Kicking Up a Stink: Eau de Nostalgia

Walking into the large shopping mall near the offices where I work, I was overwhelmed by a new scent… the smell of bergamot, geranium, soapy nipples and foaming navels.

Lush, the handmade cosmetics store, has arrived with its top notes of lemon, apple pulp and ylang ylang competing ferociously with the artisan donut stall and coffee grinders plying their trade only metres away.

So pungent and distinctive is the scent of Lush that you can smell its High Street shops for a good hundred yards before you happen upon them. How much more concentrated is the smell in an enclosed space!

Before Lush, I’d walk into that mall and, like an off-duty sniffer dog, I’d be aware of, but casually indifferent to the smells mingling in the air.

“That,” I’d say to myself, “is the smell of capitalism,” as I walked past Hollister (Body Spray £13) and Jo Malone (perfume RRP £88 per 100ml).

It is a recognisable smell and it is powerful. Walk through a fug of that after an overpriced skinny latte and you genuinely feel you have money to throw away.

I have worked hard to resist that feeling. But it is seemingly impossible for younger people to do.

The teens of my acquaintance breathe in that chemically fragrant air and swoon under its spell. Suddenly they are not in Southampton but the Hamptons. They are not the children of modestly paid public sector workers, but the offspring of derivative traders with weekend homes.

Try telling them that £13 for a tiny tin of deodorant is excessive and they look at you aghast. 

“But this is the coolest! It’s got bamboo leaves and driftwood in it to make you think of the beach in California!”

Their world smells so different from the one I grew up in.

In the days before Jo Malone had even thought about grating ginger into oil and smearing it behind her ears, the world had a quite different pong.

The town I grew up in had a brewery at its centre. Some days the smell of the process could knock you out. Yeasty with sulphurous undertones, it quite put me off the walk to Brownies.

Brownies. Another smell. This time of the church hall; the wood of the floorboards and the musty whiff of the ancient curtains which decorated the stage.

Boarding school; the convent. The smells of incense lingering in the passage outside the chapel. The clean, hot, lemony scent of the laundry and the grey stink of boiling veg emanating from the refectory.

And then there was the stables. At an early age I’d developed a passion for ponies. Free time at the weekends was spent mucking out.

My parents were grateful to know exactly what I had between my thighs on a Saturday afternoon and licensed me to spend as much time there as I liked.

I loved the smells of the yard. Saddle soap, hoof oil, the smokey aroma of horses being shod; the organic smell of the dung I forked and the sweet scent of pony nuts. (Before you get anxious, that’s horse feed. Then, just as now, I’d likely be found with my head in the trough…)

I swapped the stables for the Sixth Form at a boys’ school (a handful of girls joined each year in the Lower Sixth as biological curiosities) and the smells changed again.

The school hall smelt of floor polish and perspiration with top notes of Kouros, that ghastly scent beloved of young men in the 80s. To this day, I have an aversion to it. It puts me in mind of unwanted, barely hairy chins way too close to my own.

And then to university.

The smell of the Students’ Union. Stale tobacco on the air and the odour of booze rising from the sticky carpet tiles. The merest hint of marijuana. A trace of industrial antiseptic in the loos.

My student accommodation, reeking of damp with the occasional whiff of gas from an unreliable boiler and the metallic odour as the one bar electric heater stirred into action.

Where was Jo Malone with her scented candles when you needed her?

Yes, the world smelt very different back then.

Oh, go on then. £13 to put me in mind of a Californian beach? Bargain.

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