(as dictated to Mrs Grumble)
An outfit called Visit England, the country’s tourism quango, got into trouble a week or so back over a smell. It had spent £8,500 having a scent conjured that was intended to remind the English of home.
The initiative was denounced as profligate by the Taxpayers’ Alliance.
But the idea has its supporters. A writer in The Telegraph reckons it’s a potential goldmine.
And yet if this scent – which is called By George! – did what it was intended, surely it would be a figurative goldmine?
No sentimental expat would leave the country without packing a vial of the stuff to sniff at difficult personal moments. The shops near embassies in foreign capitals that cater to the English desire for Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, Bird’s custard powder and Marmite would also keep By George! as a staple – lest they be caught out by the demands of anguished travellers desperate for a whiff of home. There would be air fresheners, soaps for scenting drawers and clothes hangers infused with the aroma of an Englishman’s home sold in gift shops the world over. The act of dabbing on a touch of perfume would become an obscurely political act. Yet strangely none of this has occurred.
So far, so good. But what does England smell like?
According to Visit England, “England” smells a lot like cut lawns with a distant hint of diesel, which is probably fair enough. It could be a summer meadow with a ride-on lawn mower chugging off into the distance or a Home Counties roundabout on a warm day.
To illuminate – or whatever the olfactory equivalent is – Angela Stavrevska of CPL Aromas, the laboratory that did the work with the pipette, brought her leather cases of smells in small crystal bottles to be unleashed within one of the Telegraph’s glass-fronted meeting rooms.
At this juncture, the Telegraph’s article waxes lyrical about smells and the scent business.
Mrs Stavrevska – Angela, as she rapidly became – is training to be a perfumier and unbuckled her array of jars with certain professional swagger. If a scent has the capacity to take you back to wherever you were the last time you smelt it, then what was in the case was a collection of other people’s memories. And what a collection it was.
There was rose, jasmine, myrrh, ambergris vomited from the mouth of a whale, cassis that needed to be diluted before you used it otherwise it didn’t smell like fruit at all, a Christmas smell that turned out to be called “red berries”, pine, camphor, citrus, frankincense, “marinal” notes that smelled like rock pools and many delicious and horribly familar scents denoted by scientific names that seemed somehow all wrong for them.
There was galbanum from Iran – a grass smell that is very strong in Chanel No 19; rosemary that reminded me of the marquee the morning after my sister’s wedding; and patchouli, which Angela said was a smell that had been dreadfully affected by the Asian tsunami. “World patchouli oil production went down at the same time because Indonesia is where it all comes from.” These were a pungent sample of the 1,500 or so potential “notes” available to the well-acquainted perfumier.
Lily of the valley, it turns out is too delicate a plant to have its essence extracted industrially and so all smells affecting to be this are arrived at entirely artificially: that is, as a result of scientists discovering that smells from apparently unrelated chemical compounds have roughly the same effect on the human nose. Smells, as with so many other things it would seem, are relative.
“There’s no pretending that home – England – doesn’t smell different to everyone,” Angela mused. “If you’re from the country there would be farmyard smells, if you’re from a home with a lot of cooking then there would be food. But funnily enough when we were brainstorming for By George! there were no food smells that made it through the cut.”
It turns out that many men cannot smell musk, something that is reckoned to have an evolutionary basis. Vanilla brings an involuntary smile to my face and, slightly unnervingly, there were smells called “castoreum”, from a gland which is found near the testicles of a beaver, and “civet”, which basically smells of cat’s poo, both of which force one to wonder how on earth it was discovered that these were potentially useful to the perfume industry? Angela was saying nothing.
Obviously it was the jar of “civet” – of the hundreds we had opened – that was leaking, leading to an afternoon after waving Angela off, spent sniffing suspiciously at my hand.
Fortunately she had also supplied a small vial of By George! to take the edge off the civet and explained that anyone hoping to turn it into a money-spinner would have to buy the rights from Visit England first.
So the area around my desk became one small corner of a rather large office that would be forever England – mown grass with a diesel note – until the cleaners came around, anyway.
So what does New Zealand smell like?
The Telegraph’s article concludes with an invitation to write (not more than 800 words) about the scent of your country and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
The author of the best piece will see it published online and receive a small bottle of By George! by return of post.
Alf won’t be bothering, but he does bring the newspaper’s challenge to the attention of his readers and admirers.