Monday, 10 September 2007

Smells and sounds to stir my soul

Here are my 12 things that ‘stir and reach my inner soul’. In many cases these are things from the past – often childhood – that when you hear or see them they evoke a surge of strong memory.

Sometimes it could be a horrid smell – like the inside of a rubber plimsoll and the school gym, or the urine soaked bone-chillingly cold smell of the mental hospital in which my grandfather was once – mistakenly – interned.

There are sounds and smells that etch themselves on your soul, but the memories are just of sadness, like my beloved and much missed horse James whose rich, rumbling whinny and warm, brown horsey smell meant so much to me in my teens and twenties.

I think, instead, the list should be things that bring back memories of happiness, or triumph or rest or peacefulness. The smells and sounds that whisk you back to the past in a blink. So here they are:

The smell of fibreglass resin – this reminds me of my childhood when Mum and Dad went through their boatbuilding phase. The first was a mirror dinghy built in the kitchen. Luckily they remembered they had to get it out through the door just – just - before it was too late… The next two were bigger boats with cabins. The first, ‘Solent’ I think she was called, was fitted out in the garage, then towed to various holiday destinations. During one trip – somewhere near Dartmouth – Dad rowed off for supplies, the tide went out and he walked back across stinking, black mud, pulling the dinghy behind him. Mum welcomed the supplies, then, as Dad put a filthy boot up to climb into the boat, she told him exactly where to go (and it wasn’t on the boat!)

The smell of my children’s hair. Both different, both totally yummy. Freshly shampooed as well as the ‘we’ve been to the beach, it’s hanging in rat’s tails, can’t remember when we last washed it’ hair. Connected with this is the smell of a freshly scrubbed baby, preferably my own, but now they’re little girls rather than babies, I’m not averse to a quick sniff of friend’s babies’ heads. Puppies, too, have a lovely peppery smell.

Coffee. This is sound, of course, as well as smell. That lovely hot, wafty aroma, that charges up your nose to administer a swift kick to your senses. Not a subtle scent, more demanding and punchy, and with it the lovely gurgly noise of a coffee maker. Mine is one of those stove-top Italian espresso jobs with lots of hissing and spitting. I also like my sister-in-law’s filter machine which has a lovely lazy Sunday morning gurgle.

The Bassets Liquorice All-sorts factory in Hillsborough, Sheffield. This is right by the leisure centre I visit with my sister where there is a big pool with a water slide and waves. I first went there the night before I took my journalism exams and Jax took me for a swim to take my mind off my nerves. We had a great time then emerged to a gorgeous waft of hot aniseedy liquorice. I passed my NCTJ first time, to my great relief, and the smell of that factory will always remind me of that time.

Back to sailing again and the ping ping ping sound of halyards on masts. When I was little we kept the third and biggest of our boats at Lawrenny, in Pembrokeshire. She was a 22 foot Ballerina called ‘Sea Dance’ and we drove from Worcestershire to Pembrokeshire every weekend to go sailing in her. We would have fish and chips in Llandovery on the way and then eventually arrive in Lawrenny and row out to the boat. My sister and I would fall asleep to the sound of the pinging halyards. When it was warm and dry Dad would lift the hatch in the deck above us and we would watch the sky for shooting stars. Occasionally my sister would kick me off my bunk and down the gap in the middle.

The smell of a winter morning, early before the sun has woken up at all, with thick chilly fog and crisp air with the promise, but not yet a threat, of snow. Warm welcoming porridge, with a spoonful of golden syrup waits indoors and fragrant wood smoke floats on the cold air.

Vanilla. The smell of it in cooking is sublime. When Rosie first learned to crawl her main aim in life was to burgle the vanilla extract bottle from the cupboard. I once found her sitting on her fat nappied bottom, head thrown back, vanilla bottle in mouth. Luckily she hadn’t worked out how to get the lid off! She still gives the lid a sly lick when we’re cake making, usually while I’m inhaling deeply from the bottle.

Whisky. Single malt. At the end of a hard day, with a little cool water. Heavenly. Preferably Tobermory to drink, but I used to love the warm, peaty smell of Dad’s Laphroaig.

Bono’s voice. Singing or talking. Especially in the songs ‘One’, ‘Pride, in the Name of Love’ and ‘The Unforgettable Fire’. Oh, and the line ‘tonight thank God it’s them, instead of you,’ in the Live Aid single. Spine tingling.

The sound of my children’s peaceful snores. I love to watch them sleeping, snoring and dreaming. Particularly after a day filled with sounds such as: “Mummeeeee! Rosie/Hannah hit/pinched/pushed meeeee!”

Cigar smoke. I hate the smell of cigarettes, mainly because the smoke makes me feel sick, but a tantalising waft of an expensive cigar is somehow evocative of hot summer days and lovely lazy dinners with fine wine and good company. It’s a shame that all the cigar smokers I know have now given up.

The sound of David Gilmour’s guitar. Particularly the guitar solos from ‘Comfortably Numb’. The man’s a genius.


  1. Now that was a great pleasure to read - and beautifully illustrated. I like the sound you describe of halyards against masts - it makes me think of being in new, strange places or familiar harbours. Now let's settle down with our single malts!

  2. My dad was always building boats but never managed to keep them on the water very long. He has finally agreed to sell on his final attempt after it has sat outside his garage going nowhere for the last 10 years???

    I caught your post on the forum but not sure if it predated your post here but hoping things are a little easier for you both now.

    Also as a student I remember visiting a village in High Wickham which had a famous Windmill, I think it was the Chitty bang bang one. A beautiful village but don't know its name.

  3. just re-read middle paragraph and it doesn't make sense, I mean for you and Rosie.

  4. what a great list and so beautifully written, loved your smell of a winter morning.


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