By Bobby Genower
I enjoyed Adri’s brief investigation into the sense of smell (Muse, 5th September). Over the past summer I wrote a memoir of my (unsuccessful) romantic pursuit of a young woman in the early Seventies, and at one point I commented on the powerful effect that the scent she wore had on me. I reflected upon the power of smells generally to influence our moods. Occasionally, I said, there are times when a scent or smell suddenly surprises us and awakens a slumbering part of the brain that seems to have no purpose other than to delight in odours. I have a feeling that our over-reliance on our other senses and the thoughts that constantly circulate in our heads deprive us of much of the joy of smells. And I am told that there are certain things called pheromones floating around that we’re not consciously aware of, but even though they may work subliminally, we can notice their effect on us.
It seems that the sudden awareness of a particular smell (Adri referred to her encounter with the perfume worn by two girls as like being “slapped in the face”) impacts the limbic system of the brain, which is the region buried deep within the cortex and which derives from the reptilian part of our evolution. As the centuries have gone by, we have become less and less responsive to the information that our sense of smell provides us with. In the Sixties, one of the most influential books of the decade was Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Massage”; McLuhan was an inspired commentator and visionary on aspects of the media. However, I was more impressed with an earlier book of his, called “The Mechanical Bride”. One chapter in it entitled “How Not to Offend”, treats with contempt the many ads and exhortations to use Product X or Y in order to be fresh and inoffensive. “There is an age-old notion that healthy body odour is not only an aphrodisiac but a principal means of establishing human affinities,” wrote McLuhan.
Adri was worried when someone said that she “smelled like ‘me'”— that she had a certain smell which was “Adri”. Others said she smelled like “baby powder”. I suppose each of us has an individual aroma that is as unique as our fingerprints or DNA profile. The polyamorous writer H G Wells was famously said by his lovers to have smelled like honey. My conclusion is that whilst we should observe the hygienic requirements of a modern society (the Tube train test) we should also celebrate good smells, including the sweat produced by honest toil. As for my girl’s perfume, if you’re wondering, it was called Tabu.