They say if you want to sell your house, you should bake bread half an hour before the prospective buyers arrive. Brewing some coffee is good too but baking bread is best – the smell does something to people.
As I write this, I can see our back lawn through my window and it’s in need of a cut. Mowing gets a bit harder each year but the effort needed is balanced by the increased sweetness each year of the smell that mowed grass generates. Last year I did interviews with twenty-two of my classmates from fifty years ago (since you’ve begged me to tell you I’ll admit it was for a book called Tales Out of School: St Columb’s College Derry in the 1950s and you’d be mad not to get it – we’re having a big launch on Wednesday 22 September in Lumen Christi College, Bishop Street, Derry with guests of honour John Hume and Martin McGuinness. Do come along if you live within, um, 500 miles)…Where was I? Oh yes, when I interviewed my former classmates, many of them mentioned the weeks leading up to Sports Day. After night prayers we boarders were allowed a full half-hour to train for the big day. This mainly involved totally unsupervised, uncoached running around the school walks or queuing to leap over or more often through an improvised high-jump. The time of year was late May and early June. Twilight was falling as we ran and gasped and leaped, and the air was thick with the sweet smell of cut grass. You’d be amazed how many noses and minds and hearts have carried that smell, the smell of tireless youth, for over fifty years.
It’s a primitive thing that goes right down into humankind’s early existence, when the smell given off by an enemy or a prey or a food could mean the difference between life and death. When we came home from Perpignan a couple of weeks ago, the house had that faintly musty smell a house takes on when no one has been in it for twenty-four hours, a mustiness that reassures and tells you you’re back. When I go for a jog there are cattle in the fields I pass, and the dungy smell from them triggers images of my father, brandishing his stick or banging a bucket with it, calling plaintively to or cursing loudly at his cattle as he tries to make them follow his will. When I lift slices of bread from the toaster, I’m crouched by the fireside in our dining-room, squashed and elbowed by my big sisters as I try to get my slice of bread on a fork closer to the orange coals until it’s brown enough – or black enough – to cover in slathers of melting butter.
The cosmetics industry knows the value of smell and makes billions out of it. But it hasn’t yet twigged that yes, we like nice smells, but smells that have associations, that take us hurtling through time to an earlier, safer era – those are the smells that, deep in our soul and nasal passages, we love. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lawn to mow…