Philip Hensher: The war of the Great Scented Candle Divide

Share
Related Topics

When a widely practised social custom is discovered to be bad for you, there will be some shock and resentment. The habit of creating small fires in our own homes, polluting the air we breathe, doesn't sound like an obviously healthy or sensible idea.

But lots of people do it; lots of people gain, they say, some pleasure from it. I find it hard to believe, and now that doctors are against the practice, surely the Government can be expected to act to discourage it. Personally, I think the burning of candles is just disgusting.

Researchers have declared that paraffin candles trigger asthma attacks and may be behind some cancers. Beeswax candles are all right, or so they say. But the great majority of candles, made of paraffin, may be positively dangerous, and not just because they could easily fall over and set your house on fire. It is too soon to talk about banning them, but that day may come. It can't come too soon for me.

Partly, I dare say, my loathing of the horrid little things comes from the way they are sold. In the past, the high street was filled with greengrocers, a couple of butchers, a bookshop, an ironmonger and a fishmonger. Nowadays, it goes coffee shop, estate agent, bank, candle shop. Just count them. Those awful little shops selling candles, gift wrap, penis-shaped chocolates and nothing much else are proliferating. How on earth do they make a living? And how did we move from valuing someone who could sell you a screwdriver to someone who hoped to sell you a set of windchimes or, God forbid, an Ojibwa dreamcatcher? How many candles can you find space for in your home? Did you forget to pay your electricity bill, or are you under the impression that we're living in 1972?

My feeling is that the world divides into those who like cushions on their sofas, and those who don't; those who think scented candles create an intimate atmosphere, and those who think them more repulsive than dogs' farts and yesterday's stew. As someone who married someone on the other side of the Great Scented Candle Divide, I must constantly wage a largely wordless war. "What's this?" I say, producing a magnolia-and-kiwi-scented block of paraffin wax which has been surreptitiously added to the weekly shop. "Oh – I thought it would be nice," Zaved says, and though he knows better than to try to light it when it's just the two of us, the horrid thing does get lit whenever a guest comes round.

There seems no limit to the varieties of candles sold by those emporia of crap – the ones in strange little shot glasses, the whimsical ones in the shape of a cow, and the ones that are three feet square with 12 wicks. And there seems no limit to the fruit, herb, nut and spice combinations invented to make your home smell like Santa's grotto and render your dinner inedible. In my childhood, candles came out at powercuts and on top of your birthday cake, and were never scented. Now, you aren't free from them any day of the week.

So the news that scented paraffin candles can kill you doesn't come as a surprise. Something so awful had to be dangerous. Those candlephobes among us will not be happy until the scientists find a reason to get rid of the beeswax variants, too. If only they could discover that pashminas carry a risk of long-term lead poisoning; that having more than two cushions in your house is a factor in early-onset Alzheimers; that having a windchime outside your door correlates with lowered IQ test scores. There might, however, be a question of cause and effect to be investigated in that last one.

Play by the rules - it is, after all, only a game

The question of the South African runner Caster Semenya's sex has been raised very publicly and very indiscreetly, but some of the outrage seems bizarre. Some South African commentators are saying that to pose the question is racist, as if intersex status were somehow connected to race.

In fact, some rivals of the great tennis player Amélie Mauresmo, who is white, used to go around saying that she was "a man", so we can probably dismiss that one. The point is that Miss Semenya decided to play a game, no more than that, which has some rules which are agreed on.

One of those rules is that men may compete against men, and women against women, and those people who are neither, or both, break the rules by competing. I believe that transsexuals as well as intersex individuals are not welcome as competitors.

Well, it seems a little bit stupid to me, like the apparent rule that gay men are not allowed to play professional football and Asians are only allowed to play cricket. But it is only a game, and games, after all, have more or less arbitrarily decided rules.

If whoever decides on these rules says that a girl can't compete if she looks like a man, has a deep voice, or doesn't have breasts, then who are we to say they are wrong? So long as they state so clearly and unambiguously, and the rules aren't seen to be made up as they go along, I think we are all free not to care very much.

Golding age of literature reduced to one book

Was William Golding all he seemed to be? The newspapers last week were all over the question of whether he'd raped someone or not. He probably didn't, but there was a much more interesting and more urgent suggestion made in the pages of John Carey's new (and excellent) biography, which readers ought to care about rather more. At the end of the biography, Carey remarks that "nowadays mention of Lord of the Flies sparks instant recognition in a way that Golding's own name does not".

Can this be true? Growing up in the 1970s, I thought of Golding as a titan of English literature, and the publication of Darkness Visible made an immense impact on me as a young reader. I don't think anyone in the culture would have questioned the significance of The Spire or The Inheritors. When Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers went up against Golding's Rites of Passage for the Booker, it seemed an encounter between giants. Golding's still seem to me marvellous novels, and his name "rings out", as they say in The Wire. But perhaps Carey is right; perhaps we are going to start insisting on our boyhood favourites, and readers younger than us are going to shake their heads in embarrassment at the sort of unreadable stuff the old farts enjoy. It happened to Lawrence Durrell, after all, and if the worst comes to the worst, one novel which survives the wreck of a great reputation is better than nothing. How Golding would have hated the idea of being represented to posterity only by his first novel, though.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Supporters in favour of same-sex marriage pose for a photograph as thousands gather in Dublin Castle  

The lessons we can learn from Ireland's gay marriage referendum

Stefano Hatfield
Immigration enforcement officers lead a Romanian national who has been arrested on immigration offences from a house in Southall in London  

Don’t blame migrants – the West helped to create their plight

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?