sweet perfumes of the past (the way we were, the way we wore, the way we stank… )

A friend of mine very recently told me that I wasn’t doing myself justice by having the second chapter of my novel – Wood, Talc and Mr. J, plug, plug – hidden away in extracts – plug, plug.  He therefore thought that my second blog ought to be about the second chapter.

I half agreed. In that, if ever I’m able to relate a more recent experience to finished work, then I don’t mind.

Here’s what I came up with.

It all started in ‘The Range’. It’s a chain, do you know it? One of their selling lines is “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it!”. A debateable point, but it’s not a bad shop, and I think most of our picture-frames have come from there, along with the odd lamp and flat-pack wardrobe and… Anyhow, a couple of days ago, me, my girlfriend, and our little girl, were in there looking for a few odds and ends. Ten minutes in and I was already at the checkout – I don’t mind shopping if it’s quick. I had another couple of large picture-frames under an arm and was wrestling to pull my wallet from my jeans pocket with my other hand, when, ouff, I was hit by what felt like a big rubber hammer… or rather a big, smelly rubber hammer…

I looked about me. There was no-one around, barring the good looking lady plonking her goods down at the checkout, just in front of me, and another equally attractive lady scanning those goods once plonked; that was it: the two ladies and me. I must emphasise here that neither of them looked remotely like they were even capable of smelling like a whorehouse a low tide – they were slim, casually smart. But one of them did smell; and my nostrils hadn’t experienced body odour of that magnitude since … – I won’t make jokes about my having lived in France for a number of years – … since… I’ll keep thinking.

In the meantime, I had a crisis:

With an educated guess, only one of the ladies was in dire need of a shower… What, then, if the other thinks it’s me? Me, rotting at the checkout? Let’s face it, men – without labouring on such sexism – out of ten people, how many would vote against the stinker being a man? And the only thing this particular stink wasn’t was visible!

Back on course.

It all got me thinking about that second chapter – plug, plug. Indeed, stinky people is one of many subthemes in the novel; it’s very much a recurring one, at any rate, in some way or other. I guess it would come under the more general theme of personal hygiene.

After all, it’s 1978. A northern industrial town.

Nothing’s mentioned directly in the second chapter – plug, plug – but any reader with a little imagination – especially one from a similar time and place; a bloody depressing one in many ways – doesn’t need to try too hard for those kinds of wafts to ooze from the pages, along with such culinary perfumes as hash and pancakes, perfected by the very capable hands of mum, inside the steamy confines of a six by six kitchen on a winter’s evening.

Phillip, the novel’s hero, actually refers to his hygiene problem at the end of Chapter 3 – he’s permitted the one bath per week, on a Friday, and if he misses it, then tough.

He doesn’t get changed before having his tea, and this is after a nine/ten hour day spent up to his eyes in grime – you could think of it as being after three nine/ten hour days spent up to his eyes in grime, remembering that it’s now a Wednesday evening and that he has another two days to go before he can wallow in that precious soap and water; same goes for the clothes. And when he finally does “get his kit off”, on this Wednesday evening, in Chapter 5, the nearest he comes to soap and water is via his best friend’s fetish for…

No, I’m not telling you. You’ll have to read the book.

The way we were… “Could it be that it was all so simple then?”

Like hell, Gladys Knight! I love your Soul with every ounce of my soul, Gladys, but I’m not so sure it was all that simple then.

We stank and there’s no getting away from it.

But of course, we were rescued from the idea by the fact that we were all in the same boat, as it were. Or same shithole, to not beat about the bush.

The way we were…

Certain authors, wits, have commented on such halcyon days, and beyond, more as ‘The Way We Wore’. I don’t normally go for those kinds of books, and, thus, with but a cursory eye, have never read anyone comment on the way we stank. It was back in those days that I read what being ‘Mod’ meant to The Who’s ex-manager, Pete Meadon, when asked sometime in the late 60s. He said that: “Modism, Mod living, is an aphorism for clean living under difficult circumstances.”

It sounded great – he used a word with four syllables for a start. I even tried it on someone, of the opposite sex. I just wasn’t counting on her asking me what an aphorism was.

The thing, though, was that, other than the word with the four syllables, I couldn’t really relate to the line. Because it felt to me like there existed no such war; clean was impossible and it was more about dirty living under difficult circumstances – next stop the plague!

Of course, it’s all down to what Pete Meadon meant, exactly, by “clean living”. And this is what my little blog’s about: how times have changed vastly, within, say, the last thirty years, and on so many levels, regarding the homes in which we live.

Only a few years on from the days in which the second chapter – plug plug – is set, as with the rest of the novel, I took up badminton. We never really talked about our evident enthusiasm for the game, my friend and me, whom I played with, and worked with, in the same factory, or what I saw as just another cesspit. There was a relatively new sports centre in the city – which, as a concept back then, was one step down from a spaceship – and that was it!

I know now – and knew back then, without doubt – that a large part of our enthusiasm was down to the idea of being able to shower afterwards – three nights a week, my God!! I think the biggest clue was that whenever the other prisoners – I could never think of them as work colleagues in those days – would ask us who’d won the games, we’d both look at one another, my friend and me, each of us waiting for the other to tell them; I’d just want to say: ‘Who gives a shit, I’m clean!!’

I developed a love for a thing called ‘deodorant’. Mine came in a silver and white plastic guise; it was called Right Guard. I’d play with it on the bus journey, keep smelling it – I mean, shouldn’t I have been fiddling with the cat gut on my Yonex racket? I was clearly looking forward to the end of the games…

Furthermore, the toilet inside the sports centre was what it said on the tin: “inside”.

I’ve recently read Helga Schneider’s Bonfire of Berlin. It’s the last days of the German Reich. Berlin is being bombed to hell, and the lucky ones, those still alive, must spend their lives crammed in cellars with no sanitation. Indeed, they must live with nothing at all, certainly in modern day terms, on an indefinite basis.

How those poor souls must have stunk. And I thought we had it bad…

It brings me back to my experience in The Range the other day, and that selling line, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it!” And yet, somebody was clearly in need of a bath, followed by superfluous  amounts of Right Guard, just to be sure, to make up for lost time and all that. For some of us, life was a bit harder than today – just read the second chapter, plug plug!

Moreover, imagine that more than 783 million people today are still without access to water; 2.5 billion people live without basic sanitation. And every twenty seconds, a child dies as a result of poor sanitation…

Makes you think.

Maybe we should all sit down together once in a while and take stock. As long as the lady in The Range takes a shower beforehand, for the sake of those of us who once couldn’t, and more so for those who still can’t…


Chris Rose

Your literary, soulful friend

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