The Smell of Rain (Petrichor and a Runner’s Memory)

Rain seeps down into the concrete to release its complex scent.

  The air’s heavy with a glitter of damp scents. Petrichor: the smell of rain rises from the ground. The concrete seems impermeable.  The tarmac, the grey and pink flagstones, the pebbles, even, have all been brought to life by something in the air.  Their smell is swirling and diving, like the sun-bright scent of flowers competing for the attention of bees.  But this is wrong.  Rain doesn’t smell; it’s something else.  Petra: of stone; Ichor, the golden fluid that runs in the veins of the gods and immortals. Is it the blood of stones that we can smell? Life is to be found in the strangest of places. 

   Certain runs are imbued with melancholy.  For twenty years I have walked, run, and cycled this track of seafront between western Hove and Brighton. The place bursts with innumerable memories of football, skateboarding, sex, sun, high-winds and storms.  This stretch would be so quiet some mornings, years ago, that I would sit up on my bike to catch as much of the chasing wind as I could.  I would take my rucksack from my back, still pedalling hard, rummage inside it and take out that morning’s post, open and read it as I cycled none-handed.  But it’s years since I’ve been here. And like I was on those hundreds of trips in and out of town, I am here again, alone. This time I’m folding a quick run into a crease of time between seeing two friends.  I have got no shoes with me, but it doesn’t matter, I can go barefoot. The sky is grey, the sun on the horizon is the memory of a gold coin, a grubby smudge of yellow light dipping into the sea.  And the overwhelmingly dominant memory is of being happy while I lived here, before it all went wrong. A run through this landscape is like running on pebbles. Tender layers of memory give way beneath the weight of each footstep.
   Years ago, twenty maybe, as an eager young reader I came across Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.  It was about 1992 and I hated my dismal job so much that even if I was going to be 10 minutes early for work, I would pull into a lay-by and read a bit more Brideshead. I was glad of the experience at the time.  Pleased that I had got it under my belt, (where it joined the five other books I had read in my life) but the effect was oddly disengaging.  I assumed I had missed something in it.  And now I know what it was.   
   Take for example this scene.  It is the one where Charles is finally ejected from Brideshead by Lady Marchmain, so disgusted is she that Charles has helped her alcoholic son find some drink, she asks him to leave this besmirched Garden of Eden. At the time, he is unaware that he is doing so for the last time. He remarks,
MY theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life – for we possess nothing certainly except the past – were always with me. Like the pigeons of St Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl. Thus it was that morning of war-time.
For nearly ten dead years after that evening […] I was borne along a road outwardly full of change and incident, but never during that time […] did I come alive as I had been during the time of my friendship with Sebastian. I took it to be youth, not life, that I was losing. […] I had come to the surface, into the light of common day and the fresh sea-air, after long captivity in  the sunless coral palaces and waving forests of the ocean bed.’
   I was too young to make sense of this, the palimpsest of my memory was not a darkened one. This is how De Quincey saw it in his brilliant essay.  Memory is a palimpsest, a text scrubbed or scraped from the leathery surface but never absolutely removed. 
A palimpsest

Yes, reader, countless are the mysterious hand-writings of grief or joy which have inscribed themselves successively upon the palimpsest of your brain; and, like the annual leaves of aboriginal forests, or the undissolving snows on the Himalaya, or light falling upon light, the endless strata have covered up each other in forgetfulness.

