“A dunghill at a distance sometimes smells like musk, and a dead dog like elder-flowers.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
For minutes it seemed, I stood, fixed to the ground. I was sweating and my head spun, almost nauseous. Yellowed photograph albums, conversations, radio programmes, Jeyes fluid, mint imperials, grilled bacon, the noise of a gas fire and the bells of the ITV ten o’clock news from years past… all of this in a second or less. The only thing I can compare it too is the burst of the unexpected sun through an aeroplane window—the sort of light that blinds and stuns your senses. This was no Proustian Madeleine biscuit, this was a moment’s glimpse of a 3D IMAX, Dolby surround sound movie on a quiet Sunday afternoon in my garden in Donegal.
I’m a keen gardener. I have no real space in Donegal but on the acre or so in Leitrim I have an orchard and rows of veg and my bees. At home in Donegal I have to make do with a few pots of tomatoes and herbs on the deck. I’m quite good with tomatoes, my first ever job was picking them in a nursery in Leicestershire where I grew up. If you’ve ever done it you’ll know it’s pretty unpleasant in the greenhouses. The heat is uncomfortable, the tomatoes stain your fingers black and the smell of the leaves is pungent and pernicious.
Despite these memories I still grow a few tomato plants each year. I tend them and occasionally I get one that ripens, in spite of the weather—the green ones become chutney for Christmas presents.
So one day, three years ago, I was checking my tomatoes’ progress in the greyness of a Donegal summer’s day and my hand brushed the leaves of the plant. The familiar smell transported me back to my childhood as smells sometimes do—we’ve all experienced that moment when we catch the scent of our Grandmother’s perfume or the smell of home.
What intrigued me on this particular day was not that I was transported but the where and when.
Grandad Wagstaff would sit in a deckchair in his greenhouse with the door open. On either side of him would be two lines of impressive tomato plants, four or five feet tall, trained on string and bamboo. He would listen to the radio and trumpet along to tunes he knew. I suppose it was Radio Two or Four, I was too young to pay much attention. He always wore a cardigan, even in the summer and in one pocket was a handful of mint imperials. I would visit him to call him down for lunch or his tea. The greenhouse smelt of the tomato plants, the mint imperials and Jeyes fluid.
Granny Wag didn’t have a fridge. She had a pantry with a metal grill instead of glass in the window. The pantry was lined with shelves from floor to ceiling. There were tins of fruit and vegetables, soup and Bird’s Custard, jars of Marmite and Bovril, bottles of Camp Coffee. There was a stack of plates, not a single one matched any other. There was a cardboard tray, one half filled with eggs and the other half with Granddad’s tomatoes. The shelves were covered in a tartan oilcloth the colour of Battenberg Cake. In the middle of the floor was a top-loading washing machine that was always in the way.
In that singular moment the smell of tomato leaves took me back to being 6, 7, maybe 8 years old and the summers I spent staying with my Grandma and Granddad in Warwickshire. That the smell and the memory simply skipped my tomato-picking job completely was quite startling.
From that experience I started to explore the nature of memory. I became fascinated with what we remember but also how we remember. Some of my research was unexpected and some of the more personal memories were very painful.
My interest in memory and reminiscence led me to an organisation in Belfast called Reminiscence Network Northern Ireland (RNNI). They are specialists in the relatively new area of Reminiscence practice. Through them I had the amazing opportunity to spend a day training with Pam Schweitzer, one of the leading practitioners of Reminiscence Theatre work in the world. Pam founded Age Exchange Theatre Company and is a gifted facilitator and teacher.
I also started exploring the scientific world and I found some extraordinary work being carried out around the world into the relationship between our sense of smell and our memories.
Research by Dr. Amy Johnston from Griffith University in Australia shows that:
“While eyesight and hearing deteriorate markedly during the normal aging process, new research suggests the sense of smell may actually last longer in otherwise healthy individuals.” [ Griffith University (2007, February 9). Smell May Outlast Other Senses. Science Daily]
Other research in the area of olfactory perception and memory by Professor Maria Larsson, an associate professor of psychology at Stockholm University, describes the power of smell serving as:
“…an almost magical time machine, with potential for treating dementia, depression and the grim fog of age.” [The Nose, an Emotional Time Machine NY Times]
Of course this academic research is primarily in the area of Gerontology, my interest lies in the role of Reminiscence in the telling of stories. Our senses of smell, taste, hearing, vision and touch have a vital role to play when writing fiction. Whether it be Proust and his Madeleine biscuit or in the descriptive elements of our own work, our senses can act as a common reference point for the reader or the prompt for a character or place.
In the second article I will tell you of the development of my reminiscence work and the experiences of working with groups of older people across the North West on the Sense of Memory Project. I’ll also talk a little of how reminiscence infuses my own writing.
Before then however, I will leave you with a challenge. Take a bottle of vanilla essence or maybe some carbolic soap, close your eyes, have a sniff and then write down where that magical time machine takes you.
And to finish, here’s the science bit…
“Smell is our most direct, unmediated sense… The smell receptors were the foundations of the limbic system, a primitive centre concerned with basic and powerful emotions, with the recording of sensations and the expression of desire… Our brains are outgrowths of our noses. No wonder that smells remain the great carriers and triggers of potent memories. They “fix” emotions, and are processed in the same ancient area of our brains. They are the mordants for experience… We still have 3,000 genes encoded for smell, compared to just three for colour vision. They operate through a thousand distinct receptors, enable us to distinguish 10,000 different odours and mix and match these basic sensations into a huge lexicon of scent memories”
Richard Mabey: Fencing Paradise – Eden Project Books 2005
Some related links that may be of interest:
A Sense of Memory – http://www.asenseofmemory.net
Reminiscence Network Northern Ireland – http://www.rnni.org
Pam Schweitzer – http://www.pamschweitzer.com/
Age Exchange – http://www.age-exchange.org.uk/