Monthly Archives: September 2013

A dependable tonka: Umami by Florascent (2007)

The Black Narcissus

 

 

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‘Umami’ is the fifth taste. Not sweet, sour, salty or bitter, but ‘umami’ –  a Japanese term that translates as ‘savoury pleasure’ or ‘mouthfeel’. And while this perfume by Florascent – a German fragrance house that apparently uses only natural essential oils – is not conspicuously gourmand nor notably edible, there is a certain texture or heft in this scent that is more than liquid; a soothing, binding, moisture-absorbing quality that is very comforting, particularly when it starts to get cold and even you yourself need binding.

The main theme of Umami (which I bought as a new winter perfume recently from Charis, my favourite aromatherapy shop in Fujisawa, the city where I work), is tonka bean (a warm, nutty, coumarin-drenched aroma), fused with black pepper, a dry, unsaturated sandalwood, and a pleasingly gentle, unsweetened vanilla. Chewy all-spice; ginger and a barely discernible osmanthus form the heart, while…

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TUBEROSE, IN THE FLESH

 

 

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And there they were.

 

 

 

We walked into the flower-strewn lobby of the Hotel Tugu Malang. And to my utter delight, there, everywhere, was tuberose. An enormous arrangement of the flowers, right there in the centre. Tuberose in every room, potted. Tuberose placed delicately on plates alongside the delectable Javan afternoon delicacies in the second floor tea room ; a giant vase of the flowers on the landing upstairs gently warming and releasing its exquisite fragrance into the surrounding air, changing with the hours, subtlely, caressing, like warm breath on a woman’s shoulders.

 

 

I have wanted to experience these flowers, right there in front of me in the flesh, for so long, searched for them at the Columbia Flower market in London, kept my eye open for them in Mexico, in Asia, but no: nothing.

 

 

And then, unexpectedly, I can’t escape them.

 

 

 

 

 

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The scent pervades my dreams.

 

 

And when I wake up, by my bedside it is green; restrained; virginal; tight.

 

Yes, Carnal Flower you might say: Malle’s modern tuberose masterpiece certainly coming to mind at first; nailing it, but then she changes with her chlorophyll, her moods, and to my fascination, yes definitely, there they are: all the tuberoses we know and love there as well, emanating from her whorls and stems, unravelling their inspired perfumed secrets at differing, surprising, points in the day.

 

 

 

Each evening, as we climb the stairs, there, divinely, lingering magnificently, but with great, refined, unhurried taste, is tuberose tuberose: light, creamy; aerial, inviting, and yes, most certainly sexual, and then you really can sense the botanical whiffs of Fracas and Blonde; all the classic, dressed up French tuberose waters. But then again, when she is in another mood, or at a different time of day, she is rubbery, mentholated, and yes, really, there in the air in front of you is a brief snatch of Lutens’ Tubereuse Criminelle, lifting tantalizingly and provocatively before your eyes.

 

 

 

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Like the ylang ylang flowers I experienced also, one can’t help feeling, nevertheless, that no perfume, or essential oil extraction, has really done this flower full justice.

 

 

It is almost as if she has been slandered, actually, forced into some madonna/whore dichotomy that, while buttery, erotic, made for feminine splendour and the night, never fully renders successfully her multifaceted,  lunar, lucent, putrescent beauty.

 

 

 

 

 

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the woman with the owls; the taxi driver who ‘ripped us off’; monkey-boy; and other stories

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                   (d’s impossibly neat and elegant luggage: you should see mine………) 

 

 

 

 

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THIEVES IN THE TEMPLE: MY SACRILEGIOUS FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH YLANG YLANG FLOWERS AT THE TAMAN SARI WATER PALACE, YOGYAKARTA

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It somehow felt inevitable that we would have a blistering argument the moment we left the vanilla plantation. It had been utterly magical; fascinating, unforgettable –  movingly so – and yet we had also surrendered autonomy in many ways – our mealtimes planned and eaten together with the family and our translator; the lessons and plantation visiting schedule fixed,  basically, for each day.

