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

Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Functional/Full Life Cycle

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Func...

SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfordshire - £350 - £360

£350 - £360 per day: Ashdown Group: SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfor...

Business Intelligence Consultant - Central London - £80,000

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Intelligence Consultant - C...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£70 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Group: SEN Teaching Assistants needed in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The app is due to be launched in San Francisco initially, with other 300 people currently on the waiting list  

Is it too much to ask that people turn up to meet you when they say they will?

Simon Kelner
Dylan Thomas drank himself to death in New York aged just 39  

All this Dylan Thomas fever is telling us only half the story

John Walsh
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?