Petrichor. One of my favourite words. A beautiful word that describes the fresh earthy smell you get after a rain shower as we have had today in my corner of London. I also love serendipity, a warm word that mellifluously swirls around my mouth like an especially good Armagnac. Another is colostrum, the initial mothers' milk in the first few days after a baby is born. (I'm trying to think of another word to do with the scent of babies, like lugano, but following a stroke I had last August, I often find synapses have been obliterated and I need to make new neural connections to files that I know exist somewhere in my library. If you know, drop me a line.)
And ligustrum is another cracker. It's the name of the genus that includes the quintessentially English suburban flowering plant of privet. It immediately makes me think of the great Tube posters of the London Underground of Edwardian times through to the Thirties and Forties promoting the expanded Metropolitan and Piccadilly lines into the Home Counties. The success of these expansions owed much to the work of such great artists as Edward McKnight, rootled out by then head of advertising Frank Pick. (I wrote about the collectability of vintage travel posters for Halcyon magazine; you can read it here.)
Petrichor and privets; I'm immediately transported to somewhere like Amersham or Chesham, and I can picture old wooden scout huts, painted in Southern Railway green and savour the tantalising faint smell of creosote. It's what then UK prime minister John Major was attempting to articulate when he wrote sentimentally of a John Betjeman-inspired England in 1993. Fifty years from now, said the Prime Minister, Britain "will still be the country of long shadows on county (cricket) grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers". (Pretty sure he meant England, not Britain. The Independent decried it in a fabulously corrosive leader at the time – What A Lot of Tosh.)
These are transports of whimsy that come under what is termed "olfactory memories". There is a good summary on the site for UK-based charity Fifth Sense, the first charity dedicated to those with smell and taste disorders across the world. In an excellent piece called Psychology And Smell, the authors say that the "sense of smell is closely linked with memory, probably more so than any of our other senses. Those with full olfactory function may be able to think of smells that evoke particular memories; the scent of an orchard in blossom conjuring up recollections of a childhood picnic, for example. This can often happen spontaneously, with a smell acting as a trigger in recalling a long-forgotten event or experience."
In fact, from it we get the word Proustian; in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, In Remembrance of Things Past or, more literally, In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust (1871–1922; he died one year younger than I am now) invoked and deployed olfactory memory to spectacular effect in the first volume. It's now known and immortalised as The Madeleine Incident and is worth quoting in full:
"No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea."
Simply brilliant, and entirely in keeping with the theories of his contemporary, Sigmund Freud.
But here we come back to privet, or ligustrum (Liguster in German). It makes a cameo appearance at the start and very end of Michael Frayn's brilliant Spies (2002), now rightly studied by A-level and GCSE students of literature (and also, apparently, in Australia). Michael Frayn is a dramatist and novelist born in 1933 and he gives me hope for, after a first career as a journalist, he became one of the most distinguished playwrights, dramatists and novelists in the UK; I have done a couple of real-life books and written half a novel. Hyperion to a satyr.
I cannot say much for fear of giving away the plot but I am sure he will forgive me for saying that privet and memory form the major theme of the novel. I'll leave it there; don't look at the strings, just enjoy the magic and buy a copy, preferably from an independent bookseller or even Waterstones; Jeff Bezos is already worth $165.6 billion, 50 per cent more than Bill Gates, double that of Mark Zuckerberg and more than eight times the lucre of Elon Musk...
So why am I banging on about petrichor, privet and pastries? Well, it's not going to be Proustian or even Fraynian, but everyone's experiences are valued, or so Gen Z seems to believe. You don't need to train as a doctor or a plasterer or even a journalist, come to that. It's enough simply to say, "I identify as a doctor/plasterer/journalist" and there shall be prizes for all. If not, there shall be tears. So I shall identify as a writer and crack on.
On Thursday, the hottest day of the year and now hottest ever recorded in the UK, I had an appointment with the nurse at the excellent Microfaculty in Chingford, just across the North Circular from me in Walthamstow. (Overseas readers: northeast London, bit "gritty". Or "locationally granular", to wield a phrase I picked up this week...) It is an excellent facility, and my GP, Dr Simon Mendes, a Briton of Goan descent, has just broken me strawberry tart by leaving the practice. But, like Ronnie "I said to the producer" Corbett, I digress...
I'd met Marie-Mae once before. At 8am on Boxing Day. I had an emergency appointment to receive my Yellow Fever injection. A kind, funny and charming lady from the Seychelles, which I have visited, she wanted to know why it was so urgent. I said, "Because I am about to drive from Walthamstow to Bamako in Mali, west Africa". Her eyes widened and she said, "When?" I said, "Now. The truck is outside and we have a ferry from Newhaven at 11am". You can read about the Timbuk Two here in the NUJ magazine, The Journalist. Spoiler: I didn't get on terribly well with my co-driver, whom I had hitherto never met, to my dad's great amusement who had queried the wisdom of spending long days and nights with a stranger to the point of sharing small rooms in fleapit hostels...
