What have we here? A man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish: he smells like a fish: a very ancient and fish-like smell; a kind of, not of the newest, Poor-John.
The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 2
Nuclear Winter (via Brixton Blog and London Mural Preservation Society)
London in the summer is many wonderful things, but most of all it’s smelly. The smell has a definition that it doesn’t have in winter, when the cold somehow knocks the stuffing out of the smell. “Louisiana in September was like an obscene phone call from nature,” wrote Tom Robbins in Jitterbug Perfume. “The air … felt as if it were being exhaled into one’s face. Sometimes it even sounded like heavy breathing.” The air of a big city in spring and summer really is like this, halitotic and metallic, a big mouth full of fillings, with bits of food stuck in its beard.
Most mornings, the first notable smell I encounter is the smell of racks of headless carcasses being wheeled across Atlantic Road to the market – a mixture of meat, metal, and concrete. It smells like a smoking gun. A bit further along there’s the smell of dead fish packed in ice. I’m one of those people who’s annoyingly susceptible to the smell of fish, dead or otherwise. As soon as I catch a whiff I hear myself start complaining. So here I hold my breath.
Nuclear Winter (detail) (via London Mural Preservation Society)
Most of the time in London, I can smell something vaguely rotten. I swear it’s the drains. All day long there are smells rising out of them like black balloons.
As I ride along Brixton Road it’s mainly bus fumes and the hot, molar smell of tar and potholes.
I sometimes ride through intense food smells. I don’t know where they come from (is it the drains?) but I’ve smelled Subway sandwiches, a brutal green curry, and one time, fish ‘n chips from (could it be?) Lyall Bay. The closer I get to the central city, the more peopleish the smells become: the smell of fresh gravel gives way to the faint smell of coffee (or the smell of faint coffee) from Costa, and I get caught in the slipstreams of cigarettes and industrial-strength deodorants.
The smells are of a city that’s constantly ingesting, metabolising, purging, reheating. The smell is feral animal, woollen comforter, faithful slippers. The top 13 relevant search results to the inquiry “London smells of” are:
- Piss and poo
- Cherry blossoms and chocolate Easter eggs
- Wet concrete
- Vegetable oil
- A very ill-founded sense of superiority and smugness
- Car exhaust and dirt and rubbish
- Smoke and lost dreams
- Sunshine, coffee, pastries, and sexual hormones
- That lingering feeling that you’re not quite as young/fashionable/quick as you used to be
The worst smells in London are said to be Nottingham Court (the original piss alley), Euston Road (where I work, where the road belches toxic fumes and it’s nearly impossible to cross to the other side), the Thames at low tide, and the urinal-cakeiness of the public loos in Soho. The best are said to be the flower market on Columbia Road, the giant mouldering cheeses of Neal’s Yard Dairy, the low-lying curry cloud over Brick Lane, and Turkish bakeries along Kingsland High Street at 4 in the morning.
Back in Brixton, yesterday morning the smell was dust and sweat and rumpled clothes. In the afternoon the place smelled burnt. Today it smelled like hardly anything, not even fish, because all the shops were closed. It smelled sort of lifeless.