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.