CRAIG BROWN: Eau de rotting flesh? It’s the king of pongs

There’s terrific excitement at the Adelaide Botanic Garden in South Australia. For the first time in a decade, the corpse flower has come into bloom.

The attractions of the corpse flower are not, it must be said, all that obvious. Other flowers — rose, lily, sweet pea, jasmine, gardenia, freesia — look pretty and smell beautiful.

But the poor old corpse flower looks vast and monstrous, as if hastily drawn with purple and green felt tips by a bad-tempered child. Worse still, it smells — as its name suggests — like a corpse.

Some connoisseurs say it carries notes of rotting flesh and fermented cheese. Others claim to detect the aroma of sour sweat overlaid with a strong hint of garlic, fish guts and bad egg. Botanists suggest it smells so awful to attract the right sort of insects for pollination.

CRAIG BROWN: There’s terrific excitement at the Adelaide Botanic Garden in South Australia. For the first time in a decade, the corpse flower has come into bloom

A particularly peculiar passage in Prince Harry’s snitch-a-thon, Spare, deals with the keen sense of smell exhibited by his father, King Charles (pictured together on September 19 before the committal service for Queen Elizabeth II)

Once it has blossomed, the flower takes 24 hours to achieve its peak stench — and then, after a further 24 hours, it starts to wilt.

This modest window of opportunity explains why gardeners from across Australia have been flocking to see it and smell it. When the corpse flower at the New York Botanical Gardens bloomed, back in 2016, 25,000 people joined the queue, with a further 16 million preferring to keep a safe distance and watch it online.

Why the fan base? Might it have something to do with nostalgia?

Our Victorian ancestors were used to perpetual smells of smoke, soot, horse manure, rotting garbage and the odour of unwashed bodies. Their streets were covered in mud and the rivers flowing through their cities were thick with sewage.

But, since that time, our world has become deodorised. Just a generation ago, public places — pubs, railway carriages, offices, airports — smelled, above all, of tobacco smoke. Nowadays, they smell of nothing at all, unless you happen to be making your way into a department store, or through the duty free area of an airport, in which case you will be sent reeling from the forceful wafts of warring perfumes.

Even pleasant smells seem largely to have vanished. In my childhood, I used to love walking past a coffee shop on Guildford High Street to catch the delicious smell of roasting coffee bean.

In a recent volume of Alan Bennett’s diary, I was delighted to see that he had experienced exactly the same smell, 20 years earlier. He writes that when he lived there as a child towards the end of the war, ‘Guildford was not short on cafes, the nicest . . . the Corona down the High Street, with a revolving drum of coffee beans in the window and an intoxicating aroma.’

Nowadays, there are thousands more coffee shops, but the smell of coffee roasting — always so much more enticing than the coffee itself — has disappeared, and never finds its way out onto our High Streets.

Eau Sauvage was also Dior’s very first perfume for men, coming onto the market in 1966, the year Charles turned 18, an impressionable age, when young men are prone to becoming self-conscious about their personal odours

But thankfully this week there are other smells in the air. A particularly peculiar passage in Prince Harry’s snitch-a-thon, Spare, deals with the keen sense of smell exhibited by his father, King Charles.

‘He was always sniffing things. Food, roses, our hair. He must’ve been a bloodhound in another life,’ recalls Harry, adding, with his trademark bitchiness: ‘Maybe he took all those long sniffs because it was hard to smell anything over his personal scent. Eau Sauvage. He’d slather the stuff on his cheeks, his neck, his shirt.’

The scent is variously described by its manufacturers, Christian Dior, as ‘synonymous with absolute elegance a la francaise’, ‘a token of good taste and refined virility’ and ‘a composition with a revered freshness imbued with a roguishly chic spirit’.

Eau Sauvage was also Dior’s very first perfume for men, coming onto the market in 1966, the year Charles turned 18, an impressionable age, when young men are prone to becoming self-conscious about their personal odours. Small wonder, then, if, like the late Henry Cooper with ‘the great smell of Brut’, King Charles still wants to ‘splash it all over’.

This can, of course, lead to misunderstandings. In his diaries, the former home secretary David Blunkett records being shown around the garden at Highgrove, and commenting on being able to inhale a wonderful smell of lavender everywhere they went.

‘Secretary of State,’ replies Prince Charles. ‘I think you will find it is my aftershave.’

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