In As You Like It (one of my favourites, just for the pure gender play frolics of Rosalind as Ganymede), Jacques famously talks of the seven ages of man, in his standard less-than-chirpy terms, the great big sulky drawers. 400 years ago, people’s lives were a lot shorter, and Jacques has men (and it’s avowedly men, folks – no women to be seen) leaping from adolescent love-mooning, to the passion of young adulthood, to a contented and girth expanding middle-age. In modern terms, I’m not sure where the ages fit, though I guess by now I’ve had between three and four of mine. That is, I’ve definitely been a child, an adolescent and a young man. I’m assuming I’m on the cusp of middle age, even though I’m pretty sure I’m right in it, in reality… A smell the coffee moment? Now, strangely, there are three scents which mark out the first three stages of my life, though my ‘fume promiscuity means that no marker exists from now on. So, I know you’re gagging to know. In fact, I hear some of you cry out, ‘So, what are they already?’ Okay, okay, hold your horses…
At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
First scent memory of any note is my grandfather’s Old Spice. My grandparents had a vanity unit in their bathroom; we didn’t. There wasn’t much in it – some cotton wool, a few prescription medicines, always a brown glass bottle of hydrogen peroxide, white label, old fashioned even in the seventies. I’d sniff it and get that funny hair salon sensation up my nose. But the prize for me was the Old Spice bottle. I would hold the cold bottle as though it was precious porcelain, reimagine the strains of Carmina Burana and the iconic surfer as I lifted the stopper and inhaled that sweetly spiced powdery goodness. My grandfather was a long way from a surfer dude (just as the model in the old ad was too, I now know) yet for the pre-teen me, there was something immeasurably, ineffably, hopelessly cool about this bottled magic. It’s a scent I still adore as much as any niche fancypants work of ‘art’. Good ole mass market genius. The best of the best. Just like my much loved, and much missed, grandpa.
Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.
At university, I attempted nerd chic. I bought old suits, wore them rolled up on the legs, above thrift store desert boots. Collarless Edwardian dress shirts, though I never quite got the nerve for the little round collars themselves. My glasses were some new graphite carbonised something or the other. And I was reading several books a week, smoking lots, partying, and generally thinking that no-one as witty or as wonderful as me had existed, really, except for maybe a few of my friends. In moments of doubt, I’d wrap my large camel duffle coat around me (second hand was the done thing, of course) and spray on some more Fahrenheit, confidence restorer that it was. Fahrenheit. The ghost of myself, arrogant young man, a performer without the worries of his allotted time on the stage, an aesthete without an understanding of the cost of aesthetics, a ponce, a frightened child, socially clueless, surviving on guile and a modicum of charm. We all know that feeling… The smell brings these things all back, and yet somehow it’s still wonderful. At times, I don’t like the carapace I wore in my undergraduate folly. I like the man hiding within – he’s a good guy, y’know. He was just too shy to show himself back then. But the carapace that is the startling, and over-familiar, green gasoline and honeysuckle jolt of Fahrenheit, well, that I’ll always love.
And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.
My friend Sarah left for Paris as soon as she got her degree, and she’s lived there ever since, now works at the Sorbonne, and is raising two lovely kids with her Basque partner. I still make sporadic visits, but in my twenties, I seemed to be there a lot. She lived on the top floor of an old apartment block in the ‘less fashionable’ end of the Marais, on Rue Vieille du Temple. there were still old-fashioned shops around then – cobblers and keycutters, corner bakers. They’re mainly fancy boutiques now. Whenever Sarah came down her never-ending flights of stairs, the Portuguese housekeeper (oh, Parisian cliches!) would be out in flailings of floral dresses, tabards and dyed black hair, to remonstrate her for some misdemeanour or the other. Sometimes, where she’d stored her bike. Most often, playing music too loudly. We’d listen to rai, Natacha Atlas, and occasionally George Michael. We’d sit on the Ile St. Louis and watch the world and her lover go by. I’d miss Matt, who rarely accompanied me on such jaunts. I guess I’d sigh. Back at the apartment, I’d bathe, and use one of Sarah’s bath oils, scented markers of my times in Paris. My favourite was a Guerlain, but I didn’t really pay attention back then. One day, in my early thirties, I sniffed it once more. It was Eau de Guerlain, and of course I now have the perfume, though not the bath oil (it might have been bubble bath, but that sounds wrong for an epiphany, donchathink?). It’s a citrus begamot herbal eau de cologne, nothing more, nothing less, but the best of its kind. Like youth, it doesn’t last. But unlike youth, you can go back for more whenever you fancy. And that’s some comfort. If I need it. I rarely do.
So tell me. Three scents that are time markers for you in one way or another, fancy as you like or totally dime-to-the-dozen. We’re not proud here.
Georgian illustrations of Jacques’ speech come from