BULGARI BLACK

 

 

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by Olivia

 

 

 

 

Back then, even with warning the first experience of Black was disarming. Hot asphalt, engine oil on roughened hands, leached pools of purplish petrol on pavement, acrid smoke hanging around a turning engine on a winter morning. I remember finding it interesting, arresting even, but not remotely wearable – it was too confrontational, too aggressive – too masculine, mostly.

 

As is the way with anything, or anyone possessing a striking quality you can neither quite place nor put down, it replayed itself to me over and over. The first perfume I wanted to extend beyond a simple yes/no – I wanted to understand it; it teased me into time with it. For quite a long time, I didn’t see more than an academic appeal to it (expressive olfactory idea, technically brilliant.) And then late one summer’s night, I was sitting out the last gasps of a party. I’d gone inside at some point, snuck upstairs to find someone or something, and along the way I’d found a bottle of Black. I popped a bit on my hand for old times, and headed back outside to sit under the stars and let the warm night and the wine pack me off to oblivion.

 

Not long after that, I must have brushed my hand up against my face and then – it just hit me, all of a sudden. This thing.. God, this thing is amazing – exactly what I’d been looking for. In that moment it all clicked into place as if some missing component suddenly sparked up. Maybe I needed time to come around to the scent itself, or perhaps it was a little step in self-awareness and I’d abruptly recognised some part of myself within it (I think a big part of developing your sense of smell, and exploring your taste in fragrance goes hand in hand with self discovery, actually. It’s an elongated, luxuriant process in feeling out facets of your character, getting to know yourself and crucially, being honest too. It is after all, about learning how to be comfortable within your own skin.)

 

Beneath that veneer of puncture repair kit, Black is a neo-classical fragrance. Dynamic but understated, edgy but poised. It’s undeniably urban but in that tarry translucency it harbours a wink to the heritage leathers like Bandit and Tabac Blond. Full of space and crepuscular spectra, it softens from its initial nip through layers of instrumental texture – bitter-powdery, sooty and soft with a tannic edge that hangs transparent in the air around the wearer in a gently flexing, hooping arch. A fluid evolution from overlaid crackling, reedy (record-like) qualities to a velveteen expanse of shade rising up like the slowly surfacing ripples of a depth charge. It evokes rain and the London sky at night, the blinking ostinato of city lights from a train. It’s the muffled pulse of baselines throbbing out from nightclub walls into chilly halogen backstreets and ‘driving fast on empty roads with nothing in mind except falling in love and not getting arrested.’ (Hunter S. Thompson)

 

While it has a distinctive edginess, even an avant-garde quality, it’s not an angular scent (in a way, it should feel lonelier than it does.) Instead it ultimately yields into something intimate and clandestine, a slightly salty, warm trail on the skin reminiscent of cigarettes, city air and night walks. Of unfamiliar and dimly lit hotel rooms, that charged frisson of part-time lovers and the lovely urgency of stolen hours together. A reminder that ambiguity is wedded to allure: Black is something that doesn’t purport to romance, but succeeds in it nonetheless. I love it.

 

 

 

 

 

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DAMAGE / REGRET

 

 

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I have spent the day reading ‘Damage’, Josephine Hart’s intense, almost harrowing, potboiler about a wealthy, middle class family whose lives are on the verge, at the point that I am at in the novel, of being completely destroyed when the patriarch of the family, a respected doctor and politician, falls quite maniacally in love with his daughter’s fiancée. The two embark on a brutal, strange, but compellingly realistic affair that is all consuming and sadomasochistic (the storm – thunder and lightning that we have just had outside – it is now passing – has most certainly done nothing to detract from the bruising intensity of this book, which I am two thirds of the way through, and must finish by the end of the evening.) Things are building; suspicions are being voiced, and this is one denouement I definitely need to witness: it is building up, unravelling, all rather beautifully.

 

 

I reach out for perfume. I have been tired this week, very – the first week back at work, and could hardly move today. Duncan is with me in the room, we have been in here all day just listening to old compilations in the background while he types away on the computer, the cat in and out, competing for his affections, the sunshine turning to heavy rain. When reading, I love to also survey my collection, see those gorgeous perfumes in their beautiful boxes – their unvoiced pleasures; the dense, scented liquids that await me like museum treasures from an olfactory palace :  rich, exterior comforts. I reach out, instinctively, for Rochas Femme, a vintage eau de toilette : it seems in keeping reading this story of a dark, and secretive woman who has a father and son both in her thrall; damaged, deeply, by an incestuous secret in her past, but so vital and essential for them both that she is pulling these people, the whole family, deep into a black, erotic vortex of something bleak, destructive, and inescapable.

