The Smell of Fresh Rain
Barney Shaw, as well as being a first-time author, is a retired senior civil servant. And my initial impression was that he writes like one, with lots of equivocal constructions (“some blah, while others bleh”) and a liking for lists. What won me over was Shaw’s affection for his subject, the affection of a true enthusiast:
I happen to be a fan of compost. More than a fan, I see myself as the father to a small family of compost heaps …
Early on, Shaw tells us that his son Nick has set him a poser: “What does three o’clock in the morning smell of?” In search of an answer, the two end up visiting London’s produce markets at that hour. Born blind, and a musical savant, Nick has an interesting take on the world and its aromas. At Billingsgate fish market, he riffs on the smell of ducks, churches and “Ammonia – that’s a funny smell sometimes in the back of my skull, by the way”. When they stop at a cheesemonger’s, it’s over the objections of Nick, “who is firmly opposed to cheese”.
In the course of the book, Nick’s father reveals himself as a savant of smells. He’ll follow his nose anywhere and readily engages strangers in his olfactory explorations, evidently unafraid of being thought eccentric. He sniffs suburban hedges, assembling a scent profile of each (“Hawthorn has leaves that smell of ripe apple and flowers that smell of an awkward blend of honey and fish paste.”). In an old-fashioned hardware shop, his sniffing of the merchandise occasions a Pythonesque routine by the chaps behind the counter. And, dropping in for a half-pint of bitter, Shaw ends up leading the entire bar in a “blind” (that is, nose-holding) taste test of assorted potato chips.
Shaw scouts a wide range of fascinating science on the subject of smell, much of it perfect for cocktail chatter. Some pregnant women yearn for the smell of rubber. Tuberculosis smells like beer. A sensitivity to bad smells coheres with intolerant viewpoints. And the elusive organ for detecting human pheromones may turn out to be the Grueneberg ganglion.
Our sense of smell exists, says Shaw, “on the very edge of our attention”. Smells are – mostly – fleeting, and to register them requires a mindful effort. In contrast, a smell-memory is longer lasting and more piquant than memories of things seen or heard, and activates multiple senses – a kind of synaesthesia common to us all. FL
Icon, 304pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 28, 2017 as "Barney Shaw, The Smell of Fresh Rain". Subscribe here.