Monthly Archives: August 2015



“When the last rays of sun have gone, the most intense fragrance is diffused. Jasmine, lily, and rose: many flowers in a powerful sillage unveil their mysteries once night falls. Inspired by those hours impregnated with floral particles, the Night Veils collection by Byredo offers a new perfume ritual.

A single drop on the skin of one of these three new concentrates is enough to diffuse the sensuality of each flower. Three Night Veils to envelop the allure of a rare elegance. The main theme of each composition, flowers of the night – jasmine, lily and rose – playing the sensory ranges. Yet, Night Veils are not monolithic vases. Like floral shrubs which take on the fragrances which surround them, each perfume gains character through subtle contact with other essences. ”

These, then, are the official press copy descriptions of the latest up and coming release by Byredo, a collection of full strength parfums due to launch at Harrods October Ist, and at Liberty and Selfridges as of Ist November.

To a floral perfume lover such as myself, I must admit they sounded, at least in theory, rather alluring.

Let’s look at how the perfumes smell – at least to me – in real life.


Notes: top – iris, carrot

heart – Egyptian jasmine absolute, black violet

base – osmanthus, vanilla infusion

The regrettably unstoppable candification of current perfumery continues: Guerlain continues to go down that (ultimately cheap and nasty) route, as do most of the most famous perfume houses, be they high street or niche: even Roja Dove has a new Aoud collection that includes such perfumes as Sweetie Aoud and Candy Aoud.

It seems what grown women now want, at least according to the current trends, is to smell like dumbasses: sweet, synthetic, and sticky – bye bye decollétage, hello to giant bazangas pushed up to the respiratory limit (sorry, I just read my first ever Jackie Collins novel on holiday – wow, such filthy trash, unputdownable – I had to get in that word she used here), but in any case, my contempt for such scents – be they Lancôme’s execrable La Vie Est Belle or the new ‘Decadence‘ by Marc Jacobs, is, like cheap coffee, bottomless – my loathing just goes on and on.

And on.

Byredo’s Midnight Candy is no way near as bad as some of these busty, sucrose pallbearers: for a start it costs 325 pounds (over five hundred dollars), for a 30ml bottle of ‘parfum’, so the perfumer(s) involved may have been able to get their hands on a few more half-decent ingredients. Just. 

This scent is not anywhere near as jasminesque, though,  as the copy above would lead you to believe (see my jasmine guide for some real killer jasmines: this is a note I adore and I am obsessed with). Still, the tension between the sultry and slightly pissy Egyptian jasmine absolute in the top notes – quite nice, if short-lived – with the osmanthus and vanilla-coated ‘black violet’ in the heart of the scent, does indeed lead to some saucy thoughts. There is an almost Samsara-like thickness, a brief allusion to Caron’s (far superior) Aimez Moi from I997- also a dense and sweet sugared violet, but for city decadence, a fetishized supermodel – pressed white undies caught in the act of micturation – I would much rather go for Tom Ford’s more shocking Urban Musk.


Notes: top – black currant, saffron

heart – midnight rose, incense

base – patchouli, black amber, ambrette

A solid, but pointless, rehashing of the oudh/rose/blackcurrant trope, there is no real need for me to describe this perfume to you as you have smelled it hundreds of times before. The patchouli/incense/synthetic oudh / fruit accord is competently rendered and works well enough, but there are nowhere near enough quality rose oils used in the scent to justify its price tag (is there, in fact, any rose in the perfume at all? )

Rose perfumes can be gorgeously luscious and enveloping, regal, exciting, but here, whatever rose there may be in the blend is immediately absorbed by the harsh woody chemicals that too many niche perfumes rely on as the main substance of their perfumes these days. Some of the expensive natural rose absolutes I have encountered at shops selling high quality essential oils – rose otto, Turkish, Bulgarian, CO2 extraction – practically stop you in your tracks when you smell them – your body reacts – lymphatically – even before your mind does.

‘Reine De Nuit’, a deadened rose perfume, does nothing of the sort – you merely sniff the scent; glaze over; and head towards the sink.


top : black plum, wild gardenia

heart: carnation, Indian tuberose

base: palissandre wood, honey

There are plenty of good niche lily perfumes on the market, ranging from the pungent and overwhelming to the chaste, but, sadly, Casablanca Lily isn’t really one of them. I don’t actively dislike this scent by any means, and it is probably my favourite of the three perfumes described here, but to me, Casablanca Lily unfortunately simply doesn’t amount to very much.

There is a slighty eighties, soapy, neo-Anaïs vibe in the top notes and, in the base notes,  a greyer, musky, under-breath, quite nice in a way, though again, as with the other perfumes, the flowers are not ever allowed to shine let alone breathe (something I often find in Byredo perfumes, actually – it seems that I am just destined not to get along with this brand – although I don’t mind, entirely, their vanilla flower venture Seven Veils, or Pulp, the fruitiest scent ever made, for comedy purposes). Somehow there is always something so harsh  – Black Saffron, Baudelaire are good examples,  or else painfully artificial about the perfumes ( see mendacious ice maidens La Tulipe and Inflorescence for instances of this) that I just can’t personally abide: some life-sucking force, like the young vampires in the Swedish Film Let The Right One In, that, rather than evoking a lyrical and heady midnight garden, suggests a flower killer, someone who secretly harbours a desire to rid the world of all its blomma and to replace them with man-made chemicals.





I have just returned back to Japan from a wonderfully stimulating and energizing trip to Laos and Vietnam (which you may  already have read about on here with all its ups and its downs), but the experiences we had in both countries were intensely colourful and memorable, even if now, here at my house in Kamakura, I must admit that am also rather enjoying the tranquillity after the overwhelming hubbub that was Hanoi.

As the trip drew to a close, on the return journey from Laos’ capital Vientiane, to Hanoi, I had a quick peruse, as all tired perfumistas do, no matter what their misgivings and cynical expectations, of the perfumes at Wattay International Duty Free. Oh go on then, might as well, I thought.

It seemed to me yet again though that things really are getting worse and worse and worse in commercial ‘fragrance’ each time I do this, in terms of quality, originality and artistry. I genuinely do believe that most such perfumes are shit – no better than bathroom cleaners and probably cost as much to make; they are just packaged in pretty bottles. I could hardly find one decent scent among them and found the experience frustrating and depressing. Where does it go from here?



Back in Hanoi, on the penultimate night, we decided to go shopping for souvenirs down one of the most interesting streets of The Old Quarter, and we came across a really lovely craft shop featuring work by local artisans where we bought some teas, Vietnamese objets and other appealing trinkets for ourselves and for other people, including, to my delight, in the corner of the shop ( I almost didn’t see it) a most delicious perfume: Ylang Lan Tay by Lamha, a ‘fragrance oil’ that clearly contains huge amounts of intoxicating high grade ylang ylang essential oil, blended, I would say, with some natural sambac jasmine and coconut oil, so heady that when the assistant was packaging all our things up she had a slightly delirious look on her face and kept saying what a beautiful smell it was (I don’t think you were supposed to open the bottle before buying but I had to and am naughty, so it’s quite possible she had in fact never smelled it before). Her reaction to the scent, as it escaped from the confines of its glass bottle, said it all, though. She was also smelling it on me. I had just a dot of the perfume on each wrist, and was inhaling and enthusing over its rich sweetness and undeniable similarities to Annick Goutal’s Songes (almost like an extrait de parfum of that fine and beautiful floral classic in oil form ), no doubt in my mind that I would have to buy it immediately.

Gorgeous. I will treasure this one. Keep it for best. A scent I will use sparingly on its own, or in tandem with other scents, when I am in the mood for a heavy floral fix, a real night-breathing garden.

And though expensive by local standards (everything in that shop was more highly priced than all the tat in the tourist shops surrounding it), like all the other things available there, hand made and well designed and crafted, it was also most definitely worth the money. This is a perfume, a real floral perfume: one that gets you in the brain, the nose, the heart, and the limbic system. And, at ten dollars, it was a total steal.


Filed under Flowers




monks and plumeria



tropical vegetation






Shangri-La, a fictional, mythological, Asian utopia set in the valleys of the ‘Kunlun’ hills, is the ultimate Orientalist fantasy. In its own, inimitable way, so is Guerlain’s Shalimar. And while the setting of the place, with its Buddhist lamasteries and slow-ageing people who have found a mystical peace may have originated in a novel entitled Lost Horizons from I933, Luang Prabang, the UNESCO World Heritage town in North-central Laos where we have been staying for the last three days (following an ill-fated stay in the capital Vientiane) makes the fiction, almost, a reality.

