So… those developments I mentioned last week, which I was hoping would have developed by now… they still haven’t developed. Oh well. That’ll teach me to tempt fate. So I’m writing about smells instead.
Last weekend I went on a hen do, down in Birmingham, which was extremely exciting as it was the first time I’ve managed to get out to an actual nightclub since BMBWB (Before My Back Went Bad). The only negative was that I struggled to sleep, finding the pillows in the rented apartment too hard. So when I got home on Sunday, the first thing I did was flop onto my bed and let my head sink into my own deliciously soft pillow. And the funny thing was, I immediately noticed the smell: after two nights on synthetic bedding, my feather pillow had a distinctively organic odour. Now I hasten to clarify that my bedroom does not smell like a farmyard. But after spending the weekend away, there was definitely a detectable aroma welcoming me back to my own bed. Smells like home.
Trying to describe this sensation to my husband, I was struck by the paucity of the English language to describe smells. And then I saw a post on tumblr, gently mocking the cliches of fan fiction: “he inhaled his scent. he smelled of (ingredient 1), (ingredient 2) and something undefinable, that was uniquely (name of buttsex partner).” * This made me laugh out loud, because it’s so true – not just for amateur slash, but for professional writing. I recently read a book in which the heroine was described as smelling of strawberries and cut grass. Now I’ve never met anyone who smelled of either strawberries or cut grass, unless they’d been eating the one and rolling around in the other, so I didn’t find this terribly convincing, but, as anyone who has ever borrowed clothes from someone they fancy will tell you, people DO have a unique scent.
But there are only a few words – sour, fresh – which actually describe odours, and fewer still – musky, heady – that specifically refer to smell. Hence resorting to claiming that someone smells like cinnamon and honeysuckle when they clearly don’t (it’s curious that these descriptions are nearly always of sweet things, when humans are surely more likely to smell like, well, meat). Compare that with the myriad number of ways we have to describe the way something looks. I’m not sure whether other languages are similarly poorly equipped, but I have noticed that Proust, the master of sensory evocation – the taste of madeleines, the sound of a piano sonata, the sight of the sea or of the sunlight playing on a bedroom ceiling – doesn’t dwell much on scent, which suggests that either French isn’t much better, or he was too consumed with hay fever to smell very much.
This all presents a problem for the writer, trying to evoke this most elusive of the senses. But then, that is perhaps the joy of smell: even in an age of Yankee Candles which claim to capture the scent of anything from fresh cut roses to camouflage, it isn’t easy to pin down. It bypasses the more rational parts of the mind and plunges us straight into a sensation, whether a long-forgotten memory from childhood, gut-wrenching repulsion, hopeless lust, or that deeply joyous feeling of coming home.
* in case you’re wondering, yes, quite a lot of fan fiction really is like that, as I’ve previously chronicled: https://ruthdehaas.wordpress.com/2014/01/17/fan-fiction-under-the-rock/