Thursday, 16 August 2012

Just For The Smell Of It by Zoë Sharp

They say travel broadens the mind. I find it calms it. And I’ve been doing quite some travelling over the past few days. I was ashamed to discover that I had spent more time in Japan than I had in the Outer Hebrides of the British Isles. A long-standing invite from friends who moved out there, plus the promise of some interesting research, was all I needed. A five-hour ferry ride from Oban later, and I’m on Benbecula, looking out over the Atlantic towards the Americas.

My trip started last Friday with a spur-of-the-moment detour to west Cumbria, which also involved calling in on fellow crime writer Matt Hilton and his wife, Denise. Then up to just west of Edinburgh via twisty back roads through stunning countryside.

From there it was up to the Aberdeen area to call in on the ever-cheery Stuart MacBride and Fiona — not to mention their fabulous-and-she-knows-it cat, Grendel. Stuart and I spent two days on top of his garage roof doing manly repairing stuff. I have now acquired my own pry-bar set and lump hammer. I wanted to name the lump hammer Sir Stuart in his honour, (as in, “Pass me the mighty Sir Stuart and I shall teach this recalcitrant nail a thing or two …”) but this suggestion was greeted with a certain lack of enthusiasm. Ah well.

From Aberdeen was a long but beautiful drive down to Oban on the west coast of Scotland to catch my ferry for the western isles. Another stunning trip, and although I set off in heavy rain, it wasn’t long before I could stop and put the top down on the car again.

The ferry trip itself was uneventful, apart from getting my car doored by people who, it seems, are incapable of getting back into their own vehicles without ramming their car doors into everything else in sight. Argh! I don’t find that annoying At All. (mutter, mutter, mutter)

Then it was another hour’s drive from the ferry terminal at Lochboisdale up South Uist and across several causeways to Benbecula. I hate to keep using the words ‘beautiful’, or ‘stunning’ but the simple fact is that’s exactly what this place is. Any Brit who wants to travel to exotic climes would do well to explore their own country before doing so.

The nicest thing about travelling by convertible with the top down is the smell. Sounds weird, but unlike sitting inside a pollen-filtered, air-conditioned box of steel and glass, having the roof down means every time I pass a field  of newly mown hay, or a patch of wild garlic, or a house with a wood fire burning, the smell of it hits me right away. OK, so you get less pleasant smells instantly, too, but it all adds to the connection with the land through which you’re passing.

Here on the islands, the overwhelming smell is that of the ocean. Salt and kelp and the clean raw smell of a wind that has failed to pick up anything malodourous for a thousand miles or more. If there’s one overriding memory I shall take home with me from this, it’s the smell of the place.

It reminds me, too, the importance of including smell in my writing. I’m not talking scratch-and-sniff pages, but the description of a scent, a sharp tang, a wisp of something almost intangible, is as important in narrative as the sights and sounds. It is, after all, our biggest memory trigger, good or bad.

For me, some are obvious. The reek of a road-kill skunk in New England, even after a week of heavy snow, is not something I will forget in a hurry. But I also hate the smell of solder and lilies. My favourite smells? Fresh-cut grass, good coffee, new bread, creosote.

So, what are your own memory triggers? What scents do you love, and what do you hate? And why?

This week’s Word of the Week is Karmageddon : It's like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's, like, a serious bummer…


  1. Rosemary, my grandmother had bank of it, we played in when we were at here house hiding from the violent chaos that was a childhood. Rosemary smells of safety. thank you for reminding me of of it. And of how both beautiful and stunning Scotland is.

  2. Thanks, Josh. Rosemary has a lovely scent, but has nowhere near the same connotations for me that it does for you - a unique and special memory :)

  3. Horses. They have a sweet smell that is a little like hay and a little like freshly turned earth, plus an extra bit that is just them. Also, puppy breath. Melts me every time. Also, brownies baking, freshly-mown grass, and freshly baked bread. Now you've gone and made me hungry.

    Love the definition of the day!

  4. Hi Jaden. You're quite right. How could I leave horses off the list? But you must run into puppies on a different diet to the ones I've encountered! I used to love the smell of fresh-baked bread, but since the supermarkets over here started pumping it from the bakery into the store itself just to make people hungry, I now associate it with a somewhat cynical commercial intent. Shame, because I still love that smell :)

  5. Ahh, Zoe -- I'd go anywhere with you, virtually or otherwise -- you've got the gift of description and an eye (and nose) for picking out the details other miss. What about a series of Charlie Fox travel books? See the sights, a little action, see the sites, off someone, see the sights. I'd go along for the ride.

  6. LOL, Tim. That would be a cool idea, wouldn't it? I'm already putting my notes together for the next Charlie Fox outing over this winter, and I had a fancy to take her a little further afield this time out. Maybe this would be just the excuse I need ... :)