Summer days should be served hot..

 

Do you still recall how hot it was two weeks ago? In that sort of weather I feel like a creature in the Reptile House. Sort of slumped and comatose. But if a person taps on the glass of my tank they sometimes see an involuntary twitch and they can then be confident that I’m not a rock or a coral but a – more or less – sentient being. Alive to smell but not much else.

Well, I was amazed to be told by a teacher that even in such great heat classroom windows are not nowadays to be opened beyond a couple of inches. It’s a Health and Safety thing. In case great boys and girls of 17 and 18 fall out, or escape. But how do the young people concentrate? How do they keep awake? What about the teachers? I grew up at a time when fresh air was de rigueur. This was because it was rightly thought both healthy and stimulating and the answer to everything. It was then also admitted that schoolchildren en masse, with their curious adolescent habits and hectic routines, might easily be a bit whiffy.

Certain summer temperatures and scents trigger an immediate connection with the past. All my yesterdays float in the muggy air. Not necessarily fresh and clean scents – some with a certain nostalgie de la boue. For instance that battered wheeled device that marked out the lines for Sports Day, staining newly shorn grass, leaving sour and burning trails. I’m sure we were told it was filled with lime although I don’t know if that was true. Maybe the groundsman said that merely to keep us from smudging it. He used to trudge up and down the field, one shaking hand on the handle, the other cupping the butt end of a cigarette – the way they used to say convicts hold a gasper. Doesn’t tobacco smoke smell extraordinarily good in the heat, by the way?

Or does it? Suddenly I’m not so sure. There’s a repellent new smell in a lot of cigarettes – is it the formaldehyde we’re always being warned about? Do you think the Health and Safety have added a stench to put us off, like the awful pictures on the packets? I’ll tell you one thing, they were mending the roads down our way and when I saw the tar lorry I inhaled deeply and involuntarily. We used to be told that the hot carbolic smell was a sovereign preventative against T.B. and bronchitis. In addition to which, it was a wonderful odour in its own right.

But this wasn’t. This was quite abominable and I almost retched. It’s not just old perfumes that don’t smell the same any more.

Something in the air lately – the damp watery smell from the brook, maybe  – reminded me of being taken to tea some sixty years ago with a very grand lady. Her hall had a sweeping staircase to the landings – just like in Gone With The Wind. The stairwell was heaped up like a flower shop with hydrangeas and lilies, all cool and dewy and fragrant. The hostess took a fancy to me and led me through a vast garden to her pond. There she gave me a stick, with a wired silk stocking attached as an impromtu net, and taught me how to fish for orange-spotted newts. Once we’d peered at the creatures and smelled their cold newty smell¤, back they went into their deep and weedy depths. I have never seen a newt since: strange how this afternoon came back with such force.

In early summer there’s this strange fragrant dust in the yards and on the pavements. The scent of those warm dust baths I used to love to sit in as a small child, like a sparrow or a grooming cat. That nostalgic blend of pollen, earth, diesel, petrichor, geosmin, spicy wisteria and deadly sulphurous laburnum. Above all, a waft of powdery orris from the bearded iris that now blows in every other suburban garden. Blue, brown, yellow and mauve: all breathing out that incredibly emotive fragrance from the silky flowers that flutter like prayer flags. The exhalation of the rainbow goddess. The radiant iris perfumes at Les Senteurs¤¤ draw their hypnotic power from the roots of the plant. But the scent of the garden iris comes from the fragile blooms. It’s a more delicate smell: every year I try to analyse it, to pin it down. Is it something like living human skin? Yes, maybe. Perhaps this is what gives the early summer dust such a heart-stopping quality – filling it with uncanny traces of every person who has come and gone in one’s life. Like those thundering countless footsteps outside Dr Manette’s Soho garden, on that sultry rainy evening in A Tale of Two Cities. Dust to perfumed dust.