Part of me loved all of this. No internet, no responsibilities, the receptiveness of being taught something I deeply wanted to learn, the absolute beauty of the place itself. I was even quite enjoying the early to bed, early to rise aspect of it as well, which lay in stark contrast to my usual hectic workweek here in Japan: in our (separate) beds by 9.30pm each night; up with the lark before seven each day for our back-to-basics morning ablutions (buckets of cold water sloshed over the head and body – there was no hot water or shower…), the excited, whistle- while-you-work washing of clothes and the hanging them out to dry in our own private garden, set high up in the hills by vanilla fields and durian trees, as the plantation rose to life and the sights, sounds and smells of the place fused slowly and beautifully with your senses.

Yet at the same time, there was a certain sense of being incognito, of suppressing something. We were working on the basis of being two ‘friends’ with mutual interest in vanilla cultivation staying together at the guesthouse, not as a couple, though a realization of this must have seeped through to the Agus clan the more time we all spent together. Not that it would probably have mattered, anyway. Java struck me as a very open, accepting place, with a draw towards ambiguity or ambivalence, Islamically moderate, calm, and pluricultural. And yet, being constantly in the presence of a traditional, gender-roled, extended family; the being always, always, surrounded by the calls to prayer from the mosques in the village below, five times a day from four o’clock in the morning to evening, and the general sense of propriety and hardworking ‘goodness’ that seemed to prevail all round us, led to a strange chastening of the spirit; a certain almost overbearing ‘holiness’ where even in the privacy of our own guest lodge we could barely even muster a child-like kiss on the cheek goodnight.

That music from the mosques. I must talk about it. Since I was a child I have been inexplicably attracted to Arab music. Where others might possibly hear something merely foreign, exotic, even sinister, in the sound of the mullahs singing the Islamic call to prayer, I hear nothing other than a deep, soul-stirringly beautiful sound that lulls me into an otherworldly state of hypnotized awe. It goes right through me, pierces to my centre, in a way that Christian choral music, beautiful though it can be, does not. Is it something from another life: the entreating, speaker-amplified voices of the singers in mosques haunting to me in their earnestness as they rise up to you on the wind; and, when there are several mosques in the vicinity of each other, first one mullah, then another, begins to sing, in different keys, different songs, until you end up, finally, with an exquisite cacophany that disturbs and excites the soul with its profound, religious sensuality. I was practically ready to convert.

At the same time, the edicts against homosexuality in strict Islam (we are supposed have a wall toppled onto us as the punishment for our sins, the body crushed justfully under the stones) are rather less appealing to one’s sensibilities you might say, and created, when you are being plied with this music five times a day and at such volume – the position of the plantation meant that the noise rose up, was carried on the air, and reached you wherever you were, even inside your rooms with all doors closed – all of it meant that we were in some ways peculiarly overwhelmed yet hollowed out by the time we left; full to the brim with feelings, visual images, and experiences that we hadn’t expressed at all to each other while there, every night just retiring to our separate chambers (just a creaky old mattress and a blanket), brains so replete with images and unexpressed sensations that it was only a matter of time before something burst.

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Back again in the traffic clogged congestion of fiery Bandung city we had a massive row, almost immediately, at a hideous hotel we ended up staying at (we decided to leave a day early), practically coming to blows on the streets that night, about god knows what, one thing though being the discomfort we both had of course felt about being the ‘colonials’, being ferried about by the driver with our translator and vanilla horticultural experts,  having our bags and suitcases carried by ‘servants’ and so on and so forth, and how we had reacted to the unpleasant sensation of having relative power and money (had I been acting like a character from a Merchant Ivory production? Did I take to being waited on day and night just that little bit too easily? Possibly).

