Saturday, 17 January 2015

'That' Scent...

Let us call her Madeleine (not her real name, for obvious reasons). When I was a young man, newly arrived in the metropolis and teaching English and Drama at a north London comprehensive school, I met Madeleine (not her real name, for obvious reasons) at a party and was rather taken with her. She was very pretty, vivacious and carefree, a socialite of the Chelsea set in the decade before Sloan Ranger became a term of contempt. Although she was a few years older than I, she still lived at home with mummy and daddy in one of those leafy squares off the Brompton Road. Daddy was “big in meat in the city” and mummy was the embodiment of Mrs Dalloway. Madeleine (not her real name, for obvious reasons) was a fashion model who’d also appeared with very few clothes on in a couple of John Boorman movies, including ‘Zardoz’, I believe, with Sean Connery and Charlotte Rampling. We became friends and lovers. She called me her “young man” and I arrived at the conclusion that Madeleine (not her real name, for obvious reasons) not only used Chanel No 5 – ‘That scent’, yes, we’re getting there – she probably bathed in the bloody stuff! I didn’t mind. To begin with, I quite liked the fragrance because I quite liked her. However, during the course of our several-month liaison, it gradually became apparent to me that, while I might be her “young man”, I wasn’t her only man. There was the aspiring racing-driver who used to get her drunk on Moet and occasionally beat her up. There was the old Etonian who was very adept at replicating Queen Anne furniture which he off-loaded to less than scrupulous cronies in the antiques game. I think he kept her in class A recreationals as well as Chanel. But the alarm bells well and truly rang the night when Madeleine (not her real name, for obvious reasons) arrived at my house at 3 in the morning barefoot and delivered by fire-engine. I just refused to let her in – I had to be up for school at 7  – let the firemen put the fire out. I never saw her again but I have acquired a life-long aversion to Chanel No 5. The olfactory key is a potent instrument in any memory-picker's tool kit and it only takes the merest whiff of No 5 to unlock a sequence of evocative and not always pleasant madeleine moments for me. 

Staying with London as a locale, I wonder how many of you have read and enjoyed Ben Aaronovitch’s brilliant ‘Rivers Of London’ series of novels? Ben, was born and bred a Londoner, has written TV scripts for Doctor Who (‘Remembrance of the Daleks’) and the space soap ‘Jupiter Moon’ and also worked at Waterstones in Covent Garden for a while when times were lean; but his novels, five to date, have all been best-sellers so he only goes to bookshops for signings these days. The premise of the novels is that magic exists, can be used for nefarious ends and the Met has a special division, based at The Folly, responsible for investigating and dealing with any criminal activity that has a whiff of the supernatural about it. Chief Inspector Nightingale (wizard) and his sidekick DC Peter Grant (apprentice wizard) are the heat on the streets of London with sharp noses for vestigia, sensory traces of wrong-doing involving magic. The novels are all cleverly devised, entertainingly told and ripping good yarns that reward your suspension of disbelief. If you haven’t stumbled upon them yet, they are a treat in store. To find out more, check out The Folly - “official home of English wizardry since 1775” - at

And so, to the poem. This is something I wrote for and performed at the Haunted House event in Blackpool a few evenings ago. It’s best read out loud with all the lights turned down, except for the glow from your laptop/PC/tablet screen. Look out for ‘that’ scent, reeking sulphurous…..

Whispering Winds
The city sleeps
while in its streets
move tortured spirits of a cruel past,
seeking rest. 

Trees whine in parks,
wires whistle, papers rustle -
sounds easily explained by day
grow bold at night. 

Shackled dogs howl,
hackled cats growl,
fear drops a frosty few degrees
unquiet is on the prowl. 

You didn’t spot those shadows,
dark wraiths milling round
mottling the ground,
insubstantial all night long,
lurching, shifting, searching. 

Such emptiness in solid air,
such almost tangible despair
might shape to rend this curtain of complacency. 

Soot billows out of grates,
ridge tiles begin to fly,
shop-signs tumble,
trees are ripped from hallowed soil
by manic gusts.
The hour is both profoundly dark and late
when disaffection, reeking sulphurous,
tears at our smug substantiality. 

Pray that this night won’t go on forever… 

Then, as a pearl-edged dawn approaches,
for those who have the ears to hear,
(dogs in shackles, cats with hackles),
a million jangled,
paranoiac screams
mingle west,
lost on whispering winds.

Thanks for reading. Have a good week, S ;-)