ON LONDON + LONDON by GUERLAIN ( 2011 )

sidestreet

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 popular British TV crime series, Luther, 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.

47 Comments

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47 responses to “ON LONDON + LONDON by GUERLAIN ( 2011 )

  1. Tara

    I knew you weren’t a fan of London but didn’t realise you felt quie that bad here. It’s always been my home so I guess it’s different for me, but I do see its intimidating, unfriendly side.

    I guess because I live right on the London/MIddlesex border and only venture into the centre of town for fun, it makes it quite a dfiferent experience to living in the midst of it the city whole time. I wonder how I’d cope with that. Probably not very well.

    The Guerlain sounds like a picture postcard of genteel London but I guess the real version might not have been quite as sppealing 🙂

    • The perfume has a certain girl at home watching The X Factor vibe to it, but you wouldn’t guess London from smelling it.

      As for London itself, I can imagine that living close to it but not actually in it could have been quite thrilling, especially as a teenager. I used to find going into Birmingham from Solihull exhilarating, so I can imagine exploring such a huge place must have been very exciting.

      I was never an understated person ( perhaps why I wanted to live in Italy? ) and I do wonder why I feel the way I do. There is a Saint Etienne song ( now theirs is a London aesthetic I can relate to) called London Belongs To Me, but I can never imagine feeling that way. It feels like a place to endure rather than enjoy, on the whole, though I am obviously aware of its pleasures. Overall, though, I just find it …. grimy, on the literal and soulful level.

  2. Clare

    I live very close to the centre of London, just south of the river. I’ve got to admit, completely irrationally, I found your dislike for it personally quite painful; because I enjoy and admire your writing so much, reading this post was unpleasantly dissonant. It’s made me examine my unwavering love of the place, which is something, as a practiced navel gazer, I’m shocked to discover I’ve never questioned before. This is going to sound sarcastic, but it isn’t: I’m really grateful for that.

    Of course, now I’ve come out the other side, I’m desperate to defend it to you, even though it’s completely hopeless. The sense that London is most exclusive, is that it has the power to make people react viscerally, and violently, both for and against it. It revels me for grimy urban bumpkin that I am, but I feel almost a pagan love of London, and like the many millions of others over thousands of years, it belongs to me because I belong to it, no matter who owns the townhouses in Mayfair.

    • I absolutely adore what you write here, and I feel it.

      I think I probably also have some kind of unexpressed love for the place also, because reading about being ‘south of the river’ gives me some kind of beautiful pain.

  3. Hello Neil! I feel like I haven’t commented in ages and that it’s definitely to do with various hectic changes in outlook for me. I can’t disagree with your views of London at all, though it goes in phases for me, and I have quite a lovely community of people atm in South London, perhaps holding me back form starting afresh somewhere new. Since splitting up with my boyfriend I haven’t been into town very much (bearing in mind I’m actually only in Kennington which isn’t far at all) and I think it must be in part to do with vulnerability and a certain illusion being shattered. But more importantly, what you say about the living and breathing, historical, aspect of the city, it’s secrets, is so shockingly true that it saddens me to see the way in which the powers that be manage to put the blinkers on people, and the city is incredibly powerful, feeding off of the energy of the unaware ‘herds’ of alienated people. That sounds dramatic but it is true. I’ve recently been spending time looking at the layout and architecture of the main areas of power, and also the area just outside my door in Kennington/Oval. Looking into a bit of local history, Kennington Park used to be a common, and was a site of many radical political gatherings, (the whole area as a whole was a lively place and there are many many interesting things that took place) culminating in the Chartist rally in 1848, (which was the subject of the earliest photograph of a large crowd). A very short time after this, the Common was enclosed and turned into a Royal Park, all public gatherings apart from officially allowed ones were prohibited. It was also the site of a tragedy in WW2 when due to a fault in structure an air raid shelter collapsed killing hundreds of people, many many of which were never recovered. This isn’t something any of the people sitting in the park are aware of, there is a small monument that was put up in 2006. Anyway I digress! All of the beautiful theatres and public houses around this park have been replaced with ugly social housing blocks and the social services aka jobcentre. There’s a huge amount of history that is denied in the effacement of the area (the site itself was considered to be a sacred tumulus). From the Imperial Court, just up the road, if you stand right in the centre in front of the dome, the road opposite leads straight down to the most clearly framed view of Big Ben. I think that the people that built and continue to build this city have esoteric knowledge and use it to exercise control. I can’t say if it stops there, or if they actually believe in the power of the symbols that they use, their origins in ancient Egypt, the occult or the bloody freemasons?! All I know is that they have knowledge of signs and symbols that they keep using, and don’t disclose why. Take for instance the Gherkin (massive Pineal gland) and the obelisk, Tower of Babel-like Shard, the female Millenium Dome. Not things I’ve thought much about before to be honest, and I know I sound like a conspiracy nut job, but a lack in my own education highlights to me the elite nature of knowledge in the first place – the point at which they started educating the masses came about with a new era of democratic leadership, and the classics etc not something for the lower classes to concern themselves with. Though as a reasonably curious, educated person, I wonder why my own conclusions always rested in social historical materialism, seeing the ‘higher’ works of Shakespeare and co as something glorious and aspirational and artistic, when in fact these symbols of power have been in my face all along! Sorry for such a ramble!