   It was a rich metaphor. One of the handful of texts around this period that began to formulate the idea of the unconscious (before Freud went on to name a century later).  The palimpsest model of memory suggests that the mind is a stranger to itself, and also that nothing is ever really forgotten.  (The idea of one’s life flashing before one’s eyes at the moment of death is also introduced here).  But it works as a metaphor for other things, too.  De Quincey’s own writings weave together reportage, biography, autobiography, essay, philosophy, journalism, memoir, (he was even an aficionado of murder) all thick with classical allusion and contemporary literary reference. The palimpsest is what his writing is. It’s a metaphor for literature, too. Think of T.S. Eliot’s 1919 essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, it is De Quincey’s idea from a century before given an Eliotesque twist.  The poet must combine their unique creative talent with the literary tradition that came before it in order to achieve greatness.  ‘The Wasteland’ is a polyphonic palimpsest in which the tradition can neither be fully erased, nor ignored on the page.  It is resolutely ‘there’, speaking in tongues.  The past never really goes away.  
   Flying at the circumference of my vision are plumes of sun-blackened seaweed.  High in the air, it is the most ragged and ‘blast-beruffled’ crow I have ever seen.  It tries to climb, but the wind is too strong and it gives up. I never successfully ‘see’ it.  Its feathers too dark; its movement too chaotic in the high wind.  I’m reminded of a bit of Daniel C. Dennett that I also read (at the same time as Brideshead) many years ago.  Its the only bit of the book that I persistently remember, ‘If the resolution of our vision were as poor as the resolution of our olfaction, when a bird flew overhead the sky would go all birdish for us for a while.’ (Consciousness Explained). In memory, just like olfaction, the sky ‘goes all birdish for us for a while’ and we thirst for particular sense impressions to jog our memory into being.  Perhaps this is why olfaction is so kinaesthetically linked with memory.  Our sense of smell is undeniably poor, especially directional acuity, but particularity reaches fingerprint levels of specificity.  We can recognise with tremendous accuracy.  Think of what we can achieve by combining the twenty-six letters of the alphabet in variable combinations. Smell works a little like this.  Odour molecules, as they are bound, combine to create a sense impression, and we have about 350 active olfactory receptor genes. Each of these genes produces a receptor protein that binds odour molecules. That’s an olfactory alphabet of 350 letters, and the words can be anything between 1 to 350 letters long.  The combinational possibilities are in the billions.  So Dennett is right, the sky does ‘go all birdish’ when we use our sense of smell, but we would be able to tell exactly what bird it is, and easily distinguish from another of the same species and genus.  We would know it’s there, but we would not be able to point to it.

 Built for purpose, a soaring herring gull sits comfortably on the breeze like it has been pinned in place.  In the distance, I can see the tiniest cloud of starlings cloud-dancing around the charred remains of the West Pier.  The ground is wet and cold beneath my feet.  In twenty minutes, they may go numb.  Everything I see is so distinctly Brighton in a way that only someone that does not live there can notice.  There is a woman with tangerine hair.  But not the kind that you’d put in the fruit bowl, more like one that has rolled under a market stall, and then kicked about on the ground for a couple of days.  She’s wearing a verdant green t-shirt, purple trousers, and Birkenstocks. If she wasn’t seventy, she would look like Scooby-Doo‘s Shaggy. Bounding about are the dogs who are all happy and well behaved; there are even different breeds (all three factors are not so common in the London Borough of Lewisham).  And all of it is still here: playing football with David on our way into town to celebrate our degree results, walking in to watch a £2 mid-afternoon film when I was unemployed in 1990, cycling past a man who pulled down his pants and with a hopeful expression on his face waved his cock at me, chasing after my young  nephew who had in the freezing cold stripped and bolted because ‘it’s the seaside!’, sitting in the moonlight listening to This Mortal Coil after my father died, reading Middlemarch on the beach, walking my dog, watching the ’98 lunar eclipse. And all of it is somehow present in this smell of rain. 

   De Quincey thought memory was a palimpsest, I think it is the dried blood of a stone that thirsts for rain.  Oil, sodium, pollen, magnesium, bacteria, lichen, potassium, soot, skin, calcium, soil, dust, diesel, lead, wood, ash, mould, and sand.  They all sink and burrow into the magmatic caverns, atomic in size, made many millions of years ago in every inch of pebble and stone at our feet. Memory is petrichor, these arid scents, tucked tightly away, waiting for a breath of rain to release them into the air as a unique signature of place, never to be forgotten.  

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    I'm not a runner. I'm not much of a sportsman of any description unless you count a (very) occasional jaunt on my rather antiquated Raleigh Kalahari (or 'alah i', if the remaining decals are to be believed!). Nevertheless I always enjoy your blog and am often transported – albeit to a place where the runs are so much easier on my Raleigh alah i 🙂


  2. Lol! Thank you – I was more of a 'Grifter' man myself – I say that, but my mum would never let me have one.


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