When Barney Shaw’s autistic son asked him what 3 O’clock in the morning smells like, he genuinely didn’t know how to answer him. His son is a musical genius who has synaesthesia, so he decided the best way to answer this was to get up at that time and head out on to the streets of London, visiting Billingsgate and New Covent Garden to discover from themselves what the scents and smells are around that time of the morning.
It got him thinking though, how do we smell? What do we smell and do we smell the same things as everyone else? To answer what seems to be a set of simple questions is going to take a lot of unravelling. It will take him to the coast and boatyards, into Harrods to smell the food and the most expensive perfume in the world. Down to Dorset to a charcoal burner, to try and get a grip of the complexity of the aroma of coffee and baffling the owners of a hardware shop as he asks to smell the products. Occasionally he ventures back into history to learn about the big stink and the time when parliament decided that they couldn’t bear the smell from the Thames. All this makes him thirsty, so a trip to the pub is called for, to smell the beer and the crisps and run a little experiment with those in the bar.
Shaw’s considered and curious prose makes this book, on what most would consider the weakest of our senses, endlessly fascinating. His journey around the more aromatic places searching for the scents that tell a story, or evoke memories from many years ago has ended up with him compiling a list of 200 or so different things along with different elements of that particular item described. It is not academically rigorous, but that shouldn’t take anything away from this fine musing on scents and smells.