SMOKE: What's That Smell?

Originally published: 25 June 2004

The other day I was outside and caught a faint smell on the breeze which took me back 20 years almost to the day, to a time when I was on holiday in the United States.

I have no idea what the smell was, but it was far more specific than the general smell of the US.

It was a day on which my friend and I were walking for miles along the road - either on our way to or returning from a huge Toys R Us store. There was a particular smell in the air on that walk, and that's the smell I caught a whiff of again the other day.

I hadn't smelt that smell in 20 years, and I now have smelt it in two places only - both on different continents.

The memory of that walk to the toy store is not one I've ever had before and the first time I remembered it - since 1984, when I was 12 - was the other day, when I smelled something strange in the air.

In terms of earth-shattering revelations it probably won't hold a candle to the sort of stuff Bob Marley, Timothy Leary, Dr Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs were discovering back in their day, but it's pretty damn freaky nonetheless.

I wrote a Smoke a while back about memories associated with music, and it seems smell has a similar effect.

Most of the time when I smell something I only identify it as being a smell I like, one I don't, a strange smell or a familiar one. But every so often I will smell something and instantly be transported back to a very specific time and place, with a specific smell triggering a specific memory.

I can't pretend to understand the ins and outs of why a smell would trigger a memory, but it obviously has something to do with a particular smell that you were conscious of at the time of doing something specific.

The smell of a fresh, crisp bank note always takes me back to The Duck Pond - a pond which my grandmother used to take my sister and I to occasionally, to feed the ducks.

For some reason I associate the smell of fresh money with the duck pond because my grandmother gave me a new R2 note (remember those old blue ones?), and although I can't remember the specifics of why I had money at the duck pond - that's what I associate it with.

The smell of brass always reminds me of going to auctions with my father as a kid - they had a particular olde worlde smell to them, a musky mixture of old wood and brass.

I can't abide the smell of coconut after a particularly bad experience with two bottles of Vin Coco at high school, on a cold night in Newlands Forest.

But most of the smells I come into contact with don't represent anything, and I wonder why all smells don't you remind you of something particular. Maybe it's because they're very common smells and thus cannot be associated with any particular memory.

Take my second-favourite smell, for instance - petrol. Doesn't remind me of anything other than the fact that the price of it is likely to be going up anytime soon, but man - I could stick my head in a vat full of petrol and breathe that stuff all day. I can never get enough of it.

I should invent a device people can strap under their noses, which gives off a constant petrol smell - I'd never take it off.

I'd look like a bit of a prat, but the reward would be superb - a head-full of petrol.

I also love the smell of chicken roasting, the freshness of a mist on a still, cold morning, woodsmoke in the mountains, a freshly-cleaned car interior, new leather, mothballs, pine needles, a clean jersey, crisp sea air, lightly-perfumed skin, my dog's head (on occasion - sometimes it's smelly with sweat), boerewors roll stands, new paper, glue and female sexual arousal.

I can't stand the smell of Kentucky Fried Chicken on a still night (sometimes when walking the dog at night I smell it, coming from the KFC up the road), Jeyes fluid, mushrooms, sweaty armpits, Golden Arrow buses, Metrorail trains, locker rooms, showers, nappies, chlorine, liquorice, cat litters, seafood and cars stale with cigarette smoke.

The best smell of all is my wife's hair. I've actually never known a woman with hair that smells bad. When you slide your face into their necks, bury your nose in their hair and inhale long and deep - it's all sorts of heaven that I can't describe. I'm simply not good enough to.

If you're a bloke and you have a willing bird handy nearby - give it a whirl. Do yourself the favour. But ask permission first. Trust me.

Much as I enjoy the smells I do, however, out of the five senses it is the one - if forced to - I could do without. Touch is essential (for boobies), as is sight and hearing, which leaves taste and smell.

It's a total Sophie's Choice, but with the gun to my head I do away with the smell, I'm afraid.

I'd be a dead cert for the guy who lights up a cigarette because he didn't smell the gas leak, but what the hell - I can still enjoy the taste of a fine woman.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
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