Monthly Archives: February 2013
I was twenty one and had been living in Rome for a month, looking in vain for a job, and staying in the cheapest hotel I could find – a garish, pink-painted pensione near the infamous Stazione Termine. One muggy afternoon, hot, bored, and mildy depressed – but too lazy to look for work – I decided just to hop on a train and see where it took me. I was idling on the Linea B, looking at the stations to come, when I saw ‘Piramide.’
I got off. As I turned the corner from the station, there it was: a two thousand year old pyramid – the last thing that St Paul is supposed to have seen before he was…
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In ‘Japanese Cultural Code Words: 233 Key Terms That Explain the Attitudes and Behaviour of the Japanese’, author Boye Lafayette de Mente talks of the ‘grave beauty’ of Japan and its effect on blundering westerners encountering it for the first time.
‘Foreigners are often left speechless…They know they are in the presence of extraordinary beauty, but generally they do not have the experience – or the vocabulary – to describe it.’
It is difficult to argue with this. The austere, filtering light of incense smoke unfurling slowly above a Zen temple in December; the strict symmetry of the Japanese interior; or the tranquillity of a Zen garden in spring, can be astounding in their otherworldliness, yet still of the utmost simplicity. Whatever the chosen ‘path’- be it zen, tea, kimono, haiku, calligraphy – the Japanese are surely unsurpassed in their…
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The Black Narcissus is currently suffering from burnout ( plus the web is down ( an unpaid bill? )
Hopefully see you soon.
More love, more romance, more violets, more Caron
‘Aimez moi‘: an insistent, clamouring plea. Love me.
But to whom? A lover? An unrequited passion? ‘Aimez,’ in the formal, or plural form of the French verb suggests the unknown. Anyone – a complete stranger; the world. And the first blast of engorged, extravagant top notes surely suggest the latter, this perfume reaching out with outstretched, desperate arms – all cards on the table – saying LOVE ME, LOVE ME to whoever out there who will listen. There is an almost deliriously sweet intensity here- a greedy, peach-licorice violet, with lushly overladen uses of anise, vanilla and mint, that at this stage in the perfume quite simply either overwhelms ( you fall in love), or repels. It is certainly something of a love gamble….
Aimez Moi had been absent from my olfactory mental landscape for a very long time until a few weeks ago when…
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I like a big rose. A rose that is generous and of itself; a lovely rose: not a mean, thin-lipped rose; nor a methane-dipped rose, a high street rose or a sneering, clipped, high-octane rose; a fashion rose or a bridal rose; a cheap, leering acid rose, nor some dusty old, crabby rose, no: I like a full, joyous pronouncement of a rose, a rose that knows who she is.
The world, though, it seems, loves scents like L’Eau Chloé, a mingily pertinent fragrance formed of rose water and green things and reduced-fat patchouli, but I most certainly don’t: we smell far too many of these perfumes around us in cities, especially in Japan, where immaculately turned-out young women walk the streets of Tokyo, untouchably beautiful, a red-blooded, heterosexual male’s idea of paradise; girls with the flawless patina of a Shiseido commercial but in the flesh, slender young things in the all latest fashions and just a touch of rose to finish: nothing too thick, now, and a touch acidulous if you please – I maintain you, sir, at arm’s length with my thorns, my scent a barrier not a come-on, my artificial rose with its just-so projection perfected in the laboratory for this very purpose to offer that strange, iced chasteness, that modern-girl impenetrable whim of here-and-now Ginza sexy: this, this hideous perfectionism we smell in all the roses of the day such as Stella, Paul Smith Rose, and, especially, here, the vile Eau Des Quatres Reines by L’Occitane, which from personal exposure I would say is by far the most popular female scent in the country: you smell it all the time, as though, like everything else in Japan, it were accepted by the group and thus sanctioned, even by young mothers!
Young mothers, yes, those saintly, desexualized mama-san as they are called, poor creatures in my view, who, unless they rebel and refuse to conform, will often be co-erced into fascistic, nasty, Lord Of The Flies groups they cannot escape from even as they smile and present their iron-haired, A-line skirted, guilt-racked personas to the playground. The Occitane perfume, with its hints of salted, musks under penetratingly sharp, artificial rosey top notes, fixed, unchanging as it hangs in the air around train stations and department stores is the rose du jour, accepted, sucked into the mainstream, worn constantly, and I can tell you quite passionately that I loathe it.