Sleep that night, anyway, was sour, infuriated and drunken, and I was panicking secretly that the rest of the holiday was going to be a disaster. The good thing with me and D, though, is that neither of us is the grudge type, and once grievances are expelled from the system they usually just disappear immediately into the ether: the next day’s seven hour train trip to Yogyakarta – Java’s Kyoto to Jakarta’s Tokyo – was like a dream, as was our stay in that city, with its magnificent World Heritage temples of Borobudur (Buddhist) and Prambanan (Hindu), the more laid back, relaxing feeling in the atmosphere; the lack of traffic cloying and polluting the streets – the major disadvantage of life in the other cities we visited.

Here you could just take things in and not feel that your spoiled western lungs were the repository for layers of Honda or Suzuki motorbike exhaust fumes during the journeys from one place to another that started to take on a sensation of mild trauma.

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After a wild, unexpected and spontaneous evening spent hanging out with some rubbish collectors we met on the way back to the hotel the first night (drinking beer sat on the pavement with them outside a popular convenience store), the next morning we took a leisurely trip down to the Sultan’s Palace, an elegant and serene place where classical gamelan concerts are given (Duncan was utterly mesmerized by this, as was I, though I didn’t go into an actual trance-like state the way he did), a lovely walled complex with white and gold buildings that you can just stroll about in, take in the sultan’s art collection,  relax in its peaceful, gardened environs.

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We decided, after a few hours spent here, to then go the royal Water Palace at Taman Sari, as it was quite close (we took one of those bicycle taxis as the sun was getting a bit too intense), a place where sultans of the past were said to laze in the pleasure gardens watching women bathe in its refreshing, acquaamarine pools. It was nice there, though I was feeling a bit fatigued in the midnoon, baking sun(probably all the Bintang beers of the night before taking their toll….)

But as we were leaving, on the way out, I happened to dip quickly, just out of interest, into a couple of small shrines that I quickly realized were cool dark, and deliciously scented.

I came out.

Then had to go straight back in.

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Wait a minute. Was that what I think it was?  Is that…..

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I went into another, temple guardians sitting outside, and before I knew it I had not only taken a couple of quick snaps for you all here, but also stolen, instinctively, pleasurably, and with the swiftness of a seasoned pickpocket, all the ylang ylang flowers I had found and smelled, freshly cut, permeating, nestled together with roses and some other white flowers there in a wicker bowl.

Ylang Ylang!!!!!

YLANG YLANG  ? ! ! ! ! ! !

I was beside myself.          *        *           *            *        

And I am greedy.

Though I had been satiated and exhilarated by all the delicious vanilla at Villa Domba, amazed by the cardamom and coffee, I was still, inside, mildly disappointed that I would not get the chance to see real ylang ylang, something that we would have been guaranteed to see in Madagascar had we gone there instead as originally planned, particularly on the island of Nosy Bé.

I really love ylang ylang, more than any other white, tropical floral – gardenia, tuberose, jasmine and frangipani included – and for two decades have been harbouring a strong desire to see these flowers in the flesh, no longer satisfied with botanical drawings in black and white, or  photographs; their ragged-petalled, perfumed hats….

DUNCAN!

DUNCAN!!!!!

LOOK!!!

It was as if I had been transformed into another person, no longer tired (and a touch bored); suddenly exhilarated beyond measure like the maniac I am to be holding actual, (deeply illicit) ylang ylang flowers in my hands ( the smell of gorgeous flowers will always be more thrilling to me than some old architectural ruins….I am not much of a sightseer in this regard, really…)

The morality of this theft, the desecration of a holy offering, didn’t occur to me until much later (besides, as my close friends know, I have been stealing flowers all my life….); all I knew was that I had to have them, and I had them in my hands.

The theft itself had been so swift as to be almost unconscious.

I was smelling the fresh flowers, experiencing ylang ylang as something familiar, yet utterly new.

Like rose or jasmine absolutes, which don’t actually smell very much like their living and breathing counterparts, ylang ylang in the flesh is far, far fresher and more lightly nuanced than the creamy, exotically banana harshness you get from some inferior ylang ylang oils. It certainly contained the ylang ylang note we know so well from the top notes of such perfumes as Chanel No 5 and vintage Madame Rochas, but there was also a far greener, almost lily-like freshness, more delicacy, more intelligence and gracefulness in these flowers than I was expecting. Less day-glo emulsion, more pure, expertly chosen, vivid watercolour. Fortunately, I later got another chance to smell (and, unfortunately, steal) more ylang ylang flowers from a tree in someone’s front garden in Malang, a few days later  just avoiding getting caught one afternoon we spent wandering around the town, and these freshly plucked flowers were exactly the same: exquisite, actually.