 

 

Femme does not smell like Anna Barton. This perfume is probably more suited to the doctor’s wife, the delicate, but forceful, Ingrid (though she would more likely wear Caleche).  Yet it is so rounded, so fruited, so beautiful and spiced, so full of itself and generous : so much better than Mitsouko – its obvious inspiration – that I suddenly felt great pangs of regret.

 

 

There was once a woman at the flea market in Tokyo that I saw there only once. On that day, in one of the corners, she had a whole chest of vintage perfumes that she was getting rid of at quite ridiculous prices –  I remember crouching down with other eager and scrabbling onlookers and panicking about what I should buy up. I know I bought quite a few of them, I can’t remember it all in detail, but I know that she had a whole stack of Femmes,  and I though I contemplated buying them all up at the time, I refrained. I didn’t know how much I was going to like the stuff at the time, but tonight this perfume smells grand, gorgeous: deep, plush; refined. A soundtrack: sweepingly, damningly, erotic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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LOVE IN PURPLE : CARON’S AIMEZ MOI ( 1997 )

LOVE IN PURPLE : CARON’S AIMEZ MOI ( 1997 ).

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NOTES FROM THE OTHER SIDE

Originally posted on The Black Narcissus:

[A guest post by Duncan...]

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Although my scent tastes have obviously been molded from day one by Ginza and I now share many of his olfactory foibles and phobias (distaste for synthetic sandalwood (‘scandalwood’) and buttery musks, for example), our olfactory territories, meaning our signature scents, are actually very distinct. In fact, in the past two decades together, it occurred to me, we have almost never shared a bottle. Although this may not seem particularly surprising to you, actually, given the number of phials that have been in our possession during that period (…the mind boggles), I’m surprised there hasn’t been more overlap!

In the early days, we both frequented JPG Le Mâle, that flamboyant kiss curl cacophony of Cocteau-esque mid-90s euro-camp! An extravagant modern confection that nevertheless resolved sensuously and (importantly) lived up to the delectable JPG/Pierre et Giles packaging and the designer’s l’enfant terrible repute.

(Aside: In the…

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THE TRANSFORMATION

 

 

 

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And so it goes. The beard is shaved off: unwillingly – I don’t recognize myself.

 

But that’s the rules.

 

 

The work clothes are washed; then rewashed (and hung outside in fresh air, for fear of contamination).

 

 

 

 

The body is soaped down; scrubbed. the hair, panthèned; conditioned.

 

 

 

 

 

Scent? A little. The rules say please do not.

 

 

But, just before leaving the house I find that I just do anyway; I can’t stop myself: a small spray, on each cuff, of Montale Sunset Flowers: that sheeny, bright lemon leaf, green apple violet wholesomeness I bought the other day on a strange anti-intuitive whim. For this precise purpose.

 

 

 

 

I iron my suit while staring out the window absently. Drinking coffee, willing myself into the spirit. A suit really shouldn’t be thrown into the washing machine in this way I realise but I am neurotic, aware of my smell at all times, and it simply has to be tip-top clean on this first day back; flawless.

 

 

 

 

 

I dress myself. Pick out a tie. 

 

 

 

 

The transformation is now complete.

 

 

 

 

 

It is the first day of term. I am spruce: depilated; Delilah’d.

 

Clean-smelling – clean looking. Nervous. In new September sun.

 

 

 

 

 

Gone is the frangipani and the coconut, the thick and lavishing Infini stage; the Nocturnes. The Calandre vintage extrait, that I wore each time that we went to the beach and that remained on my swimming trunks; the towels. The thick Arab sweetness; the undeodorized armpits and late, and lazy sex phase of vintage, Givenchy Gentleman; that day of bare-chested vintage Azzarro and its anisic, manly, mutual affections; days spent loungeing with red wine in front of dark, lurid films in our new mini private cinema : Mulholland Drive, Contagion, My Beautiful Laundrette (how that new projector has been wonderful this summer holiday: how my film collection has been re-born to life with that screen).

 

 

 

 

The marination of oneself; in odour, in perfume; in love, as the cicadas and crickets sing thrummingly beyond the balcony, approaching their end, and the hot, sultry summer heat that I suspend myself in so naturally starts, too early, to lose its fertility. 

 

 

 

 

The nerves. The out of practice. The how was your summer. But, also, the instantaneous and strangely pleasurable change into that other persona. Not an alter ego, or a Hyde, but another strata. 