Widely considered the most perfectly preserved ancient city in South East Asia, Luang Prabang is a tranquil and beautiful place set in a valley at the meeting point of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers that flow slowly, but inexorably on; a backdrop to a city of glittering, gold wats, elegant French colonial architecture, and lush, tropical vegetation.

At dawn, monks from nearby villages congregate in the streets to collect alms – the food they will eat for the day- from the Buddhist pilgrims who gather from the city and the villages in the hills beyond to hand out the rice and other assorted foods that they then place into the proffered forth bowls of the orange-robed devotees (young; many playing computer games or checking their emails on their iPhones before they join the daily procession), twentieth century realities not distracting  from the dream-like vision, in the early morning rain, of a boat, coming slowly in through the pre-dawn mists, sidling up to the river bank in the dark; robe-clad monks stepping off, gently, with their bowls and umbrellas, and ascending the river bank steps to congregate on the steps of the exquisite Wat Xieng Thong temple.








At dusk – this is the rainy season, and fresh, early-hour monsoons would lead to spectactular skies later on in the day – the clouds often formed  blue and white pagoda-like formations that played beautifully against the white-dragoned corner pieces of a temple roof; frangipani trees – the flowers everywhere – satin-white; pink and yellow; or dark cerise red – scenting the rain-freshed the air as the flowers fell scattered, and new blooms readied to open.

When night falls in the town and the night market opens, the sound of the frogs and the insects down by the Mekong intensify greatly and the man-made structures, be they French or Laotian, contract; draw in on themselves- the mountains and the ‘out – thereness’ of the surrounding hillsides, deep waters, and forests at this time becoming more vivid.

Rich. Dark.

A dense, nocturnal thickness of velvet.



Taking the light purple box from my suitcase with its felt and fanned identation, I take Shalimar, lift up the stopper, and apply the perfume to myself in droves.  I can sense immediately that it is going to work. And unlike the other perfumes I have worn this holiday – good ones, naturally, which have been acceptable but not quite right – Shalimar at this moment smells like total perfection.

It fits me like a glove.


Perhaps it is the air. Giving the scent the expansiveness that she requires:clear, fresh, but heavy in the environs of mountains, the skeins of papaya leaves and their yellow, orchid or hyacinth-like flowers, breathing; gardenias, orchids, roses and jasmine sambac, or perhaps it is the space: Luang Prabang is a city that achieves a beautiful synergy with the natural vegetation surrounding it – feeling as though the buildings, either the exquisitely built temples, or the nineteenth and early twentieth century French colonial town houses that match them perfectly, breathe.

Unwelcome invaders they may have been, the ‘protectorate’ yet another example of wrongful, European arrogance, just one more notch in the long lists of our shameful conquests and misguided exploitations, but one thing the French certainly did do right was to make sure that the place they would be administering would look beautiful and harmonious in a perfect aesthetic fusion of French and Laotienne.

What a brilliantly kept secret this place is (I had never even heard of it until I came here). It is the Kyoto of Laos, its Florence, the streets reminding me more though, almost, of Cambridge: King’s Parade, and King’s College, grand but diminutive, except rather than England and its medieval colleges and green-kept gardens, this is Laos, with its delicately beautiful architecture, its quiet yet artful understatedness : the people here perhaps the calmest, the mellowest, I have ever met.


In this context, Shalimar shines quite beautifully like a jewel, while also blending in artlessly with the night that envelops it. I was almost unable to quite smell it at first, actually,  its French, liquid gold and the crepuscular air intermingling like Debussy’s Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir. Perhaps I am overstating these Far East gallicisms, but then the influence of France does seem in fact to pervade the entire city – its Laotian heart notwithstanding – from the signs in Lao and French that decorate all the state and municipal buildings, to the patisseries and cafés you find everywhere serving French cakes, baguettes and steaming café au lait.


The ‘oriental’ has perhaps been overdone in recent perfumery, from the warm and resinous oudhs, spice-laden ambers and hot, dripping florals you can’t escape from nowadays as niche perfume houses try to desperately outdo each other with their incensed, deep-laden cargoes, whetting the appetites cleverly with their ever more exotic sounding ingredients. Some of them are just too harsh for me, too strong. Yet Shalimar was always the original odalisque, the true precursor of all this – lilting,ingenious-  and in my view, in truth, it has never really been bettered.

The genius of the perfume, Jacques Guerlain’s most resounding commercial success, was to enfathom a velvety, rich vanillic accord – skin clinging, suggestive-  in a balsamic envelope of tolu, opoponax, and benzoin, a classic ‘oriental’ base then harmonized and refined with a cooler, earth-toned, counterpoint of patchouli and vetiver. Beneath, in the base, lie purring hidden depths of leather, ambergris, incense and civet, the concealed animalic resonances that have led to the perfume’s harlot reputation.

Yet Jacques Guerlain also knew how to keep these heavy-lidded ingredients in check, to preserve their essential elegance, and in Shalimar, romance, and a slice of temperance, is also provided with a powdery floral accord of rose, jasmine,and most importantly iris, fluted up top with a fresh and almost stinging, gourmet prelude of sharp citrus oils of bergamot and lemon.

Although the current version may lack the sheer lickable, delectability of the older parfum extraits (I once had a bottle picked up at a flea market that was almost indecent in the levels of both its beauty and its frank sensuality – so smooth, so made for skin and sex and deep, carnal obsession I am constantly yearning in vain to come across another), the editions available now do still capture the basic Shalimar essence ( I find the bergamot/castoreum combination in the contemporary eau de parfum a little jarring, but find the eau de toilette is still quite eminently sprayable: the end stages always as gorgeous as I remember them).

This perfume, like any well known scent, most certainly does have its detractors.Shalimar does not work on everyone. Many people can never quite get over the ‘soiled baby powder’ aspect of the perfume, its almost tediously decadent exhalations – too sweet, too cloying, too obvious – but for me personally this essential perfume is an absolute classic of perfumery I rarely tire of: a halo; a soft and sweet delicious aura that blurs the edges of harsh reality .



We are now leaving Luang Prabang, flying high over clouds and about to land shortly again in the capital Vientiane, and I can already sense that our stay in that delightfully hill-cradled place will soon begin to feel like a dream. We spent three delightful days just ambling or cycling round the outskirts, circling the centre, veering off down side streets and alleyways; stopping off whenever we felt like it in temples; roadside eateries; cafés.It was calming and replenishing, just soaking up the city’s positive energy,relaxing; energizing and good for the spirit.


The thing I will remember the most about Luang Prabang though is the magnificent Mekong river.

It draws you in, slows you down, commands and drowses the senses. We spent an afternoon yesterday just watching the waters go by, magnificent in their scale and depth, as the sunlight changed on the river’s surfaces, gradually, from milk chocolate brown and pewter; to blinding, illustrious gold.

We just sat there. Lost in thought.

Looking, watching the waters go by aimlessly until the sun passed behind the clouds, shadows fell on the water, and the evening slowly turned to twilight.





Filed under 'Orientals'


Unknown-2 images  tropicalmalady-spirit


Flies and frangipani. That was my first impression. As we sat on the outside veranda, wondering in what kind of place we were exactly, drinking Beerlao, and eating an uncooled salad, revolting; the scent from the big plumeria flowers surrounding us everywhere allured the air (the national flower), as insects scrawled the torn plastic table surfaces and an emaciated cat gazed imploringly, with fixed, determined eyes, on the floor for the scraps of duck skin we were hesitantly consuming.

We were in Laos, having navigated the quietly menacing labyrinth of customs and its imposing, gruff officials, and had arrived at our hotel – the Dhavara Boutique – all white, lavish, cool-interiored elegance (the fragrance of lilies); but venturing out on to the streets to have an explore, had just sat down at one of the first places that we had come across to take off the edge of the airport stress and unwind; the beer cold and delicious, the food basic and unpalatable, as a woman appeared slowly from behind the shrubbery, her eyes yellow-white – no irises – blind, holding out a wicker tray for money and her daughter looked at us steely with a straight, been-there-before gaze.

Vientiane seems poorer, but is much more expensive, than Hanoi. And it is quiet. The people don’t insist (before I had even begun to reach into my pocket to give them some money the silent family by the table had disappeared); they speak in much lower, gentler tones. Is this is really a capital, we wondered, or is it merely a slow and sleepy backwater, a slumbering truck-stop town with people barely moving, static and dusty in the hot and glinting afternoon….

