joanne lee


sniffing the air

This essay on smell appeared in The Eccentric City: no k/3, published in Birmingham by Harry Palmer and Si Walker.

Every time I enter the basement car park that leads to the back entrance of my block of flats, there’s the smell of petrol, oil, diesel, dusty metal, damp and dirty floors. The first whiff is enough. Suddenly, implausibly, I’m transported back to childhood; it’s as if I were six years old again and exploring my uncle’s garage with its piles of tools, rusty oil cans, various bits of previously deconstructed engine and theatrical drifts of cobwebs thickening in the corners. We all know that smell can call forth unbidden memories, but it’s still startling to me that a combination of mere molecules trembling in our nostrils can have such a potent effect. Perhaps the intensity of this daily time travel has made me more sensitive than usual, but whatever the reason I’ve realised that I’ve become increasingly preoccupied with my city’s bouquet, perfumes and aromas, its reeks, stenches and stinks.

Some of the strongest have a commercial purpose: Subway, the sandwich chain, pumps out its sickly-savoury-sweet reek onto the high street, determined to gain the shopper’s attention. It makes its presence felt, but as I walk past, it’s as if the inside of my nose receives a greasy, lingering coating. It’s not a smell or sensation I enjoy and I gulp in big draughts of air to rid myself of its traces. Perhaps the worst offender, however, is the natural cosmetics company Lush, whose products exude such strong perfumes that the cumulative effect is to bring tears to my eyes and to render my nostrils numb for minutes afterwards. Aside from this pair, those streets where fast food outlets cluster create further points of intensity. Sometimes I take a route past a host of restaurants offering their oddly British version of Indian, Chinese, Thai, Mexican or Japanese cuisines alongside fried chicken or fish and chips: new, mystifying odours arise from the alchemical blending of these separate kitchens, topped off with the spicy kebab smell so strong that it’s like fingers squeezing my throat.

In the evening, especially at weekends, there is an added condiment: every city-centre alleyway or secluded side-street becomes a lavatory for the countless tanked-up revellers who find themselves ‘caught short’. The morning after the night before, the places they habitually piss smell strangely foxy: it’s not at all unpleasant… It’s curious to me that one of the results of the smoking ban in pubs and clubs seems to have been to make proprietors fussier about cleaning their loos, perhaps fearing embarrassing odours will pervade their premises without the tobacco smoke to camouflage it: these days when I go into a pub, the stink of bleach is almost unbearable. If you’ll excuse my lavatorial musings for a few sentences more, let me add that another recent feature of the urban olfactory landscape seems to be the toilets on new train rolling stock. I’m uncertain why the smell should have changed (perhaps they have a new system – maybe the effluent is stored rather than discharged on the rail line?) but these days there’s a distinctive slightly burnt, very over-ripe and distinctly unpleasant smell that never used to exist. It’s almost as nasty as the ladies loos in certain department stores (Debenhams is especially bad) where it always seems as if something unmentionable has badly ‘gone off’.

The Ladies is usually tucked away at the back of the store, but at the front threshold the shop has its odoriferous peak. Entering from the street, shoppers are greeted by women dispensing squirts of the latest parfumerie promotion: there’s something about their assertive blasts that always conjures for me the image of spraying tom-cats. I once imagined that I would finally become a grown woman by discovering my signature scent, that this would be some sort of rite of passage. For a short spell in my twenties I wore a Dior perfume, but one day was surprisingly disconcerted by someone I barely knew who recognised and correctly identified it. I felt branded, uncomfortably categorised, and I determined as a result to avoid wearing perfume. These days I can’t bear strong scents on others; I feel as if they ‘scratch’ my windpipe - I’m reminded of a line in a track by The Fall, where Mark E. Smith recognises this: ‘Up your nose/Aftershave/like little twigs’. I think he has it exactly right.

Contemporary Westerners seem obsessed with smelling of anything other than their own body: some people are so anxious that they repeatedly apply deodorants and scent throughout the day. I once knew someone who did this so frequently and so liberally that, after his visits, I always rushed to open every window in my house; the smell was so intense I came to think of his habit as being akin to dogs who mark their territory: it won’t surprise you that the friendship did not endure… This idea of scenting reminds me of a vintage blouse I bought from Oxfam, which mere moments after laundering it, began to exude again the smell of its previous owner: it seemed a form of haunting.

Using public transport presents the nose with a pungent bouquet: the hairspray on coiffured ladies; early morning drinkers giving off their sharp glue-like whiff; the chemical flavours of children’s sweets or fizzy pop; the potent reek of someone who has just smoked a cigarette at the bus stop; teenage boys drenched in body spray - as well as the high stench of at least one rank and gamy passenger who has entirely disdained the efforts of the cosmetics industry.

The city offers a rich olfactory brew changing through the seasons. On cold winter’s days the pong of hot detergent from launderettes spills through air vents onto the street, competing with the petrol smell of traffic in frosty air. In summer the taint of fermenting drains or un-emptied bins blend with re-liquifying sticky tarmac; on humid evenings the smoke from barbecues and skunky weed exhale into the night air. Newly mown parks or verges in the roughest areas are suddenly redolent of country meadows, my enjoyment segueing suddenly into that sickly despair when I realise as I walk that the sweet smell of dog shit is emanating from my own shoe. Thinking of dogs, I often watch them going about their own business, with their noses tracing the ground, discerning subtle and precise information, and I wonder how on earth they manage to detect anything at all against the intensity of the human scentscape.