 

 

Like coming back up for air.  

 

 

 

 

The kids are raucous and sweet. Bright, and full of energy – we are pleased to see each other. And I have dynamism, from being away from them during these precious weeks of necessary recuperation. I find I am quite wired and in tune with them, with an immediacy that inspires me when just a few hours ago there I was all morose, and childish and not wanting to get into the elevator and enter the school. Now it comes to me naturally. They are stimulated; I am stimulated. It’s fun, spontaneous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I come home. I enter the house: Realize how strongly it does smell of patchouli oil, as my friends always tell me. And incense.  It is my den, though: I am inoculated. Now, however, I enter it with new senses, smell the evidence. 

 

 

 

 

I enter the kitchen. The remnants of some vanilla or other; coffee smells, home smells, and, unexpectedly, a heartrending vetiver that I inexplicably can’t place.

 

 

 

 

Where is it coming from? It smells familiar. And then I realize: ah yes, come on stupid, it’s your navy blue sweater, slung over the back of that chair, emanating those poetically beautiful final stages of vintage Nº19 parfum that I enjoy so much, daubed in it; snuggled up in it, loving it, that I found for virtually nothing one day at my new secret well, somewhere in Tokyo one day in the holiday when I was just wandering about aimlessly in the big city with nothing much to do except take in the rain and try to deal with the loss of heat and that I wore to death in those final seven days, when I was mourning the end of the summer, and autumn began its inexorable entrance.

 

 

 

 

Yet, for some moments as I question my senses vaguely, I don’t recognize it.

 

It is exterior to me, now; hanging in the ether like an other. A ghost, almost, of past remembrance.

 

 

 

 

 

I have morphed, for this moment, into this other person.

 

 

This teacher; emasculated, perhaps, but enjoying, nevertheless, the spruceness; the end of the slovenliness and indulgence.

 

The neatly groomed, sweet-apple shampoo shine of flowers. The renewing vigor of work.

 

 

 

 

 

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TERRACOTTA LE PARFUM by GUERLAIN ( 2014 )

 

 

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Guest post by Olivia 

 

 

 

 

I have a confession.. I could never really get there with summer. Instead, falling squarely if not neatly into the misfit camp, there’s a prominent facet of my character that really gets off on the disenfranchised gloom, the ennui-flecked hinterlands of colder weather: I go about willing, even buoyantly braced for climatic underwhelmisms. Genuinely, for the most part, the long looping requiem that is the starker side of the year here speaks much more to me, in the ugly-beautiful vistas it creates, in that electric zing of foggy morning air and the almost abrasive clear headedness it breathes in. A paean to winter isn’t remotely the way you’d want to start a review of a paint-by-numbers summer perfume, but while all the above is true (almost heretically so) – I do love the scents of summer, and year round; the densely creamy florality of sun cream; the thick unction of monoi; the gorgeously over ripe slimy-banana scent of ylang; robustly sexy jasmine; the lactonic, pillowy quality of coconut.

 

Perversely, summer sits easiest with me in concept: I like the idea, the colours, of painfully blue sky and fierce midsummer sun, everything exaggerated by a heat that seems to balloon the senses and add a crazed hyper real touch to life. In an ambient light that is beamish and bursting, there is an intense veil of something pure and life affirming that somehow connects everything up: the phosphorescent sunsets, flamboyant flowers fanned out like Day-Glo dancers and the rocking whoosh of salt water as your feet lift, weightless as shadows off the seabed. Crucially too, it always makes me think of giddy teenage holiday flings and falling in love: that lickety-split, glittered adrenal rush that leaves you tingle toed and cherry cheeked and your heart weeping round the edges like a tub of Soft Scoop. Things feel exciting, reanimated, and pregnant with possibility. Perhaps it’s these qualities that cast a particular kind of romance over the idea of a summer perfume: at the same time as being necessarily utilitarian (cooling, airy) it should embody these fantastical moments in some way, transporting us like a talisman to some removed technicolour daydream, a strict and lovely inversion of the diurnal tumult and tedium.

