Scents

That smell of old book shop, the mingled scents of the pages from a thousand tales, read over coffees in cafes, or under blankets by torchlight, or in the smoking carriage of a night train from Prague to Krakov. The silence it shares with its library brethren, leaves the air free for ghosts summoned by fingertips sliding down book spines, teasing free the leached salts of the last hand to cup the cover. The woody scent of the shelves, geometric cells binding great train robbers with European explorers and naked chefs. The sense-smell of permanence, of the combined age of every writer and idea and imagining. The reflection of your purchase in the eyes of the owner, the musky caretaker of the inky memoirs of a million authors. The smell of the street as you exit the store is interlaced with the light spiciness of a pending adventure for the soul.

Sherry casked

The echo of the cries and squeals of those descents on bikes and skates and scooter, the freshly mown lawns, the caretaker’s oiled clippers and shears and mowers. The car-park is empty, but the bike racks hold the rubber scuffs of a million slow parkings and rapid departures. The sound of a basketball in the distance, the regular thonk-tap, thonk-tap, thonk-tap, the rubber chafes against the concrete then the hand, the scent of the gym evoked, the climbing ropes, the changing odours, the scent of challenge and gym clothes and pre-sweat anxiety and comparisons and whispers and evaluation. The staff room, closed now, wrapped about its dulled coffee grind and gumboot tea dregs, mingled with papers and evaluation. All this layered over that underlying odour of municipality, that hint of life in silo shared with the prison, the council office, the hospital administration. The caretaker walks from pavement to grass, his paintbrush filled with touch-up white and next term turpentine. He washes away the last years grades, the ghostly chalk of answers, right and wrong, the chemical odours soon to be replaced again by exercise books in leather bags, the corridors filled with crisp packets greetings and the bubbly talk of renewed friendships and recitals of holiday denouement.

The mysterious scents of a new forest, the wet dirt, damp bark and a hint of shoot and stem. The soil curled by roots, turned by moles and badgers, bearing the footprints of boar and deer, the scent of things having passed. Layers of frond and leaf and vine, the bouquet of life in the dark, light is fleeting, its fingers brush the browns and rubs a warmth into the scene, and the steam of the floor rises in the slowest of ascents, twisting sunward, lifting the funk of fossilised descendants to the nostrils of a thousand hidden faces, evoking ancestral memories of life before humanity. We carry the scent of ideas of superiority, us strangers to those who we once were. But as we dwell beneath branch and limb, we breath in the importance of where we stand, and the age of the trees, and if we linger a little longer still, we remember we live within this world, not upon it, and we feel a peace, and the reek of anxiety lessens, and we recall the greater idea of home, of being of a place, not just in it.

A darkening evening after a spring shower in a busy city, the old diesel lifted from the pavement and swirling its way gently to gutter, then in a flow towards rusted metal grills. The waft of pizza, bread, fried carbs, the moistened pulp of wrappings and boxes, the contents condensing. Engines run lightly outside of stores and stops and frontages, waiting for the slammed door, the engine wind up, the exhaust notes spilling. Passing down the streets away from the bus routes and the garden temperature shift contributes notes of daffodil and grass growth and blackbird scratchings, and an opening door lets slip a casserole and garlic bread, and the sky begins to clear and the moon lights up the cigarette smoke behind the pub garden wall, and it’s been seven years since you quit, but the toxicity of spilt beer and nicotine riding the conversational hum means it feels like only minutes.

The fire crackle revealed as you slide the door along the cafe wall, does that sound have its own smell, or is the pungency of the wood smoke independent of the snap of exploding embers? The grind of beans notifies the nose to the competition between burning pine and steaming roasted beans, then the cake cabinet lifts the eyes and adds its sweetness, lemony, chocolate dances across the countertop. The talk runs through it all, carrying the breaths of a dawning day, the hints of breakfast, muesli, muffins toothpaste, punctuated by occasional yawns.

The airport arrival, the passport flick through, assessing the stamps, a fan of captured moments of inspection and evaluation, the sweat of nervous waits has melded with the dark cover. The taxi pulls to the kerb, push the door open and emerge from the air freshener’s sticky sweetness into aviation fuel pungency. The sound of jet engines engages adrenaline, we step quickly past the chromed exhaust fumes to the suit cases. Departure queues, other people’s luggage smells occasionally of their last trip, more frequently of basement or loft, of its silent wait for its next journey, leaning gently against the table-tennis table, the rowing machine, the bags of blankets for the guests that rarely visit. The information boards dance and shift, the lists of destinations ranked by scent, from the pastries of Paris to the salted winds of Wellington.