Time rushes on. Before nostalgia gives way to maudlin sentiment I’ll tell you a bracing anecdote. Walking to the shops under a long road a-winding under flowery hedges, I smelled a rich and fruity scent. The air was thick with it. Like the aura of a  tropical isle.”Isles of the southern seas/ Deep in your coral caves….”

I think I’ll keep you on pins until next week before I reveal what the smell was. Try to guess?

¤ for those who’ve never smelled a newt – well, it’s somewhat like a toad.

¤¤ such as:

¤ IRIS POUDRE by Frederic Malle
¤ SHEM-EL-NESSIM by Grossmith
¤ ANGELIQUE by Papillon Perfumery
¤ IRIS DE NUIT by Heeley
¤ IRIS PALLADIUM by Les Eaux Primordiales
¤ 23 JANVIER 1984 by Pozzo di Borgo

…Every one a gem!

Sunny Stories

From the Author's private WW1 collection

From the Author’s private WW1 collection

“Lemon Wedge Is On Holiday”

Nevertheless, like some old music hall artiste, he will appear for you and offer nugatory olfactory comment on the week gone by. As Arthur Marshall used to say in a different circumstance, LW is never off duty unless he’s in bed – and not always then. Besides, no one’s sense of smell can be turned on and off like a tap: we lovers of scent are literally led by the nose, willy nilly. Odours seek us out rather than the other way about.  Good smells – and bad.

No doubt it had something to do with that short and very intense wave of heat and humidity which sharpened our sense of smell: for suddenly and very evidently there was a spate of unsavoury references to fetor and malodour in the media¤. These came together, all in a clump and a rush: very odd and remarkable. A propos, do you ever analyse the look of your birthday cards? I have noticed each year it falls out, apparently haphazardly, that the cards group themselves into a definite colour co-ordination and theme. One year they are all variations on green and ochre beer bottles; the next time around, every greeting is a flight of blue butterflies. You have a look: the system works at Christmas, too.

And so it was that – as the heat, my heart and my head pounded in tandem every morning – I was greeted by a battery of sequential, often nauseating, redolent vignettes. There was the intriguing but revolting revelation of how, during WW II, SOE had planned to impregnate (via agents with “perfume atomisers”) the uniforms of high-ranking Nazis with unspeakably awful reeks to spread despondency and disgust in the ranks. I don’t fancy going into details but you can picture for yourselves the sort of things the Allied scientists came up with. Think of emergency moppings-up after both human and animal calamities and the concomitant urgent need for Dettol, a scalding hot bath and clean clothes from the skin out. One can imagine that the filthy scheme would have demoralised the enemy only too well. It’s bad enough to have a terrible chemically-enhanced smell stuck in your nostrils – much worse to realise that it’s emanating from you.

Because I am on vacation I have spent a lot of time with my nose in a book. William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Confessions of Nat Turner” is bursting with the sinister smells of the terrible Old South. The barren fields of Virginia exhausted by promiscuous tobacco planting; wood smoke from sad dying fires; uncontrollable sweating; home-distilled brandy; and a reptilian lawyer whose greasy clothes and person are drenched in sweet apple-blossom cologne –  “…..I was unable to tell which I resented more, that doughy voice or the honeyed, overpowering perfume”.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s monumental history of the Romanovs is in great demand at the library (there were 17 readers ahead of me). Here I read about the extraordinary family letters of Nicholas and Alexandra on the subject of breaking wind¤¤. More to be expected were details of Alexandra’s dainty custom of perfuming her letters to the Front with Atkinson’s White Rose. “‘The scent excites me and quite drew me to you'” – wrote the Tsar by return¤¤¤.

And there’s a brand new book out, all about George Orwell’s sense of smell; his perception of redolence and mephitis; and the impact of it all on his writing. I remember his late sister’s shop – “Avril’s” – at Southwold, though, alas! I missed Avril herself by some years. Under later management, the store sold Annick Goutal perfumes – wafts of Passion and Folavril mingling with the ambrosial succulence of salty samphire and dressed crabs at the late fish shop next door.

