Patchouli used to be the smell of the tribe. It’s a dark, earthy smell that’s hard to describe because it meant so many things. There’s a coldness to it too, along with the warm, fuzzy buzz it puts in your head, the feeling it puts in your heart that for once, just this once, we could have a revolution without blood on the streets.
Well we had a revolution. It was called Thatcherism. It wasn’t much to do with patchouli and there was blood.
I tried to get some patchouli in Bath two weekends ago, to fly the flag when I went to a university reunion. Bath didn’t have any which was odd where they may as well have crop-dusted the whole city with the stuff once upon a time. I got some patchouli massage oil in Body Shop a few years ago but that’s another story. It’s not the same.
That smell was how you recognised the tribe, a not-very-secret code. The police and Drugs Squad and Customs officers always assumed it meant you were in possession of a controlled substance. I got made to turn my bag and pockets out on the street in Bath when I was stopped by two plain clothes officers whose hep-to-the-jive antennae told them ‘if you’ve got patchouli then you’ve got dope,’ as Poppy said in Not Your Heart Away. Like any assumption, a lot of the time it was wrong. They’d have been better-off targeting people who drank milk. Some did, some didn’t. In itself, patchouli was nothing to do with it.
After ten days of being more oddly disturbed than usual after that weekend, remembering someone’s incredulity when I said I’d only used two aftershaves in the past ten years, I decided to fly the flag again. I went to buy some patchouli.
There aren’t those little head shops where I live in rural Suffolk, nowhere the whole shop stinks of the goatskin-soled knitted slippers that might keep your feet alternatively warm or might equally give you anthrax. Nowhere with brass bells on strings and a wall full of dried beans and joss sticks and Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics and tiny Chinese porcelain bowls. There probably aren’t any shops like that anywhere now. I remember when there were.
There was a gallery and gift shop in Woodbridge that had a suspicious number of dangly things that might be mistaken for mobiles hanging from the ceiling when I went in yesterday. The blond woman who ran the shop was about my age. I hung back a bit while she was trying to sell some tourists a painting of the quay. After they’d decided they were really nice pictures but not quite nice enough today I asked if she might know anywhere that sold patchouli, for the first time in decades. She was out around the counter in seconds, eyes darting from side to side. Old habits. I might as well have asked if she had any king-size strawberry Rizlas and a lighter.
“This shop used to be a chemist. People sometimes think – But no. We have some joss sticks. I might have some patchouli ones. Cinnamon. Amber. No. No patchouli. Nobody’s asked for that for years. That used to be how you knew, when I was a teenager!’
It was. What it was we knew we didn’t really know. But we knew. We didn’t know where to find any, either of us. Maybe The Purple Shop in Ipswich, she said, but it sounded exactly like the mythical Purple Shop in both our heads, too good to be true and guaranteed if it actually did exist to be closed when you got there. Not worth the drive to find out. It won’t be there anyway. Maybe it’s our age.
You can still get that smell, now and then, if you try. It’s called an essential oil now, but it always was. I eventually got some in Holland & Barrett’s aromatherapy section. They said it would help me relax. When I got home I unscrewed the top and held it under my nose and was about as relaxed as if I was caught in an avalanche that hurled me straight back to the Walcot Nation in my mind, before the picture framers and bathroom galleries moved in. Somewhere very precious where we can all go only for a little while, with the right kind of nose and one sniff of patchouli.