Passing by yet-another Thai like golden Buddhist temple we were spoken to at that moment by a lazing motorbicycle-taxi driver – swarthy; good-looking – who sat up from his chair and offered a tour of the sites for a fee that we paid upfront – it seemed like a good way to get our bearings as we had bought no guide, had looked up nothing (all part of our ridiculous ‘magical mystery tour’ concept) which was all very well in theory but not quite in practice, as the burning sun made random wanderings an impossibility. Accepting his offer, sat in the cage-like back of the taxi, we held on tight, became more excited, and were driven through the Vientiane streets as they widened and became more official-looking, and realized then that of yes of course this was a capital as you would expect it to be; the government buildings, the grander, more imposing boulevards, the monuments at the centre (the first of which, a kind of Laotian Arc De Triomphe, striking me as rather magnificent and genuinely impressive even if the placard in the centre of the stone spoke sadly of the building being incomplete (due to the country’s turbulent history) and of being, it said rather mournfully of itself (though I totally disagreed), a ‘monster of concrete’.

As we strolled back through the gardens by this building to take our bike-taxi for the rest of the tour, we realized, then, that the driver, unsurprisingly perhaps (depending on how you look at life) had gone. We should have paid at the end, I suppose, but D and I are the trusting – you might say stupidly naïve- type of people and I had trusted him: we prefer to live our lives uncynically.

At that moment, though, in the full glare of the 2pm sun, I was white-hot full on furious. The amount we had given him was far above the standard rate – about fifteen U.S dollars as neither of us is one of those purse-pinching foreigners who barter and haggle every last price to the bone – we both find it undignified, not to say quite simply wrong – and we were left only with the option of paying for another taxi (money given at the end, it goes without saying), and to take the rest of the tour.

Hot and bothered, foul-tempered, we had been arguing anyway, quite ferociously with quite murderous undertones since morning, specifically about my lack of fiscal awareness plus spendthrift tendencies versus his more sensible, but too reality-biting insistencies that we not run out of money half way through the holiday, urging me (but too much, too much) not to everytime just order one more thing on the menu (“just to try“)and bankrupt us in a country where we hadn’t got any footing, as we did in Mexico City where, refusing my pleas to get just one more thing on the menu, he had saved us from being arrested (we had exactly just enough to pay the bill).

This opportunistic Laos taxi scam tipped me into foul-tempered tantrum territory however, (‘God you’re such a toddler‘ I was rightfully told, but I felt quite strangely cut to the quick) finding me bored and petulant in the beautiful, golden temple. I am aspoiled brat, I know, but then these gilded, luxuriant temples don’t actually do that much for me somehow really, (seen it all before in Thailand, darling), and I wonder, in any case, just as I did with the grotesque and ostentatious extravagances of San Pietro and other such basilica in Rome when I lived there, whether Jesus, or in fact the Buddha, would have actually approved of these cost-crippling edifices erected in their honour. Surely the former despised the moral emptiness of money and materialism, the latter all wordly possessions. In any case, gold was never my colour.

Fuming over beers, as we reached the end of our tour, though we then couldn’t pay the bill as D had mistakenly given another beggar woman who approached our table a denomination of the Laotian kip that was ten times what we had thought it was (oh well, she definitely  needed it more than we did), it nevertheless meant that I was forced to sit, bad-tempered (and probably culture shocked, again – I think it is something you are not quite aware of until afterwards), looking out onto the languid, molasses-slow streets with its piles of starfruit, mangoes and watermelons as he wearily traipsed back to the hotel to get the necessary money from the safe – after which we both fell asleep in exhaustion – it had been an early start back in Hanoi – and slept for a couple of hours under the cool, welcoming sheets.

We woke up. I felt weird, spaced out, groggy, as did D, though to a more potent extent, but it didn’t quite stop our haranguing, the lingering resentments of an argument resisting the refreshing mood changers of sleep, me insisting that we go and get some dinner, that we needed to eat (our foul lunch had been quite insubstantial).

I suppose that one of the problems of a two week stay in a very foreign country is that you miss the simplicities of the food you eat at home. You just somehow start to feel a little bit sick. At home, you could just take some yoghurt here, a piece of toast there, some walnuts, some cut up, favourite, fresh tomatoes. Whatever you feel like. It’s not always meal meal meal like it is when you are staying in hotels and going to restaurants and local eateries all the time, which can get gastrically tiring and leave you queasy and jaded (particular when there are insects crawling over everything).

Still, as Duncan says, I am a fat pig and I have to eat, and I wanted just something before we went to bed as I am one of those tiresome males who simply cannot sleep on an empty stomach. I try, but my gut brain must be married to my brain brain quite inextricably because in that situation, hungry, I just lie staring at the ceiling, wide awake until dawn or until I sneak downstairs, give up, and raid the fridge –  and in any case I was quite eager, as we eased into it all a bit more, to see more of the city,how it would come across at night.

We found a lamp-lit roadside restaurant filled with Lao businessmen drinking bottles and bottles of Laobeer (laughing and gesticulating, not any way near as vigorously as the Vietnamese), and sat down. A passable chicken and ginger stir-fry, quite edible, tasty, even, was then, unfortunately, also served with a repulsively green bean salad that made me feel, as I picked at it, as if I were trapped and mangled up inside a lawn mower; mulched up and mangled with aphids, ticks and chlorophylled leaf cells rended apart.

I suppose because of our similar upbringings, we both lack that dismissive, aristocratic ‘take it away’ of the hand when presented with food we do not like. Like many hypocritical Brits we instead prefer to eat it politely. Or at least some of it. Just a bit, so as not to appear too rude. And although the grilled and salted river fish I ordered, hideous to look at, folded in-half on itself when it came to the table and of peculiar, offputting odour, tasted quite nice when you broke the rubber-grey, slightly slimy flesh, that salad, half-eaten, its mounds of liquified, bacterial legumes, still somehow really haunted the tastebuds.


We went to bed early, not talking.

Duncan was feeling hot, and took some aspirin. I put in my wax ear plugs in order to block out most of the local noise as I suffer from sleep neurosis (those foam ones you can get just don’t cut it at all, even if overuse of the much more sound-plugging wax ones inevitably leads me to ear infections). The hotel is airy, big, ‘colonial’, yes, but as in Hanoi, nobody seems to have ever heard of double (or triple, as might be necessary) glazing.

I drifted off asleep on my side of the enormous king-size bed (perfect for soon to be divorcing couples), Duncan already sleeping, thinking wistfully to myself of Japan, England and Vietnam, entering that gateway to the unconscious that you have when things start to go illogical, and eventually managed, in my subsurface, moistly earplugged solitude, to fall soundly, if weirdly, asleep.


I awoke to a sickening groan and a thud.

The sound of it even penetrated through my noise defences and make me sit up with a start.
What on earth had happened. Had he become really sick? Oh god. Was he lying on the floor?

The bed was empty.

The room was silent.

I called out Duncan’s name from behind the bathroom door.

No response, though the door was closed.
The light was on.

No response.

And I opened it, slowly, afraid, to find him naked and unconscious beneath the sink, body rigid; eyes tight shut.

Horrified beyond measure and panicking, I called out and woke him, helping him to his feet as a fever raged through his body and he finished off the trials of whatever stomach bug had assaulted his system in the bathroom, vomiting back the food that had caused it.

He had come to go to the toilet and just blacked out.

Once back asleep in the bed, to which I had to practically carry him, I lay in the dark deeply worried and wondering what to do. We would not be able to get our plane to Luang Prabang the next day, that was sure; there would be all kinds of hotel and plane cancellations, and we would have to book three more nights at the hotel we were in at that moment until he was well enough to get a plane back to Hanoi.

That was the least of my worries, though.

I didn’t know if he had had concussion when he hit his head on the marble floor (there was a big red smarting patch on his forehead), and didn’t even know what concussion was exactly; didn’t know if this was going to turn into one of those horrendous food poisoning episodes that require hospitalization, intravenous drips, or if in fact this was a tetantus reaction to the nail that had struck through his foot (in plastic sandals, right into the flesh as walked back from a jazz club down a darkened street back in Hanoi and I suddenly heard a yell of pain as he stepped mistakenly on a plank covered in sharp, upturned nails, feet bleeding all the way back to the hotel). The incubation for tetanus symptoms, said the computer, was about seven or eight days, exactly right. Awful. Surely not, though. He hadn’t been spasming or convulsing, or plagued, like the Black Dahlia, with the risus sardonicus.

I kept looking at sites frantically, wondering what to do.

The man on reception, fast asleep, could barely even lead me to more sources of toilet paper, let alone, medical services, and in these moments of emergency, thank god I say for modernity, internet access and the immediacy of information.


I turn on the computer, typing away on the blue screen as he lies motionless and silent in the dark, and seek out information on hospitals.

I try to keep calm.

It seems that there is a clinic at the Australian Embassy for Commonwealth Citizens if need be (but I doubt at 3.30am in the morning), or else some thinly recommended hospitals in Vientiane if absolutely necessary. But it seems, in fact, unimaginably, that even Lao people, when in need, cross the river at the ‘friendship point’ on the connecting bridge and head into Thailand, where the medical care is apparently far far better.



