A child at his school’s “show and tell” session informs his classmates that when you smell something, it means bits of it have gone up your nose – which is why you should never go in the bathroom straight after your dad. The Australian writer Kate Grenville, who repeats this story in a weird new book, is tormented by the thought.
Bits of smell do go up your nose, she says: they lock on to the stringy end of nerve receptors connected to your brain. “I picture a tea-strainer with bits of dental floss hanging down through the holes.”
A winner of prizes for her fiction, Grenville is a victim of “acute fragrance sensitivity” – in short, perfume is ruining her life. In The Case Against Fragrance (which her publishers begged her not write), she calls for a ban on artificial smells in public places. She sprints through airports with a scarf over her nose, hangs her head out of pine-fresh taxis like a dog, and carries fragrance-free soap in her handbag, to wash off handshakes from perfumed fans who “have no idea that a choice they made that morning resulted in me having a headache”.
Grenville sets out to unlock the dark science – the volatile compounds, conspiracies and carcinogens – hiding in perfume, the ingredients of which are regularly listed as alcohol, water and the mysterious catch-all “fragrance”…
I enjoyed learning that “musk” comes from the Sanskrit word for testicle, is originally derived from a stag’s balls, and that the muscone molecule became a key element in the “clean laundry” smell used by detergent companies, once scientists had learned to remove the “faecal element”. Synthetic scent production began back in 1884.
In London’s Somerset House, an exhibition called “The Art of Perfume” celebrates the kind of molecular manipulations that drive Grenville to distraction. Fragrances have long been marketed by the great fashion houses because, well, how else do you advertise a smell? But the internet is encouraging a rise in maverick smelliers making and selling unconventional concoctions.
In the show, the sheets of an unmade bed are soaked in a familiar and mildly rebarbative scent: this is Antoine Lie’s Sécrétions Magnifiques, a chemical evocation of milk, blood, sweat, saliva – and semen (in perfumier’s terms, 2-methyl-2-pentenoic acid). There is a room dedicated to Geza Schoen’s ridiculous Molecule 01 – the mythic “un-perfume”, so called because its single smell molecule is too large for the nose, meaning that some people can’t smell it at all. If you do get a whiff, it’s a bit like standing in the hardboard aisle at B&Q. It’s 36 quid on the internet.
Then there was my favourite, from the Brooklyn hipster-cum-musician Killian Wells. In a mock-up of a fairground photo booth, his creation – a powerful hit of chlorine and plastic – is smelt through the fabric stomach of a toy bear. This is Dark Ride, “an olfactory snap of a log flume”, modelled on the scent of the Splash Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean rides at Disney World. It’s not simply like a swimming pool – it’s mouldy, too, ugly and compelling. People buy it! (One reviewer writes: “My brain said no way but somehow my nose wanted more.”)
In a hotel, Grenville tapes up the cracks in her bedroom door to block out some powerful potpourri down the hallway and “seals herself in like a pharaoh”.
The irony about perfume, for most of us, is that once we’ve put it on, we can’t smell it anyway – like the scent I had from the high-end knicker shop Agent Provocateur, which came in a bulbous china “boob”. It had a strange odour that could be described as “notes of gusset”. I put more on every day, in an all-male office, because I couldn’t smell it, until someone had a word with me. Then, for a while, I used a bottle of aftershave, Acqua di Gio, which I found on the floor of an Amtrak train. I liked it because it made me feel like a man. Now, I wear Sarah Jessica Parker’s Lovely, which was half price in Superdrug.
This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue