I guess near the top of almost everyone’s list of favourite smells would be freshly mown grass, baked bread and brewed coffee and I’m no different. Obviously frying bacon would be right up there as well, but I wonder how many people would agree with the other pongs I find pleasurable.
For instance, I love the smell of diesel oil. Seems random, especially as I have never driven a car and have no call to visit garages, but I think this may be because my Mum once worked as a petrol pump attendant at Dagenham Motors. I could have been only three or four at the time and Mum would drop me off with a nearby lady and her small son, where I would happily play all day until she came to collect me when her shift was over. Diesel oil, therefore, seems to have linked itself in my mind with play and being carefree.
I don’t know who the lady was, friend, relative or paid child minder, and nor do I remember her son. My one abiding memory is of a toy record player the other boy owned. It was plastic and I seem to remember it was red and yellow. The records it played were also plastic and to activate them you pushed them into a slot. His music collection consisted of Nellie the Elephant, Whistle While You Work, Three Blind Mice, plus various other nursery rhymes, but the one that has stuck with me for all these long years was a ditty that went “Froggy went a wooing go, hey ho said Froggy”. I’m not certain if I even knew what “wooing” meant back then, so why that particular line stuck with me for over five decades, I have no idea.
Another smell that I adore, which also takes me back to childhood, is carbolic soap. Mum would stand me in a washing up bowl and give me a good all over scrub with a rough flannel and a big red bar of carbolic. I remember once complaining that the curtains were open and people could see in, to which Mum responded in her usual dismissive manner, “don’t be silly, who’d want to look at you?”. Having been raised by Irish Catholic nuns, Mother was an expert when it came to destroying any sign of self-esteem and ramping up guilt complexes.
These memories aren’t so pleasurable, but I still love the smell of that soap. I wasn’t even aware of it until reintroduced to it one day in a public convenience. I was just washing my hands (see some blokes actually do) when the smell of the soap suddenly took me all the way back to toddler-hood. I actually wrapped that sliver of soap in a bit of toilet paper and swiped it so I could sniff it at my leisure. I then went on a soap sniffing mission in the supermarket and discovering carbolic soap was the one, for the last thirty years, I have never used anything else. Sadly, it’s now orange instead of red, but the scent is the most important thing and to this day, I still occasionally pick up my soap just to give it a damned good sniff.
I also like the smell of bleach. Not lavender, lemon, or “spring fresh”, just plain old household bleach. In fact, I put a good glug of bleach into my bath water and it makes me feel ultra clean and fresh afterwards. Am I unusual in this? I don’t know, but if you have whiffy armpits or feet, forget all your sprays, deodorants and talc’s, a drop of bleach in your washing water works wonders. Body odour smells are caused by bacteria, after all, and as Domestos household bleach kills ninety-nine percent of all known germs… Actually, I use the watery 29p per two litres bleach, but it gets the job done and being weak avoids the risk of skin irritation and bleach burn of my delicate bits.
When you finish bathing, you actually smell as though you’ve just come back from the swimming baths. Maybe that’s why I like it. I use about a cup full of thin bleach in a full bath, but don’t over do it, folks, not unless you want to emerge from the water with your eyes on fire and looking like an albino!
There are other smells I like that I can’t pin down to any one time or memory, but I think they also relate to childhood in one way or another. Felt tip pens and magic markers, evo stick glue, the smell of tar boiling away on the back of a lorry; fresh paint, bonfire smoke, creosote, wood shavings and sawdust; Vic’s vapour rub, old books, a woman’s hair, burning toast, the scent of spring in the air, that pipe tobacco that smells like chocolate…
Don’t get me wrong, I also like the smell of lavender and flowers and good perfume, but in general, the smells I like the most tend to be a little more industrial and may be considered by some as more stink than pleasing aroma. Each to his own, I guess.
Well, I managed to get through all this talk of various whiffs without once mentioning the smell of your own farts.
If you disregard that last sentence, anyway.
In addition, memory jogged by the comment below about nail varnish remover, I used to own a Zippo lighter and I loved the smell of that as well. Every time I lit a cigarette, I would flip the Zippo shut to put out the flame and then open it again to inhale the remaining fumes. In fact, I would often light it, put it out and sniff it, whether I had a cigarette to light or not. I don’t think there was any resulting high of any kind, I simply loved the warm petrol smell of it. Cost me a fortune in lighter fluid, as I had to refill the thing almost every day.
Finally, a useful smell, rather than just a pleasant one, is the smoke from burning newspaper. If anybody let’s rip a foul-smelling trump, set fire to a piece of newspaper, blow it out and leave it to smoke in an ashtray and the bad smell will be instantly gone. I guess it works in a similar fashion to the way charcoal is used as a purifier. I learned this little tip while working nights on the London Underground. With a group of men on standby, all sitting around a table in a small, windowless mess room, playing cards for several hours, without the newspaper trick, the air in there would have been unbreathable. Talk about shades of blazing saddles!