Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The Sixth Scents

My late mother used to refer to smell as “the forgotten” sense. I admit, I inherited her propensity for overstatement, but smell is hardly neglected. It’s big business. You have only to walk into the ground floor of any department store to be knocked sideways by an assault of noxious gases masquerading as ‘perfumery’, let alone the non-stop bombardment of television ads for cloying, oversweet, overpriced ‘celebrity’ and ‘designer’ olfactory offerings, promising seduction and irresistibility to whoever embalms themselves in these pushy potions.

Someone, somewhere, realised a long time ago that far from being the ‘forgotten’ sense, smell is possibly the most important, and indeed, most exploitable of all our senses. Nothing triggers the opening of a wallet more than memory, and memory is triggered by sounds, and scents. Want to relive your holiday in Seville? Spray on a little Maja de Myrurgia to remind you of the Duty Free, and search out ‘Macarena’ on YouTube.

Even the dead remember.

“Can’t you smell that…?” I would ask in disbelief, as some whiff or other overpowered me. It could be chocolate, or coffee, or lilies, or on occasion, foul body odour, but every time, I found that only I was being thus assailed.

“That’s Clairscent” a psychic told me. In other words, whilst some people see ghosts and some hear them, I have to go one better: I don’t just see dead people, I smell them too.

The whiffs I was getting up my nose were scents that came from other times. Other dimensions which overlapped for a few minutes with the present. Over time, I learned not to panic, and that if I waited, the smell would just go away.

One thing I did recognise, however, was that if a scent carried across time and space up my nose and into my head, it was usually because someone was trying to tell me something. Scent is a language all of itself, and those who think it is nothing but a frippery are rather missing the point. In fact, they’re not just missing the point, they’re missing out on a whole different level of communication.

I use different scents to convey different moods. If I want to be welcoming and seductive, I will use a soft sexy floral, say Lorenzo Dante Ferro’s Fior di Panna, Dior’s Diorissimo, Guerlain’s Jicky, or L’Occitane’s Eau de Quatre Reines (the old recipe that is… before they turned it into something resembling fly spray for ‘the younger market’). If I wish to be a bit more aloof but still not completely out of arm’s length, it will be Miss Dior (Original) or Chanel No5 (Eau de Parfum), and if I really want to say “I am a Goddess completely beyond your reach, o mortal fool”, I will use Guerlain’s Mitsouko.

What I was being told however, sitting on a Number 15 bus going from the City of London to the West End, was not clear. Pungent, it certainly was. The bus was empty but for me and the conductor. An old Routemaster. One of the last of the few. I had done the journey so many times, I was jaded and engrossed in my book, when the most foul and pestilential of odours overwhelmed me. It was a vile, cloying, sweet body smell. The sort of smell you used to get downwind of the kind of tramps, aka gentlemen of the road, maddened by Meths and life on London’s inhospitable still bomb-damaged streets, that Don McCullum used to photograph in the 1960s.

“Jeeeezuss!” I exclaimed, looking around in disgust to see who had got on the bus.



Still just me and the conductor, who was now looking at me quizzically.

“Eurrch… what a STINK!” I continued.

“Whassup?” Asked the conductor.

“Can’t you smell that?” I couldn’t believe he couldn’t.

“Smell what?” He was looking at me like I was a crazy lady.

I looked out of the window. We were stopped at the traffic lights….. outside the Old Bailey.

I thought for a minute. The Old Bailey is built on the site of the old Newgate Gaol. Notorious for the incarceration of Jack Sheppard in the early 18th Century, whose life I had researched feverishly in my local library when I should have been at school. It is said that you could smell the stink of the prison for miles around. Even now, the judges who sit above the accused in the dock still carry symbolic nosegays as a nod to the site’s past.
'Smith' the 12-year-old petty thief hero of Leon Garfield's eponymous novel which sparked off my interest in 18th century underworld London. I moved from Smith to researching the real life of Jack Sheppard. Both of whom did porridge at Newgate. Illustration by Antony Maitland.

It had obviously happened again. A ghostly smell that only I had perceived. I waited. The smell passed. The lights changed. I went back to my book, and maintained a chagrined low profile for the rest of the journey.

I am sure that the conductor was glad when I got off at Tottenham Court Road.

What did it mean? Probably nothing. Or maybe it was Jack saying “hi, and thanks for your interest.” I will never know. The point is, I’ve never forgotten it, and I would know that stink anywhere now.

At the time, I was living in a smart new build in Homerton. Like most of the East End, there were only a handful of pre-war houses left, and the rest of the road was all smart lines mixed with 1960s stack-a-prole social housing.

One night, about 3am, I awoke to the acrid scent of burned out building. It was wet cement mixed with the odour of charred wet timber, such as might be scented when blazing wood has had a fire hose turned on it.

Again, I waited for the smell to go, but this time, it didn’t. It lasted a good half hour. I was concerned. It was being persistent. This part of London had been bombed to smithereens during the war. I needed to know what my flat had been built on. If it had been residential, there could have been people killed there in a bombing raid.

An old East Ender at a Jazz jam where I was singing came to my aid. Yes, there had been a fire there. A big fire. During the war. However, it had been a factory. A night attack. Nobody had been there. No deaths.

