They say that smell is the most evocative of all the senses. I have this confirmed to me every time I set foot inside King’s Paper Shop in Main Street, Clifden. Once inside, and as I begin to inhale the heady aroma of newsprint, without fail my life rewinds instantly to family holidays in North Wales when I was five or six years old.
Our family vacations usually came around just once a year in summer, and were invariably spent at the seaside somewhere in Wales. While the place might have varied from year to year – and sometimes not - there was always at least one annual constant. Every such location had a beach shop. This was the one place I loved to linger, rummaging amongst all the (I realise now) tawdry holiday ephemera of buckets, spades, brightly-coloured plastic windmills, postcards and souvenirs. Forget the sweets, for me it was the touristy knickknacks that held me enthralled.
Spending in these shops the small change that my pocket money yielded was the highlight of my time away from home. In each of these beach shops the atmosphere was redolent with promise. It did not matter that I came away with a cheaply produced, rubber band-driven aeroplane made of flimsy balsawood that only lasted a couple of days. To me it was the ultimate prize of the bargain-hunter. A canvas kite with garden canes (requiring a not-included ‘tail’ to be made from string and used newspaper) was the reward for the endless searching to be done in these emporia of wonders.
My father, who usually inherited the job, didn’t mind taking me to the beach shop at least once daily. He would browse all the newspapers, before invariably buying the same title each day. This allowed me all the time I needed to seek out that day’s adventure amongst the shop’s treasures.
All the while I was searching, I was subconsciously breathing in that same pungent smell, the aroma of newsprint which filled every corner of the shop – and which is today present in equal intensity in King’s Paper Shop, Clifden.
Just as the paper shop confirms regularly to me the evocative power of the sense of smell, I was similarly ambushed by another unexpected memory just the other day. It sprang up, unbidden, from I-don’t-know-where within the depths of my cerebral hard drive.
I had been packing some customers’ fused glass purchases in readiness for shipping by FedEx. In doing so, I needed to open a new, hot-air-balloon-sized, bag of polystyrene protective packaging ‘peanuts’ to add to the package.
As I opened the vast bag of chippings, the shop walls abruptly disappeared, I shrank by half in height (and also girth…) and I was seven years old again - standing in my primary school’s playground! The sun was hot and blinding, the air fragrant, and I was surrounded by cacophony.
The aroma from within the bag of peanuts had filled my lungs – and the heady smell of the polystyrene inside it had instantly transported me to a former time, over six decades ago. Gone was the small upstairs storeroom in our shop in Clifden, Co. Galway, Ireland, supplanted by the sweet-smelling open air of the tiny English village in Warwickshire where I was brought up and started school.
The head of our three-teacher school, a very precise and gentrified, compact lady of way-past-retirement age insisted that we were taught (of all things) English country dancing. On later reflection, I suppose she had been born into a pre-war world of idyllic rural Englishness. A version of this no doubt inhabited her imagination having been formed from much consumption of Miss Marple and other vintage Agatha Christie.
To be precise, our head teacher’s metier was not just to be found in simple English country dancing. Oh no. Rather, her appetite for contemporary nostalgia could only be adequately satisfied by her captive pupils being coerced into… maypole dancing. I ask you, maypole dancing! Even in that long-gone era of innocence before ‘not cool’ was even invented - you can only imagine the degree of embarrassment experienced by a seven-year-old boy.
For anyone unfamiliar with the practice of maypole dancing, this comprised, (at least in our instance) of some or ten or twelve children of varying heights – the significance of which will become relevant soon - deployed in a circle around a tall white-painted pole. Attached to the top of the pole was a similar number of multicoloured ribbons the loose ends of which, upon the relevant command, were to be grasped by the children forming the circle.
Having done so, the children would be instructed to retreat to such a distance from the pole, still in their circle, so that the ribbons were brought up taut, creating a sort of cone shape around the pole. Each child would then turn ninety degrees left or right, so that pairs faced one another, ribbons held aloft in hands nearest the pole.
