Friday, 7 August 2009

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

Good Morning!
Having rediscovered my long-lost love of coffee in recent months, I’ve laid on a selection for you: cappuccino, latte, americano, filter, espresso (with or without a shot of your choice, depending on your time zone), macchiato, ristretto, and mocha. (For the luddites, Nescafe is available in a brown waxed-paper cup from under the counter.) Of course, tea (Twinings) is also available!

Now, raise your cup, mug, or shot glass to your nose and sniff. Can you smell that? Have a sip? Can you taste it? Lovely, isn’t it?

I’m not just meaning the coffee, I am also talking about being able to smell and being able to taste - two senses we take for granted, and two which we’re often told are rarely mentioned in writing, even though smell is said to be the most evocative of senses.

My (great) Uncle Harold was gassed in the Great War and had no sense of anything in his mouth, throat or nose. The family story (no doubt well-embellished by my father) detailed the necessity of Auntie May having to turn him upside-down and give him a shake whenever he got something stuck, or else he would choke.

As a child this struck me as a wildly amusing and, given the diminutive proportions of both Harold and May, plausible story. I never once considered how life must have been for Harold.

Well, I discovered for myself earlier this year when my taste and smell, already dulled by two and a half months flu and recovery from flu (of the human variety) and by a month-long chest-infection, were completely wiped out by sinusitis. It left me unable to distinguish that coffee you are holding from a mug of hot muddy water.

For a further month, I tested myself each day on samples of increasing pungency (including Olbas Oil) in the hope of discerning some hint of recovery, but could not detect any of them (although being unable to smell the toddler’s nappy was a bonus - at least for me). Worst of all, my supply of comfort chocolate could have been tofu. My life became grey and joyless. There was no pleasure in mealtimes or that well-earned cup of tea each mid-afternoon, or beer, or Scotch, or anything else. I lost weight because I couldn’t be bothered to eat. There was no point.

We can all imagine how we would feel without our sight (we can close our eyes), or hearing (block our ears), or even perhaps our sense of touch (when our hands and feet go to sleep), but have you ever stopped to think how life would be without taste or smell, for longer than just the duration of a cold? Harold was twenty when he was gassed, and he lived to be eighty five; that’s sixty-five years of being unable to wake up and smell the coffee. Awful.

So why don’t we write about it?


Karen said...

That's really interesting Leigh, and something I remember thinking about a lot when my grandad lost his sense of smell ( and presumably taste? I never even asked) later on in his life. My gran was always frightened he would leave the gas cooker on (he used to boil the kettle on there) and not realise, and was constantly checking. Like you say, it's bad enough having a bad cold and not being able to smell or taste food.

It's something I'll bear in mind in my wriitng in future.

So glad you're able to smell the ocffee again :o)

Lori x said...

Great post. My husbands uncle has no sense of smell and I always think it must be pretty horrid, especially with regards to food as aroma plays a big part in taste.
I think the sense of smell is used more than taste, especially when it comes to 'smelling' the hero, you know aftershave etc and maybe the taste of alcohol on lips at the kiss bbut perhaps not used more widely.
Really intresting and erm food for thought!!

Lori x said...

that's interesting by the way not intresting!

Annieye said...

Great post, Leigh.

Unfortunately I've gone off coffee since Caerleon (the coffee was awful), so i'll have a nice cup of tea thank you.

It must have been awful not to be able to taste or smell anything. Your poor Uncle Harold!

Leatherdykeuk said...

Good point. I do neglect these senses.

liz fenwick said...

Fantastic post and something that's been on my mind while I've been editing and looking closely at my descriptions. I rely so heavily on visuals but I have been taking walks and saying to myself - what do I smell? What does one in the morning in Cornish lane smell like. What do you smell at dawn....

You are right that it is so powerful. I will go back to editing with renewed senses :-)

Kate said...

