The Pyjama Game

 

Maybe you enjoyed a “pyjama day” over the recent Bank Holiday or even last weekend? There’s been a lot of talk recently about parents in pyjamas picking up their children from school; or even shopping in jim-jams. In my innocence (as Mrs Mary Whitehouse used to say) I imagined pyjama days to be marked by an immaculate cleanliness. I had thought you showered and bathed upon arising; then slipped into a fresh suit of night attire in which to lounge all day, free of all belts, ties, stays and restraining fastenings. But according to a recent piece in The Times, this is not so. You simply wake up, hop out of bed and start living – in what Carol Midgley calls your “bed-stink”. In effect, your own filth.

It’s a nasty brutish expression, one that as a child I’d have been very much discouraged from using. But there you are. Now I begin to understand why headmasters and supermarket managers are not so keen on pyjama culture. It’s all a far cry from those beds of roses & spices we discussed on this page a while back. However, unless you are one of those persons – about a sixth of the population we regularly told – who change their bed sheets (and/or jim-jams) only quarterly, I can’t really see why there should be any disagreeable smell at all. A slight warm fug, maybe. Surely nothing more. Anyway, this week we were again warned of the obvious by the medical faculty: that lolling about is bad for you. It weakens your muscles, your mind and all that. “Wake up – dress up – and live!” – as Alice Faye used to sing: kind of.

Shall we move on? It’s not an especially pretty topic.

We had fine company to luncheon last week. The kitchen was filled with the delicious smells of home-made kedgeree, tarte au citron¤, parsley, cardamon, coriander, basil and ripe tomatoes. I can say this with modesty as it was my gifted brother who cooked it all for our dear cousin. She said, “I adore kedgeree but never make it as I cannot get the smell out of the house.” And this is true. You must fall back on the old trick – geography of the house permitting – of opening back and front doors simultaneously and letting the air rush through, as fresh water gushed through the stench of the Augean stables.

On the table I placed a blue pot of cream freesias. Freesias have changed – or I have. Probably both. They look the same; the colours – white, saffron, mauve, plum – remain constant. But the scent is far less penetrating. When my brother was born in 1960 my mother’s maternity bower was crammed with them – the month was March. The hospital room was as heavily perfumed as Audrey Hepburn’s gloriously floral railway compartment¤¤ in The Nun’s Story. Consequently my mother was never able to look another freesia in the eye – nor to abide their scent – for the next half century.

Today the odour is – it seems to me – far more subtle. Airier, faintly spicy, much less honeyed. The Easter freesias smelled faintly reminiscent of the famous JASMIN ET CIGARETTES: I detected a whiff of very dry papery tobacco, a trace of pepper. None of that suffocating fruity-floral cushiony sweetness and opulence of yore. I should of course have taken note of Country of Origin on the wrapping. The last truly pungent freesias I remember came from Guernsey: I fetched them back myself about 12 years ago.

The irony is, the blooms we smell today are much more like the ‘freesia accord’ we inhale from so many modern perfumes. Ergo, an impressionistic appreciation of the plant, not an extraction or a reproduction. Life once more continues to imitate art.

And talking of which: I don’t know whether this is an example of the synaesthesic mind or just fanciful reverie but, this ‘Snap Election’, now. The mental image the phrase conjures up is that of a fragrant dish of sugar-snap peas, just shown a pan of boiling water: steamed, buttered, minted and brought to table. Brilliantly fluorescently emerald; smelling divinely of crisp greenery, goodness and springtime.

Will it really be like that?

Finally, as I finish this, my Tube train pulls into Kings Cross and there’s a funny poster pasted up in the tunnel:

“Sushi tastes even better in your pyjamas.”

Which is where we came in.

¤ 4 unwaxed lemons are called for.

¤¤ Brussels-bound from the pre-War Congo.

Washing The Blues From My Soul

persil

A lovely lady came on the ITV News last Friday night, wonderfully emotional concerning the restoration and re-running of The Flying Scotsman. “Ah!” she said. “Steam, coal, oil! if you could bottle that as a perfume I’d wear it”. Don’t we all have similar epiphanies whether it be the scent of an April bluebell wood, the shores of the North Sea, the first sweet peas or an especially fragrant kedgeree? It must have been a case of telepathy as regards the reportage of the great train because all that day I’d been thinking of lost smells. The smells that no longer manifest since times and circumstances have changed: and not necessarily ones that you’d wish to have in a cut-glass atomiser. Odours like the weekly soaking of combs and hairbrushes in stinging ammonia¤. Or the dreaded ‘Flit’ fly killer and fly papers, in the days when ‘Flit’ smelled as though it was the destruction of mankind rather than of insect life that it was designed for. “Cover the fruit bowl! Cover the goldfish! Put the cat out! Children, go and sit on the stairs!”

Dry cleaning shops now seem to smell far less – ahem! – vibrant than of yore. The  customer used to choke and retch on the reek of “perk”, and it was often remarked upon that staff in such establishments seemed never to live long. I’ll tell you something else that seems to have happily passed away: the miasma of those ubiquitous greasy leather jackets which smelled as though they’d been aired and stored above the deep fat fryers of the nation’s worst restaurants. The London Tube used to be full of them 40 years ago, invariably jammed tight against your face. All gone. Ou sont les cuirs d’antan? Cinemas are no longer fragranced with ersatz rose bug-spray; and who could forget reluctant but occasionally unavoidable visits to the dainty ‘Elsan’?

There’s a moment in David Lean’s OLIVER TWIST when a Member of the Board declares indignantly that “The workhouse has become a regular place of entertainment for the lower orders”. Quick cut to skeletal but agile old ladies toiling in the communal laundry; embroiled in heat, steam and noise; wrestling with machinery that looks like instruments of torture. School laundries used to be like this: ours was housed in a complex of Nissen huts. If you peered through the cloudy streaming windows you might see surprising things: the operatives stripped to their underwear, for one thing, purple in the face and perspiring freely.

I am just old enough to remember the pandemonium of a traditional family wash day. My aunt was then housekeeping for my grandfather and I can see now the piles of garments heaped up for a day’s hard work. It was a messy business. The kitchen space was extensive but inconvenient: a tiny brown parlour with an Aga covered in blankets; then two steps down into a long brick larder; up again into a perpetually damp scullery which opened on a loggia hung with drying lines. In the red-tiled scullery Aunt would struggle with the malfunctioning noisy twin tub, wooden tongs and lengths of tubing. Woman’s Hour – then broadcast after lunch – was turned up very loud on the wireless. I recall water everywhere – warm puddles all over the floor – an overpowering harsh smell of detergent and green scrubbing soap; a liberal use of the blue bag and a sense of extreme discomfort, even infantile Angst.

Everything seemed slightly out of hand: so that when one morning Aunt found a Biblical plague of frogs congregated in the scullery, come up from the water meadows beyond the garden, this was no more than likely. Much later on, when I read about wash day murders in at least two Agatha Christie novels, I felt that my sense of unease concerning laundry had been well founded.

At home we had a massive mangle outside the back door, occasionally used for sheets and towels. My grandmother had misgivings about us tots going near it. One of her best stories from her own childhood was of a neighbour – the cowman’s wife – smashing one forefinger flat in the mangle and cooking the severed tip of another in an apple pie. The mundane undercut by the macabre. Now, every day is washday and the liberal use of Galaxolide gives countless commercial perfumes the freshness of sun-dried linen and Egyptian percale sheets. For me, winter is such a mucky month I’m happy to empower the boil wash at any time: as for the drying, as Sir Thomas More might have said, “let it shift for itself”.

¤ do you remember the flighty lady so named in ‘Up Pompeii’?