There is a dining hall smell, which is the same in all dining halls. Whether it is monks eating there, or trainee priests, or schoolchildren, both boys and girls, a dining hall always has its dining hall smell. It can’t be described. Greasy water? Mouldy bread? I don’t know. If you have never encountered the smell, I can’t explain it to you; one can’t speak of light to the blind. For me this smell is as distinct from others as blue is distinct from red.
If you don’t know the smell then I reckon you’re lucky. It shows that you’ve never been shut up in some college or other. It shows that you’ve never been a prisoner of order and an enemy of the laws from your earliest years. Since then, you’ve shown yourself to be a good citizen, a good taxpayer, a good husband, a good father; you have gradually learnt to put up with social forces; even to the point of recognising a policeman as a friend; for family life has taught you to make a pleasure of necessity.
But as for those who have known the dining hall smell, you can do nothing with them. They spent their childhood in straining against the leash; one fine day they broke it; and that’s how they entered upon life, like suspect dogs dragging a rope-end. Their hackles will always rise, even at the juiciest food. They will never have a liking for order and rules; they have felt too much fear ever to be able to show respect. You will see them always angry at laws and regulations, at politeness, at morality, at the classics, at teaching methods, and awards for services to education; for that all reeks of the dining hall. And they’ll suffer an attack of this disease of the sense of smell every year, precisely at the time when the sky changes from blue to grey, and bookshops put the classics and school bags out on display.
October 11th 1907
English translation copyright © Michel Petheram