 

The French do summer well. Each August as Paris drains itself toward the coasts, everything seems to take on a universal open-shirted bon vivre: work can do one. The focus now is on late and long lunches, on family and wine, on protracted indulgence and a gorgeously relaxed sense of hedonism. All preferably slathered and slipped in the buxom butteriness of Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse (a divine tiare scented body oil) and buckets of Sancerre. Guerlain, alongside their signature, beautifully moody wink ‘n’ smoulder orientals (Shalimar, Vol du Nuit..) have several perfumes that reflect this sentiment. Olfactory explorations of that summery, particularly franco-bacchanalian lilt focused somewhere between the Croisette and the Comoros: the honeyed, heady imperialist fantasy Mahora, with its piquant and petroleum undertones; Metallica, that gorgeous over-ripe slick of ylang, gnashing carnation and smooth as Chartreuse vanilla overridden with a bizarre and lovely brassy bite; the lazy, late morning yielding sand between the toes insouciance of Lys Soleia. This year, Terracotta Le Parfum – an accessory to the summer make-up line of the same name, joined the gang.

 

To spray it on is to be caught up in a sudden solar squeeze, a near perfect Polaroid of warm air and sunshine. From a little, light bite of bergamot things tumble through a fairly prominent green jasmine and into a salicylate rich lei with ylang, orange blossom and tuberose all twirling around reasonably indistinctly from each other. The lactonic element of this composition binds the florals together, lickably, sinking into a balmy (characteristically nouveau Guerlain/Wasser-esque) base of slightly vanillic musk reminiscent of tanned, touchable skin. Its final, lilting resting point is a radiant, peaceful kind of sensuality – an evocation of that intuitive and irresistible sexiness that you sometimes catch in someone when they are totally unaware of themselves, languid within their own skin. In essence then, this perfume is in perfect alignment with the (gorgeous) Terracotta make-up range, which it joined this year as a limited edition: the aim is just that allusive healthful, sun-ripened and happy glow – la bonne mine – that seems to glint and gleam innately from the inside (..pretty much an entirely alien notion to me to be honest, but these products are great at faking it.)

 

Terracotta actually feels quite classical to me. At least it bows quite low to those bigger boned French floral perfumes of the ‘70s, but removed by several degrees as if quoted in Chinese whispers. There is, actually, something of that Biba (or possibly more accurately, Bardot) era about it perhaps: a carefree, salt-tousled hair and beads quality that makes me think of long late summer grass the colour of freckles, of face paints and daisy chains, of listlessness, acoustic accords and beatific wooze. That said, it isn’t nearly sullied enough to tip over into full bohemia. Rather it comes across with clean lines and desaturated, block colours (it is ultimately quite a simple perfume) – shades even, reminiscent of sun-bleached photos: pale orange, rinsed indigo, foggy duck egg set against a pale sepia background curling lazily at the edges. It’s brimful of that particular sort of mid-century optimism, all technicolour and tans, but seen through the refracted lens of a modern (more reticent?) touch.

 

Just maybe, predictably, I’d like a bit more coconut in there (I have been, and would recommend layering it with a coconut lotion – probably the Yves Rocher one, just because.) But then again that might detract from its essential feathery, prêt-à-porter quality; because despite the archetypal heavyweight heft of these florals, Terracotta wears like a billowed veil on me – it’s a sotto voce accessory: an adornment rather than an armour, blended as smoothly as the bronzer of the same line is delicate. Imagine the thick impasto and lush, steamy tones of a Gauguin seen on acetate: the texture and weight of a daydream, designed to be caught on the air almost as an idea rather than a laboured study in exoticism. Besides, the extra dollop of fatty-luscious coconut would likely anchor this perfume into a wobblesome monoi pudding (akin possibly to Montales’ fantastically loudmouth, coconut drenched, maraca-clacking carnival Intense Tiare – a one spray event, and trust me.) The best features, and utility actually, of this fragrance – to be splashed on, on your way out to have some fun would be lost if it were heavier.

 

While ultimately it probably lacks that certain indirect, strange quality – like olfactory Escher drawings – that personally renders perfumes close to my heart (the weird and moodily diaphanous Dune is probably my de facto beach scent: which given its windswept gloom and wonderful despondency probably isn’t so surprising.) But I think I’ll probably enjoy Terracotta’s contrarian ebbing from my skin in the husk of winter, when its simple light will sharpen up and become more abstracted. Then, the clash of its inherent positivity with an onyx, ink washed afternoon will be a nicely disarming colour separation: uncomplicated, bright blooms huddling under heavy jumpers like a portable warmth, as outside monastic skies play their shadow show behind bell-black, bony fingered trees and anti-freeze air.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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ON LONDON + LONDON by GUERLAIN ( 2011 )

 

 

 

