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Loss Of Scents

How losing my sense of smell gave me writers’ block

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

This morning it’s raining, my window is open. I breathe in, anticipating the mineral scent released when rain falls after a dry spell. Unusually, this smell has its own word: petrichor. The fragrant air will add something to my day, a kind of backbone. It might inspire my writing. Today, however, there is a stark absence of any fragrance whatsoever.

I turn to my coffee, an espresso, expecting top notes of almonds, a lingering, almost chocolatey finish. This delicious aroma might transport me back to another time or place, standing at a crowded Italian bar, or sitting at a table outside a Parisian café. Or it might just hold me in the here and now, in a rainy fenland bedroom, with its consoling familiarity. But this morning the black liquid smells foul and tastes acrid and disgusting.

I have Covid. I’m thankful that, due to vaccinations, my case is mild, but I am shocked by how miserable the accompanying loss of smell makes me. I cannot be transported. I am not inspired. Until (unless?) this sense returns, a whole dimension of my life has gone with it.

As I now know, anosmia – the term for a lost or compromised sense of smell – isn’t the same as when you have a cold, and can inhale Vick’s vapour rub and feel a refreshing rush of camphor as your nostrils clear. It is a complete and total loss of an ability to detect a scent or to taste. The vapour rub smells of nothing. Sniffing a slice of fresh ginger gives the same depressing impression as tasting a piece of bread; mushy, bland. Parosmia, where scents become confused, is equally disconcerting. Foul smells replace pleasant ones, foods that once smelled delicious such as toast, or hot croissants, take on rotten egg notes.

Ironically, if I could smell, I would now use a scent to calm myself. A drop of lavender oil in the bath is always soothing. Splashing on a favourite perfume gives me confidence. With these props missing, the world feels more unstable.

Writers know the power of smell as a stimulant for ideas, as well as a way of carrying their readers along. From Proust’s famous Madeleines, whisking his narrator back to his childhood, to Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, in which the main character uses his highly attuned olfactory nerves to seek out his virginal murder victim, (she smells of a ‘piece of thin, shimmering silk’ combined with ‘pastry soaked in honey-sweet milk’ — what descriptions!) scent permeates literature. We don’t need to be told Jane Eyre is in love with Rochester: Brontë shows us through Jane’s heightened sense of smell when her lover is nearby. ‘Sweet-briar and southernwood, jasmine, pink, and rose have long been yielding their evening sacrifice of incense: this new scent is neither of shrub nor flower; it is – I know it well – it is Mr Rochester’s cigar.’

Since the start of the pandemic ‘anosmia’ or ‘parosmia’ have been recognized as common symptoms, yet I have found scant discussion about the profound effect these can have on a person’s quality of life and work.

Language might have something to do with this. According to the linguist Asifa Majid, European languages don’t have a lexicon for smells as they do for colours. Rather, we compare a scent to a thing –– ‘it smells of rose’ we might say, or ‘it’s kind of spicy.’ (Which is why ‘petrichor’ is unusual.) Does our paucity of words for the vast array of smells that surround us indicate that as a culture we undervalue this sense? And perhaps, since we don’t rely on smell as much as we do on sight or sound we feel we shouldn’t complain if we lose it.

Yet our sense of smell does have a pragmatic role, alerting us to fire, gone-off food, a gas leak. And it tacitly guides us through the day, sending us messages, adding nuance and pleasure or warning or disgust, but certainly adding layers, of security, of familiarity, of pleasure or fear, in ways we aren’t always aware of until it goes.

Caitlin Moran in her book More than a Woman reminds us that our ability to detect a personal odour either repels or attracts us to another. ‘Forget about the heart, or the crotch — both of which, are, sadly, idiot-organs; easily fooled by a bunch of flowers, or a vibrator. No — it’s your nose you want to listen to. You can’t fool a nose. Your nose knows what’s going on. I can tell you right now, you will know you’ve finally found the love of your life because they just. Smell. Great.

But how do we detect ‘the one’ if we can’t smell? (Or describe the smell of the one if we don’t know what they smell of?)

And perhaps the most vital of all roles our sense of smell provides is the bond it creates between a baby and its parent or carer. When I hold my new grandchild, I imbibe her baby smell, that sweet, powdery, unmatchable scent that is there to make damned sure we bond with our offspring or our offspring’s offspring. Her smell has the effect on me of wanting to protect her at all costs. The absence of the precious, oxytocin-inducing scent would make babies far more vulnerable, were we never to experience it.

When I teach creative writing, scent has always been one of the most successful triggers, whisking my students back to a time or a place they thought they’d forgotten. The scent could be anything, from cinnamon to cloves to brown sauce, washing up liquid to Chanel No 5. Until I lost it, I hadn’t realised how my sense of smell was essential to my writing. The tannic aroma of brewery yeast is distinctive to the Thames at Blackwall. The bittersweet aroma of Seville oranges boiling to make marmalade (only in season from late December to February) has always signposted for me the stirring of the earth as it emerges from winter and the evenings start to lighten almost imperceptibly. The sludgy stench of river mud can indicate uneasiness, and the waft of cedar on a handkerchief, comfort or intimacy. I use these scents (literally seeking them out and sniffing them) in order to create a time, place or feeling. No wonder I feel panic for my writing when I realise my sense of smell has vanished.

Back to my rainy morning. Feeling too weak and sad to work, I put on Netflix to watch On the Verge. By pure coincidence, Julie Delpy, playing a chef with the flu, is in the market unable to detect the scent of the truffles she is sampling for her restaurant. Stuffing her mouth with spring onions — nothing! She, too, feels this sense of something vital falling away, and she panics. I want to reach into the screen and hug her. Loss of smell, far from being a minor symptom of Covid, can feel catastrophic.

As writers (and chefs, perfumiers, wine tasters, lovers and parents) know, then, our sense of smell doesn’t just provide a little condiment to our daily lives. Its loss is disconcerting, affecting our appetite certainly. But it also traps us into a narrower, less nuanced, blanker, possibly more dangerous, and lonelier world.

I couldn’t write while my sense of smell had gone. I used the time to read and think and make notes and plan, but stringing a sentence together with any sense of rhythm or cadence felt impossible. It’s now January and my sense of smell is returning in short, sharp, almost overwhelming bursts. They hit me unexpectedly like a door opening onto a perfumed world that then closes again. Pine bath oil, garlic frying, wintersweet flowering in the park; the smells are almost transcendent in their beauty — or in their power to transport. Never again will I denigrate the power of the sense of smell, or take it for granted.

Our ability to detect scent is a silent and invisible necessity. It grounds us, guides us, inspires us, comforts us, bonds us to our children, leads us to our life’s partners, arouses us, and reminds where we are in the world now, as well as being able, uniquely, to take us to our pasts. And in order to write, for me anyway, it is essential. It helps me to go to places and to plumb depths of experience I wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. I am grabbing these moments now when I write. Trying to capture those fleeting scents that take me to other places and times and valuing them more than I ever did before.

Right now I have a hot water bottle on my lap because the room I am in is always cold, being under the roof. The smell of the hot rubber takes me directly back to being a child, when bed covers were blankets rather than duvets and a hot water bottle was a necessity in an unheated house. It’s the smell that transports me, the smell that inspires me, the smell that enables me, and makes me want to write.

Penny Hancock is author of the novels Tideline, The Darkening Hour, A Trick of the Mind, and I Thought I Knew You. She is also a feature and short-story writer.

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