Are we really going to have to cross over into another country in the middle of the night?

He was out cold when I found him, like an El Greco crucified Christ, skin sallow and yellow green, unresponsive, and the sight had shocked me to the core.

I kept lying there, thinking, checking his temperature, then getting up and returning to the computer, reading different things, about food poisoning in Laos and what to do. And on looking through various websites it did seem to me that the much larger and powerful country of Thailand definitely looms over this country in more ways than I had even perhaps assumed was the case. Not only do people use the services of Thai doctors and hospitals when they need to it seems, they also even pay for quite a lot of things in Thai Baht (as well as dollars), particularly for anything beyond everyday inexpensive necessities. The Lao script – beautiful, hieroglyphic, is similar to Thai but unreadable to people from that country, though it seems that the reverse is actually not true: the Lao people are often able to read Thai. The smells, when we arrived at the airport, were familiarly, green curry-like; nothing like Hanoi, and the way the people act and interact – reserved, modest, sensitive (Buddhist)- reminds me very much of my time in Bangkok and Ko Samet, although that was a long time ago, almost twenty years ago, when D first came to Asia to live with me, and we spent a beautiful week in a hut by the sea, the waves lapping on the shore in the morning, under veils of threadbare mosquito nets, a giant spider watching us from high up in its web.





Tropical Malady.

Is a film by the genius Thai director known as ‘Joe’, whose real name is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and thus unpronouncable and unmemorizable to most art cinema-loving westerners, including myself.

Like the equally mesmerizing Uncle Boonmee Who Can See His Past Lives, which very deservedly won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 20I0, this film, set in the north of Thailand, not far from where I am writing this beyond the Mekong River in Luang Prabang (and where Duncan is now safely recovering, thank god, sleeping in this new, relaxing hotel : fan going round on the ceiling, just as I originally fantasized about when we were first considering coming to this part of the world), this other Tropical Malady is a stunning, and very surprising film that lulls you into a slow, beautiful dream; when the lights go up and the work has come to its close, all you can hear in your head in the room are the sounds of jungle insects – there is no soundtrack, only the sounds of nature – and wonder at the uniqueness and curious beauty of what you have just seen.

The view from the balcony here, over the brown, gentle waters, with its papaya tree, its great, curving, banana leaves and its lush, palm-dotted vegetation, is very reminiscent of the backdrop to that film, which begins quite gently – there also doesn’t seem to be any story – as it follows two Thai men, one a soldier, who slowly and unexpectedly fall in love.

Vignettes of Thai life – a village fair here, a trip back to a hometown, scenes of eating, walking to caves, driving in jeeps, karaoke – the pace of the film, where virtually nothing seems to ‘happen’, would frustrate and bore certain people who need the pacing, plot structure and motives, explanations, and the usual, Freudian analyses, but to me and Duncan it was just immersive; real. Making you forget your own surroundings. Coy, understated, much like the people here, with more than meets the eye.

And also chaste. The two leads, neither of whom is especially handsome by either Asian or Western cultural standards, just seem like gradually closening friends – there is no sex, they don’t even kiss – not until one crucial moment halfway through, one of the most erotic I have ever seen in cinema –  when a tongue touching a hand becomes an oneiric, Lynchian tumble down an illogical, irreal tropical dream hole at the moment when the pursuee – more lithe, delicate, shy – suddenly walks into the forest and becomes the pursuant.


At this point, like Mulholland Drive, where identities become confused, and things are disturbingly turned on their heads, the film becomes something else entirely, suddenly now a Thai legend, a fable, the more virile of the two being hunted by the friend who walked into the shadows, now a tiger. In the dream-logic of the film, though, this is breathtakingly, for me at least, effective and natural somehow, exploring the unspoken power channels of desire, death and destruction (the film opens with some Thai soldiers finding the remains of one of their group in an open area of forest, mauled, presumably, by a tiger), exploring homo-erotic love in the most tender yet profound way that I can think of; the nuances of power balance; protection in illness; the springs and animal sources of desire; the idea of souls intermingling, of reincarnated beings, which his other, more well known film, Uncle Boonmee, also movingly explores in one of the most powerfully beautiful scenes I have ever encountered on a screen.


As Uncle Boonmee reconciles himself to the fact that he is dying and does not have very long to live, at the family house away from the city where he meets up lovingly again with his sister, the film is as slow, as beautiful, and as hypnotic as Tropical Malady – much of the screen time taken up with simple, even mundane conversations around the family table; food eaten together with the family members, even dead ones, who return, as ghosts, or even as monster-like, red-eyed shaggy haired creatures, yet the protagonists rarely even flinch: the dead and the living are one and the same in this culture; the diseased and the deceased commingling together quite harmoniously, and Uncle Boonmee, placid, resigned to his fate, even happy, finds himself slipping through time and space as the film, ravishingly, takes us, then, across the border to the ornate and luxurious procession of an ancient Laotian princess (Boonmee in a former life and incarnation, we later presume, though we are utterly nonplussed and open-mouthed at the daring of the director at this point), as the woman, a royal of Laos, blessed with bearing but not with beauty (her ugliness a great source of shame as she is swathed and bandaged in silks and bangles and all regal forms of adornments), she lightly touching one of the youthful and handsome palanquin-bearers’ shoulders as she is carried along, a suggestive manner that carries no ambiguity, as they approach a beautiful waterfall and she steps off (I wonder if it is the one that we can cycle to from here in Luang Prabang).

Her subject, like a protagonist from a Laotian legend, can kiss the princess only when seeing the beautiful reflection that deceptively appears in the pond when she has uttered an incantation, the reality too offputting as she turns her real unvarnished face towards him, eventually pushing him away and wanting solitude when she slowly immerses herself in the water, crying alone, and is ravished, to your eyes’ disbelief, under the surface by a thrashing, ravenously passionate fish.

Both of these films are feats and feasts of the imagination, leave you in a hypnotic trance: perplexed, amazed.

As I was this morning when, after eventually falling asleep next to Duncan, and listening to his slight, silent breathing (no earplugs, obviously), woke up to find that he had in fact not worsened at all in the night and felt that he would probably be able to make it on the plane after all.

You can imagine my relief.

Although I have experienced this person’s propensity to fainting once before (memorably in the opening sequences of Trainspotting many years ago in a cinema, as he convulsed in the seat because of a needle, blood and injection phobia and was carried to hospital in an ambulance), as have his parents, when he fainted on one occasion during Christmas yet recovered almost fully within a period of twenty four hours,  I have never once seen him stone out cold, like that, as though dead (except, now I think about it, on that terrifying day at the cinema).

The sight filled me with pure terror, and it is not something that I am likely to forget soon.

I also should have remembered, though, that he is a very fast recoverer: the fever burns itself out; he gets whatever it is out of his system, and though a touch weaker, comes quickly back to life.

As I sit here looking at the confluence of two rivers, with boats moving langorously along the currents, he is still asleep, still with an elevated temperature, but getting better. I am sitting outside, writing and feeling the Mekong breeze, but do so with some trepidation. As the light falls there may be mosquitoes, and the area is possibly malarial. We have been warned by the management that we should spray ourselves and avoid getting bitten, and it is advice that I am going to heed. The door to the cabin is firmly closed. We have  none of the windows open either. Having had one nasty scare so far in Laos, and seen the face of frightening, unfamiliar illness, I don’t really think we should be really taking any chances.


Filed under Flowers







Hanoi is noisy, pungent, and sweltering hot: a coursing, palpable energy that is quite disorientating, at least initially, as if the city is in a constant, headying tension between motion and stasis – ceaseless hordes of motorbikes relentlessly circling and driving through the streets, whole families; babies haphardazly placed in front of handlebars, people manoeuvering themselves quite effortlessly even when travelling in opposite directions on the same path; curving and adapting, endlessly moving forward in an energy that is quite dizzying as shopkeepers, families, shirtless men sleep sprawling and open-mouthed in front of their stores or on mats and women in coolie hats listlessly fan themselves by their glistening mounds of lychees, lemongrass, and unnamable fruits. At first, the sheer volume of noise – from the bikes, the clamour, the percussive, dipthonged language (and everyone speaks in very loud voices, it seems, so different from Japan or Indonesia), gave us culture shock. Duncan certainly seemed almost destabilized, not quite steady on his feet, and we would find ourselves returning hastily to the relative sanctuary of our hotel room: a quiet, windowless, air-conditioned room at the back of The Hanoi Pearl where we could regroup and exhale.



