The Smell of School

Analysis of those few remembered smells depends on which school I am conjuring. Prep school was suffused with the odour of boiled cabbage, our inevitable luncheon vegetable, implacably doled out from a huge blue plastic colander. The headmaster’s wife wore tiny matching Wellingtons to supervise its preparation. It had to be eaten up: unfortunately we did not wear the bloomers into which my mother’s generation had tucked the leftover for thoughtful disposal after the meal.
Now comes the smell of paraffin heaters, Cherry Blossom Shoe Shine and Dubbin in the gloomy boot room where Mr Bowes cleaned 150 pairs of shoes and scraped away at football boots, a perpetual cigarette partially concealed in his curved palm. (People always said then that this furtiveness denoted an ex-con). The boot domain opened off a sort of concrete Victorian loggia: the next door along opened into the communal exiguous lavatories full of Izal and Bronco, walls streaming with damp, which so appalled me as a new boy that I preferred not to go at all. An experiment in will power which lasted for an unhealthy and remarkable length of time.
I remember more of public school scents, possibly because by the age of 13 my nose had awoken and become more enquiring and demanding. And O! the smells of that first evening when I was swamped and disoriented like a newly housed puppy by the odours of an establishment the size of a village, with 1,000 inhabitants. The dining hall had an echo which was overwhelming itself before one balked like a pony at the extraordinary smell: not especially nasty but very thick and pervasive, an accumulated miasma of floor wax, old food (particularly, it always seemed to me, mashed potatoes) and stale dishcloths. We sat on benches at varnished wooden tables; the windows were set very high, as in the workhouse, so there was no view. In fact, it was forbidden for boys to look out from any window whatsoever for their first two years. There seemed to be a perpetual light film of greasy damp laid over everything and it was all too easy for small fry to slip on the floor when bringing cauldrons of gravy or custard from the kitchens. Yet we dined below a beautiful domed ceiling of sky blue and gold: we looked up to Heaven from the mire. On Sundays we were offered a special breakfast of canned grapefruit, bread rolls baked very hard so that they crumbled to dust when broken and bitter coffee, wonderfully hot and strong. The distinctive fragrance of all this, mixed with slightly damp and clammy best black suits is always with me, and giving me goose flesh as I write this.
Then there were the odours concomitant with dormitories of 50 boys allowed baths only twice weekly and a clean shirt every Friday. Sports clothes were washed much less, say once a term. Between whiles they were merely dried on the pipes of a small boiler room which served as antechamber to the baths. Wet towels were hung here too, or slung over chairs by one’s bed. Some people had competitions as to how long they could go without washing their hair or whether they could get away with sleeping in their clothes for a whole term. Then you had to find storage space for your damp and muddy CCF uniform. Yet I remember only a certain mildewed mustiness, nothing worse, and the teachers never remonstrated. Neither did our parents. the furthest mine ever went was to say how tired and cross we seemed when allowed out. And my father said wistfully, leaving me at the beginning of one term,” do try to keep clean…”. He’d been there himself: he knew the form.
The magnificent library (another painted ceiling) smelled of dried-up leather bindings and Sunday dinners, especially vinegary mint sauce and horseradish. This was odd as it was nowhere near the dining room. The classrooms were still fragrant with ink. The wells in the hacked-about wooden forms  were no longer filled , but they showed ample evidence of former use and we pupils were still up to our wrists in Quink, plus tattoos of biro and fountain pen sometimes applied subcutaneously. Why did no one get blood poisoning? One of my friends henna’ed his fingers and grew his nails like a Manchu before stamping out circles in them with a hole puncher and threading them through with wires which then…etc etc. So much time we had then, so intricately and elaborately wasted.
The one part of the premises which unequivocably reeked was the kitchen yard onto which for two terms my study looked. I had one of the most privileged rooms (being furthest away from the gaze of authority) and yet it gave onto this terrible pen graced with three huge bins labelled  (and I should be correct, I gazed at them for 25 weeks) Sobas Segas, Conidas Segas, Liquido Salsas: – dry refuse, pig food, liquid waste. It was a year of continual strikes – including the dustbin men – coniciding with a very hot summer. The stench was all-enveloping and perpetual, yet it was never referred to, even by visiting outsiders, and no one took ill though looking back I’m inclined to think it made us even more lethargic and snappish. Everyone prided himself on idiosyncratic interior decoration – huge posters of Jane Fonda v Jean Harlow graced the walls – and there was always plenty of expressive music on the go, but the senses of smell and taste ( a study diet of black Nescafe and Mother’s Pride ) were strangely neglected. School was by and large a whole lot of fun and I’ve certainly laughed so much since, but the liberation of my nose began on the day I left.