    • No. I feel strangely choked up and close to tears reading this Katherine ( on the way home, in a taxi ).

      • katherinec

        Also, another reason why I haven’t commented much recently is for fear of ranting away, but looking again at the film Metropolis, which concludes with the words ‘The mediator between head and hands must be the heart’, the power structure still in place, I think that the mediator is the media, and that the role of Maria has been played by the likes of Madonna and Gaga (whose name is taken from Queen’s Radio Ga Ga video, which uses clips from Metropolis)… Madonna in the Material Girl video portrayed as the Great Harlot Babylon (a role which the evil robot Maria also acts out). Sorry. Totally fallen down the rabbit hole. Perhaps all of the clever imagery used in pop music is just fun..

      • Possible, but possibly not.

        I like these connections. And Gaga and Madonna are the only two who I can’t explain my own feelings about: there IS something deeper.

      • katherinec

        And I was also reminded, when thinking of all this, of your post on the devil, in which you pondered the possibility that there’s something real in all of it and that Lady Gaga is possibly working for it, and going through a traumatic destabilising time thinking about it all I refrained from asking you, not wanting to crazily scare you or anything!

      • No well I am pleased you remember that post. My feelings were genuine, as I’m sure you gathered. I had to let it pass, though…

      • Yes sorry to divert the topic like that, as far as letting it go goes, I know that it’s unhealthy to absorb myself too much in pop culture but I also know that spending hours on the internet reading conspiracies that I lack the specialist knowledge in the first place to be fully critical of is not conducive to peace of mind or clear thinking! Going back to London, I also relate to finding the sheer amount of people, of strangers, overwhelming sometimes, much in the way my young nephew probably would if he visited, and yet we become naturalised to a certain extent. And I also have felt that, especially as far as British horizons go, that there is no other place to be, that everyone and everything is here…and it’s exciting to feel a part of the forefront of things I suppose. I think if there were other major cities in Europe that had English as a main language I would be tempted to move (lazy and cowardly as that sounds I think I would find the prospect of a new town and new language too much, especially without money or connections). My Mum always moans that the whole country is London-centric, especially when the weather forecast comes on!

      • katherinec

        I’m also drawn in my mind now to the London of Mike Leigh’s Naked, and the series This Life, don’t know why but they do both paint the city as cold and grey (and is that a similar time to when you would have been there?). I once had a panic attack in Brixton, in a particularly sensitive mood in my head I was picking up on the religious confusion and suffering in the area, it only seems to get more hectic nowadays, especially with the gentrification – I don’t know if you’ve been there recently but the market is obscenely gentrified, there’s a champagne bar and all sorts, but in the guise of good old guardian reading foodie culture, it’s a good place to go I suppose! It’s also interesting (in my silly head) that you lived with Stanley Kubrick’s niece! Seeing as he spent much of his life seemingly trying to expose hidden goings on…

  4. Wow, another terrific piece. Your writing is awesome and full
    If emotion.

  5. Tora

    Beautiful piece, Neil. You always take me away, to right where your writing speaks of. I understand what you are saying. I very much enjoy when you write about place. As much or more so than when you write about perfume.

  6. Julia Burke

    I was transported Neil – I have never lived in London and haven’t even visited that often – but have always had the feeling that living there could either be exhilarating and fulfilling (but only if you really worked hard to achieve this) or (if you let your efforts slip) suffocating and depressingly claustrophobic – a series of dead-ends and groundhog days. No happy medium. Made me laugh that you forgot about the perfume.