The Old Quarter of Hanoi, where we are staying, has been a place of commerce for a thousand years: fascinating, exquisitely ramshackle Chinese-influenced houses with courtyards out back where you see elderly people sleeping in front of flickering televisions and singing birds confined in cages; shadowy, cool interiors, plants dangled haphazardly, the low thrum of air-conditioners; succulents, tropical flowers, the night a perfect balance of dark, light and colour; red tassled lamps casting a soft warm glow; the smells – the herbs and chicken broth of pho, which crowds of people gather to eat crouched down or on low plastic stools, the vendors boiling their poultry, lemongrass, coriander, the all permeating smell of fermented Vietnamese fish sauce that I both love and hate, an almost sexual attraction repulsion to its rich, bodily intimacy, lacing the dishes that make eating here such a ritual pleasure but which when isolated and smelled in its undressed intensity can come across to the uninitiated as quite a challenge.









The food,  though. Wonderful. After a welcome respite from the heat in the environs of the Museum of Ethnology, we settled down at the restaurant there, run as a centre for disadvantaged youth who were training to be waiters around the country, and yes, they got our order wrong and were all sweet, embarrassed smiles but the pork cooked in a coconut gravy was just delectable, and Duncan’s grilled chicken cooked with lemon leaves, tiny, minutely cut strips of the citronnier tree decorating the soy roasted meat perfumed its tastiness perfectly. I had never thought that you could cook with lemon leaves. I have picked them from the tree in our garden in Kitakamakura before (and the taste and flavour of these were identical), but have previously only thought of them in terms of perfume: how they smell so fresh and fragrant in the top notes of Monsieur Grès and Quiproquo, or in the original, beautifully orchestrated O de Lancôme, but now I think I will also try using them myself in cooking, as I will with fresh mint as well, used so delicately but decisively in Vietnamese food along with other herbs I don’t recognize or know the names of ( a deliciously gratifying banana leaf salad last night at a beautiful restaurant with live traditional music combined sweet and sour flavours deftly with a stimulating variety of textures, and looking at the presentation of the dish and listening to the music, I felt as if I were entering a magical grotto.)




The Swedish singer Stina Nordenstam once made an unusual covers album – People Are Strange – the central concept of being that she had to actively dislike the songs included. That she would select, and transform, hand-waving stadium standards like Prince’s Purple Rain or Rod Stewart’s Sailing, and transform them, in her intimitable style, into gossamer-intricate, string-laden heartbreakers, internalizing the songs and revealing nuances and depths that you would not have suspected existed. I wouldn’t say that my feelings about Vietnam or Laos were like Nordenstam’s attitude towards those songs, but I will say that I had no real interest in coming to this country before coming here, as I didn’t, really, with Japan either, at all. It is a rather perverse method of choosing a holiday destination, I will admit – go somewhere you don’t really want to go to – but am now very happy that we did it. Throwing caution to the wind. Just going to a place you would never have considered visiting.

But the place is exuberant: never have I been to a place with so much energy. As I write this, we are on a train to Haiphong, and there are kids running up and down the train laughing, screeching and playing games. One girl has put a veil over her head and is catwalking the aisle way like a fashion bride, giggling her head off with her cousins. The whole care is thronging and jostling. What normally might be irritating, though, somehow isn’t; there is a party-like atmosphere, a positive feeling in the air it I find quite uplifting. The throngs on the streets, congregating everywhere, seem effortlessly sociable, shockingly so for a space-preserving, sociophobic Japanese English person like myself, arms draped over each shoulder, shouting to make themselves heard (the kids are now singing).







Last night we went to the most electrically atmosphered gay bar – ironically, directly across from our hotel, and the only one in Hanoi – we had no idea – and the buzz in the place, was unstoppable, heartpounding- you just had to surrender to it and dance, to the ear-splitting music. Even at the Temple Of Literature earlier in the day, the relative tranquillity of the ancient sanctuary, where sages and Confucianist were trained from the eleventh century onwards, was shattered by the strident sermons set through loud speakers that were barking and decibelled to the point of discomfort and fingers-in-ears, like the announcements right now through the tannoys on this train I am sitting in that make you start with directness, suddenness and sheer volume. They seem to like it loud and expressed, and it makes a refreshing change from Japan, where the profound neurosis at the centre of that culture permeates every stratum of social interaction – just compare the suicide rate – all that multi-layered origami-infolding worrying and repression, the destructive perfectionism that, while making the country more ‘sophisticated’ and withheld than this one, is also, in some sexless, contact-withdrawing way, eroding it from the inside. Where the youth in Tokyo are now embracing ‘shizu-kissa’, or cafés where talking is prohibited, where you sit in silence, and where celibacy is hugely on the increase and a disturbingly large proportion of the population has either given up sex altogether or has no urge to try, there was a bustling, brimming sensuality in GC Bar last night, a healthy, youthful horniness that felt juiced up and hot; eager for something, alive. Perhaps the fact that Japan finds itself on the wane, all the endless, woeful conversations about the ageing society and decline of the birthrate, its slipping position in the world’s economies (though if you ask me, it is perfectly rich enough as it is and the ‘bubble’ was just that, in fact, a bubble), its superiority complex in regard to the rest of Asia, all of this makes Japan seem so tight-lipped and prevented: airless; despite the incredible commotion here in Hanoi, I find myself now relaxing into it, more at ease with the bustle surrounding me. And we would never have know that all this even existed, what Vietnam is really like, had we not just thought to ourselves ‘Shall we? Go on then’, and come here on a perverse, semi-reckless whim.

Laos will be even more revealing I think, quite possibly, because in that country’s case we have done zero research. With Hanoi we have the Lonely Planet guide, like every other white, backpacking tourist here – you see people, in the same tank top and shorts, clutching the same book and ending up in exactly the same places, although we are avoiding the tours to picture postcard perfect Halong Bay, and even the Perfume Pagoda, we couldn’t, somehow, quite face being herded into boats and buses and kayaks and all the rest, nor in the case of the ‘goda, having to trek up and down hills in this heat which is rather phenomenal- 36 or 37 and very high humidity. Instead we are going to Haiphong, the equivalent of coming to England and rather than visiting only London, The Cotswalds and The Lake District and other typically scenic spots, going up to Leeds or Birmingham instead – just cities, but we don’t care, and already, being on this train, feeling the mood and spirit of the other people headed in that direction, I feel steeped in a more genuine Vietnamese soup.

Vientiane will be different. We have looked at no pictures, read nothing about it, just have the hotel booked. The same with Luang Prabang, which is supposedly some kind of Buddhist paradise (though I have seen no pictures) set on the Mekong River. We might like it or not, but I love the fact that we just don’t know anything. It is a total mystery, a total canvas waiting to be filled, and after we arrive at Dhavara Hotel we will just check in; put down our things; a change of clothes, and be going out into a world we know nothing at all about, to wander the streets, watch the people, absorb its differences.



Filed under Flowers



What perfumes to bring on a holiday in Vietnam?

It is hot.

The first two days we were here were possibly cooler than Tokyo, which can get truly unbearable at the height of August with its shimmering heat islands, glass, and gleaming, roiling synthetic surfaces, but these last two hot and steaming days in Hanoi it has got to that searing, ant-under-a-magnifying-glass hotness that prevents you from walking too long in it directly, yearning for some airconditioning (something I hate intensely usually, when it is misused and overused), but which here seems really like a necessity, especially for short, grateful spells in museums and the entrance of the hotel.


it's hot

D has been dousing his handkerchiefs, and mopping his brow with Agua De Colonia Concentrada by Alverez Gomez, a Spanish cologne (to which I have craftily, typically, added 30ml of extra lemon essential oil to get it how I want it turning it yellow), and a scent with a classical, geranium/lavender base and spicy dry down that comes in a huge 200ml bottle so you can splash it on and wipe yourself down with it as the afternoon temperature rises and your sweat-drenched body requires the evaporative alcohol coolness of a classic Iberian cologne. I borrowed some on the first full day, saturating a cloth with water and a good dose of the Colonia, wiping myself down with it when I needed to pleasing, refreshing effect.

temple cat_4589

NºI9, which I wear as my regular scented aura in any case and which was great for the flight and arrival, has been protecting me somewhat from the excesses of that strangely pleasurable fear that I always feel to some extent when coming to an unknown country, the niggling anxieties and pressure of the unknown, the not-quite-sure-what-it-is-going-to-be-like as the plane is preparing to land. It is aloof and removed, much like the French colonialists and their Indochine, and somewhat at odds, perhaps, with the olfactive surroundings I am finding myself in, but still a scent I have worn on several occasions while here even if it might not be quite feel like the absolute, fool-proof choice.

