You smell – and I’m not being rude

My wife (her name is Jeanette, not Kate, and she has a rather fine nose) has suddenly got her sense of taste and smell back after a senseless four or five years. She tried many things over the years, including many returns to the House on the Top of Great Orme for their lemon meringue pie (that worked once). Her senses have been restored just when she had given up trying. She is now going round sniffing things (Comfort fabric conditioner is a favourite) and is enjoying the tastes of food. It’s like coming to life again. I am delighted for her.

Our senses of taste and smell are often overlooked. There are no words that I am aware of which describe the taste-less and smell-less state. Blindness and deafness describe severe visual and hearing impairment, but there is no equivalent words to describe the impairment of the other senses. Maybe that is because blindness and deafness affect lives in a far more critical way, whereas the senses of taste and smell are pleasures. The pleasure is usually taken for granted, and our senses are often dulled because we don’t really appreciate the senses we have been given.

The Smell Report suggests that western civilisation has devalued the sense of smell in a tendency to compare and rank the senses. The sense of smell won the wooden spoon in the Sense Games, while the gold medal went to the gift of sight. Long noses and nosiness are not welcome here.  “You smell” is a common playground insult, whereas “you see” isn’t.

The Smell Report points our noses at other cultures. For example, in some Arab countries breathing on people as you speak to them is a sign of friendship and goodwill – and denying someone your breath and smell is a shameful sign that you don’e want to get involved with them.

The Onge people of the Andaman Islands tell the time by smell. They have a calendar based on the odours of the flowers that bloom at different times of the year.  Their greeting is not  “How are you?”, but “Konyune onorange-tanka?” which means  “How is your nose?”. Sometimes people respond by saying “I am heavy with odour”, at which the greeter, to be polite, must inhale deeply to remove some of the surplus. At other times the greeter may need to blow heavily on the person she is greeting if that person is a bit short of odour energy.

Ivan Illich discovered that smell is not something to be sneezed at when he was in Peru. It was pointed out to him that there was a connection between nose and heart, smell and affection that he had not made. In his address The Cultivation of Conspiracy, Illich recalls:

“I was in Peru in the mid-1950s, on my way to meet Carlos, who welcomed me to his modest hut for the third time. But to get to the shack, I had to cross the Rimac, the open cloaca of Lima. The thought of sleeping for a week in this miasma almost made me retch. That evening, with a shock, I suddenly realised what Carlos had been telling me all along, “Ivan, don’t kid yourself; don’t imagine you can be friends with people you can’t smell.” That one jolt unplugged my nose; it enabled me to dip into the aura of Carlos’s house, and allowed me to merge the atmosphere I brought along into the ambience of his home.”

Illich refers to the old German adage Ich kann Dich gut riechen” (“I can smell you well”) which goes with another German saying “Ich kann Dich leiden” (” I can suffer you well”).

We mustn’t look down our noses at the sense of smell, or taste. And if you think that’s cheesy you might be interested in Giles Milton’s book, Edward Trencom’s Nose: a novel of history, dark intrigue and cheese. Milton has a nose for history. Trencom, and his predecessors, has a remarkable nose, just for cheese.

PS Big Nose Kate didn’t have a big nose. She was just nosy. She was Doc Holiday’s girlfriend. The photo is by TLfromAZ

3 thoughts on “You smell – and I’m not being rude”

  1. My late friend Catriona grew up in Glasgow, and I always recall her saying that when she a child, people smelled more than they do these days, because there were no showers in homes, and baths were taken once a week. (If that.) She said that it was commonplace to be walking along in the street thinking of nothing in particular, and suddenly for a friend to come to mind, followed a few seconds later by his/her appearance from around a corner. Bodily odours announced approaching friends ahead of them. She was at pains to point out that these were not not bad smells per se, but they WERE smells, and you knew people by them. And what she said struck home, because growing up in the fifties, I’d had similar experiences, but I’d forgotten about them.

    Homes back then smelled differently too, because there weren’t the scented products for cleaning. And every home had a unique odour, a combination of what was cooked in it and the cleaning regime of the inhabitants. The current obsession with room-fresheners of all varieties simply hadn’t been born. Later we would have such horrors as the ‘Shake’n’Vac’, that smelled so sickly it was worse than the stale carpets it was claimed to ‘freshen’, and the cloying odours of scented candles, potpourri, aerosol sprays etc. We must have these, the ads proclaim, because they will fill our homes with the scents of alpine meadows, tropical fruit or briny sea-winds. Mmmmm!

    I’m told by friends with children addicted to showering, that the young have an absolute horror of smelling of anything remotely human. They’ll practically derm-abrase themselves with scented shower products, all for fear of being told by a peer that they have BO, which apparently is to be avoided at all costs. Interesting they can’t see that a relatively clean and healthy body can smell delicious entirely without the additions of scented soaps, gels, shampoos, hair conditioners, skin creams and deodorants, and that a few days of not showering can pass without the body odour becoming unpleasantly rank.

    Makes you think, doesn’t it.


    1. Oh, yes. Shake and Vac. How horrible was that? I remember reading about the Viet Cong being able to find the US soldiers because they smelt of toothpaste. Why do we despise smells? And why are the chemical smells we use to smother the human smells so acceptable?
      It’s good to hear from you – and to follow your art work.


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