Smell is the oldest sense. Beyond words. Whereas red is red, things smell like Joyce’s snotgreen sea, or of alcohol, reminding you of the time when… Maybe because of the complexity of the system – a thousand receptors working in unison to isolate particular smells, especially, in evolutionary terms, ones that might kill you (read bushfire, toxic mushrooms). Because of this (according to a BBC article by Tom Stafford), “smell is perhaps the sense we are least used to talking about”. Although it’s there in Proust, Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and in the filth of Dicken’s London. Point being – we take it for granted. The olfactory bulb nestled beside the most ancient part of our brain, the hippocampus (‘seahorse’), a “convergence point for information arriving from all over the rest of the cortex”. Recalling not only the details of your own life, but your ancestors. All of this leading to ‘memory episodes’, the moment you walk past mock orange and are suddenly standing, five years of age, in your gran’s garden at Brompton.
Anyone who’s grown up in Adelaide knows it’s a city of smells. This occurred to me today on my morning walk, a waft of diesel from a delivery van, and a happy rush because as a child diesel meant buses, and buses meant excursions, and excursions meant no maths. Me there, in Mr Meus’s classroom, smelling his cologne. Or beside Karim, starting on a mettwurst sandwich. Mettwurst always has and will mean Karim, even if it’s been 35 years since I last saw him. As I’m left wondering what he’s up to now – good job, kids? But at least I know what his lunch smelt like. And the others – Keith and Rodney – as we aged, matured and developed our own bouquet, our mums buying deodorant and telling us to put the bloody stuff on! Primary school is particulary powerful, because these are among the first new smells of our lives: plasticine, fresh paint from the bottle, old books from the library – still the greatest consolation of my early (and present) life. The pine trees growing in the quad at Gilles Plains Primary, canteen soup on a winter’s day (bring your own mug, five cents a cup). Mixed lollies, popped in a bag by Don the Greek, or his wife, in his little fish shop on North East Road.
All of this becoming bittersweet as it’s lost. Don himself, potato fritters, the cheap, inky smell of the Australasian Post, early revelations of Gold Coast cleavage. The smell of grass being mown on the school oval, before half of it was sold off for housing, before the school itself was set aside for more of the same – this endless sea of roofs that seems to define our suburbs now.
Walking home past Mrs Wright’s yard, all rosemary and cat piss from her unneutered tribe. Rosemary will always be cat piss to me. Or roses, citrus in flower, the smell of Castrol GTX from Wayne Davies servicing his Monaro. Every day, returning again and again, as the seahorse remembers more, keeps stopping you in your tracks, reminding you of who you are and where you came from. 31 Ramsay Avenue Hillcrest, Adelaide, Australia, its gum trees giving off their own perfume after an inch of overnight rain. Always the smell. Never the sight of a gum tree, or the sound of an old Holden blowing smoke along North East Road.
As you try and remember your very earliest smell. Baby powder, perhaps? The Hindmarsh barber drenched in California poppy, a few old blokes hiding the magazines, the lump of wood on the seat handles so you’re high enough, the barber’s breath (bad), his own deodorant, polish from the blokes’ shoes, warm bakelite (perhaps, I can’t be sure) from the radio playing the races. Or was it the smell of jelly in the fridge? Bread and butter pudding? Braised steak, a cake burning, your mum running to get it out?
Now we’re into the realm of ‘deep diving’. According to Tom Stafford, “Rather than visiting the thalamic relay station on its journey into the brain, smell information travels direct to the major site of processing – the olfactory bulb – with nothing in between.” So is it possible that Adelaideans might share this undefined cultural heritage? Was this what you recognised when you were seven and walked past the pie cart and smelled pea soup, or strong chlorine at your school swimming carnival? To me, chlorine and pasty are complementary smells. I first noticed this effect at high school – the Danby Avenue pines becoming the waft of Winnie Blue from the circle of kids sitting in the middle of the oval.
