A smelly past

May 4th, 2011 | By | Category: Personal Columns

Should one be abducted, tied up and bundled into the boot of a car, the kidnappers would do well to avoid the Ballyragget area of Co Kilkenny, Glanbia have a huge milk processing plant there and the smell of ripe cheese is unmistakeable as one passes.  It is the sort of smell that comes from the fridge when on holiday in France; it evokes images of street markets and cobbled streets and bottles of red wine and the warmth of afternoons deep in the Midi when the whole world seems sunk into a state of contented drowsiness.

The association between smell and memory is strange; it seem able to evoke memories that otherwise would hardly be worth recalling.

Jeyes Fluid never fails to recall thoughts of the outside toilets at our two teacher primary school.  We were not at al behind the times; we had a kitchen where dinners were prepared every day for the forty pupils, we had a telephone in the school when many houses still relied upon the call box on the village green; we had a school television upon which we watched BBC and ITV schools programmes; we had mains drainage; but the toilets were still treated with lashings of Jeyes Fluid, as if there would be a risk of some dangerous tropical illness if the scent of the dark coloured liquid every faded away.

The smell of dead animals conjures thoughts of times contemporaneous with those evoked by the Jeyes Fluid.  There was an abbatoir a few miles from our village.  Much of the year its presence was unknown to al except those who drove down the road on which it was located, but there were days in high summer when its smell would drift across the fields.  Perhaps the summer heat necessitated the doors of the plant being open, perhaps the heat hastened the process of putrefaction; but the scent of anything dead brings with it memories of Frisian cattle grazing in deep green meadows, of leafy hedgerows and the sound of distant tractors.

A fishmongers down the street is so compliant with every health and safety regulation, that one would hardly be aware of his trade.  Very occasionally, if someone opens the door as one passes, there is a trace of a scent of fish.  It is the scent of Lyme Regis on a summer’s day; the mackerel boats tied up along the harbour wall; the punnets of cockles and mussels being bought from a stall in the street; the sound of nylon fishing line unreeling rapidly as a cast is made by a fisherman standing at the end of The Cobb; the taste of chips and vinegar and candy floss.

School toilets, dead animals, dead fish, they seem unlikely sources of happy memories. Perhaps the mind engages in some sort of redemptive process, taking the unpleasant and tying it to the desirable so as to make it seem somehow different.  Perhaps we have a built in tendency towards revisionism; towards rewriting our personal history to make our lives  and ourselves somehow different.


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  1. I still love the smell of Jeyes fluid, reminds me of washing down the cow stalls after milking at Ted Goulds when I was a teenager…….I remember the abbatoir at Huish..about half a mile from school.The smell was even worse on a cold damp January morning when we were running past on a cross-country run..!!!!! One smell I experienced again last week was the peat fires down in Kerry…wonderful smell

  2. Turf is the main household fuel in my parish, so I hardly notice its smell now! It used always to evoke memories of the West of Ireland – particularly Kerry and Mayo.

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