    • Funny. I was just rueing not having spent longer, yet again, on these splurgey pieces which could do with being mulled over, sharpened and honed for a bit longer. I tend to just get totally sucked into whatever I am writing about, check through it quickly ( usually against the clock as I have to be going somewhere ) and then press ‘publish’. I suppose that does have some pros though in a way because even if clumsily phrased or rushed, it can have a certain immediacy, so I am delighted you say you were transported, Jules.

      London…..I don’t know. It looms over you somehow, and like you say, despite its vast size, can be depressingly claustrophobic.

      I have just thought though: can you imagine it not being there? Psychologically it would be horrific. Manchester the capital?

  7. David

    I love when you write about places. I would love to hear more about your impressions of Los Angeles and San Francisco. And I hope you write about Florida when you get back from your December holidays.

    I’ve only visited London once and for some reason I kept thinking I should be in the British countryside, walking about. Or visiting British Trust gardens. I usually connect with cities, so this was odd. Maybe it was the expense of London. It seemed way overpriced, almost like being ripped off.

    I always enjoy experimenting with perfumes that are meant to evoke cities. Have you tried Tom Ford’s London? How about Le Labo’s London? I really like wearing New York by Parfums de Nicolai. It makes me feel so confident.
    I wish there were a perfume for São Paulo. Men here seem to favor tobacco notes. Do you have any favorite tobacco fragrances?

    I am also transported by your writing and by the photos and illustrations you post.

    • You are always too nice about my ridiculous indulgences but thankyou very much all the same.

      I actually haven’t tried either of those London scents you mention, but imagine that they would be closer to London’s spirit than this fruity business.

      As for the city, what you say definitely makes sense to me, but as some people commenting here have said, if you live there it is probably different. For me, there is something ultimately so impersonal, yet simultaneously supercilious, about the place.

    • Ps tobacco is more D’s thing: do you have any recommendations,

  8. Renee Stout

    This post and the responses to it were amazing! Thank you all. I have never been to London and had been wondering about it, but I have come to trust your judgment on many things and will have to reconsider my desire to visit London, especially since, like Katherinec, I am very sensitive to the energy of places. I don’t want to travel that far and spend that much money to be depressed. With my limited funds, I’d rather go to a place that will leave me feeling uplifted and hopeful about the world after I’ve visited. London sounds like Washington, DC, where I live. All that could be beautiful and inspiring is overshadowed by the politics of the world, which at this moment could make you want to just lay down and die…if it wasn’t for perfume and its ability to instantly transform my outlook and encourage me to imagine and dream beyond the environment and circumstances I find myself in. For me there is sanity, art and beauty in those 300 bottles that sit behind me on shelves as I type this on my computer. Anyway, I have been to Moscow and St. Petersburg and I feel that you would have loved those places if you would have visited at the time I visited, which was the year 2000. The people didn’t smile much and were not overtly friendly and this was, no doubt, a result of living through decades of paranoia and suspicion in a time when your neighbor might report you to the “authorities” for the smallest thing. However, even with their blank their expressions the Russian people seemed exude a kind of hopefulness for the future and expressed much creativity in their dress, which was very hip and fashionable. I purchased a bottle of Lolita Lempicka Perfume form GUM, the main Russian department store to remember my trip by, scent-wise. However, much has transpired since then as you see from the news and I doubt if it feels as hopeful now as it did then. I loved Rome for the same reasons you listed, especially the light and the palpable sense of romance the city generates, especially at dusk. I dream of experiencing Paris, but have heard mixed things about it. It’s also great that you liked The Wire and totally understood that the violence was only needed to underscore the precariousness of the character’s complex lives. I live 45 minutes away from Baltimore and found the writing for that show to be brilliant in its accurate and well rounded depiction of the socieconomic dynamics of a crisis that has hit many cities across America.

    • I really love what you write here, particularly about Moscow and Washington, which I somehow have always felt a great natural aversion to visiting.

      A very close Japanese friend of mine was due to move there this Autumn, but fell pregnant and has now postponed it ( she might get posted to London now instead…. )

      Somehow though I was pleased; I am not sure why. I felt like there were dangers present in DC, somehow.

