A Personal History of Scent

Jack Wright

Jack Wright is a poet and journalist. Born in Somerset, he left in 2006 to study at Leeds. Now an expat in Shanghai via Vietnam, he will soon move back to the UK. Peering under the shimmer of modern life, he finds refuge in David Bowie and Doctor Who.

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A Personal History of Scent

What is more tempting than a bottle of scent? The contents of my parents’ dressing table endlessly fascinated me as a child, and I had a promising start as a kleptomaniac, smuggling quite a few bottles into my bedroom. Many of them hadn’t been opened for years, and I imagined that when I sprayed them I was reenacting a dinner date or summer wedding that my mother had attended, years before.

The bottles signified a world of adult enchantments. They caught the light and filtered it through a spectrum of thin glass. Air and water fragrances on the right deepened in colour as they reached in turn the blue, purple and black ones on the left. The good witch amber sweetness of Chanel No.5 gave way to the evil temptress bottle of Poison in its emerald box. A gift from someone, my mother seemed offended by it, complaining how strong it smelt with a funny look on her face, as if the scent represented a personality that was totally alien to her.

My father’s collection offered a far more limited olfactory experience. I can’t recall any of them, but there was some Crew hair gel I also eventually stole, spiking my hair up and guessing at what was cool. Male or male, summer or winter, sexy or stylish: each represented an aspect of adulthood that I was only just starting to sense. There is a voyeuristic thrill in secretly sampling someone’s smellies. Scent is so intimate. After all, we have to be physically close to someone to smell them. Scent elegantly ties the sensual to the emotional, and bypasses the rational mind.

Around ten years old all the boys started wearing Lynx, and soon we had a full arsenal of aerosols stashed in our school bags. Lynx Africa was the classic and the first I owned. I preferred this to the fresh smelling Apollo or Gravity. Something about it matched the scents in my parents’ collection. Although later I experimented with all sorts of exciting body sprays, easily caught by the ridiculous marketing campaigns, I kept going back to the mysterious smelling, musky ones. Some experts believe we choose scent that most closely resembles our body’s natural smell, using it to enhance and project our natural aroma further.

By sixteen, despite having been gifted the light and tangy Boss in Motion, I had settled on wearing Joop Homme. My boyfriend at the time asked if I wore it, thinking he could smell it on me, even before I had bought it. Later, another guy I was seeing wore it too, so its connection to those people and that time began cemented. Although people mention Joop with a snigger, putting it in the same juvenile category as the Lynxs and Topman suits of this world, I still love it.

University was all about Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Male. Although I never wore it, two of my best friends did. How gay can an aftershave be? Well look no further. To spray oneself with this long laster you must grope a lithe boyish body replete with lozenge shaped bulge. The bottle is bar coded with institutional stripes, and the ring pull on the neck suggests a collar. The smell is difficult for me to remember, something like the plastic being ripped off a new pair of Calvin Kleins, or a discarded half eaten peach.

Although everything about Le Male’s marketing wants to suggest hyper masculinity, the bottle is a picture of emasculation. Sans legs and arms it reminds me of the Venus de Milo, and the undefined lump of a codpiece whispers of a hidden vagina. Joop and Le Homme are definitely young men’s aftershaves, for that time when bodies are still to a degree androgynous, when feminine smelling scents such as these signify the fluidity and excitement of young male sexuality.

When I moved to Vietnam I found that hardly anyone there wore scent. Creating a cloud of pungency around you was not the done thing. Scents are subtler and dreamier and tend to come from toiletries or medicated oils. I was inexplicably attached to the scent of what I called ‘Chinese oil’, used in Vietnam and rubbed all over for headaches, cold stomachs, sore throats, and just about any ailment. It comes in a small art deco style bottle and its mentholated medical smell evaporates into a powdery talc.

I’ve since discovered that its proper name is Eagle Brand Medicated Oil and is made in Singapore (all I had to do was actually read the tiny print on the bottle). I stocked up on it before I went, as I’d accidentally developed a bedtime ritual of dabbing it on my temples, and I knew that the smell would help me remember some special people I really didn’t want to leave behind.

One of my Vietnamese friends surprised me though when I dropped round his flat. In his bedroom on a long shelf above the bed was the largest personal collection of aftershave I had ever seen. I longed to go through each one, but being an adult now, and unable to operate in secret, I kept this desire in check. Instead my friend told me about how he had slept with a guy of dubious background, who demanded a bottle of aftershave to take with him after they’d finished.

Sometime in Shanghai I realised that I hadn’t been wearing aftershave since I’d left the UK. I’d brought an old bottle of Joop with me to Vietnam, but had finished that long ago. I was scentless and in dire need of a new personal fragrance. I spent the next six months or so furtively spraying my way through perfume aisles in massively overpriced shopping malls and low ceilinged uninspiring duty free shops. I couldn’t find anything that would bring back that intangible sense of sex and adventure; perhaps even a can of Lynx Africa would be preferable to a new aftershave with which I had no personal connection, and at the time, no one with which I could build for it a body of memory.

I eventually decided to buy Gucci by Gucci, a suitable tabla rasa on which to start again. It was far more mature smelling than those I’d liked before and oddly short-lived, well formed but empty. It reminds me now of the smoke and mirrors of Shanghai. But I like its subtlety, so I continue to wear it, and it’s the only scent I’ve actually had to hand whilst writing this article, apart from the Chinese oil.

But having it on my wrists here to smell doesn’t help me to describe it at all. It just reminds me of what I want from my life now, and how I see myself. And on the surface that’s what perfumes and aftershaves do, encapsulate our desires and illusions about ourselves. The lip-glossed young sailor in the Le Male advert has given way to anonymously suited James Franco.

Now I’m in the homeland of Gucci, Prada, Dolce and Gabbana et al, the gatekeeper brands to luxury. The Italians seem to live in palaces of fragrance. After being in Asia the experience of walking past someone on the street and their cologne hitting you right in the face is quite a shock: whole personalities are projected through it, and there is no opting out for the innocent pedestrian. What’s hidden and intensely personal in Vietnam and China is in Italy part of public life.

I’m trying now to remember the smell of the perfumes and aftershaves of my parents, of my best friends and old boyfriends. I can recreate something of what they were like and I know what they represent, but my memory is quickly invaded by images and my brain talks till the smell disappears. We know deeply how our partner smells, our parents and even some of our work colleagues, but imagining their smell is quite different to imagining their face or voice; the knowledge is animal. Our sense of smell is almost impossible to intellectualise and interrupts our brain’s chattering stream of words and images.

When I meet someone now for the first time, or when I pass someone on the street, unwittingly walking through the cloud of scent they’ve created, I’m immediately thinking of another woman or another man, of who they were and what they meant to me. Somehow, their scent links them to a hidden sensual history, and from that I begin to know them.