Scents of Memory Lane

“I count only the happy hours” reads an inscription on an old sundial: is it the one we see in Gone With The Wind before Scarlett storms into the library to confront a reluctant Ashley? I can tell off the hours of infantile happy smells like beads of a rosary; each bead filled, as it might be, like those of Marie Stuart, with amber, civet and musk: the odour of sanctity.

I did love the smells of church. We were in a High Church of England parish so lots of incense (“Rose of Sharon”) and the thrill of hot waxy smoky snuffed candles, as well as the fascination by the neat little brass cone on a stick which did the trick. I longed to take it home and put it to use. Then in the vestry, the inhalation of laundered surplices, dusty rusty cassocks and shelves of well-handled leather books, all slightly foxed. And then the smell of the lickable adhesive on the brilliantly coloured Bible stickers doled out at Sunday school – glue boiled from hooves, I guess: very thick and the colour of dark amber.

Most mornings in the summer holidays my brother and I would sit on the hot dry dusty pavement waiting for Mrs Crump, the kind postlady, who allowed us to follow her on her rounds – “no further than the gasworks,mind” – and inhaling the wonderful aroma of flowering privet and hot tarmac. Summer roads always seemed to be pleasingly sticky in those days. In my memories the nose-tickling pungent privet segues into the spicy pink and white phlox in the back garden; peppery lupins the colour of sweet corn kernels; and the thick overpowering scent of the hawthorn hedges, almost unbearably abundant and lush but grounded with that faint aroma of cow dung deep in the creamy blossom. The weird smell of daffodils: something like green rubber gloves and with a sinister hint of gas. Unhappy people still put their heads in the oven in those days, and the grown-ups whispered over our heads, “she even thought to put a cushion on the bottom shelf…she wanted to take the cat with her but he jumped out…”

Fresh cut grass, of course, mixed with the newly oiled mower; candy floss at the Fair; honeysuckle and lily of the valley under primary school windows, filling me even at 5 with an inexplicable emotion which I suppose was nostalgia – but at that age, for what? Not to mention the warm velvet perfume of wallflowers, hardly ever used in perfumery: thought too homely, perhaps. But one of the most delicious smells in the world.

I also relished the less obviously idyllic aromas of burning newspaper (illicit garden bonfires) and the universal panacea for upset tummies: kaolin and morphia. Who else remembers this, and the wonderfully comforting way it made your inside fairly glow with heat? Vick’s chest rub was good too, and my father’s Cherry Blossom shoe polish. I was intoxicated by the way my grandmother’s Players mingled with the scent of her face powder, lipstick, hair and Arden’s Blue Grass: one of the quintessential childhood scents, gone these 50 years but intact in my brain. The inside of her handbag smelled good too, except that “Little boys Never Ever look in ladies’ bags!”

The poignant thing is that time moves on but the smells remain as clear and entire as ever, locked in the mind to be released at will. The people we knew die, houses are demolished and fields built over: but their scents are imperishable.

And one more question: is there anyone out there who remembers Kiddle Kolognes? And if so, which was your favourite?

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Infantile Memory Regression Syndrome

They say you only remember the good times; that all the summers of the past were sunny ones. Of smells gone by, I am not so confident. To be sure I share that common memory of my mother kissing me goodnight, smelling delicious (probably in her Diorissimo phase) + my aunt’s wonderful aura of Ma Griffe; but I also have vivid remembrance of the white mice in their blue cage on the dresser to whose acrid reek Mrs Garner invariably drew disapproving attention when she came round to help with the ironing. To me aged 4 it was quite amusing in its rankness, but I can see now that the adults suffered terribly.

A truly nauseating smell was emitted by my father’s favourite meal of boiled tripe. I was scared of the fascinating odour of creosote because I was told it could kill me (this an adult warning to keep me from dabbling my fingers in the creosote barrel); and I couldn’t stand the terrible asphyxiation of “Flit” fly spray – a truly appalling smell half a century ago, which had me running upstairs and burying my face in the pillows, as my great grandmother had done whenever a barrel-organ (with monkey) trundled round the corner. I can smell that “Flit” now, mixed up with the delicate scent of ripe pears: the spray seemed to penetrate the very food. And of course the can carried its own sinister warning “may be fatal to pets”.

Cars were a problem: as a small child I suffered terribly from travel-sickness invariably triggered by the whiff of fresh petrol fumes, so that I dreaded the obligatory fill-up at the garage as we set off for seaside holidays. The smell of a car’s interior, a fine new leathery interior, could be very queasy – my grandfather’s Wolsley with its deep squashy seats and built-in cigarette lighter, and the scent of Mr Stride’s string-backed chamois driving gloves on the school run both induced uncomfortable sensations.

Other horror smells of the 1950’s included: the inside of sugar jars; next door’s obese cocker spaniel covered in eczema; ham omelettes; iodine (the smell anticipated the squeals as it disinfected the abrasion); soot (because I was frightened of the sweep – still as sinister in those days as in “The Water Babies”, one of my grandmother’s favourite readings-aloud); a pink foam rubber elephant impregnated with saccharine strawberries, given to my brother; and napthlene moth balls.
Nearly all now deodorised and changed and gone forever. Happy days!

Having arrived at the seaside in the petrolly car, we always stayed in a tall narrow old house overlooking the salt marshes and the North Sea: five minutes to the beach across a foul-smelling bog starred with long-vanished wild flowers. Invigorating scents of salt, roses, harvest fields, tar, driftwood, seaweed, wet dog, and fried fish all carried on the wind. But the idyllic garden of our lovely house held a foul secret: at the bottom of the lawn (and it was a small, short lawn), insufficiently screened by fuschias and hollyhocks, was a Victorian cess pool, emptied rarely. In warm weather it was overpoweringly sulphorous, and the few occasions when “the man” came to empty it are not to be thought of. We went off to the sand dunes for the day: but the miasma stirred up hung about, hovering over the garden for days after and calling for sealed windows. My poor grand-mother, who was very much of Miss Nightingale’s opinion as to the danger of smells breeding disease,had us all cover our faces with cologne-soaked handkerchiefs – 4711 or Yardley’s lavender.

But the worst memory, really, because it has colour and smell and texture all mixed up together belongs to very early school days and a sweet Italian cleaner who carried around a milk churn of liquid floor polish. This was the exact shade and consistency of Heinz tomato soup and the way in which it blended with Annamaria’s garlicky lunchbox was to me a truly surreal horror. Likewise the cold sausage in a frying pan full of congealed fat found in a teacher’s wardrobe…but here I am getting ahead of myself. Next time we’ll perhaps look at Happy Smells.

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