      Having said that I feel a great draw to many places in the US, particularly NYC, which I almost have a fetish about. I imagine it has many of the aspects I hate about London but you see, I am English so England ultimately feels… dull. New York seems so exciting. And for the same reasons, London might be exciting for you as well. It would be so… British. The same goes for Paris. It is stunning. Even just to hang out at Serge Lutens at Le Palais Royal….divine. It’s just that my adolescent francophilia has become attenuated as I get older and become more drawn to the outcast life, the Bohemian lifestyle, which Berlin at this stage encapsulates far more.

      • Renee Stout

        People often tell me that I would LOVE Berlin, so I guess there may be a trip there for me in the future when $$$ comes my way.

      • No, that’s the whole point. The place is PISS cheap compared to anywhere else. Astonishingly so. That ‘s why it was the only place we could afford to buy an apartment..

  9. nocturnes

    Your take on London is how I feel about the Big Apple. Interestingly enough, my first visit to London 20 years ago was so enjoyable I returned the next…Rome for me was how you felt about London….creepy and unsafe…I was very young and traveling with my girlfriend and all the men were undressing us with their eyes and making comments…I was afraid to walk the streets in broad daylight…

    Yet I am sure the Europe I remember from two decades ago has changed drastically as is evidenced by what I read in the papers.

    As an aside my ladies have taken over my “business” and are selling in local shops and boutiques…the best seller? VaNeilLa- a smokey gentleman’s vanilla…..they are into all of that packaging and marketing so I handed over the reigns….

  10. Renee Stout

    Ps…I would love to hear your take on NYC.

  11. Loved reading this post, puts a very “real” face to the whole London phenomena. Though I have yet to go there, it also strikes me as a place that would not cheer the heart too much, I just want to go for the Galleries, stores and palaces…I am an artsy type truly.
    The real pleasure was when you described the scent and how strongly it seems to contrast with what London truly seems to be. I could never picture anything grapefruity to be representative of London, but c’est la vie.
    Truly glorious reading, love getting to know you through your writing.

    • Thankyou very much.

      What are your top cities?

      • I adore Paris, it has always been one of my favorite places. Probably because I am a Bretonne, from Brittany that is, I always looked at Paris as the apex of the civilized world. While it may not be the most welcoming place to many, it holds a very dear place in my heart, I consider it home in a way.
        I also adore Hong Kong, and would love to live there, if I were able to. I just thrived amidst all the hustle and bustle; very high-energy which I loved. Not to mention I walked and walked and found so many delightful places that were just fascinating.
        I love Montreal and Quebec City. They are the closest I feel to Europe on the North American continent. I live so close to them, I am in New Hampshire, yet have not been in 8 years now.
        New York City is always enjoyable, especially Chinatown with its glorious offerings. A lot of energy and action, but sometimes it becomes a bit much there.
        Other notable places are Miami and Chicago, both with a very unique feel to them.
        Sadly, I take care of my elderly mother, so my husband and I do not travel as much as we would like to. It us difficult when one is an only child without much extended family. It makes me feel a bit trapped at times, considering I used to travel to France 3 times a year to visit for many years.

  12. Neil, your post brought back many memories of the decade when I lived in London. I fled to Bristol more than ten years ago but I go back to London once a month for work and I’m always amazed that I managed to put up with the crowds and the aggro for so long.

    In particular, I remember the feeling of alienation and isolation (London is a very unforgiving city in which to be single) and the occasional sense of threat. One night I was followed home by a group of men from Stepney Green tube station. Drunk and oblivious, I wondered why a police car kept doing laps of the block until it pulled over and an officer explained what was going on, making me feel like a naive little schoolgirl.

    Another thing that rang true was your comment about social divisions. My friends in areas like Bow and Stoke Newington talk about the amazing social and racial mix in their neighbourhoods, when the truth is they have almost nothing to do with the West Indian or Turkish people next door. And then there’s my friend in St John’s Wood, who lives in an obscenely wealthy street where the latest trend is to dig out basements and build underground games rooms and swimming pools – not because the occupants need more space, but just because they can.

    And yet I still feel drawn to and fascinated by some areas of London, such as Clerkenwell and Spitalfields. I’ve always been a fan of Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair, and there’s an almost tangible sense of history in the areas they write about. When I started work in Clerkenwell in the early nineties, the area felt pretty seedy but was full of fascinating shops, pubs and alleyways. Then, just a few years later, it started to go upmarket: the chain bars and restaurants moved in and rents went skywards. It felt to me as though something had been lost for ever.