No: give me an unfettered, uninhibited rose any day, a rose of love, not of conformity, a rose which springs directly from the heart: give me Nahéma, Montale Aoud Rose Petals with its blackness of the desert and Turkish Delight, give me Caron Rose, with its cherished poetical heart of Damask, or, if we need pearlescent dew drop roses, Fleurs de Thé Bulgare by Creed: just don’t dilute it with ‘market trends’ , fear of trying, or with ‘what women want‘: give it to me straight and liberated and heartfelt. Or don’t give it to me at all.
Rose Volupté, a huge, blowsy thing, belongs in this latter category of mine; roses with heart and soul, a big Valentine’s Day rose that is as rounded, enveloping as imaginable; powdery, effusive, diffusive: a tampy, musky pink rose of thick material: balanced – an undeceiving, happily direct perfume.
An oriental rose, with ambered base notes of labdanum absolute, vetiver and sandalwood, and a heart of heliotrope and cinnamony plum, all leading the perfume somewhat into the ‘old fashioned’ category, but neverly over so in my view, more pleasingly, just slightly, retro: top notes fruity and full, flowered like sugared raspberries on a summer trifle, and as multitiered, the geographical strata of the perfume leading down to pillowy, benzoiny, classic oriental skin scents, generous and feminine, soft: Teint De Neige’s rosier, more bosomy country cousin.
While the perfume might lack a certain psychological complexity ( I find it rather ‘straight’ and ‘thick’ in some ways) this is simultaneously very much part of its appeal. Rose Volupté is simple, lovely, and it wears like an honest statement of love for the flower, and for perfume come to think of it, not some anorexic urban cipher and her puny, half-hearted, haughtily prettily ‘rosy’ emanations.
I have just come in from a Sunday night lesson, the last one before one particular class takes their entrance examination for a prestigious bi-cultural school, and I am feeling guilty and worried: although the other Japanese teachers have been going in every day since November (no: every day, literally every day, poisoning their spirits and bodies), this is the first time this year I have gone in on a Sunday, and that was only because there are two boys who are very borderline and who could really benefit from my lessons and I just couldn’t not: tonight I went through every tense in the English language, did the subjunctive, countable and uncountable nouns, a myriad of linguistic things, until it was 11.10 pm and last trains were looming and their energies were draining and we had to call it a day.
I feel guilty because I should have done more, should have gone in on more Sundays to help them further, but I have already been going in on Saturdays (my days off!) and giving them seven hour lessons, which always leave me feeling depleted with worrying levels of mental toxicity…..
The fact is that I am an extremely, extremely sensitive type: porous, absorbent – I take in everything and it AFFECTS me inordinately in my soul: I have tortured sleep when I teach too much and I simply can’t understand how the other teachers can endure such a work schedule, how their families can accept it, how they can survive, physically and mentally, for years on end: I have even had counselling on the subject with a very expensive Tokyo psychologist, been told that they are they and I am me, and westerners can’t be expected to put up with such conditions ( my job is very cushy in comparison, very) and, essentially, just try to care less and switch off.
I am lucky. In any given year I have more days off than on, and I love teaching, in many ways, for the spontaneity, the energy and the connection with young people, and for the fact that I have enough free time, can concentrate on perfume and writing and playing the piano and having fantastic days out in Tokyo wandering the streets and going to the cinema, before I return to the working week – which is always exhausting nevertheless for me, even as it stimulates.
One day soon I am going to write a book about my years in Japan, and all of these experiences, because it is all in me, floating on the surface, and also in the depths, and whatever preconceptions you might have about Japan are always, and I mean always, wrong: the place is far more nuanced, beautiful and deep than you might imagine (the school is a kind of joyous place despite the long hours; the kids seem to love being there); the Japanese produce such a positive energy even as it depletes: it is a constant, sadomasochistic push pull of trying and doing your best and making an effort even in the face of adversity (look at the earthquake two years ago and how they pulled together), while equally punishing in a way that can only be described as sick (and yet, as any person who has lived here will tell you, all highly and completely addictive). Yesterday, after another all day lesson, though, I felt quite ill.
