Some thoughts on ‘the smell of distance’ and a poem by Eleanor Farjeon

This week, I visited Falmouth for the first time. It’s a deep water port on the Cornish coast that was once home to the Packet Boats that carried mail to British colonies and the harbour of choice for sailing ships taking refuge from the Atlantic and collecting orders from their owners on where to go next.

The Packet Boats are long gone but ships are still built there, the harbour is still active and the town has that ‘connected to the wider world‘ character that comes from welcoming foreign traders and sailors for generations. It’s still a very English town, but spicier than its inland neighbours.

Being there reminded me of my childhood on Merseyside, back when the Wallasey docks were still filled with ships from all over the world and I’d walk for miles, checking the flags, counting funnels and watching the foreign sailors coming ashore: flamboyant men from Africa and Latin America and men from China who all wore Mao Tse-Tueng suits of identical design but in colours that varied from canary yellow through sky blue to hot pink. The air was always heavy with the taste of diesel and rust and stagnant salt water, occasionally overwhelmed by the sickly sweet fumes coming from the molasses plant.

While we were in Falmouth, my wife bought me a poetry book called ‘A Poem For Every Winter Day’ by Allie Esiri. The poem for that day was ‘Distance’ by Eleanor Farjeon. The first four lines hooked me because they captured the feeling that you get when you grow up in a port, of knowing that there is a whole world out there, too far away for you to touch, but which you can still taste in your mind.

Here are the first four lines of the poem:

And here’s the whole poem:

The Distance by Eleanor Farjeon

Over the sounding sea,
Off the wandering sea
I smelt the smell of distance
And longed for another existence.
Smell of pineapple, maize, and myrrh,
Parrot-feather and monkey-fur,

Brown spice,
Blue ice,
Fields of tobacco and tea and rice,

And soundless snows,
And snowy cotton,
Otto of rose
Incense in an ivory palace,
Jungle rivers rich and rotten,
Slumbering valleys,
Smouldering mountains,
Rank morasses
And frozen fountains,
Black molasses and purple wine,
Coral and pearl and tar and brine,
The smell of panther and polar-bear
And leopard-lair
And mermaid-hair
Came from the four-cornered distance,
And I longed for another existence.

I’ve felt the pull of that ‘four-cornered distance’ all my life but I’ve never seen it described so vividly.

Eleanor Farjeon (13 February 1881 – 5 June 1965) was an English author of children’s stories and plays, poetry, biography, history and satire. Several of her works had illustrations by Edward Ardizzone. Some of her correspondence has also been published. She won many literary awards including the Carnegie Medal and the first Hans Christian Anderson Award. The Eleanor Farjeon Award for children’s literature is presented annually in her memory by the Children’s Book Circle.. She was the sister of thriller writer Joseph Jefferson Farjeon who wrote ‘Mystery In White’.

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