I am obsessed with the smell of chlorine. For the last two months, my olfactory cells have been highly attuned to it; from my desk at the New Statesman, I can tell when the cleaner is working in the toilets, 25 feet away behind two closed doors, splashing bleach about the bowls.
Luckily, here in central London there are health clubs and hotels with swimming pools located at subterranean levels, sloughing off their excess chlorine gas through vents in the street as high as your ankle and channelling it up into tiny tornadoes of warm, pungent bliss. The most famous of these lies at the southern end of Endell Street in Covent Garden. While gestating my first child, I have spent the winter heading there after work in the sleet and rain, to walk past the flue pipes. I may look like any other worker hurrying home, but when I get to the right spot on the street I discreetly enlarge my lung capacity to allow for three or four deep breaths, before my steps take me out of the underground swimming pool’s fallout zone.
I’ve spoken to several people who know about the Endell Street phenomenon: the smell of chlorine appeals to many, not all of them gravid. For some, it is nostalgia for school swimming trips; for others like me, and those who write about it on Mumsnet message boards, it’s rather more physical. I’ve sat in meetings of late imagining swimming pool water in my mouth. With my heightened sense of taste, I can even detect the tiny levels of chlorine in tap water.
I ordered some pool-strength chlorine tablets on Amazon in September and was surprised to see them arrive in an ordinary Jiffy bag, with no one checking to see whether I was making a bomb.
One sniff of the tub’s exterior and I knew it was too strong to be opened – chlorine gas was used at Ypres. But it put me in mind of another swimming-pool freak, and a novelty cologne I saw in an exhibition at Somerset House in 2017 and wrote about in the early days of this column.
Dark Ride, created by the maverick perfumer Killian Wells, has won awards. It is described as “the first thrill ride in a bottle” – a log flume, to be exact, based on Pirates of the Caribbean at Disney World, and recreates that log flume smell you didn’t know you knew: chlorinated water, mildew and mild pyrotechnics. I salivated for a month, waiting for the blend to arrive from LA, but when it did it was green like crème de menthe, and I could smell mainly disinfectant, like the toilet cake you get in men’s urinals.
“Chlorine is very difficult to isolate in perfumery without other notes in the mix,” Wells told me in a LinkedIn message – he’s spent a lifetime trying. “What we smell is actually a chemical reaction between chlorine, water and bacteria from things like body oil and urine” – which explains that toilet cake smell. He sent me a sample of another of his genius creations, Pool Boy, which evokes the scent of a young pool gofer with chlorine on his skin, notes of sun tan cream and coconut oil, hose in hand.
As my pregnancy progressed I moved on from chlorine to bubble bath (the luxury retro “gelee” Badedas), which fulfilled the same desire for an intoxicating fresh-yet-pungent hit, but without the threat of lung poisoning. I awaited my nightly bath with restlessness, huffing and licking my way through its raft of tiny bubbles and savouring the heady air.
In 2016, the Daily Mirror ran a story on a pregnant woman who had – as in, ate – three baths of Radox per day. Zoe Eastman would think about bubbles all day, cover her face in them and “inhale the fragrant foam through her mouth”. Supping Radox Muscle Therapy was, she said, better than sex. When a postal delivery supplied a scent other than her chosen one of ginseng and black pepper, she flew into a rage.
After her (healthy) son was born, Eastman’s craving evaporated. One sad evening, she drank a bit of her bath and tasted only soap. I can feel the allure of bubbles – and indeed, of Covent Garden swimming pools – lessening too, which must mean the time for something more important is near. Thank you for reading this column, and I’ll see you again in a few months’ time.
Next week: Tracey Thorn
This article appears in the 29 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out