This is a LONG posting - probably 10 times as long as any I have posted before! If you are new to my Blog you might want to skip this one and try a few of the shorter ones, this one covers a lot of my youth!!!!
“I’m smelling again Mum.” Announced my sister Mary. “Well, you’d better have a bath then.” Said my mother.
What my sister meant of course was that she was finally getting over a cold and could once again smell things, not that she herself was smelly.
This got me thinking about smells, especially the smells of my youth.
Unlike today (2009) when everything is wrapped and double wrapped or bottled and it is possible to go into a supermarket selling a thousand or five thousand different things and not be able to smell any of them, back then when you went into the local store there was a multitude of odors. There was the carbolic soap (yuck), the Imperial Leather soap (yum), or my mother’s favorites – Lily of the Valley, Evening in Paris or Lavender.
But there were more than perfumes and soaps to attack your senses. Vinegar for example was sold from a barrel with a tap. It’s sharp smell was almost like a mild smelling salts. Freshly baked bread was a lovely smell, along with butter and cheese that the shop owner would cut with a wire. I was always amazed at how close he could get to the weight he wanted. My mother would ask for a half pound, he’d pull the wire through a huge piece of yellow Cheddar Cheese, put it onto a piece of wax paper on the scale which would read 8 ½ oz or something so close, I didn’t know how he did it. Then he’d briskly announce the price – “10 pence ha’penny, or one and thrupence ha’penny, O.K?”
Most things were sold loose – sugar, flour, dried peas or beans, and he would weigh them out in a sort of scoop on the scale. Some of the ‘more modern’ scales had a face that showed the weight but the older ones still used weights, he would put an 8oz brass weight on one side and then pour the sugar or whatever into the scoop until they balanced. Often he would actually make a bag! A few quick folds of a sheet of paper and he had a bag in his hand, the sugar would be poured into the bag from the scoop and he would quickly fold the paper down all the way around to close it up. He didn’t even use sticky tape to close it, he’d just push the edges under each other and it was tight enough that you never worried about it spilling in your shopping bag. Your own shopping bag that was, you took your own bags with you. I don’t remember getting bags from the store to carry your purchases home. Everyone used his or her own bags. We often used string bags that my Grandmother, Little Nanny, had knitted or crocheted. They were great because they were lightweight and folded up to almost nothing. You could stuff one in a pocket or put several into another bag. They would conform to whatever you wanted to put into them. Basically they were holes surrounded with string! She would crochet them out of string, most were white, but one of my favorites was green. They were immensely strong, we’d often carry potatoes, onions, meat and all kinds of things weighing I’m sure as much as 50 lbs in one bag. There always seemed to be room for more, they just stretched and stretched.
But back to the smells, at home I remember the coal fire, bread toasting over the fire on a brass toasting fork that my father had made himself. Chestnuts and potatoes roasting in the ashes. We had a chimney sweep there once and I can remember the smell of the soot.
Kippers smelled good, although I didn’t like eating them because of all the bones. A small piece of kipper seemed to produce a huge plateful of bones.
Another vivid memory is the smell of French polish and Linseed Oil around my Grandfather who was a woodworker ‘extraordinaire’. I remember once that he refinished a table for a neighbor, she had left a cigarette – revolting habit – perched on the edge of an ashtray and it had fallen onto the table unnoticed and burned its whole length while laying there, resulting in a three inch long burn in their beautiful table. My Grandfather, Thomas Howard Nethercott, sanded the burn, feathering the edges out and then doing his magic, mixing and applying the French polish to a perfect match. Then, also being a crafty old man, he turned the table 180 degrees so that the repaired end was at the opposite end. When the amazed owners examined the table they were unable to find where the repair was! A perfect match. A crafty devil was my Granddad. I could tell you a few stories about him, if I had time, well maybe just a couple of quick ones. During the First World War he was in the trenches of France and he told me that his boots had worn out, or maybe they rotted out because the trenches were deep in water and mud and they were in them 24/7 as we would say nowadays. Then he told me that he had to kill 8 Germans before he found a pair of boots to fit him! And there was the time, after I had my appendix out at age 10, that he told me about when he had his appendix out – “With a rusty bayonet in the trenches.”
