No proper time of day…



The clocks changed last week and I with them. Fiddling around with the time exhausts me – it mucks up my body’s routines. I react like a baby or a dog, uncomprehendingly thrown off course and put thoroughly out of sorts. It’s a species of fright, of course. It’s as John Milton says, it’s “snuffing the scent of mortal change on earth”.  It takes me about a fortnight to get back on track; whether it’s “fall back” or “spring forward”, the effect on me is always retrograde. I think my body clock is tuned so precariously that any tinkering about stops me dead in my tracks.

Especially so in autumn when the  melancholy winds sweep in with the falling leaves; and the rains dampen us down into a brown study beneath the stripped trees. Brown is my least favourite of all the colours. Draining away light, it lacks the drama of black and the warm elegance of grey. I’m talking about that dreary hue when brown shows flat and unadorned; devoid of any flash of red, blue, copper or gold. Just plain brown. Brown is the true colour of prolonged long-term mourning. Shades of dun, umber, sludge, baked-potato, penny and dirt have – like all colours –  their own peculiar odour.

Last week, as I fished leaves out of drains and scarified the increasingly sodden lawn, I inhaled the sad scents of vast dim November afternoons half a century ago. Apparently foggier and colder then, the defining redolence of those days was of school playing fields, scratchy hot-smelling serge shorts and, particularly, of a horrible pair of football boots. They looked like something out of The Beano, those boots. Never well-fitting – to allow for growth – they were hideously built-up and laced to well above the ankle-bone, like a clown’s comic footwear. Off the pitch, I clattered and teetered about in them like a geisha on clogs due to the soles having grotesquely high studs. They smelled of caked Dubbin, wet humus, dried mud, damp woollie socks and knotted elastic garters (“not too tight! Don’t cut off the circulation.”). Every now and again you had to work the boots over with an old knife or a stick to clean the dead grass and muck from the soles and crevices. That dreary doleful smell of cracked leather and impacted dead soil: brown, plain and simple.

“To this end we must all come”. The smells of autumn may seem variously depressing or cosy according to temperament. The cult of Danish “hygge” is now all the go but I’m thinking less of spicy spine boughs, mulled wine and perfumed candles and more of a nostalgie de la boue in an animal snuggery. Deep in our suppressed bestial nature there is an innate desire to hibernate; to get down that burrow, earth or bed for the next four or five months. To live off our own fat deposits; to be dopily self-sufficient; comatose-cocooned in the smell of our own kind – fur, skin, hay & feather bedding and nugatory waste. (Those all-important national surveys are always claiming that some 20% of the population change their sheets only three times a year). My father always used to say he would have preferred to live as a hound or a fox. He would chunter this mantra as he snuggled down in his kitchen armchair between sturdy horse blankets and beneath a warm and whiffy wriggling dog or two. Maybe those of us more in touch with our animal side have happier and more sensually comforting autumns than the more spiritually evolved.

“The doubt: can these dry bones live?” Have another look at that painting by Alexander Bowler.

I have mentioned before that my sense of smell goes awol when I’m in a state: so since the clock change it’s been very odd. After administering a brisk haircut, my wonderful barber – who entertains me with fabulous tales, as in the Arabian Nights – rubbed my head with some proprietary barbicide bay rum concoction. It was initially delicious but then reacted very oddly with an ambery frankincense perfume I’d applied on arising. (And perhaps that was a bit advanced for a November dawn).  For the rest of the day (despite changing all my linen and washing my head) I was suffused in an effusion of suffocating fruity musk. It smelled as though it was emanating from the depths of my being, as musks formerly poured from the ancient mosque walls of Samarkand and the Empress Josephine’s bedroom wallpaper.

We probably spend more money in the autumn, just to keep ourselves comfortable – and that’s aside from the Christmas potlatch. Now everyone’s talking about the funny new five pound notes. They haven’t yet had enough circulation to have acquired that characteristic faintly greasy pecuniary smell. “They are very slippery”, remarked an aged gentleman as the fresh fivers slid through his fingers like flying fish. (Same colour, too). Apparently the visually impaired and the blind are having problems with them: the notes feel too similar to receipt slips. A man explained on the wireless that he had been used to identifying all our paper currency by touch – but that the new notes defied this. I should like to have asked him whether identification by smell came into it too. I imagine it might well do so.

Thomas Hood¤ failed to mention an absence of smell in his famous poem ‘November’. Was this due to the inhibitions of his time or to an underdeveloped olfactory sense? Rather, I think that the wily poet knew that there are always smells, even in the dimmest of months.


Foxy Gentleman

Those of you who have studied the shorthand of the old cinema will know by now that any mention of perfume spells either luxury or trouble. Preferably both. Before cinema, the stage: Shakespeare soaked his Cleopatra’s sails with scent centuries before Theda Bara bared her bosom in the silents. He showed us Lady Macbeth’s murdering hand – the smell of blood triumphing over all the perfume of Arabia: both equal accoutrements of evil and ambition.

Old cinema, being simultaneously daring and deeply conservative, has little to say on the subject of men and scent except for a visual footnote (usually in costume pictures) on the degeneracy of a character – we think, say, of wicked Basil Rathbone’s beauty routine in A Tale of Two Cities. But there is a wonderful sharp use of smell in William Wyler’s magnificent The Heiress (1949), an adaptation of Henry James, in which a plain, naïve but very rich spinster Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is preyed on both by her father (Ralph Richardson) and by a charming fortune hunter (Montgomery Clift as Morris).

Some critics have found Clift, then at the apogee of youth and his weird dazzling beauty, almost TOO convincing as Olivia’s mercenary suitor; they don’t know whether to boo or hiss. Such confused viewers prefer things spelled out in black and white: they like the modern movies. But both actor and director know exactly what they are about. Twice in the screenplay we hear that Catherine is making Morris a gift of buttons – she means dress-studs of diamonds and rubies; but for a flash we see the flicker of disappointed greed and baffled dismay in Clift’s eyes as he thinks of bone or wood shirt fastenings. Stars had faces then, all right; and like Norma Desmond, Clift can say anything he likes with his eyes. (Interestingly he had already turned down the role of Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard on the grounds that his fans would find the character sexually unsavoury).

But the canny viewer has already been offered a broad olfactory clue as to what’s going on: when Catherine’s father comments on the powerful sillage of Morris’s bay rum cologne we know something is badly awry chez Sloper. A penniless overly handsome young man, reeking of scent in a professional gentleman’s house? a gauche daughter upstairs of maybe perfunctory hygienic habits? – we have had a glimpse of Catherine’s lick-and-a-promise preparations for a ball. Surely this must be a recipe for total disaster. And so it proves.

Image from