Strategic. They could always disperse the smell and hide their smokes before a teacher arrived. The smell of a Commodore 64, or electric typewriters, and Lip-rageous balm or Dep styling mousse. And later, my sister removing nail polish with acetone, and me stopping for a sniff, as I was warned where that sort of thing led. I often wondered how BP John fared after a few decades of pumping leaded petrol. Maybe the smell of a fresh Poly Waffle made up for it. Me, too, gluing a Panzer or Messerschmitt with Airfix glue, then the paint, these toxic memories that persist.
And I think – is it fair for this next generation? Will they have as many smells? I suspect the world is turning aseptic. A pity. Smoke, this primeval force, equal parts good and bad, burning down our houses at night when our olfaction’s switched off. Nineteen eighty-three, the taste of wind, dirt and burning hills. Maybe the average Aussie’s hard-wired for smoke? Or is it Sherrin leather? Or a new tennis racquet, or cricket bat, sneakers straight from the box, as good as new car smell. And if you can’t have that, Autobrite Citrus Wash or one of those hang-up strawberry air fresheners (the smell equivalent of the Holden Hill Pool Hall), only ever used to disguise smoke in old Toranas. A world of cheap cars. Datsunland avoided, the scent of dashboard plastic on a 40-plus degree day, or the arse smells and antique sweat in Mr Nielsen’s lambswool car seat covers, crushed chips in the foot-well and a hint of garlic sauce from a hundred moist yiros.
I suspect the stink is fading. There’s Port Adelaide Enfield Council demolishing the Hillcrest Basketball Stadium for more homes, more roofs, more rates. And with it, 50 years’ of sweat, some my own (from the day I finally got the ball and ran and everyone laughed, although why the hell you needed to bounce the damn thing). One thing leading to another. Coins in sweaty hands, a Splice, lemon-flavoured love dripping down your chin. Love. And there’s Gran, burning the toast in her little flat behind the doctor’s shop on Hampstead Road. Old person smell, and powder, Nan forever April Violet, and the roses Pop cut fresh every day and placed on the dining room table. Always red, as I recall, but seeing things is such an unreliable way to remember.
Some things will persist: wet dog, dog fart, dog shit on the carpet when you get up in the morning. The smell of Nordic fjords in the toilet at the Buck (still Adelaide’s best 1970s dunny décor). A miasma of frying fat as you drive past KFC. In small doses, but I grew up beside the Colonel on North East Road. I think the brain tends to cancel these things out. Same problem living behind the ACI factory at West Croydon. The many smells of the inner-west (see Barbara Hanrahan’s The Scent of Eucalyptus).
Walking along Sunday avenues, roast lamb floating down hallways, out into minty gardens, flooding the street. The time when everything was smell. In my Pop’s shed, freshly-cut wood, -oiled tools, -cracked almonds, painted window frames, roasted chook (killed that morning). Or Mary next door, with her laurel sulphate floors and almonds candying and catching on the stove, tea, real tea, in a pot, brewing as Bazz and Pilko crapped on about Victor Harbor without a u. Over Torrens Road to the races. A morning clocking fillies, saddle oil and horse shit, beer from the bar. Walking past the couplings, and ale venting from damp basements. Eventually the empties were put out and we 1st Hillcrest Scouts collected them on our bottle-drive. An early introduction to the dozens of ways to pickle your brain and liver. And in the corner of the yard, dry oats cooking in the sun, mixing with the roast of the day. Scouts was all smell: Stuart’s Yorkshire pudding and my soup, winner of the 1979 Cohen Cup, best boy soup-maker in the state (not that I want to brag). Then there was wet canvas, the McDonald brothers and their smelly sneakers, fibreglass repairs to the canoes (leading back to acetone, and sisters with an ABBA habit).
Maybe we’ll eliminate smell like we’ve eliminated everything that reminds us of the real world, its unpleasant turds left on footpaths, choking in Alpine-clouded cars, my (later) ‘hair stylist’ with his sleeveless shirt and rampant underarm hair dripping with perspiration. Let’s hope we’re not headed for a scent-free universe ruled by a $10 air diffuser. Stink! I say. Banish the Fabulon (although, it’s sort of nice). Either way, I suspect all of these smells will already be locked in – for another 1000 years of Adelaide childhoods remembered.
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