Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The seven ages of smell

Smell. It’s the poor relative of the five senses, yet perhaps the most evocative. Few of us think about it, but our lives would be so much poorer without it.

Just a whiff of tomato plants immediately transports me back to the greenhouses of my English childhood, where the glass panes entrapped the giddy scent of the vines and their rapidly ripening red fruits. The scent of fresh sawdust and wet mortar whips me down a wormhole to days spent playing around one of the building sites where my master-builder Grandad and his gang were hard at work. And the sweet smell of baby shampoo takes me back to the first days of my teenage son’s life, when I used to love to sniff the freshly-washed blonde fluff on his head after his evening bath.

I really only started to appreciate my sense of smell when I quit smoking five years ago. Along with the frayed nerves and flu-like symptoms of the first month of withdrawal from the devil weed, I noticed something much nicer…

It was as if the tiny hairs and receptors in my nostrils had been plunged into the deep freeze for a couple of decades, only to be slowly awoken in the ‘bain Marie’ of my newly smoke-free status. Within the first fortnight, I knew the minute I walked into the house that we had left an overnight mosquito-repellent tablet plugged in all day. I became an aroma junkie, obsessively breathing in the scent of fruit and veg at the grocers before selecting them – and summarily rejecting anything that smelt of nothing. I was even caught on a couple of occasions sniffing close friends and family.

The stages of most lives can be characterised by distinctive scents. So here are my seven ages of smell:

Fresh-mown grass, bicycle chain grease, mud after a downpour, Dad’s aftershave, Sunday roasts, the cloud of hairspray and perfume at Mum’s dressing table, allergy cream, a sponge cake cooling in the kitchen, the delicate aroma of Nana’s rouge and lipstick when I gave her a kiss, orange squash lollies from the cavernous freezer, Matey bubble bath, the earthy scent of a cuddle with Grandad after a day in the garden, freshly-baked shortbread, the summer stink that wafted across the fields when farmers sprayed with fertilizer, pencil shavings, blood, Dettol and apples.

“Charlie” perfume, Indian ink, the chemical sharp edge of Sun-In hair lightener, greasy lipsticks left on the windowsill, wet schoolbooks, stale cigarette smoke on friends’ clothes, joss sticks, that ‘old man’ smell that refused to leave the army coats we bought from charity shops, second-hand books, Juicy Fruit chewing gum, dried watercolours, a new sketchpad, stinky hair-removing cream and far too much deodorant.

Single adulthood:
Carbon paper, alcohol, the first whiff of a lit cigarette, hot metal and ink from a printing press, paper dust, the marigold-reminiscent scent of petrol, facemasks, hair mousse, my first culinary experiments with soy sauce or oregano, garlic bread, wet hair, the summer reminder of that bottle of milk that spilled in my first car, vodka & orange and “Rive Gauche”.

Married life:
Scented candles, pretentious dinner party menus, newsprint in bed, ground coffee, the musky scent at the nape of his neck, red wine, sausages burning on the barby, his aftershave, fry-up breakfasts on Sunday mornings, someone else’s sweat, the comforting scent of his favourite t-shirt (the one you wear to bed when he’s away) and his & hers “Bulgari”.

The unbeatable aroma of a new-born’s tummy, heavy nappies, washing powder, regurgitated milk, Sudocream, boiling water to sterilize bottles and dummies, that unmistakable “I’m cooking up something in my nappy” scent wafting from the cot (usually accompanied by a knowing grin), infant’s hair, Johnson’s baby powder, Dettol, burps and pureed carrot.

Middle age:
Home baked bread, the whiff of over-heated electric cables, anti-acid tablets, moisturising cream, herbal tea, jam, eye gel for those pesky bags, tiger balm, saffron rice, damp laundry under a hot iron, foot lotion, the smell of fellow passengers on public transport and lavender plants.

Who knows? It’s yet to come… ...but I supect it will include scents from all the previous ages. Not least Dettol, old books, favourite t-shirts, baby powder, moisturizing cream and anti-acid. But hopefully there will also be the scents of newborn grandchildren, fresh baked shortbread and tea too.

Tea, after all, is the scent for all ages.


  1. Oh what a wonderful post!...this is such a good idea, and so true....I can almost smell those different 'stages'.....

  2. I expect we are a similar age, all those things you remember of adolescence bring back memories for me too, but also white must perfume from the body shop and Rimmel Pink shimmer lipstick particularly!

    Mich x

  3. Excellent post! Some of your smells brought memories rushing back. Carbon paper! Juicy Fruit chewing gum! Charlie perfume! Oh, and Sun-In hair lightening - I'd forgotten about that.
    Such happy memories.