Why the scented candle really gets on my wick | David Mitchell | Opinion

With the world gripped by a disease that causes people to lose their sense of smell, it’s surprising to learn that the scented candle industry is doing so well. I mean, it was always a bit surprising, but a massive economic downturn coupled with millions of people suffering olfactory shutdown might hit sales, you’d think. But then maybe people are buying them to check they haven’t got the coronavirus?

After all, smell is the sense that it’s easiest to be unaware of losing. It’s not like going blind, which people tend to notice almost immediately. The same goes for sudden hearing loss – even in a library, it would be obvious. But, thanks to the general hygiene standards that obtained even pre-lockdown, we’re quite often in situations that don’t smell of much. No one wants to self-isolate for no reason, so perhaps lighting a candle and hoping for a reassuring gush of lavender or sandalwood is the solution favoured by those too proud to push out a fart.

Whatever the reason, the scented candle, like an undiagnosed Covid-sufferer who lights one while oblivious of a gas leak, is experiencing something of a boom. Selfridges sold out of Diptyque’s Baies three times in April and overall candle sales at the store are up 54% since March. As part of this lockdown trend, candle brand Earl of East has launched a new range that purports to smell of experiences we’ve missed in the last few months. It’s called “Scents of Normality” and all the proceeds are going to Hospitality Action, a charity supporting hospitality sector workers hit by the pandemic.

This sounds like an admirable scheme and the descriptions of the candles on the website are great: “The Local”, which “evokes the classic British boozer” and “lingers like the melancholy ramblings of an old inebriate”; “The Cinema” which boasts “salt popcorn”, “a fug of recirculated air” and “just the faintest whisper of third base in the back row”; and “The Festival” which features “sun-warmed cider”, “dew-damp sleeping bag” and “the merest shimmer of distant Portaloo”.

This made me laugh but left me concerned that the candles’ smell might also be funny. It’s well known that scents are unsettlingly evocative, and great bursts of nostalgia can be caused in the brain merely by walking into a room where someone has used the same floor cleaner as your primary school, or the bar at college, or that holiday rental in Brittany. The smell of good times can certainly bring them powerfully to mind, but is that really what you want in your living room if the thing that was good about the times wasn’t really the smell?

After all, the smell doesn’t actually bring the times back. It reminds you of them, but also that they’re gone. So is that soothing or just upsetting? Is nostalgia nice? That’s the question it comes down to. “It depends” is probably the answer – it’s the answer to most deep questions, in my experience. Nostalgia is certainly not always nice – you only want so much of it, I reckon, or you become crushed by the unbearable poignancy of the passage of time. So is it helpful to have smelly candles generating more of it? Isn’t enough of it naturally occurring? And shouldn’t candles stick to just smelling unemotionally pleasant rather than probably a bit manky but in a way that makes you want to cry?

Maybe these candles do basically just smell nice and the descriptions are mainly a joke, or the sort of extreme inference that a professional smeller might make about aspects of a relatively normal perfume, like wine tasters do when they talk about burnt tyres or earth or berries when the word they’re looking for is “wine”. I doubt it though. Paul Firmin, co-founder of Earl of East, is very scathing about conventional scented candles using wacky names, saying of the candle “This Smells Like My Vagina” from Gwyneth Paltrow’s range: “That was just a marketing ploy – the scent is like a floral scent! If we were creating the scent of a local it has to smell like a pub or what’s the point?”

There does seem to be a bit of a trend for candles that smell of aspects of life rather than perfume. The retailer Loaf offers a selection including “Summer Holiday”, “Pencil Sharpenings” and “Granny’s Garden” (which sounds like it belongs in Gwyneth Paltrow’s range) and “perfume publisher” Frédéric Malle’s website offers “Chez Monsieur” – “Monsieur emerges from the shadows of the library, smoking in his armchair and reading the paper” (that does sound whiffy) – and “Notre Dame”, which “recreates the atmosphere of evening mass in a Parisian church”. Using decorative fire to evoke a building so nearly destroyed by it.

I’m suspicious of candles for that reason: the fire. It makes me nervous and I’m always keen to blow them out, which makes a nicer smell than any scented candle, in my view. Maybe Earl of East could make a scented candle that smelt like an extinguished candle when it was still burning? That would confuse me.

I suspect that the people of past ages, which were beset by many catastrophic fires, would find it positively offensive that we continue to use flames for fun when they are no longer necessary for either heat or light. Every day they took their lives in their hands, living in buildings built like tinder boxes and requiring naked flames to see after dark and avoid hypothermia. If only there was an alternative, they must have dreamed! It would have seemed impossible, a sci-fi utopia where you could find your way downstairs at midnight without taking a 2% risk of setting light to the bobble on your nightcap.

How baffled they’d be to learn that, while science granted humankind the miracle of flame-free heat and light, everyone still lights loads of candles anyway. We put them on thousands of restaurant tables, we light them to make a nice smell, we turn off radiators and put firelighters under dry logs just for the picturesque crackle, we arrange tea lights round our baths, we barbecue for fun. We may wash our hands regularly, wear masks in shops and maintain a 2m distance where possible, but we literally play with fire.

Source: The Guardian

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