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A life in smells

We recently sold my grandmother's house in Birmingham. My mum brought round some spoils to my new flat - knives and forks, rug runners, a tea-set I have fallen in love with. An iron. A few days ago I opened a packing bag of linen in search of a clean towel and was hit with the unmistakable and surprising scent of the house - a mix of airing cupboards and a certain washing powder and lots of other things that I cannot place and had never considered trying to. Sitting on camp beds giggling with two of my cousins; eating burnt buttered hot cross buns crammed into the kitchen; lying in front of the fire on an ancient fluffy white rug that someone else has inherited; dozing on the vast sofa watching high-stakes backgammon.

It's strange and almost shocking how fast and furiously smell transports. More than anything else - music, photo albums and objects - it is catching the faintest strain of a certain smell that takes me straight back to deeply specific moments in my near or distant past. 

The tang of grated ginger as I'm cooking a curry for friends becomes cutting shapes out of Swedish gingerbread dough with my mum, flour and used pans everywhere, Christmas carols blaring from Radio Four.

Sitting on an armchair in a working men's club in Manchester, with material that stinks of absorbed unfiltered cigarette smoke. I'm 7 or 8 in my Irish nanny's house, sitting on the flowery sofas with her son and husband and his ash tray, watching Thomas the Tank Engine and eating mashed potato. 

But when a middle-aged smoker sits next to me on the tube, that's a different memory. Thrown back to being age 9, sitting in my dad's tobacco-scented car with the incongruous red speed stripe down the side as he drives me across the city to Saturday morning music school, or drives me back at 1pm for spaghetti bolognese with shaky cheese from a Sainsbury's plastic tub. Or walking beside him to the shops to buy a hiking rucksack for D of E, or sitting side by side in the dentist's waiting room, or standing embarrassed next to him after a school play as he rants to my English teacher. (For years I fought back tears with this smell. Now it's deeply comforting.)

A roll-on Dove deodorant borrowed from a colleague. Standing in my poster-lined bedroom aged 14, wearing my favourite white acrylic short-sleeved shirt and getting ready to go and stand against the railings of Brixton Academy from 7pm to be as close as possible to whichever long-haired men in skin-tight trousers we're screaming lyrics back to this time.  

The smell of cheap aftershave on the bus. Some hard-edged dark blue bottle from Hollister or Abercrombie that takes me straight back to being 15, hanging out with boys for the first time in West London parks, laughing and flirting and feeling very inadequate. On my first date with my first heartbreak in Westfield. He's just bought me some yellow socks for my birthday.

A strange, unplaceable smell that I've found in conference rooms and Airbnbs - carpet cleaner? Sitting on the bed in my room in first year, looking out at the light fading over the Hogwarts towers of New College chapel and wondering why it's 5pm and I'm still in my pyjamas. 

A tiny bottle of Yves Saint Laurent from the bottom of a drawer, part of a sample box my mum gave me for Christmas years ago. It's the perfume my cousin wears. I'm standing in the tiny white bathroom we shared in Paris in 2012, looking in the bulb-lined mirror and listening to the rain outside and thinking about the wet cycle across the city. Standing there in early-afternoon daylight, wondering how to get rid of somebody in the next room who has overstayed their welcome.

Using the surface cleaner at the end of the work day, I'm back in Bavaria looking after children and cleaning kitchen worktops three times a week. Using the wrong spray on the bathroom mirrors and starting again. Hoovering a square mile of wooden floorboards listening to Salt n Peppa's None Of Your Business. 

Opening an ancient Penguin mystery in a second-hand bookshop in Sheffield. Must and dust and crinkled pages and sitting in the archives beneath the Radcliffe Camera, reading a gruesome eyewitness account of an 18th century execution as procrastination from my Scandinavian Vikings notes spread out in front of me. 

Brushing past somebody in a gallery and getting a whiff of a certain brand of body spray that my girlfriend wore when we first started dating. Sitting next to her in the theatre, our bodies tense and barely touching. The smell of it lingering in my bedroom after she'd left , on cast-aside clothes and on my pillow. Going to Boots to find it when we weren't speaking and crying in the toiletries aisle. 

I've chosen the film photographs that match up as closely with these memories as I can, but none of them are perfect, and none of them transport me as far and as urgently as the smells. Which, as a photographer, is something to think about.