published by University of New South Wales Press, 2009 (new edition 2012)
Every city has its characteristic smells, sounds, even tastes, which change with changing circumstances. Although they rarely have the same impact as what we see, they linger in the memory, eventually coming to define a particular place for us more strongly than any of the monuments, pageants or displays devised for our benefit.
New York, for instance, is the sweet aroma of chestnuts roasting on street corner braziers, steam rising from sidewalk gratings, the screech of subway trains, or sirens wailing through the night. Melbourne is trams rattling across intersections, cutlery clattering on footpaths under outdoor cafe tables, freshly-brewed coffee in dank laneways and the clamour of Asian and European languages.
Tasmanians going to Melbourne on the overnight ferry know their destination is near when the city’s polluted fug rolls across Port Phillip Bay into their cabins to awaken their noses at 6am. Like the unceasing din of traffic, it is strangely arousing, evidence of the city’s energy and power.
A big city’s odours and noise assert its unnaturalness. What strikes you about Hobart, on the other hand, is the refreshing absence of both. Although people living downwind of the zinc works may be sickened by its emissions, and log trucks riding their engine brakes down the southern outlet at 4 am are a constant irritation to those living nearby, on the whole Hobart is peaceful, its atmosphere unencumbered.
This makes stepping out the front door for the morning paper a heady experience. The lungful of air you take in has journeyed across endless tracts of ocean and forest. It alerts you to the season: languid and sweet with pollen in summer; brisk, moist and earthy in winter. The air signals, with pinpoint accuracy, when that seemingly endless string of lazy, late-summer days suddenly crisps into autumn. There’s a bracing bite to it that wasn’t there yesterday. Even in the inner suburbs, you can smell the seasons.
This makes whatever odours there are all the more potent. In the early days of settlement, the putrid stench of whale oil was so pervasive that residents agitated for a separate wharf for whaling craft further from town. A journalist writing in the Mercury in 1890 remembered as a boy some fifty years earlier standing in a crowd to watch a whale carcass being hauled into shallow water at Sullivan’s Cove to be cut up and boiled down. The smell, he said, was overpowering. Fresh horse pats in the streets must also have been pungent, especially in summer, although colonial noses were no doubt as attuned to it as ours are to car exhaust, so perhaps it hardly registered. The dust constantly being thrown up from dirt roads by passing hooves and wheels did register, however, and was a major cause of complaint, since the council did not have enough water to keep it settled. So were the noxious emissions from tanners, fat-renderers, manure-merchants and bone-boilers along the Rivulet. Car exhausts notwithstanding, Hobart’s air was a lot more noisome in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than it is today – more animal and more visceral – and residents had little choice but to put up with it.
Not all was stench and clatter, however. Louisa Anne Meredith delighted in the sweet perfumes of roses, sweet briar and Hawthorn in Hobart’s flower gardens, which transported her back ‘to the right side of the earth again’. Tasmania, in return, exported its unique botanical bouquet to the world in the form of oil extracted from native blue gums, which was widely used for soaps and inhalents.
‘When you went down Kelly Steps, in the season’, recalls Max Angus of his Battery Point childhood in the 1920s, ‘the smell of raspberry jam at Peacock’s Jam Factory was wonderful. The factory was slap against Kelly Steps on Salamanca Place. Further on, at the wharves opposite Parliament House, you got fishing smells, and the spicy aroma of fresh timber.’
The salty, fishy smells of the waterfront and the slightly rancid pong of fishing boats at anchor have survived the area’s gentrification, still evoking the romance of the sea. But this is not necessarily what fastidious outdoor diners want as they tuck into their deep-fried Travalla and freshly-brewed latte. Up the hill on Hampden Road’s cafe strip, the famous bakery of Jackson and McCross fills the pre-dawn air with warm yeastiness, while the dreams of New Town and Bellerive residents, meanwhile, are sweetened by Jean-Pascal Patisseries, which, before the rest of the world is fully awake, will be transporting the delicious aromas of fresh breads, desserts and chocolates to specialty food shops across the city.
In other words, Hobart’s most distinctive smells these days are not redolent of industry, labour or export but of leisure and indulgence, reflecting a changed economy.