Summer days should be served hot..


Do you still recall how hot it was two weeks ago? In that sort of weather I feel like a creature in the Reptile House. Sort of slumped and comatose. But if a person taps on the glass of my tank they sometimes see an involuntary twitch and they can then be confident that I’m not a rock or a coral but a – more or less – sentient being. Alive to smell but not much else.

Well, I was amazed to be told by a teacher that even in such great heat classroom windows are not nowadays to be opened beyond a couple of inches. It’s a Health and Safety thing. In case great boys and girls of 17 and 18 fall out, or escape. But how do the young people concentrate? How do they keep awake? What about the teachers? I grew up at a time when fresh air was de rigueur. This was because it was rightly thought both healthy and stimulating and the answer to everything. It was then also admitted that schoolchildren en masse, with their curious adolescent habits and hectic routines, might easily be a bit whiffy.

Certain summer temperatures and scents trigger an immediate connection with the past. All my yesterdays float in the muggy air. Not necessarily fresh and clean scents – some with a certain nostalgie de la boue. For instance that battered wheeled device that marked out the lines for Sports Day, staining newly shorn grass, leaving sour and burning trails. I’m sure we were told it was filled with lime although I don’t know if that was true. Maybe the groundsman said that merely to keep us from smudging it. He used to trudge up and down the field, one shaking hand on the handle, the other cupping the butt end of a cigarette – the way they used to say convicts hold a gasper. Doesn’t tobacco smoke smell extraordinarily good in the heat, by the way?

Or does it? Suddenly I’m not so sure. There’s a repellent new smell in a lot of cigarettes – is it the formaldehyde we’re always being warned about? Do you think the Health and Safety have added a stench to put us off, like the awful pictures on the packets? I’ll tell you one thing, they were mending the roads down our way and when I saw the tar lorry I inhaled deeply and involuntarily. We used to be told that the hot carbolic smell was a sovereign preventative against T.B. and bronchitis. In addition to which, it was a wonderful odour in its own right.

But this wasn’t. This was quite abominable and I almost retched. It’s not just old perfumes that don’t smell the same any more.

Something in the air lately – the damp watery smell from the brook, maybe  – reminded me of being taken to tea some sixty years ago with a very grand lady. Her hall had a sweeping staircase to the landings – just like in Gone With The Wind. The stairwell was heaped up like a flower shop with hydrangeas and lilies, all cool and dewy and fragrant. The hostess took a fancy to me and led me through a vast garden to her pond. There she gave me a stick, with a wired silk stocking attached as an impromtu net, and taught me how to fish for orange-spotted newts. Once we’d peered at the creatures and smelled their cold newty smell¤, back they went into their deep and weedy depths. I have never seen a newt since: strange how this afternoon came back with such force.

In early summer there’s this strange fragrant dust in the yards and on the pavements. The scent of those warm dust baths I used to love to sit in as a small child, like a sparrow or a grooming cat. That nostalgic blend of pollen, earth, diesel, petrichor, geosmin, spicy wisteria and deadly sulphurous laburnum. Above all, a waft of powdery orris from the bearded iris that now blows in every other suburban garden. Blue, brown, yellow and mauve: all breathing out that incredibly emotive fragrance from the silky flowers that flutter like prayer flags. The exhalation of the rainbow goddess. The radiant iris perfumes at Les Senteurs¤¤ draw their hypnotic power from the roots of the plant. But the scent of the garden iris comes from the fragile blooms. It’s a more delicate smell: every year I try to analyse it, to pin it down. Is it something like living human skin? Yes, maybe. Perhaps this is what gives the early summer dust such a heart-stopping quality – filling it with uncanny traces of every person who has come and gone in one’s life. Like those thundering countless footsteps outside Dr Manette’s Soho garden, on that sultry rainy evening in A Tale of Two Cities. Dust to perfumed dust.

Time rushes on. Before nostalgia gives way to maudlin sentiment I’ll tell you a bracing anecdote. Walking to the shops under a long road a-winding under flowery hedges, I smelled a rich and fruity scent. The air was thick with it. Like the aura of a  tropical isle.”Isles of the southern seas/ Deep in your coral caves….”

I think I’ll keep you on pins until next week before I reveal what the smell was. Try to guess?

¤ for those who’ve never smelled a newt – well, it’s somewhat like a toad.

¤¤ such as:

¤ IRIS POUDRE by Frederic Malle
¤ SHEM-EL-NESSIM by Grossmith
¤ ANGELIQUE by Papillon Perfumery
¤ IRIS DE NUIT by Heeley
¤ IRIS PALLADIUM by Les Eaux Primordiales
¤ 23 JANVIER 1984 by Pozzo di Borgo

…Every one a gem!

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?

Image from

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.

Image from Wikimedia commons