IT is difficult not to feel tremendously sorry for people who have no sense of smell. Having no ear for music is also something to be pitied, but despite the ubiquity of transistor sets and pop music being piped into and out of every available orifice, there is probably not so much loose music going about as there are smells. It is arguable whether there are more nice smells than nasty ones in the world, but nice or nasty they have great power to recall memories. Whole areas of life might be forgotten but for a passing whiff.
When I was a child, I would stay with my aunt in Sussex, and the minute I came through her front door I was greeted by the ``Ashfold smell,'' a heavenly mixture of potpourri and beeswax.
With the faintest scent of potpourri from some dusty bowl in some archaic mansion, I am instantly transported to Ashfold's large front hall with its two elephant tusks curving like scimitars over the mahogany chest. The joys of childhood beckon from the big garden beyond.
My grandmother's house smelled, somewhat unusually, of hot barley water, and freshly baked bread was the smell of Mrs. Brinkley's cottage. Through the seasons London smells of soot, lilacs, melting tar, privet, wood smoke, and petrol; Paris is gusts of garlic; Venice is water in various stages of decomposition. Shut your eyes and you can almost tell where you are simply by breathing.
My own guests could certainly tell where they were should they be led blindfolded into my flat: For the mixture of cooking smells emanating from my own and my neighbor's kitchens, plus the air coming from a contraption that purports to disperse them but itself expels a draft smelling of old seaweed, makes for a unique olfactory experience. For all I know, it may be called the ``Graham smell.''
People of my generation continually complain that nothing tastes the way it used to. Potatoes, sausages, chicken all invite the whiplash of our displeasure.
But nearly everything smells the way it always has: spring and autumn, and the sea, and theater programs and squashed grass and apples. So do those in-between smells that one can never decide if one likes or not, such as tennis balls and ink and box hedges. Drains, and paint, and cabbages cooking are just as unpleasant as ever they were.
It is true that we with sharp noses suffer sometimes from the bits of the world around us that are fetid, fishy, tainted, nicotined, or manured. Yet we cannot but mourn for those who, though sailing happily through clouds of tobacco smoke, miss the delicate and subtle delights of, say, freshly turned earth or the scent of peaches, not to mention herbs and spices and tweed and toothpaste and marmalade. Not to mention mimosa, and a stationer's shop and . . . well yes, perhaps I have proved my point that I am very glad I have a nose.