… A Damp Bed

Vile Bodies

I have written before about cruel bitter winter cold and the scent of snow but now I am going to examine another sort of cold, not peculiar to winter and infinitely more sinister and enervating: the damp cold that has the chill of the grave about it. A cold with no zest nor vigour, no promise of growth or sense of imminent germination but the musty desolate dismal smell of an unaired bed, a disused church or an empty house. A cold that freezes you in any season, a void of gloom, nausea and despair. In Vile Bodies (a novel that is very perceptive about smells) Evelyn Waugh has poor Agatha Runcible spending the night in a pub en route for the motor races. Next morning she comes to the hero’s room:

“Darling,” she said, “there’s no looking-glass in my room and no bath anywhere, and I trod on someone soft and cold asleep in the passage,and I’ve been awake all night killing bugs with drops of face lotion,and everything smells, and I feel so low I could die.”

This passage impressed me so much in my teens that I wrote it at the head of every page of that year’s calendar. It seemed then a remarkably acute summation of my adolescence.
Agatha was dead right: everything smells sad and bad in such weather.

My grandfather’s house in Soar Street was idyllic in its way, with French windows from all the reception rooms opening onto a rose garden, orchard and meadows but it was a house designed more for a Greek island or Tangiers rather than the climate of the East Midlands. All the books were foxed and the leather bindings damply pungent (the smell has only intensified over the intervening years); and in the annexe across the yard poorly cured badger skins,dried hard and curling, served as bedside mats. Even today I think of musty damp as the Soar Street Smell, and a disconcerting hint of it lurks in Pierre Guillaume‘s Psychotrope, a perfume based on accords of leather and iris, leading to thoughts of St Margaret’s jewelled manuscript Bible lying in the river, the illuminations glowing like exotic water weeds in the current.

Certain holidays stand out in my memory and define this phenomenon. Venice in February, staying in a budget out of season hotel on the abandoned Lido and having to bribe the reluctant maid for gritty dusty horse blankets – then while we were out during the day she’d whip them back to her store cupboard. She also stole my nightshirt, a wonderful shroud-like garment bought years before in Luxor. I felt so sick with cold amid the streaming stones of St Mark’s Square that nothing would do but to stop for another pungent Negroni to settle my stomach and get the blood coursing. There was none of the legendary canal stench, just a dark and infinitely sad whiff of icy water like bitter bottle-green ink, which oozed from the rodent decay of ancient plaster the colour of sugared almonds splotched with mould. And in the great churches, the hangover of stale cold incense embedded in dank stone for 1000 years; a scent that was uncannily recreated in Etro’s Messe de Minuit, a fragrance that had a certain vogue a few years ago: too chilly and forbidding by half for me, though it bewitched many.

And so to Berlin on the marshy Prussian plain, packing a new bottle of Chanel 19 which proved a vexing frustration since my flesh was too chilled to animate it. We schlepped out to Potsdam to see the old Imperial palaces: the summery idyll of the Shell Grotto seemed to mock our dumb damp freeze as the guide trailed us from one royal Sterbzimmer to the next: “here the daughter of your Queen Victoria suffered torments; now we see the very bed in which where the Emperor choked to death..” And afterwards, in the rail station forecourt, gluhwein, the spicy reek of currywurst, fried onions and popcorn permeated our mildewed coats as thoroughly as food odours can in only this sort of weather.
(Think of those leather jackets in the Tube, radiating a thousand and one kebabs).

Back in England, I remember icy rain coming down in stair-rods on June Speech Days, drenching unsuitable clothes; huddled in a steamed up car smelling powerfully of soaked cotton dresses and wool suits, hair, dog and doubly damp cucumber sandwiches. And a stay in a seaside Cornish guest-house where as the April sky was blue and the sun blazing on the spotless windows, the landlady had decided to turn off all heat and hot water. The clammy cold sheets stuck to our legs; the rugs in the breakfast room were slimy with damp, as in Mr Jeremy Fisher’s house – “all slippy-sloppy in the back passage” – and there was a terrible scene when a guest asked for a boiled egg. “Hot food not served”. Women’s hairspray hung in droplets, like lacquered sea mist.

But not everyone finds these conditions a mere sodden misery; for some they arouse gothic and romantic sensations, smacking of Jane Eyre, The Woman in White and the works of Bram Stoker. Or the grim exhilaration of Damia’s song, Pluie, as the singer contemplates the soaked and rotted garden that reflects her life. For these connoisseurs of tristesse, Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier created Route du Vetiver. Maybe nowadays it is somewhat less dramatic, having perhaps frightened itself; but at its peak it was a wonderful wallow in vaults, cellars, crypts and abandoned Anderson shelters drawing its power from an extreme use of the earthy damp roots of vetiver grass that seemed to shake off soil and grit into the very bottle.

Image from wikimediacommons