There is some of the more peppery nuance in the fresh flowers that can be found in the top notes of Diptyque’s Eau Mohéli and Caron’s My Ylang (which makes more sense to me now, as a perfume, having smelled the genuine article), plus reminiscences of the beautiful and unusual ylang ylang absolute that is used in the head notes of Annick Goutal’s classic tropical, Songes.

Heaven.

As I was later to find, to my utter delight and surprise again with tuberose, coming into contact with plants I could only have fantasized about before this trip to Java, was, for a true fragrance lover like me, literally a dream come true.

It had been a long morning, though, and we were ready to lie down for a while back at the hotel before we got ready to go out to the evening ballet at the Prambanan ruins.

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and we drove back to the hotel through the hot city streets, D in a reverie, me totally, and utterly, absorbed in my handful of ylang ylang flowers, that I held fixedly, and obsessedly, to my nose throughout.

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NOTES FROM THE OTHER SIDE

[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 late 90s, Ginza delved even deeper into this riotous genre with Jungle L’Elephant by Kenzo and Pi by Givenchy, until his rind could take no more. These powerhouse ‘fumes are not for the faint of heart or delicate of peau!)

At about the same time, we double-doused with the beguiling, cavernously masculine, Ungaro I, the scent equivalent of seduction in an outsized sunken bath! Yet, there is something slightly ectoplasmic hovering over the marbled luxe and machismo of the seduction scene. Perhaps it’s the lavender which, in the context of that ambery base, hints of at a ghostly presence? The hunk’s pile is defo haunted, but perhaps this element of supernature is no small part of his allure.

In the noughties, I guess, we did vie over stately Racine by Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier. I definitely coveted that redoubtable number and wanted sole dousing rights. I would file it wishfully in my section of the perfume cabinet (nestling up to L’Artisan Parfumeur Navigateur and Rocco Barocco Vetiver) — something that Ginza was having none of! We may have argued about it even (‘You have so many bottles, surely you can spare one!’ ‘But it suits me more!’ ‘It does not!’ etc. etc.).

But to my knowledge those three scents, Le Male, Ungaro 1, and Racine, are the sum total of any overlap!

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Of course, Ginza’s scent territory is vast – from coconuts to carnations, heady orientalia to matronly oud, encompassing Cossack leather, oceanic ozone and citrus spritz; the whole gamut, really, from primordial animalic soup to apple-white ethereal (the scarcely perceptible scents of his workplace)!

My scent range is certainly very narrow by comparison (though impeccable, obviously!). Much as Ginza is always trying to have me in some floral olfactory get-up (he partially succeeded this summer as my Japanese sun screen was plumeria-scented), I best like scents with sunlight and a dry rustle in them – aromatics that blend vetiver (above all, vetiver!), tea, tobacco, pepper, pine, cedar, with Silk Road spices and a handful of dust. The kinds of scents where sun-baked rock melds with Mediterranean herb, where moss kisses bark, and stubble-field ash mingles with the salt sea air, like pine-smoked lapsang souchong…

Here are the scents that I currently wear and love.

 

QUINCE, MINT AND MOSS by Union (2012)

When I was a child, fruit picking was a summer institution. My brother and I would cycle to a strawberry field, which had an opening onto the main road, to pilfer punnets for dinner (and sometimes to earn a bit on the side, too, by selling them on). We weren’t supposed to but the field was too tempting and no one ever said anything. Others in the know could be observed loading up, too.  

