An Irishman's Diary
ONE DAY in the barber-shop a while back, the man asked me if I’d like to try some “hair tonic”. I had no idea then what hair tonic does, exactly. And having looked it up since, I realise the answer is “nothing”.
But it sounded medicinal at the time. So as he sprinkled a bit on my head and rubbed it in, the pleasant smell seemed an incidental bonus.
“American Bay Rum” was the product’s name. It sounded manly, like something Hemingway would have drunk. The smell – of cloves and cinnamon – was manly too. And I must have met it before somewhere, in the barbershops of my childhood, because it also made me feel suddenly nostalgic.
Anyway, I buy the stuff regularly now. Which again demonstrates the success of a well-known strategy whereby perfume can be marketed to men, provided you call it something else (eg “after-shave”) and make it sound functional.
Indeed the experience also reminded me that, despite what it sometimes suits us to pretend – say, when the baby needs changing – men have just as highly developed olfactory senses as women.
Our tastes are different, clearly: a point underlined every time I pass the doorway of one of those Lush shops and find myself exclaiming “Dear God!” as I battle through the cloud of soap odours, like a first World War soldier trying to escape a mustard gas attack.
But the semi-Proustian experience with the bay rum set me thinking about other quintessentially male smells – the good ones – bottled or not. In most cases, probably, I mean the smells that remind you of your father or grandfather, assuming you have positive memories of them. And for me, therefore, the classic example would be piped tobacco: specifically Mick McQuaid ready-rubbed.
Actually it’s a long time since I’ve smelled Mick McQuaid, my old man’s favourite, so I couldn’t swear that I’d pick it out now from an identity parade of rubbed tobaccos. But pipe smoking in general has become so rare that any of it can be overwhelmingly nostalgic. One whiff, and suddenly it’s the 1970s again, with Jack Lynch (the last pipe-smoking taoiseach) still in power.
Another smell I always associate with my father, although it would be even harder to recreate, is that of a wet overcoat, as experienced when sheltering underneath it in a summer downpour.
It’s difficult even to define that smell now, never mind recreate it.
The overcoat would have to be old and – probably – never have seen the inside of a dry-cleaners. Maybe lanolin was a big part of the aroma, but my father’s coat had absorbed a lot of other flavours in its time and presumably had a perfume all its own.
Then there’s shoe-polish, another fatherly smell and still very much with us. I have some of it at home, in fact. But it’s an indication of how rarely I polish my shoes, that taking the lid off the tin can still be very evocative.
Sawdust is one of the classic manly smells too. It’s also still easily available, although it used to be mixed with other odours – on the floor of a butcher’s shop, for example, or in the rougher kinds of pub – in which combinations it is now largely extinct. For me, the smell of sawdust is at its best when combined with chainsaw exhaust: a mixture especially potent outdoors, on a cold winter’s morning.
The interior of a hardware store is yet another perfume that, captured in a bottle, would do well with manly smell connoisseurs. Not just any hardware shop, though. The bouquet of a good hardware shop improves with age, I imagine, like that of a vintage garden shed. Which, by the way, is perhaps the quintessential male aroma, since the ideal shed can combine most of the best smells: damp earth, creosote, lawnmower fuel, vinyl (your obsolete record collection), old plastic transistor radios, etc.
Not all manly odours are pleasant, of course, even to men. But there is a subcategory that, while borderline unpleasant, can be nonetheless potent and capable of summoning up lost worlds. I’m thinking of molten tar, for example. Or burning rubber. Or Lifebuoy soap.
Deep heat cream too. A sniff of that now and, suddenly, I’m 22 years old again, shivering with the cold as I tog out in an improvised dressing room, formerly a warehouse container, in a godforsaken field in Finglas, looking forward to 90 minutes of having lumps kicked out of me by the local savages. Great memories! Favourite manly smells differ from one culture to another. On a US website where I saw the subject discussed ( artofmanliness.com), a smell praised repeatedly by correspondents was “gun-cleaning solvent”.
Especially eulogised was a brand named “Hoppes No 9” (although there were also those who claimed that its smell is not what it used to be).
I have no idea what gun-cleaning solvent is like. Nor do I know much about “gunpowder”, which was prominently mentioned too. But I do at least have some idea of what the latter smell involves, if only from scraping the heads off matches to make halloween bangers back in the day.
Also, even further back in the day, there were the cowboy guns we used to get for Christmas, with those little paper rolls of sulphurous ammunition that made a “bang” when you pulled the trigger. They went out of fashion among present-buying parents in the 1970s, for some strange reason. Yet even today, to paraphrase Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, I still love the smell of sulphur in the morning.