A breezy June on the Suffolk coast is one of the intense and stimulating of scented experiences: even the most jaded and constipated of London brains open and expand under that huge empty airy sky reflected in a sea that is usually the colour of old pewter but shows up bands of sapphire, salmon pink, caramel, jade and lavender as the capricious and dramatic light leaps across the bay. Unlimited air and light seem to cleanse you from inside out, relaxing the mind, eyes and nose as they do the body: you are scrubbed, pummelled and hung out to dry like a line of laundry – it’s a fortnight of “washing the blues from my soul”, like Sophie Tucker used to sing.
Go and sit on the pier and have a plate of fish and chips. Its all been tarted up a bit and the newspaper wrappings may have been outlawed but the colour and the smell are still intact: and intensified by eating out of doors, 100 yards out into the North Sea. Snowy flakes of haddock, steaming hot in a great armour of crunchy crisp batter the colour of wet sand, are seasoned not only by salt and vinegar but by the scents of sea, shore and town. The scalding aggressive smell of a well-heated clean white plate and the acid bite of lemon; a glass of beer, full of cereals, barley and the almost-garlicky reek of hops; the faint fresh fishy whiff not from your meal but coming up through the slats beneath your feet.
I mean that heart of darkness right under the pier; that dangerous smelly place where grandmother always warned you never to go. “Never go behind a television set or under the pier!” A place where unwanted babies were conceived and unwary children swept away by the powerful undertow or crushed by falling timbers. A sordid al fresco lavatory where strange mutterers lurked and bladderwrack, dead fish and the occasional beached seal mulched into a nice rich compost for dogs to roll in. All sanitised and safe nowadays: families take their picnics under the shade of the green-slimed struts and the strongest smell is from the bacon fat tied to the lines of the crab fishers.
A dark smoky odour of tar from nets and boats (“don’t get it on your shoes!”) may still spice up your chips (never fried here in that beef dripping which invariably talks back) and adds a tang to the green-cardboard-smelling mushy peas. Sweet sun-tan lotion blends with ice cream, women’s perfume and the scent of roses which floats out from the town gardens: great big roses here, thriving on salty sea air and tough winters, smelling of China tea, the finest verbena soap and canned peaches. More sweetness oozes from popcorn; the “natural toiletries” and packets of pot pourri in the pier gift shops, as well as the odd rakish glass of Bailey’s with some daring tripper’s coffee.
The dry wood of the pier flooring; the Brasso on the rails and fittings; saltiness on lips and fingers from your plate, the sea, the air. Occasionally a school party screeches and scrambles along the boarding, clutching clip-boards and pens for some inane but high-spirited survey: the children give off an aura of hair and clothes that is not exactly dirty but could do with a wash, an airing,or a dip in the briny. Funny – babies and infants always smell good, but suddenly around school age all too often there’s a waft of the world, as though Adam and Eve have once more been herded out of Eden. Rather like a kitchen after a morning’s baking. Not in itself unpleasant, but a window really should be opened.
In this case, a window on the world: very cosmopolitan is the good Suffolk air, pouring in from Holland, the Baltic and Russia: a refreshing air bath for body and soul.
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