Scents and sensibility

I am so, so sorry. No more puns, ever.

Reading a lot of Roald Dahl books recently, several of which I have not read since I was 6 or 7, inevitably dredges up dim and distant memories. Dahl writes in his own memoir, Boy, that adults remember little from before the age of 7 or 8. It’s a curious thing, memory – the things that stay with us through our lives, however insignificant, and the sometimes significant things that happen to us which we will never have cause to recall later on.

My memories up to the age of 7 or 8 are vague and general, not specific except in rare cases like the time when, aged 5 or 6, I was climbing on a roughly constructed wall, slipped, and fell to the ground with what felt an enormous boulder landing moments later on my back. Much wailing ensued and a moderate amount of blood was drawn. I remember being driven home kneeling on the floor in the front of the car, leaning forward on to the passenger seat, because it was too painful to sit up. My memories are of it being horrific, but I don’t think a doctor was even consulted, so it can’t have been nearly as bad as it seemed to me then. I was back to normal very soon.

It is rarely thinking about the past or seeing reminders of it that evokes the strongest memories in me, though – it is always smells. Certain smells transport me instantly back to particular times of my life, and especially to particular places. Perfume does this often. I had a succession of more than usually fragrant teachers at my first school. I believe my first three teachers all got married and promptly pregnant while I was in their classes (though my alibi is absolutely watertight, I feel bound to stress). Many is the time that I have passed women in the street or in shops and suddenly become a five-year-old boy again because of how they smell. I have never been brave enough or weird enough to approach them to ask them what perfume it is exactly that they are sporting, though the knowledge that I could possess this time-travel elixir in a bottle is a little exciting. I do have a bottle of Givenchy aftershave that is special to me as it used to belong to my uncle, but I don’t smell or use it often, simply because of its being special.

Much has been written on the subject of the smell of books by people with various kinky proclivities. I spend my life surrounded by books and very occasionally find myself smelling them for rather too often than is strictly necessary or indeed proper. I catalogued two yesterday that had very different effects on me: firstly The Oxford Handbook of Genitourinary Medicine, HIV and AIDS, which I am sure most of you are familiar with. All the books in this series have flexible and durable plastic covers, a tremendous boon if you happen to get bile or pus on the book and don’t want it to stain. This one had a lovely manufactured, sterile smell strongly reminiscent of my childhood paddling pool. The second, A Social History of Housing, 1815-1970 by John Burnett, was a book which had evidently been kept in damp conditions since its publication 30 years ago. In the long term mould is one of paper’s greatest enemies, but I can’t help loving the memories it evokes of the attic of my grandparents’ house in Leeds, with its blackboard and chalk and its musical chair. That is the closest I have ever come to loving a house, but it was sold in the mid-1990s and now all that remains of it for me, home videos aside, are the occasional recollections of the different smells of the attic, the pantry and the bathrooms, which I can never recapture except by chance.

It’s probably a sign of my having been a more than usually odd child, but I used to love the smell of a newly unwrapped blank video, especially Scotch. There was a powerful chemical aroma that used to emanate from them when new and fade with use. I expect my senses were made more alert by my excitement at having something sufficiently important to record off the telly that it necessitated the use of a brand new tape, but even so it can’t lessen the sensation in my mind. I don’t think Scotch make VHS tapes any longer. I found one on eBay that was still wrapped, but I don’t want to go down that road, always looking for the next hit while every day the possibility of scoring becomes more remote.

(If you do a Google image search for “scotch video” the third page brings up a picture of Rikki Fulton, which is a pleasant surprise).

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One Response to “Scents and sensibility”

  1. Gareth Says:

    One book today smelt of gingerbread. A certain novelty value in that, though I suspect it may have been bought second-hand from a witch.

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