The Way Things Smell

I hope you don't suffer from Anosmia. That's the condition that is associated with loss of the sense of smell. That would be a shame, for many reasons, but chiefly for me, that trigger which brings back memories from, say, 50 years ago. They even have a name for that; it's called The Proust Effect.

Overwhelmingly these memories centre around school: warm milk, burning bakelite (every thing electrical hummed and got hot), biscuits, cloth, wood, polish, jeyes fluid, wax crayons, sweet shops, stale clothes that were once washed in Surf or Omo or Oxydol powder. Almost anything can trigger those memories of one little, very confused young boy who sometimes forgot his hanky or peed his pants or stared blankly at the blackboard and stared down at olfactory nightmares - school dinners - the enforced eating of which these days would be classed as child abuse.  That smell always lingered well into the afternoon and got steadily worse. It is not so long ago that schools still smelt the way they did back then in the late fifties and early sixties. It quite unsettled me to be met by the same aromas when visiting my kids' school, to be jolted into a different reality that had mysteriously shrunken in size and scale.

One of my favourite smell scenarios, and it still is, is the smell of railway stations - particularly Kings Cross. The aroma of diesel combined with a kind of acrid, metallic top-note, and that black, sticky stuff you see all over the rails and sleepers (God knows what it is), wee wee, sick and coffee, presented with a flourish, a huge rush of air that whistles through the galleries and corridors. The reason for this is very simple; it was a portal to another world, the the world that enabled me to leave behind my tiny, parochial backwater town with its shut-down mentality and discover something breathtakingly challenging and other. It was a portal to my coming of age.

London used to smell of Patchouli in the sixties. Now it smells of coffee. I preferred the former. I visited the London Transport Museum last time I visited the Capital. An old  Metro Cammel undergound carriage, built in the thirties but still runnning into the 70's looked familiar, but without the smell of tobacco and patchouli, seemed bereft of authenticity.

Many olfactory sensations we shall never get back. Tobacco smoke is one which permeated almost every aspect of life until it was banned. Remember the French Underground? Gitanes! And Disque Bleu!


Richard said...

I have been afflicted too by the 'Proust' effect (it should strictly be called the 'madeleine' effect, after the cake that caused it). When I was a child, I lived in Darlington and before I went to school was lucky enough to be taken many times by a bored mother to see Stephenson's 'Locomotion No 1' which used to be on display on the railway platform. The smell of coal smoke and metal rails, harsh and metallic, and yet warm, takes me in an instant from being a 50-something adult to a tiny boy, staring in wonder at such utterly brilliant things. Funny, that, as today I would go to any lengths to avoid rail travel.

cast iron smells said...

I still hate the smell of wooden floors. It takes me back to my miserable time at school. I had to deliver parcels to a school once and felt depressed for the rest of the day. Thinking of the years of misery.
But the smell of deisel from the back of an ice cream van lifts my spirits. Reminding me of my uncles van and the free sweets and cones he used to give us.
And later in life the aroma of avtur ( aircraft fuel ) takes me back to my times in the airforce. Excitement and travel. How I took it all for granted and didn't think it would ever end.

Rebel Saint said...

The smell of cigarette smoke is one I'm very happy not to have to endure so much any more.

What a nightmare it was to have to sit upstairs on the bus in those days!

Now pipe tobacco or even cigars ... that's a different thing altogether!

McKenzie said...

First of all how is young Weasel doing? I have always wanted to do what he is doing but never got around to it. Too old and messed up now. But it's great to see that the dream is being done else where by others. Give us an update soon.

I totally know what you mean about this smell thing. Sometimes an old smell can produce long forgotten memories that I would not even have been able to rack out if I had tried. It makes you wonder where the hell all these memories are stored. Sometimes a smell from the past can induce movie like scenes in your mind, it can be pretty dam spooky, but also very pleasing. As I get older it seems to getting harder to know if some of these things where real or if I am starting to make them up. What the hell though, life has become a kind of surreal nightmare anyway these days, it's getting harder by the day to know if one is simply having a nightmare, or if in fact it is really happening. God help us mate.

banned said...

The smell released when the sun hits newly creosoted fencing after the rain has gone.

Liverpool St Station c.1980's.

Pitch being boiled in open vats to fix the school roof.

Commercial laundrey, less chemicals, more heat and soap.

Brian said...

The Yorvik Centre with its carefully researched and created Viking York smells. Mmmm... the smell of artificial ordure while sitting in a moving grey school desk.
btw as Proust was French, how he remembered the smell of anything except garlic, gitanes and armpits is beyond me.