Will Self: PsychoGeography

Olfactory direct
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The Independent Online

This is a picture that Ralph took earlier this year of Sir Hartley Greenwhythere, for many years Her Majesty's ambassador to the Elysée Palace. Sir Hartley was enjoying his final cigarette at the famous Café Prostate, haunt of Marcel Duchamps and Dozy, Dave, Beaky, Mick and Titch, before the introduction of the Parisian ban on smoking in public places. It's almost impossible to imagine Parisian cafes without tobacco smoke – it's like imagining Jean-Paul Sartre without Simone de Beauvoir, or Brigitte Bardot without a seal cull.

I digress. Ralph took the picture using his own, patented "Smell-O-Rama" process: a camera that captures odours along with light rays and imprisons them on film. However many times – and using whatever methods – the resulting picture is then reproduced, it will still retain the taint of the time it was taken. If you scratch this illustration gently with your fingernail and then sniff, Paris '08 will come flooding back, with all its urinous, petrol-fumey, Gauloises-smoky tang.

Smell is a neglected aspect of place; few return from their summer hols with tales of the wondrous things they've snuffled; it's always: "Look at these snaps," or those peasant dolls, or drink this ouzo – because I can't stand the stuff, and I'm a complete cheapskate. But really, smell defines a place more, arguably, than anything else. One thinks immediately of the rosemary and thyme in the maquis, or the mint and marijuana in the Riff, or the frying garlic and chilli in Bangkok, or – if you're me – the rank intensity of the mashed-up hops in Burton-on-Trent.

But is it hops? I suspect those multinational brewers use almost anything else they can lay their hands on to make beer nowadays: wheat, corn, the leftovers of oilseed rape production. The aim, surely, is to produce a catholicon that will solve all the world's ills, providing fuel, intoxication and nourishment simultaneously. I digress. I went to a symposium on the writer William S Burroughs once in Burton-on-Trent, and I can't remember anything much about it except for that yeasty stench of massive industrial brewing.

I've written about other odiferous settlements in this column – the sugary reek of Tully in Northern Queensland springs to mind – but the smell-town ne plus ultra has to be Kettering in the East Midlands. You have to go to Kettering. Leave now! It's a Saturday. It's easy to find: just head up the M1 and when you see the signs for Billing Aquadrome, turn right (or, if you're coming from the north, turn left). By the by, has anyone ever actually been to Billing Aquadrome – or even know what it is?

I went to Kettering in my days as a sales rep'; I was trying to flog Nabisco my company's services as producers of corporate literature. When I got to the outskirts of town I realised I needed a piss, so I pulled over the Ford Sierra and got out. (A small note on the Sierra, it's the only car I've ever got brand new. It came, fresh off the production line, with brown paper wrapped around the pedals, and with that marvellous smell of fresh brake blocks that one remembers from new bicycles as a child.) The second I was outside, a great waft of wheatiness infiltrated my nostrils. It was so intense: I felt as if I'd submerged my head in a vat of kvass.

As I motored on into town, the window reeled down, the wheaty smell got stronger and stronger, until I pulled into the car park of the Weetabix factory itself. I made my pitch to the middle management wonk, and then – bliss! – he asked me if I'd like a tour of the production line. I'll do anything – and I mean anything – if it means I get to wear a snood. It was amazingly hygienic, the Weetabix mill; I mean, I've been to Cern in Switzerland, and even the physicists there, who work with subatomic particles that can be corrupted merely by the fact of being observed, scrub-up less thoroughly.

In fact, the place that smelled least wheaty in the whole of Kettering, was the barn where they moulded the stuff into miniature breezeblocks. It occurred to me, as I headed back towards the M1, that to be born and brought up in the town must be a delusory experience. Suppose you never went anywhere else until you were an adult: what would the absence of the wheaty pong be like? Would you recoil from the awful non-smell of towns as otherwise inoffensive as Wellingborough and Northampton?

These speculations weigh heavily on me, for I am a strange and ragged figure, patrolling the desperate margins of our culture, subjected on a daily basis to what Theodor Adorno called – apropos Beckett's Endgame – "the gerontocracy of late capitalism". D'you know what I mean? No? Well, then, piss off to Kettering then, why don't you.

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