You have to be careful with these reminiscences, though. Careful how you filter them. Last weekend I went to a wonderful show put on by the local history society. There was all my infancy and early life in the villages, laid out in post cards, posters and photos in the Methodist Hall. There was the flowering almond tree in our garden; the dusty old library with the dark creaking stairs; the cheesey-bacon-coffee-smelling grocery. There was the tiny shoe shop full of new leather, raw canvas, rubber soles, chalky whitening paste and Cherry Blossom Shoe-Shine. That night I woke myself up at 3am, shouting my head off in nightmare and alarming the neighbours. Emotional indigestion. Too many memories stirred up. And I remembered then how, as a tot, I had got very muddled in myself over the tale of Moses in the rushes. I knew the reedy smell and velvety texture of bulrushes from walks down the water meadows. Moses’s floating cradle, caulked with pitch and tar, I could relate to our newly creosoted fence and the steamrollers¤¤¤¤ that surfaced the roads. The thuriferous fragrance of the Egyptian princess’s palace must have been like that of our very high church.

And I was the first-born son.

Consequently, I often fancied I saw Pharaoh in his blue war crown peering in at me through the tiny window at the back of our sitting-room.

No wonder I yelled out…..eh?

Yes, you have to watch your step with smells. Such power!

¤ even to an endlessly re-run trailer for a vintage episode of The Likely Lads on Channel 19 – “she’s so stuck-up, you’d think her backside was a perfume factory”. Honestly…..!

¤¤ very strange, you might think, in view of the usual perception of the Empress as a parody of bourgeois narrow-mindedness. But then, Alix was used to the strong emanations of Rasputin – onions/garlic/alcohol/sweat/vodka/sebum – and his rustic mystic predecessors. She’d worked in military operating theatres; her husband had chronic dental problems; and she had grown up at the court of Queen Victoria who, contrary to the belief of many, took a pretty robust view of the Schattenseite of life.

¤¤¤ Note to our friends and colleagues at Atkinsons: is this romantic perfume not due for an exciting revival?

¤¤¤¤ when did all the steamrollers vanish from our streets? There was a drama! There was a smell to thrill!

Breathe Deeply: 100 Scents you need to smell…


Image: Atlantisqueen.co

Image: Atlantisqueen.co

Everyone loves a list.

Here is my own riposte to all those endless ‘must do’s’ – 100 things to see/read/eat before you die – always so popular in the Bank Holiday Newspapers.

Yet so many of those recommended experiences are curiously passive, depressingly automatic: they involve buying a ticket, taking out a subscription, visiting some sort of restaurant, theatre or other place of entertainment. “You pays your money & you takes your choice”. A bit lifeless, maybe? 

Smells are different. They are trickier to seek out; they take you by surprise at unexpected moments; they rocket you across time and space; they resist control or manipulation. With smell you must take your pleasures where you find them.

Most of the following scents are delicious; some are startling. A few are revolting but arresting. Only one I have not yet smelled…

Even as I write, reports are coming in from Australia that the Duchess of Cambridge ‘recoiled’ at the smell of a koala: the eucalyptus oil comes out through the koala’s pores, you see, intensified by its own natural odour. Smells never fail to amaze: if you let them.

Tell us what you think of this list.

Here we go:

Box… & phlox: pink & white phlox was introduced into Europe by the Empress Josephine – a hot white peppery scent; the smell of childhood.

Phox: directgardening.com

Phox: directgardening.com

A new bar of soap

A traditional eau de cologne

Orange peel & marmalade

Clean sheets – laid up in lavender or simply air dried.

Fresh cut spring grass

Cowslips

Cowslips: plantlife.org.uk

Cowslips: plantlife.org.uk

Pigs

The silk lining of a vintage fur coat

Apple blossom

New books: hardback &  limp edition smell quite different.