However his son once told me that when he was in Turkey, after the Gallipoli campaign – one of Winston Churchill’s deadly mistakes in judgment – he had actually given his spare pair of boots to a Turkish prisoner who had no boots. Aside to my Grandchildren here, please read about the First World War as well as the Second World War and don’t forget to read about Gallipoli – a particularly horrendous campaign. You need to know about all these mistakes. So that you don’t make the same mistakes that we made. Even tho’ we do of course keep making them, over and over and over, will we never learn? Unfortunately it is you young people who have to suffer because us older ones are unable to do our jobs. Because politicians can’t do their jobs (which is to get along with each other) our young men and women have to be maimed and die.
Enough of my soap boxing. Back to smells. Not too many memories of them right now. Oh yes, there’s the smell of the horse manure that we would rush out to scoop up when the milkman’s horse obliged close by. That delightful product would go onto my garden, which in turn reminds me of the smell of the cabbage that I grew in that garden. From there we go to smell of cabbage cooking in the kitchen. That in turn leads to the smell of the small shed/workshop that my father had just outside the kitchen door. In there was the smell of oil and petrol from the small motorcycle that he kept in there. Also in there was the wood sledge that he had made for me. We would take the sledge up onto the hill behind our house in Paulsgrove. Portsdown Hill, at 400 feet high was a perfect place for an exciting afternoon. I can still smell the hot, dry, dusty grass where our sled runs were. There were at least a dozen runs, varying from the mild ones, that were strictly “for the kids”, they became gradually steeper and steeper until we reached the steepest one that we called the Cresta Run. The Cresta Run was only for the bravest of us. This was the one we used – we being my friends Charles Tickner and Colin ? and of course Dad. My sister Mary was pretty adventurous at times but I’m not sure if she ever rode the Cresta Run.
Strangely enough I don’t remember the smell of freshly mown grass, surely one of the strongest and most wonderful smells. Although we did have a small lawn I don’t ever remember mowing it. Did we cut it with shears? I really don’t remember, would it smell the same?
We lived close to the sea, and many of my smell memories are of the sea. A few miles away on the south side of Portsmouth was the seaside area known as Southsea, a wonderful, wonderland of a beach. Not your boring old sand beach but a mixture of smooth stones, sand, rocks, seashells, stones with holes worn through them by the sea, sea weed, beautiful pieces of glass worn smooth by the waves and a host of other wonders, an absolute paradise for a small boy. And the smells, the salty air from the waves breaking onto the beach and the tangy smell of the seaweed which is still in my nose, its almost as if I were there right now. Even in the winter when we would go there the huge waves were like waves of the best smells that you can imagine as they crashed onto the stones dragging them this way and that in a cacophony of sound better than the best composer or orchestra could come up with. I could listen to it and inhale the odors for hours. In fact I used to take my daughter Sarah down there in her wheelchair in 1975 to eat lunch after the accident in which she broke both of her legs when she was 3 years old. I hope she can still remember those sad but exciting days.
As I said before, we lived close to the sea, if you went in almost any direction to the South, East or West you came to the sea and its wonderful smells and sounds. Different places had vastly different smells. To the West was Portchester Castle, surrounded on three sides by mud and the sea. Another wonderland for a small boy, Portchester Castle went back centuries, but when I was a small boy it was just another place that I took for granted. The vacation spot of Hayling Island was to the East with its half sand and half stone beaches. Even further to the East was Thorney Island with its old World War Two Airfield. Reed beds and salt marshes that were full of birds surrounded Thorney Island, but there were no beaches. The smells from the reeds was different again from all the other seaside smells. The airfield had old WWII planes parked there. I remember an old Lancaster Bomber, and there were others planes, but I don’t remember the smells of them.