The second day saw me in Grey Flannel. I was feeling subdued, a touch overwhelmed, and as Duncan said in the taxi, that scent has a cool – as in removed – almost melancholy feeling to it, with its soaped, green violets, subtle woody back drop and nonchalantly blue air of ‘gentleman’.



Diorella though, that one is surely made for a saunter around the boulevards of Hanoi. Like Catherine Deneuve, all in white and wide-brimmed straw hat, fanning herself in the exotic heat of ‘The East’, this perfume is as quintessentially French as it is imaginable to be, combining that freshness and decay, the rot and supreme elegance, the sophisticated snobbery of about-to-wilt flowers and subtley mossed citrus that has the vas-te-faire-foutre of the finest French perfumery. Luca Turin even famously described Diorella as actually smelling like a Vietnamese salad, perhaps why I decided to bring it, the basil and mint in the top, fresh accord, with the lime, the lemon ceding into honeysuckle and indolic jasmine; a cologne, a fresh cologne, and yet with a certain incorrigible arrogance. I can see what he meant about the South East Asian element, or how it could be interpreted that way. The dense, lemon sherbet powder (particularly in the parfum); pressed, and crushed, with the summery briskness of the eau fraîche and herb salad up top, but then, also, that note of overripe melon that is quintessentially Roudnitska, alluring and alarming, an impolite touch of bodily intimacy that could remind one of the peculiarly erotic base notes of Vietnamese cuisine.




Yes, that je ne sais quoi, that European superiority, is what this perfume evokes: more than other chypric colognes of the seventies such as Eau De Rochas, O De Lancõme, or even the more famous Eau Sauvage, which preceded it and could be considered the masculine equivalent, Diorella is far more precise and condescending, quite absolutely, inwardly self-assured, aware of its artistry and its keen pretences to regality. Wearing the perfume as I strolled the grounds of The Temple Of Literature and its ponds of lotus, I could fully imagine how the conquering Europeans must have felt as they surveyed their stolen territories and basked in the scents and luxuriances of orientalisme: the presumptions of the exotic, the longeurs of the electric fan turning slowly as the perfumed drop of sweat descends unconsciously down the swan neck; the porcelain pleasures of the damned, narrow-eyed looks of mistrust, and resentment, invisible in the shadows outside.



Yes. You understand the hatred of the Vietnamese people back then, wanting these aliens out of their country, people with no connection to their culture, lording it over them with Caucasian assumption: you can feel the outrage. And this is something you feel vividly, constantly, when in this country. Not in any negative attitudes towards foreigners, as people I have encountered have been friendly, humorous, and natural, but rather in the ubiquitous, fiercely communist propaganda that pervades entire cities, both Hanoi and Haiphong, where last night we stumbled upon a 70th anniversary commemoration extravaganza that could rival not only Kim Jon Un’s most ludicrous Pyongyang performances but even the Stalinesque fervour of the Moscow National Men’s Chorus. I wasn’t expecting this. Not at all. From the little that I had read before coming, I had the impression that Vietnam was in reality a fully-fledged capitalist country now, with an only nominally communist government lurking behind and pulling the strings. Not so: while commerce is clearly at the forefront of everyone’s minds here (just so much as look at a person on the street in the eye and they will sense a business opportunity – Hey! Hey you!), the country strikes me as being at once socialist, in the best possible sense: extraordinarily family and communal oriented – you sense the social cohesion implicitly – while also, at least in the surface trappings, unequivocally ‘Red.’







Red banners, with exclamation marked proclamations in yellow, mark every boulevard, the red hammer and sickle fixed to every other lamp post, especially now, I suppose, because of the historical occasion of liberation from the French and the coming to power of the Communist Party. Above all, though, the smiling face of Ho Chi Minh, the Father Of Vietnam, adored it would seem, everywhere: not only were a large percentage of the rather sentimental paintings at the Musée Des Arts concerned with the great leader, but his bearded, mandarin-like face is on posters, street signs, memorabilia, postcards, and framed pictures in houses, everywhere, like the King and Queen of Thailand.

On our return from Laos we plan to visit the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, where snaking crowds of reverent Vietnamese apparently line up to pay homage to the embalmed corpse of Uncle Ho (the body is apparently sent to the Russia periodically for ‘maintenance’ so I am not sure if we will definitely be able to view it), but the macabre in me is very keen to do so. To see the preserved, wax-like flesh up close, to look at the people looking, as a culmination of all the limitless exposure to the great leader’s personality cult I have had here, which I must admit on the first couple of nights left me quite weirded out. Oppressed. The unrelenting aesthetic rigidness. The oneness of it. The idea that there is only this; that one government, only, that option ; only, that the government controls everything and cannot be selected, that residing above it all, in heaven, like a great god on high, is Mr Minh; intellectual; brave, and benevolent, a revolutionary who succeeding in uniting the country and is worshipped like a deity.

Looking at it all, at first, on our first two nights, I found it slightly hard to breathe.


Yesterday, though, as we traipsed the car-horn sweltering streets, having been to the most exquisite Buddhist temple in Haiphong, where there were no visitors, and butterflies alighted on flowers near the pomelo trees, and the singing voices of Buddhist women singing sutras in the Hu Hang Pagoda created a beautifully dream-like atmosphere, we walked back into town in search of the Opera House on main square, but no-one seems to speak a lick of English here, interestingly, and we kept losing our way, wandering down alley-ways and stopping off for street food (delicious, delicious), but I did find myself wondering, for a while, if it really is so bad not having ‘democracy’. I don’t, of course, know anything about the social problems of Vietnam, what ails it – every country has problems that permeate its heart – but the place does seem, at least from a cursory visit, to be functioning perfectly well and I did wonder: are our own societies’ systems so very immaculate? The horrendous gap between rich and poor in the UK, with its paedophile politicans; and America, all that baloney and the clamour, the struggle to be seen and to be ‘a somebody’ rather than a ‘nobody’ (are these the only two options?), and every two years all that noise, irritation, and fake smiles of the election build up, those white-teethed debates; the jabbering and the proselytizing and the opinionating and the ridiculous toupées, and are people’s lives actually all that different at the end of it? Are Americans really, truly ‘free’, when they are at the mercy of the commercial behemoths, where greedy drug companies and insurance companies milk the populace dry and leave half the country unable to afford to pay for basic health care and the police seem to shoot non-white people for the merest infraction I don’t know. Naturally, being a westerner, and thus receiving western ideas from birth (we are all brainwashed) I am more inclined to want to have the choice of who to vote for (although now, having been outside my country of birth so long I am unfortunately ineligible to vote – I have been excluded), but it is, I think, worth sometimes questioning your own idées fixes on occasion about this point, the idea that your way is ineluctably right, that the other is automatically wrong.

Having just passed though, on the train back to Hanoi, yet another star-spangled communist monument, judding out erectedly and domineeringly from the rice fields, I have to say that I do, from a purely personal point of view, as someone who despises all forms of coercion and enforced structures of thinking, find the propaganda and personality cult thing quite horrific. Ho Chi Minh’s achievements in bringing the people together and overthrowing the French were undoubtedly magnificent from the Vietnamese point of view, and I can feel how the cohesion of this country’s society might be strengthened by an unblemished father figure,but as I said, seeing the man’s image everywhere you look is quite disturbing. Last night’s show, on the square in central Haiphong, with the beautiful sand coloured opera house in the back drop that looked like something out of a magical realist novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and children and families filling the squares with its towering water fountains, was quite spectacular. Almost exhilarating. Absurd. No other foreigners anywhere. White and red-ribboned chairs filled with the eager, enthusiastic bodies of young cadets and daughters of the fatherland, sat patiently for the show to begin as the stage filled with the uprousing chorus of white-uniformed,zealous men saluting and smiling, and young women in traditional dresses supporting their husbands in war as the voices boomed out through the city at ear-shrieking volumes and the heroes struck the poses you know from Soviet communist posters from the Second World War. As camp entertainment I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears and was delighted, thrilled actually, that we had finally managed to meander our way back into the centre and see something that I would never have imagined still happening outside of North Korea in the twenty first century, as motorbikes revved their engines excitedly, the people of the city gravitated towards the spectacle, and I found myself both transfixed and utterly alienated.






But if you are a country that has been fucked over by the French, the Chinese for centuries and centuries, and finally the Americans, who did everything they could to eradicate precisely what I witnessed last night, still going strong, still proud and jubilant, and still the government that won the Vietnam war and defeated the greatest power the world has ever known, then whatever personal misgivings you might have about the politics, there is something quite unmistakenly glorious about the massive, enemy-routing middle finger that the whole charade seems to me to represent. The message is impossible to miscomprehend. These people are on fire. And seeing myself in my mind’s eye, wandering lackadaisically around the gardens in Hanoi, fanning myself in my misguided Diorella – which doesn’t really suit me at all, too effeminate, too Dior –  I realize in fact that the perfume, with its Parisian pretensions, its quintessence of starched and chic bon goût, is, like the French people who came here and tried to take over this fierce and nationalistic country, quite simply out of place.