    I think I’ll always be ambivalent about London – I couldn’t live there again, but I can’t entirely stay away either. Thank you for your wonderful post – it was very evocative.

  13. Lilybelle

    I completely agree with you about cities as organisms, having their own character and personality and energies, and that we all have our individual reactions to particular cities. I lived in NYC for years, and eventually I had to leave, feeling my sanity and existence being swallowed up by the vortex. Afterward, I’d get panic attacks at the mere thought of going into the city for a day trip, or a dinner with my husband. It was my cells’ imprinted memory of the stress I’d been under while there earlier. Cells screaming….”Nooooo!!!!!” Eventually I got over it by forcing myself to go into the city for meetups and whatnot. I had wonderful times while living in NYC (not only unpleasant feelings) but toward the end it was like a circle of Dante’s hell. For me, it’s much better to be a tourist in a big city than a resident. If I ever live in a city again – which I think I would enjoy – it would have to be a smaller city, a pedestrian-friendly, eccentric-tolerant sort of place, with a less intense all-consuming energy. Guerlain’s London certainly doesn’t sound very interesting even if pleasant (why bother?) but I would give it a sniff in passing.

    • What you write about big cities chimes with me greatly. I know that one day I must go to NYC, but I can imagine, definitely, that it must share some of the callousness of London. Someone though I imagine it having a bit more humour or something, but then the exotic is always more exciting…

      • Lilybelle

        Yes, when it’s not *your* city it’s much more exotic and fascinating. NYC people are kind to visitors as a rule. Their New Yawk accents and brisk way of walking might make them seem tougher and more unapproachable than they really are. But there are people from all over in NYC, all over the country, all over the world. I loved having an international circle of friends. I’m glad to have an international virtual circle of friends now at least! 🙂

  14. Lilybelle

    You know, I lived in NYC for years, with my mother on and off in her NYC apartment, and later on my own. It was at first such a free spirited place to be. Later, something happened and all I could feel was an overwhelming anxiety, the energy was so huge in NYC that I began to feel assaulted by it. A while after that I left and to this day – many years later – I have no desire to return. The thought of it almost brings on a panic attack. The body still reacts at the memory. I had a great time in NYC. I think I did everything fun and interesting that one can possibly do there. And sometimes I miss the freedom of its city streets, just locking your door behind you and setting off on foot. I just don’t think I could ever live there again.

    So, I understand totally your feelings about London, which is different than NYC but similar in that it is huge and its own organism, and you either get on there or you don’t. And if you don’t then you REALLY, really don’t because there is no other way to be there.

    • Lilybelle

      Oh look, I didn’t even notice that I already posted here two years ago. Oblivious, I am. :-/

      • No, but I like that. I do similar things. I think it suggests a dreamy openness. And I haven’t checked what you wrote, but I am sure it is not exactly the same thing. And if it did, that would just confirm your feelings. Cities ARE organisms, I really do believe that. And it is strange that I love Tokyo as much as I do, really. Despite the crush of the population it somehow does feel so much lighter, more buoyant, and more fluid than London does in so many ways.

    • This is it exactly. I actually do feel guilty in some ways for this piece, as I do enjoy going there for day trips, to see friends, and of course for all the perfume. Otherwise, though, I can’t lie to myself that something in that city just makes me feel bad. And in light of all the divisiveness we have been reading about in the last few days, the rich and the poor and all of that, I think that this piece was in some ways strangely prescient. Within this blog there are more positive pieces on England: that thing I wrote recently about Stratford, for instance. I love parts of the country. But London does, I am afraid, leave me utterly cold. I never want to live there again.

      • Lilybelle

        It is indeed a timely piece. And you have no reason for guilt about your feelings. I’m sure many other English people feel the same! Life is way too short to try to force yourself like a square peg into a round hole. Our souls know where they need to be.

  15. Timely, in light of Brexit, to be able to get an idea of the feel of London today. I love this piece. Very you, meaning the usual intimacy and immediacy. I loved the contrast you illustrated between Rome and London. I also loved the fact that the perfume part was almost an afterthought, subordinated by the context. That’s a lot of love coming to you from Canada. Thank you once again, dear Neil.

    • Only my own personal take on the metropolis though. Many of my friends adore London. I wonder sometimes if I have just missed something, if it was the fact that I was so insecure after leaving university about what to do in the future and was thus drowned by the bigness of London. Then again, instincts are instincts.

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