My Three Scents

These are my three scents – three smells that each conjure up vivid double memories of events widely separated in time and place.

Last week’s entry here about smell maps kept me thinking for days of specific scents and the meaning that they have for me. I started a page in my note-book and soon had a list of fifteen or so. These are not just smells I recognise, they are scents that, when I smell them, have the power to transport me in time and space to a moment, a place, a feeling.

I imagine everyone carries within them a little smell library that will work this same magic. In fact, I’m fairly sure the library is what Kate McLean was tapping into in her Paris exhibition (described last week). Everyone will have a different set of scents, of course, and even if you and I include the same smell in our libraries, the memories it conjures up will be unique to each of us. Scent memories are very personal.

I spent so much time playing around in my scent library, I decided I really had to write this week’s article about some of them.

To try to limit myself (you know how I can ramble on given half a chance) I decided to restrict myself to smells that have two attached memories, and because this blog is about travel, I have chosen three smells that link two completely different times and places.

Green Apple
This is neither the scent of a fresh apple, just bitten, nor is it the true smell of apple blossom. It is the artificial apple scent that was a popular ingredient in shampoo in the seventies. A shampoo my sister and many girls her age used.

I’m sure the chemists who created the scent wanted to imply apple, and it’s certainly true that it is reminiscent of apple, but when I smell apple blossom or bite into a crisp green apple those scents spark no vivid memory. It’s only on the nowadays rare occasions that I pick up on just this created “apple” scent that the magic works. I am fifteen or sixteen, drawn to girls but very self-conscious and awkward. I am sitting on the upper deck of a Brighton bus (I think it’s the number 2), behind a gang of girls giggling together in a cloud of Green Apple. One of the girls makes my heart turn over, but I can’t speak to her for fear of the others – or of how she would dismiss me.

Three scents: Jonas Gardell and some green applesNowadays the smell has a double exposure. Not only do I find myself aged 16 in a Brighton bus, but I am also aged about 35 and in the audience at a performance by Jonas Gardell in Sundsvall’s Kulturmagasinet. Gardell has not yet reached his current Swedish “national treasure” status, but is already widely known for his books. As we don’t yet have a TV, I’ve never seen him before, but I’ve heard him on the radio and now I am delighting in my ability to follow his performance. My comprehension of spoken Swedish is better than I thought.

Gardell is reading from his notebooks, memories and ideas, stories and autobiographical snips, and suddenly he is talking about the scent of Green Apple. And there it is. I’m back in that damn bus again, but I’m also hearing Gardell’s voice – though I’ve no idea now what story he was telling or where the scent of Green Apple came into it.

The interesting thing is that, the second time around, I didn’t need actually to smell the scent – just hearing it described was enough.

Chicken shit
About ten years ago now I was working at a school in Falköping, Ållebergsgymnasiet. We teachers started the school year with a “kick-off” that took place a few days before the school opened for the students. Many Swedish schools run something similar to help integrate new people and renew bonds between staff members. Perhaps it’s common elsewhere too.

On this occasion we were bussed around the area (which is largely agricultural) and got to visit various nature sites and farms. One of these was a farm for free range chickens – but free range in barns. It was not a delightful place. Although there was a lot of space overhead, the chickens were packed in together and filled the barn from one side to the other. I suppose it was a better option for them than cages, at least they could strut around and scratch the ground, but they were not outside.

Three scents: ChickenshitThe smell was overwhelming. On two counts.

First it was acrid, acid, eye watering and foul. But more than that, it was a smell I knew – had smelled before – though never as intensely.

I had to leave the guided tour and get outside to breath and as I leaned up against the wall of the barn in the sunlight, I was no longer a 47-year-old teacher in rural Sweden. I was six years old in the back alley behind our house in Tema, Ghana in 1963. The alley ran between the windowless, whitewashed, breezeblock huts that housed the African “boys” – the young men who served the (mostly white) engineers and their families, of which mine was one.

Most of the “boys” – who were actually in their twenties – were married and some had children. They kept chickens, that strutted and scratched and shat along the alley. And that was the smell and the memory that overwhelmed me suddenly in August 2005.

Bitter almonds
These two memories are closer together in time, but link Finland and Yorkshire.

It is 1984 and I am in the kitchen of our flat in Kouvola in south-eastern Finland. She who will eventually become Mrs SC is baking Mazarines. These Swedish cakes involve ground almonds and as we have to do everything properly, we are grinding the almonds in a manual grinder. (That’s my job.) I am stealing the occasional almond to sustain myself. I pick one from the small, separate bag. “Don’t!” she says. Too late. My mouth fills with the taste of bitter almond.