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London is rightly regarded as one of the world’s most magnificent cities. Visitors from overseas flock to the UK’s capital in droves each year for its history, grandeur, and plenitude of cultural treasure troves: the iconic museums, art galleries, monuments and parks; the famed theatres of The West End, traditional, old English pubs; high class hotels and restaurants; the legendary shopping institutions such as Harrods, Fortnum & Mason’s, Liberty – purveyors of the finest, traditional, ye olde England sundries, yet also innovative cutting edge fashions, expensive bric-a-brac, and the plain old eccentricity that the city is perhaps most famous for. London is the most visited city in the world, according to surveys, alternating with Bangkok and Paris for the top position each year, a constant draw for Anglophiles and the curious hoping to catch a glimpse of that rainy London town feeling, a place so steeped in history that you cannot escape its imperial atmosphere strolling down those stately streets of its central boroughs; in the imposing gaze of its huge and regal stone edifices; its gargoyles, curlicues: its butchers, delicatessens, and tea shops.

 

 

 

 

Certainly, the city’s beauty is not in doubt. And from a perfumista’s point of view, London is also a fabulous draw, with small and intriguing boutiques such as Angela Flanders, Penhaligons, Czech & Speake, GF Trumper, Parfums De Nicolaï and many more dotted about the metropolis (see Persolaise’s detailed guide for the full extent of the city’s perfume riches), as well as beautifully stocked perfume emporia that I really love to frequent when I am back in England such as Les Senteurs, Rouiller White, and the gilded, resplendent Aladdin’s Cave of niche that is Roja Dove’s Haute Parfumerie.

 

 

 

 

Yes, London is undoubtedly impressive. It is a ‘world class city’. The thing is, though, that I only ever really go to London for the perfume (or to visit friends, or my brother and sister who have both lived there for years), because, in actuality, I hate the place. While I have always been able to appreciate its ‘magnificence’ (the impressive nature of London is quite hide to deny: its sheer size; its myriad of cultures and nationalities, the tremendous amount of things you can experience there on an artistic and hedonistic level), and I am pleased in some ways, I suppose, to have been born in a country that has such a highly regarded world capital, on a personal level I find it a dark, miserable, and deeply negative place with an energy that I find totally detrimental to happiness and serenity. I find it alienating, almost dehumanizing.

 

 

 

 

Naturally, personal associations with any place will hugely colour your perception of it thereafter, and it is true that when I lived in London, for two years, two decades ago or so, I was not the happiest that I have been. It was quite a difficult period in my life, post-university, not knowing what to do with myself. I was quite lost, in a number of ways, so my experience of living there back then has obviously affected how I see the city now. However, I do also think that in many ways it was the city itself that made me depressed, a vicious circle. Objectively speaking London is not a very happy place, according to most surveys done on citizens’ life satisfaction (and you can see it on the streets themselves – this is hardly a smiling city, more a sullen or scowling one): London does not even feature in lists of the world’s 25 top most liveable cities. Yes, from the happy-go-lucky Japanese or American tourist’s stand point, travelling across the oceans to the wonderful Ol’ Smoke to explore the real setting of Sherlock Holmes, Jack The Ripper, to get lost in the trappings of the Royal Family and the Queen Of England, the Changing Of The Guard – all that glorious pomp and circumstance, London can surely deliver the goods (if you have the money to spend). However, living there, as everyone knows, is an entirely different thing altogether. The rents are extortionately high, sickeningly so, as is the price of public transport, and for me the city as a whole is just a vast and very aggressive place with little sense of community or togetherness. I always felt completely overwhelmed by this feeling when I lived there: that people of so many different walks of life were all just thrown together; migrants from other British cities; immigrants from all over the globe, people from outside coming in, co-existing, but simultaneously not aware of each others’ existence at all. It is such an isolating place.

 

 

 

For me, there is bad energy in London. Very bad energy. It is cold, uncaring, and antisocial. Callous; hollow; and cut so sharply along the class and wealth divides that sear the city from North to South and East to West. And although I have several friends from other countries who love the city (and I can certainly understand why), I have also met quite a few people over the years who feel exactly the way I do about London; that when visiting, they felt that there was something miserable at its core, that it is not a place they could ever consider living.

 

 

 

Which I only did, in all honesty, because it was the thing to do, post-university. You had to be there. You were supposed to be there. You had to try and get a job in the arts, in the media, in publishing, in finance, in politics, and London was, quite simply, the only place to be . Everywhere else felt hopelessly provincial in comparison, small; boring. All your friends were going there, sharing the rent in some overpriced, miserable abode in whatever area of the city they could just about afford to live in, beginning their desperate, boot-on-face clawings up their respective career ladders, comparing post-codes (where you live is crucial); eating out at the overpriced and mediocre restaurants that the city is replete with ( I really feel that especially keenly now whenever I go back to London from Japan; the quality of food, in London on the whole, is very low). You had to keep up with the trends in Time Out magazine (“Have you seen this film, this play, been to this exhibition, that installation: no, oh really? What have you been doing??)