One day we clocked some miniature pear-like fruits on a tree by the opening to the field and assumed they were crab apples. I’m sure we must have had a nibble for we took a few back home for identification purposes. My parents realised these were quinces and could be stewed and served in pies and crumbles (though in truth, suburban people weren’t that much given to cooking with them by the 80s!). This bygone ‘pome’ hadn’t really crossed my mind since that summer (have never seen it in Japan – and have missed the last decade of UK artisan emporiums with super-posh conserves)… hadn’t crossed my mind, until I read the name of this scent: Quince, Mint and Moss. What a lovely idea.

 

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Apparently, since antiquity, quince has been used as a breath freshener, owing to its sweet perfumed aroma. Brides chomped on it to create a pleasing oral first impression. Meanwhile, Edward Lear’s owl and pussycat took rhyming slices of it with their mince!

 

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In this scent, a lighthearted, tangy feminine quince note certainly softens the mint, which is scarcely detectable making this a more rounded and honeyed scent than mint and moss alone might have been (mint can, after all, be bracing – take, for example, Dirty by Lush). Conversely, I suppose, the mint keeps the quince from becoming overly cloying and mead-like. Juniper suggests the civilized clink of ice in a summer cocktail (yum), while the mountain ash and soft mossy lower reaches are lovely, too, adding just enough earthy depth without flattening things out.

A little bit of this elixir goes a long way and smelling it after a couple of hours I am reminded faintly (because of the lime leaf perhaps and a lingering lilt of quince?) of the gorgeous lemon grass accords of Thai cuisine.

All in all a fabulous piece of work. Well done Union. (Rather a shame about the packaging, but there.)

 

 

EAU DE GLOIRE by Parfum D’Empire (2005)

This elegant scent was inspired by the cologne-loving Napoleon Bonaparte. Knowing this, you will definitely feel like you are striding out, assuming a perfumed mantle that is imbued with the complex dignity (and arrogance) of one who was statesman, militarist, despot, lawmaker, lover, emperor, and exile… so fasten ya scent belts.

Smelling this in the bottle, I am vaguely reminded of Rectoverso Man’s Tea Tobacco, which I have always liked, though Eau de Gloire, obviously, is more nuanced. A mildly medicinal quality at first, with lavender, bergamot, tangerine and myrtle… scents of herb and citrus carried on a breeze over the Corsican promontory.

Freshness fades and a velvety, amorous core is revealed. I like the persistent aniseed note, suggesting the intoxications of power (mingled with bittersweet wormwood mortality). It’s a heady parabola, that includes liquorice, and what goes up, must come down to earth: the law of gravity, the patient pull of the grave.

The final chapter is deliciously dry and dusty with leather, oakmoss, tobacco and incense. And so with dark delicacy the scent fades. A dignified olfactory epitaph.

(NB, meanwhile, was denied the dignity of comfortable confinement and had to live out his days in dank and meagre circumstances on Saint Helena, allegedly slow-poisoned by his captors, or his wallpaper, or both. Spared the gallows or the guillotine, though.)

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POIVRE SAMARCANDE by Hermes (2004)

Something about Poivre Samarcande is just beyond reach. This scent is perfectly suave but it keeps you at arm’s length. It’s silvery and masculine, sexy but cerebral, with a strong aura that loses tangibility the closer you get.

 

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Samarkand was a central station on the fabled Silk Road trading route and so it has as brilliant and chequered a history as you might expect, with marauding Mongols and mendicant monks aplenty, a mess of religions and rulers, and a rich culture of commerce and architecture. Here, the dominant colour of buildings is said to be blue, a colour once associated with warding off evil, and with life-giving water, so precious in a desert kingdom.

Poivre Samarcande starts with a riveting pepper note (paired with chili). This is underpinned by oak and cedar. Chinese moss and musk smudge the cool minimalism of the peppery wood palette. A mysterious kid glove effect.

I am very drawn to this scent and for me it conjures those refined young aristocrats painted by Titian with their grey green eyes and impeccable mien. Worldly. Slightly adrift in reverie. Untouchable in their way.