And we had a dinner party in the evening in Yokohama with my Japanese sister as I call her and her husband. But it was one of those things where a bunch of J-stiffs, nervous, awkward, and so CRAP AT BREAKING THE ICE gathered together in a house that was too bright (oh lord, don’t people know the value and the importance of the right light) and it took about three hours to relax (thank god for alcohol….without it Japan simply could never function…..), but still…. those first couple of hours…the BLEEDING EFFORT REQUIRED TO JUST GEL AND RELAX…
I love Aiko and her family to death, but after a day of, well, ‘Japan’ it was the last thing I needed and Duncan and I got completely wasted to cope and try to blend and feel good.
But not wasted enough it would seem..
The taxi back from the station was expensive but necessary (there was no way we were walking up the hill yesterday: I just have, and there were narcissi everywhere, which I am coming to in a minute), but as we got out I saw that our little local pub, or izakaya, was still open (yey!) and I insisted we go in…
This place, Yamaya, or ‘mountain place’, opened shortly after the earthquake, and it has been an amazing hub of social activity that has completely transformed the neighbourhood I live in, essentially quite a chichi residential area at the top of a valley (when you walk down the hill there are all the most exquisite zen temples in Kamakura: I absolutely love where I live ), but there is nothing, really, in this area – only a 1960’s Showa-era shopping street – we rent our house from the fruit and vegetable store’s owners, the Mitomis, my Japanese parents, whose daughter’s house we went to last night).
The opening of the izakaya brought a whole collection of eccentrics out of the woodwork and it has been fabulous: where everyday culture here can be so fucking draining with its rules and regulations and keeping oneself under control, there is an incredibly libertarian, utterly unfettered openness and feeling of fun in that place – we are all like family, you can plug in your iPod and play your mixes, and last night I had so much crap to get out of me, so much poison to exhale, that only more poison would do ( I swear that if someone had come out with syringes of heroin I would have taken them): I was smoking even though I don’t smoke, we were drinking beer til it came out of our ears, and it was wonderful: I felt so myself, so released, in an environment so human, with friends and local weirdos who I have all the time in the world for, and as Duncan and I crashed home (and I mean crashed, the house was like a bomb site this morning) it felt like a huge, delirious, fuck you middle finger to this world that I sometimes truly feel I CANNOT ABIDE.
I had a lesson from 7 this evening, which went on til late, as I said, woke up at 2.30 this afternoon with a monster hangover, D still fast asleep and groggy as a chameleon, and I had a long, long bath in coconut oil and essential oils of cardamon, cajeput and ylang (my heart beat wake up remedy), and then thought fuck it, today I am wearing perfume, I am slapping it on, and wore a large amount of Vanilla Del Madagascar by SS Annunziata: boy was it wrong; as you might know if you have been reading the narcissus, we are basically not allowed to wear perfume to work ( I know, me working for a company that forbids scent), but it is never enforced, and I have recently been wearing Eau Duelle by Diptqyue in subtle (for me, anyway) amounts: though I am displeased by the bitter, pepper/incense opening – which seems so tedious somehow – I love how it develops and lets me wear my favourite note, vanilla, in a covert way that no one is going to find objectionable: delicate, light, lovely….
The woozy, boozy vanilla tonight, coupled with the bath I had had, which left me weirdly scented (plus the smoke on my suit from last night in the bar), my boozer’s breath and garlic from some Vietnamese noodles I had, concealed under the synthetic peppermint of gum, all made me smell quite foul I realized, as I stood at the blackboard, self-conscious, feeling myself reeking…
Still, it wasn’t a proper day at school (BECAUSE IT WAS SUNDAY NIGHT FOR CHRISTSAKES), and only the hardiest stalwarts were there, and anyway I think my kids enjoyed the lesson, as did I ( I could have gone on all night once I hit my stride), and I didn’t see any undue wrinkling of noses – though one girl did have a slightly grimaced expression……lesson: never mix your work and private life; never mix your weekend perfumes, where my Vaniglia smells quite gorgeous (it IS my scent now) and your daily, sanitised, laundry musks: I felt, in a way, like a marauder in my own life, sabotaging my own smell.
Coming home and going up the hill, which is my silence, my solace, an ancient valley turned suburb, but with such spirit it nourishes me on a daily basis, I came across two kinds of narcissus: one, with yellow eye-centres, beautiful and haunting, like a portal to another world.
