New York smells of bagels. Stockholm smells of polystyrene cement. Liverpool smells of poppers.
Our cities have a signature smell every bit as individual as their skylines. The chemicals can be captured, analysed. Our hometowns’ distinctive odours act as cues – and Liverpool has many. Wherever we are in the world, if we smell molasses, we’re right back on the dock road in Bootle.
Olfactory artist Kate McLean makes ‘smell maps’ of cities she loves. “I think that smell can be used in tourism marketing to foster lasting memories of a place,” she says.
As Helen Keller said: “Blindness cuts people off from things. Deafness cuts people off from people.” A lack of smell cuts us off from where we are.
And Liverpool’s restless city, despite its boom and bust years, and despite its core being totally remodelled in Grosvenor’s image, still, largely smells like it’s always done. But our smells change with our culture. And whether the same will be true with the completion of Liverpool Waters is another story.
Smells transform the world around us. Make it real. Make it memorable. But with our GPS enabled phones, our chain stores and our sanitised glass and steel new structures, we’re in danger of losing our way in the world. The overhead railway carriage may look nice in the Museum of Liverpool – but this is only partial curation. For the real deal we need the smells too. In fact, we probably need them more.
One study asked people who’d visited, five years previously, the Jorvik Centre in York ( a museum ripe with the authentic smell of Viking farts) to recount their trip and recall the exhibits. Those who, when given the questionnaire, were also treated to the same museum smells, showed a major increase in the accuracy of their memories.
The smells were synthesized in a laboratory near Blackpool airport, by chemist Frank Knight. In the past he’s made sweaty feet aroma for the inside of a submarine at the Imperial War Museum, and, much closer to home, he recreated the ripe smell of rotting fruit and veg for the inside of something our parents might well have mixed memories of.
“When the Beatles Story exhibition opened, they wanted to recreate the sounds and the smells of the Cavern, and the area around it,” Knight says, “and, as those narrow little lanes were home to fruit markets, and subterranean cellars storing the produce from the docks, we hit on a fragrance that was a bit like fruit on the turn. These were damp and airless places, so smells did tend to stagnate and intensify.”
By all accounts, the smell was spot on. But maybe that was the problem – and is no doubt why the Beatles Story opted to remove the smells some years back. Recreating the authentic claustrophobia of the Cavern is one thing. Pumping in a cylinder full of Eau d’Rotten Cabbage is quite another.
Walk around Liverpool today and, apart from that curious poppers smell seeping out of the pavements in the business district (anyone any ideas?), there are clearly demarcated olfactory zones. The sweet baking of cream crackers along Long Lane in Walton, the heady hoppiness of Cains, the maritime tang of Albert Dock…
What are your favourite smells of the city? Do you secretly, like us, inhale when you walk into WH Smiths (they all smell the same, don’t they?), are you instantly transported back to childhood when you smell the fried onions outside Goodison? Will the new Everyman smell like the old? Do those yellowing manuscripts smell fresher in the swish new Central Library?
Whatever it is, you’re subconsciously storing it all up, to be instantly triggered in another time, another place. Eau d’Home.
“Odours are more effective triggers of emotional memories than other triggers,” Knight says. That’s because (and here’s the science bit) the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area closely associated with memory and feeling. It’s more emotive, even, than music.” The pathways between smell and emotion are tightly woven, making smell the supreme retainer of memory over our other senses.
Your brain is far more likely to forge a link between smell and a memory than even your favourite tune. So maybe it wasn’t Strawberry Fields Forever being piped through the PA in the Beatles Story that peeled back the years, but Strawberry Punnets Fermenting being piped through the air conditioning.
Where the Leeds Liverpool Canal meets the Mersey, United Utilities sewage plant is churning away – not something you want to be downwind of most days. But, further upriver, as Michael Taylor notes in Mersey: The River That Changed The World: “The aroma is of a kitchen. This is the edible oils terminal. Huge vats of molasses, palm oil and vegetable oil are stored here. This business is run by the American conglomerate Cargills. Their plant processes domestically grown rapeseed oil, one of the fastest growing crops that British agriculture has to offer.”
This is the molasses smell that, typically, the crowdsourcing wisdom of Knowwhere puts somewhat more bluntly:
“Smells like a cross between a roast dinner and a freshly steaming pile of shit.”