 

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FEMINITE DU BOIS by Shiseido (1992)

I have appropriated a small bottle of the original Christopher Sheldrake parfum that I use sparingly. I love the strong plum note in the opening (trumpeting, almost black forest gateau-rich) and the tinge of peach-stone bitterness (a tad medicinal, cherry brandy-soaked). The warm woody dry down (including cedar and sandalwood) keeps things spicily elegant. For me, the balance of fruit, spice, wood and musk delicately hints at chocolate liqueurs and yuletide mirth, mercifully avoiding the wretched headache-inducing marzipan effects that sometimes smother lesser accords (dire Dolce e Gabbana Pour Homme, for example!). Fruity and sensual in its final stages.

 

JICKY by Guerlain (1889)

Of all the Guerlains, this and Aqua Allegoria Lavande Velours (see below), are the only ones I frequent. I am certainly often drawn to perfumes with lavender in them (true to my Norfolk roots, perhaps?). I like the way lavender contrasts with other notes, how it can seem ethereal or earthy depending…

The opening of Jicky is beyond my power to describe! So many notes vying for attention. It is only after the scent settles that I can feel the harmonies come together. Rose, lavender, jasmine, iris, orris, various citruses, leather, spice, civet, patchouli, amber, vanilla, and so on – a very fine and complex roster of notes. I am reminded of traditional laundry scents, together with something equestrian (saddles? oiled leather?). There is something very powdery sweet going on; then again, a fresh complexity that persists delightfully; one minute coppery and metallic, the next boudoir bodily…

I doubt I will ever understand Jicky but I love to wear and admire it. It has amazing staying power, too.

 

AQUA ALLEGORIA LAVANDE VELOURS by Guerlain (1999)

Aqua Allegoria Lavande Velours is the ideal eau de toilette with which to scent a handkerchief! For this scent offers a serene voluminous powderiness that could mask the stench of an eighteenth century cobblestone street – one strewn with horse crap, the contents of emptied chamber pots, rotten refuse, and putrid entrails. It’s dreamy but somehow simultaneously muscular and no-nonsense.

 

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The lavender/violet combo is tremendously effective. Violet gives space and blanches out the initial sourness of the lavender, while lavender keeps the melancholy ethereality of the Viola grounded, with practical herbal substance and wisdom. Traces of iris, sandalwood and vanilla provide a gentle support.

Foppish and above it all. Flute sonata in a walled garden. Not much truck with the world beyond those walls.

 

 

BLACK ANGEL by Mark Buxton (2009)

Black Angel is an evocative name. My first thoughts are of leather, Lucifer, motorbike gangs, Charles Manson, the erotically charged torsos of Mapplethorpe. And then upon further reflection, a flip side to the equation: the black Virgin icons of Medieval Europe and Mexican Catholicism, multi-culti murals, and Elizabeth Welch singing ‘Stormy Weather’ in Jarman’s The Tempest!!

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Nothing of the sort! At least not on my skin.

 

This scent has naught to do with fallen archangels, cults, homoerotic fetish objects, Catholic relics, cultural inclusion, or campy sequences in art flicks – well as far as I can tell it doesn’t. I don’t find dark sensuality or light sanctity in it myself.

 

Rather this is ginger fizz, a cola bottle chew, a Pepsi spritz –  a surprisingly tenacious mood-booster. Ginger and coriander make for a very striking opening, and yet there is something a lot more citrus and airy about it than this may sound. The first impression is modern and extremely optimistic.

 

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There’s a Peter Pan lightness that feels pleasingly devoid of conscience and history, but very replete with memories of childhood in an immediate, present tense kind of way, of the Friday night miniature paper bags of treats that my dad always brought back from the newsagent – cola bottles, sweet bananas, pink shrimps, lime chocolates, flying saucers – our excitement, every time! And also of my grandfather’s drinks cabinet, whiskey, eggnog, ice bucket, tongs, mixers, wooden bowls for peanuts! This scent is full of the optimism of TGIF, of the young weekend ahead! Certainly perfect for cocktail-fuelled capers in summer night cities.

