When recalling one’s home town, smell often plays a primary role. (The title here is adapted from a little exercise recently carried out online in California).
Growing up in an area which we now are told, was one of industrial decline, it is hard to recall the smells, for they are no longer in the air.
Various things – acts of Parliament and Bye-Laws among others – have conspired to remove these olfactory stimulants.
In another sense too, what stimulants there are, serve often only to take one back to one’s home and garden and a home and garden could be anywhere.
The title is that the smell has to be inextricably linked with the place.
Now that makes it really difficult. To ask such a thing is really to be asking a few different questions. Like –
Did you stay? or did you go?
Did you like? or did you dislike?
Are you sorry you left? or are you glad you did? – or –
If you did stay, are you glad you stayed – or are you sorry?
Is there anything to entice you back? or Not?
We lived at the top of a hill, so the most prevalent smell on there was that of diesel fuel from the wagons and buses that often struggled up there in low gear. That can be smelled often and take one straight back.
But that is a memory that can be shared by many.
Coal burning in an open grate and wafted on a gentle breeze on a spring day reminds me of the old part of my town where my grandparents lived. Not a bad smell either, but a rare one now. The more so because in that town of some fifty thousand, you would be hard-pressed nowadays to find a piece of coal there at all – let alone a couple of shovelsful burning in a fireplace.
Passing the steelworks on my way to work in the 1990s reminded me of Gas Works Brew. This was a settled street without a pavement. Although it was closed to traffic, it was a pedestrian way. There were still the white posts and bollards from the war in situ when I was a child. It stank. It was right by the retorts which made the town’s domestic and industrial gas supply. “Pooh!” we used to say as we walked by there. We held our noses closed.
Rain after the sun brought that dusty wet smell from the pavement. A moment to savour – then, gone until the next time!
Summers there were often rainy and there was the ubiquitous smell of privet flowers after a shower. It is a fresh sweet smell but cloys rapidly. As a perfume, the sillage of privet must rank on the Richter scale.
Brickdust reminds me of all the demolition and the homes which were destroyed in the 1960s. Burning pitchpine and oak brings back the same memory – as does the smell of damp wood.
Soap and Talc remind me of the Chemist’s shops in our old town.
To smell chips and fish and peas cooking in a shop is also to smell the town.
But these are the few things.
Our old town cannot be brought back in smells simply because it – along with that style of living – was swept away to the hard applause of many (who could not wait) and the softer tears of the few (who would miss it grievously).
What the local authority did not manage to complete was then completed by national government.
No. It is gone. In sense and in scents.
And while many would say that it was no bad thing, there are some – albeit in declining number – for whom status as stranger has become their destiny wherever they might finish up. Strangers even to themselves. Strangers even if they went back.