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When I was young(er)

When I was young I thought life would be complete if I had a beard like Grizzly Adams, a car like the one in Smoky and the Bandit, and a girlfriend like Michele or Dale in my class. I always knew the girls at school were always better than the ones in the films, they were real. But I still held on to my signed photo of Wilma Deering from Buck Rogers. Just in case.

dino

When I was young I made a pop-up Valentine’s Day card for the most beautiful, funny and athletic girl in my class, but she never received it. I remember looking at the pink ink running down my hand as I stood in the rain, three doors down from her house, trying to summon the courage to ring her doorbell. I’ve still got the card, I think it’s important to remember how big those small moments can feel. And my Mum found it hidden in my wardrobe and stuck it to the photo-board at my 21st birthday party.

When I was a boy I understood that people died. I remembered the sight of my Grandfather’s chair when he was no longer around to sit in it, and laugh loudly, and hand me giant tins of oysters. He died in his sleep, and I presumed that was the way I would go, not riding my BMX off the skateboard bowl, or running down the train tunnels as the train entered the far end, or being put in a ‘sleeper hold’ until I passed out. Years later people tell me that I’ve grown to be a little like him, and that makes me swallow, and blush, and feel proud.

When I read the comics I found at garage sales, I thought that Sea Monkeys and X-Ray Specs and Joy Buzzers would be and work exactly as advertised. Some adults feel the same way about international trade agreements, capitalism and world heavyweight boxing matches.

When I was young I thought that selling the life-size picture of Boba Fett I drew (with 18 felt-tip pens) to Kelvin for a can of coke and a go on his bike, was a sure-sign of my artistic future. Then I took art with Ms Manthell. She inadvertently taught me that the power of art was no longer in the hand of the artist, and never to trust an art teacher that didn’t like Kate Bush.

When I was nine my main rival for smartest kid in class was Kieran Bleach. It didn’t matter that she was a girl, it did matter that she beat me in spelling tests. She went to a girls school when we turned eleven, and I missed my nemesis. And learnt the word nemesis. A year later a ‘Fijian prince’ joined my class. It didn’t matter that his skin was a different colour, or that he had an accent (ok, maybe the accent was a bit fun), and eventually it didn’t matter that he was a prince. It did matter that he was funny, and fast, and had the biggest smile. It’s the truly important things that matter when you’re a kid.

When my Dad told me he went to school with the Six Million Dollar Man, and beat him in running races on school sports day (pre Bionics, obviously), I kind-of believed him. I also believed in George Lucas. My Dad never let me down.

I believed with great certainty in my own form of god, and in reincarnation. I can’t pinpoint the moment that being reborn in another form no longer made sense, but god lost his/her/its hold as I was drawing Wonder Woman in art class. I’m still not sure about Wonder Woman.

When I was young I sometimes wondered if the whole world existed to contribute to the story of just one boy or girl – that child was the star, everyone else was just ‘extras’. I wondered if I was the star, or just another player. Then I wondered if I had enough coins for a k-bar. Philosophy is transient when you’re eight years old, sugar is forever.

When I was maybe eight or nine years old I had my first dream in which I realised I was in a dream, and as such I had the power to do ANYTHING I WANTED, without getting in trouble. So I splashed in lots and lots of muddy puddles, then woke up clean.

When I was at school, and girls were almost as much a mystery as now, I loved and feared the furtive communications network of note-passing in class. As I aged, email or texts had a little of this power, but you don’t have a chain of giggling friends passing your email to you, threatening to read it. And email doesn’t smell like a freshly torn piece of maths-book paper.

I read about other lands, other countries, but at times they seemed so impossible, so far away. I thought that there was a good chance that New Zealand was the extent of the world, and that perhaps when people boarded a plane “they” simply gassed them all, and the people dreamt they went to far off lands. “They” didn’t figure very much in my childhood. In those days all burglars wore masks, all cowboys wore hats, and all policemen had moustaches. Then one day a girl who had always teased me, upset me, and called me square-head… she kissed me. All bets were off.

When I was young, I valued the idea of valour, I wanted a code of honour, I loved the idea of chivalry. I believed that most adults had my best interests at heart, and that the ones that didn’t were cautionary figures; at worst cartoon villains – scary, weird, but not capable of true evil. I had no idea how fortunate I was that this belief lasted my entire childhood.

