Awoke on Sunday morning to the delightful sound and smell of soft refreshing purging rain. The baked-up fields and gardens need water like mad after this unnaturally dry spring: so does the air. Wherever I go, I meet folk afflicted by coughs, respiratory congestion, catarrh and choking fits. The atmosphere is thick with pollen, dust and a creeping pollution: eyes and noses are streaming. The wonky weather doesn’t help, lurching from the icy blast of a north wind to sultry closeness: and all within twenty-four hours. May – theoretically one of the most blushingly romantic of months – can be the very devil in practice. There is nothing crueller than a piercingly cold Bank Holiday afternoon: and all your winter wardrobe prematurely packed away. ‘Ne’er cast a clout’, indeed.
In our spanking new and surreal 21st century London – now rebuilt for perhaps the third time since 1945 – we occasionally stumble into a jarring electric reminder of our origin of species. Something stimulates our animal senses. We are yanked back into a brief realised memory of how the capital once smelt. The yellow bronchial fogs have long gone; so has the smoke. The smell of hot horse and equine manure¤- once ubiquitous – is limited to the parades of Royal State occasions and early morning cavalry exercise in Rotten Row. It is years since I saw anyone relieve himself in the street.
Discarded food, however, lies about in profusion: this was something you used not to see. It would be snapped up by stray dogs and cats (now completely vanished) or by the totally destitute. The other morning I came across – and not for the first time – an entire abandoned meal laid out on a cafe terrasse. Smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, toast and coffee all complete – cooling yet still fragrant in the morning air. Abandoned, barely touched, like that last breakfast aboard the ‘Mary Celeste’. The poor customer’s heart must have failed him at the last. ‘Fain would I eat/ Yet fear I to fall.’ You imagine all sorts of scenarios: an anxious stomach in knots finally undone by the smell of the meal. Eggs with salmon are very potent – and the ashtray was brimming with butts.
For what you do still find everywhere in the capital – so you must pick your way through the streets – is evidence of weak stomachs. I saw someone being suddenly and terribly sick at a railway station the other day. The effluvia was fluorescently blue and purple. What can he have been eating or drinking? A diet of fake news and fake food.
And, of course, we now have vapes: gushing clouds of perfumed ghostly steam. I have just finished Daniel Defoe’s Journal Of The Plague Year, written in 1722, but describing the last visitation of bubonic plague to London 57 years before. Defoe lived through the Great Plague as a child in Cripplegate. I think the vapes would seem kind of familiar to him though he might mistake their purpose. For he writes of terrified Londoners with sticks of rue rammed up their noses and herbs held in their mouths; citizens doused in vinegar fumes¤¤; ever-burning braziers of woods and oils to smoke out infection and disperse the miasma of plague.
“….in Aldgate Church, in a pew full of people, on a sudden one fancied she smelt an ill smell. Immediately she fancies the plague was in the pew…”
Everyone rushes out of church, and when they again foregather the worshippers have taken precautions, filling their “..mouths with one preparation or another”.
In an age when sickness was thought – quite logically, really – to be spread by smell¤¤¤, “the whole church was like a smelling-bottle; in one corner it was all perfumes; in another, aromatics, balsamics and variety of drugs and herbs; in another, salts and spirits, as every one was furnished for their own preservation”.
Because the infection did not break out in the Fleet, it was naively believed by Londoners that the smells of the shipyards “would preserve them”. Therefore they built great fragrant bonfires in the street and smoked the interiors of their houses with burning sulphur, pitch, oil of turpentine, rosin, cedar and brimstone.
Some survived, many perished. The huge irony in retrospect was that the true finish of the plague did indeed lie in the purification by flames. For in 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed the old city and the warrens of rats’ nests where the infection bred. Plague never returned. Defoe’s most haunting lines describe what might be seen when a victim of the sickness breathed “upon a piece of glass, where, the breath condensing, there might living creatures be seen…of strange, monstrous, and frightful shapes, such as dragons, snakes, serpents, and devils..”
Try spritzing some perfume on the bathroom mirror!
¤ Jumentuous: of, relating to, or smelling like the urine of a horse, from Latin jumentum, meaning a beast of burden, or ‘yoke-beast’, from jugum, a yoke
¤¤ Defoe writes of shop-keepers handing out the change from coins kept in a pot of vinegar. Our fishmonger favours this homely method of disinfectant today.
¤¤¤ My great grandfather Francis Braley (1844-1923), Chief Inspector of Nuisances for Leicester, still believed in miasma theory to some extent. So did his daughter, my grandmother.