|HMP Liverpool - Source: Wikimedia Commons ~ Rodhullandemu|
Back in December 2019, in that innocent twilight period just before the pandemic, I attended a workshop in the "Perfume Stories" series at The Tate gallery in Liverpool. This was the brainchild of Michael O'Shaughnessy, a senior lecturer in Graphic Design and Illustration at the Liverpool School of Art & Design at John Moores University, and a perfumista zealot on the side. The original programme of workshops was attended by final year students on his course, followed by an assortment of other fragrance lovers like me, who happened to get wind of the event. My rather long and meandering blog post about that day may be found here
. (NB This one is also going to be on the long side!)
Here is Mike speaking about the alchemy of scent, and its power to take us back to other times and places:
"Some are childhood memories, but others are more complex...I never quite bought into the Dr Who thing when I was a kid, but this is time travelling."
|Selfie by Michael O'Shaughnessy|
During his residency at The Tate, the Perfume Stories workshops came to the attention of the Operational Lead for Creative Arts & Enrichment at Novus, a provider of a variety of educational content within prisons. Together they conceived of how to adapt Mike's sessions for inmates, using fragrance as a means to effect change, and promote learning and rehabilitation.
Mike readily admits that before embarking on this venture he grappled in his own mind with its moral complexity, given the gravity of some of the offences for which inmates had been incarcerated. Eventually though, the vast majority of prisoners return to normal life, so he figured that it makes sense to try to turn their lives around while they are still inside, rather than have prison serve as "a finishing school for supercriminals".
Mike also felt he had the interpersonal skills to be able to strike up a rapport with the prisoners; an academic by profession, in his spare time he enjoys open water swimming, and mixes with people from all walks of life, including teachers, ex-boxers, and even some ex-cons. ;)
"Hey, working with students is just as challenging!"
As regards the pedagogical aim of the project, Mike hoped that the workshops would put offenders on a new path to learning, by offering a more inclusive and composite approach that combined Graphic Design, Literature, Science and Olfaction. He wanted to tap into inmates' scent memories, and thereby challenge perceived ideas around literacy amongst groups who - as he delicately put it - "may have had an uneven relationship with education".
|Image by Michael O'Shaughnessy|
Thus it was that in February 2020, just before the Covid shutters came down, Mike ran a three hour pilot workshop with two small groups of four 'mainstream' prisoners in HMP Liverpool, known locally as Walton prison. Ahead of his arrival, word got around that "The Perfume Man" was coming to visit.
Prisons typically hold weekly Recreation & Education sessions, and inmates sign up to do a particular educational activity.
"With me it has always been a weird sell, because they don't quite know what it is."
People mostly opted into the Perfume Stories sessions because they were inquisitive, though Mike told me of one case later in the project where a group of younger prisoners were instructed to take part by prison staff.
A concern Mike had about the viability of the project was that prisoners might have lost their sense of smell, or not be able to rely upon it at any given moment, say. This is because the olfactory mechanism stops working when people are under great stress, a fact of which I was unaware, though I am not drawn to wearing perfume when I feel on edge. Mike discussed this potential issue with a prisoner at Walton, who confirmed that it does indeed occur, typically when people are kept in a holding cell after their arrest. Once they are either charged or released, however, their sense of smell returns. (Prisoners taking part in later sessions also attested to this phenomenon of temporary anosmia.)
|"The Time Travellers" by Michael O'Shaughnessy|
The format of the session was similar to that described in my blog post: Mike would introduce literary references to perfume, explain some of the science behind how smell works, and give the participants individual scent strips to smell with the question: "What does it make you think of?", whereupon the inmates would write down their thoughts and share them with the group.
"You ask them what it makes you think of, what it reminds you of, and it will always get you, it will always catch them."
Mike deliberately chose six complex fragrances with a lot of depth to them, including some high end luxury scents. He avoided strong masculine fragrances, but rather went for a more feminine or unisex vibe, which explains why my vintage bottle of Madame Rochas from the 1960's made the cut.
|HMP Liverpool ~ Photo by Michael O'Shaughnessy|
The response to the pilot overall was positive: the stories people told were based on their own individual experiences and memories, often involving grandparents and matriarchal figures from childhood.
And then of course Covid struck, and the project was put on hold. In early 2021, Mike worked with his opposite number at Novus on an alternative way to deliver the sessions - still in Walton, but with a different category of 'vulnerable' prisoners, who for a variety of reasons would not fare well in the main cohort of the jail.
An explanatory DVD was developed, and sets put together of 5-letter coded blotters in sealed airtight packaging. The material was issued to participants about a fortnight before Mike's visit in May 2021. They were lent DVD players so they could watch the DVDs in their cells, as well as smelling the scents in their own time, rather than back to back, as was the case in the pilot, which was felt to be a bit much by some. Mike also supplied visual aids in the form of an A3 folding worksheet with directions, literary references, and some facts about perfume, together with graphics and diagrams.
These were later pared back and simplified following feedback from the groups attending this round of Perfume Stories. Some of the information was removed, more space created for people to use for their own notes and stories, and the phrase "Time Travellers" introduced.
"They obviously didn't do what I asked them to do, because they just basically went through all the scents!"
"The other thing that I think is important for them to feel is...there's an element of rehabilitation - if they've got a stake in the process, that has value."
