How the smell of lilac gathers in so many rich memories

Keith Skipper loves the nostalgic smell of lilac at this time of year.

Keith Skipper loves the nostalgic smell of lilac at this time of year. - Credit: Archant

The scent of lilac transports Keith Skipper back to his mid-Norfolk childhood.

A whiff of lilac invariably sends me on the scent of childhood. It goes back to those two bushes, one moody mauve and the other milky white, standing guard either side of the old well in our front garden.

Brightness blotting out inky blackness below where a crazy swinging pail could play havoc with young muscles and minds. Powerfully sweet smells flowing up to my bedroom on a balmy breeze with a promise of full summer riches to come.

The window opened up on our little acre of post-war Norfolk. If you listened carefully as dusk squeezed through burgeoning hedges, birds and insects composed an instant lullaby. Older boys' yells mocked nature's concerto and those already banished up wooden hill to blanket fair.

My burning resentment at being put to bed so early, long before orchard cricket matches had been properly concluded, gave way to an unlikely sense of contentment as I lolled on the wooden ledge. Views, smells and sounds joined forces to remind me I was really a lucky lad.

I knew nothing of town or city life during that era of material austerity, but I guessed it couldn't be as good as this. They didn't have our sort of quiet as the sun went down. Even older boys and girls on my patch surrendered suddenly to the rural spell.

Isolation begat tranquillity as I counted the number of potatoes, beans, onions and carrots coming through in well-ordered rows. A beam of fresh light from the lamp in our kitchen below helped my mental arithmetic.

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Even when that old well tried to throw an ominous shadow over pastoral musings, the right mood had been set too firmly for village magic to falter. I have gathered lilacs again this May, immediately catching a tantalising flavour of a past where listening, looking, sniffing and feeling came naturally.

I recall one major blot on my alluring lilac landscape. We weren't allowed to transport those potent harbingers of summer indoors. Lingering superstitions about bad luck and troublesome fairies seeped out of the same box containing warnings about smelling dandelions as a major cause of bed-wetting.

Indeed, portents of ill fortune abounded, from burning green elder or placing red and white flowers together to placing shoes on a table or taking indoors the first primroses found in spring.

The whole business descended into a farce written and produced by old wives dancing around a bubbling cauldron and chanting a litany of dire consequences for anyone simple enough to start a job on a Friday, meet a weasel, seeing two carrion crows or magpies together, hear a cat sneeze or watch chirping crickets leaving a house.

When I became a bit older, wiser and ready to take country lore into my own hands, village elders could be coaxed into possible explanations for so much reluctance to treat nature and all its vagaries as they found it.

Many of them would hum Ivor Novello's 'We'll Gather Lilacs in the Spring Again' with no hint of objection to mauve and white blooms earning such romantic approval. The song, most notably performed by Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, was penned for the hit musical 'Perchance to Dream' which ran in London's West End for three years from 1945.

The most repeated 'reason' for a wholesale ban on lilac in the house was too close a deep association between these springtime delights and funerals. Evidently, the powerful aroma was used to line coffins and so mask the smell of death. Hence an automatic link for many with grief.

On the lighter side, I heard how the 'unlucky' gospel was cultivated eagerly by rich plant-owning Victorians in a rather cynical bid to stop peasants pilfering their lilac blooms. I doubt if such a ploy would work these days when useful gardening advice for novices includes gems like 'The best time to take cuttings is when no-one is looking'.

I soon discovered as a member of a large family raised in a small rural cottage how 'bad luck' manifested itself in much more obvious ways than waiting for the ceiling to cave in when lilac, hawthorn, may blossom or other suspect sweet adornments were bid welcome on the window-sill.

Retribution was truly sharp and swift for talking while eating, giggling at the table, getting down without permission, answering back and pulling daft faces. Then peace reigned and respect blossomed.