Smell is our most powerful sense, linked completely with memory. Nothing can transport me back to a time and place like a particular aroma. It just does. Here are a few of my favourites, guaranteed to bring me comfort. I’d love to hear about yours, too.
Channel No. 5
I’m starting with a big one. I grew up in the 80’s, and back then we weren’t the disposable nation we are now. Things were treasured, used and mended because we had a lot less stuff, and posh scents were a serious luxury. My uncle was a commander in the Royal Navy at the time, and he would always bring my Mum a gift when he came to stay. Sometimes a string of shells as a necklace, or a sarong, or a little bottle of Chanel. Mum only wore it on very special occasions, like Christmas or anniversaries. I would sneak into my parents’ bedroom, find the bottle on her dressing table, open the velvety cardboard box, stick my little nose in and inhale. I never dared spray myself with it; even back then I knew that this was a very precious scent for grown-up ladies. I was transported back to that time last week when I stayed with my parents-in-law. In the guest bedroom where we were sleeping, my mother-in-law had laid out some nice toiletries, including an atomiser of Chanel No. 5. I realised as I took that delicious forbidden sniff that I had never actually dared to wear it, and that aged 36 and with a three-month old son I might just qualify now. Reader, I wore it. It was delicious.
McDonald’s and stale beer
Yeah, I know. I know! But hear me out. I have had all the jobs. All of them. I’ve worked since I was fifteen years old, and I tried my hand at a lot of things. One of my favourite jobs was when I was at sixth form college and a bunch of us got jobs at the local Maccy Ds. We had such a good laugh, made some drinking money and mostly spent it having nights out with each other. Every time I pass behind a McDonald’s I can smell that sweet, slightly rancid smell of discarded fat, and it takes me right back.
The beer thing is similar. Once at university in London, I got a job waitressing at The Anchor Bankside, a lovely old pub that prides itself on being the ‘Second Oldest Pub in London’. Couldn’t tell you which is the actual oldest. When we’d finished a shift (around 11.30pm, no late opening in those days), we’d all meet downstairs in the bar and drink as many pints as we wanted. The scent of old beer, centuries of the stuff sunk into the floorboards, always seemed to me a heady scent of adulthood, nights out and fun.
Oil of Olay (Ulay) Original Beauty Fluid
I still use this stuff. I adore it. It sinks into thirsty skin so well, works on my fairy reactive face and smells absolutely divine. It smells of Mum, and the 80s again. There are plenty of more advanced formulas to be had; there even were back then, but nothing quite touches it for that gorgeous, warm, feminine, pink smell. I slather it all over my hands and arms every night and go to sleep with it in my nostrils.
The Body Shop Satsuma Shower Gel
Ah, The Body Shop. A teenage girl’s dream shop. Lovely, well-mannered products aimed directly at me, with ethically sourced ingredients and nothing tested on animals. It was a wonderful place, and I would always stop in when I went on the bus to Preston with my friends. There were a lot of classic smells there. The lunatic perfumes spring to mind; Dewberry was my favourite, and White Musk will forever remind me of my piano teacher who spritzed it liberally. However, nothing can transport me back to that time like Satsuma Shower Gel. I love that they still make it. It was the one thing from that wonderful shop that Mum and I agreed on, and I bought some the other day just to see if it was still as good. I used it as a bath foam and oh my goodness, it was just as delicious as ever.
Oven Pizza and Chips
Friday night. A new episode of Friends, pizza and chips in the oven. Pure 90s.
The only soap in our house at one time. See also; Coal Tar.
Yves Saint Laurent “In Love Again”
In 1998 I went on the French exchange from my Sixth Form College. It was utterly fantastic for a number of reasons, not least of which was that a snagged a gorgeous French boyfriend who looked like David Beckham, complete with blonde curtains. I also remember it as the holiday when I bought my first bottle of foundation (Bourjois, if you’re interested. That smelled amazing too). On one of the days we did a day trip to Paris. It was the day I began my lifelong love affair with the city that continues to this day. In one of the many, many shops we went into I was given a free sample of this wonderful perfume and always associate it with youth, love and PARIS.
A few years later, well into my twenties and long after my bottle of ILA had run out and the perfume had been discontinued, I was shopping with my Mum on one of London’s department stores. We were just approaching the perfume department when I caught an unmistakable whiff. “Mum!!!” I yelled. “I’m sure that’s ‘In Love Again’!” Mum had always understood my love of this perfume and, I believe, was the person who bought my first bottle of it. That day I bought two, and still have a little bit left.
It’s available again from the ‘Heritage’ collection at YSL for the princely sum of £77. It was always about £30 in my day!
What are the scents that send you hurtling back to a time and place? Tell me, you might remind me of one!