 

 

 

Of course, these insecurities, of young people in their early twenties trying to figure out what to do with their lives, panicking now that they have been released from the ivory dreamworld of university, are not by any means limited to one particular city. We imagine people struggling in tiny New York apartments, trying their luck to get their break in Amsterdam. They can happen anywhere. London, however, to me, felt like a black hole : a complex, grey-clouded vortex of stress, hassle, opportunity and privilege, a place I could never feel any connection to, no matter how hard I tried to like it, despite all the dinner parties, the fantastic repertory cinemas, the art exhibitions, the dancing all night at clubs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two years before moving to London, I had lived in Rome, and my experience could not have been more different. Yes, I was still a university student and thus still, to a large extent, stuck in dreamland (although I was working, as a teacher in an Italian high school and that was no picnic), but, still, the atmosphere in Rome, the light, the feeling that the city was big enough to explore and feel liberated in, but also manageable enough not to feel that it was swallowing you up whole was very exciting; the people there seemed to love their city, the food, la passeggiata in the evening on the sidewalks strolling their stuff with their friends or lovers, just sitting by the fountains in Piazza Navona taking in the day and eating gelato….Yes, of course I realize how naive and idealistic this must sound, but although I did eventually feel a certain lassitude with it all, with the heat, the constant exaggerations and all round hyperbole of gli Italiani, the fact remains that Rome is a place I grew very close to very quickly. It felt instinctive. I belonged there. We all did, me and the friends I was living with. It was beautiful, warm on every level and distinctly liveable. I loved it and still miss it.

 

 

 

 

 

The same could not be said for London. Not at all. I always felt a sense of threat, of aggro at the edges of any experience, a sensation not helped by the fact that D and I decided first to live in Brixton, one of the edgiest parts of the city; South London’s cool, but angry, centre of disenfranchised Jamaican and Asian culture and gradual, white ‘gentrification'; bristling with energy and intriguing places to eat out, as well as the Ritzy Cinema – it seemed, somehow, with it’s pulsating ripeness, like a good place to start. D went down first, and was initially living in a beautiful old Victorian house with some other former university friends and a drug addict landlord who was often too stupified to know what was going on (but did once get involved in the exchange of a certain envelope on a mantelpiece and an ominous knock on the door.) Stupidly, in a move to try and save money, I initially lived in his room secretly, like Anne Frank, silently, stealing off to my language school in North London each morning (in leafy Hampstead, another world entirely, full of wealthy people, espresso bars, and beautiful mansions lining ‘the heath’, London’s most appealing green space, and one of the few places I did genuinely learn to love, as I roamed its fields overlooking the city, trying to figure out what to do with my life as little rabbits skitted back into bushes). Living a clandestine existence, though, obviously isn’t great for one’s relaxation levels: I remember one morning, creeping up the stairs to the third floor, in stealth, like a breath-held cat burglar to use the bathroom; syringe on top of the toilet, landlord snoring in his adjacent room, draped off the bed, and trying to shower before work as quietly as I could…..)

 

 

 

 

We soon moved into our own place next to Brockwell Park, with, regrettably, the most selfish neighbours imaginable in the flat below, DJs who played music at such unimaginably, floor shakingly loud volume, even (especially) on Sunday mornings that I would be curled in the foetus position on the floor in a state of barely contained panic each time it happened (they were quite threatening when I confronted them about it, so I felt quite helpless). We eventually left after six months, during which time Duncan was attacked in the street with a bag of cement over the head by some random idiot, only escaping real injury when a passerby intervened to help, thank god. There could have been terrible consequences. 

 

 

 

 

The deciding moment, though, was the riot that I witnessed, and then got swept up in – the Brixton Riot of 1995. I was coming home from work one evening,  traversing the city from north to south in the cramped and ancient Underground system, and, emerging from the steps of Brixton station, it was immediately obvious to me that something was about to happen. The air was sharp with fury, there was shouting and chanting, and the streets were thronging with people of all races, demonstrators arriving to protest yet another death in police custody of a young black man, a 26 year old who had died in very suspicious circumstances the night before. A more sensible and careful person would probably have made an attempt to go home quickly before anything happened, but me being the sucker for drama that I am, I wanted to be in the centre of the action and see where it was all leading.