So it was the land that was traumatised. The land itself was still in shock. Or maybe it was just that the atmospheric conditions ‘matched’ for an instant, and like an olfactory photograph, the whole episode was projected into the air once again - for as long as the conditions lasted, and the dimensions, like tectonic plates, shifted apart again.

Shortly after this, I finally achieved my dream of moving to the country. Abingdon in Oxfordshire. A small, but ancient, market town. To my sheer amazement, I found a cottage to rent within my meagre budget. I knew at the viewing I was not alone, and that its former owner was very much still there, and pretty goddam pissed off about yet another vagrant moving into their home. I excused myself from the agent who was showing me around the kitchen, and went upstairs to where the presence was most evident. I put my hand on one of the ancient beams and asked for permission to stay there for a while. I said I appreciated the imposition, but that I hoped they could see their way clear to letting me stay there.

Friends did not like to visit me there. The ghosts only misbehaved when I had people over. Lights would swing back and forth and switch on and off.

Every morning around 5am, I would smell something very much like 4711 cologne. Someone was still getting up to go to work. I saw him once. I was coming down the stairs, and he was coming along the corridor from the direction of the front door. A man. Thick-set. In his forties or fifties. I was so surprised, I just blurted out “oh hello…”. He looked up in as much shock as me, and disappeared on the spot.

My heart ached for him. Dead, and still getting up and going to work. I decided to help him move on. As a fellow worker bee, I wanted him to know he never had to set his alarm again. I lit a candle, and told him he could sleep for as long as he liked.

It really was that simple. That was all it took. I never saw him, or smelled his cologne again.

The other one, however, I did not feel my business to move anywhere. The cottage in Winsmore Lane was very much hers. A psychic friend had told me it was a woman, and she didn’t like men. He also told me she was very house-proud and that I should keep the place as tidy as I could.
The remorse-filled, restless spectre of Lady Hoby of Bisham Abbey House, who beat her own son to death - as imagined and illustrated by Antony Maitland. One can only guess at the sort of scent that might herald her presence...

I didn’t just keep the place tidy, I involved her in everything. I would tell her about my day when I came home from work, and ask her to keep the place safe from intruders when I was out.

She never moved anything or messed me about, although she hissed like a cat at anyone else who entered the place. On the day I finally left, some three years later, she filled the house with the most glorious scent of Heliotrope flowers. One of my favourite scents in the world. I was overjoyed. It was like she was saying goodbye with a bouquet.

“Thank you!” I called out to her. “Bless you. Hope someone decent follows me.”

I don’t think they did. I visited recently, and some bloke I found coming out of the house told me his dog didn’t like going upstairs and spent a lot of its time “growling at nothing”.

“It’s not nothing.” I blurted. “Just keep the place tidy and respect it. That’s all I can tell you.”

I got another “uh oh, crazy lady – hope she doesn’t have a knife…” expression in response. I smiled sweetly and went smartly on my way.

And then there are the animals. Who doesn’t know what ‘eau de wet labrador’ smells like? Here’s the thing: they carry it over with them to the next level. I frequently smell wet dog at a friend’s house. The first time I did, I sat up like a gun dog myself, sniffing the air.

“Huh?” I sniffed furiously. “Wet dog?”

He didn’t even look up.

“That’s Jemima.” He said. “Probably been swimming in the pond again.”

“You have a dog?” I asked, confused. I had only been there a couple of times, and on both occasions, I had only seen his cats snoozing by the fire.

“Used to. She died years ago.”

It’s taken most of my life to recognise the gift I have been allocated, but I have learned to understand, and even exploit the timeless, and indeed, boundless power of scent from time to time. At a recent 1940s exhibition event in an original WW2 hut (used as a communal site ablutions block as it happens), I made sure to spray myself with as true a vanilla scent as I could find (I used Lorenzo Dante Ferro’s Crema di Vaniglia). It was a deliberate ploy to stir up wartime spooks - and it worked.  

During the war, ladies often used Vanilla essence as scent, as fine French perfumery was hard to come by. I wanted to make sure the whole experience was as full-on as possible, not just for the present day visitors, but for any overlapping RAF personnel gone by as well.

Still dressed in my green crepe 1940s day dress with my hair rolled up at the sides, I was packing up the display table at the end of the two days, when before my eyes, the table rose up a full two inches in front of me, and slammed down again on the concrete floor.

“Err….” I began.

My psychic friend packing up pictures in the next room didn’t even bother to come and look.

“Don’t be frightened. He’s been here all weekend. He doesn’t want you to go. He’s been enjoying the whole thing immensely.”

“Who has?” I admit I was a bit shaken.

“Little guy. Airman. Bright blue eyes. Might be Czech or Polish. I don’t know. Can’t understand what he’s saying. He’s been in the corner all weekend. Finds it all highly perplexing, but he likes the display.”

My eyes suddenly welled up.

Well, you see, that’s why I do these 1940s events. Why I am throwing myself into what sometimes feels like futile fundraising to restore a dilapidated WW2 control tower to turn it into a museum and exhibition space. To honour and remember people like the little blue-eyed airman who flew off in a Spitfire to fight for freedom, and never came home.

Until, that is, the scent of vanilla and a green crepe dress on the figure of a woman drew him back and (so I understand) gave him a smile.

I hope so.

© Emma Blake - 2015


  1. Brilliant and thought provoking as always

  2. What a great read Emma, definitely food for thought and self awareness..... You must write more x