Classic Camel – or, “Cover Yourself With Pearl!”

When I was a child it was the done thing – the sought-after thing – to be the proud possessor of a camel coat. I see this garment is still described ‘on-line’ as ‘ an iconic style choice’, though seldom seen in my world. It is years since I bought any sort of coat; decades, even. (I wear my dad’s). The camel coat was especially desired by women, but it was also popular with smart children and with the smoother type of man¤. A camel coat was worn in town, to attend church and to go out to dinner. A camel coat was always correct and ‘safe’. Of course, as a tot, I thought these clothes were spun from camel hair whereas actually they were made of alpaca, merino, cashmere or angora. They were soft, supple, warm and usually lined with some thick slippery silky fabric, sometimes detachable for cleaning. ‘Camel’ referred to the colour – a beige, biscuit, fawn or stone. The coats dirtied quickly, being prone to greasy dark smears around collar and cuffs, and down the front breadth. Their second home was at the dry cleaners. Nonetheless I associate them with wonderful smells.

I guess this was because the coats were worn for best. Consequently, small children being kissed in a hallway, or helping to pile visitors’ wraps on a hostess’s bed, were overwhelmed by a whole perfumery of fragrance, redolent and abundant from expectant bodies and scented skin. There were odours of make up, hairsprays, lotions and aftershaves too: sweet, powdery, sharp, plastic or creamy. Even the odd boutonniere of rosebud or carnation pinned to a lapel.

So it was ironic that lately I was reminded how appalling camel and camel hair – the real raw stuff – actually smells. Maybe you’ll recall that back in June I was reading the novels of Pearl S Buck. Buck wrote exhaustively about China: she was bred if not born there, at the very end of the Imperial era, in the last years of the Dragon Empress.  Her memoirs are picaresque and monumental: reading her is like the very slow and relished munching of rich dark fruit cake, thickly frosted. In one memorable passage she talks of a Mongol camel driver in Manchuria, knitting directly from his moulting animal. Then she tells us that “the reek of the camel is eternal, and not to be removed by the best of washings”. In the Great War, American ladies up in the Chinese hill stations had planned to knit vests for European troops from local camel hair. But the smell was “so strong that my mother held her nose and dropped all the yarn into a pail of strong carbolic solution to soak for a day or two ..(but)…when taken out and dried, the camel reek was still there, triumphant..” ¤¤

Now I know a lady who used to spin her own wool on a wheel, back in her former sheep-farming days. Ever anxious to research on your behalf, I popped round to discuss this. I rang the bell. My kind friend is knitting a blanket and has plenty of wools to hand, including some from her old flock. Even after nearly twenty years, each skein has its own peculiar smell – mostly hay-like, even vaguely flowery and aromatic. I asked her about camel. She’d had it on the wheel once, she said. And like Pearl’s mother, she’d found the odour unbearable.

I can’t speak for myself. I came close to a camel only once, in Egypt. My attention was diverted by an almighty row between the camel-owner, his boy and a British lady who claimed to have been short-changed for her ride on the beast. So the camel driver beat the boy; and the lady ended up paying her fare over again to compensate the victim for his ( I think, carefully staged ) sufferings. I don’t recall much about the smell. Only that of the mint tea made with Nile water – “eau de Nil” indeed – which concluded the riotous proceedings.

Mrs Buck also goes into the whole business of the ‘occidental’ smell of milk. Milk – animal milk at any rate – was not  much used in China a century ago. In one of her books Pearl describes the perceived foul smell – the “cow smell” – exuded by westerners returning from milk-product-consuming Britain and America. It took months to wash through the system and for the sweet clean ‘oriental’ body smell to return.

Finally, and to change the subject entirely. Did I mention some time ago my pot of Greek oregano? I certainly intended to. Well, this hot summer is very much to the herb’s liking and it romps along in the back yard. The scent and the taste are unparalleled. Last Saturday night I baked red peppers and threw in a couple of sprigs. Fragrant, savoury, flavoursome. The oregano had much the same smoky salty effect as adding a rasher of  bacon or a couple of anchovies.  If you can’t afford the camel coat, treat yourself to the oregano.

¤ children and men often had natty velvet collars to their coats. I’m sure Prince George has a camel coat.

¤¤ extracts from ‘My Several Worlds. A Personal Record’ by Pearl S Buck. London: Methuen 1953

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