 

Tipsiness, silliness, banter, flirtation. You have to follow wherever Black Angel takes you, leaping off into the night like the Baby Sham bambi. (‘On and on and on,’ as the song mischievously says, ’til the night is gone…’)

 

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The drydown may have something woody about it, but compared to what I’m used to (much more pronounced woody aromatic numbers), it seems beside the point, which to my mind is buoyant, mercurial charm.

‘Black Angel’ is very well-made, with the clean immediacy and instant appeal of a deft logo! And it makes a nice contrast to my usual gentlemanly aromatics.

So when you need to marry the night (and meet the dawn), do so with Black Angel. Amen.

 

 

Honorable mentions:  Sultan (a light woody oud Ginza picked up in Java – layers beautifully with…); … with Laguna by Berlin’s superb Harry Lehmann brand (Ginza adds lime essential oil for extra zing – the Harry Lehmann range are perfect scents to layer with others – they are also ridiculously under-priced! in any other city they’d be bloody expensive); Tea for Two by L’Artisan Parfumeur (nutty, cigar box, a bit trad jazz, a bit gap-toothed wideboy!); Cuba by Czech and Speake (powerhouse tobacco cuba libre! – not to be confused with the buttery Santa Maria Novella number – my idea of horror with its hideous musky drydown); Navigateur by L’Artisan Parfumeur (I never quite pulled it off but I still mucho admire it – Moorish Spain – intense sunlight – strong coffee – gorgeous and unique); Yatagan by Caron (I have to finally shelve out on a bottle – clearly brilliant); and my new kid on the block (birthday present from Ginza last week): Sartorial by Penhaligon’s (another gentlemanly lavender number with intriguing depths – we’ll see…); …plus too many vetivers and citrus colognes to mention here!

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MY JAVAN DREAM

 

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It has been over five weeks since I wrote anything new on the Black Narcissus, and three since we returned from Java.

  

This is not intentional. Rather than lassitude, a paucity of ideas, or some kind of general slump leading me to take a break from my usual flow of writing, it’s more a case of the reverse: so flushed, inundated with sensory overload, olfactory and otherwise, that despite the rush of ideas that I was having for this blog the whole time I was in Indonesia, with words rising up in me constantly, they were always instantaneously crushed, almost pleasingly so, by the sheer living vividness of the experience, my brain and senses wanting to just be and imbibe, smell and listen, rather than translate or transcribe each moment in my usual extravagant manner into language. I ended up writing not a word.

 

I am only now starting to feel back to my usual self.  The last time I wrote, exhausted from the end of the malingering school term in the sweltering August heat (record temperatures and humidity this year), I then wound up with an ear infection after going swimming at the beach one day that saw me half deaf in the classroom, listless and morbid on my futon, depleted and spaced out beyond measure, apathetic and immobile right up until the day before our flight from Tokyo to Jakarta.

 

There I got better, quickly: we both did: bloomed, stimulated and excited by this new environment we found ourselves in, a city of spice, choked chaos and crazed motorbike-clogged mayhem, but also a strange, preternatural calm; a serenity, ease of eye; feline elegance and a strange, magnetically positive, deepness of spirit that had us bewildered and in love with its naturalness.

 

Why did we feel so relaxed and home here? Why, when the culture of Java is so unlike that of Europe or Japan, did we feel so right in this ‘exotic’, ‘developing’ environment? It is a question whose answer continues to elude us. We have not had this feeling anywhere else.

 

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Admittedly, at the end of the holiday, despite my best efforts with water avoidance, I did in fact succumb to the tourist’s predictable gastric horrors and spent the last couple of days and the first week back in Japan ill (but still dreaming): back in that heat, no energy again, depressed at the thought that it was all over and that I had to work again and at my utter incapacity to write, or even express, even to myself, what it was that I was feeling, what I can only now think of as some kind of beautiful, hypnotizing spell.

 

Duncan was the same. Where usually we would be sharing our photos and facebooking left right and centre about our travels to a new country, on this occasion we inexplicably couldn’t even look at the videos or photos we took on the holiday for three weeks (some of which I have put up here). We couldn’t even vocalize anything about the trip at first, days passing with us merely looking at each other, acknowledging the fact that something had happened that was very special, that it went quite deep, and that we emphatically didn’t feel like being back in Japan.