Because of Covid restrictions, Mike had to talk to prisoners individually on the wing with the door open to their cells - in what was a noisy setting with harsh lighting and while he was wearing a mask(!). He told me he was simultaneously processing the environment of the prison in his own mind and the conversations with the inmates, with whom he conducted four separate sessions, a week apart (one initial trial, followed by three with the same people).
|Walton Prison ~ Source: Liverpool Echo|
Here are a few reactions to the project:
"Mental escapism, the project translates you far beyond the prison walls."
"It held my attention, unusual, unique, interesting - different from any other education in here"
"Smell isn't just in the nose, it's an all over body experience."
Escapism and positive memories were commonly reported, putting participants in a calmer, more reflective mood.
And here are some of their comments about how exactly the scents spoke to them:
"The rusty dry smell you get in Autumn."
"I'll always remember the smell of my dear old Nan, I just hope she's in a better place now dancing away with Elvis & John Wayne two of her favourite people in the whole world."
"The moment I first detected the scent, I pictured myself standing on a shore with huge waves crashing onto the beach. I can't fully explain this image but it seems to be similar to a day in September 1988 when, aged 23 I stood on the beach at Aberystwyth looking out to sea day dreaming. The colour that came to mind, not unexpectedly, was light blue."
Following the success of the workshops in HMP Liverpool, Novus invited Mike to extend them to HMP Hindley near Wigan, using the tweaked material. HMP Hindley is a Category C prison with a mix of age groups, where Mike spent four weeks working with four groups spread over sixteen visits: one initial trial, two groups with 'recovery' prisoners (ie those who had committed crimes linked to substance abuse), and one with young offenders. He found that overall the process worked best with men over 30, who had clocked up more life experience, and hence had a greater store of scent memories to tap into.
It was at HMP Hindley that my bottle of Mme Rochas was deployed! - sprayed onto the coded scent strips, obviously. It was in the first group Mike held with five older men. I asked him what they made of it:
"The aldehydes are the one thing I do tell them about...the aldehydes are like that supercharged fizz that gets them, and that's got it. Some of the really classic perfumes with the aldehydes are the ones which take them right back to different places they didn't expect to be taken back to."
And here are the thoughts of a prisoner at HMP Hindley known as D, inspired by his scent sampling:
The more I can Imagine my future – the greater the possibility.
What does my future smell like ?
Does the world have a place for me
The past was how I remembered it
How I experienced it. It taught me how to feel
I experience now through the mirror of the past.
How I respond to the past effects my future.
|HMP Hindley ~ Source: Manchester Evening News|
Speaking more generally about the workshops, Mike added that top end rose-based perfumes were found to be very evocative.
"Anything with rose...a lot of the high quality perfumes that are more nuanced, so you'll get a direct reaction to one thing and an indirect reaction to something else in there."
Lavender and vanilla notes were also major triggers to scent memories.
"Anything that has got a base of lavender or vanilla in it, anything with vanilla in it - and most of that period of smells will have that - that gets them. Vanilla is probably the one ubiquitous thing which will always take them back to a particular place, partly due to the ubiquity of vanilla in different products. So it will be normally a matriarchal experience of bathroom soap - that's a really good one, and it is like a light going on for them."
Mike also singled out Chanel Les Exclusifs Cuir de Russie for special mention, because of the sheer variety of associations it prompted:
"It's so strange, because the links are so personal: I mean a newsagent's shop, or it could be a mosque,or it could be - you know, the inside of a cupboard."
|Source: Manchester Evening News|
In the next phase of his project, Mike was asked to carry out his workshops with prisoners at HMP Buckley Hall, near Rochdale. It is a facility for mostly long term inmates, who tend to be settled in a routine and more relaxed. The prison's Educational Facilitator had worked at Selfridge's and knew a lot about perfume(!), so she was keen to introduce the activity there. The environment was very conducive to conversation, and there was less churn in those attending the groups - a degree of which is inevitable in prisons, as people get moved on or released. As Mike observed:
"It is better when there is more consistency - same environment, same guys."
I asked Mike whether over the course of his time visiting jails he had ever felt apprehensive about being in such close contact with criminals. He said not, because he was someone from outside the justice system and not an authority figure of any kind.
"They really liked me: I'm part education, but I'm not part of the Education wing, I'm not part of the prison. Also, I'm not being marked on it, I'm not being assessed - they're really okay with me...I'm always treated as like an exotic thing."
"I move between the academic world and the prison world. My colleagues are always thinking I am going to be killed or have boiling water thrown at my face, or [redacted!]...They will attack another prisoner, they will attack an officer if they bear a grudge, but they are not going to attack a stranger. It's a myth. So I never feel uncomfortable or vulnerable - I'm quite relaxed about it. I do enjoy it."
Moreover, over the course of the project Mike gained a lot of experience about the types of characters who are in prison, what their "stories" are, and what makes them tick. He did concede though that the whole dynamic would probably have been very different had he been a woman...
Mike has now been invited to take his Perfume Stories back to Buckley Hall in April or May of this year, where Madame Rochas will be having another outing. It might be a bit of a stretch to imagine that perfume therapy with inmates on its own could dramatically reduce the recidivism rate on their release, but the promising response so far to Mike's work certainly gives me hope...