It was sunny and warm and we were driving home, windows open, listening to Paco Ibanez singing Frederico Garcia Lorca. After the last song on that side of the tape, we heard the needle reach the middle of the vinyl, and then Neil Young started mid song—the previous layer of recording—”still I wished you changed your mind if I asked you one more time”, and when he came to the end of his couple of songs, we heard my own voice, recorded probably about thirty years ago, reading into the little recording machine that I then treasured, much more high pitched, and, I was told, completely unrecognizable.
Are there similar layers in our brain, palimpsests of information and knowledge partially erased but actually clumsily overlapped waiting to yield previously recorded stories and images ? I’d like to think so, and they come out in dreams or in the day, triggered by smells, or sounds. This morning, walking the hedges, an insect buzzed by me at high speed, I could smell the reassuring warm smell of cows kept inside, there was no sound of cars, and I was suddenly brought back to days in the countryside of my youth, for an instant I was actually physically back there. I sense that there are millions of little parcels that are just waiting for the right impetus to open and release their treasure. In the preface of All the days and the nights, William Maxwell writes of that stuff that he had been tempted to overlook but turned out to be what he would use “for his writing life”.

I had started to become an English Professor and changed my mind, and I had written a novel, as yet unpublished. I meant to go to sea, so that I would have something to write about. And because I was under the impression, gathered from the dust-jacket copy of various best-sellers, that it was something a writer did before he settled down and devoted his life to writing.  (…) And I had no idea that three-quarters of the material I would need for the rest of my writing life was already at my disposal. My father and mother. My brothers. The cast of larger-than-life-size characters—affectionate aunts, friends of the family, neighbours white and black—that I was presented with when I came into the world. The look of things. The weather. Men and women long at rest in the cemetery but vividly remembered. The Natural History of home : the suede glove on the front-hall table, the unfinished game of solitaire, the oriole’s nest suspended from the tip of the outermost branch of the elm tree, dandelions in the grass. All there, waiting for me to learn my trade and recognize instinctively what would make a story or sustain the complicated cross-weaving of longer fiction.

These are the sediments that have cured together into the concrete mass of us, holding us together.
Meanwhile I am drawing plants, making objects and cooking, writing and studying and plotting and breathing and crossing my fingers that my hard wood cuttings will take.


  1. The richness of the commonplace is riches indeed. The smell of the cows you mention–I believe I could fill most of wordpress with backstory on the smell of cows, Lex Skelly used to come to school smelling of cows and the kids would laugh and tease and I, every day of my life just as close to cows as Lex, lived in small hell with the fear that I too smelled of cows. And when my Uncle Preston preached in church I could smell him too. I was always on the front pew, so I could smell him. But Preston actually had more cats than cows and this drove my father mad because my father was a go-getter and he knew that one must have more cows than cats if he were to be rich. For 15 years my father was rich because of cows, but he had so many that their smell smelled up his store and so some folk refused to come to our dairy to buy milk so in the end cow smell made my rich father way less rich.
    really like your post

    • Thank you for that (the hell we build and thankfully survive!)
      I wonder if Lex Skelly went on to live in a city (the smell of tarmac, perfume, aftershave and fear) to work in an office (the smell of photocopy machines) or in a bank (the smell of sweat and money). I wonder what the animals think of our smells, what they read in those, if they too find themselves ostracised the day they have been hanging around the humans too much?
      There is a film where Marcello Mastroiani lives in a retirement home I think, living in fear that he will start to smell like an old man, so he steps out of his room, stands outside the door for a few minutes, and walks back in again to try and gauge the smell. Me ? I try not to smell like my goats when I go out into the human world, I wear my goat-suit (boiler-suit) but I do rest my cheek on their side when I am milking them (they are dry at the minute so I mostly smell like a biped these days).

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