It Smells Like Fish ... (posted 7th September 2007)

Alan Bennett once wrote a play Forty Years On, a span of life long enough for most of us to switch from looking forward to looking back. Well, at least looking back was what the class of '67 from Stirling University was being invited to do at a special reunion for us laid on by the university as part of the 40th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the university. The 167 (sic) of us that formed the class of '67 were the first ever students in Scotland's first new university for 300 years, and a substantial number of us made the trip to the university last weekend for the reunion.

The high point was surely an eminent founder member of the senior staff who recounted the unorthodox means by which he secured his appointment, a story that perhaps should best remain private between that distinguished academic and the class of 67.

But while there were sights and some sounds that stimulated memories, what did it for me were the smells. At least the memory of one smell in particular.

When I was a student at Stirling, I was sent food parcels from home. Actually food boxes. Well, fish boxes. While West Coast students might traditionally have come down from the hills with sacks of oats on their backs, coming from Fraserburgh there was only one thing I could be sent.


And not just one or two at a time. My father was cinema manager in Fraserburgh (a town whose sole reason for existence was fish) and where I grew up in a sort of dour Doric version of Cinema Paradiso, sitting in the projection room watching fascinated as Jock Craighead the one-armed projectionist changed reels with uncanny skill, before coming home to watch my one-armed grandfather Archie Marshall (run over by milk float when he was a child) singlehandedly (literally as well as metaphorically) reading and creasing his broadsheet newspaper with astonishing precision. I must have been in my Twenties before the thought struck me. Where have all the unidexters gone? (which in a peculiar way, reminded me powerfully of my first ever university tutorial at Stirling in September 1967, it was in Psychology, and the topic was "What is Normal?", when for someone from Fraserburgh then, Normal meant you fished or you didn't, and you had one arm or, perhaps, two - it must have been hard for a tutor to disengage their student from the epistomological and methodological constraints of cultural relativism when the student's cognitive and social frames of reference revolved entirely around fish).

My father was enterprising, creative, won the network's Showman of the Year many times, and was very good at bartering complimentary tickets for the cinema, but in Fraserburgh in the Sixties there was only really one other commodity that was up for barter. Fish. Lots of fish

I would get a wooden half box of kippers sent down by Alexander's bus to Stirling bus station, but even a half box held 25 kippers and it took a great deal of planning and organization to arrange the consumption of 25 kippers before sell-by date, in days before freezers. I would try my best on my own, but it did usually involve the help of friends and occasional relations. If the fishing had been particularly good, I might find I had had a whole box of 50 sent down and this could be a logistical and digestive nightmare.

I was usually pretty good at picking up the kippers, but if I was a bit slow, the folks at Alexander's bus station were always very quick to phone me, and once when I had been out of contact for a few hours I found that there had been a series of phone calls, the frequency and the shrillness of the calls increasing as the day wore on.

I was at Stirling for 7 years, staying on to do my PhD, and the building of the Gannochy Pavilion (and bar) half way through my time there proved a blessing. All I had to do now when fish box arrived was to take it down the Gannochy, hand it over the bar where there was a frying pan waiting, and in return myself and friends would enjoy a feast of kippers and beer .... (if you have not tried it, don't knock it).

Which brings me to smell. There were lockers in the Pathfoot Crush Hall in those days, but I think most of us had forgotten what they were for, in those days just about everybody knew everybody else, at least by sight, and if you left things on coffee room tables you could expect to see them when you came back, so I did not use my locker much. Then one day I was sitting in J-corridor lounge when someone came in and said that there was a very bad smell in the Crush Hall. it had been there for some days. And it was getting worse.

I had forgotten all about it. It had arrived some indeterminate time beforehand, I had put it there (intendedly temporarily), and when I opened the locker I quickly closed it again. It was a half box which I first thought was not so bad. But the next problem was disposal. Even a half box could not be fed into a letter box style bin, even the fliptops were too narrow and small to accommodate it. And wheelie bins had not got to Stirling at this point. But the problem had got worse, I feared there had been knock-on effects on neighbouring lockers, and I certainly did not feel my academic or social position at Stirling was secure or safe enough to be associated with this source of stench and putrefaction. I could not leave it.

So I buried it.

I have no memories of being influenced by Jerome K. Jerome, in fact in my defence there was little else I could do. I could not bin it, leave it in the open ("Macraes Kippers Fraserburgh" on the box would have immediately identified me), take it to the kitchen or janitorial staff, and I certainly could not take it home with me. Burial was the only option left.

My memory is that I buried it under the Barbara Hepworth statue in the entrance to the Pathfoot building, but I may be confused by the fact that the statue has always reminded me of the gutted herrings that I had spent working holidays disposing of in various fish factories in Fraserburgh. Wherever it was (is?), I am reasonably sure I kept it safe from small children and water supplies.

And these were the memories that assailed me last weekend as we walked past where the lockers had been in the Pathfoot Crush Hall and up into the Lecture Theatre. As we did so, remarks were made that it smelt just the same. And it did. It had of course been freshly painted in 1967, and it turned out it had been freshly painted just the previous week, which is why it smelled the same. So much for continuity of memories, let alone smells.

But as we lingered at the entrance to the Pathfoot Lecture Theatre, just by where my locker had been, a distinguished and mature lady who I did not recognise, too mature and dignified to have been in the class of 1967, walked down the steps towards the Crush Hall, (and I swear this is true, there were witnesses) sniffed the air and said with an air of finality;

"I think it smells of fish"