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Date: 09/04/10

The Past Isn't Dead; It Just Smells

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer apparently claimed that smell was the special sense associated with memory.

I'm not inclined to take issue with him. An example from this afternoon will suffice as to why.

I was in the garden planting a new lavender bush (having first evicted the latest consignment of cat shit from the border). On my way back into the house I stopped by the wallflowers. I'd sowed these early last summer, but had got no more than three flowers out of the lot of them. This year, they seem to be far more chatty.

In an implusive moment, I knelt down, stuck my nose in one of the blooms and had a good sniff.

Immediately, I was transported back some forty years. The man who lived next door to me as a child (whom I called 'Uncle Hubert', although the relationship was more distant than the title might imply - his brother was married to one of my aunts) was a keen gardener. You can catch a glimpse of his handiwork in the photograph here.

Because our own garden was far more dishevelled and disordered a landscape - partly as a result of the fact that our garden (a corner plot) had been used by the firm which built the estate in the 1930s to pile up the rubble - I spent a lot of time in Uncle Hubert and Auntie Ada's garden. I wasn't really that interested in the plants, spending more time unsticking the snails from the red-brick wall at the far end or minutely observing the Crosville buses as they climbed up the slope, but that wall itself was usually the home of masses of wallflowers.

It was that scene and those memories which were so vividly returned to me for the first time in years merely by the act of sniffing a flower.

I've had similar experiences before. When I was eighteen, I went on a camping holiday with some friends (a story which is recounted in quite unnecessary detail here and here), and lying on the plastic groundsheet on that first night brought back memories of the pram I would spend much of my days in as an infant because the material (or at least its smell) was the same. That smell may well be my earliest surviving memory.

I've been wondering why smells should be so potent in this way, and the only thing I can think of is that although we seem to have devised very elaborate and analytical ways of describing what we see, hear and taste, we don't - for whatever reason - seem to have done the same for smells, and so their primal primacy has been left unmediated by more cerebral interpretations.

At least, that's what I intend to tell Arthur when I see him.