You can miss the smallest or most mundane thing about yourself if it is out of action for any period of time. You forget – until your back is bad – that all movement hinges on it. You forget – until you fall on/ break/sprain a toe or a finger – that such an injury puts the whole hand or foot out of action. What it is currently fashionable to call “wellbeing” is smothered – in my case literally – by a heavy head cold. No this is not that old argument about the difference between colds and flu, men and women, let somebody else do that. I am here to tell you that I lost my sense of smell for just inside a week and am glad to welcome it back.
A former SI (special interest) in my life went into the police as a cadet, was seconded to Special Services, had wonderful tales to tell and two discernible injuries: a stab wound in the stomach (one of the first personal things he ever let me in on was that he had adhesions – where the gut sticks to itself – the pain was terrible and if this should happen, I was to get him to hospital fast) and a shotgun blast down one side. As a result of being blown over and bashed about he also had bad back pain. And it was he who described aroma therapeutic massage as
the best relief from it he had ever had (other than that obtained by the long suffering physio who put him back together twice and then told him “I’m not doing that again, do your exercises” thus giving him something else to fixate upon.) The masseur had great hands for him – touch is personal – but she was also very gifted at mixing oils and she nailed a smell that let him let her in, so she could really help him. This was someone specialising in unreachable so that was a breakthrough.
In her wonderful book A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman tells you that smell is one of the oldest senses, and one of the most imperishable. You may forget the name and the face but you will remember the smell. And in a new sheriff-as-private-eye on Five Star called Longmire, there was an incident (and some very shrewd product placement) when our hero drove to break the news of her husband’s death to a woman, though when she opened the door, he was completely unmanned. Later he explained himself (this was, take my word for it, well written). It was the anniversary of his wife’s death and when she opened the door wearing the same perfume (Jo Malone), he couldn’t speak.
Years after my father’s death a man walked up an escalator wearing that mixture of tobacco, carbolic and Ingram’s Shaving Cream that was my father and I walked against the down moving stair like a bird dog – in the hope that all reason told me was wrong. I’ve done programmes about the recognition and association of smells which ranged from Granny’s hotpot to Yves St. Laurent, with all the stops along the way – from “scented cushions” – highly scented fat shiny sweets – to babies’ heads and death.
In the midst of the worst British flooding for years, news media have been loath to talk about the sewage in the floodwater, the health hazard and stench. Though when Canvey Island became a byword for death and destruction by water in the 1950s, my mother remarked, “Oh those poor people – and what they never tell you is that even if you dry everything out, it will smell horrible.” Makes you want to put lavender in the sandbags, a truly specious thought.
That we don’t all like or dislike the same smells, that they smell different in different circumstances, on different skins is well known to us. Some natural smells don’t translate though the naming of a perfume may influence how you perceive it. Did the founder of the House Of Guerlain who invented perfumes (what is called a “nose” – a very strange mixture of chemistry, alchemy and horse sense) name the perfumes too? . . . Though whether we call it effluent, sewage or muck, I fear the smell of the floods will linger, augmented by the terrible damp. A whole generation seems not to know that standing water smells.
Will smelling it make us any more efficient about dealing with it?