One of the most important and telling things about my younger years was that I believed I could be or achieve anything. There was no such thing as probabilities, possibilities or impossibilities. Any objective could be realised with a mix of imagination and time. Imagination was more powerful than adults, film-reviewers and physics. A childish idea of Time was the key though, it could negate all barriers, if I didn’t achieve something today that didn’t make it impossible or unlikely, it just meant I might have to wait until tomorrow, or until I was ‘old enough’, or until a blue moon. When I was young a week was like a year, unless next week was Christmas, in which it was forever.

I’m at a different stage of young now, I think (hope?) that youth is a spectrum rather than an on/off state. I’m still in the lower end, just up from the BMX loving, shy-around-girls section, and hope I always will be.

Capturing stories (and working for the greater good)

Around three months ago now I finished full-time work in order to have the time to focus on two endeavours. The first was my fiction writing, this had been tainted by working in a role that eschewed imagination, and moving to the country has given me wider horizons in which to let my imagination gallop and play. The second was my supporting role in a new company, a venture whose goals were more compatible with my morality and world views. A business which believed in the cultural value of stories.

Cards two

I’m a huge believer in the power of a good story. That’s both blessing and curse as a writer, as it inspires me to want to write great books, but it means that rather than simply telling a tale, want to weave ideas through the text which might inspire, transform, or at the very least inform, rather than structuring them like a film and hoping for a movie deal. I feel a need to honour all those story tellers that came before me, because I know how important their contribution was to my world.

When we are young, if we are fortunate, then we had a relative who would induct us into the world of guided imagination. They might have told us stories from their past, or stories from their imagination. They might have read us tales from thick books, compilations of fables curated by Aesop or the Grimm brother’s, maybe they ad-libbed a little as they read, or added in sound effects or frights, perhaps they changed voices for the talking bear, the frustrated witch, or General Woundwort. Those recited words can play a huge role in our development, helping us counter arachnophobia (Charlotte…), inspiring us to travel (every Irish, Norse and Navajo legend I ever heard), or simply inspiring us to learn to read ourselves, so that there was never ‘one last story’. Not while there was a functioning flashlight in the house.

As we get a little older many of us learn to read ourselves, and we begin to choose our own stories. I remember finding a copy of Peter Benchley’s ‘Jaws’ on the book shelves of a holiday house one wet summer. The thick book had the infamous movie poster on the cover, gaping shark jaws open below that late night swimmer. I’d anticipated sharks and drama, I hadn’t expected sexual explicitness. I took to reading it outside or at night, where my blushing resisted invocation or at least detection. And when we leave school in order to become the protagonist in our own tales, hopefully we continue to read. I have found solace, wisdom and inspiration in books my whole life, worlds to escape into, and things to bring back from them, into my own narrative. Including a little from Jaws.

The company I’m working with exists to assist with people with the preservation of stories. We work to create copies of items of enduring cultural value, and enable those copies to be shared with people separated by time or distance. We make detailed copies of cave paintings, maps, books, artworks and carvings. Similar endeavours around the world are mapping ancient civilisations from the sky, or using technology to help rebuild the walls of ancient temples, jigsaw puzzles with one tonne pieces. Efforts are being made to capture everything from baseball cards and comics to death warrants and viking longboats, as they’re all vessels for stories.

My daily tasks for the company vary, sometimes I’m driving to small coastal towns to capture fragile maps, more frequently I’m processing thousands of images, from fashion drawings to diary entries. But a two things I’ve encountered in the past week helped me understand the value in capturing so many aspects of culture, as I colour correct yet another photo. First I was reading through the ‘About us’ page on ‘WikiLeaks’ for information for an article, and amongst their principles was ‘the improvement of our common historical record’, and this idea sat with me. Then last night I was reading a few passages from a book called ‘Woman who run with the wolves’, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. She talks of the importance of information passed from generation, as myths and stories, and how so many of these have been altered by the dominant society, stripped or altered so suit the dominant religion, or sense of morality of the time. And in the process we lose important elements of the original story. And I realised, we can’t let the recording of history be the province of a select minority. That has led to one-sided tales, to distortion, to the eradication of cultural elements, and often to the elimination of the female perspective. Instead we need to capture as wide a gamut of society, of culture, as possible. The hauntings, the messiahs, the sasquatch, the unicorns, the trolls, the elves, the barbarians, the werewolves, they are so much of who we were, and who we might be.

So I’m proud of my two paths. I’m pleased to have continued to write every day, to try to improve my story-telling craft. And I’m proud to be working with Heritage Studios, with creative people, helping capture other people’s stories across the Pacific.

