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!

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.

charm

I am dotty about What I Did On My Holidays, Sarah McCartney‘s preservation of past summers like so many flies in sweet-smelling amber. Highly original, devastatingly pretty: here’s an elegant scent that’s cunning and clever, amusing, witty and a treat to wear. A jeu d’esprit, a tonic, a irresistible pick-me-up even on the weariest and wickedest of August days. WIDOMH is a  hand-tinted picture postcard album of seaside nostalgia; what Charlie Drake used to call “a world of toffee and tears”. Take a pierrot line of melting Neapolitan ices, creamy whorls of dusty pink, pistachio, gold and vanilla. Then fold in green cucumbery notes of sea breeze, rock pools and crab teas; pink sticky watch-your-fillings peppermint rock; coconut suntan oil from the pre-SPF era; and the yellow haze of sunshine filtered through Bank Holiday traffic fumes and serenaded by the melancholy Sunday afternoon chimes of the Mr Softee van. Does this have you reaching for your purse? I’ll take two,please!

I’m told that my first sight of the dark North Sea aged two and a half prompted no response other than “I want my tea!”. I remember the kitchen curtains of our holiday house, patterned in a very 1950’s whimsy of trams and trains; and the sensual pleasures of popping seaweed between the fingers – the sun-baked black sort like dried currants and the slithery greenery yallery ropes of what looked and felt like strings of sultanas, smelling of harbour water and mud. I recall our pointer dog finding the remains of a dead seal on the early morning beach, his ecstatic and comprehensive roll and the subsequent reeking chaos. And I remember stumping over the quaggy marshy waste between sand dunes and street through clumps of red and yellow bird’s foot trefoil which my mother told me was called the bacon and eggs plant. For years I used to smell the savoury odours of the family fry pan billowing from this tiny flower: now the the trefoil seems to have vanished and the full English with it.

Then one Whitsun we went to Bognor, so beloved of George V : Bognor in a heat wave and a bright yellow house called Easter Cottage, with a piano and a window seat for the pugs to scratch; a house made even hotter by a kitchen boiler with live coals and cinders to be raked out every morning. This was my first encounter with holiday crowds, great heat, vinegary wasp traps and the prodigality of holiday ice creams, the latter very carefully rationed. My parents were dubious about cornets (made under the bed, said my grandmother, and using the cheapest sort of lard); but a choc ice might be occasionally allowed (safely wrapped, you see), and brought home before being cut into slices and shared out by degrees. Years later I got into terrible trouble with a teacher at school for being seen to eat ice cream in the street. The front and the beach at Bognor were too crowded to attempt,  and what I remember best is pottering endlessly round a tiny zoo of which my grandmother rightly disapproved, fascinated by an African crested crane. The bird looked elegant and cool under the dusty trees and didn’t have the disturbing, even frightening, smell of the monkeys and chimps. Neither did it shriek and chitter, nor wave a shaming pink behind at the bars.

In the 1960’s we made excursions to Wales, to the coast and the mountains; I developed what was either meningitis or sunstroke, the doctors could never decide. But the walls of my bedroom melted into crumbling india rubber and my splitting head was, for months after, full of the scent of the liver paste sandwiches which we were eating on the sands the day the horror struck. Indeed, I can still smell them, 50 years on. On a subsequent visit, we children all went down with chicken pox (which my brother had been told by his school nurse was a flea infestation) so the classic fougere of the wet bracken is forever mixed in my mind with the chalky kiss of kalomine lotion on red burning skin. That was the time when in my fever I fancied Satan was outside the bedroom window: the cow with the crumpled horn scratching herself against the wall of the house.

Holiday memories are the sharpest, because one is living out of the ordinary for a week or two; and because the camera that we all carry with us is so tuned up by anticipation if not apprehension to snap a sharp succession of new experiences. I used to hate those intrusive essays demanded on the return to school: “What I Did on My Holidays” seemed absolutely no one’s business but my own. Yet, here are 4160 Tuesdays and I  sharing these long-ago experiences, caught in this extraordinary scent which  smells elusive, heart-tugging and hilarious in turn. It has a whiff of that most comical and grotesque of trips, Dora Bryan and Robert Stephens lugging a sullen Rita Tushingham (“be nice to him, love, he’s brought you chocolates”) along Blackpool Pier in A Taste of Honey. And it has the melancholy dreamy beauty of a faded water colour in an old bedroom looking out to sea, a room I’ve not seen for more than half a century; where if I stood on top of the water tank I could just about make out the grey waves and the sand dunes away across the marshes.