Smells of the Old Midlands

painting-palacedotcom
When I was an infant in the 1950’s my grandmother regaled me with endless stories of her own childhood back in the ’90’s. So eager was I for these tales and so deeply I drank from the well of reminiscences that the sights and smells of late Victorian Leicester seem still just within my reach. What is lost, though, is the atmosphere of the 1840’s when my great grandparents were born. They seem to have sealed up their childhoods from their own young so I have no conception of working class Nottingham at the time of the Crimean War and the Great Exhibition.
My great grandfather’s elder brother Jack is supposed to have been stupefied with brandy before having a leg amputated at Scutari. He would then have been only in his early teens. His sisters (as well as his mother, Sophia) were all in the lace industry from a very young age, whether at home or in the factories: the census lists them as tighteners, straiteners and carders. Lace girls were said to be proud of their hands (whitened sometimes with arsenic washes) and came in for much stick from the moralists for blowing their earnings on cheap perfumed hair pomades, ribbons and skin lotions. Maybe we can still catch a whiff of crudely scented bear grease, perspiration and sebum from the little terraced house in St Mary’s. No doubt Sophia brewed up herbal tisanes to be offered with six penn’orth of laudanum to alleviate the pains in her son Jack’s stump when it throbbed in the damps from the Trent. Her husband was a cobbler from a long line of boot repairers so a reek of leather and twine hung in the air, mixed with the metallic tang of nails, oil and bodkin; the steam from the copper, the lines of wet laundry, the endless cooking.
My great grandfather Francis seems to have gone first into the army and then the police before finding his life’s work in public health. He moved to Leicester, married the spirited dressmaker Emma and fathered 11 children. Francis devoted much of his career to the eradication of smallpox epidemics, being all too familiar with the smell of rotting apples that was said to announce the presence of the disease. He reported unfit food & sour or watered milk in local shops, and worked until he died on the job aged 78. For relaxation he fished, and raised auriculas and profusely scented pheasant’s eye narcissi in the back garden .
My grandmother remembered her mother’s horror of monkeys: the arrival of a barrel organ in the road, with a fez’d marmoset aloft, sent Emma shrieking to her bedroom to bury her head in the pillows. There was a monkey next door too, prone to scorching its behind on the kitchen range. From further down the road came the tang of green apples and blood on that famous day when a neighbour severed her finger while making pies. There were favourite mint and dripping sandwiches for supper; and the whiffy gas lighting which turned everyone’s face a spectral greyish green after dark. Even in the early 1930’s my mother remembered the lamp-lighter coming down the streets through the dusk.
I was both tickled and impressed when I reread Beatrix Potter’s miniature novel of Gothic horror – The Tale of Mr Tod (1912) – to recognise my great grandfather’s anti-smallpox tactics in Tod’s policy to eradicate the stench of badger. Potter critics are always saying she got her facts wrong here: that badgers are famously clean creatures. So they may be, but they do have a distinctly piggy smell which has nothing to do with dirt. My father kept one some 50 years ago: she was a dear and used to run up the sitting room curtains, but she exuded a very pungent aroma, that’s for sure. Anyway, here is Mr Tod’s fumigation plan, almost identical to grandfather’s methods at exactly the same date:
‘ I will get soft soap, and monkey soap, and all sorts of soap; and soda and scrubbing brushes; and persian powder; and carbolic to remove the smell. I must have a disinfecting. Perhaps I may have to burn sulphur.’
Before you ask, we don’t stock monkey soap at Les Senteurs. But we can supply the smell of sulphur!

Vignettes of Old Marylebone 2: The Land of Smiles

wikimedia richard tauber

I went out for a little walk at lunchtime, feeling a need for air after a morning at the keyboard. I came out of Seymour Place and crossed the Edgware Road into Connaught Square which has fascinated me ever since the Blairs moved in a few years back. It feels strangely remote from all the hustle and noise only seconds away, very leafy with tall shadowy trees and an appealing air of old-fashioned leisure and calm. There was a cheerful bobby on duty on Tony and Cherie’s step, beaming and friendly like a walk-on from “Mary Poppins”. It’s a tranquil homely place. My headache lifted after one circuit and I strolled on past the Duke of Kendal pub, which prompted memories of Ehrengard Melusine, the first Duchess and domineering mistress of King George 1st. She was tall, scraggy, scrawny and grasping: irreverent Londoners called her The Maypole, appreciating the piquant contrast with her enormous rival The Elephant, otherwise known as the Countess of Darlington.

An old friend hailed me from a cafe terrace in Connaught Street which was nice (fancy her recognising me after all these years), and I walked back via West Park where I was entranced to find a Blue Plaque informing me that the Austrian tenor Richard Tauber had spent the last year of his life in Flat 297, a long way from his birthplace in Linz and the final stage of his sad exile from Hitler’s outrages. I’ve always loved Tauber, especially when he belts out “You Are My Heart’s Delight” and “Das Lied ist Aus” . At his last performance, weeks before his death, he sang full pelt on only one lung. Decades later his old Berlin co-star Marlene Dietrich would pay him tribute during her London concerts. One of his early hits was that wonderful song about the lilacs “Wenn die Weisse Flieder Wieder Bluhn”. And that reminds me: we have a delicious white lilac perfume for you at the shop – Frederic Malle’s ineffable EN PASSANT, the breath of white lilac buds on a pale green breeze.

And so back to the Edgware road and the wonderful aroma of shisha pipes billowing along the pavements in a warm perfumed cloud: strawberry, mint, rose and amber. On the corner of Seymour Place was the final treat: our local ironmongers, with a fine new window display of various rat-traps in “traditional style” . I had to smile and thought wistfully of Beatrix Potter and the terrifying Samuel Whiskers. What a wonderful refreshing walk, packed with interest, and all in under 30 minutes. Marylebone really is a village, or rather a series of them: all enchanting and pulsating with life.