 

So what did ‘happen’? Why am I seemingly overreacting in this manner to what was, basically, just a holiday?

 

I don’t know. Nothing really. There was no epiphany, or ‘spiritual understanding’ or anything like that (unless there was, and it is still winding its way through me, some kind of slow, profound, alchemical process….)

 

We found the geological metaphor the best way of attempting to clarify the feeling though: of deep sediments that hadn’t been filled before in the other cultures we have known; geographical strata that lay further down in our souls/psyche, in spaces that we hadn’t even known existed to be filled. An uncanny, wide-eyed, homeful realness.  

 

There is something about going to a place you have never been especially interested in before, or felt merely neutral about; you go without prejudice or preconceptions, or set images in your brain. Where reading about Madagascar, the originally intended vanilla adventure, had let its fascinations (and dangers) seep woozily into my head long before we even had to cancel the flight, with Java we didn’t even have a guidebook. We just knew that Mr Ramada Agus’ driver was picking us up outside the Hotel De Java in Bandung (Indonesia’s second city: did you know? I had never even heard of it) at 8am on the 17th of August. Other than than, and the hotels we had quickly picked online, we knew nothing.

 

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I can’t recommend this unorthodox method of choosing an adventure highly enough, this being beset by a place, like stepping through a magic window into a new realm, without prior knowledge clouding up the mirror. All is new; all is fresh; everything is to be discovered. Time is slow. The new reality etches itself into your retina, more vividly and purely; experience, colour seared onto your consciousness.

 

Thus awakened, we rambled happily about Jakarta for a few days, took a four hour train journey to Bandung, and from there were taken to Ciang Kwang, the most beautiful rice-paddied village with a backdrop of classical Javan mountains in the landscape;  banana trees; the beautiful, filigreed elegance of balletic-leaved papaya trees, deliciously coloured houses (the architectural sensibility was one of the biggest surprises of the holiday, actually): friendly neighbourhood mosques, children playing along the roadside, all nestling restfully up against the bruised, palm-laden sky, and, then, up to the wonderful Villa Domba, where the five day vanilla course was set to begin.

 

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It was such a deeply enjoyable experience for numerous reasons. The vanilla was sublime – you should have smelled the curing room in the upstairs room of the family house – but I am still not entirely sure how I should approach all that here: whether as an extended, full-length article, in small pieces, or chronologically mixed- up with flowers, leading, eventually to the heart of the story – as I had so many other non-vanillic, gorgeous sensory experiences as well: ylang ylang in Yogyakarta; tuberose in Malang; the cardamom groves; frangipani; the coffee trees, durian fruit; coconut; even civet:

 

 

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 : possibly the best jasmine I have ever smelled in a five star air-conditioned hotel lobby; delicious culinary discoveries (we had Sundanese home cooking three meals a day while on the plantation), all of it sensuous and flooding my soul, but the whole of the trip post-Bandung deeply permeated with the aroma of the vanilla beans from the estate that I carried about with me every day; slept with; ate, drank, infused: inhaled constantly, used as my book markers – on the gorgeous train trips across Java where we sat back and relaxed and watched villages and mountains go by  – the vanilla that perfumed the family house, that grew all around us, that we studied in great detail and could really feel the real love for.

 

The family and people who work at Villa Domba spend so much time and energy growing, tending to, harvesting, treating and curing these vanilla beans (one vanilla orchid produces only one bean a year) that seeing it first hand was truly inspiring; thought-changing.

 

In fact it was this, the people, that has caused our uncharacteristic descent (if you like) into dream state. They were so lovely. And it has somehow affected us in some profound way that I don’t think is merely ‘holiday blues’. It felt almost preordained, predestined, as if something completely new, and yet already there, were just waiting to be revealed. What it was I still don’t fully understand. Or know how, here, if I can fully do it justice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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