Filed under Lemon Chypres, Vietnam photography, Vietnam travelogue


The Black Narcissus














Oops  :  bird in my champagne glass…



A lovely, witty tuberose that has equal proportions of fresh tea rose for balanace, Acqua Di Tuberosa, available only in minature, is a giddily cheerful, sweet summer scent, perfect for someone who veers towards the frivolous; at a garden party, glass of bubbly in hand, laughing, to a sunny, twittering backdrop of birdsong.









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Filed under Flowers



Issue Two of Shooter Literary Magazine, a new London publication that features short stories, poetry, and non-fiction, includes a full-length, 7,000 word essay I wrote this Spring on perfume, memory, family and identity titled ‘Through Smoke’.

It was an interesting project. Each issue of the magazine features contemporary writing from a selection of international writers gathered around a thematic nucleus – the inaugural, fiery and pulsating issue was fittingly called ‘Pulling The Trigger’, but in contrast, this time the concept that the writers submitting work were given was ‘union’.

I am a very compulsive, impulsive and instinctive writer, just expressing and blurting out what comes to mind when it comes to me (as you will be quite aware if you read The Black Narcissus regularly), and I must admit it wasn’t easy for me, at first, to ‘fit’ my writing to a theme and tailoring it to another person’s vision. Initially, at least. As I thought about it more though I realized that perfume and ‘union’ do go hand in hand in so many ways, and I ended up exploring varying, different tangents on what perfume is, how scent, and smell, are, in many ways, our ‘invisible link’.

In the introduction, the editor of Shooter, Melanie White, writes:

“….More unusual unions, too, provided rich sources of inspiration. Neil C Chapman’s passionate meditation on perfume, ‘Through Smoke’, gives tremendous insight into the connections between scent and memory, fragrance and identity, as well as the increasing (and dismaying) commercialisation of the perfume industry. He rounds off his essay with a mesmerising section on the significance of scent in Japan, showing how deeply the sense of smell is rooted in Eastern culture”.

I don’t know if the piece is mesmerising, but it is interesting, reading through the magazine as I have been these last few nights, coming home from work, how it fits in with the other selections, which, though seemingly disparate at first, are all threaded with a touching, often poignant atmosphere, reflections on loss, the ephemeral nature of existence, love, and the death-transcending ties that bind us.


Filed under Writing



Hotel. Bathrobe. You emerge from the shower: soaped; showered, washed new.

Thick, white towels await: a night of forgetting, the restaurant on the upper floors, overlooking the pulsating, sparkling city,  booked.

This moment for me is Courrèges In Blue: a bright, sharp, yet rich and sensuous perfume of great complexity, from a time when commercial perfumes were so much more fully charged, contemplated, and emotionally alive from within.

Fresh and clean, with a subtly erotic afterglow, the sheenful, yet full-bodied effect in Courrèges In Blue comes from a complex array of ingredients that fuse together seamlessly; the initial, very early eighties, shampoo-like sheen coming from French marigold (which seems to have been quite the note-du-jour of the time, it would seem, for its green and orange astringency) ushering in mandarin, peony, peach, bergamot, basil and coriander lain over roses, jasmine, tuberose, orange blossom, geranium and violet.

Gelded to this quasi-baroque bouquet is a soft underlay of woods and an ambered, animalic finish that lines the perfume like silk as you lie in your sheets before that post-shower, delicious, cava-sipping time of getting ready: mirrors; fixtures, and the  privacy of your room – that time when everything fades away into irrelevance and you are alive, breathing, smelling, and just luxuriating in your heartbeat and realness of your own skin.

I still have two bottles. A vintage parfum and an eau de toilette that I reach for on occasion when I want something ornate yet grounding, a scent from an earlier time. I find it soothing, yet gilding.

There was also a friend at university who wore Blue, Dawn, who would alternate it beautifully in her ivory coloured pajamas that she always seemed to wear, with Balmain’s similar Ivoire, another perfume that fits into this soapy, green, sculptured category of scent.

For me this was always a beautiful smell, simple in its affectations, treading the line between freshness and suggestiveness, sure of itself but still inviting, as I entered her rooms; she always lazing around doing nothing, sighing, flowers on the table, perfume bottles placed casually next to her books, windows wide open.


Filed under Flowers

He drifted off, blissfully, in the sand……………..SUMMER by KENZO (2005)

He drifted off, blissfully, in the sand……………..SUMMER by KENZO (2005).


Just scored another bottle of this today, much needed.


Has a scent ever been more summery, more beachy?


Filed under Flowers



Neil : Hi, Mandy. What time is it there and what kind of temperature? Are you at home in Berkeley? It sounds like an incredibly appealing place from what I read about it in ‘Fragrance’.

Mandy Aftel: Looks like 7:02 pm and 70 degrees – gorgeous – will have a sunset soon out the window, over a distant view of the Golden Gate bridge. Yes, it’s really paradise here…

N: I love San Francisco.

MA:I see it out the window every day, well, except for the foggy ones.

 Sure beats Detroit, which is where I spent the first twenty years of my life…

N: Does it ever make you think of ‘Vertigo’? I adore that film. When we were there we were going through the streets thinking about it, imagining the film…. I did the same thing in LA with Mulholland Drive.

MA: Yes, I love Vertigo, and all the San Francisco sites.

N: Detroit must have given you a good start in what I imagine were your rock chick beginnings, though. Maybe you needed all that first before the peace, the perfume, and the oils…

M: Yes, I loved going to the Motown review in the Fox theater in Detroit, and then I was a real hippy in the 60’s. I never make perfume without music at a deafening volume.

N: Really? That is unexpected and intriguing. You mention Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones in your book, but I, and I think many people reading this, will imagine you working with nothing more than the sound of birdsong, in serene silence.

MA: Nope, not me. You’d be surprised who else is in that group, like Eminem.

N: I don’t want to……but I find his voice ridiculously sexy. I get it.

MA: Yes, he’s a passionate man.

N: Not someone I can imagine liking in ‘real life’ though, somehow. Isn’t he also from Detroit?

MA: Yes, from after my time there. And no, I don’t think I’d like him in real life either.

N: All of this, though, these apparent contradictions, make sense in the light of your book ‘Fragrant’, which I find intense, passionate, and full of a kind of tension between Apollonian calmness and clarity and a fully bodied, Dionysian voluptuousness.

I ravished this book. I read it in one go, or over two days actually, finishing it on a long train journey up to a wild Halloween celebration in Tokyo. It really revved me up and energized me. Where Essence and Alchemy was more cool, removed almost in comparison (and which I have used more as a reference book), this was a real pulsating page turner.

MA: Wow, thank you, I really very moved that you picked up on that! It was very passionate and personal on my end too. I agree with your description. I felt and feel like Fragrant is me -I’m in there.

N: Well I wouldn’t say that you were ‘hiding’ in Essence (which I was given by a friend about fifteen years ago and can’t find now…maybe someone has made off with it from my house, something that always seems to happen). I loved the psychological aspects of the oils in that book; the deep-seated unguents, the detailed descriptions of how to use different essences…. it really stimulated my imagination, but somehow in the new book you are much more at the forefront of it all, guiding us through this world of not only perfume and scent but philosophy and reasons for existing itself. A hell of a lot of it really chimes with me. I have much to say about it, actually, and don’t know if time will allow me to get it all out here, but you must have done an incredible amount of research for this book. All kinds of quotations from art, literature, architecture; Japanese wabisabi aesthetics come up, along with recipes, asides on history, philosophy, and you weave it all into this blood-pumping tapestry. How would you say your state of approaching the book was different from Essence and Alchemy?

MA: Well, I love doing research, and the two books have in common that I read over a hundred other books before writing them. I was in a different place in my life and in my understanding of perfume & essences when I wrote Essence & Alchemy, and for a long time afterwards I really didn’t think I had anything more to say, which is why it was fourteen years between them. I look back now and feel I was more of a novice when I wrote Essence & Alchemy. In the many years since, the deep and passionate involvement I’ve had with the essences changed me and changed my relationship to them as a whole, and to each individual essence. I’ve moved on and have different things to say now. The connection of those five essences to the five specific deeply human appetites was a rich territory for my mind to go wandering in.

