“If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent,” wrote Daphne du Maurier, “and it never faded, and it never got stale. And then when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.” I would respectfully challenge Du Maurier here and say that, for me, along with many others, scent is a Proustian time capsule, each in-breath containing the fine print of decades ago.
The festive season has a particularly visceral stamp in the sense-memory stakes, pine, bay leaves, cinnamon and cloves lowing some familiar siren call. A whisper of White Musk by The Body Shop and a smoke machine can take me swiftly, Alice down the rabbit hole-style, to the Christmas holidays, 1990. In the recall, I stand at a school disco in south London, feeling monstrously shy and wondering why Sinéad O’Connor is calling her departed lover mama, when all the flowers in the backyard have died. It was yet another strange adult mystery to decipher in a sea of them.
The peppery, sweet smell of a smoke machine is a portal to 100 later teenage parties; George Michael singing the last dance, perfume graduating from The Body Shop to Joseph de Jour, a crisp white floral, sharp as the winter air outside. My dear friend Emma lived in Bristol when we were teenagers, and her birthday is near Christmas time. We would go out, wearing our Levi 501’s and bodysuits; drinking Moscow Mules because they seemed incredibly sophisticated. Our hair was stiff with Elnett, after first being tortured with hot rollers. We’d dance to Massive Attack in smoky rooms, spilling on to the streets when the lights went up.
The night bus home was soused with tobacco, CK One and burgers. When we reached Emma’s street, the only other people up were the birds, and they sang in the dark as we fumbled for keys. Her mother’s house was tall and arctic. The kitchen was the only place containing any tangible warmth. When we scuttled downstairs, late morning, with blue fingers and our breath visible, the fragrant, earthy smell of PG Tips and gently burned malt loaf that greeted us was the stuff of dreams.
Back home in London in time for Christmas Eve, my stepfather Patrick, whom I loved, and who by then had split up with my mum, would visit, bringing paper bags of buttery madeleines, and trailing the smell of Creed’s Irish Tweed and Gitanes in his wake. Madeleines became a tradition for any occasion, and sang of something time-honoured and bittersweet. Patrick died earlier this year, and on what would have been his 70th birthday, a September day when the sun wouldn’t quit, we ate madeleines and listened to Marianne Faithfull singing “Madame George”, and remembered him.
When I became an adult, the smell of December became synonymous with cooking. As a Manhattan-dwelling 23-year-old in thrall to Nigella Lawson and trying to impress my then boyfriend’s family, I painstakingly brined my first turkey. It rewarded me in kind, emerging from the oven bronzed and tender. How to Be a Domestic Goddess walked me through that first Christmas in another country like the most wonderful, wise friend. I lived in New York for nearly 10 years and when I moved back to England, after meeting my husband, I fell in love with London as well as him. That first Christmas home, I was beguiled by pink lacy skies and pale sun, and cried at the sound of a child chorister singing “Once in Royal David’s City” as I made mince pies. That Christmas smelt of brandied raisins and joy.
I started writing books in my twenties and, after I was married and had my first baby, I also wrote essays about perfume for Vogue. Scent has always compelled me and woven itself into the stuff I write. In my sixth book, a picture book for children, called The Worst Sleepover in the World, three children embark on a first sleepover with the kind of fervour and planning that 18-year-olds meet New Year’s Eve. The feasts they’ll eat, the wild and sleepless games they’ll play. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it goes tits-up. After a long night where the mum in the story has tried everything, the children go to bed furious with each other. Nothing, they reason, will be good EVER AGAIN. Perhaps, mum says, it will all feel better in the morning? Most things do.
When they wake, the children are met by the sun streaming through the windows, and the smell of coffee and pancakes drifting up the stairs. Life, it seems, is OK. They are all in one piece. Year after year, our traditions and rituals, whatever they are, help remind us of this. We are in one piece. Our hearts may hurt, there may be spaces at the table, but love is what survives of us, as this great world keeps on turning. And that smells of hope.