Watching ‘Downton Abbey’ on TV or ‘Les Misérables’ in the cinema, or any quasi-historical fiction, I often spare a thought for the stench of days of yore. I’m referring here to ‘people’ smells from a time when few were privy to a privy, and even fewer to anything resembling a bath. I’ve often thought if historical movies were made to be ‘scratched-and-sniffed’ there wouldn’t be a dry nose in the house.
The journey from home in Cabra to school in Eccles Street in the 1960s and ’70s was an abundance of smells. Twice a week I’d avoid the cattle and sheep being herded down the road to the abattoir and market in Stoneybatter. The bus from the North Circular Road to the Mater Hospital had people smoking, wearing winter coats that never saw soap, including my own. We were, back then, the great unwashed. Once a week was ‘bath time’. In between, it was a flannel cloth to wash the bits that stick out. Like ears. We were big on clean ears back then.
Over the past several decades, the cosmetic pharmaceutical industry has persuaded women first, and then men, that we cannot leave the house without them. Small fortunes are spent on lotions and potions, and a shower isn’t a shower unless it’s a power shower. We wrinkle our noses at the slightest scent of perspiration, the mortal sin of sanitation. Walking the hill of Howth it’s the ‘Perfumed Body Spray’ smell from folk downwind we inhale instead of heather, grass and the sea. When natural disasters are imminent, animals and birds flee for their lives, sensing it in the air. Have we humans completely lost the olfactory plot? How can we smell danger if danger is wearing eau-de-safe? Smells carry important information.
The information I’m getting recently when using public transport is that for an awful lot of ordinary people like myself, the clock has gone badly backwards on quality of life. For the first time in decades I’m noticing that many people on the bus smell strongly of body odours that we now classify as nasty. So I ask myself, why is this?
Looking around me, I see that on the bus to work, in the early morning, there are people clearly not going to work. Where have they slept? Indoors or outdoors? Are they on their way for a free breakfast somewhere in the city? I see women with greasy hair and dandruff; men who have shaved without a mirror; layers of clothes being worn instead of carrying a bag; pockets of winter coats and jackets bulging with belongings; broken glasses fixed with tape. I am old enough that this reminds me of the 1970s, the big difference now being that people do look twice. I did.
Pope Francis, understanding this very basic aspect of human dignity, installed showers for the homeless in the heart of the Vatican city. There are charities in Ireland providing the same facilities. My nose is telling me these facilities are busier than ever, and need our help. An obvious way to help is to contribute financially or to give of our time. Less obvious is to rethink our attitude to smells. Instead of moving seat, opening a window, or being disgusted, to ponder that not so long ago these smells were so normal we didn’t notice them.
The only person my father ever barred from his pub on the basis of smell was a fishmonger, but even then he told her she was barred because of her foul mouth, having set this precedent with Brendan Behan. It would have been bad manners to tell her that customers were leaving because she smelt of fish. I spent hours as a child hanging out in my father’s pub, and I can tell you now that the rest of the customers didn’t exactly smell of roses either! It’s all about expectations. I’ve decided to change mine.