Animal Crackers

Orland Becomes a Doctor

My late father was a rural veterinary surgeon: in his more morbid moods he used to say that he expected all the patients he’d failed awaiting an explanation when he came to the Pearly Gates. Animal life fascinated, baffled and intrigued him; in many ways he saw himself on the animal level, never above it, always prepared to admit the mysteries of the lower creation. This made him a humble, modest and at the same time uniquely gifted vet; it also disconcerted some of his patients’ owners. He was often able to detect sickness by odour, would as soon sleep in a ditch as a bed and often said he could think of nothing nicer than to have his linen smelling of jugged hare. How he loved snuff – constantly inhaling McChrystal’s mentholated in a noisy prodigal manner more akin to Mrs Gamp than Beau Brummell. Messy stuff, snuff. But then, 45 years I remember a fashion for it at school; the teachers in their innocence, apparently ignorant of its tobacco origin, could think of no reason to prohibit it.

Some of my earliest olfactory memories are those of the domestic animal world. I have talked before in this column of the pungent white mice in their cage on the dresser. Thomas the tabby preferred, if not closely watched, to use a fluted silver Georgian sugar bowl as his private loo; his successor was adept at fishing for goldfish or mountaineering on cold turkeys. But both gentlemen were neutered so that the piercing reek of tomcat, so common in those days, was rare on the premises except prior to surgery.

Until I was about eight I liked nothing better than to be with my younger brother watching my father on operating afternoons, set up on a stool, so that I could see all that went on on the high green scrubbed table. This stool had a woven straw seat so I tended to wobble a bit: I can not only feel the quaver now but also smell and taste that frequently repainted wickerwork. As an infant I used to sit underneath and chew away: cutting teeth I suppose as I gnawed on straw.

Rochal disinfectant was blue as the Mediterranean and seared the nose in a tingling exciting way. It was brewed at home and laid up in old Booths gin bottles for lavish splashing and mopping out. My father scrubbed up with a great lather of Wrights Coal Tar and scalding water before boiling up surgical instruments with a great rolling rattle in a saucepan – later a tiny steriliser. Then came the intoxicating wads of cotton wool sodden with ether and packed in a jam jar, into which was introduced the patient’s snout. It was not until years later that I read how popular chloroform and ether were as recreational drugs with Great World VADs: my brother and I certainly came out of that surgery very tranquil and fulfilled by the sneak peak into animal anatomy. We were also crazy for the smell of creosote, iodine, my grandfather’s turps and that scrapbook paste sold in a blue pot that smelled of marzipan and had a solid white wax protective lid as tempting as the top of a Mr Kipling Bakewell Tart.

The colours and shapes and textures of the animal interior were beyond fascination. Blue, mauve, grey, pink and opaline like the denizens of rock pools but hot and smoking. And so very much offal seemed to emerge: impossible quantities, Mary Poppins-like, from a tiny shaven furry tum before the neat and intricate sewing-up with cat-gut and deft tweezers. And then, quite suddenly, all this began to pall; I suppose it was the end of the age of innocence. We began to realise what was actually going on and the magic melted away; a terrible adult revulsion contaminated innocent enquiry. I liken this to the case of Stella, a woman I once worked with who was a great believer in the disinfecting powers of rose geranium soap: she
sold it for many years to prostitutes’ maids. Anyway, until she was some six years old Stella could and did levitate at will, floating up and downstairs or down the nursery corridor. But once she became aware of what was happening, the power left her overnight, flat and suddenly weighty on the carpet. And for me the magic never came back. When I take the budgie these days to have his beak trimmed the veterinary world seems very different to half a century ago – tidier, quieter and no smells at all.


Miss Host and the Ferret Man: A Note on the Animalic

Civet Cat, Animalic Perfumes, A note on the Animalic, Les Senteurs, Blog, London

My late father was a country vet of the old school and a great collector and raconteur of bizarre experience, both animal and human. The eponymous Miss Host was a gentlewoman of some means who in late middle age conceived a passion for the ferret man who controlled the rabbit population on her land. My father said it was the distinctive sour ferrety smell which clung to his person which gave Miss Host’s lover his irresistible appeal.

We might not all of us go to this extreme, but animalic notes in perfumes give them an extremely sexy, carnal and aphrodisiac edge. Animals depend upon smell to avoid danger, find food and to signal a readiness to mate. So (think Darwin!) when we naked apes pick up notes of civet, musk and castoreum in a fragrance we find all our most basic instincts aroused and thrown into turmoil. The animalic scent is all about survival and perpetuation of the species: a heady concoction to keep in pocket or handbag.

Natural animal notes used in Western perfumery have been illegal for some decades now, so we can explore this erotica with a clear conscience. Anyone who still thinks synthetic materials are inferior and ineffectual should spent an evening with a wearer of Musc Ravageur, Cuir Venenum, Knize Ten or Lady Vengeance. The crucial point is of course how the aphrodisiac oils in the fragrance meet, mingle and blend with those of one’s own skin; how they accelerate, develop and take on an individual life of their own so that the wearer appears to be exuding a delicious odour entirely from their own pores.

No wonder that so many perfume fanciers are as Father would have said, “mad for the dumb!” There is a sensual delight in smelling in these scents something akin to the fur of a pet cat or rabbit. Or, of course, a luxurious fur coat: something that Revillon recognised in the 1950’s when they produced Detchemar to wear as a complement to fur. (It is also the scent that Mia Farrow wears in Rosemary’s Baby to drown the reek of witches’ tannis root).

All the dogs of my life have had their own distinctive delicious smell. Dolly the pug was a beautiful ash blonde, with mink-soft fur which smelled delicately of custard creams. If there is indeed a canine Happy Hunting Ground it will be well stocked for her with grated carrot and Marmite toast. Poppy the black lab was redolent of summer hay fields; and Lucy the poodle like a pure white cashmere sweater. They were none of them much meat eaters; a carnivorous diet tends to imbue dogs with a definite meaty odour on hair, skin and breath. Just as vegetarians detect on human consumers of flesh.

So, radiate a little animal magnetism!

Image from Wikipedia