BOOK REVIEW / The game of the nose: 'Scent' - Annick Le Guerer trs Richard Miller: Chatto, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
SMELLS are not, as it were, to be sniffed at. We humans have lost so much since we first decided to stand up on two legs and use our noses chiefly to support our specs. Dogs, by keeping their snouts to the ground, benefit from being able to pick up scented snapshots - not only of what is there, but also of what was there.

Some wise men have claimed that a smell has no existence outside the mind of the smeller. Others, mainly priests specialising in witch-hunts, have taken scents to be the invention of the devil, stating it for a fact that the odour of musk-roses causes demonic possession in nuns. Pongs have always been part of the vocabulary of abuse. In the First World War it was proved conclusively that German feet were 25 per cent more cheesy than French feet. In the Middle Ages, Jews were held to be whiffy - but not, presumably, after they converted to Christianity. Later, it was 'the great unwashed' who caused smart folk to hold their noses.

Before the age of the water closet, the lack of sanitation made people wish that their olfactory organs had an 'off' switch. It was even worse in a time of plague. Since a corpse-ridden city would stink to high heaven, scientists came to the conclusion that it was the odours which caused the illness, instead of the other way round. The theory was that if the stench could be stopped, so would the plague. Fragrant bonfires were therefore lit in the streets; houses were elaborately perfumed. As a precaution, doctors on visits held a burning juniper branch in one hand and a scented pomander ball in the other, which, together with the fact that they sensibly kept their backs to the sick-bed, made examination of the patient less than thorough. An alternative theory held that a noxious odour could be beaten by an even more appalling smell - by having a goat about the place, or by leaving a feline corpse strategically placed (the 102nd use for a dead cat).

In Scent, Annick Le Guerer has many such odoriferous details. But, oddly for a book with the subtitle 'The Mysterious and Essential Powers of Smell', she has less than a single page on the modern version of curing by odour, aromatherapy. There is practically nothing on the perfume industry of today, which deals in fantasies at least as preposterous as those of 16th-century alchemists. Nor does she give a bread-and-butter explanation of how the nasal organ actually works.

This is not to suggest that readers should look down their noses at Scent. If nothing else, it is full of extraordinary theories - for example, the belief that air, like milk, could 'go off', so that birds flying into a patch of this 'miasma' would instantly hit the deck, stone dead. Perfumed sachets were once worn next to the heart in order to strengthen the muscles: it may not have done much for the cardiovascular system but, at a time when it was thought that having a bath harmed your health, it made the wearer a great deal nicer to be near. In the same way, before bedding his Bedouin bride, a Tunisian groom will today burn incense under their clothes. ('Is that an incense-burner,' she may ask, 'or are you just pleased to see me?')

Yet the most lunatic-sounding theory on the smell front may well turn out to be sane after all. In the last century, one Charles Fourier asserted that the stars and planets were created by 'aromatic bursts'. Nobody gave him the time of day for his concept - until recent research pointed towards the existence of 'aromatic molecules' among the key building-blocks from which new stellar material is created. As the Bible nearly put it: In the beginning was the aftershave.