Until it’s Over, Splash it All Over: An Ode to Aftershave

·6-min read
Photo credit: Mirrorpix - Getty Images
Photo credit: Mirrorpix - Getty Images

There is no ending; there is no cessation; there is no surcease. You are required to be on attraction duty (AD) until they pull the sheet over your head. This is very bad news for some of us, who were tired of AD in the year 1975, anno domini, when Elizabeth Watt resisted my advances on the way to school and made off with David Griffin instead. I was only seven, but I decided the life of the lothario was not for me: too much toleration; too much shit-talk; and too much after-shave. But, even now, 46 years on, one cannot simply throw in the towel and say I don’t care. For a start, there’s the wife. She’s younger than me and fitter in every department, and all she requires, by way of compensation, is that I improve my jokes and stick to a strict regime of high-end cologne. I’m obviously struggling with the first, which is why I spend most afternoons in the perfume department at Liberty, the place where being on AD is like life and death, only more important.

I can tell you the two worst-smelling men I ever met. The first was Robbie McArdle (not his real name), a boy from the otherwise fragrant Ayrshire town of Springside, and a soap-dodger of Olympic standard. The second was a waiter who used to work in a famous French restaurant in Covent Garden. He came doused in gallons of Mouchoir de Monsieur, a rather famous male scent by Guerlain, and he was living, walking, ponging proof that you can have too much of a good thing. On the other hand, too much washing (if we follow the wisdom of Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis) is bad for the skin and bad for the environment, so maybe my two knew the score all along. They still make me think, though, of the heavenly benefits of a little top-notch cologne daintily applied.

I once met this man called Luca Turin. I wanted his name. I also wanted his nose. He can sniff a hint of lavender at 500 miles. Let’s start with the name: if you’re going to be an expert on scent, you should be named, give or take a few consonants, after two beautiful havens redolent of your background. (Sadly, my perfume name would be Gorbals Kilmarnock.) Turin is a noted biophysicist, with a whole history of research into olfactory stuff, and he co-wrote, with his wife Tania Sanchez, the best book ever written by woman and man, called Perfumes (2008). You might think I exaggerate, but the book takes every bottle of scent you’ve ever heard of — including the ones that give you the ick — and expounds upon them with cool persuasion. He is the man, after all, who referred to Kouros, one of the all-time popular reeks, redolent of Essex taxi ranks and neon bars, as giving a “borderline unwashed smell”. Turin brought me to realise the joyful truth that men should always smell a tiny bit grim. We can talk about fougère and aldehydes all day, you can talk cheap smells and expensive ones — Old Spice and Habit Rouge are both “near-perfect” examples of the oriental genre — but what Turin is against, and quite hilariously, is the “sports” genre, and we should all listen. “All fragrances whose name involves the words energy, blue, sport, turbo, fresh, or acier in any order…is stuff for the generic guy wishing to meet a generic girl and have generic offspring. It has nothing to do with any other pleasure than that of merging with the crowd.”

Most men don’t think when they sniff. They go for safety. I used to have a girlfriend with two sons, and I offered them cash, and a free bottle of Vetiver each, if they stopped using Lynx Africa every morning before school. Even great writers, famous for the use of four senses, can go melancholy and stale when it comes to smell. Proust is an exception. In his great book, the smell of petrol in Paris reminds him of trips in the country. Albertine’s laugh was “as strong, sensual and revealing as the scent of geraniums”. In his most famous scene, that of our hero dunking the madeleine cake into a cup of linden tea, it is the everything of it that brings back the past so completely, but mainly it is the scent. The art of perfume is that it can bring the world a bit closer, not only the world of the past, but that too, plus it’s generally nicer smelling of ferns and spices than of boiled socks.

There’s a whole, hilarious universe of sniffs. If you think online hotheads can get ranty and mental about football, you should check them out on whether or not the new Gucci scent is duff or magnificent. “I’ll punch your fucking lights out,” is not what you most expect when discussing the merits of the new Hermès H24, an aromatic green fragrance for men. To me, it smells of sage, freshly ironed shirts, lemon, and a bright morning in Positano. To one or two others, it smells of mould, metal filings, off-soup, and is “barbershop soapy”. One man, who perhaps doesn’t get out as much as he might, tells us “this is chemical warfare”. Well, I used it all summer and the town of Largs — Britain’s best holiday destination — has never smelt so sweet. Every time I passed an old lady she smiled at me like I was Cary Grant (who wore Jicky, by the way, a high-powered scent by Guerlain that smells wonderful, with a brazen, mysterious, distant note of the water-closet).

Being a man is not what is used to be, thank god. “Denim, for the man who doesn’t have to try too hard.” Even at the time, it seemed like a cosmic joke. (Denim, for the kid who couldn’t get a ride on the seafront tram at Blackpool, more like.) All the adverts for aftershave seemed like they were issued by the NHS, keen for the nation’s men to wash their armpits and only have sex as a last resort.

Remember Henry Cooper’s work for Brut? Comb-over, dad-bod, and plenty of slapping it about, giving it “there’s nothing like a nice old bath to make you feel great”, then Kevin Keegan or Barry Sheene muscling in on that act. “Just splash it all over, ’Enry?” they say, while the “dolly bird” smiles. British men were expected, or forgiven, for wanting to wear something called “Brut” or “Hai Karate”, while drinking beer from cans that had scantily clad girls on them, and inspecting Page Three. Whenever I hear people talk about the good old days, I think of all this. Every man past 35 gets the nostalgia he deserves, but the good news is remedies come in a bottle. No, you fool, not Macallan Single Malt, but a brilliant invention from your own correspondent. “Change”, a brand new fragrance by Gorbals Kilmarnock.

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