N: It is definitely an interesting approach, and I thought that actually including  samples of the essences mentioned, in those lovely boxes, along with the books, themselves, was a very original touch. As a person who has been using oils for a long time myself I must say that I was very familiar with them all – with the notable exception of ambergris, which I was FASCINATED to smell for the first time – but I also have to say that even though I know spearmint, frankincense, jasmine, and cinnamon like the back of my hand (and to be honest, am not a great fan of mint or cinnamon for some reason), the quality of the oils really did stand out.

You might be horrified to know, though, that I used them all, immediately.

The spearmint went into a toothpaste, the jasmine into a perfumed oil, and the cinnamon and ambergris, once I had tried the latter on my skin (I hated it on its own) got instinctively poured into some Diptyque L’Eau de l’Eau. I realize this is a kind of sacrilege, but what is originally a very appealing clovey lemony cologne was transformed into this DIVINE, much deeper spice perfume. That cinnamon you selected really is lovely and I came to appreciate that essence more as a result, but the ambergris did something magic to the scent as well, almost on a subliminal level. Just more velvety and mood enhancing.

I was like a kid in a toy shop, to be honest, which I always am, and why I could never be a perfumer. I just get too excited.

MA: I am so thrilled over what you did with the kit – I could not be happier! I really wanted to give the reader their own experience with the oils. I definitely spend enormous time and money searching for what I think are the most interesting and gorgeous version of the oils that I have, and for me, everything I make is rooted in the extraordinary materials that I work with, so to be able to share them with you and have you experience them that way is just perfect.  I’m not surprised to hear that my ambergris utterly transformed your l’Eau de ‘l’eau, actually. It functions like salt in cooking: it is exalting to all the other essences. Ambergris really is magic — I made that version out of several different varieties that I own. I often create my own versions of essences from several sources, like with labdanum or benzoin or oud. Making perfume is the perfect wabisabi experience for me.

N: Well, it definitely worked as a structure for the book. Mint, for example, was the doorway into the discussion of the domestic; the homely; the nest. I love the idea of the ‘oneiric home’ especially, as I do feel similarly to you about the vital importance of our surroundings. I think you and I both share a revulsion of the shameless materialistic, the mindless brainwashing of much of contemporary society, where things are done by copying ‘lifestyle’ magazines and the like and not from some inward compulsion. Duncan and I live in a strange seventies house in Kamakura that is quite idiosyncratic, but I love being here. I can be myself. Again, the book is not just about perfume. Mint is an opening into deeper discussions. I think I do a similar thing in my writing. I adore scent but it doesn’t end there.

MA: The mint chapter turned out to be my favorite, but it almost didn’t exist. I did figure out to include something green, and that mint could fit the bill…but my inner thoughts were that it would be really boring. Then I stumbled into the Books of Secrets, and Bachelard’s oneric home, and everything started to add up for me. I see each of the five essences as kind of a magic door, down the rabbit-hole of deep and dreamy thoughts, and ways to live a life filled with beauty.

N: The idea of an ‘oneiric home’, where dreams somehow meld into the walls, a cocoon, almost, is certainly very soothing in these angry, aggressive times…

Other chapters in the book are more sensorially charged and coloured. On the subject of wabisabi, I must admit (as a person who has lived in the country for twenty years) I found the discussion on Japanese aesthetics very interesting: the fleetingness of life and its imperfections; the sheer beauty of much of Japanese culture – we have several very important zen temples within fifteen minutes of our house – but I did find the essence used to express this – jasmine – quite an unusual choice. I am a total jasmine lover : I adore it, wear it all the time, can’t get enough of it – but to me it is a very un-Japanese essence. They hate it when I wear it on the bus; it is simply too erotic, sweet, overpowering for the average Japanese nose. In this chapter you are melding interesting observances on refined, ascetic Japanese culture, but then you are also almost ravaging what you have just written by infusing your pages with the smell of jasmine. almost undoing the wabisabi delicacy you have created.

On the other hand, Japan itself is ridiculously contradictory, so it kind of makes sense. Have you ever been here?

MA: No, I’ve never been to Japan… I agree with you completely, though, that jasmine and wabasabi from a certain perspective are very contradictory, but the overarching theme of that chapter was beauty, and Jasmine fits that to a T, with its reconciliation of fecal-floral opposites. The idea of the fleetingness of both beauty and perfume fit with the several ideas I wanted to cover. I see perfume, particularly natural perfume, as an embodiment of wabisabi ideas, both making them and wearing them.

N: Definitely. Especially in the sections where you talk about the ‘structural’ aspects of synthetic perfumery, how they are built to last all day, no matter how harsh, and contrast that with the more evanescent aspects of natural perfumes, which inevitably fade away more quickly. That there is a beauty in that itself, that the scent just disappears into your skin is definitely an example of ‘mono no aware’, or the fleetingness of things.

MA: For me, the depth of ideas like mono no aware and wabisabi inform my daily experience of being a maker of perfumes, and they anchor my life down in time and space. Perfume-making is dead-serious play. I feel lucky to brush up against this rich vein of thinking in what I do every day. I need that rich texture in my life’s work to make it past my short attention span.

N: ‘Dead-serious play’. A gorgeous way of putting it.

For me, this book is both dense, intense, but also pared down and lean. In that sense, it is like a Japanese art form, actually, where the idea is to hone things down until there is nothing extraneous left. It kind of folds in on itself like an origami box, feels contained and complete. You finish it and could almost begin it again straight away.

MA: That’s because I had a kick-ass editor – the same one as for Essence & Alchemy. It’s because of her genius that it is pared down and lean. That is something I do strive for and think about and focus on in my teaching about creating perfume: nothing should be in a perfume that doesn’t absolutely need to be there. I am ruthless in my editing of my perfumes. I like the process of paring things away to find the core essence of something, in both my perfume and my writing.

N: But both are still very full and rich. The animalic section, for example, founded on ambergris, is a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ in itself: the smell of butterflies, civet tincture, beaver musk sacs…….all detailed and very frank descriptions of the dirty, ruder notes in perfumery. This chapter could make many a fair maiden blush.

MA: It came to me in the writing process to do the animal ingredients in a kind of freewheeling cabinet of curiosities, so the reader could open a “drawer” and find a fascinating animalic smell there. I find myself to be endlessly entranced with the worlds contained inside the animalic materials of perfumery. They have a kind of inherent mystery. When I bought out a retired perfumer’s stash of essences, among his things was a kind of arcane article from the Smithsonian on the scents of butterflies. I pictured the author out with his two sons smelling exotic butterflies to describe the aromas…

To me, this image totally epitomized the mysterious wonder of natural aromatic materials.

N: Well, what I particularly like about that chapter, and your style in general, is although it is sensitive, it is not overly politically correct or wussy. A lot of ‘aromatherapy’ is very lavender and rose pot-pourri-lacey-doily, a bit……cottage roses, if you know what I mean. Too twee or something. I wonder if your background as a psychotherapist comes into play here. The first thing that struck me when reading your book was the ‘Also by Mandy Aftel’ list in the inner jacket: “Death Of A Rolling Stone, The Brian Jones Story’ comes up first, followed by your two books on therapy. I feel that that side of your life has made for a much more far reaching, profound, and almost unapologetic aspect than a lot of other things I have read on essential oils, which I devour nonetheless, but which can still be far more surface and ‘nice’. I myself have also always been the kind of person who has to delve into things and is never satisfied with the standard, superficial take – there is a pungency of life to the entire book that really makes sense to me.

MA: Thank you for really seeing who I am — I too find the PC and wussy aspect just isn’t me. My attitude predates my working as a therapist — I think I actually became a shrink because of who I am, deeply interested in the good, the bad, and the ugly – the richness of life — drawn to what’s authentic and repulsed by sentimentality (and marketing). I feel so fortunate to be able to pursue what I am passionate about, and I did not compromise anything in the book. Everything speaks to my deep interests and beliefs, and for that I am truly lucky.

N: If you ever come to Japan, by the way, I’d love to show you round. Maybe we can even go to karaoke. And I could take to you the incense ceremony in Kamakura. You would be fascinated.

MA: That sound like that would be right up my street.

Where did you grow up, and how did you get to Japan, incidentally?

N: I grew up in England but kind of escaped to Japan for no reason in my twenties, based purely on instinct. I wasn’t even particularly interested in the place before I came – I had studied Italian and lived there – but somehow deep in my subconscious, when the opportunity arose, I just took it, came here and settled. Japan infuriates me and delights me in equal measure ( the essential sadomasochism of the society/ the exquisite nature of much of the culture) but it is the closest I think we can both come to living in a dream. And that is the way we like it.

MA: I agree with you – the only way to live.

I am deeply grateful for all your kind and thoughtful attention you gave to my book by the way, I can’t tell you how much that means to me.

Goodnight from one paradise to another.


Filed under Black Narcissus Conversation Series.