 

 

 

 

Things escalated very quickly. Suddenly, cars were being set on fire, the windows of the department store opposite the station smashed and firebombed; police on horse back were entering the scene (and one was severely beaten right in front of my eyes, once he was felled from the horse). At this point, any heady exhilaration I may have initially felt had turned to fear and horror. The streets were also blocked; helicopters circling, and there was no way I could get home. By pure coincidence, a friend who also lived in Brixton a few blocks down from our place was mercifully suddenly standing next to me, and we just about managed to get away from the melée and to her house, where I spent the night, unable to get back to where Duncan was, doors locked, watching it all on the news. 

 

 

 

 

 

Although I felt the protests were completely justified, the next morning, having not slept a wink, walking down the streets of still smouldering, blackened cars and broken shop windows, I decided that I just didn’t want to live in that area anymore. It wasn’t worth the stress, and shortly after, we moved to a much more leafy, middle-class enclave called Crouch End, a North London area that is popular for families and people wanting a more small town-like feel, with its cafes, old pubs, and restaurants. I didn’t mind it especially (and when D and I briefly broke up during all this maelstrom, was living with a cellist who happened to be Stanley Kubrick’s niece), but at the same time I can’t say that I really liked it either. There was still, how can I explain it, that atmosphere, something sad in the air, something alienating, something that a boy from Birmingham, which may be a very poor second city on most levels compared to London but is nevertheless infinitely more friendly, found dreary, and, ultimately, extremely bleak. The city doesn’t give. It holds itself back. With its secrets.  

 

 

 

 

 

My feelings have never really changed. Even when we go back periodically. Even this year, when I was there for my glorious Jasmine Literary Award, which I was so excited to win, and the celebration lunch at Fortnum and Mason’s afterwards. Yes, I enjoyed being there, briefly in Spring, the London air – that sense of untold riches, blooming magnolia trees and that piercingly clear English sky that you can never quite find anywhere else…. I did enjoy it. But, still, I always have that same sensation: a lack of optimism that just seems to seep from the very walls of the buildings. That sense of darkness; pride; exclusion. And this week, watching a British TV crime series, Luther (sent, somewhat inexplicably, to us by Duncan’s mum), my long internalized feelings about London have really come flooding back to me.

 

 

 

 

Violence. There can be no doubt that London is quite an aggressive place, on a number of levels. I have several friends who have been mugged, and my brother has been attacked several times, once by a highly threatening group of knife-wielding teenage girls in Crouch End, and a couple of times by thugs who attacked him while he was riding his bicycle at night. Of course, compared to many other cities around the world, particularly in the Americas, London is relatively safe, especially in terms of gun crime. However, there is also a pervasive sense that it is a city in which you cannot let down your guard, a place where you definitely look over your shoulder. And, although of course I realize that a TV drama is just a drama, there is, nevertheless, something very palpably real to me about Luther’s grim portrayal of murder and London’s darker side, which I myself feel in the cells of my own body every time I go back there. The storylines are ridiculous and exaggerated: serial killers, terrorists, sex-rings, rapes – the standard fixtures of all crime dramas, which have become a staple diet of television from C:S:I to Dexter. It is fiction, yes. But there is still something particularly grim about this programme that we both found quite unpleasant and not particularly enjoyable. I was reading one critic’s opinion of the show last night and he was saying that it is literally too scary to watch at times: it delights in being as horrible as possible, yet was apparently shown on TV from 9pm, a time when children could quite easily have seen it. They really, really shouldn’t. It is terrifying. While I am no stranger to the joys of the stylized horror film, and have vastly enjoyed admittedly very violent series such as The Sopranos and The Wire, in those shows the violence occurs in a comprehensible context, is alleviated with moments of humour or scenes of the characters’  personal lives. It is part of a bigger picture. And when violent acts occur, they are often shocking on an emotional level, especially when it involves a character you may have become in some way attached to. Luther, though containing some fairly decent acting, has no redemption. It is pure and unadulterated human misery in that peculiarly British way, sadistic in the pleasure it seems to give in showing the viewer the darkest side of humanity. Yesterday’s episode – the last I will watch – involved two twin serial killers attacking people in broad daylight in familiar locations such as Victoria station with hammers and hydrochloric acid. It was really quite nasty, horrible to watch,  yet without any form of redemption or sense of purpose in the storytelling save the brutally vivid portrayal of the crimes themselves. It left quite an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Hollow. A urban void.

