Damp. Damp everything. As I woke one grey morning in Manchester, the radio proudly announced that the city had broken its own record by being rained on for 500 days straight. Damp leaves, damp clothes (no tumble dryer), and the musty rot of the wood from which the creaking Victorian house we lived in was built.
Birmingham university in the 1970s smelt like Angel Delight, which was very much the dessert of choice in the student flat I shared. Strawberry was the favoured flavour, and great pride was taken in the mixing of the powder and the milk, and getting it just right. It smelt heavenly, tasted even better, and we considered ourselves blessed.
Against a smoky, hoppy base of discarded Rothmans butts and spilt cask ale rises the rounded, fatty yet charcoal-tinged note of late-night-kebab, tinged with an invigorating spritz of green chilli. Musky overtones of college port and mouldering library-book soften the sweetish aroma of grass, both freshly mown and illicitly consumed, while the herbal tang of henna floats tantalisingly just out of reach.
My university scent would be a delicate combination of spilt gin, bitter cigarette smoke, and pasta and pesto. Throw in a slug of black coffee, a healthy splash of unattended laundry, a dribble of revision anxiety-induced swear, and a drop or two of heady highlighter ink and there you have it: eau-de-Kings College London.
The scent was what you might call “Stale for Men”. Stale tobacco in the days when you could smoke in the college bar (the days being 1981-84, the college Corpus Christi, Oxford); stale champagne from celebrations after finals; and stale food coming out from the bins. There’d also be a hint of patchouli, though I am not sure where this came from as we’d no hippies around. Plus a little bit of Old Book and sixteenth-century library. Not an inspiring sort of olfactory stimulation.
I went to university at Central Saint Martins in London, so the base note must be acrid, nostril-numbing stench of Tube sweat (mine and others) mingled with top-notes of paint-thinner, cheap cigarettes and a strong, bitter undercurrent of coffee. Oh, and a heart of mothball: forget Chanel no. 5, that’s the true fragrance of fashion.
The 1990s, a young Cambridge student’s moment of discovery: the dry musk of neglected library books; the sweet notes of cheap cider on a hot day; damp rooms; Directions hair dye, Biro tang … and, to evoke the excitement of independence and the passion for knowledge, a hint of lamb jalfrezi.
In early Noughties Dublin, the girls were enveloped in clouds of Impulse and CK One, the boys in Lynx and, of course, CK One. On everyone’s breath lingered Juicy Fruit and Smirnoff Ice (we could buy it on draft in our college bar). In our small lecture halls, the comforting chalk-and-duster smell had been replaced by the more acrid one of whiteboard pens, and a faint aroma of dog as a room full of rain-bedraggled students were taught about “the internet”. At home, the aroma was of damp Converse and “chicken” Koka noodles, with the occasional leftover Chinese adding an exotic top note. Romantic? Perhaps not, but for us growing grungers, it smelled like teen spirit.
Siobhan NortonReuse content