More pungent than Proust

21st March 1997 at 00:00
SMELLY OLD HISTORY By Mary Dobson Roman Aromas. Tudor Odours.

Victorian Vapours.

Oxford Pounds 4.99 each It doesn't take a Proust to remind us that smells are at once the most evocative and the most elusive ingredients of memory and thus of our own history. But it's harder to place the reeks and fragrances of earlier ages into a context where they can tell a story as truly as a rent-roll or a diplomatic note.

Much credit is due to Mary Dobson for her attempt to uncork the bouquet of antiquity for junior children. She isn't frightened of terms that require glosses - strigil, clapperdudgeon, nightsoil man - or abashed by Asterix-style cartoons that seem to give everyone bulbous noses and deranged expressions. "Wee" will flow into all children's comprehension, "evacuations" and "stools" might prove more solid obstructions to understanding.

Her central serious point is that smells were long thought to be the causes of disease and were therefore countered with posies and pomanders; and that the past, whatever else it was, was pungent. This idea must be expressed carefully - saying that Caesar left the Celts to their tribal stinks might not please Welsh or Scottish readers, but it gives scope for intriguing insights into the history of health itself.

Some opportunities are missed. Rather than desperate doggerel full of promiscuous punning and overzealous alliteration, it would have been good to get some real poets to give evidence; Catullus's ferocious obscenity on his enemies' orifices or Shakespeare on sweaty nightcaps, bad breath and horse-piss, for example. And the justly famous story of Dr Snow, the cholera and the Broad Street pump handle is rendered curiously trivial by the intrusion of a luridly anthropomorphic Sam Sewage.

The central innovation is a set of scratch-and-sniff panels, five per volume. These also are disappointing, partly because the surrounding pages have their own shiny smell, partly because the vaguely sweaty, stagnant, sweet or spicy odours emerging don't match the rankness or redolence of their adjectival billing.

But the books are imaginative, unusual and intriguing, and well worth the price. Only the very prudish will fail to enjoy the depressed Wall soldiers straining on their communal privy or those equally long-faced legionaries, 1,700 years before the invention of toilet paper, who discover too late what it means to get hold of the wrong end of the stick. Strengthen your stomachs and enjoy it.

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