Back to School!


It looks so threatening, that uncompromising late summer notice in the windows of school outfitters and stationers, even to those who left school forty years ago. Can the headmaster really have the power to haul us back, even now? I don’t doubt it, not if he really desired it. How remote and terrifying he was; each one a little Hitler, the monster pike in his own small pond. And each taught his staff his repertoire of cruel tricks: twisted ears, deftly thrown blackboard rubbers (mounted on very hard wooden blocks), pulled hair and burning sarcasm. Do you remember all those poor souls who wet themselves or threw up over their desks because they daren’t leave the room without permission? An increasingly desperate raised hand cruelly ignored. Maybe it was you? Not waving but drowning. And yet overall I loved the drama and Grand Guignol of my schooldays, the extremes of emotions that blew up and over like thunderstorms. Each day was a terrific adventure, you can say that all right.

Because I started boarding at school from the age of eight, the stomach-churning smell of the new term is also the odour of a particular trunk into which my life was regularly packed for ten years. It was already old when I first knew it, bound in moss green canvas and stuck all over with expired railway labels. It closed with a massive clasp which always reminded me of the lock which decapitates the child in The Juniper Tree, that Grimm classic of dysfunctional families and cannibal cookery. The interior of the trunk was upholstered in cream linen, with a removable tray that held a second layer. All was equipped with buckled straps for tidy packing and full of the smell of naphthalene moth balls looking like peppermint creams strung on violet silk threads. It was also redolent of old faded tissue paper, shoe leather, dry cleaning and tinder-dry canvas. Above all there was that remarkable scent of new clothes, a mixture of bleached cotton, detergent and a slightly metallic tang especially noticeable in the “dark suit for Sunday wear” and the itchy-scratchy navy football shorts made of a curious fabric which I have never seen nor felt since 1968. Whether wet or dry they smelled intensely of coarse damp wool: were they maybe the final expression of serge?

The ritual of the trunk’s being brought out and set up in the spare bedroom like a Moloch to be filled was a grim reminder of the sands of time running out. It was like that gaudily tricked out skeleton in the painted coffin which we are told graced the top table at Egyptian banquets, dispersing the scent of mortality amongst the spicy kyphi oils and fragrance of blue lotus. The Black Monday of the Return raced towards us despite prayers for the school to burn down or the outbreak of plague. My grandfather referred us to his favourite novel, F W Anstey’s Vice Versa, and a passage which I am always pleased to recall today:

‘…we cannot escape school by simply growing up, and…even for those who contrive this, and make a long holiday of their lives, there comes a time when the days are grudgingly counted to a blacker Monday than ever made a school-boy’s heart quake within him.’

Would you not love to see that thought set up upon a toy easel in the windows of Ryman and WH Smith? O! the blanched faces!

Then there was the ceremony of the caking of the plimsolls, this performed with a thick white solution which dried to a high gloss that later cracked and peeled. It reminded me of the fuller’s earth which the Romans applied to their gleaming togas: “candida” = shining white. This stuff smelled good, slightly addictive indeed, and no doubt it was harmful by today’s exacting standards of health and safety. You dabbed it on by degrees with a tiny sponge on a little stick – it was grainy, viscous and gave off an odour of chalk, nail varnish and wet rubber. Like every other item the plimsolls had also to be “clearly marked with pupil’s name”. To my intense mortification and anxiety my grandmother neatly Indian inked my name and school number across the uppers of my first pair: in fact, this set a trend. My shoes were never stolen and no teacher could find a reason to object.

Everything else was supposed to be identified with a Cash’s name tape. These were ordered as required from the local haberdashery and rarely arrived in time: another occasion for terror and panic. They were available in every colour and script. We had ours in red and they were stitched by hand onto every item including the “two dozen large white handkerchiefs” by our grandmother (my mother couldn’t and wouldn’t sew) or by ourselves. Like Edward VIII and his brothers we were all taught to sew and knit, skills which have come in very handy ever since. But even the hasty replacement of a shirt button for work still takes me back to that bedroom, full of late August sunshine, littered with paper and fabrics impregnated with the smell of Doom.

Image from: