How can it be 11th January already? I had a very relaxed Christmas and New Year, and recharged the batteries a bit, but apparently I’m still trying to wind myself back up again to normal levels of activity. I think I was really in need of a holiday, because — for most of the time — I slept like a baby and felt much better for getting all the sleep I needed. However, once or twice, I woke up in the very early hours of the morning and found it impossible to get back to sleep again.
I’m very lucky that I don’t often suffer from insomnia, but when it does strike, I have trouble calming my brain down and quietening my thoughts. In these moments I often deliberately work through ordered, systematic problems, because those are the kinds of things I find engaging enough to keep the chaotic, wilder worries at bay. Systems — of almost any kind — are calming for me. In the past, I have run through little programming puzzles in my head. More recently, I have added in thinking through the construction steps for making parts of garments, because they are nicely systematic, and involve visualising how you orientate and handle the pieces of the pattern, what stitch length and width to use and so on. Writing that down now makes it sound deeply weird (even to me), but I really do find thinking through the processes of making a jeans fly, or a Python script to parse my todo list and print a filtered and organised collection, relaxing. I’m a freak.
Anyway, on one particular occasion over Christmas, not even these soothing mental activities could lull me back into sleep, and in desperation, I started thinking about my favourite sounds and smells. They are not really an ordered list, because I would find it very hard to rank them, but here they are.
- Cats purring. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know how much affection I have for cats, so the sound of cats purring is a fairly obvious choice. There’s a lot of variation in cat purrs. Bianca has a crackly purr a bit like a Geiger counter, while Bella’s purr is much deeper and rumbling. In fact, while I was lying awake and constructing this list, she came to lie on my shoulder, pressing her flank against my head and purring like a maniac. I had earplugs in (we live on a very noisy street, and I find it impossible to sleep without them), but the purr was conducted through my jawbone so that I heard the purr in my bones.
- The sea. Fond though I am of Birmingham, there are many times when I wish we lived by the sea. There are few sounds more calming than the rhythmic breath of the sea, and the waves gently raking the shingle as they retreat.
- The song of the blackbird. When people think of beautiful birdsong in Britain, they usually think of the nightingale. I haven’t been lucky enough to hear one in person, but I have heard recordings1, and their song is indeed rich and beautiful. But for some reason, I prefer the song of the blackbird. I think I like the deeper tone, the fact that they often sing on their own when everything else is still and quiet, and the way that each phrase is subtly different from the previous one. I love the pauses they leave between phrases because it makes you hold your breath waiting to hear what will come next. Thinking about it now, I think I love Bach’s Cello Suites, because they remind me of blackbird song.
- Curlew calls. Another bird I’m afraid, but I their calls never fail to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It’s such a lonely, mournful call that seems to bubble up from the peat of moorland, but it’s incredibly beautiful.
- The sea. I know, the sea again. Strictly, it isn’t really the smell of the sea itself that I love but the smell of seaweed, preferably garnished with top notes of bracken and pine from nearby Scottish woodland. Whenever I experience it, I try to fill my nose with that smell and hang on to it somehow for as long as possible.
- A barn owl’s neck. A weird one, I know, but it really is the most incredible smell. I’ve written about it before, and about how impossible it is to describe. It’s such a subtle, earthy, sweet, powdery, evocative smell that you never forget once you’ve smelled it, a bit like petrichor.
- My Dad’s gardening jumpers. I don’t know if he’s still got them, but for many years, my dad wore two old green wool jumpers when he worked in the garden. They were full of holes but smelled incredibly good. It was a mixture of grass cuttings, wool, creosote, petrol from the lawn mower, bonfire smoke and Dad himself.
- Rose, jasmine and lavender. Those are all pretty heady floral scents, but I love them all. I know that some people find that jasmine can tip over into smelling like cat pee2, but I think that’s when the flowers are past their best. If you walk into a garden on a warm summer night, being enveloped by the scent of jasmine is the best thing ever. I also can’t walk past a rose without sticking my nose in it and inhaling deeply.
I think the best recording I’ve heard, which is incredibly moving, is one made by the BBC in Surrey in 1942, which accidentally captured the sound of bombers flying overhead to a raid in Germany. The way that the nightingale just carries on regardless, bubbling and trilling its liquid gold against the rumbling of the planes gives me a lump in my throat every time. The nightingale recordings were part of a regular series from the garden of the cellist Beatrice Harrison. The story goes that when the sound engineers heard the sound of the bombers, they stopped the broadcast, fearing that it would provide advance warning of the raid to the enemy, but they continued to record the sound. ↩︎
Despite my adoration of cats, I definitely don’t like the smell of cat pee. ↩︎