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U3A Writing: Smells

Smells can bring back memories, both good and bad, as John Ricketts reveals.

For some people music can take them back and bring to life many memories. Iím afraid that doesnít work for me. No tune or song immediately opens the mind to fond memories, but smells do.

I think we all react to common smells, of new baked bread, of frying bacon and the rest. I remember going towards our house and being greeted with the smell of onions frying and saying to myself, ďI hope itís our house.Ē The smell of scents, of roses or lavender bring back memories to most people I guess but I have decided to ignore such common shared reactions and go for two rather different ones.

Memories can be brought back by foul odours as well as pleasant ones and I have chosen one of each.

Nearly sixty years ago in 1945 when I was eighteen I was in a transit camp near Madras in South India waiting for transport to Malaya. One day I caught a lift into Madras to do some exploring. I had been dropped off into a very poor part of the city and I wandered, fascinated by the sights and sounds of the area.

I had never seen such poverty before; men and women with stick-like limbs, small children like spiders with twig-like arms and huge swollen bellies, holding out hands for pice. It made me realise how well off I was on three and sixpence a day.

Further along there was stream which was really an open sewer. The smell was so bad that I had to take out a handkerchief to hold over my nose and mouth. That is the smell that I am talking about, which the teeming humanity around me did not seem to notice. A little further along a man was lying in the gutter. It looked as if he had lain down and gone to sleep. He was naked except for a dirty tattered piece of faded yellow loincloth. I stopped and looked at him, standing back against the wall out of the way of the crowd going past. Some glanced at him but no-one did anything, or even looked twice. Slowly it dawned on me that he was not there sleeping but that he was lying there dead with no-one taking a blind bit of notice.

At the end of last year I had some trouble with subsidence and the contactors came to have look at the drains. I went out the watch what they were doing. As they lifted the drain cover an atrocious smell of raw sewerage came out. In an instant I was back in Madras surrounded by starvation and death. One of the results of that experience is that I have always hated the wasting of any food and sometimes I have done silly things to prevent it.

My second scent is much more pleasant and brings back beautiful memories. I donít know if you can remember the smell of wet earth after a dry spell. We seldom get a lack of rain which allows the earth to become bone dry. When we lived in Africa it was different. The last rains usually came in April or even earlier. In 1958 the last rains fell as I was driving my wife the 40 miles to hospital for the birth of our first son on 8th March. It did not rain again until late October or early November.

In October which is called suicide month, the humidity and the closeness of the atmosphere increased until it was very oppressive. Eventually there would be a crash of thunder and a beautiful display of lightening brightening up the sky. If we were lucky rain would follow. Before the rain actually reached us we could smell the moisture of the parched earth. It was a wonderful smell promising new life after the barren drought.

That smell takes me back. I am once again sitting on the step of the house with my arm round my beloved wife, Elizabeth, watching the display of Godís power in the thunder and lightening and waiting for the first rain to fall. It was an exciting time for all. The children running round just in shorts bathing themselves in the rain and jumping in and out of the newly formed puddles, knowing that in a week the brown earth would have turned green and the first flowers would have appeared, a glorious time to be alive.

There are many more memories which smells or even stinks bring back. Thank God for a good sense of smell.


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