miss Havisham’s ultra dusty aura too, “the death in life”: I am learning that we can fight dust but never conquer it for “to this end we must all come”. We’d best to keep it in check but ultimately (as with so much else in these funny old days) learn to embrace the dessication.