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.

Lion’s Maid

Mekhmet

Don’t know about you but this recent heat has been all too much for me; far too much, desiccating Lemon Wedge to a piece of shrivelled if still sweet candied peel. Can’t sleep, can’t think clearly, pacing about like a mad dog. And why do I crave sugar (“Pure, White and Deadly”) during hot weather? Extra salt as we know is a sound precaution but why the sucrose? When many years ago I spent a boiling summer on the buses all my breaks were spent in the cool crypt cafe of St Martin-in-the-Fields eating iced Chelsea buns and drinking pots of scalding syrupy tea: it was all I could fancy and it pulled me through. Boosts your energy level, I suppose: I always remember H Rider Haggard recommending cold tea as the most refreshing drink in the world. Served hot it has a peculiarly attractive smell on a broiling day – maybe fighting like with like, in a homeopathic manner. The slightly bitter leaf infusion, the hot china or (even better) the metal of the pot: flip up the lid to inspect the brew and your face is steamed in fragrance. The body, heated up by the liquid, steps up its own cooling mechanism: that’s why it’s best to avoid cold baths which tell the good body that it’s in danger of becoming chilled and needs to turn up the inner thermostat.

The ancient Egyptians, baked on the banks of the Nile, personified the sun as a whole galaxy of deities each with different characteristics and properties. Sekhmet is my favourite: the Divine Lioness Lady who represents the destroying power of her father the sun, and who in that capacity also burns out disease and plague and incinerates the enemies of Pharoah. In one of those bewildering theological complexities of the Egyptians, Sekhmet also assumes the aspect of the goddess Hathor and has to be turned aside from murdering mankind by being made drunk on red barley beer, which she laps believing it to be human blood.

Yet her images and statues are lovely to look upon. In the British Museum (if you journey no further) there is a gallery of Sekhmets carved from black basalt, a beautiful female form with the head of a handsome and serene lioness. When I spent a week in Luxor I used to go up to the temple complex at Karnak most evenings (always smelling of dried herbs, woodsmoke, dried horse dung and a million cigarettes) and inspect the guardian lionesses there. Rather beyond the ruins spread a whole field of Sekhmets, lopsided and leaning among reeds and grasses: very picturesque but said to be blessed with their own guardians – nests of cobras ( Cleopatra’s holy asp) – so I kept my distance.

But I combed the bazaars and curio shops for my own image of the goddess who had taken my fancy and in the end I found one, about a foot high and made I suppose of painted plaster. Not expensive, and I took her back to the hotel ignominiously wrapped in old newspaper. But it’s a curious thing: that statue began to prey on my mind and over the next couple of days it began to assume the properties of a demon. Its face appeared to change from benevolently feline to malevolently diabolical and in the terrific Luxor heat (it was over 120) I persuaded myself that carrying it on the flight home would cause the plane to crash. Sekhmet had to be jettisoned. As perhaps you know, it is very difficult to lose things on purpose – they keep being returned by kindly people. (As I had once found with a redundant copy of Moby Dick in Tunis ). But in the end, once again swaddled in layers of old paper, She of The Chamber of Flames was successfully buried and abandoned beneath the cushions of a banquette in the hotel main lobby. Even then I worried that the outraged lioness might burn out the Luxor Imperial during the night. Of course, had the weather been cooler and I saner, I should have just smashed the thing on the bathroom floor and binned the pieces.

Heat has its own smell but it is very difficult to tell it from the appurtenances of heat: the cigarettes which taste toastier and nuttier, the panicky deodorant, the dry pavements, sticky tarmac. Panting dogs and ice cream vans reeking pleasantly of vegetable fat, frosted vanillin, saccharine and petrol; a stuffiness as though of a huge feather pillow over the face. Heat accentuates every odour – doesn’t cooking smell brazen in a hot spell? Aren’t barbecues aggressive? For me all sorts of perfume, liberally applied, go good in a heat wave. I have a pet theory that the heavier and more exotic the better: applying a blast of amber, incense, waterlily, ylang ylang or jasmine seems to return those oils to their native element and the extreme climates that bred them.  In the freakish British summer they once more bloom again in all their florid magnificence on the sticky air, turning heads in more ways than one. A bit like Marilyn – “She started this heat wave / By making her seat wave”. Go wild: the dog days are upon us.

Fish + Chips

Fish and Chips in Newspaper advert

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.

Image from adsoftheworld.com