Very interesting, Leigh - how awful to lose your sense of smell and taste like that for so long. Even just having a cold and losing it for a couple of days is grim. I hope it's fully restored now!

I think I probably underuse the sense of smell - and like Liz, I am now inspired to add in lots of smell and taste into the WIP, so thank you!

Calistro said...

Interesting post Leigh. My gran lost her sense of smell late in life too and my mum had to go through her fridge a couple of times a week to throw away things that were off to stop gran poisoning herself. I know she ended up with lumpy tea a couple of times when, unable to smell that the milk was off, she poured sour milk into her afternoon cuppa.

I'm sure I read on someone's blog - possibly an RNA member - that they wrote a novel from the point of view of a blind man living on the isle of skye. Rather than rely on visual descriptions she had to conjour up an image of the island through sounds, smells, touch etc. I think that's a really brave thing to do - not sure I could cope with writing 'sightless' for a whole novel!

Graeme K Talboys said...

One of the problems with this is that descriptive vocabulary is hugely biased toward visual description. I always try to engage all the senses (sounds and aromas can be especially evocative), but it is not easy to avoid becoming repetetive.

Lane said...

Interesting post and very true. I'm guilty too of neglecting these senses.

Glad you're on the mend and can smell the coffee again. It's one of the best aromas in the world.

Btw - Liz, thanks for the exercises on your last Coffee Morning posts. Very helpful.

Cathy said...

Good post Leigh. I must admit that I do neglect the senses of smell and taste in my writing, so this is a timely reminder.

Sorry you've been so poorly.

Anonymous said...

Roasting coffee is one of my favourite smells. Just the thought of it makes me want to go and put the kettle on. I can't imagine life without that sense, nor taste for that matter. I'm glad yours are back again, Leigh.

The writing guideline says to use five senses but, to be honest, I'm lucky if I manage two out of the five. I think Graeme is right: it's much more difficult to write descriptive pieces using smell and taste. I even find it hard to bring in touch.

Rowan Coleman said...

Well of course the obvious example is Proust and those cakes. They set off a whole six book long epic, and anyone whose read all of them winds a prize from me. Funnily enough I have just written a scent based scene into my new book - still working on those edits hoping to get them in before I have to get the baby out - the main character is somewhat trapped by circumstance, a sort of happy prisoner, but the scent of a summer afternoon - hot tarmac and trimmed privet hedges makes her think of the freedom she used to enjoy. I agree scent and taste is under used in writing, I always think of a Hemmingway short story where he describes a lunch of poppy seed bread and goats cheese he takes on a fishing trip. Not in great detail - he wasn't one for flowery writing, was ernest, but so evocatively then when I read it (aged 13) I wanted to eat it and now when every I do eat bread and cheese - I think of that story.

Debs said...

Coffee for me, thanks. I enjoyed that post, but feel so sorry for your poor uncle.

I'm guilty of not incorporating enough about the five senses into my writing, and know I need to work on them with my edits.

HelenMHunt said...

I tend to write about food and drink quite a lot. (Yes, I know that says a lot about me.) So, I find I do use smell and taste a fair bit because of that. Touch is probably the sense I use least. Great post, and this is definitely something I'll bear in mind as I start to do the novel edits.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

I had penumonia when I was 11, and it skewed my sense of smell so that I had a permanent stink in my nose. Simply breathing in would force it into my awareness, and obviously I couldn't avoid breathing, so I was stuck with it, 24 hours a day. It was indescribable - unlike any smell I've ever smelt - but truly horrible, and lasted two weeks. I was very glad when it went away!

Anyway... I do try and put taste and smell into my novels, but it's true that the other senses have preference. Isn't that weird? I have no idea why, but I guess it's because they're more subtle, and when we experience / remember the world, we do think mainly in terms of sight. Sight is also the most devastating sense to lose.

Have you read Perfume, by Patrick Susskind, though? Now there's a book that focuses on smell, to great effect. And I bet when I read through the comments here I'll find I'm not the first to mention it...