Usually suffering from the tail end of a cold, or riding the heady waves of hay fever (depending on the season), I’ve never set much store by my sense of smell. The one occasion it served me well was in greedily identifying my surprise dish of fish pie from a distance when dining effectively blind-fold in the pitch black of Dans Le Noir in Clerkenwell. My hitherto neglected nostrils have since been roused from a lengthy torpor by Scratch n’ Sniff– a revolution in sociable scent appreciation. This series of events are the brainchild of the fragrantly enterprising Odette Toilette and have been running since early 2010. My second-ever foray into the esoteric field of olfaction was courtesy of Scratch n’Sniff’s fourth outing, the literary-inspired Scent and the Pen on 23rd November. A chatty evening spent in the basement of the quirky Book Club in Shoreditch in the company of one’s undergrad cronies is always a pleasant prospect, but the added interactive ‘smell-o-vision’ dimension promised true edu-tainment.
More than just a flouncy gimmick, the concept-driven scents are central to the given theme of each event and serve to unlock the cultural mores and artistic conventions of the period, place or person they evoke. Ms.Toilette is in the business of making the high-brow accessible and fun to boot. Scratch n’Sniff debuted by laying a scent-trail of fashion through the ages, has since sniffed out cinema icons and will be turning its well-tuned nostrils towards the eaux de colognes and toilettes aimed at the masculine and adolescent markets in the New Year; Kurt Cobain having bequeathed a gift of a title in ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ All the perfumes on offer are hand-picked from the stocks of Les Senteurs of Belgravia. The SW1 perfumery, which specialises in rediscovering and retailing vintage scents, provide the miniature sample bottles which are bestowed on willing sniffers as the evening progresses.
My previous visit to the 1920s-themed night had yielded the nugget of social history that during the Jazz Age, fashionable men wanted to smell like women and decadent women wanted to smell like they’d just had a fag (what with the pleasures of tobacco being considered the preserve of their male counterparts). Gender-bending meets social shock tactics, to the tune of the Charleston, perhaps. I’d felt the urge to secrete the appropriate tester sticks between the pages of my favourite Waughs and Fitzgeralds, so that I might return to them for a synaesthetic bedtime read. In my haste to pour effusive congratulations over Odette Toilette’s already anointed head, I had abandoned all testers and samples in a slapdash muddle. This time around I was determined to be more methodical in my smelling, labeling and reflecting- all participants being invited to record their impressions of the aromas on headed note paper, to encourage sharing of ‘Smelling Notes’ throughout the evening.
Taking a good nasal swig of the nearest glass of coffee beans on offer to cleanse the olfactory palate of any residue of Great Eastern Street, I delved in to the first scent- Eau de Gloire. A Corsican perfume created in honour of Napoleon: I have to admit to only truly connecting with its bergamot, lemon and rosemary when someone mentioned really succulent Sunday dinners. Ah well, on to Bendelirious. A bit more to my taste and reminiscent of YSL Babydoll that I was wont to douse myself with before tripping the light fantastic in the Noughties nightspots of South Yorkshire. It was in fact conceived as something a little more exclusive- ‘a Jean Harlow kind of perfume,’ as Les Senteurs would have it. ‘An homage to legendary New York department store Henri Bendel,’ via Love Hearts and bubble bath and Britney Spears, as interpreted by the Scratch n’Sniff contingent.
Now for the literary bit. With our noses warmed up from the cold, Cambridge English don Dr Rowan Boyson guided participants through a whistlestop stench tour of the 18th century- think Horrible Histories for grown ups with a dash of Blackadder the Third. The central paradox for any writer setting out to capture scent in words is, she explained, the very lack of vocabulary at their disposal, unlike the myriad adjectives for colour, texture and taste. The entertaining Dr.Boyson quoted Locke, noting that ‘the variety of smells… do most of them want names…’ I learnt that for the early part of the century, smell was considered a ‘low-ranking sense’ and when it did get the poetic treatment it was reserved for expressing disgust, as in the ‘sour flatulence and rank armpits’ peppering Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker. In 1738 Pope declared that ‘perfume to you to me is excrement,’ and it wasn’t until Rousseau and the Romantics that writers were able to muse sincerely on the more delicate vapours of rose water and violets. It was with Shelley’s ‘The Sensitive Plant’ of 1820 that ‘the connection between smell and the imagination was made,’ Dr.Boyson told a captive audience drinking in Carnal Flower. An intoxicating floral number made with tuberose, it’s attributes closely recalled the poet’s description of mimosa: ‘music delicate, soft and intense… felt like an odor.’
Noses were given a break over refreshments at the bar (the smelling atmosphere being somewhat corrupted by notes of nachos and guacamole) before we heard from Dr.Ian Patterson, poet and Modernist specialist from Queens’ College, Cambridge. Charmingly clad in cords and hoodie, Dr.Patterson invited us to ruminate on the potential of the poem to ‘fill the hole of the indescribable.’ He proceeded to discourse on Swinburne, Tennyson and even T.S.Eliot’s inability to move far beyond the descriptive smell-by-association or substitution model that still prevails today. He aptly quoted the latter’s ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’- ‘her hand twists a paper rose: That smells of dust and old cologne.’ With that I found myself quite content to make do with such elegant comparisons in the face of ineffable whiffs.
Suitably inspired, the assembled party fell into a haiku-writing parlour game to be judged by the two guest speakers. Taking any of the five proffered mystery scents as stimulus, we toyed with similes ranging from the mundane (elastoplast, Savlon- Vierges et Toreros) to the indulgent (chocolate, chilli, cannabis, Shiraz- Coze) to the outrageously pretentious (alpine mist, pot-pourri chintz, cat sex- Nuit de Noel). The assorted scribbles have been assembled by Odette for the delectation of smell fanatics here.
I’ll never be the next ‘nose’ of the perfume houses of Caron or Chanel, but my senses were certainly invigorated and a few hours spent inhaling such potent infusions did my sinuses the power of good.
You can catch a whiff of the next Scratch n’Sniff on Tuesday 25th January with ‘A Scented Journey Around the World’, a nasal flight of fancy of global proportions.