The Big Question: for the novelist Rose Tremain, the best smell is transient and life-affirming

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2013

We all know that smell is a memory-trigger. These triggers often take us back into childhood—as though our early sense of smell is as powerful as a stag’s, imprinting memory effortlessly and for ever.

Some significant scents of my own childhood clustered around my day-to-day life in London (coffee beans in a sack, sooty coal, Friar’s Balsam inhaled to combat catarrh) and my holiday life at my grandparents’ Hampshire farm (muddy spaniels, pigs, horses, primroses). All of these still have the power to transport me to a far-off time. But one smell has greater significance and that is the smell of new-mown hay.

Aged 11, I was sent to a country boarding school in Hertfordshire. I was a keen tennis player, and the courts were some way from the school buildings, beyond a hayfield. All along the endless summer term, we walked to and fro across this field, watching the hay growing, in sunlight and rain, often stopping to pull a succulent single grass out of its sheath and suck on its nectar.

One evening, lagging behind the other tennis players, with a June sun beginning to go down, I stopped still on the path, inhaling something new and impossibly seductive in the air. During my two-hour game of tennis, the hayfield had been cut. I experienced the scent of the new-mown hay as something so perfect, so life-affirming, that the idea of its inevitable transience (it was, after all, only the frail and final outbreath of a fallen crop) felt crushing. I stood very still and wondered if there existed, in me, any magic by which I could hold onto it for as long as I remained alive. And it was in that moment that the idea of becoming a writer took shape in my mind. I couldn’t capture the smell; what I could capture was the power of my experience of the smell in words. 

When the scent of new-mown hay comes to me now, I see how my fear of the ephemeral lessened in an instant. Writers give ephemeral things multiple existences: they understand how a single childhood experience may one day inform countless different stories. And so I saw the direction of my life set out before me across the field.

What do you think is the best smell? Have your say by voting in our online poll. Read Edward Carr on Baking bread, Ann Wroe on Wild roses, Philip Pullman on Bacon, Robin Robertson on Rain and Ian Jack on an Indian railway platform.

Rose Tremain is an award-winning novelist whose books include "Restoration" and "Merivel".

Picture Mary Evans