Thus organised, we were commanded to stand perfectly erect, in pairs facing each other, ribbons grasped firmly in left or right hand, ready for the off. As some strident accordion music struck up, our head teacher would begin to clap her hands, shout a loud, “Aaand…one, and two, and three, and…” and that was our cue to start skipping daintily around the circle in opposite directions, holding our ribbon, while carefully weaving in and out of those we encountered opposite. At least that was the theory.
When it worked (which it occasionally did) it was actually a thing of beauty. The result was that the ribbons wove pretty, symmetrical patterns – as if it were a multicoloured sleeve - down from the top of the maypole. As the ribbons were woven by in-and-out motions of the pairs of dancers moving around the circle in opposite directions, a pattern was made by the dancers weaving to the left or right of each person they encountered travelling in the opposite direction. Different patterns were made possible by the dancers weaving in and out of every second or third person, and so on.
Often though, the reality was that - remembering these were children of ages five and upwards each with differing heights (not to mention degrees of coordination and motor skills) - one or more individuals would forget where they were in the sequence and all hell would break loose.
Tangled ribbons, colliding bodies, scuffs and scrapes from the playground’s rough tarmac yielding yelps and scowls, would prompt an almighty roar from the head teacher. “SSSTOP!” she would bellow, in a weirdly stentorian voice that not only seemed to come from someone other than this petite, mild-mannered lady, but which also utterly destroyed her intended pretence of idyllic 1950s English rural life. The accordion music would continue, incongruously, for a while until, with a “rrrrip” it would be strangled by an unseen hand that wielded the arm of the record player. From the very start of proceedings I became an early, regular cause of these calamities.
So often was I the root cause of dancing-related pupil injury that I quickly earned early retirement. One day the head teacher abandoned her façade of ladylike gentility as I was yanked unceremoniously aside and told to stand still and be quiet over there in the corner, while the others skipped and bobbed and weaved to her command.
As a result, I believed that I had escaped death by a thousand cuts of embarrassment. I was even more delighted to realise that I was actually being put ‘in charge’ of something – the record player! I revelled in the responsibility and would become an excellent deejay, I thought (although on reflection, I’m not sure the term had been coined then, and in my imaginary new role I may have indulgently thought of myself as something of a ‘compere’ or similar.) I would be in command of the music. I would get to start and stop the mayhem at will.
What I failed to appreciate, though, was the fact that this record player was, in fact, clockwork-driven and that my arms would begin to feel as though they would fall off with all the winding of a little chrome-plated handle.
You see, the spring on this elderly wind-up gramophone’s motor (to give it its proper name) was ailing, and the winding-up process had to be almost continuous to keep the music playing at anything approaching constant speed. Thus, if my attention wandered to matters more important – say, what was for tea that day – I would receive a remonstrative yell from the harridan that had taken our dear little head teacher-lady hostage and had replaced her. This usually went something like, “For god’s sake, Benjamin…!!!”, hard on the heels of which I would occasionally feel a further encouragement to concentration in the form of a clip around one or other ear. In this way I realised that elation at my apparent early retirement was a bit premature.
Where the evocative power of the sense of smell had ambushed me that day in the shop, packaging some of the shop’s outgoing goods, was in the fact that this old wind-up gramophone had about it the exact same smell that was contained within the balloon-sized bag of polystyrene peanuts!
The player was by His Master’s Voice - a so-called portable model, looking a little like a small, black suitcase. It had a carrying handle along one side and, when unclipped, a lid opened to reveal the turntable and a chrome-plated, tubular playing arm. A sharp, disposable steel needle could be inserted into a hole at the base of a disc on the end of the playing arm, which was retained by a knurled knob, tightened by hand. When being packed away after use, the playing arm folded back and down into a void, from which the sound of the recording emanated when the turntable went round and the needle was placed on the shellac record.
The smell of those polystyrene peanuts had had precisely the same power to make my life story rewind to childhood that King’s Paper Shop has. There was no hesitation about assigning the memory’s timeline nor defining the scenario from whence it emanated. I was momentarily catapulted back into the primary school playground and amongst my head teacher’s delusions of what constituted an idyllic English rural upbringing.
Of course, what my head teacher thought she was engendering was severely at odds with what my distinct, childish memories had to say about it. But I guess that’s more a commentary about the differences in perception between generations, which are often worlds apart, aren’t they?