We asked Dr Alex Rhys-Taylor, lecturer of sociology at Goldsmiths, how the smells of London’s past built the city we love today.
Historically, the sense of smell has played a crucial part in shaping the social and economic life of the city. But in a modern city so known for its visual and aural culture, is a Londoner’s sense of smell simply something to be sniffed at? Allow me to consider importance the smells of the city, past and present.
Walking south through Shoreditch towards the glinting towers of the City, you can smell a new city being born; with the concrete, solvents, wet paint and sawdust that accompany the northward expansion of the financial quarter. But if you walk through Shoreditch at lunchtime, in between the yogic exhalations of cigarette smoke, in places it smells a lot like Hanoi: starchy rice steam, red basil and chargrilled meat fumes.
This smell, and our relationships to it, is an important way in to understanding the relationship between Asia and Europe within urban culture today.
2. New Cross
When you get out of New Cross Gate station, there’s no missing the heavy fog of jerk chicken cooked on an oil drum. Again, the mere presence of this smell is a testament to the homemaking efforts of migrants in the last century. On a sunny day, with your eyes closed, it could be Kingston, Jamaica.
But it is also the quintessential smell of south east London, and part of an atmosphere that a broad range of people are deeply attached to. Which is to say, the smell has vastly different connotations than that of fried chicken. Like herring in the nineteenth century, and possibly fish and chips in the twentieth century, fried chicken is amongst the least favourite smells of older, whiter and generally more middle-class Londoners. With the growth of gentrification in London’s hitherto poorer areas, it is also one of the smells most frequently reported to local councils.
In the past, areas to the south and east of the City were home to the city’s industry, storing and processing raw materials arriving in London by way of rail and river. In Bermondsey, factories were brewing vinegar and baking biscuits.
It’s probably not uncommon to smell biscuits baking in Bermondsey today. But far from being associated with the industry of the city’s East, the seductive scent of baking is much more likely to drift out from under the door of a home for sale. This is just one aspect of the olfactory trickery that has percolated into the life of the twenty-first century city.
4. River Thames
In the summer of 1858, the Thames was less the city’s great artery than its colon. The heat combined with the human and industrial detritus coagulating in the river caused ‘The Great Stink’, famously shutting parliament down.
Today, the brackish waters of the Thames are the cleanest they’ve been for two centuries, with over 200 species – including seahorses – making it their home. On a sunny, breezy day, the water of the twenty-first century Thames smells not unlike that of the sea, with hints of ozone, seaweed and driftwood drying on the sun. On a really sunny day, the pineapple and coconut of sun-cream of day-trippers make the olfactory mirage of the seaside complete. With the river symbolically and physically repurposed, it’s faintly maritime aroma is part of what makes a day on the South Bank such a quintessential part of London life.
The arrival of canals and railways to the city’s northern provinces in the nineteenth century, along with the accompanying wharfs, sullied their reputation for clean air.
But you can still catch hints of those historical smells on a walk up Kinglsand Road. The floral, medicinal aroma of the Geffrye Museum’s herbs gardens are a reminder of the area’s old restorative reputation. A few paces on, the wonderful slightly burnt woody smell of the timber yard leaves a trace of the area’s historical light industry in the nose. Without a doubt though, the most notable smell in the area is the smell of Ridley Road market. The smell is a melange of sweet melon, the turpentine inflections of mango, marijuana, mint, incense, cumin, cardamom, dried smokey fish and the metallic bloody smell of the butchers. Far from the scent of any one community, the atmosphere is a product of the mixing and mingling of the everyday life of London.
Find out more about London’s smelly past and present at the The Body in the City Symposium, 27 February 2015, 2pm-8pm, Room 326, Professor Stuart Hall Building, Goldsmiths, University of London, New Cross SE14 6NW. Feb 27 is also Anosmia Awareness Day on February 27 recognises smell and taste disorders often caused by head injury, illness or age.