Compared to the visual aspects of the city, or even the audible city, a great deal less thought, consideration and design is given to smells of city life. Or at least, we don’t talk about it so much.
But smells clearly matter. They can shape how we move through cities, who we sit next to, who we don’t. They mark out different parts of the city from each other, as well as different city dwellers. They are integral to our emotional relationship with cities and our attachment to specific places. And finally of course, smells of the city conjure vivid memories. All of this becomes particularly noticeable when, for whatever reason — and there are many — one loses their sense of smell.
In terms of sensory loss, people clearly place smell loss at the bottom of those that matter. But to lose the sense of smell is to lose one of the key ways in which we anchor ourselves in culture and social relations.
And make no mistake; smell has its part in social relations. In terms of a city like London, a mixture of symbolically dirty and really dirty smells have characteristically been placed down wind (in the east), in a way that enabled the development of more refined atmospheres up west.
Both Marx and Engels, for instance, were keenly aware of the sensory divisions in the city. As they saw it, the sensory deprivation of the East End, the heat of furnaces, the smoggy air, the poor sanitation, were precisely what made possible the perfumed airs of the gentle west of London. In this sense, class relations really did have an explicit olfactory element to them. Even those ‘working class smells’, smells that weren’t actually a toxic product of their environment (say the smell of the ubiquitous herring the working classes ate), were increasingly banished from upper class homes for their mere association with a ‘dangerous’ class.
Today things smell very different. Sewers and sanitation are ubiquitous. London is no longer an industrial city. That means healthier air. It also means a lot less of the powerful aromas associated with the various industries that marked out various inner city boroughs in the past: vinegar brewing and biscuit baking in Bermondsey, matchstick making in Bow, the heady mix of plastics and chemicals around Hackney Wick. The demise of industry has also come at the same time as the demise of the clear-cut class and cultural distinctions that came with it. So aromatic divisions in the city aren’t what they once were.
But the smell of London tells us a great deal about the city, its boroughs and its residents today. Walking through Shoreditch to the City at lunchtime, for instance, 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. The presence of Vietnamese restaurants in the city’s east is an important legacy of the final years of the Cold War. But its ubiquity on the street is testament to the ways in which, over recent years, Vietnamese food has established a central place in the new urban street food scene. This smell, and our relationship to it, is an important way in to understanding the relationship between Asia and Europe within urban culture today.
Walking south through Shoreditch towards the glinting towers of the City, you can also smell a new city being born. The concrete, solvents, wet paint and sawdust that accompany the northward expansion of the financial quarter.
At one point however, the smell changes briefly. The change is signalled by a pile of sleeping bags and cardboard pillows where people cluster to sleep rough under the new London Overground bridge. We don’t talk about it, but as much as class distinctions aren’t as obvious to the nose as they once were, abject poverty still has a smell. Spicy, dusty, beery and a clear smell of urine.
For all of the visual triumph of the City’s gleaming towers, you can’t hide the smell of our society’s failings. Not soon after that bridge, smells become more predictable, more regular. The sweet milky and nutty air of coffee shops. Fogs of sushi vinegar. Musty, spicy colognes for him. Floral and fruity perfumes for her.
Other areas of the city also have their own distinctive signatures. Neighbourhoods like New Cross are cursed by having a heavy road running through a very narrow space. This both washes smells away and clouds them out with heavy particulate matter. But 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 a 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 19thcentury, and possibly fish and chips in the 20th 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.
New Cross is also well known as a village of students, artists, outsiders and hedonists. As a consequence, the pubs are well used daily, and late in to the night. Even those that have been recently spruced up, New Cross House, the Rose Inn, by 11pm smell like the dives of yesteryear. Spilt beer, stale antiperspirant, sweat and overpowering urinal cakes, all amplified since the smoking ban. And by the morning, they all smell of the pine, lemon and chlorine carried on the steam of cleaners’ mops.
In New Cross, located on the flood plains of the Thames don’t forget, it is also not uncommon to catch the smell of damp which saturates the area’s older brick work, and permeates the clothes left to ‘dry’ in it. Perhaps the most evocative smell in New Cross, however, is that of the launderette. Starchy, floral linen. Such a common presence in the past decades of the city, and still a quintessential smell of cities in Asia. It is through such smells that our experience of the everyday connects us to other places, and other times.
We regularly critique, comment upon and historicise the visible architecture of the city. We campaign for facades of historical or aesthetic import, and against the impositions of ugly buildings. Rarely, however, do we think seriously about the olfactory atmospheres of the city. If we did, maybe we could tell better stories about who we are today.
Maybe we could protect the atmospheres that are valuable to us, to our communities, and actively engage with the increasing re-odourisation and manipulation of smells that takes place as part of the production of New London. Maybe we could start to notice a bit more what was going on right beneath our noses.
Dr Alex Rhys-Taylor, Goldsmiths’ Department of Sociology