 

 

 

 

 

Which is kind of how I feel about London generally, to be honest. Reiterating what I said earlier, I do realize that my own experiences may have tinged my perception of the city to a small extent, but I believe at the same time that cities do have particular energies that are tangible to outsiders who are visiting as well as those that inhabit them. Cities are like organisms: entities that take on the spirits of all those who have lived in them before. They  have imbibed and absorbed the stories and events that have occured there. They are not just a collection of buildings: they live and breathe: their atmosphere evolves and accrues. Naturally, each of us will have our own subjective take on whichever city we are instinctively drawn or not drawn to. I love visiting cities around the world, both D and I do, and I have been to many. Los Angeles had a very weird energy; fascinating, but dark also, despite its deliciously angelic light. I could never live there. San Francisco was the opposite – we both felt immediately drawn to it; something a bit mad but also benevolent and free. Yes. Mexico City was far less zingy than I was expecting; brooding as a coiled spring. I would not go back. Paris is exquisite, obviously, especially for a perfume person, but it bores me. I find it too stiff and unyielding. Stuffy. Berlin I love. Rough and melancholy, but also, now, an irreverent art spirit that really appeals to me. Alive. Taipei has a far more positive atmosphere than Hong Kong; Kuala Lumpur is friendly and buzzing – I have been there twice. Seoul is fierce and vibrant. Brighton, just an hour from London, on the coast, is a very special place that I think I could probably live in if we ever went back to the UK. I want to go to Seville: I have been told I would like it more than I did Barcelona. Perversely, I would still love to visit Moscow. I could go on. There are hundreds of places I hope to get the chance to visit. But the moment I arrive back in London, at that dreadful airport Heathrow – a total stress-hole from hell for me – and I get on the underground, I feel that same feeling. A slight sense of anxiety; dark-tunnelled; this city, its concealed riches built on the shady financial machinations of The City; the exploitations of the slave trade, and the imperial plunderings of much the world during the Empire, this dark history just swept under the carpet; these streets of impossibly grand town houses bought up by billionaire Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes. The sense of being locked out. Of the sense that much of the city simply has no connection with the people that are living in it. Not only financially (and that side of life is not something I am envious of in any case, I was never materialistic), but on all levels. There is so little interaction between the people who own, and often don’t even live, in these grand places and the majority of Londoners. In Tokyo (coincidentally and ironically rated the second most liveable city in a recent survey despite its crowded streets and huge population), there are few, if any, neighbourhoods where the rich are entirely sealed off from the less wealthy. It is far more egalitarian, the country far more equal in comparison with the Dickensian horrors of the UK’s wealth divide, which seems to be only getting bigger each year. Only the emperor is kept separate here – literally – with a moat in the Imperial Palace. Otherwise, the Japanese live on the streets, even in Ginza, Nishi-Azabu, and other privileged areas of money in Tokyo. People mingle. There is a sense of belonging to the city, of being part of it all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

 

 

I have just remembered that I was supposed to be writing a perfume review.

 

 

 

 

It will just have to be tagged on here, at the end, sorry.

 

 

 

 

Guerlain’s London, released as part of series of olfactory travelogues called Les Voyages Exclusifs aimed at the younger customer,  is a much more cheerful affair than what I have been describing above. It is fruity; upbeat; and quite pleasant actually, representing, perhaps, a more quotidian aspect of the city, if you really stretch your imagination: of the personal – people just going about their lives; getting the bus to work in the morning, hair just washed with some rich-scented fruit shampoo, but not yet dried: mobile phone out of coat pocket, as the bus pulls out from the curb to navigate those busy streets full of commuters starting their day. Lacking the Parisian ‘elevation’ of most Guerlain perfumes, London is essentially a modern, fruity, humdrum scent based on a fresh and appealing opening of sour rhubarb and grapefruit laid over  sheer rose; sweeter vanilic notes, and a heart of fresh black tea, light vetiver, and indistinctive modern musks. In some ways it is like a more down to earth and robust version of Hermès Rose Ikebana -  which I prefer –  or a companion to British scents such as Mark Buxton’s Sleeping With Ghosts or some of the recent synthetic fruit-fests By Kilian such as Forbidden Games and Playing With The Devil. I don’t mind it, in fact I quite like it, though I don’t think it adds up to very much when all is said and done. Having said that, it is lighthearted, zesty, and easy on the spirit, suggesting that Thierry Wasser, the creator of a series of perfumes designed to capture the heart and essence of various cities, hasn’t actually spent much real time in London.

 

 

 

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