Monthly Archives: February 2013

NARCISSUS, YOU STINK

 

 

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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.

 

 

I stank.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Flowers, Narcissus, Psychodrama

SCREAMING JELLY BABIES: TUSCAN BLOOD ORANGE by PACIFICA

 

 

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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)…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Confectionery, Orange, Perfume Reviews

QUIPROQUO by Grès (1975)

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Citrus, Lemon, Patchouli, Perfume Reviews

Adulterous: CABOCHARD by GRES (1959)

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A dark, brooding, and very three-dimensional scent of greys, purples and black that hovers, tantalizing as velvet, above the skin, Cabochard (French for ‘obstinate’ or ‘pig-headed’) amazes with its complexity, the devious integrity of its construction. Its suggestiveness; the citrus, the hyacinth, geranium and sharp flowers: its strong woody tang of patchouli, tobacco, amber, and leather, alluring facets that all seem to develop on different levels simultaneously, right up to its last shadowy, chypric, powdered exhalations.

 

It is a perfume that was once described by one eminent critic as illuminating the secret life of a woman in Paris, her tweed suit tossed onto the bed after a hard day at work in a moment, perhaps, of clandestine liaison. And it is true that Cabochard is  reminiscent of lipstick, perfume and powder compacts falling from a well loved leather purse in the late light of afternoon. There is a nonchalance, a madamish insouciance. But the piquancy of the citrus oils and tobacco also make it in today’s context rather masculine,  androgynous at best. It is a gorgeous, intriguing scent, especially in its final, powdery, patchouli earth notes, and in vintage parfum, essential.

 

 

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Filed under Chypre, Patchouli

BOOBS………………….Le N° 9 by CADOLLE (1925)

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According to Les Senteurs in London (the only place you used to be able to buy this now obscure treat except for the original Belle Epoque lingerie store on the Rue Cambon, Paris), this effortlessly dreamy blend was created, back in the day, as a ‘riposte’ to N° 5  – the founder, Hermione Cadolle,  a less uptight Gabrielle Chanel (her main rival on her street) – dreaming up brassières – she invented the bra – and courting clients such as Mata Hari and Marilyn Monroe for her dusky, silken wares like the fabled soutien gorge. She had to have a perfume for the store, and as N° 5 was all the rage, this was her retort: the woodier, more lissom seductress.

 

Of all the perfumes I have smelled in my life, this is possibly the most seamless: unlike N° 5, with its very obvious ylang ylang/ rose/ iris/ musk gradations, Le N°9 is so smooth, creamy, soft and melting it is almost impossible to distinguish any of its components. With its lilting, balsamic conclusions of cedarwood, Siamese benzoin and Penang patchouli; its breathy,  equable memory of flowers, the resulting bedroom aldehyde lorelei is luminous, powdery – and impossibly soft and erotic.

 

 

 

 

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20 Comments

Filed under Floral Aldehydes, Perfume Reviews

THE TREE THAT SOOTHES…………………….. COCOA SANDALWOOD by SONOMA SCENT STUDIO (2013)

 

It is exam season in Japan, or as the locals call it, ‘exam hell’: students and teachers cramming and exhausting themselves into high schools and universities; an impressive, if sadomasochistic, demonstration  of Japanese will power and conformity. Some of my colleagues have been working straight since the beginning of November and yes I mean straight: with the exception of January 1st, some of them have been coming into school every day, for at least twelve hours, for about six weeks. This is illegal, but the pressure is so high to get the results that they can really not do otherwise.

 

 

And there I am, with my three week holiday at Christmas and New Year, waltzing in to do my bit come the first week of January, but even a month of it has left this indolent foreigner feeling frazzled and debilitated: I came home on Friday night feeling teary and depleted; a husk with his juice sucked out, porous sensitivies over-flooded with tense, heightened Japanese voices. Knowing I would have to be going in on Saturday morning  as well for a whole day of examination interviews, I decided just to collapse in to bed…

 

 

But perhaps just a touch of perfume beforehand, something new, before I turn out the lights to let my mind veer…….?..something from those little boxes of samples I had not yet tried that might subdue my humming synapses..?

 

 

Yes.

 

 

I semi-randomly alight on something called Cocoa Sandalwood, apply it wearily to the back of my hand.

 

 

 

And

 

 

 

 

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suddenly a towering forest of sequoia trees flashes up before my eyes. I can feel them, smell the cool of them, the bark, the dappling light between their trunks, as they soar up into the sky that is blue, and the air that is clear, miles and miles of them out in the Californian country – a synaesthestic mirage that makes my soul briefly snap into place again on a disconnected plane and I find myself wanting to go back down into it all again, back down from the shimmering skyline treetops and back into the forested depths, this time to Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the mysterious redwoods behind which you disappear, somewhere in the heart of deep green………….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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All of which I realize might sound rather exaggerated and forced, but which I did actually experience on Friday night, lying on my futon as something loosened its grip on my psyche and a gentle, alternative universe released me….

 

 

 

 

 

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I have been finding this recently with natural perfumes. There is something in the essences themselves, the plants’ ‘life force’ if you like, that speaks, that stimulates my nervous system in a very different way to other perfume ( which is perhaps more purely aesthetic). Where I was expecting to just find the usual sandalwood (one of my least favourite notes in perfume as I have always found it so fatty, unmysterious, and splayed somehow), the perfumer (Laurie Erickson) surprised me with a creation that temporarily took me beyond myself.

 

 

 

 

The sequoias I ‘saw’ originated, I imagine,  in the significant dose of Cedar Virginia that opens the perfume, giving the richer, more oozy New Caledonian sandalwood a solid backbone through which a slow, warm sap of cocoa absolute, cinnamon bark, coffee, rose, clove, vanilla and ginger rises slowly, the sandalwood gradually thickening in generosity, expanding and revealing its wise, sagacious  depths. Soothing, comforting, with an excellent equilibrium between savoury and sweet, the perfume helped me, finally, to sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Cocoa, Perfume Reviews, Sandalwood

BORN TO LOVE PERFUME

A friend of mine put this ridiculous picture of me on Facebook yesterday, a photo taken about 23 years ago I think, and a photo I have absolutely no memory of, but it for sure is me….look at that imperial gaze, fresh from the water….undoubtedly ready for perfume directly

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