The Smell of Other People’s Houses

When I was a young innovator of incomparable flair, humility and panache, I had the notion for a scented plug-in doohickey that filled the home with aromas of sumptuous cooking. Be assured this was ages before anyone else came up with it. The insight? I lived alone, and each evening on returning to my house – my bachelor pad, my libertine’s lair, my Don Juan’s… you get the gorgeous, red-hot picture – I would have to pass by my neighbours’ door, and the smells of their evening’s dinner would clutch at the collars of my non-iron shirt, with wafty, curling fingers like the aromas from a pie in Tom and Jerry. What if my singleton’s house could be filled with such welcome smells too, and not the emptiness implied in the relative irrelevance of verbena and white fig?

Smell, it’s understood, is a powerful teleporter; the preferred App of nostalgia. Likewise accepted is how poorly our sniffing compares to that of other animals. But in the smell of other people’s houses I think as a species we tap, or used to, into something that’s special and forever.

Rabbit’s House, Richard Scarry, ‘Best Word Book Ever’, Hamlyn 1964 (B.’s copy)

Cooking features highly, naturally. With stereotypical loveliness, Grandma’s house smelled of baking; of stewed fruits and potatoes and shortcrust and meat. Beloved Auntie M., when I spent afternoons with John, perfumed her home with two batches of gravy – two! – one with onion and one without – to linger as signifiers of routine and love. Aside from food, our next door neighbours’ house on Hollyshaw Lane smelled permanently of Christmas and Germolene, and the house backing on to us, of plastic toys leaching in the afternoon sun, and cigars, the father’s leather jacket.

Sadly, from my sniffy perspective, Febrezes and Airwicks conspire to kick the legs from under our noses (if you get the anatomical fuck-up), and new generations are emerging whose brains will grow to catalogue the memory of houses by a shortlist of scents – of delightful-but-never-seen flowers and alien trees, and concepts that made it through research, or, more likely, budgets. But then every generation picks away at the nose in this way (I thank you), just as my wife’s olfactory frame of reference is the washing powder brands in the homes of childhood friends – brands that were starting to come with fragrances beyond, or other than, the job of ‘clean’, and which for their efforts became some early victims of B.’s lifelong swinging axe of brand rejection.

That damp socks, damp dogs and your even damper farts are not the stuff of genteel contentment (anymore), okay – but a shame to eradicate, or bludgeon with jasmine, the glory of your good cuisine, the onion you so recently desired to be inside you, or the outside that comes inside with the logs, and the scent of your children, surely – to deny the aromas that make your home and will make up the memories of others who come by.

© Steve Mitchell and Fisher Lane, 2012.

About Stevie Mitchell

I come from a long line of cartoons and beer. I was once peed on by a tiger. Hoping the resultant super-powers are yet to come, cos if these are they, then, grrrr....
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