The Big Question: throughout his childhood, the poet Robin Robertson recalls, the smell of rain was always present

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2013

I lost my sense of smell when I left home. It only returns to me now when one of those breaths of boyhood drifts back like some half-forgotten face.

I grew up on the east coast of Scotland, where the smell of the North Sea permeates everything. When it wasn’t the sea it was the sea haar, rolling in off the water and through the cobbled streets and wynds, or the sharp tang of the catch being landed in the harbour. Herring rolled in oatmeal and fried; mackerel fished and gutted on the cliff’s verge, eaten straight; the occasional luck of a lobster boiled and laid out in butter.

Everything we are as adults is formed in our first ten years, and mine were spent haunting the shore, or the streets, of Aberdeen: turning over scallop shells or the bodies of birds, or testing the washed-up crabs and jellyfish for movement: some kind of peril. I would walk to school past the abattoir with its ferrous whiff of spilt blood, the dull thuck of cleaver into flesh, the great headless bodies turning on their hooks; past the barber’s oils, astringents and lotions, his whetted razors; past the joinery with that lovely sweet scent of wood-shavings and—best of all—past Mitchell and Muill’s, the baker, their steamed-up window stacked full of freshly baked rowies and hot mutton pies.

Autumn air was leaf-mould and woodsmoke, truffling for spent fireworks and their mysterious, bright, damp canisters reeking of gunpowder; spring was turned earth and hawthorn; summer, the coconut flowers of the gorse, and its seed-pods detonating, the urinous jasmine, a newly tarred road. All year, the doors of the bars swinging open to a dense, secret sweat of beer and cigarettes, wet tweed and whisky. And all year, every year of my childhood, and in the later years of shape-changing into something else entirely: always there—overlaying the intimate comforts of an oiled penknife blade, the inside of my leather watch-strap, or the new fumes of sex and blood—was the rain, and the smell of the rain which is no smell at all but only a washing-away, a cleanness, and yet another chance to start again.

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

Robin Robertson was the first poet to win the Forward prize in all three categories. His latest collection is "Hill of Doors", published in February

Picture AKG