Closer to our home at 109 Ludlow Road in Paulsgrove was Langston Harbour. The City Of Portsmouth was on Portsea Island. This Island was surrounded by the sea and mudflats, in fact at low tide it would have been possible, at least in theory to walk across, in actual fact you would have sunk in the mud and drowned. This did happen to one of my classmates, Barry Briggs, when I was about 9 years old. Stranded on the mudflats was a German submarine; you could see it when the tide was low. Another sight from my youth that I took for granted, it was just there, ‘the German submarine’; now of course I wish that I had known more of the circumstances surrounding it’s sinking. Did it sink or did it just become grounded when it tried to go through between Portsea Island and the mainland, or was it chased in there by the British Navy or towed in. I never knew and have never been able to find out.
The connection between the mudflats and the title of this story is the smell of the mudflats. Whereas the smell of the sea and the seashore has always been a delight to my senses I was never quite sure about the smell of those mudflats! Their smell was strong, very strong; I don’t think that I liked it, could it be because it reminded me of the demise of my classmate Barry? The thought of him drowning in that mud has always horrified me but I don’t think that is the reason for my dislike of it’s strong smell. Possibly it was because I found them unattractive. When the tide was low there were miles and miles of soft black mud, inaccessible, smelly, ugly. Anyway it certainly ranks among one of the smells of my youth. Definitely not one of my favorites, but one of the many.
The fourth direction from our house was North; to the North was the English Countryside. I have already mentioned Portsdown Hill and its memories of smells of hot summer days sledding down its slopes but once you were over the top of that 400 foot high hill and could no longer see the sea and the Islands of the south coast of England you descended into the true English countryside. Little lanes, tiny villages, hedgerows, farms, fields of corn, sheep and cows. When we were young my parents would often take my sister and I for a walk “Over the hill.” The ‘over the hill’ smells were many, is there room to list them all? Lets try to list just a few. Of course the farms supplied most of the more memorable ones, the cows and the sheep especially, there were a lot of sheep. As my good friend Larry Mossman commented once when we visited England with our wives in the 1990’s “England floats on sheep shit.” Some of the farmhouses had duck ponds, pooh did they pong! The fields provided more gentle smells, the smells of England’s lovely wild flowers, primroses, bluebells, cowslips, and a hundred more that I can see in my minds eye and smell in my minds nose! We would sometimes stop in a farmer’s field for a picnic, fields of corn, barley or beans. Other times we would explore a little village, walking around inside the cool church and being lifted up to look over garden walls at the cottage flower and vegetable gardens and once in a while if Dad was feeling flush stopping at a pub where he would have a half pint of beer and we would have a lemonade. There were the wild animals too; sometimes we’d see a fox, and once even a deer. But there were no smells that I can remember of the wild animals, except the dead ones. One of the birch woods that we would walk through had a gamekeeper’s house in it. Hanging all along the fence were rows of dead crows, foxes and other animals. We’d always hurry past that.
It sounds now as if we had a wonderful time on these walks, and I think we did but I often wonder if my parents thought we did. I can remember many of our ‘moans’, “Are we there yet?”, “Can I have a drink?”, “My feet hurt.”, “Can you carry me?”, “When are we going home?”, “How much further is it?”, “I’m tired.”, And so on!
But we did enjoy them, I don’t know how far we used to walk, several miles I’m sure, and we did walk. I suppose we got the bus back sometimes, but I don’t remember going on the bus much, I suspect we walked all the way most of the time. It certainly did us no harm.
What smells will my Grandchildren remember when they grow up? I hope some of them will be of the flowers from our garden at Dock Road, the Southern Magnolia, the Sassafras Trees, and the hundred other trees, flowers and bulbs that grow there. The smell of their dog probably and of their Camper by the river where they spend some of their weekends.
I hope they have as many happy ‘smelly’ memories of their youth as I do.