New Books: radionorthland.org

New Books: radionorthland.org

Chanel No 5 – it changes all the time like so many classics. Our wonderful Sarah McCartney,  recently smelled the 1929 version: curiously like Lux soapflakes.

Jasmine – in a pot, in the garden or on the streets of Damascus. 

The hills of home – that indefinable smell of your native air. I can smell Leicester coming a mile off.

Lilac

Ether

Ether: Wikimedia commons

Ether: Wikimedia commons

Fried onions

Russian airports – once redolent of over-ripe apples, cigarettes & petrol. Have they changed ?

Toast

A glasshouse of ripening tomatoes

Sweet peas – which is lovelier? The colour or the perfume?

White sugar – a nasty smell. Used to make me feel quite sick as a child.

Tom cats

Tomcat - Walt Disney (comicvine.com)

Tomcat – Walt Disney (comicvine.com)

Hyacinths – though to some they smell of tom cats.

Scarlet geraniums – more properly called pelargoniums but you know the plant I mean.

Christmas and Easter – something indefinable in the air. Unmistakable, impossible to pin-point.

Privet hedges

Shalimar by Guerlain- at least in its glory days. See Chanel No 5, above.

Suede gloves

Vinegar

The sea

Icy iron – an iron railing with a hard January frost on it.

Image by Sharon Wilkinson: kingstonphotographicclub.ca

Image by Sharon Wilkinson: kingstonphotographicclub.ca

Horseradish – the hotter the better.

Honeysuckle

Lily of the valley

A convent chapel – inner cleanliness.

Prison – I have yet to smell this and trust I never shall; but the awful miasma is something that everyone who has been banged up infallibly mentions.

New shoes

Ripe pineapples – warm fragrant golden sweetness. 

Bluebells & wild garlic

Bluebells and Wild Garlic: Wikimedia commons

Bluebells and Wild Garlic: Wikimedia commons


Backstage – of any theatre.

Syringa on a June evening.

Olive oil

Snuffed candles – in the second they are extinguished; hot wax & burned wick.

Rosemary, lavender, thyme – the glory of the herb patch.

Cocoa butter

Fear –  a sour, foxy reek.

Jonquils in a sunny beeswax-polished hallway.

Camomile – though not camomile tea.

Bacon, coffee; cigarettes at the moment of lighting: all notoriously smelling better than they taste.

Coffee and cigarettes

Coffee and cigarettes

A gardenia + a magnolia flower – often talked about; seldom experienced for real.

An iris bed in bloom: the flowers DO have a scent, an unforgettable smell.

Daffodils

Laburnum 

Stargazer lilies

Hot tar

Indian basil

Creosote

Narcisse Noir de Caron

Guelder rose –  that gorgeous vibernum shrub reminiscent of expensive vanilla & peach ice cream.

Broad bean flowers

Methylated spirits

Tuberose

Vanilla pods

Gorse – coconut frosted with sea salt in May sunshine.

Incense

Lemons –  like the sweet peas, the colour and scent are mutually enhancing.

Clove pinks

Fresh oysters on ice

Oysters on ice: theguardian.com

Oysters on ice: theguardian.com

Celery 

Nail polish remover

Hot custard

Marlene’s hands, 1972 – covered in Youth Dew

Linseed oil

Violets

Bonfires – in small doses

A well-soaked sherry trifle

Rain

Marigolds

New potatoes boiling with mint

“Iles Flottantes” – that exquisite delicacy first tasted at a French service station. 

Steaming hen mash

Kaolin & morphia

A rose

Sealing wax 

Newly washed hair

Hot mince pies

The bitterness of poppies

Scalding hot tea

Hot Tea: misslopez.se

Hot Tea: misslopez.se

Linden blossom

The inside of handbags

Myrtle – always a cutting in a royal bride’s bouquet.

Raspberries

Anything from LES SENTEURS….

Les Senteurs - Seymour Pl

Les Senteurs – Seymour Place