I keep using the word ‘piercing’ in relation to this type of narcissus, but it is the only word that works for me: the smell of this variety (pictured at the top of the page) kills me and contains so much condensed emotion I honestly can’t explain it to you, I can’t: I find it heartbreaking, as though the flowers and that smell contain Japan, and all the feelings I have for the place, itself.
The other flowers, these white ones here, stink. There is no other way of putting it. They are the most animalic, cowshed flowers I have ever smelled: close your eyes and inhale thecowpat; open them and see starry beauties with bad breath, decaying at the edges, exhaling their foul florality by the roadside in moonlight; as I wearily make my way, in their drifting, pungently placid scent, back home.
When the package came, the first thing I tried was Tuscan Blood Orange.
I love orange: I love it in chocolate, in cakes, in perfumes, and am a huge consumer of the fruit, especially Japanese mikan, iyokan, and ponkan: I think my colleagues find me slightly bizarre. While I ultimately think I prefer lemon, there is nothing more uplifting and easy than a good orange, though it is not often successfully carried off in perfume for some reason (see my other post on oranges for some exceptions to this rule).
This particular perfumed version of the fruit, ‘Tuscan Blood Orange’, is not an orange, per se, as much as a jelly baby, or rather a fistful of jelly babies, those classic British gummis that kids of my generation grew up with, and which my grandparents always brought round to the house on a Sunday night, along with Twixes, Bounties, and Mars Bars.
And I loved them.
Boxes of Bassetts jelly babies in their bright friendly colours of green, red, black, orange……mild, delicious, as you bit of their heads with a tinge of guilt and kept dipping your hands in for more.
The marketing teams at Bassetts also decided, a few years ago, to give a name to each flavour (making the dental decapitation all the more savage, don’t you think?) and this cute little perfume by American brand Pacifica seems to feature almost the entire posse (though Bigheart, blackcurrant, is conspicuously absent)…
While an appley, melon top note makes you question whether the perfume has been labelled incorrectly for a few seconds, soon Baby Bonny (raspberry); Brilliant (strawberry), and even brief flashes of Boofuls and Bubbles (lime and lemon respectively) make appearances in Blood Orange before Bumper – that lovely, sweet orange jelly baby – smiles, winks, and immediately tap dances its way into your affections.
Wearing this perfume, then, is a total confectionery blast from the past for me and puts me in an excellent mood – it is so cheap as well that I might have to order myself a bottle from Amazon. Sometimes I like such pleasing uncomplication.
The title of this post comes from a science experiment that I wish my school had done, in which jelly babies are thrown into tubes of potassium chlorate as they fizz away instantaneously in fits of oxidisation, squealing, apparently, as they do so, and leaving the science labs reeking of candy floss. I think that if chemistry lessons at my school had involved such olfactory pleasures, perhaps I might now have been making perfume, rather than merely writing about it.
Cabochard, Bernard Chant’s classic patchouli chypre from 1959, looms large and elegantly in the Parisian canon as an archetype, and it is not surprising therefore that the house of Madame Grès should have wanted to capitalize on its success with a perfume that was the same, essentially, but different: a Cabochard re-made for a new generation.
Quiproquo, one of the rarest of my vintage finds in Tokyo antique shops, is a reworking of the powdery patchouli of its exquisitely tailored predecessor, in the sportier, eau fraîche style of Ô de Lancome (an in-house restitching in those more seventies, tennis-white contours), and a quick internet search has confirmed my instincts: both were created by the same perfumer, Robert Gonnon (who was obviously something of a genius – he also made Métal, Anaïs Anaïs, and Empreinte among others; all delicate, yet shadowed, creatures that I adore…)
Less floral and vetivered than Ô, whose pre-reformulation was one of the greatest, cold-creamy citruses ever made, Quiproquo has the imprint of her older sister but with smoother brow, a more relaxed, upbeat scent overlaid with the brightest, most perfect lemon-leaf head-notes: like pinching the leaves from the trees, ripping them apart and letting their essence ravish your hands as you raise them up to smell on a cool, summer’s day. This gorgeous opening then subdues to a more refined, citrus-powdery chypre note as QPQ, having made her point on this dramatic family reunion, settles down for a game of scrabble with flinty Cabochard: : French windows open, siblings easing into familiarity (their strikingly similar younger brother, Monsieur Grès (1982) has also made it up to the house for the weekend), mineral water sparkling in glasses, breeze from the gardens and tennis lawns, this Saturday late in May, drifting in gently.