Three scents: Welder among almondsAnd instantly I am five years younger, just out of Leeds University with a BA in English literature and History, but not sure what I want to do next. I’m still living in the city, working as a labourer in a steel fabricating company. Today and all this week I’m working in a team with a welder, a young man, not much older than me. I’ve lost his name, but I can see his face now as clearly as if he sat opposite me.

We are out of doors, erecting a fire escape for a convent of Dominican nuns. The parts have all been fabricated in our workshops in the railway arches near Leeds Station and brought up here for us to put together. We’re putting the handrails up and my partner is arc welding the pieces together with me coming behind grinding down the excess. The smoke from the grinding process smells almost sweet, I think and I’m trying to place what I’m smelling.

“Almonds?” He asks.

“That’s it!”

“It’s cyanide,” he says with a grin. “Try not to breath it in.”

And back again five years later, the taste of a bitter almond in a Finnish kitchen brings back that week of work with sudden vividness. And ever since, the smell or taste of bitter almond reawakens both memories.

So, those were my three scents. What are yours?


The original pictures for all the illustrations (including the portait of Jonas Gardell) are Creative Commons licensed from Wikimedia Commons

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Particular smells

Particular smells can be immensely evocative. Think of the smell of new cut grass or of damp wool, of wood smoke or the perfume of a rose

Human beings are visual creatures. For most of us sight is the most important of our senses, and the one we use most often to understand our world. This is not true for the blind or the partially sighted, of course, or for certain other individuals, but it is true by and large for the majority of us.

However, we all know that sight is just one of several senses. Growing up, we are often told we have five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch). This platitude is the origin of references to the “sixth sense” – that mystical extra ability that some people are supposed to be gifted with that lets them read another person’s thoughts, see dead people or look into the future.

Of course we all have more than five senses. For example, we all know about – but often seem to forget – our sense of balance. Many of us also all tend to underestimate our abilities to use our senses other than sight. We even sometimes need to be reminded of our other senses. It’s a common instruction in creative writing classes, for instance, to remind students to think not just about how characters look, but also to think about how they sound. To ask: If this character was a fruit, how would he or she taste? To imagine a fabric or a structure in terms of how it feels to the touch.

Our sense of smell is one of the senses that most often gets passed over. Conventional wisdom chimes with scientific research to suggest that humans do not have a very developed sense of smell. (Although some modern research challenges that.) And yet I think most people can agree that a particular smell can be immensely evocative.

Think of the smell of new cut grass or of damp wool, for example, of wood smoke or the perfume of a rose or lavender. I would guess that at least one of these scents conjures up a very vivid image in your head, and very possibly a specific time and place too.

Last year I came across an article about a “smellmap” of Amsterdam. I was in a hurry, but it seemed a good subject to return to later for a Stops and Stories article, so I bookmarked it and moved on. As usually happens, I then forgot about it until this weekend when I was looking through my notebook for inspiration. I found the link and went back and read the article properly – and then started to follow the associated links.

What a wonderful treasure trove!

Let me introduce Kate McLean, PhD student at the Royal College of Art in London, “a multi-disciplinary artist working in visual and olfactory communication.” She has one foot in the world of science, the other in the world of artful cartography – and her nose in the air. If I’ve understood things right, she started out trying to find ways to make visible statistical information. (The fat consumption of the average Scot sculpted in beef lard was one example!) She experimented with the other senses – but struck gold when she started looking at how people perceive their environments in terms of the smells around them.

She has carried out research and exhibited her work in various cities, including Edinburgh and Glasgow, Amsterdam and Singapore, building “smellmaps” and creating “smellscapes” with the help of local people who have joined her on her “smell walks”. These visualisations of the way people perceive and feel about the smells around them are necessarily subjective, but at the same time may give a valuable insight in how people experience their local environment. An insight that might be useful for urban planners, for example. Her work is showcased in portfolios on the website of Sensory maps.

The video clip of her smell map of Amsterdam is visually very satisfactory, but I most liked her Paris Postcards Poster – a distilled creation made after an exhibition in Paris. At the exhibition a series of small bottles containing scents collected in Paris were available for visitors to sniff. Then they were invited to write down on a post-it note the place and/or feeling they associated with the smell and stick their notes on a board. See the poster here (it is a pdf file that you can zoom in on to view and read more easily.)

Finally, if you are tempted (as I am) to try creating a smell map of your own, Kate McLean has produced a “Smellfie” or do-it-yourself smell map kit. Again, it’s a pdf document – in the form of thirteen slides – which you can view, download and print out.

And I can’t do better to conclude this week’s article than borrow Kate McLean’s valediction: Happy sniffing!


The featured image at the head of this is a screenshot of the front page of Sensory Maps. The image is copyright Sensory Maps/Kate McLean and no tresspass is intended.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.