So she knows the chaotic and high-intensity life I lead. She didn't have any patients booked for an hour so we chatted and laughed while she syringed my ears and did a foot diabetes test. She did, however, spot an ingrown toenail, which is why I found myself having a pedicure the next day in Walthamstow where I caught the woman next to me taking a surreptitious picture; she was sending it to her partner, apparently, to counter his assertion that "real men don't have pedicures".
She showed me a picture of her daughter, I showed her a picture of my girlfriend, we bonded and gave each other a kiss when I left. Most importantly, she told me that I had managed to reverse the very severe diabetes I had, mainly by losing 25kg since August, giving up bread, rice and pasta – I'm a Paddy, and potatoes are sacrosanct after our little shock between 1845 and 1849, so I have had to treat them as an occasional luxury. The historian Cecil Woodham-Smith talked of "the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation" but I'll let that go. For now.
Anyhoo, when I emerged into the baking sunshine – smell of creosote, newly rolled Tarmac, you get the picture – I decided to walk home, about a 25-minute walk. As I strolled, I saw a Morrisons up ahead and olfactory memory hit me again; I'd only been there once, about 15 years ago, and bought a bunch of fresh scallops. I'd cooked them up with garlic, lime juice, chilli and some coriander, and I could smell them again.
On a side note, Morrisons was a northern supermarket, founded and headquartered in Bradford. When I was at Leeds University in the mid-1980s, it regularly advertised on the local ITV franchise, Yorkshire TV. Each ad finished with an animation of a little Mexican chap in a sombrero who passed across the screen from left to right, chanting "There's more reasons to shop at Morreesons." Thanks for that ear-worm (Ohrwurm in German, source of so many excellent compound nouns that are generally untranslatable...)
They gained a national presence in 2004 when they acquired Safeway, a brand that mainly catered to the same demographic. I was kindly disposed toward Safeway, as I worked there for a couple of years from the age of 15 at the Ealing Broadway branch; every Saturday, I collected my wages and popped next door to Our Price Records to spunk the lot, mainly on David Bowie LPs. But yet again, I digress...
I turned in to the complex; unfortunately, Morrisons was devised and conceived as an out-of-town drive-in facility. So with my over-sized wireless headphones on, I sauntered down the car lane. Drivers exaggeratedly crossed to the other lane to swerve around me, hooting their horns and shouting at me. Which troubled me not a fig since... well, oversized wireless headphones etc.
"Fie 'pon ye," I thought. "Thoroughfares were devised to allow gentlemen to saunter where they may in pursuit of a half-decent costermonger and purveyor of vittles, victuals and vintnery. So go fuck yourselves," I quoth wittily.
Inside, I headed to the same fishmonger's counter, though disconcertingly it had moved, now replaced by a "café". I mean, who goes to Morrisons for a meal? Actually, don't answer... Mark, my friendly fishmonger, couldn't have been more pleasant when I asked for some of the super-plump, fleshy, sexy little beauties recoiling on their bed of crushed ice.
"How many do you want, guv?"
What kind of question was that, I thought, but looked him in the eye manfully.
"Half a kilo," I said firmly.
"Half a kilo?" he parried.
"Half a kilo," I replied, in a tone that, I feel quite sure, showed that I would brook no dissent.
He put plastic gloves on and began to gather up the succulent little maritime gems. And on he went. And still they came, to echo a famous Evening Standard line. Until he had about 30 of them.
I acted nonchalantly, insouciantly, even, with a raffish air of devil-may-care, I thought. I was quite surprised when my bill came to £37, though, since I normally shop at Lidl and I recounted this story to my NHS psychotherapist yesterday. She is called Elegy – obv, she is not but that is how I identify as calling her – and she collapsed with laugher. She said "I'm so sorry, but that is hysterical! What are you going to do with them?"
I said, "I have been leafleting my neighbours about The Great Walthamstow Scallop Street Festival so I'm sure I'll get rid of them. Worry not your head. I'm normal, me." She was still chuckling when she bade me farewell.
So it was that last night my good friend Silvanha came over so we could gorge ourselves on scallops with lime, garlic and roughly chopped coriander while we watched Blade Runner and drank chilled Gavi di Gavi. Living. The. Dream.
Today, my daughter – Gen Z, bit annoying, you get the picture – announced she was having her friends over for a sleepover, which basically means that the loft room with en-suite I have begrudgingly handed over to her to move down to the middle floor will be loud and shrieky while I sit in my box-room office/study/cupboard at my Mac. This sleepover required me to go to the supermarket to stock up and I chose once again to venture north across the North Circular. Possibly a mistake; I am a recidivist, apparently, and have returned home with a firkin of Patagonian scallops, a £6 slab of fresh tuna and a large packet of "North Atlantic King Prawns". My behaviour is becoming somewhat fishy.
Anyone fancy some scallops?