If anyone would like to support Heritage Studios in their story-saving mission, please look us up on Facebook, and like us if you like what we’re trying to do!

https://www.facebook.com/HeritageStudiosNZ

The potency of ideas

reclaimed_world_v_by_reganbarsdellWhen we talk with people, frequently the conversations are about people or things. But a friend pointed out to me that the most enjoyable and unforgettable conversations, the ones that keep us up until 3:00am with light in our eyes and a music in our voices, they tend to be about ideas. I love these freeform explorations of theories about life, about love, about the games people play and how sometimes we just want to stop playing. We chase down possibilities and implications for hours, and as the sounds of a new day penetrate the haze of weariness we slip off to bed with dry mouths and happy hearts. And occasionally the ideas echo in our dreams and become part of us.

Of course ideas are often humble, ephemeral, things. I might have an idea that tea smoked sweet-potato might work well with a pork and cider casserole. The world doesn’t shift. But at their most potent, ideas can change lives, families or even the direction of the world. The distribution of confidential files via WikiLeaks, the creation of Braille for the visually impaired, the recording of Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’, these things were not accidents, they were all the result of ideas. The idea that there should be ways for anonymous sources to distribute important information, the idea that the sense of touch might replace that of sight in reading, the idea that there was room for an aggressive shift in UK dance music. The fundamental power of ideas is in their ability to transform, to invoke or contribute to change. Sometimes that results in a new flavour of crisp, occasionally it spurs a significant shift in global politics.

As a writer, I’m far more likely to attract people to my novels if I can raise interesting ideas. A novel is four hundred blank pages in search of an engaging concept. I want a night spent with my books to leave the reader feeling invigorated, excited, occupied, just like I do after an engaging conversation with friends. So I spend time reading of wolf hunting in old Russia and imagining what might happen were this tradition brought back to the rejuvenation zone around Chernobyl. I’ve spent the last few days trying to track down a Rabbi with whom I can discuss Judaic ideas on how to start a modern cult. I’ve started outlining a story set inside the hope bubble that ballooned in the second half of 2008 as the world held its breath as votes were counted towards Barack Obama’s election to presidency. The more I work with ideas, the more I understand of their potential.

But it was quite recently that I realised the impact that my own adoption of ideas had on directing my path through life. From ‘I need to visit a new country every year’, to ‘outrageous behaviour is my best hope for engaging with others and combating shyness’, ideas have long been the sub-conscious authors of my destiny. And with this realisation I began to understand ways in which I could take a more active role in plotting my own story. I examined my ideas about myself and the world, and I dropped a couple of them, and took on a couple of others. So now I have a few guiding ideas, they’re a little like beacon fires lit on distant mountains, they’re reference points for when I’m feeling a little lost. If I’m not sure whether I should pack in my office job and move to the country, I look to those ideas for an answer. If I’m not sure about whether I should begin creating my own alcoholic bitters to sell at local weekend markets, again my ideas can offer enlightenment.

Of course this means the ideas I choose to adhere to become very important, as they’ll influence decisions on everything from relationships, to careers. I’ve become even more reluctant to take on someone else’s ideas. If I come up with a new idea myself then I have a chance of understanding of its genesis, but if I opt to take on someone else’s philosophy, then I owe it to myself to examine it carefully first. What are the costs and benefits, for myself and others? What evidence is there that it will lead to improvements for me, for my community, for the people I care about? I owe it to myself to analyse ideas before I choose to adhere to them. Thank goodness for those people who love long conversations over mulled wine or cider.

Nine years ago an Irish tour guide described to myself and a room full of backpackers his most recent journey. His description of the El Camino de Santiago, a 500 mile walk across the north of Spain with an ever-changing cast of characters, was enticing in itself. But it was the idea behind the walk that seeped into my sub-conscience, and eventually resurfaced a couple of years ago, after another set of long conversations. Last night as I wondered about the best way to deal with blisters, I listened to a Galician woman express one of her ideas about the Camino. She explained that many of the pilgrims started the journey with a pack heavy with the weight of their fears. They carried extra shirts against the fear of their own odour, medicine kits against the fear of illness and injury, and chemical repellents against the fear of insects. But quickly they come to understand the burden of this extra weight, and they begin to shed their baggage. And within a short time they travelled lightly, for distances which stretched beyond the end of the trek.

In three weeks time I won’t just be setting off on a long walk, I’ll also be embracing a new set of ideas.